Kevin Drum

HIV Travel Ban Update

| Wed Nov. 25, 2009 12:13 PM EST

The HIV travel ban will officially be lifted on January 4.  It's about time.

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Has Obama Fizzled?

| Wed Nov. 25, 2009 12:05 PM EST

I haven't read one of Richard Cohen's columns in a long time, but yesterday a regular reader alerted me to his latest buffoonery.  Apparently Obama's "moral clarity" has disappeared:

As president [] he has tried so hard to be the un-George Bush that the former president's overweening moralism — his insistence on seeing things as either black or white — has become an Obama gray. Human rights in general has been treated as if it's a Republican idea. Obama should reread his Philadelphia speech. He'll find a good man there.

Blah blah blah.  Obama the famously supple and nuanced campaigner saw things in black and white?  WTF?  [Oops.  Sorry.  Cohen is talking about George W. Bush here.  I misread.  But the general point stands: Cohen thinks Obama has lost his "moral clarity."] But apparently this has become a trend.  Here's Michelle Cottle:

As its "Arena" question to pundits this morning, Politico has "Obama's Charisma: Where Did He Leave it?"

The implication seems to be — and I feel as though I've heard a variation on this question asked not infrequently of late — that Obama was such a dazzling, inspirational, transformational campaigner that it's hard to fathom where this wonky, chilly, pathologically measured grind of a president came from.

What? Are we all suffering from short-term memory loss?....Yes, Obama has the juice to thrill the globe with his from-the-pulpit-esque speeches. (Which he still delivers when occasion calls.) But it's not as though the guy has ever been known for his overwhelming warmth or charisma in the daily ebb and flow of things. He is as he has always presented himself to us.

Liberals are mad at Obama for sending more troops to Afghanistan.  The gay community thinks they've been betrayed because he hasn't instantly repealing DADT.  M.J. Rosenberg is unhappy because Obama has turned out to be a "conciliator," not a fighter.  Conservatives are apoplectic because the guy who billed himself as a moderate is trying to push through healthcare reform and a climate change bill.

But this is all kind of crazy.  Obama said repeatedly that he planned to shift resources from Iraq to Afghanistan.  He made it as clear as any candidate could that he wanted to dial down the temperature on the culture wars and avoid big social issues early in his presidency.  He spent an entire primary campaign selling himself as a post-partisan reach-across-the-aisle guy in contrast to the brawling Hillary Clinton.  And healthcare reform and cap-and-trade were the main pillars of his presidential campaign.

Once you get elected, real life is messy, politics intrudes, and mistakes are made.  Sure. And Obama has disappointed me in a bunch of respects.  But nine times out of ten, when I actually think through the ways I'm disappointed, I find that things are actually going almost exactly the way I expected them too.  That disappoints me sometimes, but it's not because Obama has turned out to be a fraud or a fizzle.  It's because he hasn't.

Social Security Revisited

| Wed Nov. 25, 2009 11:23 AM EST

Atrios isn't impressed with my support of a plan to bring Social Security into long-term balance:

I really don't get why people think there's some grand deal to be cut on Social Security which would take it off the table. A couple of years after the deal is cut, new projects with slightly different facts/assumptions will show it "going broke" in "only" 65 years or something and then they'll be back to hack away at it again.

They don't want the programs to survive, they want to kill them.

I know this is a fashionable view among battle-hardened liberal bloggers, but I just don't think it's true.  The demographic basis of Social Security's finances is extremely steady and generally changes by only hundredths of a percentage point each year — and with the retirement of the baby boom generation now finally upon us and better understood than ever, this is even truer than before.  If Congress enacted a combination of small revenue increases and small benefit cuts (amounting to less than 1.5% of GDP, as shown in the chart on the right) that phased in slowly and brought the program into long-term balance, it's almost a certainty that the financial projections would continue to show long-term balance for another 20-30 years.  Granted, that's not forever, but it's as long as anything ever lasts in politics.

As for "slightly different facts/assumptions," even during the heyday of Social Security privatization in 2005, virtually everyone accepted the midpoint assumptions of the Social Security trustees report as gospel.  Obviously there will always be some fringe groups with their own doomsday scenarios who can't be satisfied no matter what, but the trustees report will satisfy virtually everyone who matters.  What's more, unlike most subjects, this is one where Democrats could almost certainly pick off enough Republican votes to get something passed.  It really would take Social Security largely off the table as a political football for a very long time.

And I'd rather take it off the table now, under some kind of reasonable terms, than have it taken off the table a decade from now when some shiny new Republican is back in power.  It's not something that's a high priority right now, but it wouldn't be a bad idea to make it a priority sometime in the near future.

34,000 New Troops for Afghanistan

| Wed Nov. 25, 2009 1:46 AM EST

Two weeks ago McClatchy reported — with details — that Obama was planning to send 34,000 new troops to Afghanistan.  On Monday they confirmed this:

As it now stands, the plan calls for the deployment over a nine-month period beginning in March of three Army brigades from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., and the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., and a Marine brigade from Camp Lejeune, N.C., for as many as 23,000 additional combat and support troops.

In addition, a 7,000-strong division headquarters would be sent to take command of U.S.-led NATO forces in southern Afghanistan — to which the U.S. has long been committed — and 4,000 U.S. military trainers would be dispatched to help accelerate an expansion of the Afghan army and police.

....The administration's plan contains "off-ramps," points starting next June at which Obama could decide to continue the flow of troops, halt the deployments and adopt a more limited strategy or "begin looking very quickly at exiting" the country, depending on political and military progress, one defense official said.

"We have to start showing progress within six months on the political side or military side or that's it," the U.S. defense official said.

....As part of its new plan, the administration, which remains skeptical of Karzai, will "work around him" by working directly with provincial and district leaders, a senior U.S. defense official told McClatchy.

A few comments:

  • The McClatchy crew has been way ahead of everyone else on this story.
  • If they're right, Obama essentially made this decision in early November.  It's not entirely clear what all the meetings since then have been for.  Getting their PR ducks in a row?
  • If their "senior defense official" is correct, the plan does indeed include a strong tribal component, as blogged about last night.

One other thing: I'm sort of a connoisseur of the excuses that reporters use these days for relying on anonymous sources, and I really like this one: "U.S. officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because...one official said, the White House is incensed by leaks on its Afghanistan policy that didn't originate in the White House."  That's admirably direct.  Nobody wants to piss off the CinC!

Long-Term Deficits

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 10:24 PM EST

Martin Wolf says that although long-term deficits are a problem, it's too early to rein in spending right now:

What is needed, instead, are credible fiscal institutions and a road map for tightening that will be implemented, automatically, as and when (but only as and when) the private sector’s spending recovers. Among the things that should be done right now is to put prospective entitlement spending — on public sector pensions, for example — on a sustainable path. It is, in short, about putting in place a credible long-term tightening that responds to recovery automatically.

That sounds like a good idea to me.  That is, it would sound like a good idea if I could think of any way to make automatic future stabilizers truly credible.  Right now, I don't think you could pass any significant entitlement cuts or tax increases in the first place, let alone pass them embedded in a some kind of structure that seemed truly invulnerable to future political shifts.  But I'm all ears if anyone has any ideas.

(Adding: I'm entirely in favor of a Social Security commission, similar to the 1983 commission, tasked with producing a conventional basket of small revenue increases and small benefit cuts that would balance Social Security's book in the long term.  This is, admittedly, a relatively small thing, since Social Security's fiscal condition has improved over the past few years and is now projected to eventually go out of balance by only about 1.5% of GDP.  But aside from the virtue of even small acts of fiscal rectitude, it would also have the huge virtue of taking Social Security off the table as a political issue.  If we could, at long last, get the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal and the Peterson folks to quit droning on endlessly about this, we might actually clear the way for discussion of some real issues. And it's the kind of thing that can be put in place now and credibly be expected to unfold as planned.)

Chart of the Day

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 5:19 PM EST

ABC News reports that in the past 16 months the number of people who believe in global warming has dropped 8 percentage points.  But the drop is skewed almost completely by ideology: among liberals and moderates there's been a change of only a couple of points, which might just be statistical noise.  Among conservatives, belief in global warming has dropped a whopping 13 points.

Note that this isn't a drop in conservatives who think that global warming is manmade.  It's not a drop in the number who think it will continue in the future.  It's not a drop in the number who think it's too expensive to do anything about it.  The question ABC asked was whether or not temperatures had increased over the past hundred years.  It's a simple factual question like asking if the Allies won World War I.  But only a bare majority of conservatives believe it.  It's Jim Inhofe's party now.

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Abortion and the Filibuster

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 3:21 PM EST

Megan McArdle has a weird post today:

Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum are defending the elimination of the filibuster on the grounds that unpopular legislation will fail even if a majority of legislators are behind it.

I didn't say anything remotely like that.1  I don't think Matt did either, at least not in the linked post.  But it gets even weirder after that:

I find it interesting that a major word is missing from the discussion: abortion.  The most successful Democratic use of the filibuster has, of course, been against judges who might overturn Roe v. Wade.  If it weren't for the filibuster, it's pretty likely that a play to overturn Roe would even now be wending its way through the courts, to a probably-successful conclusion.  Other treasured liberal programs like affirmative action, and certain kinds of environmental regulations, would probably also be in serious danger.

During the Bush era, Democrats filibustered — what?  Ten appellate judges?  And not all of them because of their views on abortion.  In what way has this prevented a challenge to Roe v. Wade from wending its way through the courts?  There are plenty of circuits with conservative majorities on them, after all.  Next:

Why is abortion missing from this discussion, especially when it is currently more central to our main public policy debate than the filibuster?  The filibuster has allowed Democrats to impose a minority view of abortion rights on the country; saying that unpopular legislation tends to fail is true, but not complete, because that is not the most powerful effect to which Democrats have used it.

It's true that polling on abortion attitudes is highly sensitive to question wording, but one of the simplest and cleanest questions is, "Do you support or oppose Roe v. Wade?"  Nate Silver's chart on the right, which aggregates multiple polls, shows the trend on this question clearly: whatever else the American public thinks about abortion, it supports Roe v. Wade by the whopping margin of 2:1.  If Roe ever gets overturned, it certainly won't be because that's what the majority of Americans want.

1For the record, I oppose the filibuster because I think it's unconstitutional.

No Free Lunches

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 2:27 PM EST

If President Obama decides to escalate our presence in Afghanistan, Congressman Dave Obey (D-WI) is threatening to propose that it be paid for by a "war surtax."  After all, Republicans keep telling us that the deficit is a big problem, and if that's the case then the war ought to be paid for.  Stan Collender writes today that this isn't the first time Obey has tried this tack:

In fact, I watched in awe as Obey used this same strategy about 30 years ago when I was a congressional staffer working for a member of the House Budget Committee. 

The issue at the time was a balanced budget and the Republican demand that the Democratic majority agree to policy changes that would make it happen. They said they would vote against the budget unless it was balanced.

In response, Obey proposed a balanced budget and forced his colleagues to debate and vote on it.  I don't remember all the details of what he proposed, but I'm pretty sure it included the specific program-by-program, across-the-board spending cuts needed to eliminate the deficit.

I have a vivid memory of Obey opening the debate on his balanced budget plan by saying that he was proposing it not because he wanted it to pass but rather because he didn't.  He wanted to call everyone's bluff.  And he did.  The Obey plan got only a handful of votes — including only one or two Republicans — and was overwhelmingly defeated.

Well, I'm sure glad I'm not president right now.  But of course, this is one of the whole points of having taxation with representation: it forces people to make tough choices.  You want healthcare reform?  Figure out how to pay for it and then see if people think it's worth it.  A war in Afghanistan?  Ditto.  Maybe you favor "winning" the war in Afghanistan by sending lots of additional troops over there, but do you still favor it if you know it's going to cost your family $500 per year in additional taxes?  Because that's about what the tab is.  There's no free lunch.

Reining in Wall Street

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 1:43 PM EST

I am — how to put this delicately? — skeptical of Congress's ability to stand up to the world-spanning tentacles of the finance lobby and actually enact serious banking reform.  Thanks to the lobby, the simplest, most robust ways of reforming Wall Street were never even on the table in the first place, and the reform bills now grinding their way through Congress are already complex enough that most bankers will have little trouble eventually figuring out a way to worm their way around them.

But Noam Scheiber reports today that maybe the lobby is about to lose a battle.  Barney Frank's draft legislation to force all derivatives to be traded on a public exchange originally included an exemption for "end users" — that is, ordinary corporations that simply want to hedge the price of oil or pork bellies or whatnot:

But independent experts who studied the measure came to a different conclusion: that it could exempt between 60 and 80 percent of the standardized market because of its vague wording, including many firms who were speculating rather than simply hedging risk....Which, as it happens, was precisely the idea. Though the end users arguably had a legitimate gripe, the banks had long viewed them as a means to deflect additional regulation. “The original plan on derivatives was basically pushed by the industry,” says one bank lobbyist. “What they wanted was, ‘Hey, let’s get the dopey end users to go out and be the face of reform. We don’t have the credibility.'” This lobbyist says the banks helped organize a group called the Coalition for Derivatives End Users, which weighed in with Congress in favor of a robust end-user exemption.

....But a funny thing happened on the way to securing the loophole: A confederation of consumer and investor groups, labor unions, environmental activists and a progressive organization called Americans for Financial Reform (AFR) started raising hackles of their own. In several meetings with Frank, these groups stressed that the exemption was too porous, and that it wasn’t just an obscure, technical issue of interest only to banks, regulators, and lobbyists.

....By early this month, the pressure from [CFTC chairman Chairman Gary Gensler] and the progressive groups had the desired effect. Though Frank believed their concerns were somewhat overblown, he pronounced himself open to tightening the language to make sure the bill didn’t give speculators a pass. “Barney likes to say redundancy is your friend,” says one financial services committee staffer. “If people have concerns, we’ll tighten up the language...hedging done by corporations is what we’re looking to protect.”

To be honest, this seems like only the tiniest ray of sunshine to me.  The derivatives legislation is important, but it's never really struck me as the core of financial reform, and the end-user loophole was so obvious that it's frankly hard to believe it was there in the first place.  Getting rid of it just means that the financial lobby failed in a longshot effort, not that it failed on any point of truly central concern.

Anyway, we still haven't seen the revised wording from Frank's committee, we still haven't voted on the bill, we still haven't seen the Senate version of the bill, and we still haven't seen the conference report.  There's plenty of time for even this minor victory to get sanded down to nothing.  I remain pessimistic on the ability of Congress to rein in the financial community in any serious way.  They just don't have the power.

Are You Pro-Choice?

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 12:44 PM EST

Perhaps, like me, you've heard that sometimes too much choice is bad.  Consumers get paralyzed by the array of products on offer and just can't make up their minds, so they simply choose to buy nothing.  This effect has been demonstrated in experiments several times, but  via Tyler Cowen, Tim Harford writes that these experiments may not have been as robust as we thought:

Benjamin Scheibehenne, a psychologist at the University of Basel, was thinking along these lines when he decided (with Peter Todd and, later, Rainer Greifeneder) to design a range of experiments to figure out when choice demotivates, and when it does not.

But a curious thing happened almost immediately. They began by trying to replicate some classic experiments — such as the jam study, and a similar one with luxury chocolates. They couldn’t find any sign of the “choice is bad” effect. Neither the original Lepper-Iyengar experiments nor the new study appears to be at fault: the results are just different and we don’t know why.

After designing 10 different experiments in which participants were asked to make a choice, and finding very little evidence that variety caused any problems, Scheibehenne and his colleagues tried to assemble all the studies, published and unpublished, of the effect.

The average of all these studies suggests that offering lots of extra choices seems to make no important difference either way. There seem to be circumstances where choice is counterproductive but, despite looking hard for them, we don’t yet know much about what they are. Overall, says Scheibehenne: “If you did one of these studies tomorrow, the most probable result would be no effect.” Perhaps choice is not as paradoxical as some psychologists have come to believe. One way or another, we seem to be able to cope with it.

Interesting!  Perhaps the paradox of choice used to be true in simpler times, but the internet and the rest of modern life have taught us to revel in choice, rather than being intimidated by it.  In a related vein, maybe it's a generational thing.  Maybe choice dazzles me more than it does a 20-something who grew up with 87 cell phone plans, 300 cable channels, and 1,000 Facebook friends.

Personally, I find a wide array of choice intimidating mainly if I'm trying to buy something brand new that I don't know anything about.  If there are 20 different kinds of cough syrup on the shelf, and I've never bought cough syrup before, I might just give up on the whole thing and keep on coughing.  I suppose that's pretty obvious, but it might explain the differences in some of the experiments.  If you showed me a huge variety of wines, I might throw up my hands in despair rather than trying to puzzle out which one to buy.  Show me an equally huge variety of candy bars and I'd pretty quickly narrow it down to half a dozen that I liked and then choose one.  That's because I consume a lot more candy bars than I do wine.

It's worth noting that whether or not social scientists are certain that the paradox of choice really exists, good sales people are certain that it does.  Watch a good sales person at work, and you'll notice that one of the first things they do is try to narrow your choices for you if you seem even the least bit confused.  When they ask what features are most important to you, they're trying to narrow your choices.  When they ask what things you don't like, they're trying to narrow your choices.  When they ask about your price range, they're trying to narrow your choices.  Because they know in their hearts that if they can just get you down to two or three alternatives, there's a pretty good chance you'll get seriously invested in the decision process and then eventually choose one of them.

So how about you?  When do you get intimidated by choice?