Facing Fiscal Reality

David Brooks seems to have backed down a bit on his man-crush toward Paul Ryan, but still thinks he's performed a valuable service:

The Democrats are on defense because they are unwilling to ask voters to confront the implications of their choices. Democrats seem to believe that most Americans want to preserve the 20th-century welfare state programs. But they are unwilling to ask voters to pay for them, and they are unwilling to describe the tax increases that would be required to cover their exploding future costs.

Raising taxes on the rich will not do it. There aren’t enough rich people to generate the tens of trillions of dollars required to pay for Medicare, let alone all the other programs. Democrats, thus, face a fundamental choice. They can either reverse President Obama’s no-new-middle-class-taxes pledge, or they can learn to live with Paul Ryan’s version of government.

Until they find a way to pay for the programs they support, they will not be serious players in this game. They will have no credible plans and will be in an angry but permanent retreat.

Look, I won't pretend there's nothing to this. Still, unless I've been living for the past 30 years in that alternate universe where Spock sports a Van Dyke, I'm pretty sure I know which party has been unwilling to raise taxes. And the name of that party doesn't start with a D. What's more, I think Ron Brownstein has the more salient analysis anyway:

The sweeping budget blueprint that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., released this week marked the fifth time since 1980 that Republicans have followed an electoral breakthrough by attempting to restructure Medicare or Social Security.

[A bit of history follows]

....From this trail of wreckage, one lesson is clear: Restructuring entitlements without bipartisan support is a high-wire proposition....It’s even tougher to limit entitlements without bipartisan consensus....Ryan, discounting that history, has aimed his plan squarely at Republicans. Even though federal revenue, as a share of the economy, is at its lowest level since 1950, Ryan would attack the debt solely with spending reductions.

After five tries with Ryan's scorched-earth approach, I just don't see the supposedly bracing value of trying it yet again. We already know it won't work, we already know it's purely a base-pandering approach, and we already know that its most likely result isn't to force Democrats to the table, but to make compromise even harder. That strikes me as cowardly and partisan, not brave and farsighted.

So fine: if we want to solve Medicare's long-term problems, we're going to need a combination of smarter policies, reduced spending, and increased taxes. This is the admission that Brooks wants, and I'm happy to own up to it. But the truth is that liberal wonks have been owning up to this for years, and Democratic members of Congress are generally willing to own up to it as well — as long as they have some support from Republicans too. Does anyone really doubt that?

But of course they never get that support. It's Republicans, not Democrats, who tremble like small children before the terrifying gaze of Grover Norquist and are consistently unwilling to face fiscal realities. As soon as a few of them work up the courage to start tearing up those tax jihad pledges that Norquist has bullied them into signing over the years, then maybe we can talk. Until then, it's pretty clear which party is standing in the way of finding real solutions.

Stalemate in Libya?

So how are things going in Libya? One thing is becoming even more obvious than before: the rebel "army" is small, poorly trained, poorly armed, and unlikely to win on its own. According to C.J. Chivers of the New York Times:

Prone to panic, they often answer to little more than their mood, which changes in a flash. When their morale spikes upward, their attacks tend to be painfully and bloodily frontal — little more than racing columns down the highway, through a gantlet of the Qaddafi forces’ rocket and mortar fire, face forward into the loyalists’ machine guns.

So what does this mean? Muammar Qaddafi's capabilities are pretty limited too, which means we might well be looking at an indefinite de facto partition of the country, with Qaddafi controlling Tripoli and the west and rebels controlling Benghazi and the east. Tara Bahrampour of the Washington Post confirms this:

For the United States and other Western powers, the rebel efforts to build the rudiments of a nation in eastern Libya reflect the reality of a military stalemate — one in which NATO could be ensnared for months or more. “We don’t like it, we don’t want it, but this scenario might happen,” said Fathi Baja, the rebels’ head of international affairs.

So how does this play out? There's still a chance that Qaddafi will crumble. Libya's loss of oil revenue will continue to squeeze him. The mercenaries fighting for him might decide to leave for better opportunities elsewhere. His supporters might continue to defect as Western sanctions keep biting. But what if he holds on anyway and the rebels are just flatly unable to dislodge him? Fred Kaplan says the events in the broader Middle East are yet another demonstration of the post-Cold War limits of American power:

We find ourselves in the unusual situation—unprecedented in the lifetime of nearly every American breathing today—of watching from the sidelines as world-historical transformations unfold....The fate of all these uprisings is certainly a matter of U.S. interests—arguably, in the case of Egypt and Yemen, our vital interests. Yet there's little we can do to direct their paths.

The one exception, he says, is Libya. But that may be the exception that proves the rule. How likely is it, after all, that either the United States or its allies will be willing to accept a long, dull stalemate like this? In a sense, it would be even worse than the kind of grinding, inconclusive war we're fighting in Afghanistan, where we can at least concoct stories about progress and eventual victory. But if Libya settles down into a partition with essentially no fighting at all, no such stories will be possible. We either accept the partition or we don't.

How likely is it that we will? There's not a lot of precedent to go on here, but it doesn't seem like the kind of thing the American (or French or British) public would accept for long. Sure, nobody would be dying, so there probably wouldn't be huge public protests, but we'd still be committing ourselves to an expensive, indefinite military operation with no goal except to protect the partition of a country nobody really cares much about in the first place.

So what are the alternatives? There are two: either a negotiated settlement of some kind or a decision that the war has to end and Qaddafi has to go. That would mean a Kosovo-style air campaign against Tripoli, kept up until Qaddafi finally either surrendered or was killed.

This is what makes some kind of negotiated settlement so important. Without it, the most likely end point isn't partition and stalemate, it's a broadening of the war. How many stalemates can a single president have on his plate at once, after all?

Front page image: Maurizio Gambarini/DPA/Zuma

Jason Kuznicki's husband works at NASA. That is, he'll work at NASA until the government shuts down, anyway. When that happens, the results might be a wee bit different than what the tea partiers expect:

Now look. If my husband (1) lost his job because of (2) substantial budget cuts and he (3) had to find work in the private aerospace sector, I’d probably just have to shut the hell up — provided of course that we had (4) already cut the truly odious government spending first.

In a case like that, I’d be brushing up on Stoic virtue. There wouldn’t be much else to do. But that’s not what’s happening. Not even close.

Instead, my husband likely (1) keeps his job, but not his pay, because of (2) empty posturing over trivial budget cuts and he (3) can’t legally work anywhere in the private aerospace sector. Meanwhile the government is (4) spending a whole lot more money on some very odious things, like an illegal war.

Oh yeah, and my husband can’t even volunteer at NASA, which he almost certainly would do, because he’d really like to get some research to the publisher before a deadline. That, too, is against the law.

By my lights, this is wrong on every single dimension. I know you’d love it if the chickens were coming home to roost, but they’re not. Not for me anyway. For Republicans? Well... take it up with them. I haven’t voted Republican in many years, and I don’t see myself starting anytime soon.

Shutting down the government sure is fun, isn't it?

So it looks like a government shutdown is now all but inevitable. But why?

Mr. Reid said that Republicans had “drawn a line in the sand” on issues of abortion financing and changes to the Clean Air Act, and that those issues could not be resolved in the hours left before a government shutdown. “The numbers are basically there,” Mr. Reid said on the floor of the Senate. “But I am not nearly as optimistic, and that’s an understatement, as I was 11 hours ago. The only thing holding up an agreement is ideology.”

....“There is no agreement on a number,” Mr. Boehner told reporters. “I think we were closer to a number last night than we are this morning. We’re going to have real spending cuts. I don’t know what some people don’t understand about this.”

There might still be some disagreement over a compromise budget cut number (Reid only said negotiators were "basically" there, which doesn't mean they're actually there), but I notice that Boehner rather loudly didn't deny that culture war riders to the budget bill are still the big sticking point. The true believers in the GOP might prefer bigger cuts than the Democrats, but their actions suggest that it's the side issues that really have them lathered up. They'd rather shut down the government than allow Planned Parenthood to keep giving out condoms and birth control pills.

Working the Refs

I feel like I've already written too much — probably way too much — about Paul Ryan's budget proposal. But Ezra Klein makes a point today that's been in the back of my mind too: Ryan's plan is not only not bipartisan, it's deliberately constructed to be as offensive to Democrats as it's possible to be:

Ryan’s budget adds a bunch of extraneous, ideological priorities into the deficit reduction talks. He privatizes Medicare, which costs money. He repeals the resolution authority in Dodd-Frank. He reorients our energy strategy away from renewables and toward domestic production of fossil fuels. He locks in the Bush tax cuts. Most of these decisions are largely unrelated to the deficit, and/or increase it. But they’re polarizing — Republicans love them and Democrats hate them — and by bringing them into the discussion, it’ll make it ultimately harder to come to a deal. Both sides are only willing to compromise on so much, and when you add a lot of items that should [not] have been included in the first place, you run the risk of hitting people’s limits before you’re able to deal with the core issues.

In any kind of serious proposal, you'd expect the author to at least make a few nods in the direction of bipartisanship. They might be fake, but at least they'd be there. But not Ryan. His proposal is a 100% tea party wet dream: Do away with one of the Democratic Party's signature achievements of the 20th century. Slash spending on social programs for the poor. Use the reduced spending to make room for tax cuts on corporations and the rich. Put a hard cap on federal outlays that's almost absurdly low. Give the Pentagon everything it wants. And stitch it all together with supply-side voodoo economics and budget projections so laughable they're almost designed to be insulting.

But as Ezra points out after reading through the details, it's even worse than that. Just in case any moderate Democrats might be inclined to tentatively say something nice about his plan, it's studded with other calculated insults. Repeal Dodd-Frank! Repeal Obamacare! Drill baby drill!

I don't know what motivates Ryan, but it's certainly not a genuine search for plausible grounds for negotiation. Instead, he's produced a document carefully crafted to produce a universally negative reaction from Democrats, presumably because he thinks that will make Democrats look intransigent while the Beltway press is busily thinking up new ways to praise Ryan for his courage and gutsiness.

So far that calculation seems to be paying off. For more, see David Corn on what you get when you Google "Paul Ryan budget serious."

The ECB Cries Uncle

Portugal more or less declared bankruptcy yesterday. Here's how the ECB responded today:

Worried about rising prices, the European Central Bank raised its benchmark interest rate for the first time since 2008 on Thursday, risking damage to weaker economies like Portugal, which only a day earlier became the third country to request an international bailout....The bank president, Jean-Claude Trichet, and other members of the governing council had warned repeatedly over the past month about the risk that higher oil prices would fuel a general increase in prices.

This is nuts. Inflation is a monetary phenomenon. Surging oil prices are a supply and demand phenomenon. Oil prices aren't going up because there's too much money in circulation, they're going up because supply is limited, there's unrest in the Middle East, and demand keeps rising inexorably upward.

I have some sympathy for bond hawks who say that although bond prices aren't currently showing any fear of either inflation or financial collapse, markets can turn quickly and it's best to keep from ever getting to the point when that turn might happen. Still, a little more inflation right now would be a good thing, not a bad one, and economic growth would be a really good thing. Anything that gets in the way of growth is just begging for bigger trouble down the road. This panicky action from Trichet is a big mistake.

Beck's Brain

I happened to tune into Glenn Beck for a few minutes today, and I really think the guy is losing his mojo. He was going on and on about how he was going to put everything together for us today and tomorrow, but I found myself just yawning through the whole thing. (Though the image of Samantha Power "whispering in Obama's ear" was sort of amusing. I don't imagine that Power is the whispering sort.)

Anyway, I had just tuned out because Beck wouldn't get to the point and life is too short for this kind of rambling. I want mainlined conspiracy theorizing! I want a direct look into Beck's brain! Luckily, when I returned to my computer, I learned that Steve Brodner has given us exactly that for the upcoming issue of the magazine: a schematic breakdown of Beck's brain. Click the thumbnail on the right to see it full size.

Eat the Rich

Megan McArdle:

As the angry debate over Ryan's budget plan wears on, one suggestion I'm seeing over and over is that we should just raise personal and corporate income tax rates back to where they were in the 1950s, when marginal tax rates were 50% on corporate income and up to 90% on personal income.

Really? Who's saying that? Anybody of any significance?

Medicare and the federal deficit are long-term problems. Global warming is also a long-term problem. Paul Ryan has been widely hailed as courageous for proposing a 100% conservative solution to the former, so Matt Yglesias wants some props for proposing a 100% liberal solution to the latter:

Yes this is a “politically unrealistic” agenda, but why is that different from the widely praised “boldness” and “bravery” and “adult” nature of various deficit hawk concepts? Can’t we get a commission? A grant from Pete Peterson? Something? It seems to me that a politician who wrote down a Ryan-style “Climate Roadmap” would find him or herself dismissed as a leftwing crackpot pushing wishful thinking rather than a bold thinker. It’s infuriating.

Yes. Yes it is.

The Algebra II Blues

This story has been tickling the back of my mind ever since I first saw it, but I haven't blogged it yet. So here it is. I knew that many school districts have started requiring kids to pass algebra in order to get a diploma, and I've always had mixed feelings about this. But a few days ago the Washington Post informed me that things have gone far beyond that:

Of all of the classes offered in high school, Algebra II is the leading predictor of college and work success, according to research that has launched a growing national movement to require it of graduates.

In recent years, 20 states and the District have moved to raise graduation requirements to include Algebra II, and its complexities are being demanded of more and more students.

....One of the key studies supporting the Algebra II focus was conducted by Anthony Carnevale and Alice Desrochers, then both at the Educational Testing Service. They used a data set that followed a group of students from 1988 to 2000, from eighth grade to a time when most were working. The study showed that of those who held top-tier jobs, 84 percent had taken Algebra II or a higher class as their last high school math course. Only 50 percent of employees in the bottom tier had taken Algebra II.

....But not everyone is convinced that Algebra II is the answer. Among the skeptics is Carnevale, one of the researchers who reported the link between Algebra II and good jobs. He warns against thinking of Algebra II as a cause of students getting good jobs merely because it is correlated with success. “The causal relationship is very, very weak,” he said. “Most people don’t use Algebra II in college, let alone in real life. The state governments need to be careful with this.”

This is one of the things that makes me so dubious of the ed reform community. Algebra II! As a minimum requirement to hold a high school diploma! We're literally saying that if you can't factor polynomials, manipulate complex numbers, do matrix arithmetic, and understand basic trig, then you can't get a high school diploma? Really?

This effort is apparently being spearheaded by Achieve, "a group organized by governors and business leaders and funded by corporations and their foundations, to improve the skills of the workforce." OK. But I'm willing to bet a significant amount of my income that there's no causal relation at all between Algebra II and success in holding a top tier job. The only correlation is that smart kids tend to take Algebra II and smart kids also tend to go to college and end up in top tier jobs. Algebra II itself has nothing to do with it.

I'm a math nerd — or at least I used to be until I discovered I wasn't as smart as I thought I was — but this seems crazy even to me. What say you, commentariat?