Troops OK With Gay Troops

This is unsurprising, but still welcome news:

A Pentagon study group has concluded that the military can lift the ban on gays serving openly in uniform with only minimal and isolated incidents of risk to the current war efforts, according to two people familiar with a draft of the report, which is due to President Obama on Dec. 1.

More than 70 percent of respondents to a survey sent to active-duty and reserve troops over the summer said the effect of repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy would be positive, mixed or nonexistent, said two sources familiar with the document. The survey results led the report's authors to conclude that objections to openly gay colleagues would drop once troops were able to live and serve alongside them.

Apparently the Marine Corps remains the biggest obstacle, but even there only 40% of all Marines are concerned about lifting the ban. That seems pretty manageable. I don't expect the reactionary right to change its tune on this regardless of the evidence, but this report might still be enough to break loose a few Republican votes for repeal of DADT in the lame duck session. Keep your fingers crossed.

Is the Deficit Commission Serious?

I've been trying to figure out whether I have anything to say about the "chairman's mark" of the deficit commission report that was released today. In a sense, I don't. This is not a piece of legislation, after all. Or a proposed piece of legislation. Or even a report from the deficit commission itself. It's just a draft presentation put together by two guys. Do you know how many deficit reduction proposals are out there that have the backing of two guys? Thousands. Another one just doesn't matter.

But the iron law of the news business is that if people are talking about it, then it matters. So this report matters, even though it's really nothing more than the opinion of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. So here's what I think of it, all contained in one handy chart from the Congressional Budget Office:

Here's what the chart means:

  • Discretionary spending (the light blue bottom chunk) isn't a long-term deficit problem. It takes up about 10% of GDP forever. What's more, pretending that it can be capped is just game playing: anything one Congress can do, another can undo. So if you want to recommend a few discretionary cuts, that's fine. Beyond that, though, the discretionary budget should be left to Congress since it can be cut or expanded easily via the ordinary political process. That's why it's called "discretionary."
  • Social Security (the dark blue middle chunk) isn't a long-term deficit problem. It goes up very slightly between now and 2030 and then flattens out forever. If Republicans were willing to get serious and knock off their puerile anti-tax jihad, it could be fixed easily with a combination of tiny tax increases and tiny benefit cuts phased in over 20 years that the public would barely notice. It deserves about a week of deliberation.
  • Medicare, and healthcare in general, is a huge problem. It is, in fact, our only real long-term spending problem.

To put this more succinctly: any serious long-term deficit plan will spend about 1% of its time on the discretionary budget, 1% on Social Security, and 98% on healthcare. Any proposal that doesn't maintain approximately that ratio shouldn't be considered serious. The Simpson-Bowles plan, conversely, goes into loving detail about cuts to the discretionary budget and Social Security but turns suddenly vague and cramped when it gets to Medicare. That's not serious.

There are other reasons the Simpson-Bowles plan isn't serious. Capping revenue at 21% of GDP, for example. The plain fact is that over the next few decades Social Security will need a little more money and healthcare will need a lot more. That will be true even if we implement the greatest healthcare cost containment plan in the world. Pretending that we can nonetheless cap revenues at 2000 levels isn't serious.

And their tax proposal? As part of a deficit reduction plan they want to cut taxes on the rich and make the federal tax system more regressive? That's not serious either.

Bottom line: this document isn't really aimed at deficit reduction. It's aimed at keeping government small. There's nothing wrong with that if you're a conservative think tank and that's what you're dedicated to selling. But it should be called by its right name. This document is a paean to cutting the federal government, not cutting the federal deficit.

Hard Truths

Jon Chait makes a pretty good point after reading Ruth Marcus's latest column:

One of the defining beliefs of sensible-center Washington establishment types is that elected officials need to make Tough Decisions, including unpopular decisions, rather than just try to skate through to the next election. However, a second set of beliefs held by this group is that, if you do lose an election, this proves that all your ideas were not just politically unwise but substantively wrong.

[Some excerpts from Marcus's column.]

....What's fascinating to me is that Marcus believes not only that elections are completely ideological judgments, but that those judgments ought to be adopted by the party in power. Here President Obama was doing all kinds of unpopular things — bailing out banks, bailing out the auto industry, cutting hundreds of billions from Medicare — because he felt those courses of action were responsible. And then he loses seats, in part because of those hard decisions, and now he's supposed to admit that his policies were bad?

This is something that Obama doesn't get enough credit for. As Jon says, the centrist establishment is pretty unanimous in believing that presidents need to tell the nation Hard Truths and not simply Pander To Their Base. Well, Obama followed their advice more than most presidents. And guess what? His liberal base wasn't amused and the nation didn't really want to hear hard truths while unemployment was hovering around double digits. This should come as a surprise to exactly no one.

If this were just another example of pundit blathering about the election, it might not matter. But guess what? The president's deficit commission just produced a draft report (about which more later), and once again Beltway pundits are going to lap it up. Why? Because it Tells Hard Truths and Attacks Sacred Cows. It also proposes a bunch of stuff that will be stupendously unpopular. Somehow, though, Obama will once again be expected to endorse a bunch of unpopular stuff without becoming unpopular himself. Because if that happens, it will somehow represent the reaction of honest heartland workers who want to hear a president who cares, not one who spouts percentages of GDP and healthcare inflation rates. The fact that he didn't listen to what they wanted — which is always the same: more spending, lower taxes, and a smaller deficit — will, as usual, represent a failure to connect with Real America. Funny how that always seems to be the verdict on Democratic presidents.

Sarah and the Media

I think Karl Smith gets today's award for most incorrect statement of the day:

Sarah Palin looks to be on the losing end of a brawl with the Wall Street Journal....

By definition, Sarah Palin cannot be on the losing end of any argument with the mainstream lamestream media. It is unpossible. I demand an immediate retraction from the elitist Professor Smith.

What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?

I read this story back when our November/December issue came out, but I see that it's now up on the web. It's Charlie LeDuff's look at Detroit through the lens of a police tragedy that happened earlier this year while an A&E crew was following a SWAT team for an episode of The First 48, one of its reality shows, ending in the death of a 7-year-old girl:

The SWAT team tried the steel door to the building. It was unlocked. They threw a flash-bang grenade through the window of the lower unit and kicked open its wooden door, which was also unlocked. The grenade landed so close to Aiyana that it burned her blanket. Officer Joseph Weekley, the lead commando—who'd been featured before on another A&E show, Detroit SWAT—burst into the house. His weapon fired a single shot, the bullet striking Aiyana in the head and exiting her neck. It all happened in a matter of seconds.

....Compounding the tragedy is the fact that the police threw the grenade into the wrong apartment. The suspect fingered for Blake's murder, Chauncey Owens, lived in the upstairs flat, with Charles Jones' sister...."It was a total fuck-up," [a high-ranking Detroit police official] said. "A total, unfortunate fuck-up."

But that's just the start. LeDuff was born and raised in Detroit, and this is one of the best looks at the city and its pathologies that you'll read. It's worth a few minutes of your time.

Republicans and the Young

Over at FrumForum, Nils August Andresen tries to figure out why university students have become so anti-Republican even though they themselves haven't gotten especially more liberal over the past few decades. A changing ethnic mix might be part of it, but:

Let me advance another hypothesis. Today’s top students are motivated less by enthusiasm for Democrats and much more by revulsion from Republicans. It’s not the students who have changed so much. It’s the Republicans.

....Under Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, Republicans championed science and knowledge. But over the past 30 years, national Republicans have formed an intensifying alliance with religious conservatives more skeptical of science and knowledge....Educated people may also be extra-sensitive to policy positions that do not make logical sense. While individual elements of the Republican platform can make sense on their own, the combination of demands to reduce the deficit, plus increase Medicare spending, plus opposing reform meant to save costs, plus uncompromising insistence on tax cuts just does not add up. Granted, Democrats have also behaved irresponsibly in opposition. Still, I think it’s fair to say that over the past decade, the Republicans have convinced educated America that they are the less policy serious party.

Just to be clear: my guess is that this is primarily a reaction to social conservatism. Students at top universities just can't stomach the anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-civil rights, anti-religious-tolerance attitude of the current GOP. But Andresen's conjecture about "policy positions that do not make logical sense" may have something to it too. In the mid-70s, for example, liberal interest groups engaged in their own version of magical thinking by pushing hard for the passage of the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment act, which essentially tried to mandate low unemployment by fiat. Jimmy Carter eventually managed to water it down into a purely symbolic piece of legislation, but the sheer spectacle of liberal lunacy on display for months on end probably turned off a lot of smart students. Liberals eventually learned their lesson on this score — overlearned it, in fact — but their place in the magical thinking department was immediately taken over by supply-side Republicans, who have gotten ever more hardened and ever balmier during the past couple of decades.

I doubt that this is the main cause of the defection of the elite university vote, but it could be part of it. Older voters might be willing to accept Republican incoherence simply because it's in their interest to do so and they don't really care if the arguments make sense, but younger voters don't have that same motivation. Republican magical thinking doesn't really benefit them, so they're just repelled by it.

(Via Jon Chait.)

Targeting Inflation

Today, the LA Times does its best to help out the Fed by increasing inflation expectations, splashing this across its front page:

Rumblings of inflation grow louder

On Tuesday prices of many raw materials continued to surge, with gold, cotton and sugar reaching record highs. A closely watched index of 19 major commodities closed at a two-year high, despite a late-day sell-off in gold and oil. The effects are rippling from financial trading floors to local stores, forcing consumers to shell out more for everyday basics — a cup of coffee, a box of cereal, a gallon of gasoline.

....Take breakfast. This year alone, raw coffee prices on commodity exchanges are up 60%. Corn and soybeans, the basic feed for hogs and cattle, have risen 39% and 26%, respectively. Wheat, a dietary staple for many cultures, is up 33%, and sugar is up 23%.

Sounds grim. Of course, down in the 13th paragraph we get this from the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service:

The agency forecasts that overall inflation for food prices, projected at 0.5% to 1.5% this year, in 2011 will range from 2% to 3%....Raw material costs often represent only a small portion of the final retail price of a product, compared with labor, marketing and transportation.

Huh. So food will be up maybe 1% this year and 2-3% next year. That's pretty mild, and almost entirely a good thing. More inflation, please.

Chart of the Day: Peak Oil

Stuart Staniford passes along a fascinating little finding:

If you go to the executive summary of the 2009 International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook, and search for "peak oil", your browser will come up empty. The whole subject was so beneath the dignity of a serious energy agency that they didn't even bother mentioning it.

However, yesterday, the 2010 IEA World Energy Outlook became available. And if you repeat the exercise in that executive summary, you will come upon a section titled:

Will peak oil be a guest or the spectre at the feast?

Followed by an explicit discussion of the whole question. The IEA's position is summarized in the graph above — conventional crude oil production has already peaked in 2006! Suddenly, the subject of impending peak has gone from not worthy of discussion to in the past already!

So there you have it. Peak (conventional) oil has come and gone — though the IEA does still implausibly think that conventional production will basically plateau for the next 25 years. This is a remarkable coincidence, but I guess it's progress of a sort. At least peak oil is no longer just a mad conspiracy theory.

Afghanistan Now Officially a Forever War

Last May, after reading about Gen. David Petraeus's ironclad promise that we could begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by next year, I said, "Promise or not, I'll bet that next year, when the drawdown is supposed to start, Petraeus tells us we need to stay." A month later, after reading Gen. Stanley McChrystal's comments on problems with the Kandahar offensive, I said, "It sure sounds to me as if McChrystal is starting the PR campaign for this now."

But those were just guesses. Today, McClatchy's Nancy Youssef says it's a done deal:

The Obama administration has decided to begin publicly walking away from what it once touted as key deadlines in the war in Afghanistan in an effort to de-emphasize President Barack Obama's pledge that he'd begin withdrawing U.S. forces in July 2011, administration and military officials have told McClatchy.

....What a year ago had been touted as an extensive December review of the strategy now also will be less expansive and will offer no major changes in strategy, the officials told McClatchy. So far, the U.S. Central Command, the military division that oversees Afghanistan operations, hasn't submitted any kind of withdrawal order for forces for the July deadline, two of those officials told McClatchy.

....Last week's midterm elections also have eased pressure on the Obama administration to begin an early withdrawal. Earlier this year, some Democrats in Congress pressed to cut off funding for Afghanistan operations. With Republicans in control of the House of Representatives beginning in January, however, there'll be less push for a drawdown. The incoming House Armed Services chairman, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., told Reuters last week that he opposed setting the date.

Roger that. Apparently Pentagon officials now consider 2014 to be the new 2011. I'm sure that will change sometime around 2013 though.

The GOP's A-List

National Journal unveiled its "Presidential Power Rankings" today, billed as a look at which candidates are in the strongest position to win the Republican nomination in 2012. What struck me about it is how thin the field is. Basically, their top three A-List candidates seemed plausible: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and John Thune. Then they rounded out their A-List with Haley Barbour, which speaks volumes about the GOP's A-List.

After that we get to Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and then a bunch of even less credible candidates. So to summarize: we've got Romney, who's the obvious frontrunner but also a transparent panderer who has some serious problems with the Republican base (RomneyCare, he's Mormon); a couple of decent but faceless midwesterners; a smart tactician who unfortunately resembles Boss Hogg far too much to be electable; and three bomb throwing social conservatives. I guess somebody has to win the nomination, but it's sure hard to see it being any of these folks (though I know plenty of people disagree with me about Palin's electability).

This is a pretty hard race to handicap. But campaigns being what they are these days, the first half of next year is hat-in-the-ring time. So I guess we'll find out soon just who thinks they're the one to pick out a new carpet for the Oval Office.