Kevin Drum

A Plea for Better Reporting

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 6:25 PM EDT

In the Washington Post yesterday, Michael Fletcher wrote a piece about the Senate fight over unemployment benefits and illustrated it with the story of Dwight Michael Frazee, an unemployed construction worker who is one of the "99ers" — those who have been out of work for more than 99 weeks and whose unemployment benefits have therefore run out. Bob Somerby notes that Frazee is a little unclear on something:

Who does Frazee “blame” for his loss of benefits? Fletcher never makes this fully clear. But the quoted statements would seem to suggest that Frazee blames Obama.

....Does Frazee understand that “Obama and almost all the Democrats favor an extension of unemployment benefits?” Fletcher doesn’t seem to have asked. By the way: If Frazee reads Fletcher’s piece, as he presumably will, will he then understand the politics of this situation? How clearly does Fletcher explain this situation? There’s no “right” answer to that question — but Fletcher’s second paragraph seems to say that no one is trying to extend benefits for people like Frazee. We see other points of confusion as we peruse the piece.

Could you explain this ongoing situation? We’re not completely sure we could — and we’re not sure how much Fletcher helps.

This has been a major failing of the mainstream media for a long time. It's always "Congress" that's to blame for bills passing or not passing, not "Republicans" or "Democrats." But the vast majority of the time, that's not really the case: it's one party or the other that's largely at fault. Oddly, though, given that the press is usually pretty obsessed with horse race politics, they rarely play this up. If you read far enough into most Capitol Hill reporting, you'll see genteel phrases like "mostly along party lines" or some such, but that's about it. Unless you're a fairly careful reader you won't really realize that in the current Congress Republicans have routinely filibustered and obstructed practically every piece of legislation introduced.

Does Frazee realize that 98% of Democrats are in favor of extending his unemployment benefits and 93% of Republicans are opposed? That it's not "Congress" standing in the way of his benefits, it's the Republican Party? Apparently not. Reporters, editors, producers, and anchors ought to be asking themselves why that is. They might find it boring to keep writing headlines that explain what's really happening, but that's not much of an excuse for not doing their job.

UPDATE: I screwed up. This is a generally true statement about extending unemployment benefits, which breaks down strongly along party lines. However, it's not a true statement about extending benefits past 99 weeks, which is Frazee's problem. In fact, very few Democrats have demonstrated any serious concern about the 99ers.

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The Goal of Obstructionism

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 5:53 PM EDT

Norm Ornstein on the modern Senate:

The partisan nature of the confirmation process has even worse side effects when it comes to executive nominees — in this case going beyond defeating some to simply preventing them from getting into their offices for as long as possible. Way too many nominations are hung up by pernicious anonymous holds (the perniciousness is not just in the anonymity but in the holds themselves). Others get subjected to the threat of filibuster, raising the bar for many executive posts from 50 to 60.

Italics mine. I assume Ornstein's explanation of Republican obstructionism is pretty obvious, but it sometimes gets lost. In fact, it got lost by Ornstein himself a few sentences earlier when he tried to figure out GOP motivations for delaying Elena Kagan's nomination:

In some ways, I find it baffling. What if Republicans succeeded in this case in derailing Kagan? Would they end up with a second nominee who would be better from their perspective? No way. All they would gain is a symbolic defeat for the president.

Republicans have plenty of reasons for holding and filibustering everything. In some cases it prevents legislation from passing. Sometimes a little extra time really does allow them to dig something up on a nominee. Sometimes the political winds change. Etc.

But the main reason for such routine obstruction is simple: it eats up floor time. The Senate is a small body and has a limited amount of time to consider legislation and confirm nominees. Delaying Kagan for a week isn't likely to stop her eventual confirmation, but it does gum up the works of the Judiciary Committee a bit. Ditto for things like filibusters, which eat up calendar time more than they actually stall legislation; or demands that committee meetings end after two hours of hearings; or withholding of unanimous consent for routine matters; or all the other little obstructions that have become commonplace. Republicans want to give Democrats as little time as possible to pass bills, and obstruction accomplishes this even if it doesn't stop its putative target.

Will this change next January? It will if Harry Reid and Barack Obama try to round up 50 votes to change the Senate rules. I kinda doubt they'll try, though.

Memo to Mitch McConnell: Unemployed Not Just Chilling

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 1:39 PM EDT

Scott Winship pisses me off today:

Quick — what was the risk in 2008 that an American worker would experience at least one bout of unemployment? Chances are you thought that that risk was higher than one in eight. But figures from government surveys indeed suggest that thirteen out of fifteen workers (or would-be workers) had not a single day unemployed during the first year of the "Great Recession"....The 2009 data won't be out until later in the year, but if last year ends up comparable to the depths of the early 1980s recession, then the average worker will "only" have had a seven in nine chance of avoiding unemployment.

Quick — which is bigger? One in eight? Or thirteen out of fifteen? Or maybe seven in nine?

Stop it! Just stop. This is not a more user friendly way of presenting data. This is:

Quick — what was the risk in 2008 that an American worker would experience at least one bout of unemployment? Chances are you thought that that risk was higher than 13%. But figures from government surveys indeed suggest that 87% of workers (or would-be workers) had not a single day unemployed during the first year of the "Great Recession"....The 2009 data won't be out until later in the year, but if last year ends up comparable to the depths of the early 1980s recession, then the average worker will "only" have had a 78% chance of avoiding unemployment.

Yeah, everyone hates percentages. But at least this allows the reader to quickly compare the magnitudes in question. The "blank in blank" formulation merely adds an extra level of confusion.

OK. I'm glad I got that off my chest. And now, for the actual substance of Winship's post, it's this: unemployment is really bad right now. Really, really bad. His chart is on the left: it shows that there are about five people unemployed for every job opening. A different chart is on the right. It shows there are about five people unemployed for every job opening. In words that even Mitch McConnell can understand, the unemployed aren't slacking off because they enjoy the vacation. They're out of work because there aren't any jobs. And no, it's not because American CEOs are consumed with worry about the effects of healthcare reform in 2014. It's because there isn't enough demand for their products, so they aren't expanding and they aren't hiring people. Some actual action on this front would be great.

The Scary Black Man Thing

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 12:50 PM EDT

On the list of idiocies that I don't care about, the conservative frenzy over the New Black Panther "voter intimidation" case currently ranks #1 with a bullet. But it's a slow news day and we all deserve some entertainment. So you get two things today.

On the right, Fox's Megyn Kelly, who's absolutely obsessed with this case, melts down completely when Kirsten Powers suggests it's just a manufactured tempest in a teapot. And here's conservative Abigail Thernstrom, after explaining in detail why the whole thing is ridiculous:

Get a grip, folks. The New Black Panther Party is a lunatic fringe group that is clearly into racial theater of minor importance. It may dream of a large-scale effort to suppress voting — like the Socialist Workers Party dreams of a national campaign to demonstrate its position as the vanguard of the proletariat. But the Panthers have not realized their dream even on a small scale. This case is a one-off.

More here.

Americans are Confused, Part 895

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 12:04 PM EDT

Via Bruce Bartlett, here are the results of a Harris poll that asked people various questions about deficit reduction. Americans, it claims, are strongly in favor of spending cuts instead of tax increases and believe, by a 73% margin, that "public spending cuts are necessary to help long term economic recovery."

OK then. Spending cuts it is! And just what should we slash? Well, that's shown in Table 5, to the right, and the answer is.....

Aid to developing countries! Which currently accounts for something south of 1% of the entire federal budget. Aside from that, there was no appetite for cutting anything. Even defense spending, bloated by two unpopular wars, was favored for the chopping block by fewer than a third of respondents. "Healthcare" got only 18%, and since my guess is that this was mostly people who want to cut spending on healthcare for poor people, this means that Medicare cuts are favored by virtually no one. And Harris didn't even bother to ask about Social Security.

Bottom line: Americans say they want to cut spending, but they pretty plainly don't want to cut any actual spending. Just fantasy spending. Sort of like being in a rotisserie baseball league.

Saving and Creating

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 11:39 AM EDT

Here's the latest from the White House: the 2009 stimulus package has "saved or created between 2.5 and 3.6 million jobs as of the second quarter of 2010." You can see this in handy chart form on the right.

Now, obviously you can argue with the CEA's analysis here. Maybe their baseline counterfactual is bogus. Maybe their GDP calculations are off. Whatever. For the most part, though, the actual complaint seems to be with their "saved or created" formulation.

As a partisan tool for tea party gatherings, I get why someone would mock this. But I've seen plenty of more mainstream types mock it too. Why? Isn't this the obvious formulation you'd use if you were trying to calculate the effect of some economic policy or other? If you give the state of Florida some money and they use it to prevent a bunch of cops and teachers from being laid off, doesn't that do as much for the employment rate as going ahead with the layoffs and then using the money to hire a bunch of new park rangers? Is there some reason, aside from crude partisanship or Maureen Dowd-esque puerility,1 for anyone to have a problem with this?

1Is that a word? Well, it should be.

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I Am Dan Brown?

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 11:09 AM EDT

The internet toy du jour is a site that supposedly analyzes your writing and tells you which famous writer you most resemble. I'm dubious. I stuck in several blog posts, followed by a few magazine articles of several thousand words each, and it turns out that I write like Dan Brown, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Lovecraft again, Brown again, Brown yet again, and King again.

So I write like everyone. On balance, though, I write like Dan Brown. Which is great news since he's — what? The best selling author since Yahweh? For some reason, though, my writing income still seems to trail his by a wee amount. What am I doing wrong?

UPDATE: I analyzed some fiction written 30 years ago and got Vonnegut, James Joyce (!), King, Douglas Adams, King, and King. So maybe I'm really more like Stephen King, which would be great too, though his writing riches still elude me.

Deflation is Coming

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 10:12 AM EDT

John Makin is not exactly a raging lefty economist, but he's got his hair on fire over deflation anyway:

At this point in the postbubble transition to deflation, fiscal rectitude and monetary stringency are a dangerous policy combination, as appealing as they may be to the virtuous instincts of policymakers faced with a surfeit of sovereign debt. The result of Europe's embrace of fiscal rectitude will be — paradoxically in the eyes of some — to export deflation to the United States, Asia, and the emerging markets.

....The link between volatile financial conditions and the real economy has been powerfully underscored by the events since mid-2007. Growth has suffered and subsequently recovered given powerful monetary and fiscal stimulus. And yet, the damaged financial sector, unable to supply credit; a jump in the precautionary demand for cash; and a persistent overhang of global production capacity have combined to leave deflation pressure intact. The G20's newfound embrace of fiscal stringency only adds to the extant deflation pressure.

No wonder no country wants a strong currency anymore, as attested to by Europe's easy acceptance of a weaker euro. The acute phase of the financial crisis is over, but the chronic trend toward deflation that has followed it is not.

Italics mine. I think Makin believes that he's only saying the same thing that Milton Friedman would say if he were still alive. Unfortunately, conservatives no longer seem to care what Milton Friedman might say. After all, there's an election coming up. Haven't you heard?

Quote of the Day: Tax Cuts Pay For Themselves!

| Tue Jul. 13, 2010 5:15 PM EDT

From Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell:

There's no evidence whatsoever that the Bush tax cuts actually diminished revenue. They increased revenue, because of the vibrancy of these tax cuts in the economy.

I keep hearing that conservatives actually have a nuanced view of tax cuts, not the laughable caricature that liberals impute to them. But it sure looks like their top guy in the Senate has exactly the laughable caricature we've always thought he did. I now eagerly await an outpouring of criticism from conservatives upset at McConnell for being such a pandering rube and giving the movement a bad name.

UPDATE: Karl Smith at Modeled Behavior tweets: "I have a chart I use on Bush tax cuts, has broken even the hardest of partisans. Will post & tweet later." Really? The hardest of partisans? This I have to see.....

UPDATE 2: Well, here's the chart. And it's a good one! But I somehow have a feeling that the hardest of partisans will remain unmoved.

Kids and the Internet

| Tue Jul. 13, 2010 4:57 PM EDT

I wasn't planning to make this Jonah Goldberg day here at the blog, but he and Nick Schulz have a piece in National Review this week so strange that I just have to wonder what they were thinking. The problem they're addressing is the prevalence of porn on the internet, and they concede right off that government regulation ought to be avoided ("There’s something to be said for keeping the Internet out of the hands of progressive planners"). Instead they offer this:

Here is one proposal. Right now, there are many “top-level domains” — .com, .org, .biz, .gov, .edu., etc. We propose the creation of a .kids domain that would be strictly reserved for material appropriate for minors 18 years and under. Most sites would probably be able to mirror themselves on a .kids domain with little to no extra effort. Most corporations, schools, and other organizations have perfectly harmless material that kids and teens can view without causing their parents to stay up at night. The sites of the Smithsonian, McDonald’s, Disney, PBS, and countless other institutions are already perfectly safe for minors. Other websites would need a little tweaking, but not much. Only a relative handful of them — porn, dating services, adult-themed chat rooms, R-rated movie sites, et al. — would be explicitly barred from the .kids domain. The others would simply have to tone down or pare down their offerings.

....Merely creating a new domain wouldn’t create a neighborhood or safe zone for kids. But it would give the private sector the wherewithal to help parents, without handing jurisdiction of content over to the government or requiring parents to rely on notoriously unreliable filters. Programming a browser to recognize only a .kids address would be simple. Devices and software could be designed to make it impossible for kids to wander into bad neighborhoods.

Never has the danger of the passive voice been so thoroughly demonstrated. Who, exactly, would decide what is and isn't acceptable for this domain? Not the federal government, they say, but who then? The private sector? Which part of it? Some souped up international version of the MPAA? The United Nations? And what would they allow? "Heather Has Two Mommies"? Not if the Boy Scouts were in charge. Palestinian textbooks about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank? Not if the ADL gets a vote. Taliban cartoon primers for young girls about their proper role in an Islamic household? Not if NOW has anything to say about it.

I don't even object to this idea. I just don't see how you could make it work on an open, global network like the internet. Surely if you're going to spend 2,000 words on a topic like this, you're obligated to at least mention the single biggest obstacle in its way?