Thursday, August 30, 2012

Kathleen Parker Does a Little Dance

After asking a rhetorical question she answered four years ago,
Question: "How do you win an election when you are trying to distance yourself from... yourself?"

(Answer: Race baiting.)
Kathleen Parker does everything she can to avoid applying the dreaded "l" word to the false rhetoric of her party of choice:
Ryan has been called out on some of his statements that were not-quite-true, or at least not complete. These were simple, factual misrepresentations that could be easily checked — and were — or that were well known to those who know a little about recent history.
Okay, let's accept Parker's dance around the facts and shuffle around the vernacular and call them "statements that were not-quite-true" instead of "lies". If the "statements that were not-quite-true" were as transparent as Parker suggests, why did Ryan build his case against President Obama from a stack of them? Parker believes that even what she sees as Ryan's lesser "statements that were not-quite-true", his "statements that were not-quite-true" by omission about, for example, his vote against the Simpson-Bowles commission report or his own advocacy for cuts to Medicare, are harmful to the ticket.
Why not acknowledge this? Everyone knows it — unless Ryan believes that his audience isn’t really up to speed — so why not set the record straight?
It's fair to say that, according to the polls driving the Romney-Ryan rhetoric, many people do not know the facts and thus are persuaded by the falsehoods. Parker knows that - I suspect her actual concern is that the "statements that were not-quite-true" won't hold and thus make a very poor foundation for the last few months of the Romney-Ryan campaign.

Parker then channels David Brooks, lecturing us about Mitt Romney's immeasurable superiority to the rest of us:
He is a man of immaculate faith. He is a wildly successful businessman whose company outsourced jobs, as most did, not to rob Americans but to provide profits to investors and to keep prices down for U.S. consumers who, despite their moaning, still want the cheap jeans.
You see? If anybody lost a job due to Bain's actions it was your fault, because you like "the cheap jeans".
How many Americans know that Romney gave away his inheritance? Or that he has worked several jobs, including the governorship of Massachusetts, for no pay? Or that he has given to and made millions for charities? These are all on his personal résumé, but he doesn’t want you to know. Because?

It would be bragging, and men like Romney don’t brag.
I've previously addressed this, and Parker simply reinforces my point. Romney doesn't brag about his personal record because he would be called on his exaggeration. He brags by proxy about his personal life, and Kathleen Parker is his willing (if not eager) proxy. ("No pay"? Romney reportedly spent more than $50 million trying to defeat Ted Kennedy in his 1994 Senate race. Giving up a few hundred thousand in gubernatorial pay on his continuing quest for the White House is, comparatively speaking, pocket change.)

It's also fair to observe that Parker's thesis is false, at least in relation to Bain, the Olympics, his signature accomplishment as governor of Massachusetts (before RomneyCare became a liability).... Who hasn't heard of his brag that he created 100,000 jobs, mostly in his sleep following his retroactive retirement from Bain? And we're back to why Romney's better served when he brags by proxy - he can distance himself from the exaggeration and hyperbole, and doesn't have to risk being hit with follow-up questions.

If Romney wants to do something impressive, something that would give meaning to Parker's assertion that,
There’s no dishonor in giving or accepting credit (or blame) where due, but you can’t win voter confidence if you lack it in your own record.
He would stop lying. He would instruct Paul Ryan to stop lying. He would apologize for lying. And then he would run an honorable campaign. Pointing to his past charitable donations is not sufficient to overcome his present, deliberately dishonest campaign. If indeed Romney is the great person Parker would have us believe (not the more cynical liar in the name of self-advancement category into which Marc Thiessen seemingly places all politicians and which he seemingly believes excuses all "statements that are not-quite-true"), the best way to sell this notion of his greatness is not to tell us about past charitable contributions. It's to be something more than a man who will say absolutely anything to get elected - something more than the man we see before us.

Oops, My Bad.

I had written,
At least according to prevaricator extraordinaire, as quoted by Charles Pierce, Marc Thiessen, who offers a "He was lying to get elected, so that's okay" defense of Paul Ryan:...
And now I learn that Mark Thiessen is gloating that I attributed words to him that were in fact authored by Alexandra Petri. My explanation, not defense, is that I was taking a "Charles Pierce reads Mark Thiessen so I don't have to" approach to the quotation. The problem was not that Pierce was inaccurate, such that it is not fair to rely upon the accuracy of his quotations. It's that I misinterpreted him and, had I simply clicked through, I would have avoided the error.
However, we do have the Beltway press's sudden spasm of actual honesty to thank for the most singularly stupid piece of writing The Washington Post it likely ever will publish, even if it renews Marc Thiessen's contract for the next 20 years.
Just because someone tells you different facts than you remember from when you were there watching the event happen doesn't mean that he is lying. It may just mean that he is trying to be elected to something. Besides, there is literal truth and story truth and narrative truth and speech truth, and, of the four, literal truth most seldom gets invited to parties. Conversation as we know it would end. Politics consists of assembling a convincing story about events out of the facts at your disposal and seeing how many people prefer your story to your opponent's. We all start with the same fabric of fact, but a lot of art goes into the draping. There are lies, damned lies, statistics and Things Your Opponent Did to Grandma.
A quick note to Marc Thiessen: Comments are open here. You can go to any post I have ever made, add your own thoughts, insult me, challenge my ideas, push me, pull my hair, poke me in the eye - go for it. I even allow anonymous comments, so you don't have to attach your name. It will take less time to post a comment than to post to twitter. If you post drivel I'll call you out, just as I have done in the past with some of your opinion pieces, but if I make a mistake I want to know, I want to take ownership, and I want to correct it. (Should I joke here about how such an approach to mistakes is probably alien to your experience in Washington?)

I am flattered that your reputation management brings you by my blog, but I can't make corrections or offer apologies if you sneak off to gloat over my mistake in a twitter feed I don't follow. (I don't follow any twitter feeds, in case it matters.) We all make mistakes at times, some of us like to take responsibility and correct them.

Your gloating serves to reinforce my impression of your character which, as you know from the other posts I've made about you that you have chosen not to tweet about, is not very high to begin with. That's reflected in the fact that somebody's parody seemed consistent with the type of thing you write in earnest - I've not made that mistake with any of your peers.

Help me out here by doing something that surprises me and says, "You've underestimated this guy."

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Paying for Something You Don't Get Isn't a "Gain"

Via Daniel Larison, I see that the National Review's Christian Schneider doesn't understand what it means to gain from something.
Most important, it is younger voters who have the most to gain from Ryan’s plan to reform entitlements. With Medicare set to go bankrupt in a decade, Ryan can make a strong case to young voters that his plan is the only chance their generation has to benefit from the programs they currently fund.
Only if they're stupid enough not to see through that fraudulent argument.

Ryan, as you recall, is a typical "reformer" in that he lacks the courage to propose an immediate reform, so he's promising seniors that nobody above the age of 55 is going to be affected by his plan to transform Medicare into a voucher program. Let's imagine that Romney and Ryan win and make Medicare privatization the number one item on their agenda. The first set of vouchers won't be issued until 2023 or so, and it won't be for another fifteen or twenty years that enough seniors vested into the present Medicare system die off that the high cost of end-of-life care is no longer borne in large part by the present defined benefit Medicare program.

Then, with the caps on increases in the value of the "New Medicare" vouchers, unless healthcare inflation somehow fixes itself, you'll see the system deteriorate as seniors can afford less and less health insurance coverage for their vouchers. So if you're thirty today, you'll pay FICA taxes over the next twenty-five years to support defined benefit Medicare for most seniors, then you'll pay those same FICA taxes over the next ten or so years as the defined benefit recipients die off and the vouchers become less and less valuable, and your reward at the end of your lifetime of payment of the same FICA taxes that used to give seniors a robust, defined benefit plan? A voucher that is likely, at best, to allow you to pay for mediocre health insurance coverage. But you'll surely smile and thank Ryan and Romney for making you an "informed consumer" who has to sweat every healthcare dollar you spend because much of that money now comes out of your retirement savings.

Seriously, the Romney/Ryan plan is terrible for young people. It's an unconscionable ripoff. If Romney and Ryan believed the plan would sustain present levels of medical care they would not hesitate to implement it immediately. Instead they're not only taking the cowardly "put off the plan's implementation so far into the future that we're guaranteed to be out of office before anybody has to take responsibility" approach, they're employing a shockingly dishonest, race-baiting approach to sell it to seniors ("Obama wants to take away your Medicare, you sad, old white man, and give it to undeserving people who aren't like you"). When Romney tells seniors, "You paid" and that Obama is going to cut "guaranteed healthcare", it's a lie. But that's exactly what Romney and Ryan propose to do to young voters.

Saving the Middle Class By Hurting the Middle Class

A few days ago, Robert Samuelson wrote an odd column addressing the middle class. He points to the two candidates,
Republicans will accuse Barack Obama of destroying the middle class through policies perpetuating high joblessness and feeble economic growth. Democrats will portray Mitt Romney as a tool of the rich who doesn’t understand the middle class.
Samuelson responds,
This is mostly political symbolism. The idea that anyone can “save” the middle class assumes that it’s in danger of disappearing, which it isn’t, and that presidents possess sufficient powers to resurrect it, which they don’t.
Let's take a step back. Samuelson has told us that he expects the Republicans to (continue) accusing the President of "destroying the middle class through policies perpetuating high joblessness and feeble economic growth", and that he believes that claim to be false. He compares that to the anticipated Democratic Party argument that "Mitt Romney [is] a tool of the rich who doesn’t understand the middle class", an assertion that is fairly described as "mostly political symbolism", but which is not an economic argument. That is, Samuelson's attempted parallel between that statement and what he describes as a fabricated economic narrative from the Republicans fails, because they address different issues. He's also comparing a statement of opinion about Romney, one with which he expresses no actual disagreement, with what he claims to be a false statement of fact about the economy. A better comparison would be if Samuelson had said, "Democrats will portray Mitt Romney as a tool of the rich who wants to cut taxes for the rich while implementing policies that make life harder for everybody else." Samuelson could argue that such a position would be an exaggeration - for example, Samuelson might believe that we need only make life more difficult for a huge swath of the population, not for the entire middle class - an argument he makes later in his editorial. But his attempt to analogize a false statement of fact on economics to a statement of opinion on personality does not hold up. Samuelson next tells us why the parties are attempting to connect with the middle class - or at least to create a rift between the middle class and the other party,
Still, the symbolism is potent because most Americans equate the middle class with the kind of society we are and ought to be. It is a society where hard work and personal responsibility are rewarded — where “getting ahead” is expected; where economic security and social stability are enjoyed; and where privilege is minimized.
Samuelson then proceeds to fumble between two competing arguments, the first being that "the middle class is fine, thank you very much" and the second being that the middle class is in serious peril. He does not attempt to reconcile his competing thoughts. In support of his position that the middle class is fine, Samuelson argues:
  1. Most Americans think of themselves as middle class - "Only 7 percent of Americans called themselves “lower class,” although the government’s poverty rate is 15 percent.... Despite decades of rising inequality, only 2 percent put themselves in the “upper class.... Nine of 10 Americans locate themselves somewhere in the middle class.”

    The problem with that argument is that it does not rely upon either fact or economics. If I go to a prison and survey the inmates, and 90% of the inmates tell me that they are innocent, would Samuelson truly conclude "Therefore the vast majority of prisoners are innocent," or would he say, "We need a better measure"?

  2. Some people with pretty high incomes think of themselves as middle class - "Many Americans with incomes of $200,000, $300,000 or more refuse to count themselves as rich."

    As previously noted, the self-report is not what matters. There are plenty of reasons why people at the lower end of the upper income brackets may say that they're "middle class" instead of "upper middle class" or... would Samuelson say "upper class"? They are likely to live in houses and drive cars not much different from those of their middle class peers, they may be burdened by large amounts of student loan debt, they may have very little in the way of accumulated assets. Also, as many have pointed out, the distance between those in the 95th to 99th percentile of income has expanded to the degree that the concept of what constitutes "wealth" has shifted - If your household income is $300K and you compare yourself to a family earning minimum wage, you might feel rich, but if you compare yourself to the class of people who are unquestionably rich, your lifestlye seems objectively middle class. Definitions and points of comparison matter.

  3. A big part of the problem is "confidence" - "The middle class can’t regain its self-confidence and financial health without a strong economic recovery. But the economy can’t recover strongly without a financially healthy middle class, which provides most consumer spending."

    I know that economists like to speak of consumer confidence as a measure of how willing people are to make large expenditures, buy on credit, and the like, but the debt overhang to which Samuelson alludes diminishes the role of confidence. You can be certain that the economy is going to recover, but if your house is upside-down, your income is down and you can't get credit, you won't be spending money. Samuelson nods to that fact, "Not surprisingly, the economic expansion is glacial", but assumes that the government is powerless to assist. I suspect that if you were to point out possible interventions - debt forgiveness, across-the-board mortgage write-downs and the like Samuelson would speak of moral hazard. That type of relief, it appears, should be reserved for the financial industry and the unquestionably rich people who mismanaged them to the point of collapse.

  4. Being "middle class" is a state of mind - Samuelson argues, "Personal responsibility and a strong work ethic still matter and suggest a durable middle class. It will survive today’s economic setbacks — and political pandering."

    The problem here is that there are plenty responsible, hard-working individuals who are falling out of the middle class, or who lack the skills, education, or toehold they need to pull themselves up the proverbial economic ladder. Samuelson's point reminds me of one of my pet peeves about Nicholas Kristof and his defense of sweatshops - yes, it's true that people work in sweatshops because the other options available to them are worse, but that doesn't mean the problem is solved. The idea that "[p]ersonal responsibility and a strong work ethic" should be enough to get you into the middle class is, as Samuelson notes, an American ideal. But its truth is diminishing.

A fair response to Samuelson is that the middle class is not a state of mind. If you're not in the economic middle class, your thought to the contrary will not change that fact. Your strong sense of personal responsibility and good work ethic may help you get and hold jobs, and get promotions, but personal virtues and "confidence" do not, of themselves, generate income.

Also, while it is true that if you define "middle class" as a strata of wealth between "poor" and "rich" it will in some sense always exist, that's not the issue we're confronting. The issue is, can we can maintain the ideal that every American who demonstrates the virtues Samuelson describes will have a chance for a bona fide, secure middle class lifestyle, or are we transitioning into a country with a smaller, less financially secure, less stable middle class. Are we going to be a nation in which most people want to be rich but are content to call themselves middle class, or a nation in which people at the lower end of wealth become, statistically speaking, the "middle class" between the ultra-rich and the working poor? Let's not forget, when you look at history, the modern world's experience with a large, robust middle class is the exception.

Samuelson also describes problems faced by the middle class,
  1. People are no longer confident that they will achieve or sustain a middle class income: "The financial crisis and Great Recession subverted two core beliefs: that hard work ensures “getting ahead” and that being middle class provides security."

    Perhaps that's the "confidence" to which Samuelson was alluding, as opposed to "consumer confidence", but either way it remains the case that the present problem is not a state of mind. If people are no longer feeling secure, it's because the reality of the past few decades is that they are less secure. They can be less confident about how much they will earn, income growth, being able to afford a conventional "middle class lifestyle", how long they'll be able to keep their jobs, whether they'll be able to save for retirement.... And let's note at this juncture, the big "fixes" Samuelson keeps pushing for the nation's budget, specifically cuts to both Social Security and Medicare, will worsen that insecurity.

  2. Unemployment is high and people are losing their homes: "True, they don’t affect everyone (about 5 million unemployed have now been jobless for more than six months; from 2007, completed home foreclosures total 4.5 million, reports Moody’s Analytics). But the demonstration effect is strong.... This psychological pall is compounded by widespread wealth loss."

    I'm reminded of a place I once worked where, during a previous economic downturn, any time an employee inquired about a raise the head honcho would pull a stack of papers out of her desk drawer, "These are unsolicited resumes from people who want your job, and they will work for less than you're already getting." It's not just that people are looking at the population of workers who cannot find jobs - it's that an increased population of workers realize that they're on the razor's edge. Their jobs could be outsourced, domestically or internationally. Their skills may be deemed obsolete. Samuelson should note, one of the reasons for middle class wage stagnation is that the middle class lacks the economic clout to force higher wages, and that's a problem that existed considerably before the start of the 2008-2012 recession.

  3. People can't afford to save or invest, and there is a debt overhang in housing: I extrapolate from Samuelson's statement, "Wealth is slowly rebuilt through higher saving and stock prices — and the hope that home values will follow."

    I know that "on paper" many people were (and probably still are) "saving more" because they can't get credit, but even that's far from enough to "rebuild" their wealth. Samuelson alludes to the housing bubble, and the fact that much of the spending of the G.W. Bush era involved people cashing out "'paper wealth and housing wealth' — which went poof" when the housing market collapsed. Samuelson can't bring himself to say it, but he's implicitly arguing that the problem he describes dates back at least to the start of G.W.'s presidency and was masked by the housing bubble. Further, absent significant income growth or a new asset bubble, we're not going to see both significant increases in saving and investment and significant spending that will drive a strong economic recovery. It's not clear how Samuelson proposes that we achieve "higher saving and stock prices" for the benefit of the middle class, and in fact it appears that he's offering no solution beyond "keep waiting and keep hoping".

Samuelson then turns to a class warfare argument - not a war between classes, but a war he hopes to see played out within the middle class:
There is also a larger conflict. Sooner or later, broad-based tax increases will be needed to reduce budget deficits. How large depends on how much federal spending is cut. This creates an unavoidable conflict between workers and retirees, because workers are the biggest taxpayers and retirees are the biggest beneficiaries of federal spending. Which middle class deserves support? Cut Social Security and Medicare and help workers. Raise taxes and help retirees.
And we're back to one of my long-term frustrations with Robert Samuelson. To Samuelson, the only path to national financial stability is to cut programs he doesn't care about so we can afford to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in "pocket change" to support discretionary spending he endorses. Even if he underestimates he cost of government ventures he supports, even if by a factor of ten, twenty or more, they're still worth it. But if he doesn't support the program, don't look at the actual economics, don't examine reforms, certainly don't look at how other nations are providing similar programs at much lower cost - just cut 'em to the bone.

Social Security doesn't matter to Robert Samuelson, as he's a wealthy man. He can get by without it, and so can all of his friends, so it apparently doesn't enter his consciousness that many middle class Americans rely upon those benefits to make ends meet during retirement. It similarly appears to be outside of the scope of his experience that some people work a lifetime in jobs that don't generate enough income to allow them to accumulate significant wealth, or work in jobs that involve activity more strenuous than going to a comfortable office, sitting at a desk and typing on a keyboard. Samuelson is in a position in which he could reduce his work to one day a week and he would still pull in six figures; he does not appear to fully understand that most Americans don't have that luxury.

Samuelson has a similar history of decrying any effort to reform Medicare or rein in its costs, and rejects the idea that we should look at how other developed nations are able to achieve similar, sometimes better, health care outcomes while serving their entire populations, at considerably less expense than the U.S. system. He diminishes or criticizes efforts to limit the growth in healthcare expenditures, even though (or perhaps because) that's how we could make the present system sustainable, while providing no criticism of programs that would arbitrarily cap Medicare spending or replace the present guaranteed benefit program with a voucher program, without regard to whether retirees would be able to afford the care they need.

The only conclusion that can be drawn from Samuelson's refusal to acknowledge basic facts on the economics of Social Security and Medicare is that he is philosophically opposed to the programs, or perhaps supports them if they provide only the most basic of safety nets, and if people can't afford to retire or can't get needed healthcare, well, too bad. His "solution" is purely numbers based, after all who cares about good policy formation, and is built on the false premise that retirees are somehow depriving the "middle class" of a decent lifestyle. Never mind that middle class workers might hope to one day retire, or might not be rich and blessed (as is Samuelson) with gold plated employer-sponsored health insurance during their senior years.

Samuelson also appears to believe that healthcare spending does not impact the economy, never mind that healthcare spending is a huge portion of our nation's economy. He does not explain how Medicare cuts will not result in a reduction in healthcare spending, how the cuts will translate into middle class workers being able to afford to engage in more consumer spending, or how the two might balance out. For that matter, if we're overspending on Medicare and Social Security, Samuelson should be able to identify yet another internal inconsistency in his argument - the subsidy results in an increase in middle class spending (albeit by middle class retirees) over what would otherwise be the baseline and program cuts to help balance the budget will result in a net reduction in middle class spending.

Samuelson offers no explanation for how the cuts he repeatedly endorses will benefit current workers, as he is not proposing FICA tax cuts. Similarly, when Samuelson says "Raise taxes and help retirees" he's talking about income tax - not FICA - and his objection is to the expiration of G.W. Bush's temporary tax cuts (never mind that they did not deliver the promised economic boom) that benefit him. I don't recall Samuelson overtly playing the game of pretending that the only taxes Americans pay are federal income taxes, but when he conflates all tax increases in this manner his approach is not much different. It is very possible to increase taxes in a manner that puts the cost of maintaining Medicare and Social Security directly upon those who will eventually benefit from those programs, but Samuelson's concern appears to be that it will be his economic class, to which the benefits form those programs are literal "pocket change", that will be asked to share the burden.

Samuelson's "solution" is for workers to keep on paying what they're presently paying, but to receive considerably less upon retirement. That's from from cutting "Social Security and Medicare [to] help workers". It's cutting those programs to either reduce the deficit or to fund the continuation or expansion of tax cuts for the wealthy, and so Samuelson can continue to endorse enormously expensive discretionary spending programs or wars on the basis that we can easily afford the added debt.

Samuelson knows he's a rich man. He's simply not honest enough, perhaps with himself and certainly not with others, to admit that the class war he endorses is not within the middle class, but is instead between himself and his wealthy, like-minded peers and the middle class. Samuelson and his peers will feel no pain from the cuts he proposes, and apparently would prefer to keep Social Security and Medicare in somewhat precarious states such that they can hand-wring about the "necessity" of reform, rather than implementing meaningful reforms that would undermine the case for cuts.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Note to David Brooks

David, I sometimes think about writing something like this, but stop myself when I realize that when I write it, that type of humor seems forced. To borrow your inclination to create false dichotomies, there are two types of people in the world, those who refrain from publishing forced humor, and people like you.

Oh, I don't want to be unfair. I realize that your actual goals for the column were to ridicule any who dare question Mitt Romney's glorious perfection, allowing you to conclude with an effusive, over-the-top summary of the glory that is Mitt without having to actually support your claims. But... wow. Even Richard Cohen is funnier than you (and he, also, is nowhere near as funny as he thinks he is. In fact, the funniest thing about him appears to be that he thinks he's funny....)

In Other Words, Obama's Advisors Weren't Roger Cohen?

Roger Cohen usually writes better stuff than this. After acknowledging that President Obama has accomplished quite a lot, despite Republican obstruction, Cohen rattles off a list of issues in which he had hoped the Obama Administration would have taken different action, or in which he disapproves of its initial approach, and complains:
There is only one star in the galaxy at this White House and his name is Barack Obama. Everyone in the Sun King’s court has drunk the Kool-Aid.

The failure of hope, the absence of profound change, has much to do with the Republican obstructionism that has helped keep unemployment above 8 percent. But it is also related to Obama’s refusal to entertain a real team of rivals, to place around him big characters with big ideas who would challenge his instinct for cautious politics and foreign policy. And so a transformative election failed to produce a transformative president.
Cohen complains that he cannot think of an individual on Obama's team that compares to Nixon/Kissinger, Carter/Brzezinski, Reagan/Schultz, or George H. W. Bush/Baker. I think that Cohen only mentions Secretaries of State, along with Cohen's list of complaints, betrays the real issue - Cohen wishes that the Obama administration had taken a different or more forceful tack on certain foreign policy issues. Worse, Cohen argues that Obama did pick somebody who could have replicated that dynamic, but that although "a superb secretary of state" she chose to acquiesce to the White House "for various reasons (her future is very much ahead of her)" - the "various reasons" apparently being Cohen's belief that acquiescence better serves Clinton's future plans.

In short, Cohen's big complaint is that Obama picked a "superb" candidate who, for all he knows, confronts and challenges the President behind-the-scenes, but that he did not fire her for having a lower public profile than, say, Kissinger or Baker, or for taking their disagreements public? More than that, what does Cohen believe would have been accomplished by more public debate, discord or disagreement between Obama and Clinton?

Further, although Cohen gives no credit to Bush, most of the foreign policy issues of which he complains have existed during each of the administrations he mentions. When he complains in relation to Iran of "tired old carrots and sticks", he should stop to consider how the approach got "tired" - we have been at odds with Iran, after all, for decades. If Cohen recalls his history, our relationship with Iran was considerably more rocky under Carter/Brzezinski, when the Shah was toppled and the occupants of the U.S. embassy were taken hostage. Is Cohen joining the advocates for war on Iran, because if not rather than complaining he should be telling us what the Obama Administration could have done that would have fixed a problem that none of the aforementioned dynamic President/Secretary of State duos were able to resolve. Is he advocating a return to the "Nixon/Kissinger" approach of imposing and propping up leaders like the Shah?

Similarly, Cohen complains "half-steps on Israel and Palestine", as if the issue can be resolved in a vacuum. Were things better under "Nixon/Kissinger" when the occupation was permitted to continue indefinitely and the annexation of Palestinian lands began in earnest, or with Egypt's 1973 invasion of the Sinai? Even if that invasion led to the Camp David Accords and a cold peace between Egypt and Israel, did any of the policies of Carter/Brzezinski slow settlements or result in the creation of two states? How about Reagan/Schultz? Did the more aggressive polices of Bush/Baker result in the cessation of Israeli settlement of Palestinian lands? What about the efforts of President Clinton, who is not credited with a "dynamic duo" relationship? Good, bad or indifferent? And if you look at the real world and see Prime Minister Netanyahu in control of the Knesset, a man who has absolutely no interest in negotiating for peace, what is it that Cohen imagines that Obama could do - even if we ignore the fact that Cohen's "dynamic duo" presidencies often accomplished little to nothing, or moved the cause backward, under more favorable circumstances?

Cohen complains, that on "Egypt, [Obama] toyed with preserving Mubarak ad interim before the tide became irreversible." Mubarek became President of Egypt following the assassination of Anwar Sadat back in 1981. Thirty years in power, mostly under Cohen's "dyanmic duo" Presidents. Which of them "toyed" with the idea of removing Mubarek from power?

Cohen's lament continues, "On Syria, he has in essence dithered." As opposed to what? Invading? Seriously, for the complaint to be credible Cohen needs to identify both what a better approach should have been and why it should be better. It's easy to say that Obama has "dithered", but there are very good policy reasons for not increasing the U.S. role in the Syrian conflict. Using a loaded word like "dither" sheds no light on whether or not the Obama Administration is pursuing sound or unsound policy.

Finally, "On Afghanistan, domestic politics dictated the agenda, at a cost in American lives." That's a loaded, conclusory statement, not an argument. When you go to war, whatever your policy, there will be "a cost in American lives". The closest thing Cohen offers to a substantive point is the quote of a former State Department official who complains that the war in Afghanistan should be a "marathon" and not a "sprint" - which implies that Cohen would continue that war indefinitely. Does Cohen believe that an indefinite "marathon" of a war in Afghanistan would carry no "cost in American lives"? Frankly, the line is nothing but a cheap shot.

The most substantive argument Cohen offers is that "Marines will gather at Camp Lejeune, N.C., to receive the [Presidential Unit Citation (PUC)] award ... he should indeed present the award himself". A third of his column is in support of that argument, yet he can find no space to substantiate any of his foreign policy complaints.

There's apparently a possibility that hasn't occurred to Cohen - that the reason Obama and Hillary Clinton don't butt heads on the issues he lists is because, having carefully considered the facts and options, they agree that the present approach is best. No need for secret wars in Cambodia, no benefit in threatening Netanyahu with a loss of loan guarantees, no gain in invading Iran to deal with our disagreement with that nation's government, no need to fantasize that the indefinite occupation of Afghanistan comes at no cost in lives or treasure or will suddenly bring about an enlightened transformation of that nation....

That is, you don't need "Sun Kings" or "Kool-Aid" to recognize that Cohen doesn't necessarily have the better argument on these issues, nor should you overlook the fact that when given the opportunity to write a substantive criticism of the Obama Administration's policies he chose to forgo that approach in favor of a personal attack.

Why the Romney-Ryan Medicare Scam is "Working"

In the interpretation of Scott Galupo,
This will sound harsh, but here goes. The brilliant cynicism of the Romney-Ryan Mediscare strategy is the bargain it strikes with the affluent white 55-and-over demographic — a critical segment of the GOP base this cycle. It says, “We won’t touch your benefits,” as it implies that Obama is taking those benefits and transferring them to his layabout black “base.”
That is, Romney and Ryan have concluded that today's seniors don't much care if, fifteen or twenty years from now, the next generation of seniors can't get decent medical care, but that they can be convinced to vote Republican if they are scared into believing that Obama will cut their benefits - even better if they can be led to believe that the supposed benefit cut will be used to fund a handout to the "undeserving poor". I don't want to keep harping on Romney's character, given that he has so little character upon which to harp, but....

Update: Daniel Larison concurs:
As it turned out, [my prior analysis of voter trends] understated how many elderly voters were moving into the Republican camp. 59% of this cohort supported Republican House candidates in the midterms. This is the result that Romney and Ryan would like to reproduce this year. What has changed is that Ryan has gone from being a bit player in the campaign to demagogue changes to Medicare in the ACA to being one of the lead demagogues. Most elderly voters don’t need to be convinced that the GOP is the party of the Medicare status quo for them. They already believe it to be true.

Monday, August 27, 2012

If You Have No Logical Defense, Why Not Embarrass Yourself

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, "the president of the American Action Forum, was director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2003 to 2005", signed a letter to the Washington Post that, frankly, I'm amazed he would want associated with his name. Holtz-Eakin led the CBO during the lead-up to the housing bubble, is an economist and was an adviser to John McCain in 2008, so he's not in a position to claim ignorance of the basic facts of how the recession arose or why we presently have large deficits. Yet there he is, refusing to acknowledge basic facts.

Holtz-Eakin is offended by Peter Orszag's criticism of Paul Ryan's budget flimflammery, but rather than attacking Orszag's analysis he... attacks Orszag:
Certainly, it is unsurprising that a leading Democratic thinker such as Mr. Orszag would put forward the particular criticisms of the budget that he did. But Mr. Orszag’s attempt to shellac Mr. Ryan raises eyebrows. It was Mr. Orszag, after all, who, together with his boss, helped saddle the country with four consecutive $1-trillion-plus deficits. With such a record, a little humility would serve Mr. Orszag well.
With his background in the CBO, Holtz-Eakin should be familiar with CBO projections of how various Bush-era policies, such as tax cuts, unfunded entitlement expansions, and two wars of choice, along with the financial industry collapse and economic downturn that arose under Bush, have affected the deficit. For somebody with his background to whine about "" is difficult to regard as anything but a lie by omission. Perhaps even a lie by commission, given that he suggests that something else was possible.

But Holtz-Eakin's abuse of the facts is not offered in defense of Ryan. It's offered as an attack on Orszag, in effect, "Anybody who was part of a White House that ran up large deficits shouldn't be taken seriously." Perhaps Holtz-Eakin would have us turn to Clinton's economic advisors, the ones who left us with a budget surplus? Yeah, right.

The essence of Holtz-Eakin's comment is that nobody who has been associated with the Obama Administration on budget or spending issues should be taken seriously, no matter what they say, no matter what the facts, no matter what the merits of their argument, because of that past association. An unadulterated presentation of the logical fallacy of guilt by association - "Orszag is associated with Obama, I don't like Obama's budget policies, therefore nobody should listen to Orszag".

But hold on a second,
Mr. Orszag contended that “most serious tax analysts don’t think” that the reforms proposed by Mitt Romney and Mr. Ryan “are politically feasible.” He might be right about such experts — although Erskine Bowles, a co-chairman of the president’s own fiscal commission, called the Ryan budget “sensible,” “honest” and “serious.”
The letter is a whopping four paragraphs long - four short paragraphs - yet Holtz-Eakin can't even maintain internal consistency. Why can't we trust Orszag? He's tainted by his association with Obama. Why should we ignore "serious tax analysts", even though they may be right, and listen to Erskine Bowles? Because Bowle's is associated with Obama and is therefore more trustworthy than the experts.

Had Holtz-Eakin wanted to present an actual critique of Orszag's column, he might have taken a different tack on the line about what "most serious tax analysts" think. The use term "serious" is a rhetorical trick often used to diminish those who disagree with you. Your opponent is put immediately on the defensive by the implicit argument that he's not qualified, not serious, or both. The fact that Holtz-Eakin did not challenge Orszag's statement, though, does not suggest to me that he missed the implicit poisoning of the well. It suggests to me that he agrees with the statement and thus, rather than attempting to refute it, instead makes an ad hominem attack against tax analysts and upon the President:
Fortunately experts do not decide what is politically feasible in this country.

American history is replete with instances of strong leaders accomplishing great things that experts deemed impossible. Presumably, President Obama refrained from taking bold steps to address the deficit precisely because he was listening to such experts, including Mr. Orszag.
It is true that policy in our nation is often formed by people with no expertise on the subject matter they're addressing, whether through legislation or regulation. It's also true that sometimes the experts get things wrong. But on the whole, it is a good thing for people who are ignorant of how something works to consult with the experts and form a policy that is more likely to work than something they extract from their posterior. It's not clear why Holtz-Eakin believes that we are better off being governed by political leaders who know nothing of the subject matters they're addressing than it is for those leaders to attempt to first educate themselves before passing legislation and regulations that, if misguided, could have profound, negative effects. But there he is, unambiguously arguing in favor of our being governed by the willfully ignorant.

Since Holtz-Eakin is speaking in defense of Paul Ryan - sure, a weak defense given that he fails to make even a single substantive point that would support Ryan's plan or refute Orszag's criticism - it's worth noting that in addition to the internal inconsistency it creates, his appeal to authority by reference to Erskine Bowles belies his implication that the President has not attempted to address the deficit. After all, if it weren't for Obama's deficit commission, Bowles would not merit mention. And let's note, the only qualification Holtz-Eakins deems worth mentioning is the association with Obama, apparently because he does not believe that Bowles has bona fide expertise that could stand against the positions of the aforementioned experts.

Further, Paul Ryan served on that commission - and voted against its proposals. And when Obama attempted to negotiate a "grand bargain" on the deficit, it seems that Ryan was one of the Republicans who scuttled the deal. Why? In the former case Ryan claims that he didn't want to vote for a plan that didn't slash Medicare, and that seems possible given his barely disguised plan to transform Medicare into an underfunded voucher program. But more realistically, it's because in both cases he would have had to sign on to tax cuts, and he found it better to have huge deficits than to raise taxes.

If Holtz-Eakin has read Ryan's plan, he knows that's one of its biggest failings - even if we assume that the cuts Ryan is afraid to specify become reality, his insistence upon cutting taxes for the wealthy means that his plan will increase the deficit.

Holtz-Eakin is no fool - I find it difficult to believe that he is unaware that his response to Orszag is anything more than a partisan screed. I can only surmise that this is what he believes will lead donors to give money to his organization.

"Mitt's Cheap. All the Trappings of Wealth... That's all Ann"

I have commented before that I can respect Mitt Romney's reported cheapness, and some of it does appear to be genuine (such as occasionally flying coach), but when you hear a guy chatting up $million dressage horses with Sean Hannity, or has multiple multi-million dollar homes with cars sitting idle at each home, you know that a lot of it is window dressing. Case in point:
Last week, when the campaign stayed at a Marriott Renaissance, he lamented that a cheaper Marriott Courtyard was nearby. He washes his own Brooks Brothers no-iron shirts in hotel rooms. On one recent day, as he dashed to an awaiting car, he grabbed leftover boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios and saved a bowl of fruit—not leaving anything for waste.
I find it very difficult to believe that Romney ever begrudged one of his business partners a suite at a top hotel. That is to say, I suspect that this is less about the careful pinching of pennies and is more about "Why do these peons need better than the cheapest room available, especially if I'm willing to bite the bullet." And yes, it's great that Romney is willing to stay at the "cheaper" hotel, himself, but that form of leadership seems only to occur when he's the top dog, not when he's among peers.

The part that most strikes me is Romney's supposedly taking time off from his campaigning and press appearances to wash his own shirts in the sink of his hotel room, presumably hanging them in the bathtub to dry, hauling out the iron and ironing board the next morning, wearing shirts that smell faintly of hotel bar soap or shampoo.... Frankly, if he's not being phony with that claim he's being, as they say, penny wise and pound foolish. It would be an inconsequential expense for him to have his shirts professionally laundered and, if he really thought it was not worth the cost, would be absurd for him not to delegate. It's neither fun nor efficient to try to do your laundry in a hotel room sink and, frankly, Romney's appearance belies the idea that he drip dries his shirts in his motel rooms.

Also, since when is the act of taking extra, sealed boxes of cereal from the hotel's breakfast bar an act of keeping the cereal from going to waste? If that's a form of cheapness, it's the brand that imposes an additional cost on the hotel in order to save a few dollars later in the day when you don't have to pay for a snack. By way of comparison, the guy who stuffs his pockets full of food from a buffet so that he doesn't have to buy another meal that day is demonstrating cheapness, but he only paid for the meal he actually ate at the restaurant.

Let me put it this way: I don't doubt that Romney can in fact be cheap, both at times with himself and more consistently with the people he doesn't deem worthy of largesse, but "I'll bet you $10,000" that this is an attempt by his campaign to oversell a value that "the polls say that voters like" through credulous reporters.

And the idea that every one of Romney's extraordinary indulgences can be written off with, "He likes to keep Ann happy?" Really, the man needs to take some responsibility.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Mitt Romney's Poor Character On Display

Are you skeptical of my take on Mitt Romney? If so, lucky me, Romney is intent on illustrating my point about his character:
"I love being home, in this place where Ann and I were raised, where but the both of us were born," Romney said after introducing his wife, fellow Michigan native Ann. "No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place where we were born and raised."
Romney knows that the reason people wanted to see Obama's birth certificate - and kept demanding to "see" it even after various copies hd been released - has nothing to do with Obama's character. His "joke" not only gives implicit support to the "birthers", it also support for thinly veiled racism. Nobody asked to see John McCain's birth certificate, either, and he wasn't born in the United States.

At best Romney is engaging in the type of race baiting pushed by people like Kathleen Parker, that something about Obama (now what could it be...) keeps him from being a "full-blooded American" and understanding America the way we wh...ole-blooded Americans do. At worst, like his continuing lies about welfare, it's outright race-baiting.

Either way, it's not a joke you would expect from a man of virtue.

Update: More evidence of the character of Romney and his campaign:
[Top Romney adviser Kevin] Madden said Romney did not need to apologize because he was simply drawing attention to the fact that Michigan, where he was campaigning, was the state where he himself was born and raised....

Madden said Romney wasn't intentionally making a reference to the questions about Obama's birth certificate.
Did somebody expect Romney to apologize? No, this approach of slathering on another layer of mendacity is much more in-character.

Update 2: Romney has now spoken in his own defense:
“I’ve said throughout the campaign and before, there’s no question about where he was born,” Romney said in the interview. “He was born in the U.S. This was fun about us, and coming home. And humor, you know — we’ve got to have a little humor in a campaign.”
The thing is, if it was a joke about "coming home" and not about Obama, it's not funny. It's not a joke. It would just be a weird comment that would leave his audience scratching their collective heads. It's only a joke if it's a nod to the birthers, and its difficult to think of anybody but a birther who would find that type of race-baiting to be funny.

A parallel would be if the President were to joke about Romney's "magic underwear Which, of course, won't happen because, for all of his faults, the President has more character than that.

David Brooks, Minstrel to Brave Sir Ryan

If only you could meet him, you would understand why people are awed. Instead you're doing silly things like looking at his words and actions? Absurd!

In relation to David Brooks' column endorsing the Republican voucher plan for Medicare, in which Brooks purports to be addressing "the paradigmatic 'moderate voter'", Scott Galupo notes, it’s bleedingly obvious that David Brooks is talking to himself"
There may be three- or four-hundred voters besides Brooks who suffer from the same perplexities. Maybe a dozen of these live somewhere besides Manhattan or Washington, D.C. The idea that any bloc of voters, let alone moderates, believes that the “priority in this election is to get a leader who can get Medicare costs under control” is ludicrously narcissistic.
Basically, the column is typical Brooks - some pretense at moderation before throwing his entire weight behind the Republican candidate. Facts? Irrelevant. Dean Baker observes,
NYT readers must be wondering whether David Brooks believes in Santa Claus. After all, he repeatedly professes his belief in the serious Mr. Ryan. This faith persists in spite of all the evidence to the opposite, including evidence that Brooks cites in arguing his case....

Since CBO works for Congress, it does what powerful members of Congress want it to do. Thus it wrote down down the numbers that Mr. Ryan instructed them to write down. However CBO was honest and clearly stated that it had just written down numbers given to it by Mr. Ryan and his staff. Unfortunately David Brooks is either too confused to understand what CBO wrote, or alternatively is deliberately trying to mislead NYT readers into believing that CBO scored a Ryan budget when it did not.
Brooks expects his readers to keep up with the Romney/Ryan game of "hide the ball", asserting (without evidence) that the Romney/Ryan privatization plan will bring about savings and efficiencies not seen in either the private insurance markets or through "Medicare Advantage" because... well, because he says so. Is it theoretically possible? Sure. But experience suggests that its unlikely to work.
This system would provide a basic health safety net. It would also unleash a process of discovery. If the current Medicare structure proves most efficient, then it would dominate the market. If private insurers proved more efficient, they would dominate. Either way, we would find the best way to control Medicare costs. Either way, the burden for paying for basic health care would fall on the government, not on older Americans. (Much of the Democratic criticism on this point is based on an earlier, obsolete version of the proposal.)
That, of course, is nonsense. The Romney/Ryan plan doesn't kick in for a couple of decades, so there's no experimentation - only assumption. If Romney and Ryan truly believed in their plan they would be asserting that it should be implemented immediately. That, right here, right now, private insurance companies should produce plans to complete with Medicare and demonstrate that they can offer superior, innovative plans at a lower cost.

Brooks predictably omits from mention the fact that the Romney/Ryan plan relies upon sleight of hand to "save" money - it caps the growth of the government's contribution toward your Medicare voucher. It's simply dishonest to pretend that the new plan would avoid shifting the burden of healthcare costs onto the elderly - Brooks knows better. That's the fundamental purpose of the proposal - to shift the risk that healthcare inflation will exceed the capped rate of growth for Medicare premiums from the government to the retired worker. If Brooks wants to make the case that the shift of risk is appropriate, he has the column in which to do it, but he has no excuse for misleading his readers about the fact that if Ryan truly believed his plan would bring about efficiencies he wouldn't need to cap premiums and shift the risk of loss to elderly individuals.

As if that's not enough, Brooks lies about the Democratic alternative to the Ryan Plan, which is to tackle healthcare inflation and waste as opposed to capping premium growth and calling it a day.
All of which causes you to look over to the Democrats and wonder: Why don’t they have an alternative? Silently, a voice in your head is pleading with them: Put up or shut up.
Certainly you can argue that the measures taken are inadequate, but the ACA is the first real effort to tackle the growth in Medicare spending. But you know what? The Republican party has demagogued against cost-saving measures. When it came to counseling the elderly on end of life issues, they spouted nonsense about "death panels". When it came to attempting to determine the cost-effectiveness of medical procedures in order to reduce unnecessary spending and waste, they demagogued about government bureaucrats deciding what medical treatment you would get. And when a number was placed on the projected savings from eliminating inefficiency they - including Mitt Romney and (brave Sir) Paul Ryan - demagogued about the Obama Administration's "raiding" Medicare.

Dean Baker noted something in Brooks' column that struck me as well,
There is one other issue worth beating up on Brooks for in this piece. At one point he says:

"I have enormous respect for Ryan and I regard most of the commentary I’ve read about him by people who’ve never even interviewed him to be ludicrous."

Huh? What planet is this guy on? It's wonderful that Brooks has had the opportunity to interview Paul Ryan. Most of us will not have that opportunity.
I suspect that's part of the back-and-forth between Paul Krugman and David Brooks, in which names are rarely mentioned. It's not that Paul Ryan couldn't pick up his phone and arrange to be interviewed by Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, or any other credible economist who takes issue with his fantasy "budget". It's that he doesn't want to. It's easy to see why Ryan will sit down and chat with somebody like David Brooks, who doesn't understand economics and who he knows will reward that access by supporting the Republican Party position in his columns. But it's just as easy to see why he won't sit down with anybody who would take him and his plan to pieces.

Even as Brooks sings his ballad of Brave Sir Ryan, the lyrics he sings give away the game. Ryan doesn't have the courage to face a worthy foe, or really anybody who is half-way conversant with the facts and willing to push him on the basics - such as why, after two years, can't he articulate the spending cuts necessary to make his "budget" work? Or why reforms supposedly essential to "saving" Medicare are pushed off twenty or so years into the future with no assurance that a future Congress will in fact pursue the plan? Bravest of the brave....

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What Does Mitt Romney Stand For

Mitt Romney is presently scrambling to find an acceptable public face - one that his party can position on a carefully crafted $2.5 million dollar stage and says, "This is a man you should want to vote for".
The most ambitious element of stagecraft, however, will be the podium — which features 13 different video screens — the largest about 29 feet by 12 feet, the smallest about 8 feet by 8 feet and movable. All the screens will be framed in dark wood.

“Even the frames are designed to give it a sense that you’re not looking at a stage, you’re looking into someone’s living room,” said Russ Schriefer, one of Mr. Romney’s senior advisers who is running the convention planning for the campaign.

From the six-feet-high podium, staircases slope into the audience. The intended symbolism: Mr. Romney is open and approachable, not distant and far above.
That is to say, the party is hoping that its $2.5 million causes people to forget pretty much everything they've learned about Romney and, if the venture succeeds, they will consider that price to be a bargain.

Nobody asks, how did it come to that? How could it be that a man who has had national political ambitions for, it would appear, his entire life - certainly for most of his adult life - would have no record of past public acts or statements that serve to humanize him, even if not endear him to the pubic? Why is it still necessary to contrive public appearances where he attempts to look comfortable with ordinary people, or buys "hardware stuff"? Why are obscure anecdotes or stories about how he's a nice host to his house guests the closest thing people can offer to evidence that he cares about anything but himself?

The danger here is not that you'll miss an obscure fact that conceals the proverbial "real Mitt Romney" from you. The danger is that you'll resist the evidence that is right in front of your nose, and fail to acknowledge this:

Mitt Romney stands for one thing: His own self-interest.

Let me say, there's a sense in which that's not as bad as it sounds. Human beings are a self-interested lot. There's a school of thought that philanthropy is a form of self-interest - that people engage in acts of generosity because it provides them with a reward. Perhaps it's gratitude, public acknowledgment, acclaim, or just "that feeling you get inside when you do something nice", perhaps there's a religious motivation, or perhaps it's a combination of rewards, but there are rewards associated with philanthropy.

At the same time, we recognize a difference between people who show generousness with others, and those who reserves their generosity for their immediate circle of friends, or perhaps just family. We recognize the difference between the person who feels good because he supports a local charity, and the guy who provides support in exchange for a political endorsement, dropping the support the day the endorsement does not arrive, the day after the election, or the day he gets a more important endorsement that eclipses the former. We've all met people who are sweet as punch when they want something, but who lose all interest in you the moment they have it.

What to make of Mitt Romney? There's virtually nothing consistent in his record except his strong, unyielding support for tax and regulatory policies that favor his own economic interests. When he meets with or addresses ordinary people, he's stiff and awkward, at times illustrating his discomfort with a laugh that could not sound more fake.

But we also have plenty of examples of Romney looking relaxed. He looks relaxed when he's shoulder-to-shoulder with the millionaires and billionaires who are pouring money into his campaign. He looks relaxed when he's at one of their estates, believing his statements to be off-record, talking about the sheer joy of massive wealth. He looks relaxed when, not realizing the cameras are rolling, he casually talks about his family's collection of multi-million dollar horses with Sean Hannity.

It's no surprise that he's reported to be relaxed and personable when the cameras are off and he's in the presence of friends and family because, well, that's normal - they're his people. He can play host instead of running for President. But when he's outside of those contexts, no matter how hard he tries he cannot convincingly sell a connection to ordinary working Americans, or even most wealthy Americans. If you accept as true the years of evidence you have before you, the only logical conclusion is that he feels no connection. His antics look and feel fake to us because they are fake.

Think about the very small assortment of anecdotes his campaign staff pushes as examples of what a great guy he is. He's very active in his church... never mind that he's also extremely powerful in his Church and that his power is tied to his activities and contributions. From the stories his backers are pushing, it seems that Romney's acts of kindness are never random - if he helps somebody out it's because there's a personal or church connection, or because he would look like an ass if he stood by and did nothing. There's nothing per se wrong with that - it's how a lot of people in our society behave - but I'm not receptive to arguments premised upon exceptions that supposedly prove the rule.

The big examples of Romney's generosity toward others involve a missing teenager and a capsized boat. Back in 1996, the young teenage daughter of Robert Gay, one of Romney's business partners, went missing after a party in New York, Romney not only accepted his partner's invitation to help with a search, he took charge, closed up shop for the day, and sent his staff out to help with the search. True enough, but in pretty much every sense you can think of other than "blood relation", Robert Gay was one of Romney's people.

In 2003, then-Governor Romney and his sons were among the members of several families who aided the passengers of a sinking boat. In both cases, Romney's actually better off letting his surrogates talk up his acts, rather than making public pronouncements that would either diminish the legends his surrogates are attempting to build, or would rightly come across as exaggeration in the name of self-aggrandizement. In both cases, yes, Romney could have done less, but he would have paid a price for doing nothing.

It's also fair to note that Romney's surrogates are among the first to insist that anecdotes are not relevant when the stories are harmful. The now infamous incident in which Romney chopped off the hair of a gay classmate? A story far more relevant in the context of Romney's claim not to recall his participation, as opposed to in direct relation to Romney's adult character. But the more you see of Romney in action, the more you sense that you're dealing with a man who simply lacks empathy for others.

What did Romney do to make his fortune? He engaged in financial transactions designed to maximize the return for investors, and both the share of profits and management fees earned by Romney's companies. Again, there's nothing wrong with that - putting profits before all else is an accepted part of the American way of business. And at times the best way to maximize profits also served to better the targeted company. But the goal was always the profit, with any improvement to the company being incidental. If the best path to profits was to saddle the company with debt, to carve it up and sell off the parts, or to shut it down and sell off the carcass, Romney followed the path to profits.

Similarly, Romney's political career cannot be said to have been driven by principle. It's virtually impossible to find a single major issue for which Romney has not, at one time or another, taken both sides. Although Romney often is able to articulate why he takes one position or another, and those explanations can seem genuine in isolation, when you compare them side-by-side they seem contrived. And what a remarkable coincidence, his changes of heart always result in his endorsing a new position consistent with opinion polls of likely Republican voters.

On the few issues for which he does not waffle, where his positions are known, where he does not have a history of flip-flops, you'll find "his people". He wants to cut taxes for the rich, remove regulations from companies like Bain and the industries they target, remove government oversight from the games wealthy individuals and companies play to avoid taxes.... He does not appear to have any genuine concern for budget deficits or the impact of his policies on the middle class or poor.

So what can you expect Romney to stand for if elected President? Exactly what he has stood for over the course of his adult life. Policies that better the position and perpetuate the wealth of ultra-rich individuals and families, and beyond that whatever he thinks it will take to get him re-elected. There's no "secret Mitt Romney" who will be unfurled on that $2.5 million stage. It's what you see is what you get - what you see is what he is.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Things You Already Know About Barack Obama, but Ask Anyway

The Mitt Romney experience inspired me to see what searches people are making about President Obama....

"Barack Obama birth certificate" - I know it's around here somewhere.... Is it this one... no...

"Barack Obama Kenyan birth certificate" - Oh, that birth certificate! It's in Donald Trump's underwear drawer, next to the pink undies he borrowed from Sheriff Arpaio.

"Barack Obama ethnicity" - A little bit of this, a little bit of that.

"Barack Obama gay" - No he's not, but I'm sure he's flattered that you find him attractive.

"Barack Obama muslim" - No, you're confusing him with Hank Williams, Jr.

"Barack Obama religion" - Although worshipped by millions, he has no plans to actually form a church.

"Barack Obama new world order" - Close. He's a New World Man.

"Barack Obama real name" - His birth name was James Anthony Hamilton, but his mother worried that such an unorthodox name would get in the way of a possible political career and changed it to Barack Hussein Obama.

"Barack Obama racist" - Yes, you figured it out, lots of racists dislike Barack Obama.

"Barack Obama's kill list" - It's top secret... except for your name - you're lucky #7.

"Barack Obama's name in the Bible" - Not in the one you own, but perhaps it's in one of the lost gospels.

"Barack Obama's weaknesses" - I know, you were probably thinking "Kryptonite", or perhaps even "The color yellow", but it turns out that it's "The Stupid".

Mitt Romney - Everything You (Apparently) Were Afraid to Ask....

I was running a Google search today and discovered that auto-complete was suggesting that people have serious concerns about Mitt Romney. I thought I would take the time to address some of the concerns implied by common search terms:

"Mitt Romney fetus" - Yes, he once was a fetus.

"What is Mitt Romney hiding" - Everything but his physical appearance.

"Mitt Romney police uniform" - Fetish? Let's not go there....

"Mitt Romney's jeans" - Didn't I just say... Please.

"Mitt Romney trillion" - No, still only a few hundred million.

"Mitt Romney's email" -

"Mitt Romney's kitchen cabinet" - Poggenpohl. Nice stuff that you've probably never heard of, and probably can't afford. No, seriously, it's the group of guys who used to take care of Howard Hughes.

"Mitt Romney's laugh" - Don't make fun. His laugh box atrophied.

"Mitt Romney's military service" - I will now present the entire record of Mitt Romney's military service: "".

"Mitt Romney's political views" - He believes exactly what you believe, but with more conviction. Even if you change your mind, he's already ahead of you.

"Mitt Romney's real name" - Stephen. No, actually it's Willard. But don't tell Mitt.

"XCR Mitt Romney" - The manufacturer has endorsed Romney, but don't expect a "Romney in a tank" type picture of him shooting off firearms.

"Mitt Romney zombie" - No, truly he's not, but it's an easy mistake to make.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Only Assumption You Should Make About Budget Promises

Although it's basic gist - that Ryan's budget is drivel that serves the wealthy at the expense of everybody else - is correct, Daily Finance gets this dead wrong:
Ryan's plan streamlines the tax code, condensing the current six tax brackets into just two: 10% and 25%. The plan doesn't specify where the cutoff line between the two brackets would lie, but it seems reasonable to expect that it would stay somewhere near where the 25% bracket currently hits in, at $70,700 for a married couple filing jointly.

If that was the case, and if the standard deduction stayed the same, the average household would see an immediate drop in its base tax rate. A couple filing jointly would pay $3,810 -- a savings of $1,035 when compared to their base tax rate under the current code. While not the stunning $265,000 that the average millionaire household would save under the Ryan plan, it is nonetheless a nice chunk of change.
No, it does not seem reasonable to expect that a married couple earning $70,700 or more would get a tax cut amounting to a "nice chunk of change".

Even if we ignore what that couple might be losing in government services in exchange for a $1,035 tax cut, a "chunk of change" those in Romney's stratospheric income bracket might mistake for pocket lint, there's absolutely no reason to believe that the tax cut would be delivered. Why not? Because Ryan and Romney have not specified a cut-off point, such that the only thing that's "safe to say" is that they know the math doesn't work and thus that they have no intention to deliver the inferred-but-not-promised tax cut.

Friday, August 17, 2012

It Should Be an Issue

Even if Mitt Romney, for some reason,1 has chosen to bury it. This one goes out to the President:

1. Is there a hidden strategy? Fear that if pressed for specifics he would have nothing more to offer than, "No more extensions and 'food stamps' are too generous"?

Lucky Number 13

What is it about Mitt Romney, that he can't help but pick at his scabs? First it's "I paid "at least" 13% in "taxes" during each of the past ten years. (We shouldn't now ask about year #11?) Why is he even talking about his taxes? Does he believe that people will think that's a high number? Does he want his lack of candor on his income and taxes to be in the headlines?

And again sending Ann Romney out to draw a line in the sand for him? Even after she made the haughty statement, "we’ve released all the information you people need to know." Really, what's his team thinking? (Or should that be, "Is his team thinking?")

Update: Hardcore Romney supporter Ed Rogers also doesn't understand Romney's tactic. "If Romney isn't going to release his tax returns, he should quit talking about them".

Forced Savings Plans as an Alternative to Social Security

I've seen a number of forced savings plans offered as an alternative to, privatized version of, or supplement to Social Security. All of them have been flawed - the best intended versions require a guaranteed return on investment, and perhaps also some form of mandatory annuity purchase upon retirement, raising issues including management fees and costs, potential losses that the government must cover, and the big question of how the money would be invested and who would make that call - and the worst of which pretty much guarantee nothing except huge profits to the private firms than invest the money that the government compels you to place in their hands.

I wasn't expecting, though, the idea that the solution to Social Security's long-term, fixable problems lies in Singapore,
Singapore makes no promises but instead requires all citizens to save up to 36 percent of their income for their own retirement and health care. The government invests the savings in stocks and bonds; the money is not used for current expenditures.
The "solution" requires removing the cap from FICA taxes, increasing the FICA tax to about 36%, and... having the government invest that money? Yeah, no chance of any problem with that plan. Let's see, tax about $13 trillion in total personal income at 36%, use that $4 trillion plus to buy marketable securities... hey - in roughly four years Uncle Sam can own all the stock of all U.S. companies.

It should have been pretty obvious up front that you could not take something that works in a small, authoritarian city state and implement it on the U.S. economy without asking yourself, "Will this scale". Or that, even controlling for the problems with having a government-owned fund buy private securities, that it would not scale. And what does the author think would happen to the U.S. economy if consumers had even 5% less money to spend, let alone 15 - 30% less.

Believe it or not, the editorial gets worse from there,
Now, compare Singapore’s system to our own. When Medicare was debated and enacted, Paul Samuelson was America’s most influential economist. He was an adviser to presidents Kennedy and Johnson, author of the nation’s best-selling economics textbook and a soon-to-be Nobel laureate. In 1967, Samuelson wrote in Newsweek about the funding mechanism for Medicare and Social Security: “The beauty about social insurance is that it is actuarially unsound. Everyone who reaches retirement age is given benefit privileges that far exceed anything he has paid in. . . . Always there are more youths than old folks in a growing population. More important, with real incomes growing at some 3 per cent per year, the taxable base upon which benefits rest in any period are much greater than the taxes paid historically by the generation now retired. . . . A growing nation is the greatest Ponzi game ever contrived.”
In other words, the author of the editorial is quoting right-wing references to Samuelson, not Samuelson himself, because Samuelson was in fact defending Social Security and was not actually comparing it to a Ponzi Scheme. Paul Krugman has attempted to explain that, but you really need only look at Samuelson's actual words:
The beauty of social insurance is that it is actuarially unsound. Everyone who reaches retirement age is given benefit privileges that far exceed anything he has paid in. And exceed his payments by more than ten times (or five times counting employer payments)!

How is it possible? It stems from the fact that the national product is growing at a compound interest rate and can be expected to do so for as far ahead as the eye cannot see. Always there are more youths than old folks in a growing population. More important, with real income going up at 3% per year, the taxable base on which benefits rest is always much greater than the taxes paid historically by the generation now retired…

Social Security is squarely based on what has been called the eight wonder of the world — compound interest. A growing nation is the greatest Ponzi game ever contrived. And that is a fact, not a paradox.
Nobody who has read Samuelson's words could argue with a straight face that he was indicting Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme". Frankly, the author's abridged quote (which even includes the Samuelson's italicization of "actuarially") is a sufficient hint at Samuelson's actual meaning that you have to wonder about the author's sincerity.

The author then trots out the usual whinges about U.S. debt - there's too much of it, foreign investors will eventually stop buying it, invisible bond vigilantes are everywhere.... And you know what? I can agree with much of that (not the invisible bond vigilantes, though). I'm at heart a fiscal conservative. I deplore the manner in which the Bush Administration squandered a budget surplus, engaged in ruinous fiscal policies and reckless expenditure, ignored the growing housing bubble, and left us in economic catastrophe. Had the Bush Administration been fiscally responsible we would have far less debt, we would not have needed to debate how much stimulus spending we could afford, China would own far less U.S. debt, and we might not even have to keep hearing about invisible bond vigilantes. Oh well.

But you know what else that history tells us? That with modestly higher taxes, we can have significantly lower deficits. Astonishing as that may sound, when you increase government revenues the government need not borrow as much money to fund its operations. While I don't favor raising taxes in a manner harmful to the economy - nobody of consequence does - as the economy improves there's no reason why tax increases couldn't or shouldn't be part of the solution.

The author asks, with apparent sincerity, "What do the Chinese think of our system?" Because any good Republican, forming fiscal policy for the U.S., should use "What does an authoritarian, oppressive communist dictatorship think of our budget" as a starting point?

The author closes with a worthy question, posed rhetorically, but easily answered:
Will our leaders give us an honest accounting and discussion of our choices, or will we have to wait for a debt crisis to force the issue?
That second thing? Yep. That's what it will take.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

You Can't Lose What You've Never Had

The New York Times is fretting that,
By not repudiating Mr. Adelson’s vow to spend as much as $100 million on their behalf, the two candidates seem more eager to keep the “super PAC” dollars flowing than to preserve the integrity of their campaign.

A Telling Choice of Words

In his latest screed, after endorsing the least flattering interpretation of every statement associated with the Obama campaign, Michael Gerson makes an interesting choice of words:
It is one thing to mischaracterize a federal waiver; another to accuse an opponent of being the Angel of Death.
Overlooking the absurd level of hyperbole, let's recall who Gerson is, the former leader of G.W. Bush's speech writing team, and his self-professed expertise in political rhetoric. As a partisan hack, he finds it easy to dismiss all of Romney's lies as fair game, distort the statements of anybody associated with Obama in the manner he sees as most beneficial to his own political party, and engage in the aforementioned hyperbole.

But "Angel of Death"? Not "an angel of death" or even "angel of death", but the "Angel of Death"? Really?

I'm sure Gerson would attempt to defend himself by arguing that the Obama campaign's suggestion that policies Romney endorsed as a business leader and presidential candidate actually can cause people to lose their insurance, and that losing your health insurance in this country carries potentially devastating medical consequences, was tantamount to comparing Romney to the mythic figure who taps you on the shoulder when it's time for you to die. Absurd? Absolutely. It doesn't work on a literal level, nor for that matter does it work on a metaphorical level.

But if Gerson were honest about it, I suspect he would admit that he intended something quite different with his deliberate and inflammatory choice of words. He's using rhetoric that invokes Nazism, specifically "Angel of Death" Dr. Mengele. It would be difficult to believe that Gerson's intended message is anything but, "Can you believe it? Obama's suggesting that Romney has the values of a Nazi."

Recall, right in that column, Gerson is whining about Biden's flubbed "chains" joke. Which case is stronger - Gerson's prattle that Biden engaged in "racially charged hyperbole" or my argument that Gerson, master of political rhetoric and nuance, would not have accidentally invoked Mengele.

Michael Gerson Couldn't be More of a Hack if He Tried

And yet he keeps trying.
For the Obama campaign, this is not an aberration; it is a culmination. The demonization of Romney is a main element of its strategy, pursued by Obama’s closest associates and former employees, not by loosely affiliated partisan groups. Deniability is not even remotely plausible, but it doesn’t remotely matter. Even when exposed, the Obama campaign never retracts, never apologizes — convinced that the news cycle will quickly erase inconvenient memories.
This from the guy who used to sit adoringly at Karl Rove's knee? The Obama team can take some comfort here - you don't elicit crocodile tears that large unless the hack criticizing your campaign knows his side is losing.
But the most vivid accusation (made by a closely associated PAC and embraced by the campaign itself) is that Romney’s ruthless business practices were responsible for the closing of a firm, the loss of a couple’s health insurance and thus the death of a woman from cancer. Except that Romney wasn’t connected to the closing of the firm, the woman continued to have health insurance from another source and her cancer was diagnosed five years after the plant shut down.

Which represents the crossing of an ethical line. If the conduct of the Obama campaign team were universalized, candidates would no longer require any evidence to accuse one another of complicity in a death. To accept this as a new political norm would be to define defamation down.
Because, you know, saying that your opponent favors policies and engaged in business practices that cost working Americans their health insurance is exactly the same as accusing somebody of murder. Suggesting that somebody committed murder, on the other hand, is fair game - as long as the nonsense is directed at a Democrat...
I am admittedly a sucker for rhetorical idealism. But it can’t be a small thing, a typical thing, a trivial thing, to ask for belief and then betray it.
Yeah... like Gerson's "compassionate conservatism". Flushed down the memory hole.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Romney-Ryan Campaign Song

Two men who see lots of... Opportunities.

"Trust Me, Paul Ryan is Really Smart"

While driving yesterday I heard somebody present a question to Byron York to the effect of, "I keep hearing that Paul Ryan is really smart, but the only evidence people offer in support of that is 'He read Ayn Rand in high school and he wrote a budget plan.' Why should I believe he's smart?"

York fumbled out an answer that, unintentionally, spoke highly of the President and not so highly of Ryan. Specifically, York argued that Ryan has mastered details of the budget, and if you meet with him in private he will wow you with his grasp of those details. I'm reminded of fifth grade, in which some kids I knew had memorized pretty much every detail from the back of trading cards for the entire NHL roster. The kids at issue weren't slouches, but I need a bit more than that to be wowed by a grown-up.

York's next argument was that Ryan was not only the Republican Party's front man on the budget, but that the President took him seriously and met with him to discuss budget issues. That is reasonably accepted as a compliment of the President - the implicit argument is that nobody as smart as Obama would agree to discuss budget issues with a mediocre mind. I thus see what York is attempting to argue, but I don't think the point holds. That is, if I am going to negotiate over something, and my opponent in the negotiation is markedly less intelligent than I am, I'm going to be very happy with my opponent's choice of representative. I'm certainly not going to argue, "No, send in somebody who is my equal."

I'm not suggesting that to be the case, either - when the Republicans say "This is our budget guy," who would York expect the President to meet with? The most obvious inference that can be drawn from the fact that the President discussed budget issues with Ryan is not that he's a strong or weak opponent, but that he's the guy his party put in the position

At the end of his response, York preferred to answer a question of his own rather than the one the caller asked. That is, rather than pointing to evidence of Ryan's smarts, York instead argued that Ryan's knowledge about the federal budget is "beyond question". Frankly, it's not beyond question - if you look at Ryan's budget proposals the first thing that strikes you is that he has omitted the most relevant details. Perhaps he's willing to discuss those details, in private and off-the-record, but I don't feel any need to take York's word for it.

If I am to accept York's argument, it's actually quite damning of Ryan. If I assume he's a smart man with encyclopedic knowledge of the budget, the he knows what spending he will need to cut to turn his budget proposal into reality. If I am rejecting the idea that he's simply not smart enough to understand the reality of his proposal, then I have to accept the conclusion that he's being dishonest about his plan.
In the more than two years since his budget was unveiled, Ryan has not specified any tax breaks he would eliminate. Independent analyses have shown that offsetting the tax cuts would require changing things such as the mortgage interest deduction, the tax exclusion for employer-financed health insurance or other popular tax preferences widely used by middle-income households.
Why after two years hasn't Paul "Encyclopedia" Ryan shared any relevant details? If the problem isn't a lack of smarts, and it isn't a lack of knowledge, the only remaining possibility is a lack of candor. If he's smart enough to know what he's selling, he knows how much of it is snake oil.

Update: How would Romney's version of Ryan's plan balance the budget? In his own words, "We haven't run the numbers on that specific plan".