Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Marc Thiessen, as Usual, Gets Things Completely Wrong

I suspect Marc Thiessen's intelligence is no worse than average, but he's certainly not afraid to look stupid:
Politicians and commentators on the left have been publicly flogging Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for daring to talk about poverty in America’s inner cities. The charges have been so vicious and scurrilous (accusing him of using racial “dog-whistles” and language “deliberately crafted to appeal to white racists”) that their only purpose can be to send a message to Ryan and any other Republican who would dare follow his lead: Keep your hands off our issue. Poverty belongs to us. Stay away or we will brand you a racist.
(Insert obligatory Jay Smooth video here.)
Ryan’s attackers worry that if Republicans follow his lead, it will expose the failure of the left’s approach to poverty. For decades, Republicans gave Democrats a near-monopoly in the fight against poverty. And like most monopolies shielded from competition, the Democrat-led war on poverty failed. We have spent trillions of dollars on anti-poverty programs, and today the number of Americans living at or near poverty is higher than it was in 1964.
Yeah.... Ryan's critics are terrified that his war on poverty, and by that I mean policy proposals that would make it even harder to be poor, is going to win him votes from... um... I guess it would be nobody?
Ryan’s attackers are also worried that if Republicans make helping the poor and vulnerable a priority, Democrats can no longer win elections by waging class warfare and painting the GOP as uncaring champions of the wealthy. They want the Republicans to follow the example of Mitt Romney, who declared in 2012, “I’m not concerned about the very poor. . . . We will hear from the Democrat Party [on] the plight of the poor. . . . But my campaign is focused on middle-income Americans.”
I cannot recall the last time a Democrat had to "wage class warfare" or "paint the GOP as uncaring about the poor". The GOP hangs that brand on itself. But for somebody as (willfully?) obtuse as Thiessen, perhaps that's a difficult distinction to draw.
Ryan understands that if Republicans abandon the poor to the Democrats, they will hurt the poor — because Democrats have all the wrong answers for the problems of poverty. But they will also hurt themselves. Because no one — in the middle class or any class — wants to support a party that does not care for the most vulnerable among us.
Stuff and nonsense on both fronts. First, however flawed anti-poverty efforts of the past have been, the reason Thiessen can hang most of the responsibility for those programs on the Democrats is that the Republican approach to poverty (including Ryan's approach) hinges on cutting benefits for the poor. For example, the Republican Party is in a tizzy, right now, because their food stamp cuts aren't going to be as deep as they had hoped. Maybe in Thiessen's alternate universe, nothing says "We love the poor" like food stamp cuts.

Second, the Republicans have made something of an art form of distinguishing the "deserving poor" (i.e., poor people who, on the whole, vote for Republicans) from the "undeserving poor" (i.e., poor people who, on the whole, tend to vote for Democrats). A smarter man than Thiessen would admit that Ryan's foul-up was in making too explicit that many of those his party deems "undeserving" fall within a particular demographic,
We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.
If Thiessen wants the Republican Party to keep making statements like that, let's just say, if his thesis about voter concerns is correct he'll do nothing but harm to his party.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Robert Samuelson Fudges More Numbers

Robert Samuelson is expressing skepticism about the success of the stimulus:
There’s the puzzle: monster stimulus, midget recovery.

How to explain the contrasting stories?
If Samuelson, an economics commentator, actually followed his subject, he would be aware that the stimulus was not so big in relation to the gap it needed to cover. Dean Baker has been addressing this issue for years.
The arithmetic on this is straightforward. With the collapse of the bubble, we suddenly had a huge glut of unsold homes. As a result, housing construction plunged from record highs to 50-year lows. The loss in annual construction demand was more than $600 billion. Similarly, the loss of $8 trillion in housing equity sent consumption plunging. People no longer had equity in their homes against which to borrow, and even the people who did would face considerably tougher lending conditions. The drop in annual consumption was on the order of $500 billion.

The collapse of the bubble in nonresidential real estate cost the economy another $150 billion in annual demand, as did the cutbacks in state and local government spending as a result of lost tax revenue. This brings the loss in annual demand as a result of the collapse of the bubble to $1.4 trillion.

Compared with this loss of private sector demand, the stimulus was about $700 billion, excluding some technical tax fixes that are done every year and have nothing to do with stimulus. Roughly $300 billion of this was for 2009 and another $300 billion for 2010, with the rest of the spending spread over later years.

In other words, we were trying offset a loss of $1.4 trillion in annual demand with a stimulus package of $300 billion a year. Surprise! This was not enough.
It's not as if Dean Baker is alone in his opinion. Paul Krugman seems prescient in describing Samuelson's form of analysis:
So why does everyone — or, to be more accurate, everyone except those who have seriously studied the issue — believe that the stimulus was a failure? Because the U.S. economy continued to perform poorly — not disastrously, but poorly — after the stimulus went into effect.

There’s no mystery about why: America was coping with the legacy of a giant housing bubble. Even now, housing has only partly recovered, while consumers are still held back by the huge debts they ran up during the bubble years. And the stimulus was both too small and too short-lived to overcome that dire legacy.

This is not, by the way, a case of making excuses after the fact. Regular readers know that I was more or less tearing my hair out in early 2009, warning that the Recovery Act was inadequate — and that by falling short, the act would end up discrediting the very idea of stimulus. And so it proved.
But, you know, Samuelson found an economist you've probably never heard of before, and the guy has a position at a brand name university and a blog, so why research any more deeply into the subject? Samuelson's primary argument is that we should live in fear of dire consequences that never materialized, and thus that the government should do nothing more to stimulate the economy. Fortunately for him, the Republican Party is on his side so we're apt to see the painfully slow recovery continue to inch along. If another recession hits soon, Samuelson may discover out that the phrase, "an economy in eclipse," has more significance than as a parting shot taken at those who actually understand the subject.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Robert Samuelson's Fudgy Numbers

You can count on two things from Robert Samuelson: Arguments that any amount of social spending is too much, and arguments that any amount of military spending is too low. I say that while accepting that there may be some social spending programs that Samuelson would maintain at present levels, or perhaps even expand, and some military programs that he might cut, but he's not interested in writing about those issues. In a big picture sense, he dislikes social spending, while depicting military and war spending as easily afforded pocket change.

It thus comes as no surprise that Samuelson is adamantly opposed to the proposed cuts to the Pentagon budget and the size and scope of the U.S. military. Predictably, his outrage is expressed largely in the abstract, and he chooses to completely ignore the issues of waste or of out-dated or redundant weapons programs. Instead he presents dubious arguments and fudges the numbers. It's difficult to believe that he could hold a straight face while writing his opening paragraph:
The crisis in Ukraine reminds us that the future is unpredictable, that wars routinely involve miscalculation and that brute force — boots on the ground, bombs in the air — counts. None of these obvious lessons seems to have made much impression in Washington, where the Obama administration and Congress continue their policy of defunding defense and reducing the United States’ military power.
I would love for Samuelson to explain to his readers how much additional U.S. military spending it would take to deter Russia from acting in what it perceives to be its best interest, and exactly how that spending would have an impact on Putin's decision-making. The issue is not that we can't counter Russia in a conventional war. The issue is that Russia is a nuclear power, and even if a war to liberate Crimea were somehow (magically) contained to that region and did not involve nuclear weapons, the human cost of such a war would be massive. Samuelson is more than smart enough to know that a $400 trillion U.S. military budget would not have deterred Russia. What does it tell us that his opening position suggests otherwise?

Next up, Samuelson whines that as military spending drops, Social Security spending increases. First, as should be obvious to anybody who claims to be a writer on economic issues, the two are not related. It is possible to have both high Social Security spending and high military spending. Second, the funding mechanisms are different. Social Security is designed to be self-funding. But for Republican obstructionism, as cheered on by the "Burn it down" position taken by Beltway pundits such as Samuelson, we would almost certainly have seen a reform bill pass early in Obama's tenure that would have reduced the measure of inflation for future Social Security benefits and balanced the books into the very distant future. Third, if Samuelson can do math, he knows that Social Security and Medicare spending are closely tied to the number of elderly people in our society, and he should have no trouble figuring out that the problem is not so much that the spending is "out of control" as it is that Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age. Fourth, the reasons to maintain Social Security and Medicare have absolutely nothing to do with the reasons our nation might have to modify its defense budget.

Samuelson next claims that there are two reasons why the U.S. has a military: to deter conflicts and to defend national interests. On the issue of deterrence, Samuelson argues that any large military budget cuts "symbolically undermines deterrence." What a wonderfully convenient argument for him: We can never make more than token cuts to the military, as to do so would send the message to the world that they can engage in military conflicts. Perhaps Samuelson is still clinging to the false hope that the end of the Cold War somehow meant an end to war, as it's difficult to find a region in the world where nations seem particularly disinclined to engage in warfare when they believe it's in their best interest. One wonders, what military conflict does Samuelson believe the U.S. is presently deterring (perhaps a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, or a North Korean invasion of South Korea?) and why does he imagine that the military cuts will even slightly affect deterrence.

The best examples Samuelson can muster are of China and Iran:
The United States’ military retrenchment won’t make China’s leaders less ambitious globally. (China plans a 12 percent increase in military spending for 2014; at that pace, spending would double in six years.) Nor will it dampen Iran’s aggressiveness and promote a negotiated settlement over its nuclear program. Probably the reverse. Diplomacy often fails unless backed by a credible threat of force.
If the best examples Samuelson can muster are that, if military spending is cut, China may go on an invasion spree and Iran will... do whatever it is that Samuelson imagines that they would do differently... you can see the weakness of his position. When you describe the current military actions taken by China, how can you suggest that those actions would be deterred if only we didn't reduce military spending from current levels? As for the notion that the U.S. would lack credibility to pose a military threat to Iran, post-cuts, that's absurd on its face. It's another assertion that Samuelson can't possibly believe.

Samuelson mentions that China is increasing its military spending by 12%, to support a ridiculous projection that at that rate they could double military spending in six years. His source tells us what such a theoretical doubling would mean:
Although the rise in the defense budget in the past three years has surpassed GDP growth, the share of military spending in China's GDP stood at less than 1.5 percent last year, well below the world average of 3 percent, Yin said, citing statistics.
A report released by London's International Institute for Strategic Studies showed the United States remained the world's biggest defense spender in 2013, with a budget of 600.4 billion U.S. dollars.
Robert Samuelson has been beating the military spending drum for a very long time. Back in 1997, he was complaining that 1996 military spending was a mere 3.6% of GDP. In 2012, by the CIA's measure, military spending was at 4.35% of GDP. While that number may decrease to 2.7% by 2017, a target that was included in the 2013 bipartisan budget deal, U.S. military spending would continue to massively exceed China's expenditure.

Samuelson's drum beating about China also belies his suggestion that military strength is inexorably tied to the percentage of GDP a nation devotes to military spending. He's depicting a nation that spends a mere 1.5% of its GDP on its military as the leading threat to the world military dominance of the United States. That should suggest a few things to Samuelson, including the possibility that the fact that the size of a nation's economy factors complicates the question of how military spending should be measured and that, even in relation to his beloved military spending, the law of diminishing returns comes into play.

Samuelson also glosses over the fact that nations enjoy a carry-over from past military spending. It's not the present level of investment that frees Russia to support Syria, or act military in nations like Georgia, Czechoslovakia and Chechnya. It's the legacy of its superpower status and its nuclear arsenal. Russia may not have the power it once held to project its might into the far reaches of the globe, but it has made clear that it can and will act to defend its perceived interests no matter what the rest of the world may believe. In other words, despite Samuelson's ominous warnings, there's no reason to believe that the proposed budget cuts would devastate the status of the U.S. military as the world's leading military power, or the status of the U.S. as the world's only remaining superpower.
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine raises the prospect that a sizable number of U.S. troops might be stationed in the Baltic nations or Poland. All belong to NATO; all must now feel more threatened by Russia.
While noting that this is fear-mongering of the worst kind, and that Russia understands the difference between acting against a NATO member state and a non-aligned state, once again if that threat is being felt the feeling is occurring at the end of a long run-up in military spending. If current spending levels aren't sufficient to keep nations from being afraid of Russia, then there's really nothing that we can do to make that fear go away.

A question Samuelson doesn't ask, let alone address, is whether it's even our nation's proper role to try to ensure that nations that are not our treaty partners are not in fear of military action by a neighboring nation. Samuelson seems to love the idea of the U.S. as a global policeman, no matter what the price, but I see little sign on whether he's reflected on whether that's an appropriate role for the U.S., or whether other nations should take a greater role in paying for and providing their own regional security. If it's crucial to Europe that the Baltic States never fear Russia, no matter how remote the possibility of actual military action, why should it be the U.S. that foots most or all of the bill for chasing away the bogeyman? And if Samuelson believes the statement he endorses at the end of his column, "the world has gotten no less dangerous, turbulent or in need of American leadership. There is no obvious peace dividend as was the case at the end of the Cold War", why does he imagine that the bogeyman will vanish even if we continue to spend at today's inflated levels?

It should also be noted that Samuelson plays the game that any cuts in military spending must be permanent. He disregards the fact that every time this nation has felt a need to increase military spending, those increases have occurred. The only budget or spending bill that really matters is the one passed by the current Congress, as the next Congress will remain free to institute its own spending priorities. Samuelson, I suspect, is aware of that fact, but he chooses not to acknowledge it because, as with his other omissions, he understands that once people realize that his rending of clothes over future military spending is a performance, and that if the circumstances require Congress will do what it has always done to maintain the military strength of the United States -- increase military spending.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

The Senate Embarrasses Itself

Ruth Marcus has this right:
For Republicans to block one of President Obama’s nominees is dog-bites-man non-news. For members of the president’s party to defect is more notable. And for Democrats to worry more about their political hides than a nominee’s fitness for service — as happened in the Senate this week — is simply revolting.
In a sense her claim that the President "fail[ed] to adequately anticipate and defuse the problem" is a truism, but she doesn't suggest what he might have done differently. The Republicans who voted against Debo Adegbile did so because they find it to be politically advantageous to oppose the president, because they prefer a neutered civil rights division, because they are stupid, or some combination thereof, so the President wasn't going to win their votes. The Democrats who joined them did so because they are cowards. They knew the facts, but feared facing a political consequence if they voted based on the facts instead of pandering to factions they feared would vote against them in coming elections. What argument would change that?

Thursday, March 06, 2014

How About Taking Responsibility For the Medications You Take

Ruth Marcus seems oblivious to the fact that sedating medications, including Ambien, are frequently abused.
[Kerry] Kennedy may have taken the pill by mistake, they contended, but she ought to have known she was impaired and pulled over.

Excuse me, but maybe they should have tried taking this drug before filing criminal charges. Ambien and other sleeping pills are powerful. You take Ambien, and 15 to 30 minutes later, you begin to zonk out. A toxicologist who testified at Kennedy’s trial — for the prosecution, no less — said that someone under the influence of Ambien could fail to recognize that she was having a problem, or even to remember, later, what happened.
I think we can infer from Marcus's statement that she has taken Ambien, and thus knows how sedating it is. What Marcus probably has not seen is what happens when somebody takes Ambien and deliberately stays awake. The superficial affect is one of significant alcohol intoxication. Why do some people do that? Just as with abuse of common benzodiazepines, ecause they like the way it makes them feel, and some of them use other drugs or alcohol at the same time so that they can enjoy a magnifying effect.

Ambien may be something of an extreme case, given how quickly the sleepiness can come on, but how far would Marcus extend her "Let's assume it was an accident" rationale to other sleep aids? She draws a distinction between "medications with drowsiness as a side effect, [and] the ones whose sole purpose is sedation", but why? Many people take Benadryl to sleep, and sometimes pharmacists recommend it as a non-prescription sleep aid. Many people take opiate and opioid medications for pain, but they can be highly sedating and are commonly abused.

Marcus seems to feel that nobody who drives down a road after taking Ambien should ever face a criminal charge for driving while impaired by drugs, even if they injure or kill somebody. I have no problem working from the perspective that if you are too drugged to drive you shouldn't get behind the wheel, even if you took the wrong medication by accident. When somebody is intoxicated behind the wheel, I don't mind putting the impetus on that person to convince me both that it was a mistake and that they had no reasonable opportunity to recognize the mistake so as to get off the road. Kerry Kennedy was able to convince a jury that she took Ambien by accident, and didn't recognize its effect in time to safely stop her car. Marcus thinks that's too high a price for Kennedy and other Ambien users to pay, but it's not as if either of them are unaware of the dangers of that drug. They are both certainly aware of this case:
U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy said Friday that he will enter a rehabilitation program after crashing his car on Capitol Hill a day earlier....

He said in a statement Thursday evening that he was apparently disoriented at the time of the crash after taking the prescribed amounts of a sleep aid and an anti-nausea drug.

"I am deeply concerned about my reaction to the medication and my lack of knowledge of the accident that evening. But I do know enough to know that I need to seek expert help," he said Friday....

In his Thursday evening statement, Kennedy said he had returned home after final votes in the House of Representatives around midnight Wednesday and taken the sleep aid Ambien and an anti-nausea drug....

In his comments Friday, Kennedy said, "The recurrence of an addiction problem can be triggered by things that happen in every day life, such as taking a common treatment for a stomach flu.
Assuming she takes Ambien, Marcus, I expect, is very careful with Ambien due to the stories she recounts, including one that put one of her own children in danger. How many stories do we need, and how close to home do they have to hit, before we can reasonably expect people to look at their pills and read their pill bottles before swallowing a sleeping pill then getting behind the wheel of a car?

I won't argue with Marcus that manufacturers could create pill colors and shapes, or package sleep aids in a different manner, and thereby all-but-eliminate the "I was confused" defense. Perhaps at that point Marcus would accept that people intoxicated by Ambien should be subject to prosecution for driving in that condition. But for now, if people have multiple, similar-looking medications, they owe it to themselves and others not to confuse their pills. If people who have serious health conditions requiring them to juggle dozens of medications can keep their pills straight, I think it's reasonable to ask that people with minor medical conditions and two or three prescriptions to do the same, more so when incidents of carelessness will pose serious risk to themselves and others.