How To Be Cynical

Politico recently reported that big conservative DC think tanks are heavy sponsors of talk radio. The Heritage Foundation sponsors Rush Limbaugh ($2 million per year) and Sean Hannity ($1.3 million per year), while FreedomWorks sponsors Glenn Beck and Americans for Prosperity sponsors Mark Levin. This might seem a little squalid, but Will Wilkinson says it's not squalid in quite the way you think:

If you want to be cynical about the way all this works, here's how to be cynical about it. Right-leaning think tanks and advocacy groups constantly tell the folks on their huge direct-mail lists—older people, mostly—that America, the greatest country in the history of the multiverse, is going to hell in a hand-basket, and quick, unless! Unless you dig deep and send cheques to the Americans for a More American America Foundation or ProsperityWorks or whatever.

Then, the boards of these organisations reward their friends in management and fundraising with handsome salaries (just think what they're forgoing in the private-sector!) and spend the rest of the money on programmes that may or may not have a clear relationship to the institution's mission. Right-leaning think tanks and advocacy groups are to a significant extent transmission belts conveying the cash of fearful, constitution-loving widows into the bank accounts of "movement" professionals in Washington, DC. The first-order distributive consequences of these pay-for-play radio deals has to do with which Washington institution gets to tap which audience's potential donor pool.

Will says he isn't sure if lefty think tanks work the same way, and I'm not sure either. Certainly they appeal to fear in some of the same ways (conservatives will take away your reproductive rights, conservatives want to wreck Medicare, etc.), but I don't think the appeals to inchoate fear are quite as insidious as they are on the right, and I'm also pretty sure that being part of a lefty think tank isn't quite as lucrative at it is on the right. But I could be wrong! Still, if things were really the same on the left, then CAP and EPI and other America-hating socialist idea mongers would have their own deals with Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann. But they don't.

Anyway, this is your lesson for the day, I guess. Be cynical if you want, but be cynical about the right things. Noted.

Social Security's most powerful defender has had a change of heart:

AARP, the powerful lobbying group for older Americans, is dropping its longstanding opposition to cutting Social Security benefits, a move that could rock Washington's debate over how to revamp the nation's entitlement programs.

...."The ship was sailing. I wanted to be at the wheel when that happens," said John Rother, AARP's long-time policy chief and a prime mover behind its change of heart.

....There are limits to how far AARP is willing to go. The group will accept cuts, but won't champion them, and it is particularly leery of certain concepts such as eliminating benefits for wealthier recipients....It wants tax increases to fill most of the program's financial hole, and it insists that a deal must be crafted apart from broader deficit-reduction negotiations.

Unlike most liberals, I welcome this. I continue to think, as I have for a long time, that (a) Social Security ought to be put on a firmer financial footing, (b) this can be done with a very modest package of tax increases and benefit cuts, and (c) this would satisfy centrist critics like the Peterson foundation and the Washington Post, and without their help the ideologues who want to destroy Social Security would have no ground to stand on. They'd keep yelping, but no one would pay any attention to them.

A deal that increased revenue by about 1% of GDP and cut benefits by 0.5% of GDP, phased in from 2020 through 2040, could be done without adopting terrible ideas like an increase in the retirement age and would be practically painless for everyone involved. It would take Social Security off the table for a long, long time, and that's well worth doing. Right now I don't think you can get Republican support for a plan like this, and it's not as if there's any big crisis here that has to be solved immediately. But if a deal like this does become possible someday, liberals would be smart to take it.

UPDATE: Here's a follow-up post on whether magic mushrooms can bring you closer to God.

Here's something a little offbeat for a Friday morning. A team of researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine has recently documented a safe, long-lasting way of improving both your life and your personal feelings of well-being: shrooms.

Or, more precisely, psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. Here's the boring news first: ingesting psilocybin produces a mystical experience that can be quantified. "Noetic quality," for example, increased from 19.4 on a placebo to 70.6 on the highest dose used in the study. "Transcendence of space and time" increased from 18.3 to 78.2. Etc. You probably already knew that.

Here's the somewhat more interesting news: psilocybin can sometimes produce bad trips full of fear and anxiety, but the researchers have also figured out how to minimize this. Partly this was due to the experimental design: "The study was designed to optimize the potential for positively valued experiences by providing 8 hours of preparation, administering psilocybin in a pleasant, supportive setting, and instructing volunteers to focus explicitly on their subjective or inner experience." They used soothing music, too. But they also tried various dosages of psilocybin on their subjects, and it turns out that nearly all of the episodes of anxiety happened at the highest dose. Crank it down one notch and you're still likely to get most of the benefits but with significantly less chance of a bad experience.

But now for the most interesting result: psilocybin produces not only mystical experiences, but joy, happiness, and positive social effects. And it does it for a long time: in followup interviews 14 months after the study was completed, nearly all the subjects still reported positive changes in their lives, especially if they received their psilocybin in increasing dosages. (Half the study volunteers got the highest dose first and worked down, and half started with the lowest does and worked up. All volunteers also got a placebo tossed in at some point.) Here are the geeky charts you've been waiting for:

These effects were confirmed by interviews with friends of the volunteers who had been recruited to provide periodic feedback to the research team.

Notably, 61% of volunteers considered the psilocybin experience during either or both the [highest dosage] sessions to have been the single most spiritually significant of their lives, with 83% rating it in their top five. Consistent with this, 94% and 89% of volunteers, respectively, indicated that the experiences on those same sessions increased their well-being or life satisfaction and positively changed their behavior at least moderately.

....One month after sessions at either or both the two highest dose sessions, 94% of volunteers endorsed that the experience increased their sense of well-being or life satisfaction moderately or very much, and 89% rated moderate or higher changes in positive behavior. At the 14-month follow-up, these ratings remained high. The types of behavior change most frequently cited by volunteers were better social relationships with family and others, increased physical and psychological self-care, and increased spiritual practice (Table 6). Ratings by community observers before and after the study as well as ratings by study monitors after the study were consistent with the persisting positive changes in behavior and attitudes claimed by the volunteers.

So there you have it: a genuine mystical experience with long-lasting positive effects, no reported negative effects, no known medical side effects in healthy people, and with virtually no chance of a bad experience. Does that sound like something you'd like to try? Well, you can't: no matter how safe and beneficial it might be, psilocybin is a Schedule 1 controlled substance and you can't have any. You may thank the War on Drugs whenever you like.

For a taste of what the volunteers said about their psilocybin experiences, keep reading. A selection of comments from the Hopkins study is below.

Turns out that Tim Pawlenty is just another big government tax raiser. Five years ago he proved it at a Twins game:

In the presence of team owner Carl Pohlad and former Twins greats such as Harmon Killebrew and Kent Hrbek, Pawlenty took a seat at an infield table and signed into law a bill authorizing construction of a $522 million outdoor stadium in downtown Minneapolis.... Though the Twins agreed to pay approximately one-third of the cost, the rest of the bill was to be footed by a 0.15 percent sales tax hike in Hennepin County — a relatively small encumbrance on the state’s largest county, but an increased tax burden nonetheless. The bill was controversial, since the state legislature and Pawlenty took advantage of a 1997 law to grant the county board permission to enact the new tax without a voter referendum.

Nobody is going to care about this. But they should! It's one thing to be a rabid anti-tax conservative, but it's quite another to be a rabid anti-tax conservative who makes an exception for the worst possible tax increase on the planet. If you can come up with any poorer excuse for a tax hike than yet another subsidy for a millionaire billionaire sports team owner, I'd like to hear it. In fact —

Oh wait. A millionaire billionaire sports team owner and a regressive sales tax increase. Now I get it. Sorry for the momentary lapse.

UPDATE: Turns out Pohlad is actually a billionaire, not just some scruffy millionaire. Thanks to Ryan in comments for pointing this out.

Dan Drezner, after listening to the GOP debate earlier this week, is once again unhappy about the current lousy state of support for further liberalization of trade:

What's more disturbing, however, and uncommented until now, was the total lack of support for freer trade among the GOP field....All of the candidates focused like sharks with frikkin' laser beams attached to them on the economy. The standard GOP litany of solutions for jump-starting the economy were offered: tax cuts, cutting regulation, tax cuts, cutting government spending, tax cuts, reigning in the Fed, tax cuts, ending Obamacare, tax cuts. Not one of the candidates, however, mentioned trade liberalization as part of their fornmula for getting America moving again.

To be fair, this isn't as bad as when Obama and Clinton were debating over who would eviscerate NAFTA faster in 2008 (and funny, isn't it, how that never happened). And it's not like I was a huge fan of Obama's trade policy. To be just as fair, however, at least the current president completed KORUS negotiations and signaled strong interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I get the sense that no one in the GOP field is going to stick their neck out on international trade or investment. For the party that claims to be in favor of lower taxes and regulation, this is a travesty.

Dan continues to be worried. I continue to yawn. Why? Partly because of that first bolded statement: when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were pandering to anti-NAFTA sentiment before the Ohio primary in 2008, it was obvious even at the time that they weren't serious about it. As I said at the time, "The fact that Obama and Clinton jacked up the anti-NAFTA rhetoric just in time for the Ohio primary and will almost certainly abandon it on Wednesday is all the evidence I think we need." It was, namely, evidence that this was just political posturing and neither one of them was really anti-trade.

For the same reason, I don't take seriously the lack of trade boosterism among the Republican candidates this year. Are they going to stick their necks out in favor of trade agreements when the economy is still in shock and registered voters everywhere are worried about their jobs being offshored? Of course not. They aren't suicidal, after all. Frankly, I'm surprised that Senate Republicans are even going so far as to use pending trade deals with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama as hostages for some of Obama's executive branch nominees. That's more support than I would have expected.

If you're a trade liberalization fan, there's not much to be happy about right now. But let's be honest: during a massive economic downturn that features epic levels of unemployment, mere lack of progress isn't bad. Of course no progress is likely to be made right now. But the fact that no serious ground has been lost either just goes to show how permanently free trade has become the default position of virtually everyone on both the left and the right. When the economy picks up, support for trade liberalization will pick up right alongside it.

Is the EPA a job-killing machine? On the off chance that empirical evidence still matters to anyone, Dave Roberts summarizes a bit of recent research into this question from the Economic Policy Institute. First up, Isaac Shapiro takes a look at the costs and benefit of several new EPA rules:

The dollar value of the benefits of the major rules finalized or proposed by the EPA so far during the Obama administration exceeds the rules’ costs by an exceptionally wide margin. Health benefits in terms of lives saved and illnesses avoided will be enormous. Expressed in 2010 dollars:

  • The combined annual benefits from all final rules exceed their costs by $32 billion to $142 billion a year. The benefit/cost ratio ranges from 4-to-1 to 22-to-1.
  • The combined annual benefit s from four proposed rules examined here exceed their costs by $160 billion to $440 billion a year. The benefit/cost ratio ranges from 12-to-1 to 32-to-1.

OK, fine: the rules will save lives and improve our health. But at what cost in the tidal wave of jobs lost just to get a bit of mercury and soot out of the air? EPI's Josh Bivens runs the numbers for one of EPA's biggest initiatives, the "air toxics" rule. Here's the final tabulation:

So there are job losses in some sectors and job gains in others. The middle estimate for the aggregate effect is +61,000 jobs. When you account for spending multipliers, the aggregate effect is somewhere between 77,000 and 166,000 jobs.

If you want to, you can still object to these rules. Maybe you can argue that they're distortionary in some way, or that there are cheaper ways of getting the same results. Maybe. But even if the rules aren't perfect, their benefits far exceed their costs and they actually produce additional jobs for the economy. Dave sums things up:

Conservatives are hiding behind abstractions — job-killing big-government blah-blah — but don't be fooled. They are not protecting "the economy" or "jobs." They are protecting a specific set of polluting industries, at the expense of the public interest. Put that horsesh*t in any ideological serving dish you want. It still stinks.

From Joe DeSantis, one of the few Newt Gingrich advisors still working for him, on why the rest of his team quit en masse last week:

Those who left were more mechanical; they did not fit with the constant brainstorming culture within Gingrich’s inner circle 

Newt was just too smart for those dullards! That explains it.

Maybe the rest of the economy is in the doldrums, but the LA Times reports that sales of U.S. military gear are on a record pace this year:

India signed a deal Wednesday for the purchase of 10 Boeing C-17 military cargo jets....The largest-ever U.S. foreign arms deal was announced last October, when Saudi Arabia ordered $60 billion in military hardware in a multiyear pact. The Saudis' laundry list of weaponry included Raytheon Co.'s 2,000-pound bunker-busting bombs, Boeing's F-15 fighter jets and Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.'s Black Hawk helicopters.

More deals are in the works. Australia wants two dozen Navy Seahawk helicopters valued at $1.6 billion. Saudi Arabia is eager to get $330 million in thermal-imaging and night-vision equipment. And Britain is looking to purchase $137 million in upgrades for its U.S.-made ship-mounted guns. Orders are also in from Morocco, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates.

Who says Obama isn't doing anything to boost the economy? And keep in mind, these are export dollars, so they're helping our trade deficit. Good job, military-industrial complex!

The temperature in Europe is once again getting dangerously high:

Greece's 18-month sovereign debt crisis brought the government to the brink of collapse as public fury over savage austerity measures erupted in pitched battles with riot police on the streets of Athens. The escalation of the Greek crisis had instant European and global impact, sending world stocks tumbling and exposing European Union paralysis over whether and how to launch a second attempt in a year to save Greece from insolvency.

....Following the fall of the Irish and Portuguese governments in recent months after driving their countries into bankruptcy, it appeared that the eurozone's worst crisis was claiming another scalp....The ECB warned that a Greek default could spark "contagion" across Europe, causing Greek banks to implode and inflicting major damage on the big banks in France and Germany.

....Berlin, backed by the Dutch, Austrians, and Finns, have been arguing for weeks that there can be no new bailout of Greece without the country's private creditors being forced to suffer losses on their loans. Otherwise, they argue, European taxpayers will be shouldering the costs while the international banks pocket the proceeds.

The ECB, the European Commission and other EU countries led by France argue that this could pave the way to disaster, with the financial markets decreeing the compulsory "haircuts" on private bondholders a Greek default, a "credit event" that could lay waste to the single currency.

Within Greece, it's the politicians vs. the people. The politicians want to make huge budget cuts in order to qualify for more aid, but the people are threatening revolution if they try it. Within the EU, it's the politicians vs. the central bankers. The politicians want to force the banks that own Greek bonds to share the pain of a Greek semi-default, but the ECB is absolutely, completely dead set against it. The reasons for the ECB's hard line on this are a little obscure, and theories range from the fairly ordinary (the ECB believes it would cause chaos and bank failures) to the outre (the ECB wants a crisis in order to force European governments into closer fiscal union).

In the end, I suppose this will work out. As usual, European governments will wait until the 11th hour to do anything, but when the clock is about to strike 12 they'll finally come up with some kind of can-kicking semi-solution that will hold things together for another few months. If they don't, though, this is just the kind of thing that could annihilate our already fragile recovery. So let's hope they find some spit and bailing wire once again.

Bush v. Cole

Ah, this is just like the good old days. Today James Risen reports in the New York Times that the Bush administration spent some time a few years ago trying to dig up some dirt on Iraq war critic Juan Cole:

In an interview, Mr. Carle said his supervisor at the National Intelligence Council told him in 2005 that White House officials wanted “to get” Professor Cole, and made clear that he wanted Mr. Carle to collect information about him, an effort Mr. Carle rebuffed.

....Mr. Carle said that sometime that year, he was approached by his supervisor, David Low, about Professor Cole. Mr. Low and Mr. Carle have starkly different recollections of what happened. According to Mr. Carle, Mr. Low returned from a White House meeting one day and inquired who Juan Cole was, making clear that he wanted Mr. Carle to gather information on him. Mr. Carle recalled his boss saying, “The White House wants to get him.”

“ ‘What do you think we might know about him, or could find out that could discredit him?’ ” Mr. Low continued, according to Mr. Carle.

Mr. Carle said that he warned that it would be illegal to spy on Americans and refused to get involved, but that Mr. Low seemed to ignore him.

“But what might we know about him?” he said Mr. Low asked. “Does he drink? What are his views? Is he married?”

On the one hand, this sure sounds like exactly the kind of thing the OVP liked to do. On the other hand, it's almost too stupid to believe: Juan Cole was never even the remotest kind of threat to the Bush administration's prosecution of the war. On the third hand, despite the official denials, there are an awful lot of people in this story who admit to being "curious" about Cole or who acknowledge that the White House "did ask" about Cole at one time or another. That's a bit suspicious sounding, isn't it?

So who knows? It all sounds pretty dumb, but there was an awful lot of dumb stuff going on in those days. I certainly wouldn't be surprised if it all turned out to be true.