Friday, November 30, 2012

Try, Try, Try to Understand....

Why would Thomas Friedman want Susan Rice to be Secretary of State when he can have a magic man. Alas, if only Steve Jobs were still with us....

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Kill Him With Kindness?

David Brooks lectures,
It’s foolhardy to try to persuade people to see the profound errors of their ways in the hope that mental change will lead to behavioral change. Instead, try to change superficial behavior first and hope that, if they act differently, they’ll eventually think differently. Lure people toward success with the promise of admiration instead of trying to punish failure with criticism. Positive rewards are more powerful.
Where to start.... Perhaps, "David, I promise to admire your restraining yourself from feigning objectivity when stumping for the Republican Party"?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What the Election Means for Medicare Reform

Yesterday, Diane Rehm's panel included Julie Hirschfeld Davis, congressional correspondent for Bloomberg News, and Amy Walter, political director for ABC News. I didn't catch much of the show, but I did catch the following atrocious analysis. Starting with Walter:
However, fixing some things about Medicare certainly are doable. And, you know, we had a big fight in this election about Medicare. Now, the interesting point is, you know, both sides can see victory there. On the one hand, the Romney ticket lost and, of course, on that ticket was Paul Ryan, who made the issue of Medicare a centerpiece of his budget. The so-called voucherization as Democrats would say, premium support is how Republicans would argue, lost in one sense.
Given her position, it is difficult for me to believe that Walter is unaware of the fact that Paul Ryan himself referred to his reform proposals as creating vouchers. The reason that the Republicans don't want to use that term has nothing to do with its being a fair description of their plan, and everything to do with how it polls. We saw exactly the same game played back when G.W. Bush was trying to "reform" Social Security - the Republicans called their plan a privatization plan, and when the public recoiled at the term they started talking instead about "personal accounts" and purported that their own original description of the plan was a partisan slur.1

By the same token, who used to refer to the Ryan Plan as a voucher plan? You guessed it.2 "Premium support" is the poll-tested term he would have preferred be substituted for the one he personally originated in relation to his own plans, and which he knows to be accurate. A political director for the news division of a major network should clarify the facts, not play along with Ryan's semantic games.
On the other hand, it didn't lose that badly. I mean, it's not as if the issue was the defining focus of this campaign, and in some cases, while the president was ahead on Medicare, in the final tally, it was not by such a tremendous percentage that Republicans can look back and say, boy, that was really dangerous. We shouldn't have brought that up at all. In fact, they can say, we didn't get beat that bad on it.
Here, Walter is simultaneously arguing that Medicare was not "the defining focus of this campaign" - that is, the President's victory cannot be ascribed to his position on Medicare - and that the Republicans "didn't get beat that bad on it". You can't have it both ways. If most voters were motivated by issues other than Medicare, although you can draw the conclusion that proposals to voucherize Medicare aren't going to destroy a campaign as long as they remain in the background, it tells you nothing about what would happen if they were perceived as the defining focus of a campaign.

Then Davis takes the argument from bad to worse:
The other thing is that if you look at the groups that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan won, seniors were a big part of it. I mean, it's been the case in the past that you couldn't talk about this without being really afraid that you were going to alienate an important voting constituency. It -- we didn't really see it happen in Florida or anywhere else, really, for Mitt Romney. And now, you could argue that Medicare wasn't the primary issue in this election. But it was certainly very much in the conversation.

And as Amy said, when Paul Ryan became the vice presidential pick, it was a major item on people's radar screen. And they didn't pay for it among older voters. So that is an indication, I think, for Republicans that they can maybe do this and maybe even for Democrats and not get -- pay such a huge political price if they do it the right way.
Surely Davis has a long enough memory to recall what actually happened. Romney promised not to touch Social Security for anybody who is presently retired or will be retiring over the next decade. Sure, some were smart enough to figure out that he intended to voucherize the program for younger workers, but many did not, and many who did either didn't care about the younger workers or felt that Romney's procrastination put the issue so far into the future that it wasn't relevant to their vote. On top of that, Romney engaged in shameless demagoguery about Obama's proposed cuts to Medicare spending, pretending that they were cuts of benefits to seniors and that the President wanted to take away the benefits of good, retired people who had earned them in order to give health insurance to lazy, poor people.

You cannot draw the lesson from Romney's campaign that it is safe to propose major changes to Medicare without risking alienating "an important voting constituency", namely the seniors who presently receive or who are about to receive Medicare, because Romney did not actually take that risk. A courageous political leader who sincerely believed Medicare needs to be turned into a voucher program for the good of the country might have done so, anyway, but Romney was anything but courageous and it remains difficult to discern whether he has any sincere beliefs.

Also, Davis has to know that before the election Ryan was a relatively obscure person outside of the Beltway and Tea Party circles, that his "budget" is hogwash, and that most voters don't believe accurate descriptions of what Ryan proposed to do through that budget. Ryan's selection as Romney's running mate meant about as much to Medicare policy as Palin's selection meant for foreign policy. The election is over - there's no need to pretend otherwise.
1. G.W. Bush wrote in "Decision Points,
Democratic leaders alleged I wanted to "privatize" Social Security. That was obviously poll-tested language designed to scare people. It wasn't true. My plan saved Social Security, modernized Social Security, and gave Americans the opportunity to own a piece of their Social Security. It did not privatize Social Security.
As should be needless to say, the term "privatization" came from organizations like Cato and FreedomWorks, not the political left. Further, when he created the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security, back in 2001, the members of the commission understood that the President wanted them to at least partially privatize the system. Here's an exchange between Committee member Leanne Abdnor (straight out of Cato) and Roger Hickey, from the Institute for America’s Future:
MS. ABDNOR: But just real quickly. In your statement you said that our mandate, as given to us by the President is, in other words, to privatize Social Security?

MR. HICKEY: That is the way I understood it.

MS. ABDNOR: My question is does that mean that a total -- does privatization mean that the President wants to dismantle, completely dismantle the program? Is that your understanding?

MR. HICKEY: No. I think I have specified that he has mandated you to partially privatize the system.

MS. ABDNOR: But not dismantle the system. Correct?

MR. HICKEY: I don’t think the President intends to dismantle the system. No.

MS. ABDNOR: I’m sorry?

MR. HICKEY: I don’t think the President intends -- thinks that he is giving you a mandate to --

MS. ABDNOR: Okay. And the reason I say that is because a lot of people, when they hear the term privatize, they interpret it as we are going to do away with Social Security and dismantle it all together and replace it with that. I just wanted to be clear what your interpretation of that was. So, thank you.

MR. HICKEY: no. My point that I tried to make in my testimony clearly is that I think when you go down this road, when you pull on the string on part of an integrated system, the whole thing does start to unravel. Nobody has explained to me how you are going to be able to maintain survivors benefits, for example, and disability benefits when you are tampering with the retirement benefit, if, in fact, you do that. I do think that there is a danger of going down the road of private accounts, that the whole system starts to unravel and that you have something akin to dismantling of the system. But I think that you have been asked to look at privatizing a portion of the Social Security system, and I think -- I hope that you will think through the implications of that.

MS. ABDNOR: Absolutely. But if I understand your answer, no, you don’t mean to say that you believe the intention of the commission of the President is to completely to dismantle, but it could lead to that?

Ms. Abdnor was aware of the possible public reaction to the term "privatization", but she accepted the term as a fair description of the President's goals for the Committee.

2. And in the manner of G.W., Ryan accused people who used his words to describe his plan as using "a poll tested word designed to scare today's seniors".

Friday, November 16, 2012

We Cannot Expect Republican Support for Carbon Taxes

On several recent occasions I've heard conservative talking heads make comments along the line of, "Global warming is real, the science supports it, but it's too late to do anything about it." Meanwhile, the global reality is that if it's a fraction of a penny cheaper to extract fossil fuels from the ground and burn them as compared to deriving energy from any other source, it's pretty clear that somebody is going to dig up or extract the fossil fuel and burn it.

Jamelle Bouie argues that conservatives should support (or is it "get back to supporting") some sort of tax on carbon emissions.
With a carbon tax off the table, new regulatory action becomes inevitable, with greater government intervention in the economy. This isn’t a hypothetical; when new taxes or direct spending is blocked as a means of implementing policy, the result is almost always a confusing, expensive and inefficient patchwork of regulations, mandates, and tax expenditures (see: the Affordable Care Act).

If conservatives believe that they can prevent any action on climate change indefinitely, then they should continue their opposition to a carbon tax or any other market-based mechanism for dealing with emissions. But if they have the slightest doubts, they would do well to open themselves to the possibility. All things being equal, it’s much better to conservative interests for the government to implement a tax and walk away, rather than develop a new scheme for regulation.
To which the "reasonable" people to whom I've previously alluded will argue that there's no point in a unilateral approach to climate change - if you can't bring China, India and the rest of the world along, the impact of unilateral action is modest. And as was suggested by the Republican approach to these issues during the primaries and presidential campaign, any regulatory approach is going to be derided as harming domestic oil production and driving up the cost of gas and heating oil to the detriment of U.S. consumers.

One of my frustrations with the debates is that both candidates were at times willing to adopt a narrative they knew to be misleading, not only because they stood to gain politically but also because the narrative is consistent with the beliefs of the voters they were hoping to reach. There are some issues for which pushing back against your opponent's false or misleading statement can hurt you politically.

The example that Bouie's argument brings to mind is the price of gas. Romney, who has to know better, was arguing that the President has some sort of magical control of gas prices. As if there's a valve hidden under his desk in the Oval Office that controls the nation's supply of gasoline. As if gas prices aren't affected by refinery capacity. As if increased domestic oil production will result in a sudden drop in the price of gasoline, even if the production has no meaningful impact on world supply or the price of oil in the global market. As if the difference between the price of gasoline on the date the financial crisis bottomed out and the price today is reflective of the White House energy policy instead of the laws of supply and demand.

Why not lecture Romney that he knows how commodity pricing works, and he knows that his argument is insipid? I suspect it's because polling and focus group testing suggests that it's not what people want to hear. Just like people don't want to hear that the President doesn't have granular control over the unemployment rate - as if a president in a recession who is looking at 8%+ unemployment would decide, coming into an election, "I think I'll keep unemployment high." People just don't want to know. And alas, politicians benefit by keeping the mythology alive.

That's Quite the Last Name You've Got There....

From the Washington Post, probably soon to be corrected,
Rob bb8279be-2d2d-11e2-a99d-5c4203af7b7a is executive director of FairVote, a nonpartisan organization based in Takoma Park.
Believe it or not, that's pronounced "Richie".

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Reinventing the Republican Party - "And Never the Twain Shall Meet"

A significant number of Republicans have renewed their argument for a modest reinvention of the Republican Party, that it needs to move away from social conservatism, tone down its anti-immigrant rhetoric, cast off the remnants of the southern strategy, and emphasize broadly accepted conservative principles: personal responsibility, independence, hard work, and the like. That appears to be the vision of David Brooks, although he has to distort history in order to try to lay claim to those values as somehow being Republican. It has been somewhat amusing to see how many conservatives now claim to have "always argued" in favor of such a transformation of the party, never mind that before the election most never raised the argument in more than a whisper and many were at times part of what they're now describing as the problem.

Here's the thing: If the Republican Party can in fact transform itself, if it can convince America "We're no longer interested in your bedrooms. We want to be the party that helps everybody get a reasonably equal start in life, and give everybody the opportunity to advance, but not the party that subsidizes irresponsibility. No more 'trickle down' or 'laffer curves', we are going to focus on building the economy based upon sound principles. No more anti-science arguments or measures, that stuff is an artifact of the past. We're going to maintain a strong military, but will refrain from adventurism and have no interest in empire. We're going to stick to free market principles, we're going to push for small government, we're going to avoid trying to solve society's problems through laws and regulations, but we are advocates of good governance, and for government to be there when we need it," it will be in a powerful position in future elections. I could see that type of party pulling 55-60% of the vote.

The difficulty the Republican Party faces is two-fold. First, Members of Congress are going to be focused principally upon their own needs and futures, not what might benefit the party as a whole. They will want to avoid primary challenges from the right. It will be difficult for the Republican Party to transform itself when a significant core of its elected representatives refuse to play along. Second, the presidential primary process requires the party's candidate to run a gauntlet that poses similar issues along the way - if a candidate alienates the religious right, a competitor who by all right should be laughed out of the room can become a viable alternative for the nomination.

That is to say, a serious reform effort is going to be painful. First, when you tell your wealthy contributors, "How about we try to give you 95% of what you want instead of 100%," those contributors are apt to say, "Then what makes you different from the other party?" And if you tell the religious right, "We're no longer going to go to the wall for you on moral issues," even if at some level the voters at issue were already skeptical of your sincerity, you risk that they will decline to show up at the polls or will back a third party candidate.

Meanwhile, you aren't actually that far into the hole. Despite all of the flaws of your party, its platform, the nomination process and your presidential candidate, you came very close to winning. Despite the problems caused by the Tea Party and some candidates who no sensible person would want associated with the party, you have a solid majority in the House of Representatives and can correct your mistakes in the Senate races without drastic action. Further, things cycle - no party stays in power indefinitely and it may be "your time" as soon as four years from now. Why change?

Perhaps more than that, if the price of not changing is that you lose a few more elections before facing the music, whereas the price of facing the music now is that you lose a few elections while reinventing the party, is there an actual benefit in attempting a dramatic transformation instead of a less coordinated evolutionary process going forward? Isn't it better to keep things pretty much the way they are, to try to win the next few elections, than to write them off in the name of a dramatic experiment that guarantees that some Members of Congress will lose their seats and at best will make a presidential candidate marginally more competitive four years from now?

Is it possible to dramatically transform the Republican Party without alienating core elements of both its base and its deep-pocketed supporters? I doubt it. And as much as some of the more level heads in the party can see the need, even describe a path, I think they're going to receive a lot of push-back. At best, "Maybe we can run a candidate who says all of those nice things, while reassuring the base and our donors that we still have their backs?" If it almost worked with Mitt Romney, might it not work with the next candidate?

It's a Conspiracy, I Tell You!

"We're through the looking glass here, people. And down the rabbit hole. And we've just had some kind of mushroom...."

Charles Krauthammer and Glenn Beck are on the same page: General Petraeus is the victim of a vast, left-wing conspiracy. As they say, "Great minds...."

I can't wait to learn about how Eric Cantor is actually a Democratic Party mole, or what "they" have on Darrell Issa that would prevent him from issuing a subpoena to Petraeus.

Tying Medicare Reform Into Obamacare

Robert Kuttner comments on Medicare reform proposals:
The White House, however, has dropped hints that Medicare could come in for cuts, specifically an increase in the eligibility age. This is a really bad idea. The administration has already imagined that it will be able to cut Medicare by nearly a trillion dollars without cutting services, in order to finance Obamacare. Republicans railed against these cuts in the campaign. Any further Medicare cuts are a terrible idea.

Long-term reform of Medicare is necessary, and is a daunting project. But it doesn’t belong in this budget deal.
I agree with Kuttner that, as things presently stand, increasing the eligibility age for Medicare is likely to prove to be bad policy. A lot of people hold off on obtaining medical care until they qualify for Medicare, and making people wait a few years longer is likely to both increase the number of people who have unmet medical needs as they enter Medicare and the cost of treating some of those illnesses and disorders. It's not clear that the government would end up saving any money, or at least not an appreciable amount.

Looking at political reality, though, you're going to see any "increase in age" legislated in the same manner as the Romney-Ryan voucherization plan - it will be something that affects a class of future retirees, not those who are presently at or near retirement age. That means first that the change is likely to be scheduled to take effect under a different President, but also that Congress will be staring down the next set of people who are near retirement age when they actually implement the change.

So, how about that "Obamacare" thing?

Let's say that the future deal is that the age for eligibility in Medicare is bumped up by three years. Not so good for unhealthy near-retirees, right? Except if things work out as planned, those near-retirees will have health insurance - likely with companies that would just as soon dump them onto Medicare. If the eligibility age is increased but that class of seniors is permitted to buy into Medicare, those who would presently be left high and dry by a raising of the eligibility age may be able to obtain Medicare courtesy of the subsidies made available through "Obamacare". If the trade is "We'll raise the Medicare eligibility age by three years, starting in [the future], as long as affected seniors can buy into Medicare," most seniors should be reasonably covered through that transition period.

There's also an element of "put up or shut up" involved for the Republicans. If the private markets can compete with Medicare, providing the same or better service at a cost savings to enrollees, then insurance companies should be lining up to serve near-retirees during the years leading up to their Medicare eligibility. If that in fact happens, great! If the Republicans are afraid to go there... well, what does that tell you?

Politics, Policy and the Fiscal Cliff

Robert Kuttner analyzes the President's proposals on taxes and the budget as we approach the so-called fiscal cliff:
However, despite the president’s elegant move on tax policy, there are two other aspects to deficit and budget politics where his posture is not quite so firm.

One is whether to include Social Security and Medicare reform (by which the right means cuts) in a Grand Bargain.

This was always a dubious idea, and part of the right’s hidden agenda to mix up current budget politics with long-term issues about social insurance. Yesterday, Obama came closer than ever before to saying that he would not sacrifice Social Security.
First, the President expressed during the first debate that Social Security reform was on the table:
You know, I suspect that, on Social Security, we've got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound. It's going to have to be tweaked the way it was by Ronald Reagan and Speaker -- Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill. But it is -- the basic structure is sound.
If the Republicans can put politics aside, they can get a Social Security deal inside of a few hours of negotiation - minor adjustments that improve the program's fifty year projection and make the accountants happy. The President appears to be telegraphing that no further deal will be made.

Second, the Republicans made clear first with their demagoguery about "death panels" and Obama's Medicare spending cuts, and second with their retreat from their own voucher proposals for anybody under fifty-five, that they have no stomach for actually reforming Medicare. They want to do it, but they lack the courage and fortitude.

The President can play the same game that Romney and Ryan attempted during the election - "We'll preserve Medicare for now, but we'll cut spending in the future, when the economy is stable and we've had time to study the issue and identify savings." Frankly, if the goal is to avoid the "fiscal cliff", that's all you can do in the short term. Whatever is agreed it's reasonable to anticipate that three, five years down the line when the cuts are supposed to be put into effect, Congress will blink. Just as they do every single year with the "doc-fix".

Kuttner argues,
Obama has let it be known that he wants the deficit reduction to be “back-loaded”—little if any in the first year or two, and then a gradual phase-in. That’s better than the reverse. But in the end game, the most important thing for Democrats is not to be locked into any multi-year mandatory cuts.

Barring some kind of multi-year super-deal—that Obama should avoid—the rules of Congress prohibit one Congress from binding another.
Right now, arbitrary, mandatory cuts are working pretty well for the President. If a new fiscal cliff is created to compel another round of negotiations a year from now, it's likely to be Congress that is running scared.

Realistically speaking, any deal would be in two parts - tax and spending changes that will be put into effect this year and an agreed framework for future years. I'll grant, if you push cuts too far into the future you are likely to see that although some reform measures are put into immediate effect, key future measures not. Neither side wants to fumble that ball - they both have wish lists they want put into immediate effect, and likely both hope to trade them for promises of what they "will" do in the future.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

I'll Happily Vote for a Robot....

... If I understand how it is programmed.

Well, not really, but when I read stuff like this, my thought is, "Yes, connecting with people is important, but... not as important as we like to pretend."
Romney's failure to "connect" was about more than the clichéd who-would-you-rather-have-a-beer-with question, though his social awkwardness played a part; you were always aware of how hyper-aware Romney was of the artifice of the interaction between politician and voter. But perhaps more important, it seemed as though Romney's whole life set him apart from others—as the son of a governor, as a Mormon, as a CEO—making it impossible for him to speak for anyone other than himself. For all the efforts of Republicans to cast Barack Obama as The Other, Romney was the one who always seemed alien.
I was perfectly prepared to like Mitt Romney, but I still feel like I never met the man. I watched him campaign for six years and I still have no idea what he stands for, other than himself. I read a profile in which Romney talks about how he likes to talk about policy, not politics, but policy was absent from his public statements. I read another profile in which he was described, in the context of Massachusetts healthcare reform, to have overtly rejected a political approach to an aspect of reform, insisting that he wanted to do the right thing - but when it came to advancing his presidential candidacy he was more than happy to open fire on his primary... really his only significant political accomplishment. He showed few scruples, and teamed up with others who had none. He demonstrated little intellectual curiosity about issues important to the presidency, not the least of which is foreign policy, and as a result made numerous risible statements, embarrassed himself during his trip to London and tripped over his own attack-line (one he reportedly didn't want to pursue but... by that time he had no interest in choosing the right thing over politics) in the second debate.

I know it's crazy weird, but I don't care if my president is an antisocial nerd, a bookworm, an intellectual, a guy who doesn't even drink beer, if I think he's going to do a good job in office. The beer thing is a fantasy anyway - it's only relevant that you want to have a drink with somebody if they're actually inclined to have a drink with you. Sure, a candidate might conceivably be so socially awkward that it would get in the way of his being able to do his job but... let's be real, even our most introverted and intellectual presidents have had sufficient social skills for the job - you can't get the job without that basic skill set. Romney would have been fine.

Does America want a person like you to be the President? If so, and you're not Bill Clinton, Barack Obama or George W. Bush, are re you planning on running in four years? If not, how does that tie into the notion that the President should be somebody like you?

My problem with Romney was not his business background, his wealth, his awkwardness, his inability to understand the concerns of people of ordinary means, his religion, his ambition (in and of itself)... it was his character. As much as some of his defenders want to pretend that the Republican Party made him what he was, I disagree - he was a willing participant in that process, willing to bend as far as necessary to advance his ambitions. Where another man might say "That's a bridge too far," or, "If that's what it's going to take, I'm going to sit this one out," Romney ended up contradicting himself so many times and in so many ways it became impossible to know what, if anything, he actually believes.

Mark Twain: "If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything"

Mitt Romney: "I’m not familiar precisely with exactly what I said, but I stand by what I said whatever it was."

We will never know if Mitt Romney could have been a great president, but for that he has nobody to blame but himself. Had his father been the nominee this time around, I think we would be talking about President-Elect Romney, but alas, I suspect George would have been one of those guys saying "That's a bridge too far," or, "If that's what it's going to take, I'm going to sit this one out."

If You Want to Have an Affair, Get Divorced First

I have some sympathy for the "It should be about competence, not marital fidelity" argument, when applied to somebody like General Petraeus, band if people choose to elect a President who has "made mistakes in his marriage" they have no business acting shocked when he makes more "mistakes". I have sympathy for the idea that one of the leading reasons that sexual behaviors put people at risk of blackmail is because of the fear of public disclosure.

But here's the thing: Even if there were no public stigma or shame in having an affair, it would remain grounds for divorce. And thus there would remain an incentive to keep the affair secret and, consequently, the possibility of blackmail would also remain.

So... hit divorce court first, then it's "dating", nobody cares, and you can keep your job.

How to Approach Tax Reform and Balancing the Budget

Mark Thoma quotes Robert Reich on "grand bargain" negotiations, with Reich proposing how President Obama could open negotiations by describing a set of tax increases and loophole closures that would balance the budget, without any need to "raise taxes on America’s beleaguered middle class, cut Social Security or Medicare and Medicaid, reduce spending on education or infrastructure, or cut programs for the poor".

Although Reich presents his argument in apparent earnest, I don't think he expects that the President will follow his advice. Thoma presents a more basic suggestion,
Obama should at least reverse the Republican pre-election mantra and insist: raise taxes first, then we'll talk spending cuts.
I think you can take a bit from all three columns. The President could actually use Reich's model to illustrate "This is how we can balance the budget with tax increases," followed by, "Here are the tax increases and loophole closures I actually propose." He can add, I'm not saying these tax increases and reforms cannot be reduced or eliminated but I am saying this: before I'm willing to revisit that part of my proposal we must identify enough spending cuts to balance the budget, and only if we accomplish that can we start talking about additional spending cuts that might offset the revenue we otherwise need to raise through the tax changes I've identified."

I also think he should stick to his guns on Social Security, even if it makes some people gnash their teeth, with the same sort of tweaks that were made in 1982. Change as little as possible, in a manner that will make the CBO happy over a fifty year projection. It's the position he took in the debates, and it's consistent with the notion that Social Security should be self-funding.

Frankly, I think the conceit of the "grand bargain" can get in the way of good policy formation, just as throwing three competing goals (universal coverage, revenue neutrality, reduction of healthcare costs) into healthcare reform unnecessarily complicated the debate and legislation while arguably producing a weaker bill than might have been achieved through separate legislation. Social Security expenditures are increasing, but are not out of control. The federal deficit is not all that bad when you remove Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security from the mix. The real issue is the present cost and projected growth of healthcare expenditures. Ezra Klein summed up the issues a few days ago with a series of CBO graphs.
What these three charts tell you is simple: It’s all about health care. Spending on Social Security is expected to rise, but not particularly quickly. Spending on everything else is actually falling. It’s health care that contains most all of our future deficit problems. And the situation is even worse than it looks on this graph: Private health spending is racing upwards even faster than public health spending, so the problem the federal government is showing in its budget projections is mirrored on the budgets of every family and business that purchases health insurance....

Page 9 of the report includes this remarkable statistic: If we just continue on the way we’re going , then “spending for Social Security, Medicare, other major health programs, defense, and interest payments” will “nearly equal all of the government’s revenues in 2020 and would exceed them from 2022 onward — leaving no revenues to cover any other federal activities, such as income security programs, retirement benefits for federal civilian and military employees, transportation, research, education, law enforcement, and many other programs.”
The projection does not include reforms not yet in effect, i.e., those of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"), but it's beyond obvious that healthcare costs are the elephant in the room. The cost control measures of Obamacare are not going to fix the problem, but at least they're a starting point. If the Republicans choose to continue to pretend that this is a problem we can fix by repealing the first serious effort to bend the cost curve, or by cutting funds for PBS, they're (still) not serious about balancing the budget. If you recall, when the Democrats proposed a modest measure to help patients understand end-of-life care, something that could conceivably lead to better care and outcomes for elderly patients, the Republicans demagogued about "death panels".

The only Republican reform ideas we seem to be hearing about on healthcare are to turn all public insurance programs into voucher programs, and to strip preventive care out of health insurance and pretty much make everything but catastrophic care self-funded through a MSA. "Let's not look at what is working here, and certainly not at what is working in the rest of the world." If our nation's per capita healthcare expenses were reduced to the levels typical of other developed nations, most of our immediate budgetary problems would disappear - we would still have a cost curve issue, but we would have a much better starting point. The Republicans won't consider emulating even the most market-based foreign healthcare models - not just because ideology trumps balancing the budget, but because it's easier to argue for cuts if you first contrive a crisis.

Middle East Blowback and Syria

Jackson Diehl and I have different ideas of what constitutes "blowback". I see "blowback" as the unintended consequence of foreign policy and military actions. He sees it as... I'm not quite sure.
At best, Libya will be a steady, low-grade headache for Obama in his second term. But the worst blowback from his policies will come in Syria. What began as a peaceful mass rebellion against another Arab dictator has turned, in the absence of U.S. leadership, into a brutal maelstrom of sectarian war in which al-Qaeda and allied jihadists are playing a growing role. Obama’s light footprint strategy did much to produce this mess; without a change of U.S. policy, it will become, like Bosnia for Bill Clinton or Iraq for George W. Bush, the second term’s “problem from hell.”
Diehl complains that President Obama's approach to Libya resulted in Gadhafi's fall from power, but showed little concern for what would happen to the nation afterward.
[A] Rand study concludes that stabilizing Libya will require disarming and demobilizing the militias and rebuilding the security forces “from the bottom up.” This, it says, probably can’t happen without help from “those countries that participated in the military intervention” — i.e. the United States, Britain and France. Can the Obama administration duplicate the security-force-building done in Iraq and Afghanistan in Libya while sticking to the light footprint? It’s hard to see how.
Diehl does not appear to be arguing that we should now occupy Libya, disarm its mlitias, and rebuild the nation from the ground up. He presents no argument that U.S. policy in Libya contributed to the civil war in Syria.

The U.S. is faced with four choices in Syria: Cease all current efforts and let the chips fall where they may, keep on the current course of sanctions and selective support for certain resistance, escalate into a Lebanon-type limited military engagement designed to cause Assad's regime to collapse, or invade, occupy and rebuild. Obama's "light footprint" policies in Libya did nothing to produce the mess in Syria. Diehl seems to be choosing loaded language, irrelevant to the situation, to try to make the Obama Administration responsible for Syria's civil war, and then to convince his readers that the only responsible action that can now be taken is an Iraq- or Afghanistan-style occupation and "bottom up" nation building.

Does Diehl actually believe that's plausible given our nation's recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, even under a different President? Even if we weren't still in a painfully slow period of economic recovery? Can Diehl at least explain why "It will be different than what happened the last two times we invaded and attempted to reinvent predominantly Muslim nations as progressive democracies," or "It will be different from our most recent incursions in nations that are dominated by warlords"? Because if not, the blowback isn't what would be leading us into the conflict - it would be what we would experience if we follow Diehl's counsel.

Few outside of Iran, the Putin Administration and Assad's inner circle want his regime to survive, but policy on how to achieve that end and what might follow should be predicated upon more than wishful thinking and an implied blank check payable by the U.S. taxpayer.

Thomas Friedman Pulls His Asbestos Undershorts Out of Storage

In simple terms, following the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, three positions emerged on what should happen in the Palestinian lands Israel captured during the war:
  1. "Get Out Now" - the position taken by then-M.K. Uri Avnery, that Israel should resist the temptation to try to significantly adjust its borders and settle the territories, and end its occupation as quickly as possible, lest it be drawn into a long-term occupation from which it would become increasingly difficult to extract itself.

  2. "We All Know What Will Happen" - the position taken by much of the world, that the length of the occupation was a distraction and that eventually the two sides would reach an agreement creating a Palestinian state on most or all of the occupied territories, with some amount of border adjustment and land swapping.

  3. "Dig In" - the position taken by certain Israeli politicians and generals, that they should set up a context for annexation of great swaths of the occupied territories, and to make it politically difficult for future leaders to agree to any borders approximating the Green Line, or perhaps to any concession of land at all.

During the years leading up to the second Intifada with its associated rash of Palestinian suicide bombings, Thomas Friedman fell into camp #2. He had a tendency to lecture both sides about the outcome that he viewed as inevitable, while hewing to a form of centrism that both sides in the conflict seemed to view as insufficiently sensitive to their concerns. It was a big picture view, one that avoided the need to address the complexity of actually getting to a final resolution. Following the collapse of peace talks, and more so 9/11, it's not so much that Friedman fell into a different camp, so much as he backed off his prior tendency to lecture Israel.

Prior to his retreat from the issue, Friedman's suggestion that Israel was not offering enough, that trying to change facts on the ground was a fool's errand, that the two sides should put aside feelings and history and accept the invevitable, earned him the enmity of people who disagreed with him. Needless to say, as you move toward people who hold more extremist views the reaction to Friedman became correspondingly shrill and hostile. Over the interim, open hostility toward Friedman seemed to diminish, but his critics have long memories. With this reengagement of the conflict, it's time once again for the asbestos undershorts.

I was thus a bit surprised to see Friedman be this direct:
Israeli friends have been asking me whether a re-elected President Obama will take revenge on Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu for the way he and Sheldon Adelson, his foolhardy financier, openly backed Mitt Romney. My answer to Israelis is this: You should be so lucky.
Ever since Jimmy Carter brokered the Camp David Accord between Israel and Egypt, there has been a sense that presidents have an obligation to try to mitigate or end what was once deemed the Middle East crisis, to help Israel maintain its democracy, borders and Jewish character while ending years, turning into decades, of Israeli military occupation of Palestinian lands. Friedman correctly states that the American public is demanding that the President focus on domestic concerns, as well as international conflicts that directly involve or threaten the U.S., and correctly states that in this context (as in pretty much any other) negotiations work best when the participants in a negotiation invite a mediator to help them polish off an agreement as opposed to when the mediator is asked to start negotiations by dragging the two sides to the table.

But I think Friedman misses some important components relating to why the issue has diminished in the minds of the U.S. public, and why pressing for negotiations is not a priority for the president. First and foremost, U.S. domestic concern about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was driven in large part by intensive news coverage. During the 1980's, it was not at all atypical for the evening news to sound like this: "Now news from the Middle East. A riot broke out in Ramallah when..." ar "a bomb exploded in a Jerusalem café...." Between Israel's security measures, changes in Palestinian leadership, and the significant number of other Middle East crises, conflicts and wars, that's no longer what Americans hear. Israel-Palestine has dropped considerably from the top spot of Middle East crises that the Americans want to resolve.1

On the other side of the equation, a persistent effort to depict Muslims as irrational actors with whom you cannot negotiate, and who can't be trusted to follow a deal to which they agree, has eroded support for negotiations among factions that might otherwise press the President to become more involved. If, as certain Israeli leaders have argued, there's no one to talk to and no way to reach a meaningful agreement, why go there? Some raise similar arguments about Israel and leaders like Netanyahu - if there's no reason to believe that Netanyahu has the will or that he could get the authority to carry out an agreement involving the evacuation of Israeli settlements, why pretend that there can be a real negotiation - the gulf between what he can offer and what a Palestinian leader might accept may be too broad to bridge. Also, while Clinton might have been persuaded to provide funds to help Israel compensate Israeli settlers who had to leave their homes as part of a final deal, the present economic situation makes it highly unlikely that Congress would presently provide such a subsidy.

The conflict has reached a point at which there's little upside for a President in seriously engaging settlement. George W. Bush created a model of non-serious engagement, window dressing, and President Obama was not helped by his early effort to restart negotiations. If I were Obama and Netanyahu proposed that I attempt to mediate the conflict, and invitation I doubt Netanyahu is at all inclined to offer, and Abbas was willing to participate, my response would be simple. "No problem. Send me your maps of your proposed final borders and we'll start from there." Negotiations with no maps? What do they say about trying the same thing over and over again, while expecting a different result?
1. David Ignatius wrote a recent column outlining what he sees as the President's foreign policy priorities - China, Iran, Afghanistan, then "the Middle East" which he subdivides into "the metastasizing Syrian civil war, solidifying democracy in Egypt and rehabilitating a broken Israeli-Palestinian peace process". I'll grant that Afghanistan is in South Asia, albeit bordering the Middle East, but last I checked Iran was part of the Middle East. By Ignatius's measure, that would make Israel... a distant number four on the list of Middle East priorities, and number six on his global list?

Ignatius suggests that in the Israel-Palestinian conflict Obama should engage in "a round of secret contacts to build up the local players who can be America’s partners for peace". Putting aside for the moment that if Ignatius knew about them, they wouldn't be secret, is he serious? These secret contacts would presumably be on the Palestinian side, so... is he talking about Hamas? Is Ignatius offering a plan or a fantasy?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sorry, I No Longer Donate Over the Phone

A couple of years ago I wrote about my experience with a fund raiser for The Breast Cancer Society, and the behavior of their representative in my comment thread has not softened my views on the organization. But alas, even if I'm contacted by a worthy charity, my present response is going to be, "Sorry, I no longer donate over the phone. Please remove my name and number from your list."

Why? Three basic reasons:
  1. I Don't Like the Interruption: When I'm working, eating dinner with my family, relaxing, I don't need the phone to be ringing with somebody asking for money.

  2. It's Probably Not the Actual Charity: Very often the person making the call is working for a professional fund raising outfit that may be taking 80% or more of the money raised. When that happens, I can hang up the phone, go on line, and give directly to the charity - and the charity ends up with a lot more money.

  3. Fraud is On the Rise: We've seen any number of "sound alike" charities arise, using names similar to established, quality charities in order to elicit contributions from confused donors. But we are now seeing overseas phone banks set up, pretending to be actual charities, soliciting donations by credit card and then using the credit card numbers to engage in fraudulent purchases.

By saying "I don't give over the phone", I get time to investigate a charity, donate directly to the charity if I find it to be worthwhile, preserve my donation for a better cause or charity if I find it is not, and avoid any possibility that the person on the other end of the phone line is actually trying to steal my credit card information.

Credit (Only) When Credit is Due

Rush Limbaugh rant,
We have achieved, brilliant, highly accomplished African-Americans, blacks, Hispanics, you name it, throughout the Republican Party. They serve in office. Many of them are CEOs. It doesn't count. It doesn't count in the media. It doesn't count in the Democrat Party [sic]. It doesn't count with Obama voters about whom it is said that stuff matters most. It doesn't count. Why not? Why, putting it somewhat coarsely, why doesn't the Republican Party get credit for Condoleezza Rice? Why doesn't the Republican Party get credit for Marco Rubio? Why doesn't the Republican Party get credit for Suzanne Martinez?
The short answer: You'll get the credit you want when you stop acting as if treating minorities as equal should result in your getting credit. When you realize there's more to the party's difficulties than a head count, and that your very act of singling out individuals who you believe justify your getting "credit" verges on declaring their prominence in the party to reflect tokenism.

When will they "count"? Perhaps when you stop counting - or even better, when it no longer occurs to you that a list of names and a head count is a basis upon which to demand "credit".

George Will's Self-Serving Arguments on Campaign Spending

Note to George Will: If you can't make an honest case for your position on campaign spending, specifically allowing unlimited corporate money into political campaigns, perhaps you should admit that your argument is nowhere near as compelling as you pretend.
The 2010 elections, the first after the Supreme Court’s excellent Citizens United> decision liberalized the rules about funding political advocacy, were especially competitive. Social science confirms what common sense suggests: More spending on political advocacy means more voter information and interest. The approximately $2 billion spent in support of this year’s presidential candidates — only about two-thirds as much as Procter & Gamble spent on U.S. advertising last year — surely contributed to the high turnout in targeted states.
Let's start with the statement, "Social science confirms..." - if in fact social science supports Will's suppositions, where can I find it? Why isn't Will citing studies, or linking to materials that support his contention that his positions are now supported by "social science"?

The first thing "social science" supposedly confirms is "spending on political advocacy means more voter information and interest". Where can I find evidence that increased spending on political advocacy resulted in more information being available to voters? Where can I find evidence that the spending made voters more interested in the election? Given that a great deal of third party spending goes to negative advertising and misinformation, to the extent that we assume that voters are engaged by the advertising where is the evidence that it improves how voters engage with the facts and issues? If "more voter information" is provided, but it's inferior in quality or false, could it not result in a less informed electorate, less capable of making an informed decision?

When we talk about the amount spent on the election campaign, how does $2 billion become a trivial amount? Why does Will believe P&G's advertising budget to be a relevant number for comparison to election ad spending?

Will says that the ads "surely contributed to the high turnout in targeted states" - again, based on what "social science"? Why should we assume ads, not GOTV efforts, were what brought otherwise ambivalent voters to the polls? In recent years the top six states for voter turnout have not been swing states - unless you count Wisconsin as a swing state. This year?
Ohio had a 61.8% turnout - down 5.1% from 2008.
Florida had a 62.2% turnout - down 3.9% from 2008.
Virginia had a 63.8% turnout - down 3.2% from 2008.
Colorado had a 65.6% turnout - down 5.4% from 2008.
North Carolina had a 64.5% turnout - down 1% from 2008.
Pennsylvania had a 57.7% turnout - down 5.9% from 2008.
Iowa had a 69.1% turnout - down 0.3% from 2008.
Nevada had a 56.9% turnout - down 0.1% from 2008.
Wisconsin had a 72.2% turnout - down 0.2% from 2008.
Michigan had a 63% turnout - down 6.2% from 2008.
In other words, there's what Will is saying (increased political advertising in swing states brings more voters to the polls) and then there's reality - spending went way up, voter turnout went down. Karl Rove, king of campaign filth, has been shedding crocodile tears over "voter suppression" caused by negative ads - perhaps he and Will should talk.

Will next attempts to play the hypocrisy card,
Media and other “nonpartisan” — please, no chortling — dismay about “too much money in politics” waned as seven of the 10 highest-spending political entities supported Democrats and outspent the three supporting Republicans, according to the Wall Street Journal.
First, the fact that you believe that campaign finance should be regulated does not mean you have to go into an election unarmed. There is nothing wrong with following the law as it presently stands, even as you're arguing that it should be changed - even as you're promising to change it if you're elected. That's not hypocrisy - it's common sense. And by the same token it's possible to be appalled by how much money you're able to raise and spend on your campaign, even as you're continuing to raise and spend that money to try to win. It's possible to be appalled by the expenditures of your favored party or candidate, yet still see the necessity of contributing to their campaign.

As Will did not link to the source of his "seven of the top ten" allegation, I had to search for it. Given that Will did not provide a link, I expected to find that his source did not say what he was implying - and sure enough it did not. In terms of dollars spent, as of the date the article's figures were compiled, the three right-wing groups spent $205.6 million, and the seven left-wing groups spent 229.8. If you remove the 27.6 spent by the Senate Democrats' Super PAC, the three outside right-wing groups outspend the remaining six Democratic outside groups. If you look at updated data, and believe that the raw count is somehow relevant to the discussion, the number shifts to 6:4 groups in favor of the Republicans.

It's also immediately apparent that Will is referring to out-of-date information. It would be one thing if November 1 were the best you could do, but... not even close. As the figures used by the WSJ come from The Center for Responsive Politics, it's easy to obtain more recent data. Surprise! The number one and two organizations on Will's list, both supporting Romney, spent an additional $136 million between when the WSJ compiled its statistics and the date of the most recent data from their named source. SEIU's spending, recited in the WSJ piece as $69 million, is listed as $30.1 million... odd? Will, I'm sure, is heartened that the top two organizations are both conservative, and both make the left-leaning groups seem woefully underfunded.

At least Will is honest in the end, at least about his motives:
The advocacy infrastructure being developed by both sides in the post-Citizens United world will, over time, favor the most plausible side, which conservatives know is theirs.
That is, despite all the window dressing, for Will it's not about the Constitution. It's not about educating voters or bringing them to the polls. It's about helping the party he supports get a structural advantage that will help it outspend the other party. It seems reasonable to infer that Will's actual fear is that his party can't win in the marketplace of ideas, and that he thus supports their being able to drown out other voices through massive campaign spending. Will can pretend it's about principle if he chooses, but it seems inescapable that the primary driver for his position on campaign funding is politics.

Update: As more votes are counted, the voter turnout picture is more mixed. For the key swing states, Virginia and Florida showed very small increases in turnout, while turnout was significantly down in Ohio. Will's position that the barrage of campaign spending increased turnout remains unsupported by the data.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

If You Want a Balanced Budget....

At a bare minimum, you need to vote for politicians who are serious about balancing the budget. How do you know if balancing the budget is a priority to a politician? Ask him to produce his plan. A weak plan might sound like "We'll cut spending, and raise taxes if we have to." A stronger plan would identify some, most or all of the spending cuts and tax increases necessary to balance the budget. And if you hear something like this,
First, we cut taxes....
You can pretty much take for granted that you're being played for a fool. If the rest of the plan never gets more specific than "tax reform", "cut funding for PBS", and the like, but you choose to believe that the politician at issue is serious about balancing the budget, it's all on you. And if you hear that politician add, "The budget will be balanced in ten years," that is, two years into the next President's term, he's not actually promising to balance the budget.

At The American Conservative, Jordan Bloom expresses desire for a balanced budget amendment - and he's so eager to get it that he proposes what he describes as a "nuclear option", an Article V constitutional convention - to get one. I've commented on balanced budget amendments before - most of them... actually , all the examples I've seen... are weak, politically driven, full of loopholes.... The most sensible comment I've heard on the matter remains that of Warren Buffett - if you want a balanced budget, pass a law that sets a maximum threshold for a deficit and then bar any Member of Congress who votes for spending above that threshold from being reelected. Problem solved.

If you include loopholes in your balanced budget amendment, they will be exploited to the point that the amendment becomes meaningless and can be expected to distort the budgetary process. If you don't include loopholes, you tie the government's hands when deficit spending is necessary, you encourage the sort of budgetary shenanigans you see in state to pretend that a budget is balanced, such as balancing the current budget by shifting the debt into future budgets, and creating a context in which budgetary disputes could end up being litigated - do you seriously want a single federal judge to review and potentially revise the federal budget? Even if it were practically feasible, and could be completed in a timely manner, judicial review would intrude upon what is intended to be a legislative process. You could also inspire the government to expand the money supply - to balance the budget through tools that would trigger inflation.

Proponents of a balanced budget amendment often embrace the notion that the federal government's budget is analogous to a household budget, and that you should not spend more than you "earn". Lots of problems with that... not the least of which are that taxes are not analogous to income, there are times at which running a deficit can be necessary and others when it's good policy (ideally the two will mostly overlap), and the big picture is clouded by the deficit nobody likes to talk about - the trade deficit.

In the biggest picture sense, the concept that you cannot deficit spend forever - that you cannot indefinitely expand the debt burden at a rate that exceeds inflation, has merit. Yes, it would make sense for the government to work on the long-term fiscal health of the nation when the economy is robust, not to spend irresponsibly - or cut taxes irresponsibly - when they have the opportunity to move the budget toward balance or keep it there.
There are two main objections to the plan. The first is that one can never be quite sure what’s going to come out of a constitutional convention. The second is that a balanced budget amendment would probably mean in the near-term rapid austerity and arbitrary spending cuts. You know, like the fiscal cliff–a net deficit ameliorant–but bigger.
On the first front, not only could you end up with a constitution that's unrecognizable by historic measures, it might not even include a balanced budget amendment. On the second front, Bloom basically concedes the policy argument - a balanced budget amendment could put us into a cycle of a worsening recession followed by tax cuts necessary to counterbalance reduced government revenues and the right-wing horror story becomes reality - we become Greece.
It’s worth pointing out that had Romney won last night, this option would likely be closed – conservatives would be expected to believe that he would work to restore fiscal discipline (while increasing spending on wars and “preserving” Medicare).
Romney talked about balancing the budget, his actual promises did not encompass much more than cutting taxes (and PBS). If you believe his confused comments at the debates, the tax cuts were going to somehow be revenue-neutral, but he was unwilling to offer specifics. I do believe that he would have delivered his tax cuts, just as G.W. delivered the cuts he promised, as that's what his financial backers wanted him to do. The rest? Snake oil.

Friday, November 09, 2012

The Fleecing of the Billionaires

One of the terms that should strike fear into your heart when uttered by a government agency is that they've entered into a "cost-plus" contract - the winner is compensated for his expenses and is guaranteed a contractually specified rate of return on top of those expenses, sometimes a percentage. Fortunately there are few circumstances in which cost-plus contracts are offered, and they usually involve issues involving a high up-front investment and high risk of loss (e.g., setting up a distribution network for food and supplies in a war zone).

When I think of the past election, I can't help but think of the sweet deals that campaign consultants can often obtain, through which they "earn" a percentage of certain campaign expenditures, such as ad buys. With Citizens United, they can cut out the middle man - set up an organization and solicit funds from contributors, with nobody from the campaign breathing down their necks about whether their ads are working or if there might be better ways to spend the money. If rich people want to give you hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on an ad campaign, win or lose, you pocket an enormous fee.

One positive aspect Romney's loss is that it will make billionaires think twice before again trying to buy an election. But I would not be surprised if, over the next four to twelve years, we see them again attempt to do so, all the while getting smarter and smarter about how they allocate their money. But for now, it seems reasonable to say, some very rich individuals who believe themselves to be the brightest, most capable people on the planet, got fleeced.

Let's Not Forget How the Game is Scored

In sport, a team that has reached a point at which it is guaranteed victory may hesitate to run up the score. A win is a win and, absent the opportunity to set a new record, genuine concern about a late comeback, or a similarly reasonable reason to do so, it's widely viewed as poor sportsmanship.

Politics isn't sport, but a win remains a win. Save for the possibility of a recount, the outcome of an election predicated on the popular vote doesn't change based upon whether you win by 1 vote or 1,000,000 votes. If one strategy gives you a 75% chance at winning with 55% of the vote, and another gives you a 90% strategy of winning with 51% of the vote, the latter strategy is the better bet. When Karl Rove dreams of a "permanent Republican majority", or at least a semi-permanent majority, while I'm sure he would be happy if it were 75% or more, or even 55%, he'll take 51%.

Let's also recall, the presidency is not decided based upon the popular vote. It's decided based upon the Electoral College, and the Republican Party is very much focused on preserving that institution. Not because they're truly worried about voter fraud, but because the manner in which electors are assigned to states and subsequently chosen by voters benefits them. Do away with the electoral college and even in swing states the focus will be on major population centers. If you're trying to maximize the popular vote, your priorities will be very different than if you're trying to maximize the electoral vote.

When you watch a football game and you see a score of 21-18, that's a close game. If you see a score of 21-9, not so close. But the first score may be three touchdowns versus six field goals, and the second three touchdowns versus three field goals. Would you be tempted to say that the losing team "really won" the first game and "really tied" the second, based upon the number of times each team scored? Well, if it's your team you might be tempted, but your friends are going to laugh at you if you try to persuade them that you're right.

The Electoral College works in a similar way. You get a certain number of electors for each state you win, mostly on a "winner takes all" basis. So you plan your victory based upon the number of electoral votes you can accumulate. You put enough resources into safe states to keep them in your column, but you focus your recourses on getting your supporters to the polls in the states in which you believe you'll win - or lose - by a narrow margin. When a state does not appear to be in play, it won't get much attention from either candidate - you don't want to waste time and money on a sure win or sure loss when you can better use your resources in a swing state.

When Kevin Drum lectures,
Liberals, you should rein in the triumphalism. Obama won a narrow 51-49 percent victory and the composition of Congress changed only slightly. This was not a historic vindication of liberalism, and it doesn't mean that we can suddenly decide that demography will sweep us to victory for the next couple of decades.
I thus agree in part and disagree in part. If there are people on the far left of the Democratic Party who believe that the nation is now ready for the roll-out of their agenda, they are in for a rude awakening. If the Republican Party gets its act together, it could be a bona fide contender in the next presidential race - and even if it doesn't it remains a serious contender for the midterm elections.


Obama did not win "a narrow 51-49 percent victory". Assuming Florida certifies for Obama, as it is likely to do, he won a landslide 332-206 victory. Because the victory is not based upon "number of states one" or "percentage of votes case". The victory is based upon the number of electors won. Had the Obama team reallocated its resources, it could have lost the election while winning 55% or more of the popular vote. Frankly, Romney could have done the same thing, but would likely have been rewarded by an even greater loss in the electoral vote. So yes, remember the popular vote and that the nation is divided on a lot of important issues - but don't pretend that the popular vote is significant to, or somehow trumps, the result of the electoral vote as that's not how the game is scored and obviously that's not how the game is won.

When People Aren't Impressed With Your Arguments... It May Be That They're Unimpressive

I've commented before on the concern trolling about minorities getting into schools that are above their academic reach, then finding themselves at a disadvantage in the job market due to their performing below the level of their 'qualified' peers. I've never been impressed with the argument. For elite schools, branding remains a significant issue - as G.W. Bush can tell you, better to graduate from Harvard and Yale with a C average than to get straight A's at a college that matches your academic profile. For non-elite schools, I find it difficult to believe that you can make a sufficiently granular analysis.

One of my classmates, who did very well in law school (magna cum laude), shared a story during our first year. He had gone to the administration to try to defer his enrollment and, according to him, was told he was lucky to be admitted in the first place, "Do you know how many students we admit with your GPA?" A professor who had been one of those law students who seems able to sneeze in a blue book and have the professor issue an A+ recounted how he had been a C+ student as an undergrad and was absolutely shocked when he found himself consistently at the top of his class during his first year of law school. After that, prestigious federal clerkship, Supreme Court clerkship, and a few years later a faculty appointment at a top ten law school. Another professor, despite being somewhat narcissistic, shared a story about how he stumbled through law school, applied very late for a clerkship because he didn't have a job and just changed into a federal clerkship, stumbled through a couple of years of legal practice, didn't care for it, applied for a law professorship on a lark and ended up at a top law school - nobody looking at any of his numbers would have seen any of that coming. I didn't think he was a particularly good law professor, but there he was.

The "they're in schools in which they can't compete" concern trolling wouldn't apply to the people I just described - they weren't minority students. Exceptions don't prove a rule, but if you overgeneralize you risk missing some important elements of law school and career success. Let's also recall, perhaps the most famous "diversity student" in law school history was J. Danforth Quayle. I expect that he did struggle in law school, but....

Back in 2005, I specifically commented on an article by Richard Sander, what I considered (and consider) to be an unimpressive argument about minority enrollment in law schools. At the Volokh Conspiracy, one of the champions of this argument, David Bernstein, complains,
Sander, a Ph.D. economist, provides data that supports an inference that literally everyone in the legal academy already knows–that a great many students who are admitted as “diversity” admits wind up struggling in law school, leading to a much higher rate of failing out of law school and bar exam failure for such admits than for their white and Asian peers. Surely, if a key purpose of affirmative action is to aid these students one should be able to have a reasonable debate about whether the benefits of the policies as currently instituted outweigh the harms to their supposed beneficiaries, and, if so, whether reforms along the lines that Sander proposes would be a good remedy. Or perhaps law schools and related institutions would first open up their data to researchers to everyone could get a better handle on the underlying issues.
The argument here approches,
  1. Many students admitted as "diversity" students struggle in law school, and it has been argued that minority students admitted under law school diversity programs have more difficulty graduating and getting employment than similarly qualified minority students who are admitted to less rigorous schools.

  2. Law schools won't give Sanders the data he wants, in order to be able to better document his assuptions.

  3. Therefore, law schools know Sanders is right and are collectively covering up "the truth."

Another possibility is that law schools aren't impressed with Sanders' scholarship, and thus aren't willing to expend resources and manpower to extract and provide a FERPA-compliant data set consistent with Sanders' requests. Yet another is that law schools don't want anybody to give serious scrutiny to their claimed job placement data, and to find out how partial, self-serving and manipulated their publicly available placement and salary numbers usually are.

Bernstein quotes Sander,
"Why have none of them empanelled neutral social scientists to evaluate and report on the mismatch debate? On this issue, many otherwise distinguished academics have fostered an environment in which data is inaccessible and honest debate is profoundly chilled."
I'll concede, if you are a professor and want to write a research paper on why minority students should be excluded from diversity programs, based upon weakly reasoned extrapolations from limited data, and either show no interest in making a similar analysis of non-minority students or admit that the J. Danforth Quayle types see significant benefit but "that's different", you're probably going to have difficulty getting your peers to take your research interests as seriously as you would like. But I'm not seeing how "Your data is insufficient to support your argument" would "chill" the research. I'm certainly not seeing how, "Why don't you care about the relative success and failure of other beneficiaries of diversity programs," is anything but a fair response. And I'm not seeing the fact that law schools don't want to put resources into pulling data for such research as proof that they know its proponent will be proved correct. Frankly, there's reason to be skeptical of any scholar who claims to know something as a matter of near or absolute certainty, but simultaneously admits that he lacks the data necessary to support his argument.
Thus, I can think of at least one highly-regarded researcher in legal academia who lost a job, at least in part, for not regarding the mismatch issue with sufficient wariness.
And Sharron Angle "knows" that there are many "domestic enemies" in Congress. The person has supposedly been drummed out of academia - a list of one could bring us back to my earlier allusion to trying to prove the rule based upon an exception; but a secret list of one is completely unconvincing. Sander appears to be the leading proponent of this argument, David Bernstein cheerleads his arguments, and neither seem to be at risk of job loss.
"Indeed, the Stanford Law Review staff who published Systemic Analysis were pressured into publishing only critical response pieces, even though distinguished academics who (in article outlines submitted to the law review) offered more balanced assessments sought to participate."
We now live in a world with these crazy things called "websites", where anybody can post anything they want for the world to see, at minimal cost. If a stack of convi,cing articles, supporting Sander's positions, exist, there is no reason why they would be unavailable.

Back to Bernstein,
It’s a good thing we don’t burn heretics at the stake anymore.
"Some people think my research is garbage, others think there might be something to it but won't attach their names to my present body of work, and some people object when I speak at certain conferences - just don't ask me for specific examples" = being buned at the stake? Melodramatic, much?

Would it be controversial for a researcher to say, "I am very interested in identifying the factors that predict how students perform in law school, and how law school success translates into career success, so I would like detailed, granular data about admissions, grades, and placement so I can look at the issue from the greatest number of angles"? I suspect not. So why not start there?

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Still Crazy Illogical After All These Years

I've commented on the dimwitted argument by people that it's hard to believe don't know better, that any negative movement in the stock market is somehow the fault of a Democratic politician. For example, George Will.

Right-wing law professor Jim Lindgren made that insipid argument four years ago. Today he doubles down.

If Lindgren believes this type of claptrap, it would seem you can teach law while having a very poor grasp of logic. If he does not, that type of games-playing is beneath him.

Healthcare Reform is a Done Deal

This one goes out to David Frum.

The Republican Party Can No Longer Blame Bush

Okay, I'm really turning that line back on the political right, specifically those factions that have tried to turn the War in Afghanistan into "Obama's War" and the slow economic recovery resulting from the Bush-era economic collapse into "Obama's economy". No doubt, memories of Bush did play a role in holding some voters in the Democratic column where they might otherwise have supported a Republican contender.

Nonetheless, when I read something like this, I think it's fair to say that it was the Republican Party that lost this election, not Bush. It is fair to say that Bush caused damage and that the Republican Party has not recovered from that damage, but I don't think that damage rises to the level that it either cost the party this election or, with more responsible leadership, would have remained a significant issue four years out.
But in reality the more pressing problem is that Republicans are still a party badly damaged by the George W. Bush years. The GOP has traditionally held huge advantages on foreign policy and the economy. That advantage is gone now. And Mitt Romney was the wrong candidate to give the party a refresh on those issues, particularly when the gettable voters were downscale whites. It isn’t that Republicans aren’t reaching enough voters; voters simply don’t believe the GOP is competent to govern.
The Republican Party has long held undeserved advantages on... I think it's more fair to call it "the military" as opposed to foreign policy, and on the economy. Past Republican Presidents did a good job portraying the Democratic Party as "tax and spend", while running up record deficits. They did a good job portraying the Democratic Party as "weak", while committing the U.S. to foreign military escapades that were of questionable value to national security, with sometimes disastrous results. Bush didn't depart from that formula - he simply kicked it up a notch.

But that's still not why the Republican Party lost. The Republican Party lost because it chose to nominate Mitt Romney. I'm certainly not convinced that any of the other declared candidates would have won, at least once the few who displayed any signs of "paleoconservatism" were drummed out of the pool, but let's recall a few things: Bush dreamed of an ethnically inclusive Republican Party. When he ran for office he favored immigration reform, albeit of a somewhat watered down nature. Senator John McCain was a champion of the DREAM Act. John McCain responded to anti-immigrant sentiments in his party by abandoning any support for immigration reform. Mitt Romney predictably tried to come down on multiple sides of the issue, but was not credible. And the Republican Party lost votes as a result - vote losses that cannot be blamed on Bush.

You want a party that is credible on foreign / military policy? Even though he chose to endorse President Obama, Colin Powell is still a Republican. No, I'm not saying run Powell, and I'm well aware of the positions taken by his critics, but I am saying that there are Republicans that continue to have credibility with the public. It was not the Democratic Party that chose to marginalize that faction of the Republican Party.
Obama did not really propose anything new on the economy or foreign policy fronts, but he did make contraception, rape, and Roe v. Wade a large part of this campaign. He constantly portrayed Romney as a man with “the social policies of the 1950s.” Apparently this worked.
I'm sure it played a role in President Obama's advantage among women, but again that's not something you can pin on Bush. G.W. ran as an unapologetically pro-life candidate, and implemented a lot of policies that made the pro-choice crowd angry, but he knew where to draw the line. He didn't come across as the type who wanted to ban contraception or who would make crackpot statements on sexual assault, and I don't think he would have left any ambiguity about where he stood on those issues. Romney tried to dance around the issues, and I doubt that anybody was left satisfied - the social conservatives he was attempting to appease, or the women who questioned whether he would stand up even for their right to access contraception.

The "back to the 1950's" issues, let's recall, arose in no small part from the statements of Tea Party candidates. In many ways the Tea Party is a reinvention of a certain bloc of Republican voters, but it was the Republican establishment and right-wing media that chose to amplify their voice and power. That helped the Republicans gain seats in 2010, but appears to have contributed to their loss in 2012. It definitely contributed to some of the Democratic victories in the Senate.

So let's say this: Right now it is fair to say that the economy is struggling back from collapse, and that the present economic conditions are in significant part an echo of the Bush Administration's mistakes, but that it would have been at least theoretically possible to have a more robust recovery had the President advanced (and if the Republicans would have allowed) certain recovery measures that were not tried, or were not strengthened when they proved inadequate. Right now it is fair to say that the echo of G.W. Bush played a role in why the public is suspicious of the Republican Party on foreign / military policy and economic issues, and probably contributed to the line-up of candidates from which Mitt Romney was deemed "the most electable".

But from this point forward, it's ownership time. It's Obama's job to keep the nation on a path to recovery. It's the Republican Party's job to find a candidate who is credible on foreign policy and economic issues. (As was obvious some months ago, Jeb Bush was already seeing the handwriting on the wall and has long been positioning himself to be that candidate four years from now.) Acknowledge his actual contribution if appropriate, but from this point forward the only politician who is entitled to say "It's G.W.'s fault" is Jeb, if he cannot get his own quest to be President back on track.

What if Mitt Romney Had Run an Honorable Campaign?

I suspect that, were he the Republican nominee, George Romney would have won this election. Leaving aside the question of whether it is possible to win the Republican nomination while presenting a consistent, pragmatic face, Mitt Romney didn't even try.

One way to look at it is that the worst that would have come from an honorable campaign would have been a loss at the polls - and that happened anyway.

Update: For example,
By sunrise the next day, it was clear to Romney that they had acted too quickly. The campaign learned that four Americans had been killed in an attack on a U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Even to some Republicans, Romney’s hasty statement looked insensitive. “We screwed up, guys,” Romney told aides on a conference call that morning, according to multiple people on the call. “This is not good.” His advisers told him that, if he took back his statement, the neoconservative wing of the party would “take his head off.” He stood by it during an appearance in Florida. Two days later, Obama traveled to Joint Base Andrews to meet the four flag-draped coffins.
I have read that when it came to Romneycare in Massachusetts, he responded to similar objections with "I want to do the right thing." Where did that guy go?

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Divine Right

Who are you going to vote for?

Paul 'Joffrey' Ryan

Michael Gerson Doesn't Like Arithmetic....

I won't blame Michael Gerson for the title to his latest column, as it was likely chosen by an editor, but wow... what a ridiculous attempt at a play on words. Gerson is hopping on the Republican bandwagon by attacking Nate Silver, a guy who announced well in advance of the polling of this race, "Here's the formula I'm going to apply to the polling data to try to predict a winner in the presidential race," because he has done exactly that - he has applied his formula exactly as promised, in a clinical, nonpartisan manner, but... darnitall, his numbers keep favoring the President.

Gerson starts out with a reasonable point - that the specificity of the numbers produced by Silver's formula may be misleading. Gerson complains that Silver's formula, as of the time of his writing, put President Obama's chance of reelection "at 86.3 percent. Not 86.1 percent. Not 87.8 percent. At 86.3 percent." But the specificity is a product of the formula, not a claim that the formula is perfect. I'm not sure what difference it would make to Gerson, or to anybody else, if Silver rounded his numbers to the nearest one or five. For that matter, if Silver used a ten point scale, rounding off his number and saying "right now Romney has a 1/10 chance of winning", I would expect that Gerson and friends would be complaining about the lack of specificity and insisting that he use the "real" numbers from his formula.

But here's the thing: Gerson has no complaint about the polls themselves - just the algorithmic attempt to explain what the polls mean. He's fine with the race being declared "a dead heat" or "48:46". If the polls were coming back 60:40 for Romney I expect he would be ecstatic. What he doesn't like is being told that, if the polls as accurate, even if the polls are coming back with the candidates separated by a number less than their margin of error, the polls have a cumulative significance. A persistent small lead in poll after poll really does suggest that one subject has a genuine, persistent lead.

Gerson complains that analysts like Silver have their "bases covered",
If the state polls are correct, the aggregator gets credit for his insight in trusting them. If the assumptions contained in those polls — on the partisan composition of the electorate or the behavior of independents — are wrong, it is the failure of pollsters, not of statisticians such as Silver.
Well... yes. When somebody produces data that is correct, an analysis based upon that data is more likely to be correct. When somebody produces data that is wrong, "garbage in, garbage out." But that simply brings us back to the earlier point, if Gerson believes that the polls may be garbage, why isn't he objecting to the polls themselves rather than grousing about how statisticians analyze poll data?

Toward the end of his column Gerson complains that "current fashion for polls and statistics" extends to political commentary and,
Instead of making political analysis more “objective,” it has driven the entire political class — pundits, reporters, campaigns, the public — toward an obsessive emphasis on data and technique. Quantification has also resulted in miniaturization. In politics, unlike physics, you can only measure what matters least.
If that's Gerson's concern, the first question that comes to mind is why Gerson isobsessing over statistical analysis of poll data, rather than criticizing the larger, chronic tendency of his peers to cover elections as if they are a horse race. The second, where can I find the new breed of pundits who actually attempt to apply data to their analysis? Is Gerson talking about David Brooks and his marshmallows? Or is he pointing at Paul Krugman as the exception who proves the rule?

Gerson snarks, "Strongly consider a profession in which one is right, by definition, 100 percent of the time", never mind that if Silver's predictions are wrong he and his formula will take a hit. Gerson can produce, as a matter of habit, thinly reasoned column after thinly reasoned column and, as long as enough people read them, the New York Times will keep paying him a six figure salary and he'll be in a position to pick up far more than that on the lecture circuit and through book deals. If Silver's formula were as flawed, he would be discredited in the realm of politics.

Gerson continues his complaint about... was it polling... complaining that,
An election is not a mathematical equation; it is a nation making a decision. People are weighing the priorities of their society and the quality of their leaders. Those views, at any given moment, can be roughly measured. But spreadsheets don’t add up to a political community.
Who argued that spreadsheets, algorithms, statistics, polls, anything like that "add up to a political community"?
In a democracy, the convictions of the public ultimately depend on persuasion, which resists quantification.
Yet Gerson knows that is untrue. He worked for an administration that was dreaming of creating a permanent Republican majority, even if just 51% of voters, and was no doubt specifically tasked with crafting speeches meant to satisfy that narrow majority based upon aggregated polling data. He has seen how politicians running for office use polls to shape their message and their sound bites, to target segments of the population they believe are likely to vote for them. Gerson is rooting for a candidate who won't put on a shirt without checking the polls, who changes his positions on key issues every time the polls tell him that likely Republican voters want to hear something different.

Gerson declares,
The most interesting and important thing about politics is not the measurement of opinion but the formation of opinion. Public opinion is the product — the outcome — of politics; it is not the substance of politics.
Really? In that case it would be interesting to have Gerson explain to us how the vast fortune spent on political campaign ads over the course of this election have reshaped public opinion. How the campaign speeches have done so. When opinions have changed it seems to have been forces outside of the political sphere that have led to the change - a hurricane blasting the East Coast, for example - not politics. What election is Gerson looking at?

Also, when political scientists attempt to determine which people hold certain beliefs, then to determine why those people hold their beliefs, they're engaged in the study of how opinions are formed. Gerson knows that his party has made an artform of crafting language to persuade people to support its positions, and to obscure the truth behind them, labeling and relabeling their programs. "Privatize? We would never suggest that. Vouchers? Never heard of 'em." There's a reason why some political scientists study the phrases used in political speeches and, having penned a large number of them, Gerson has to understand that, even if he feigns ignorance.
If political punditry has any value in a democracy, it is in clarifying large policy issues and ethical debates, not in “scientific” assessments of public views.
Perhaps the takeaway from that is, "Perhaps that's why punditry, as presently practiced, has so little value in our democracy." Columnists may not be producing a "scientific" assessment of public views, but they're more than happy to label the nation's politics and leaders - "center-left", "center-right", etc. - and they're more than happy to declare what "the people" want and expect from their political leaders. Gerson believes that such statements are more valuable when they come from the gut, as opposed to from any attempt to methodically collect and analyze actual data?

And while I'm sure Gerson embraces the conceit that, through his column, he is "clarifying large policy issues and ethical debates", few columnists make such an effort. Most are happy to instead share their own opinions, or to advance the positions of groups that fund their speeches and buy their books, even if that means muddying the waters. Gerson played a lead role in the team that sold the Iraq War to the American public - not the entire public, but enough of the public such that the war could go on. Even if he might protest, "That was before I was a pundit," he's going to lecture others about clarifying issues of public policy and ethics? First, how about an apology?

Gerson next switches gears, and starts attacking political science and what he sees as its "mania for measurement". Let's note up front, Nate Silver is not a political scientist - to the extent that Gerson believes that any exercise in measurement and statistical analysis of a political question falls under the umbrella of "political science", he's mistaken.
Crack open most political science journals and you’ll find a profusion of numbers and formulas more suited to the study of physics. In my old field of speechwriting, political scientists sometimes do content analysis by counting the recurrence of certain words — as though leadership could be decoded by totaling the number of times Franklin Roosevelt said “feah” or George W. Bush said “freedom.”
You know, the sort of thing no pundit would ever do. What sort of pundit would devote a paragraph of an interview to a self-adulating politician's description of his insistence that God be named in a political platform based on the argument, "have you checked any polling lately" - and what sort of deeply religious columnist would not be offended by that? Oh... yeah.

Frankly, Gerson's comments suggest to me that he has read very little analysis by political scientists, and has even less of an understanding of what they do or how their work is used. He focuses on the word "political", and loses track of the fact that political science is much more about policy formation than it is about politics. Gerson speaks of political science as "a division of the humanities", "mainly the realm of ethics — the study of justice, human nature, moral philosophy and the common good".

A couple of years ago I sat through a series of presentations by political science graduate students, involving such efforts as an analysis of dental care training and treatment provided to impoverished preschoolers and its impact on their later dental and physical health - focused very much on the bottom line, the cost to a community that would implement such a program and the savings that would result. Sure, you could "go with your gut" on something like that, but when you have limited resources and don't want to waste money the statistics Gerson derides can be crucial to good policy formation, wise allocation of tax dollars and avoidance of waste.

Gerson's thoughts on political science seem a bit like his reaction to Nate Silver - "Deriving numbers and statistical probabilities from data? I don't get it." He again displays confusion about the precision of a statistic and its greater meaning, that political scientists are attempting to apply "the precision of mathematics in a field of study whose subject can yield no such certainty". Except as Gerson should know, you can find patterns in just about anything and can collect data to identify or clarify the significance of a pattern. The numbers produced by a statistical analysis may look precise, but you're going to be less concerned about the data and more concerned about the probabilities - how likely it is that the same result would occur by chance. And yes, even when you're using data and statistics, you actually can use political science as part of "the study of justice, human nature, moral philosophy and the common good".

By the end of the column, Gerson's argument appears to reduce to, "Statistics are cold and impersonal, and I would rather ignore them and talk about issues of ethics and values - the things that really matter." I guess he's calling for a return to his pet phrase, a concept that was never transformed into reality, "compassionate conservatism". I am not sure what role Gerson had in advancing Bush's use of empty catch phrases like "A hand up, not a handout", but Gerson's fundamental problem appears to be that he cannot distinguish politics from policy, rhetoric from reality. He gets misty-eyed when Republicans speak of "equality", but does not care that behind the rhetoric lie policies that will inevitably increase inequality.

Actually, perhaps that's why he hates the numbers and those who work with them. Perhaps he truly wants to believe that Paul Ryan's goal of undermining of public services and government programs that aid the poor and middle class, in favor of massive tax cuts for the rich, is in fact part of a larger goal of increasing equality, and when people inject reality into the mix his first urge is to run, screaming from the room.

If Paul Ryan quotes Lincoln, Gerson would ask us to listen to the pretty words, and to keep our eyes away from the reality he knows they are designed to obscure. And alas, whether he believes himself to be sheltering and nurturing a concept that will never reach maturity, if he's more cynically working to obscure the realities of his party's agenda and a Paul Ryan-type budget, or if he's focused on a narrow social conservative agenda and doesn't otherwise care about veracity, Gerson truly does seem to believe that to be his job as a pundit. Then again, maybe it's more simple than that: Maybe Gerson is comfortable in his assumption that the issues that are important to him - the ones that lead to his "the ends justify the means" commentary, his most mendacious claims and distortions of political reality - are equally important to others, and he's uncomfortable being confronted with data that suggests that he's wrong not only about the electorate but about his own party.