Kevin Drum

Deficit Poser Alert

| Thu Jul. 1, 2010 1:48 PM EDT

Ryan McNeely isn't impressed with the deficit hawkery of Blue Dog Democrat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D–SD), who has been relentless in her efforts to reduce stimulus and jobs spending:

The problem is that Herseth Sandlin voted to permanently cut the estate tax, which “would have reduced government revenue by an estimated $268 billion over the next decade, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.” There were no corresponding spending cuts. She also voted for the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which contained billions in tax breaks for extremely profitable oil companies. She also voted against the deficit-reducing Affordable Care Act. Finally, she voted for a $100 billion emergency supplemental for the Iraq War without requiring a withdrawl timeline, against the wishes of Democratic leadership.

She's a deficit poser, not a deficit hawk. She doesn't care about the deficit, she just prefers that money be spent on rich people, big corporations, and foreign wars instead of the unemployed and those without healthcare. Which is fine, I guess. But tell me again why she's a Democrat and why anyone takes her alleged deficit hawkery seriously?

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Chart of the Day: The Recession's Effect

| Thu Jul. 1, 2010 12:40 PM EDT

We already know that unemployment, long-term unemployment, and underemployment have been sky high during this recession, but a new study from Pew has some additional startling news: even among the still employed, 74% have taken a pay cut of one kind or another,1 either directly or via forced time off — and it's probably even worse than this since Pew apparently didn't ask about cuts in benefits. I wonder: does this mean that wages among the currently employed aren't as sticky as we think? And is this new? My sense is that we haven't seen pay cuts of this breadth in previous recessions, even in 1981-82. But that's just a sense. I don't know if there's survey data to back that up.

Other bullet points from the Pew study:

  • More than six-in-ten Americans (62%) say they have cut back on their spending since the recession began in December 2007.
  • About half the public (48%) say they are in worse financial shape now than before the recession began....Government data show that average household wealth fell by about 20% from 2007 to 2009, principally because of declining house values and retirement accounts. This is the biggest meltdown in U.S. household wealth in the post-World War II era.
  • A third (32%) of adults now say they are not confident that they will have enough income and assets to finance their retirement, up from 25% who said that in February 2009.
  • Throughout most of the decade of the 2000s, Republicans were significantly more upbeat than Democrats about the state of the economy. That pattern is now reversed.

That last point, by the way, almost certainly explains the different levels of economic optimism among various demographic groups. In all cases, the more Democratic trending group is also the most optimistic.

In other related news, homes sales are down, GM is selling fewer cars, jobless claims spiked last week instead of falling, and thanks to Ben Nelson (D–LetEmRot) unemployment benefits still haven't been extended. Those benefits are only for losers in other states, after all. As long as Nebraska is doing OK, why should he be worried?

1A couple of commenters point out that the categories in the chart aren't mutually exclusive. A single person might fall into more than one of them, so you can't just add them up to get 74%. That's true. So the real number is lower than this. At a guess, though, it's still well over 50%.

Question of the Day: Journalistic Ethics

| Thu Jul. 1, 2010 11:22 AM EDT

From Max Sawicky:

If it is forbidden for journalists to privately deride their subjects, why is it fine for them to publicly idolize them?

Well, um, because.....look! Halley's comet!

News Flash: John Bolton Still Clueless

| Thu Jul. 1, 2010 11:05 AM EDT

Uber-hawk John Bolton takes to the pages of the LA Times today to trash the Obama/Petraeus strategy in Afghanistan. Neither counterterrorism nor counterinsurgency will work, he says, to meet the twin goals of crushing the Taliban and keeping Pakistani nuclear weapons safe:

Instead, we require a sustained military presence in Afghanistan devoted to the grim, relentless crushing of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, coupled with substantially enhanced Pakistani military pressure there. This means protracted military action, not social services, which Team Obama is thoroughly unwilling to endorse. It turns out, entirely predictably, that Afghanistan was not "the good war" after all.

This is no surprise coming from Bolton, but still: don't even his neocon buddies ever get embarrassed by him? Maybe he should ask the Soviets how their "grim, relentless" campaign in Afghanistan did in the 80s? That is, if he can find any Soviets to ask. The Soviet Union outlasted the failure of their all-out war in Afghanistan by only a few years.

Bolton is probably right to think that both counterterrorism and counterinsurgency are unlikely to work. But we aren't pursuing them because Obama is too much of a pussy to wage a real man's war. We're pursuing them because just about everyone in the U.S. military understands what Bolton doesn't: all-out conventional war against insurgent foes like the Taliban and al-Qaeda is even more unlikely to work. What's more, the theory of counterinsurgency isn't based on the idea that economic progress will defang the insurgents themselves (Bolton: "Religious fanatics, and their grievances, do not arise from poverty or deprivation. Accordingly, their fanaticism is not susceptible to remedies based on economic determinism, whether of the crude Marxist variety or its community-organizer cousin. Their motives and hatreds will not disappear with prosperity or free elections."). It's based on the idea that it will reduce their support among the indigenous population, support that any insurgency needs to operate effectively. This is counterinsurgency 101, something that the military community hashed out years ago, but Bolton still doesn't seem to get it. For him, it's always the killing fields or nothing.

Elena Kagan and the Vegetables

| Thu Jul. 1, 2010 12:40 AM EDT

Supreme Court confirmation hearings are little more than figurative jokes these days, but the LA Times tells me that today's questioning of Elena Kagan was literally a joke:

Perhaps no amount of cramming could have readied her for the question asked of her by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma: Can the government, he wondered, pass a law forcing Americans to eat fruits and vegetables?

To Kagan, at first blush, the question must have seemed absurd, maybe even a joke. "It sounds like a dumb law," she replied off the cuff. Then, realizing Coburn was serious, she segued into sort of the windy, contextual, cautious analysis that she has employed to answer most of the questions asked of her over the last two days.

But she had fallen into Coburn's trap by answering more like the law professor she is than by simply responding like most people would. She never just said: "Of course it can't."

Within hours, a video detailing the exchange was atop the Drudge Report website, hundreds of thousands had viewed it on YouTube, and conservatives were having a field day. Her equivocation fit ideally with the narrative Republicans are trying to fashion during these hearings — a story of a federal government out of control and a Congress running amok.

We are truly ruled by idiots. At least, we will be if Republicans win control of Congress in November. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Federal Stimulus, State Sedative

| Wed Jun. 30, 2010 10:03 PM EDT

Over at The Corner, Ramesh Ponnuru recommends a post by Alan Reynolds of Cato:

A recent Washington Post column by Ezra Klein dreamed up a new excuse for the conspicuous failure of Obama’s so-called stimulus plan. Klein argues that the stimulus of federal spending has been offset by the “anti-stimulus” of fiscal austerity by state and local governments.

....But it is easy to identify each sector’s direct contribution to the overall growth rate of real GDP from a St. Louis Fed publication, “National Economic Trends.” State and local government spending was rising during the first three quarters of the recession, and the drop in the fourth quarter of 2008 accounted for just 0.25% of the 5.37% annualized decline in GDP. In the first quarter of 2009, state and local spending subtracted just 0.19% from real GDP, but federal spending subtracted more (0.33%) due to cuts in defense spending. Government obviously made only a minor contribution to the 6.4% drop in overall GDP.

....The table shows that government spending on goods and services had nothing to do with the recovery (transfer payments don’t contribute to GDP). As a matter of simple accounting, the state and local sector has been a very minor negative force — scarcely comparable to the Fed’s inaction in 1930-32.

This is a very peculiar argument. If you cut through the fog of words, here's the table from the St. Louis Fed report that Reynolds is relying on:

The stimulus bill passed in February 2009 and presumably started taking effect in the second quarter of 2009 and beyond (red shaded area). Add up the numbers and they show that federal spending was responsible for 1.58 percentage points of GDP growth during that period while state spending was responsible for -0.36 percentage points of GDP growth. Look at just the three most recent quarters and it's even worse: 0.73 points of growth from the feds and -0.84 points from the states. In other words, it's exactly what Ezra said: the federal stimulus has been largely offset by declines in state spending.

Now, it's true that federal spending in general has a fairly small impact on total GDP. But that's because when you remove transfer payments the federal government only accounts for about 15% of total spending. The rest is private sector. There's nothing mysterious about this.

I dunno. Maybe I'm missing something. I'm not sure that this is a very illuminating way to judge the effect of the stimulus on GDP in the first place, but to the extent that it is, it backs up Ezra completely: the federal stimulus has been largely counteracted by state cutbacks, just like he said.

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Time to Repeal Godwin's Law

| Wed Jun. 30, 2010 6:16 PM EDT

You know what I'm tired of? Godwin's Law. Who do I need to see about getting it repealed?

In theory, of course, Godwin's Law is merely descriptive. But in practice it's an endlessly tiresome way of feigning moral indignation. Here's how it usually works in real life:

  • Person A makes a comparison between something happening today and something the Nazis did.
  • Person B expresses outrage. How dare you?!?
  • Person A clarifies, and the clarification is always the same: I'm not saying that today's bad thing is as bad as what the Nazis did. I'm just illustrating.
  • Person B will have none of it. All comparisons to Nazis are ipso facto outrageous.

Glenn Greenwald and Joe Klein act out this kabuki to perfection today. You can put me on Glenn's side here. Not on the substance of the argument (where I think both sides have a point), but simply on whether or not it's OK to illustrate a point by reaching into the history of World War II for an analogy. I say: why not? WWII analogies are extremely useful because they're familiar to almost everyone. In this case, Glenn is arguing that the invasion of Iraq wasn't justified by the fact that the Kurds welcomed it, and he could have illustrated his point by saying that, likewise, Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia wasn't justified because they were welcomed by some of the survivors of the killing fields. But you know what? Not many U.S. readers are familiar with that bit of history, so the analogy wouldn't help much. If you're looking for something that lots of people will understand quickly, Hitler and World War II are fertile fields.

Yes, yes: historical analogies should be used carefully, and if you really are suggesting that [blank] is as bad as Hitler/Nazis/the Holocaust, then you'd better be damn sure you mean it. But if you're just reaching for a point of comparison that will be widely understood, then why not? Contra Klein, this isn't a "litigator's trick." It's just a handy way of making an easily understood comparison. And if Godwin doesn't like it, tough.

The Politics of Healthcare Reform

| Wed Jun. 30, 2010 4:49 PM EDT

So how's healthcare reform doing among the unwashed masses? According to a new Kaiser poll:

  • 48% have a favorable view of the law.
  • 41% have an unfavorable view.
  • Of that 41%, only 27% want the law repealed. (The remainder think it ought to be given a chance for a while.)

That doesn't bode well for conservatives who think that wholesale repeal is the road to electoral victory in November — though admittedly that 27% number might be higher in certain specific right-leaning swing districts where Democrats are most vulnerable. Still, as Jon Cohn points out, overall approval of healthcare reform, as measured by Pollster's poll averaging, is slowly but steadily increasing. It's gone up from 40% to 44% since February and has now crossed the critical point where it's viewed as a net favorable. If it keeps trending this way for the rest of the year, it'll be at around 49% approval by November.

The overall politics of repeal still differs dramatically in different congressional districts, of course, but numbers like this make it virtually impossible for the Republican leadership in Congress to seriously push for total repeal as a partywide platform. Like it or not, healthcare reform is here to stay.

Chart of the Day: Torture for Thee, But Not For Me

| Wed Jun. 30, 2010 1:48 PM EDT

Via Andrew Sullivan, a new study from the Joan Shorenstein Center finds that major U.S. newspapers routinely referred to waterboarding as torture until 2002, when they suddenly stopped. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. media's attitude toward waterboarding depended almost entirely on who was doing it:

News articles that considered other countries or individuals committing waterboarding were far more likely to classify waterboarding as torture than articles that dealt with the U.S. using waterboarding.

In the NY Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the U.S. using waterboarding against an individual called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture. Yet when the U.S. was the perpetrator, only 7.69% (16 of 208) articles said or implied that waterboarding was torture. Just 0.8% of the articles (1 of 133) dealing with the War on Terror where the U.S. was the perpetrator said or implied that waterboarding was torture.

The LA Times follows a similar pattern of avoiding the label of torture when the U.S. is responsible for using waterboarding. In articles that considered other countries using waterboarding, 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) called waterboarding torture or implied the practice was torture. When the U.S. was the violator, only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) used this classification.

As always, where you stand depends on where you sit.

Is the CBO Playing Politics?

| Wed Jun. 30, 2010 12:44 PM EDT

When the CBO estimates future federal budget deficits, it uses two scenarios. The first is the "current law" baseline scenario, which is just what it sounds like: it assumes that everything unfolds as if current law stays in effect forever. Everyone understands that this is a fantasy.

So they also have an "alternative scenario." If, for example, Congress "fixes" the alternative minimum tax every year without fail, then CBO assumes it will continue doing this even if Congress never permanently changes the underlying law. Ditto for several other things that Congress tends to deal with on an ad hoc basis every year.

But this year CBO has done something new: it has assumed that virtually none of the cost savings in the recently passed healthcare reform bill will take effect. Brad DeLong, assuming the guise of "Technocrat" in a debate in which he plays all sides, cries foul:

The alternative baseline is now based on judgments about the strength of the doctors' lobby and about the configuration of American rent-seeking politics rather than being merely an attempt to construct an honest baseline. It's not clear to me that CBO has the expertise to make such judgments. It is clear to me that if it is going to make them, it needs to back them up much more comprehensively than it has done.

The CBO does itself a disservice if it starts getting too heavily involved in political calculations like this. They've already made their best estimates about what effect healthcare reform will have on the federal budget, and if they want to change those estimates they should do so openly. But simply assuming that a future Congress will kill all cost savings measures with no special evidence to back that up? That's just not their job. CBO is supposed to be an honest broker, not a Washington Post op-ed columnist.