It's been a busy week in Libya news. First Britain announced that it was sending in some advisors. Then France began pushing for a 1000-person "humanitarian" force to be shipped in to protect aid shipments. A day later France and Italy both joined the advisor brigade. Simultaneously the United States announced it was sending $25 million in "non-lethal aid" to the rebels. And today we got this:

President Barack Obama has approved the use of armed Predator drone aircraft in Libya to improve the precision of low-level attacks on ground targets, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.

The first Predator mission since Obama’s go-ahead was flown Thursday but the aircraft — armed with Hellfire missiles — turned back early due to poor weather conditions, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a news conference with Gates....Cartwright did not specify what targets the aborted Predator mission Thursday was intended to strike.

As Adam Weinstein says, what could go wrong?

Matt Miller has gotten a lot of kudos this morning for his column pointing out that "The House Republican budget adds $6 trillion to the debt in the next decade yet the GOP is balking at raising the debt limit." I don't really read Miller much or know anything about him, but I gather that the reason he's getting a lot of attention for this unremarkable observation is that (a) he's normally a "a mellow, straight-laced guy," but (b) today's column is evidence that "the budget debate has driven him stark, raving mad." (That's Jon Cohn's take.)

Bob Somerby likes the column, but he's annoyed that Miller says he doesn't understand why the rest of the press corps keeps giving Paul Ryan and his congressional colleagues a pass on this. The problem, Somerby says, is that "it's fairly clear that he does understand":

Early in his column, Miller says he doesn’t understand why the press corps won’t criticize Republicans on this point. He doesn’t understand why they present Ryan as “courageous,” as “visionary.” And then, a mere six paragraphs later, Miller shows that he does understand! He says there’s a “meme,” a hunk of “conventional wisdom,” driving the press corps’ conduct. Miller doesn’t explain just what this “meme” is, nor does he explain how it got “established” as conventional wisdom. But presumably, he is referring to the Standard Press Novel in which Republican budget cutters like Ryan are inevitably said to be “courageous,” “bold” and “honest”—in which their contradictions and errors, no matter how severe, end up on the cutting-room floor.

These “memes” have been ruling much of our “journalism” for a good many years. To see this Standard Press Novel at work, just read through Jeff Zeleny’s “Political Memo” in today’s New York Times.

Hmmm. Yes. The Zeleny hagiography is worth reading. If you don't feel like instantly canonizing Ryan after you're done, you just haven't read it closely enough. You'd barely know the guy is even a politician, let alone a standard issue conservative ideologue pandering to his base at every opportunity and waving around all the usual bogus Heritage Foundation crap that all the rest of them do. That piece of the Paul Ryan Story just isn't part of the narrative.

Skin in the Game

Paul Krugman points out that healthcare "consumers" aren't really consumers at all in the traditional sense of the word:

Medical care is an area in which crucial decisions — life and death decisions — must be made; yet making those decisions intelligently requires a vast amount of specialized knowledge; and often those decisions must also be made under conditions in which the patient is incapacitated, under severe stress, or needs action immediately, with no time for discussion, let alone comparison shopping.

....The idea that all this can be reduced to money — that doctors are just people selling services to consumers of health care — is, well, sickening. And the prevalence of this kind of language is a sign that something has gone very wrong not just with this discussion, but with our society’s values.

But Niklas Blanchard objects that not all of medicine is practiced under life-and-death circumstances:

The actual truth of the matter is that the bulk of medical spending of the average person does not involve death at all...just nagging, often temporary, quality of life issues. In fact, outpatient care (which includes routine and sick visits to the doctor and same-day hospital visits), drugs and non-durables (which includes things like wheelchairs and other medical supplies), and administration account for ~2/3rds of all medical spending in the US.

This is true, but I think it still underestimates just how much knowledge consumers can bring to bear on medical decisions. Take me. By coincidence, the last few months have been absolutely stuffed with visits to the medical-dental-industrial complex. My doctors keep getting worried about things and insisting that I should have some test or other done. On Monday I'll have yet another — easily the most disagreeable of the lot — and I fully expect that it will show exactly the same thing as all the others: nothing. This has collectively cost thousands of dollars and annoyed me endlessly, especially since I've been certain the entire time that there was nothing wrong with me.

Of course, the fact that I'm certain there's nothing wrong with me doesn't mean there's actually nothing wrong with me. I don't know squat about medicine, after all, and a few days on the internet isn't really going to make me any more qualified to decide if I ought to get a followup ultrasound to check out those spots on my gall bladder. None of this has been life and death, and I wasn't under any special pressure to figure out what to do, but that made no difference. As a practical matter, getting a second opinion would have been more expensive than just having the tests done, and trying to otherwise second guess my doctor would have been pretty stupid.

I think there are plainly some areas where forcing people to think harder about medical care (i.e., asking them to fork over some of their own money) can make sense. But it has to be done smartly, since the impact of foregone medical care is often just higher expenses down the road. As an example, we might very well be better off if we not only didn't charge copays for statins and blood pressure meds but actually paid people to take them. They're that cheap and effective, and the bigger problem here isn't overuse, it's getting people to take the damn things when they're told to.

So yes: let's work on incentives, at both the patient, doctor, hospital, and insurance level. But I don't think we should kid ourselves into thinking that this will affect two-thirds of medical care. More likely, it's something like ten or twenty percent. For the rest, like it or not, we just have to follow our doctor's advice.

Gregg Easterbrook:

Obama said last year that itemized deductions for the wealthy should be phased out — then on his own tax return, claimed a huge itemized deduction. Until those who advocate higher taxes for the well-off practice what they preach, the national debt situation may only get worse.

This is one of the most annoying tropes in existence, on both the left and the right. The point of laws is to provide a level playing field, and no one is a hypocrite for following existing law even if they think it should be changed. That goes for congressmen who accept earmarks even though they think earmarks should be banned, it goes for drivers who park for free on city streets even though they think parking meters should be installed, and it goes for rich people who pay taxes at the current rate even though they think that rate is too low.

No one is obligated to be a sucker. The whole point of taxation is that it's a collective enterprise: I'm willing to pay my taxes for the common good as long as everyone else is doing it too. But until then, there's no reason that I should impoverish myself (or my constituents) while everyone else is merrily taking full advantage of current law. Fairness matters, and that ain't fair.

After writing a couple of posts about multitasking, I'm curious about something: how good are you at multitasking? Which is to say, how good do you think you are at multitasking? And what kinds of things to you multitask at?

The reason I'm curious is because I feel like I'm sort of on the extreme non-multitasking end of the spectrum. I'm as good as the next guy at juggling a long task list (at least, I was back when I had a job where I had a long task list), but that didn't mean I multitasked. I was just fairly diligent about spending time on things I had to get done. And of course, I fiddle around checking email or looking at my Twitter feed as much as anyone.

But I can't multitask at all. For example, I can't listen to music and write at the same time. It's too distracting. I don't comment on TV news much because I don't watch TV news. Partly that's because TV news rots your brain, but mostly it's because I can't write while the TV is on in the background. Too distracting. And when I write long form pieces for the magazine, I work on them almost exclusively on weekends. I just can't task switch effectively between blogging and article writing during the day.

Of course, this is only true for cognitive tasks. Like anyone, I can work out and watch TV at the same time, or carry on a conversation while I'm cooking dinner. That's multitasking, I guess, but it's not really cognitive multitasking.

So what about you? What kinds of things do you feel like you can multitask? What kinds of things demand quiet time? And how confident are you that when you multitask, you're doing it effectively?

Solving our long-term deficit problem will require both spending restraint (mainly in healthcare) as well as tax hikes. I've suggested a couple of times this week that in addition to letting the Bush tax cuts expire, the tax part of this will amount to an additional 5-6% of GDP over the next couple of decades, which I've described as moderate. Megan McArdle says it's anything but:

A tax hike of 5-6% of GDP doesn't sound like much. But that's a big tax hike if your baseline is 19% — it means that everyone's taxes go up by about a third....These aren't little adjustments. They're huge changes in the overall tax burden, and they will have big effects on peoples lives, and the economy.

This is an example of how our choice of language has a huge impact on how we think about taxes. Raising taxes by a third really does sound like a lot. But let's take a look at what that really means.

Page 65 of this CBO document provides estimates for how much income tax various people pay. The median family gets dinged for 3% of its income. A one-third increase means their income taxes would go up by....1% of their income. That's not so much.

How about a family with twice the median income? That is, someone who's pretty well off. They pay 13% of their income. A one-third increase means their taxes would go by 4% of their income. Again, this is far from catastrophic, especially since we're talking about an increase phasing in over the course of many years.

Are these numbers the right ones? I don't know. It all depends on what happens to spending and on how we decide to allocate the burden of higher taxes. If payroll taxes go up, it might hit the middle class a little harder. If we choose to increase capital gains taxes or institute a financial transaction tax, it would hurt them less. Or maybe we'll choose a consumption tax or a carbon tax instead. Who knows? Still, it's likely that more than three-quarters of all taxpayers would end up paying no more than an additional 5% of their income in taxes. That's not painless, and no one will enjoy it. But over the course of a decade or two it's just not a "huge change."

From the Wall Street Journal:

Investors again demonstrated the power of positive thinking on Wednesday, driving U.S. stocks near three-year highs....After a shaky start to the week, when Standard & Poor's issued a warning on the U.S. credit rating, stocks have rebounded. The Dow Jones Industrial Average soared 186.79 points, or 1.52%, to finish at 12453.54, its highest close in nearly three years.

That was quick! It took a grand total of two days for investors to decide that America is in great shape after all.

So here's the thing: if you had a substantive theory1 about why S&P's announcement on Monday cratered the stock market — any theory at all — it was wrong. It doesn't matter if your causal mechanism was related to treasury rates, our broken political system, the value of the dollar, the price of gold, investor fear of company earnings, or anything else. It was wrong.

Either that or it was right for seven hours on Monday and then produced the precise opposite reaction two days later, even though nothing about America's financial condition has changed. But if you think that's the case, now you have to explain that. Good luck.

1As opposed to a nonsubstantive theory. For example: investors are idiots and they panicked. Or: investors figured that other investors were idiots and would panic, so they decided they'd better sell first. Or something like that.

Nate Silver notes that a CNN poll this week shows 51% of Americans in favor of same-sex marriage. And this isn't just an outlier: "This is the fourth credible poll in the past eight months to show an outright majority of Americans in favor of gay marriage." The chart below shows how much things have changed over the past couple of decades. Another few years and support for same-sex marriage will creep above 60%, approximately the number where things usually go fully mainstream. Social conservatives are plainly fighting a losing battle here.

And you know what will happen to American culture after they finally and completely lose? Pretty much nothing.

Greece has no realistic chance of ever paying its external debt. So it needs to default restructure. But if it restructures, German and French banks are screwed. What to do?

Answer: dither some more. But dithering won't help. Greece is a time bomb waiting to go off, and it doesn't look like there's any realistic hope of defusing it.

Reality and Taxes

Ross Douthat has responded to my post on taxes, and I want to respond back. I know this kind of back-and-forth can get tedious quickly, so I'll try to keep it relatively brief. But I'd like to make five points:

  • I said that federal taxes had averaged 21% of GDP over the past 30 years, and Ross correctly points out that it's federal spending that's averaged 21%. On a macro level this might or might not matter ("to spend is to tax"), but it does matter if we're trying to figure out how voters will react to an increase in the total tax take. However, I continue to believe that the impact would be much less than Ross thinks. The federal tax take was around 20% of GDP during the Clinton era, so here's what we're talking about: letting the Bush tax cuts expire in a couple of years and then raising tax rates by about four or five points of GDP over the next 20 or 30 years. Done reasonably and fairly, I just don't believe that an increase this gradual would be wildly oppressive.
  • In any case, what choice do we have? Spending has averaged 20-21%, and it's just not plausible that we can actually cut that while the nation is rapidly aging. The best we can realistically do is rein in the growth rate. I think we'd be better off facing that reality and planning a decent tax code to handle it, rather than waiting for catastrophe and whatever disastrous tax plan would likely come out of it.
  • Am I happy about asking middle-class families to pay more taxes during an era, as Ross says, of middle-class wage stagnation and growing income inequality. Nope. And obviously I'd like to attack that inequality at its roots. Still, Social Security and Medicare are fundamentally middle-class programs, and I think it's fair to ask the middle class to pay for them. The rich should pay too, but they shouldn't be turned into welfare programs supported by the rich for the benefit of others. That's corrosive in a lot of ways, and like FDR, I don't support this.
  • Should Medicare be means tested so the taxes of the middle class aren't supporting healthcare for the rich? Maybe. I'm wide open to a lot of proposals for reining in healthcare costs, including some conservative ones. But even if we do a great job on this, Medicare costs are still going to go up. There's simply no plausible path that points in any other direction.
  • Would higher tax rates hurt economic growth? Both Ross and Reihan Salam say they would, but the evidence is slim to nonexistent. All taxes carry deadweight losses, but there's very little evidence that they affect growth rates noticeably at the levels we're talking about here. And Scandinavia — small, culturally homogeneous, and well educated — isn't the only reason to think that higher tax rates aren't economically destructive. Countries like Japan, Germany, and France have also done fine, and they're all large countries with widely varying tax rates and rates of ethnic diversity.

Needless to say, a lot of our disagreement is simply irreconcilable. We just have different views of what the social safety net should look like and how it should be funded. But really, the most discouraging part of all this is how pointless the conversation is. If I were put in a room with Ross and Reihan and we had to hammer out some kind of grand Medicare/taxing/spending/deficit plan, we might be able to do it. It would be pretty bloody, but maybe we could come up with something we all preferred to doing nothing. Unfortunately, Ross and Reihan are at the extreme fringe of the conservative movement. Any real-life deal has to go through real-life conservatives, and they're not willing to concede even Ross's modest view that "taxes will probably go up somewhat relative to the post-World War II average." They don't even think taxes should stay where they are today. They want to cut taxes in the face of an aging population, and they're still resolutely dedicated to this fantasy-based proposition, come what may. Liberals just don't have any negotiating partners here.