Kevin Drum

TPP and Chemo Brain: My Story

| Fri Jun. 12, 2015 11:51 AM EDT

You may be wondering what I think of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. All the cool kids are talking about it these days. Unfortunately, I don't really have a position because I haven't studied it enough.

But perhaps that will change soon. You may not have noticed, but yesterday was a miniature milestone for me. My post about Paul Ryan and Obamacare was the first time in months that I wrote a fairly analytical piece based on actual research. It was hardly an academic white paper or anything, but it's the kind of post I haven't really trusted myself to write ever since chemo brain took over my life. However, this week seems to have been a bit of a turning point. I still expect ups and downs, but I feel a bit better and sharper and able to write more. My concentration is a little more acute and I have a bit more energy. Progress! (I hope.)

Anyway, that's a long way of saying that until now I just haven't been up to the task of seriously evaluating the TPP. So I'll say just this much: I am in favor of fast-track promotion. If it were up to me, I'd make it permanent, since it's obvious that no treaty can ever be negotiated without it. But am I in favor of actually passing TPP? I'm not sure.

Bottom line: yes to an up-or-down vote, because that's just common sense. But I'm unsure about how I'd like to see that vote go. Maybe I'll dig into it a bit over the weekend.

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Are Police in Baltimore Sulking Over Indictments in Freddie Gray Case?

| Fri Jun. 12, 2015 11:16 AM EDT

Crime has increased significantly in Baltimore since the Freddie Gray funeral. Police say it's because of a spike in drug gang warfare. But it also appears to be a result of a deliberate pullback by police officers who are angry at seeing their own members indicted for Gray's death. Alex Tabarrok produces the chart on the right that illustrates the sudden drop in arrests right at the time of Gray's funeral and the indictments of the officers a few days later.

Is this drop legitimate, because it now takes more officers to handle a single incident? Or is it the drug war? Or is it a deliberate attempt by police to slow down, work to rule, and create a vivid demonstration of what happens when you mess with the thin blue line? I don't know, but when you look at the sharp line on that chart it's hard not to think the latter is part of it, just as we've seen before in Ferguson and New York City. And the more of these petulant outbreaks we see, the harder it gets to sympathize with the police. Much harder. Tabarrok also fears a possible long term problem:

With luck the crime wave will subside quickly but the longer-term fear is that the increase in crime could push arrest and clearance rates down so far that the increase in crime becomes self-fulfilling. The higher crime rate itself generates the lower punishment that supports the higher crime rate....Once the high-crime equilibrium is entered it may be very difficult to exit without a lot of resources that Baltimore doesn’t have. I have long argued that high-crime areas need more police but the tragedy is that they also need high-quality policing and that too is made more difficult to achieve by strained budgets and strained police.

Stay tuned. The police slowdown is a dangerous and juvenile tactic that could backfire very easily if it keeps up. That would be bad for Baltimore and bad for the Baltimore PD.

Surprise! Paul Ryan Is Misleading People Again About Obamacare.

| Thu Jun. 11, 2015 2:20 PM EDT

Rep. Paul Ryan really, really doesn't like Obamacare. And now he's got the facts and figures to prove what a disaster it is:

The whole point of Obamacare was to make health care more affordable. But premiums aren’t going down; they’re going up—way up. All over the country, insurers are proposing double-digit premium hikes. In Maryland, it’s close to 30 percent. Tennessee, 36 percent. South Dakota, 42 percent.

Tax season was like a bad dream before. Now it’s a total nightmare. People could never afford these plans on their own, so the law gave them subsidies. Well, now, two-thirds of the people who got them had to pay the IRS back—on average over $700. That’s not the kind of money most people have lying around.

And for all of this hassle, what are we getting for it? The argument was if people had insurance, they’d go to the doctor instead of the emergency room. But now even more people are using the emergency room.

My initial reaction to this was, "That's it? That's all you got?" I mean, even if it were all true, it's a pretty meager set of complaints to set aside a program that's provided decent, affordable health care to more than 10 million people, and has done so at a cost that's surprisingly reasonable and surprisingly lower than initially projected.

But you probably know what's coming next: It's not actually all true. I know Paul Ryan doesn't care, but just for the record, let's take his horror stories in order:

  1. This is based on a small number of insurance companies who have asked for large increases—something that happens every single year. They won't get them, and when 2016 dawns the average increase will almost certainly be in the range of 4-7 percent. Paul Ryan knows this perfectly well.
  2. This is based on a study from H&R Block that covers only its own customers. It appears to have been reported only in right-wing publications, most of which conveniently left out a few facts: (a) that $700 was a refund reduction, not money that had to be paid out of pocket, and (b) a quarter of recipients overpaid and got a $400 increase in their refund. Actual data based on all taxpayers isn't available yet, so there's no telling how close this is to the truth.
  3. I wouldn't be surprised if ER visits have gone up now that more people know that a visit won't bankrupt them. But by how much? We don't know yet, because as the chart on the right shows, the CDC only has data through 2013. Ryan's statement is based on a.....poll. That's right: a poll of ER doctors, three-quarters of whom think nothing has changed much and one-quarter of whom think business has increased significantly. That's frankly unlikely given that Obamacare has only increased the share of insured Americans by about 5 percent, but I guess it's possible, especially in specific geographic areas that are already underserved with primary care physicians and emergency services. However, it's all just guesswork at this point. We'll have to wait until next year to get actual figures from the CDC.

Bottom line: Ryan doesn't have much. And what he does have ranges from misleading to outright lies. I wish I could say I was surprised, but this is his usual MO. He's a little more slick about it than your average TV shouter, but the results are about the same.

"Lily Pads" Are the Latest Attempt to Make Old Iraq Strategy Look New

| Thu Jun. 11, 2015 12:32 PM EDT

Excellent news out of Iraq today:

The United States is considering establishing additional military bases in Iraq to combat the Islamic State, the top American general said on Thursday, a move that would require at least hundreds more American military advisers to help Iraqi forces retake cities lost to the militant Sunni extremist group.

....Speaking to reporters aboard his plane to Naples, Italy, General Dempsey described a possible future campaign that entailed the establishment of what he called “lily pads” — American military bases around the country from which trainers would work with Iraqi security forces and local tribesmen in the fight against the Islamic State.

"Lily pads." Isn't that soothing? So reminiscent of Monet. I'm sure this will be the very last troop increase and we'll have ISIS mopped up in no time.

Yeah, Scott Walker Is a Social Troglodyte. This Is News?

| Thu Jun. 11, 2015 11:03 AM EDT

Greg Sargent:

The other day, Scott Walker declared that if the Supreme Court rules for a Constitutional right to gay marriage, he’d support a Constitutional amendment allowing states to ban it. This stance would not have been surprising coming from Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, or Ted Cruz. But coming from a self-styled reform governor who represents a new generation of leaders, it turned a lot of talking heads.

Here's my take on why heads should probably stop turning. First of all, constitutional amendments are the last refuge of scoundrels. It's the ultimate in mood affiliation campaigning, backed by the sure knowledge that it's going nowhere and requires no actual work from the candidate aside from occasional applause lines about supporting it.

Second, this is one of those areas where Republican candidates get something of a free pass. Campaign reporters all know that this is the kind of thing Republican candidates "have" to do, and they take it as sort of an elaborate lodge handshake, rather than a truly antediluvian position that Scott Walker actually cares about. So they shrug their shoulders, dispatch a few paragraphs about it, and move on. Just another day in GOP-land.

Now, if they could find anything about some Walker relative being gay, or perhaps Walker owning a speedboat, or possibly honing campaign strategy in secret with the help of polling numbers—well, that would be a story. And if he controlled a foundation that gave billions of dollars to worthy causes? Well hold the presses! That would be flood-the-zone news indeed.

NOTE TO CAMPAIGN REPORTERS: Scott Walker is actually a pretty full-blown evangelical tea party type. He sands the edges off occasionally, but not really that often. Nobody should have been truly surprised by this.

Iceland Is Too Tiny to Be a Poster Child For the Financial Crisis

| Thu Jun. 11, 2015 10:35 AM EDT

For what it's worth, there's been a bit of talk lately about how well Iceland is doing and how everyone should have followed their example in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Tyler Cowen has a fair-minded response here. In short: Some of what Iceland did was probably good, including devaluing and inflating their currency, and "ring fencing" their good banks from their bad. But most of their actions simply wouldn't work in most other countries. For starters, Iceland is the size of a small city like Bakersfield. Their actions caused no global repercussions. Second, Iceland mostly forced foreign depositors to take the hit from the crisis, something that wouldn't work in a country with lots of domestic deposits. Third, its stock market is minuscule. A 90 percent drop didn't have a big effect on the economy, but it would in a larger country. And finally, capital controls aren't a serious option for most large countries.

Overall, I agree with Cowen. Sure, maybe we should have treated our bankers more harshly, as Iceland did. But generally speaking, a tiny, isolated island can get away with a lot of things just because they're so tiny and isolated that big countries have better things to do than try to retaliate. Who really cares about Bakersfield in the Atlantic, after all? They just aren't much of an example of what could and couldn't have been done by larger, more systemically important countries in 2008-10.

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Chuck Schumer Is Not Working the Refs Very Well

| Wed Jun. 10, 2015 4:47 PM EDT

This is kind of fascinating:

After almost six months in the minority, Charles E. Schumer says Senate Democrats aren’t afraid to be obstructionists, detailing a strategy of blocking appropriations bills and other Republican agenda items until they get what they want....Schumer (D-N.Y.) said they are joining with President Barack Obama behind a plan to try to force Republicans to the negotiating table over everything from domestic and defense spending to highway funding and international tax reform.

....The White House-backed plan to get Republicans to support more spending for domestic programs by blocking floor consideration of appropriations bills was developed in a series of closed-door meetings held over the course of several weeks.

....To maintain their leverage, Democrats have decided to block all spending bills starting with the defense appropriations measure headed to the floor next week. Durbin told reporters on Tuesday that there is also no ruling out a blockade of program authorizations, like upcoming votes on highway funding.

It's not the substance of Schumer's comments that's fascinating. By now, even the checkout clerks at the local Safeway know that Democrats plan to obstruct everything and anything. It's time for Republicans to get a taste of their own dog food.

No, what's fascinating is that Schumer is so open about it. As I recall, ever since 2009 Republicans have adamantly refused to ever publicly admit that this was their strategy.1 And there was sound thinking behind that. The rules of objective journalism prevent reporters from just flatly attributing something to a party unless they have a party leader on the record fessing up to it. So instead they have to tiptoe around the subject, or quote liberal activists accusing Republicans of obstructionism, or something like that. This leaves things a little fuzzy or "controversial" in a lot of people's minds, which means they never really accept the whole obstructionism story. Hey, maybe each individual filibuster really is a matter of principle.

But if a party leader just comes out and admits it, then that's that. No one will ever believe that Democrats are being principled because Schumer has already given the game away. Republicans were obstructionist, so we're going to be too.

That's a mistake. It may seem dumb to keep up a pretense that everyone knows is baloney, but there really is a reason for it. It won't fool all the people all the time, but who cares? It will handcuff the press, and thereby fool some of the people some of the time. That's worth a lot.

1This is why President Obama keeps talking about "working" with Republicans and "finding common ground" even though he knows perfectly well by now that this isn't going to happen. He knows the press has to report it regardless of whether they think he really believes it. This means people see it on the news, and some of them will continue to believe that this is what he's trying to do.2

2Which, admittedly, he is trying to do in a few special cases. But not many.

Hillary Clinton: Master Schemer or Garden Variety Pol?

| Wed Jun. 10, 2015 2:26 PM EDT

Jonathan Allen recycles a familiar refrain today:

There's a term for the way Hillary Clinton has handled policy in the early stages of her campaign: Clintonian. That is, on the issues that most divide the Democratic base from its centrist wing, she refuses to box herself into a position.

....It's true that Clinton has rolled out a string of positions that please constituencies on the left, from support for LGBT rights and voting rights to repudiating the results of her husband's 1994 anti-crime law and vowing to enhance President Obama's executive action on immigration. These are important issues, perhaps more important than the exact level of a wage increase that surely won't be $15 an hour as long as Republicans control either the House or 41 seats in the Senate. But Clinton has been very selective about how she's courted her party's progressive base, speaking as much to identity politics as to actual policy. On some of the more controversial policy questions, she's taking a pass.

I'll concede right up front that Hillary Clinton has been in the national eye for more than 20 years, and maybe that means we should expect more from her. But I gotta ask: Is there now, or has there been in the past, any other candidate who has been so routinely disparaged for not having positions on every single topic seven months before the first primary? Correct me if I'm wrong, but every candidate rolls out positions over time during presidential contests. And they all do it the same way: based on a combination of (a) their own genuine beliefs, (b) interest group pressure, (c) internal polling and focus groups, and (d) weeks or months of research and discussion among their advisors and messaging staff.

Everyone who's serious about running for president does this, and it's been this way for decades. This is simply not something that's unique to either Bill or Hillary Clinton.

So....what's up with the press corps pushing this narrative so assiduously? Are they just so stuck on the tired old "triangulation" metaphor that they can't escape from it? Do they genuinely think Hillary is slower about taking positions than other candidates? Do they think those positions are routinely fuzzier than those from other candidates? Are they stuck in the 90s and convinced that all Clintons are connivers and liars? Or what?

I don't understand this. In terms of campaigning and political positioning, Hillary strikes me as a pretty garden variety candidate. Am I wrong?

"Streamlining" Government Is a Dubious Campaign Message, Especially For Democrats

| Wed Jun. 10, 2015 1:03 PM EDT

A few days ago I criticized a policy analysis from Stan Greenberg that, among other things, recommended that Democrats run on a commitment to streamlining government. But exactly what concrete proposals would that entail? Today, Mark Schmitt takes a crack at answering:

"Streamlining" government does not have to involve only cutting costs, though that might be a part of it. The tax code, for example, is now as complex for low- and middle-income taxpayers as for the wealthy, littered with credits and deductions, some refundable and some not. Streamlining government could include a strong commitment to making the tax code simpler at the low end and shifting resources to fight fraud at the top end. It could include, for example, efforts to create a single, simple portal to government services ranging from health insurance under the Affordable Care Act to small business assistance—similar to the "no wrong door" initiatives in several states.

Above all, it should include a positive vision of reform of the political process, and the role of money, that does more than reimpose limits on the political influence of the very wealthy, but empowers citizens as donors and participants. And, the most difficult challenge of all, there has to be an effort to restore to the public face of government, the legislative process, a sense of compromise and shared commitment to the public good, despite deep disagreements.

Simplifying the tax code for the middle class is fine, I suppose, though nearly half the population already files either 1040 EZ or short forms. But that single portal sounds to me like something that's way, way, way harder than it sounds. Maybe I'm wrong about that. But in order to make a difference, not only does this portal have to be a work of genius, so do all the things it leads to. It doesn't do any good to make it easy to find Obamacare if it's still a pain in the ass to sign up for it. Honestly—and I say this from at least a little experience—this is the kind of thing that sounds good until you have to put together the interagency committee to actually create it.

I don't mean to just pooh pooh other people's ideas. But I think it's telling that Schmitt had only two or three proposals, and most of them are either really hard or probably not that effective.

Look: the US government is really big. There's no way around that. And as every large corporation in the world knows, there's just a limit to how easy you can make things when a bureaucracy gets really big. There's no magic wand. That said, here's what I'd like to see: some detailed polling work that digs below the surface of "streamlining" and asks people just what it is about the government that really burns them up. I suspect (but don't know!) that you'd discover a few things:

  • A lot of complaints—probably the majority—would be about state and local issues. (Business licenses, building inspections, traffic tickets, etc. etc.)
  • A lot of the complaints would be unrelated to government complexity: taxes are too high, guns should be unregulated, abortions should be outlawed, and so forth.
  • When we finally got to the complaints that are (a) about the federal government and (b) truly about the difficulty of getting something done, the griping would be all over the map. The truth is that it's mostly businesses—especially large ones—that engage frequently with federal regulations. Aside from taxes and Medicare/Social Security, most individuals don't very often. But when they do, they're naturally going to believe that their particular circumstance should have been way easier to handle. In some cases they're right. In most cases, they simply don't know how many different circumstances the agency in question has to handle.

I'm not saying nothing can be done. I just have a suspicion that complaints about the "incompetence" or "red tape" of the federal government are mostly smokescreens for other things. Those other things are laws that people just don't like, or fees they just don't want to pay, or stuff they've merely heard from friends or the media.

This isn't to say that streamlining government is a bad idea. It's not. It's a good idea! But I want details backed up by actual research, and even then, I suspect there's less we can do than we think. As a platform for a campaign, I'm even more skeptical. Maybe a proposal to streamline some specific program that lots of people use and lots of people hate would work. But "streamlining government" as a generic pitch? I doubt it—especially for Democrats. It would be like Republicans wanting to "streamline" taxes for the rich. Would you believe them?

Europeans Reject War; Would Prefer US Just Do the Job For Them

| Wed Jun. 10, 2015 10:49 AM EDT

Hmmm. Compare and contrast these two results from a recent Pew poll in Europe:

So, for example, only 38 percent of Germans would bother defending a fellow NATO ally if it were attacked by Russia, but 68 percent think the US would do the job. Is this cause and effect? Or something else?

In any case, Europe's view of the US as a global cop who will save them if worse comes to worst seems to still be strong. As always, NATO seems to be something of a one-way street for most Europeans.