Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pay for performance, Baltimore police style

Dana Goldstein cites a a social science maxim to explain powerful evidence that former D.C.schools Chancellor  Michelle Rhee's heavy incentives for improved test score results led to widespread cheating:
In the social sciences, there is an oft-repeated maxim called Campbell’s Law, named after Donald Campbell, a psychologist who studied human creativity. Campbell’s Law states that incentives corrupt. In other words, the more punishments and rewards—such as merit pay—are associated with the results of any given test, the more likely it is that the test’s results will be rendered meaningless, either through outright cheating or through teaching to the test in a way that narrows the curriculum and renders real learning obsolete.

There's a dramatic illustration of this principle at work (with negative incentives) in The Wire, the HBO series about Baltimore detectives' endless and mainly fruitless struggles against the drug trade (Season 3, episode 1, Time after Time).  A city councilman who's trying to get the police commissioner to dance to his tune flays him and the mayor at a public meeting for high crime stats. Under pressure from the mayor, the commissioner promises to reduce felonies by 5% and keep the year's murder count under 275. The commissioner and deputy commissioner in turn lay the wood to their subordinates. Here's Rawls, the dickish deputy (my rough transcript):

You will reduce the felonies by 5% or more or...let no man come back alive.  In addition, we will hold this year's murders to 275 or less...[there's] no excuse I will accept. I don't care how you do it. Just fuckin' do it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spencer Ackerman writes a short Obama Doctrine

In response to Obama's speech on Libya, Spencer Ackerman hones in on a passage that I flagged as a sign that Obama's harks back to the future of George H.W. Bush:
One more thing, and it’s peripheral to Libya. But there’s a lot of debate over whether there’s an “Obama Doctrine” or not. (I’d had my own take on that since the 2008 campaign.) It won’t do to simply say it’s to intervene militarily when U.S. interests and values align to stop a given atrocity, since every post-Cold War president says that.

This line may be more instructive: “American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves. Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.” 
Then Ackerman comes out himself with what strikes me as a nice concise formulation of the Obama Doctrine-in-progress (my emphasis):

Monday, March 28, 2011

Obama on Libya: all-but-vital interests

Some quick notes on Obama's speech on Libya tonight:

1) In the wake of Robert Gates' weekend assertion that "vital interests" are not at stake in Libya, he threaded a needle between "vital interests" and "interests and values"  - a combination of humanitarian concern and, shall we say, not-quite-vital strategic interest:  
There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

MIA in the latest Jane Eyre

Well, it isn't a bad Jane Eyre. Mia Wasikowska's Jane has an understated dignity and a measure of strength;  the rather sparse scraps of dialogue preserve a degree of fidelity to the book; the film offers a vivid sense of the interiors of 19th century English dwellings of various kinds; and it has a haunting score that conveys the forces arrayed against Jane, if not the ultimate confidence with which she engages them.

But a lot is missing: the movie lacks the book's force. To understand what's missing, consider three sources of that force: individual ego, patriarchal authority, and let's face it, sisterhood.

A (children's) poem for Sunday

Time in

Da-dum: the heart.
Ah-ha: the breath.
Always on
from birth to death.

Friday, March 25, 2011

In which my energy consumption becomes manifest

The U.S. has less than 5% of the world's population and consumes 25% of its energy.  Americans consume almost twice as much per capita as Germans and Japanese, and about sixteen times as much as the average Indian. 

I can't say I've given these widely cited facts a tremendous amount of thought, but a trip to the recycle bins in my backyard just brought home one sliver of that massive consumption. We have one bin for newspaper and one for non-newsprint -- that is, magazines and junk mail.  That bin is 3 1/2 feet tall and a bit more than two feet square. I opened it, and it was filled to the brim, almost entirely with junk mail -- more than 14 cubic feet of propositions that no one even glanced at.  The bin probably weighs 200 pounds.  I wish I could say how long it took to fill -- it usually doesn't fill all the way,  because a couple of pickups were canceled due to all the snow we had this winter.  But still. For a moment there, the sheer waste staggered me.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Libyan conundrum, and the blogger's

Those who knew little or nothing about Libya before the current crisis, yet feel the temptation or responsibility to "take a stand, might envy  Nicholas Kristof's understandable pride in the basis of his own judgment:
I opposed the 2003 Iraq invasion because my reporting convinced me that most Iraqis hated Saddam Hussein but didn’t want American forces intruding on their soil. This time my reporting persuades me that most Libyans welcome outside intervention.
For those of us lacking that basis, the demurral of James Downie is refreshing:

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

O Captain! My Captain! Make us all get in the boat together....

Anne Applebaum invites us to imagine "that President Obama had spent the past few weeks denouncing Moammar Gaddafi, using the soaring rhetoric he has deployed in the past." The results would not be pretty:
Had he done all of that, there would certainly be fewer European members of the “coalition of the willing” that has formed, tentatively, to prevent Gaddafi from entering Benghazi: I can’t see the French or the Spanish falling in behind an aggressive-sounding American campaign. There would probably be no Arab coalition members either...

Enthusiasm and soaring rhetoric would also now lock the United States and its allies into an implied set of promises. If we’d compared Gaddafi to Hitler we’d have to eliminate him. If democracy were the only solution in Libya, we’d have to stay in Libya until it was democratic. If Obama had been talking about nothing else for the past three weeks, his entire presidency would be on the line.
Does that mode of "leadership" in response to the Libyan uprising remind you of anything?  Remember all those calls for a Presidential crusade against the structural budget deficit? The urgings that he embrace the Bowles-Simpson plan, or lay out a detailed blueprint of his own in the State of the Union address and/or in his proposed budget? Obama has been quite explicit about why he refrained from doing this:
“If you look at history of how these deals get done, typically it’s not because there’s an Obama plan out there. Its’ because Democrats and Republican are serious about dealing with [these issues] in a serious way,” the president said. “This is not a matter of you go first or I go first,” he said before describing a goal of “everybody…ultimately getting in that boat at the same time so it doesn’t tip over.”

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Financial Times hearts dithering

The Financial Times Comment crew is bidding fair to turn "ditherer" into a term of honor. Clive Crook, who slapped the term on Obama during his deliberations over Afghan policy, yesterday cataloged the virtues of dither-beration in the emergence of the strategy in Libya. Today, Gideon Rachman sings a similar tune.

Crook notes that in Obama, Europe has the antidote to Bush it thought it wanted:
Not long ago, Europe complained that the US was bullying, reckless and high-handed. Not long ago, Europe was ecstatic at Mr Obama’s election because this was not his style. You would think, having longed for a president who was cautious, deliberate and respectful of other countries’ opinions – and having voiced contempt for George W. Bush because he was none of those things – Europeans would hesitate to say: “The time for talking is over. Just start shooting.” 

Both kinds of critic – US hawks and Europe’s militant multilateralists – are right to say dithering held up the allied attacks and made the mission harder. The problem for multilateralists is that dithering is built into the system they advocate. If you cannot tolerate dithering, better not demand UN authority for your military interventions.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Another war, another presidential 'terms sheet'

Well, Obama's approach to launching a police action is really singular, It seems that flying off to Brazil at the outset of Operation Odyssey Dawn was a feature, not a bug. He is signaling that Libya is not going to dominate his agenda.  He seems also to think that he can shape reality (i.e.,' lead'?) with such signals.

Yesterday, I noted that Obama seems to be trying to wish away, or command away, the specter of quagmire.  "Days, not weeks" is his watchword -- repeated, this time in public, today. But today he fleshed out why he thinks he's able to say that -- and showed the architecture of what he's tried to construct as a limited United States engagement.

Asked how he "can 'square' the assertion that Muammar Qadhafi is killing people but that he doesn't have to leave power," Obama unraveled his own riddle of the sphinx as it's emerged over three weeks. He asserted three paradoxes or anomalies:
  • The U.N. mandate is limited to stopping civilian deaths, but U.S. policy is to force Qadhafi out.
  • The U.S is exerting military leadership, but only in phase 1 of U.N.-authorized coalition action (notwithstanding that its policy goals are more expansive than the U.N's). 
  • The U.S. is committed to driving Qadhafi out, but not to driving him out militarily. 

Behold as presidential logic, live-blogged by Politico, doth unfold:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Obama's military triangulation

President Obama has not adequately explained why he decided to go to war in Libya. But this reported aspect of his decision-making process disturbs me:
In his meeting with Members of Congress today, sources tell ABC News, President Obama said he expected that the period that the US would be involved in heavy kinetic activity would be "days, not weeks," after which he said the US would then take more of a supporting role.
That recalls Obama's response to the conundrum of whether to ramp up or cut back U.S. engagement in Afghanistan.  Faced with the terrible choice of eschewing or undertaking military action (or reducing vs. escalating), Obama's signature decision seems to be "do it quickly" and "do it at minimal cost."  There's a kind of triangulation here that, while posing as an extreme realism (policy nuance based on the facts of the particular case) may actually reflect a form of escapism -- a bid to shape events to a degree that human activity can't attain. Perhaps that goes as well for the attempt the clothe the U.S.'s role as a supporting one -- though the latter does seem like good policy if you accept the premise that military action was required.

The decision-making pattern seems at least to rhyme with that portrayed in great detail by Bob Woodward in Obama's War.  As I've noted before, while Woodward does not explicitly pass judgment on Obama's chosen course, his narrative skews toward those in the administration's counsels who highlighted apparently insurmountable obstacles to standing up a self-sustaining government in Afghanistan: the total corruption of the Karzai regime, the complete failure to date of "handing off" responsibility to any unit of the Afghan army or police; the near-complete sanctuary enjoyed by the Taliban in Pakistan.  Rather than fully confronting the "mission impossible" implications, Obama imposed his own conditions on the military brass: do it with (somewhat) fewer troops, and do it on a shorter timeline.  That may have preserved his authority in some obscure sense, but seems unlikely to have increased the odds of a successful outcome.

Friday, March 18, 2011

"A spectacle of war and intervention"

Marc Lynch has a balanced and frankly ambivalent analysis of the U.N. action on Libya, noting both its potential to strengthen the rule of law in the world and its potential to devolve into a bloody quagmire with no exit.

Not venturing to call odds on those possibilities, I just want to note one sidelight cast by Lynch's scenario-izing. It's here (my emphasis):

But if it does not succeed quickly, and the intervention degenerates into a long quagmire of air strikes, grinding street battles, and growing pressure for the introduction of outside ground forces, then the impact could be quite different.  Despite the bracing scenes of Benghazi erupting into cheers at the news of the Resolution, Arab support for the intervention is not nearly as deep as it seems and will not likely survive an extended war.  If Libyan civilians are killed in airstrikes, and especially if foreign troops enter Libyan territory, and images of Arabs killed by U.S. forces replace images of brave protestors battered by Qaddafi's forces on al-Jazeera, the narrative could change quickly into an Iraq-like rage against Western imperialism.   What began as an indigenous peaceful Arab uprising against authoritarian rule could collapse into a spectacle of war and intervention.  
What strikes me here is the framing of contemporary war as spectacle -- the implicit acknowledgment that the ground war and the PR war are inseparable, and the implication that the PR war is the decisive one.

No risk-free course in Libya

Max Hastings writes a powerful brief in today's FT against yet another military plunge into the unknown in Libya:
The first principle for any nation using force is to ensure it succeeds. But in Iraq and Afghanistan the west has learnt that unseating regimes is relatively easy; the hard part is to promote acceptable alternatives.

The intelligence failure in Libya, and indeed across the Maghreb, has proved absolute. Western leaders know almost nothing either about the Libyan insurgents or about what is happening on the ground. It would be madness to commit US and allied forces to destroy Col Gaddafi, with no notion of what would follow.
What Hastings doesn't acknowledge, though, are the perhaps equally fraught consequences of standing aside. He overstates the upside of eschewing military intervention:

Monday, March 14, 2011

Collective bargaining run amok?

The New York Times editorial board lent strong support to the Wisconsin public employees' unions in their struggle to prevent Governor Scott Walker from stripping them of their collective bargaining rights.  The Times editorial board's opinions, needless to say, do not control news coverage at the Times. So it is that a massive Times expose of widespread, systemic Catholic Church-level patient abuse (physical, sexual and emotional) at New York State's group homes for the developmentally disabled laid much of the blame squarely on the state's Civil Service Employees Association -- and/or the work rules under which the union operates:
The Times reviewed 399 disciplinary cases involving 233 state workers who were accused of one of seven serious offenses, including physical abuse and neglect, since 2008. In each of the cases examined, the agency had substantiated the charges, and the worker had been previously disciplined at least once.

In 25 percent of the cases involving physical, sexual or psychological abuse, the state employees were transferred to other homes.

The state initiated termination proceedings in 129 of the cases reviewed but succeeded in just 30 of them, in large part because the workers’ union, the Civil Service Employees Association, aggressively resisted firings in almost every case. A few employees resigned, even though the state sought only suspensions.

In the remainder of the cases, employees accused of abuse — whether beating the disabled, using racial slurs or neglecting their care — either were suspended, were fined or had their vacation time reduced.
The union offered a defense of their defense of these employees that sounds reasonable at first blush:

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Pulping the bully approach to presidential leadership V: a counter-argument

Returning once more to Frances E. Lee's demonstration that presidential advocacy of a specific policy increases partisan polarization on that issue: one strand in Lee's data may call in question the notion that Obama can best foster a comprehensive tax/budget reform compromise by keeping a low profile at this stage (because a detailed presidential plan would immediately harden the party battle lines).

Yesterday I noted that according to Lee's statistical analysis in Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles and Partisanship int he U.S. Senate, tax policy is already so polarized by party that there's not that much room for a President to worsen the division. Therefore, presidential advocacy on tax issues has less of a polarizing effect than presidential advocacy on most issues. More generally, presidential input has a more measurable polarizing effect on issues that are not strongly maked by ideology, such as space exploration, than on issues where ideology already clearly divides the parties.

Presidential input increases partisan division by increasing both parties' voting cohesion.  So again, perhaps if the president does not "go first" in laying out a plan for long-term tax/budget reform, he can increase the chances of a bipartisan compromise. But here's the rub: according to Lee's data, on strongly marked ideologial issues presidential input increases his own party's cohesion signficantly more than the opposing party's. For tax policy, from 1991-2004, presidential input increased his own party's cohesion on roll call votes 10.2 points, from 53.7 to 63.9, while slightly reducing opposite party cohesion, from 48.5 to 47.3. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Can a president reduce partisan division?

Repetition, repetition, repetition.  In trying to discern Obama's intentions and strategy regarding long term tax/budget reform, I have referred repeatedly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) to Frances E. Lee's demonstration that presidential advocacy on a given issue, particularly when put forward in the SOTU, increases partisan division on that issue.  While the theory makes intuitive sense, and is demonstrated in Lee's Beyond Ideology: Politics, Principles and Parisanship in the U.S. Senate by thorough statistical analysis of roll-call votes from 1981--2004, one caveat is in order. Tax policy is already so polarized by party that there's not that much room for a President to worsen the division:
Presidential involvement has little influence on partisanship on votes dealing with social issues and the distribution of the tax burden...These are clearly party-defining issues regardless of whether a president demands action on them. Generally speaking, taxes and abortion sparked partisan division in the Senate at approximately the same levels regardless of their presidential agenda status (p. 83).

According to Lee's tabulations, party division on Senate roll call votes from 1981-2004 concerning distribution of the tax burden was 66 overall, and 71 on tax legislation in which "presidential leadership" was exerted. That's in contrast to nonideological issues, where party differences are relatively small until a president advocates a specific policy, at which point the parties usually divide. Partisan division on votes concerning space, science and technology, for example, averages 30.5 points higher on votes over legislation on which the president has exerted leadership than on votes on which he has not.

One might conclude that in the pre-polarized tax/spending arena, the president has little to lose by drawing the battle lines clearly and fighting it out in the arena of public opinion.  Why shouldn't Obama lay out a tax/deficit plan somewhere left of the Bowles-Simpson plan and throw his energy into hammering the devastation to be wrought by the GOP's wholly unnecessary cuts to discretionary domestic spending -- and to the decimation of Medicare and Social Security required by the "no new taxes" pledge that over 90% of Congressional Republicans have signed? What's he got to lose?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

If I were king of the forest

To while away an hour, and not straining to increase my present level of knowledge before amusing myself, let me consider: how would I tackle the United States' budget problems if I could make policy by fiat?

My broad fiscal goals would be to reduce the rate of medical inflation while expanding coverage and improving outcomes, reduce defense spending without compromising U.S. security, make the tax code fairer and more efficient, create incentives to reduce fossil fuel consumption, increase government revenue without crimping sustainable economic growth, make social security solvent, and let discretionary domestic spending levels be determined on a cost/benefit basis, without arbitrary spending reduction targets.

First, I would find a way to give the government (probably federal but possibly state, or some hybrid) the sole power to set uniform prices for all medical procedures.  Every other wealthy nation on earth provides universal healthcare to its citizens, and virtually all of them accord sole pricing power to the government (provincial governments in Canada's case), whether or not they strain those payments through some form of private insurance. In the U.S., we pay far more per procedure than any other country, primarily because the government lacks this pricing power.  Our doctors -- specialists, in any case -- are overpaid, an advantage (to them) partly offset by the ridiculous administrative costs of dealing with multiple insurers, the outsized cost of malpractice insurance, and the huge financial burden of unsubsidized medical school. I would seek to ease those burdens while also reducing most specialists' profit margins and perverse incentives to provide expensive care whether or not it's warranted.

Second, I would empower the medical payment system's overseers to condition coverage for specific procedures on outcomes research. I would do this cautiously, since such research is often ambiguous, and one size does not fit all; expensive procedures that do not seem to be more effective than cheaper alternatives might be covered under certain circumstances, or less fully. But broadly, former U.K. health minister John Reid's watchword would be mine: we cover everybody, but not everything. Also, I would fully resource all of the cost containment measures in the Affordable Care Act.

The art of grilling a tax/budget deal

A dozen or more years ago, I wrote a press release announcing the opening in Manhattan of the Greek seafood restaurant Milos Estiatorio.  The owner, Costas Spiliadis, explained to me that in cooking fish, timing is everything. At Milos they keep it simple, and concentrate on getting it off the grill at the right instant.*

Perhaps that is the Obama theory of bipartisan budget negotiation? The WSJ's Damian Paletta and Naftali Bendavid, reporting on progress in Senate bipartisan "Gang of Six" negotiations toward a comprehensive tax/budget reform deal, has this to say about the White House posture:
 The success of the senators' efforts will depend on whether it is endorsed at some point by President Barack Obama. White House officials have been briefed on progress but have mostly stayed on the sidelines, people familiar with the matter said.

 White House budget director Jacob Lew said, "We think it's a good thing to have members looking for bipartisan conversations where they are exploring ideas."

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Writhing out of Norquist's embrace, part III

Grover Norquist is insisting on his bond with the trio of conservative Senators that have begun negotiations on a comprehensive tax/budget reform deal. But Chambliss/Coburn/Crapo are looking for a "pound of flesh/not one drop of blood" loophole.

Shakespeare's merchant had a perfect legal right to claim a pound of flesh from Antonio, who had pledged it to him if he could not repay his debt on time. But Shylock, it was decreed in court,  had no more right than anyone else to shed blood.

In the past two days, Chambliss and Coburn have argued, in effect, that while they promised never to raise taxes, they did not promise to reduce the United States to insolvency. To reduce the deficit to a manageable level, "“We’ve got to close the revenue gap," as Chambliss put it on Monday. 

First, though, they've got to close the rhetoric gap, embodied in Norquist's no-new-taxes pledge. To recap: when reports broke that the conservative 3Cs were working with three Democratic counterpart on a bipartisan budget deal that would include some combination of spending cuts and revenue increases, Norquist sent an open letter reminding them of their pledge never to raise taxes. As I noted at the time,  CCC's carefully-worded response promised to lower marginal rates but most pointedly did not promise that offsetting those reductions by closing or reducing various tax breaks would not result in a net increase in revenue. The letter pitted the "special interests" who would lose tax breaks in an imagined future deal against  the 'taxpayers' whom they were pledged to protect. What it did not note is that most of us are both (see: Chambliss, Coburn, Crapo to Norquist: Kowtow or brush-off?)

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Saxby Chambliss seizes the freedom to acknowledge that 2+2 = 4

When the Wall Street Journal reported that a new Senate gang of six was beginning negotiations toward a comprehensive tax/budget reform deal, Grover Norquist put the screws to the Republican half of the gang, publicly reminding Saxby Chambliss, Tom Coburn, and Mike Crapo of their pledge not to raise taxes.  I noted at the time that the trio's carefully worded response letter seemed to leave the door open to tax reform that, lowering marginal rates while closing loopholes, would raise revenues as a percentage of GDP:
Chambliss et al may defend me as a "taxpayer" while clobbering me as a "special interest" (mortgagee, donor).
Now Chambliss has embarked on a bipartisan roadshow with Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia. According to the New York Times, he is unequivocal: taxes must be raised.
While Republicans are adamantly antitax, Mr. Chambliss said, “We’ve got to close the revenue gap.” 

And, breaking another GOP taboo:

A questioner pointed out the importance of military spending in Virginia, home to the Pentagon, bases and shipbuilding, but Mr. Warner and Mr. Chambliss agreed that it must be cut, too.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Bernstein concentrate

Jonathan Bernstein's alertness to the tradeoffs, calculations of political advantage, and levers of influence that are elected officials' stock-in-trade often yield, shall we say, mordant clarity.  So today, waving off the NYT revelation that U.S. military aid to Egypt went largely to enrich well-placed Egyptian officers, noting that U.S. military aid to Egypt was essentially an extended bribe to keep the Israeli front quiet, Bernstein concludes:
I think I'd rather have all that money wasted on a fleet of private luxury jets than spent on fighters and bombers.
Well, me too. And ha ha!  I got a real reader's buzz from that closer. But as is often the case with Bernstein, the worldly insight begs the thornier issues of just how well realpolitik serves the country's ultimate interests. The  question here, was the "military aid" money well-spent, taps directly into the core question about our Mideast policy: has propping up dictators, and so keeping the oil flowing and Israel militarily dominant (odd that military aid to Egypt could support Israeli dominance, but it has), served the U.S.'s ultimate interests? 

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Obama learns message discipline

Obama's latest weekly address  reinforces my sense that he is more comfortable working with a GOP that has a measure of power than he was working with a large but filibuster-prone Democratic majority.  What "Omnidirectional placation"  -- Garry Wills' somewhat derogatory and somewhat accurate term for Obama's m.o. -- works better with those under pressure to deliver than it does with those whose incentive is to thwart action.

Obama in 2011 has been far more on message than he was in the first two years of his presidency. He is building on his track record of successful negotiation with Republicans late last year to lock in the expectation that there will be further substantive compromise. He refers constantly to compromise accomplished and bids to set the parameters for compromise to come.  He alternates the olive branch -- we all agree that there must be cuts, and here are mine -- with his line in the sand:  the austerity can't undercut the investments he's defined as essential.   I believe that the repetition will resonate as negotiation heats up.  Here's how he hit the key refrains this week:

Who won the lame duck?

The late great lame duck session of Congress in Nov-Dec 2011 was widely perceived to have been a season of accomplishment for the Democrats and President Obama. The rush of activity included repeat of Don't Ask Don't Tell, ratification of the New Start treaty -- and, on the economic front, a tax deal that, for the blood price of extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest, bought Obama hundreds of billions in more efficiently stimulative tax cuts.

It was a busy time, and one thing the Democrats failed to do was pass a budget for FY 2011. That gave the incoming GOP House the opportunity to commence its budget-cutting orgy for discretionary domestic spending a year early.  That includes a head start on the drive to defund implementation and enforcement of the health care and financial reform laws.  And in its opening gambit, the Tea Party delivered.  Its proposed $61 billion in cuts would kill 700,000 jobs by the end of 2012 according to Moody's economist  Mark Zandi,, and shave 1.5-2% off GDP growth in the 2nd and 3rd quarters of this year by Goldman Sachs' estimates.  The Goldman analyst, Alec Phillips, also forecasts that actual cuts in FY 2011 will come in at about $25 billion and, once enacted, will slow growth by 1% of GDP, but that the effect of that sudden hit will fade quickly later in the year.

Question: would the U.S. economy -- and Democrats -- have been better off without the global tax deal but with a Democratic FY 2011 budget passed during the lame duck session?  Does the short-term destimulative effect of the 2011 budget we're likely to get (leaving aside any long-term damage to economic viability) fully offset, or more than offset, the stimulative effect of the tax cut package?

Friday, March 04, 2011

The Glasgow housewives' theory of political management

Ezra Klein offers a reality check on how politicians function in the real world:
I can't believe in guys in suits with the ability to plan things.

That's the main thing I've learned working as a reporter and political observer in Washington: No one can carry out complicated plans. All parties and groups are fractious and bumbling. But everyone always thinks everyone else is efficiently and ruthlessly carrying out complicated plans...

There's also a lot less long-term planning than you might think. In general, politicians are overworked and understaffed. They're traveling constantly, buried under too many meetings and constituent requests, and working desperately to stay one step ahead of whatever they're getting yelled at about that week. That isn't to say they don't take on long-term projects, but in general, the way they take them on is one day at a time. 
Of course, it's not just politicians; that account fits for most human endeavor, at least those endeavors that involve managing people. Take a (fictional) Glasgow kitchen in the Depression, for example.  In Men Should Weep, playwright Ena Lamont Stewart's photorealistic account of economic and family stress in a working class family, a harried housewife's riposte to an attack by her (unemployed) husband regarding her working methods might also serve as a politician's lament. In fact, Obama delivered a version of it in the aftermath of the midterm elections. 

Below, Maggie is the housewife, Lily is her unmarried sister, and John her unemployed husband:
LILY   Whit aboot you ironin?

MAGGIE      Och, never heed. I'm that tired it wad kill me tae watch ya.

LILY   It'll be steamie day again afore ye've got that lot done.

MAGGIE   Well, I canna help it.

JOHN   Yous women! Ye've nae system.

LILY   Oh, I suppose if you was a woman you'd hase everythin jist perfect!  The weans a washed and pit tae bed at six, and everyhin a spick an span. Naethin tae dae till bedtime but twidde yer thumbs. Huh!

JOHN   I'd hae a system...

LILY/MAGGIE   He'd hae a system!

JOHN   Aye, I'd hae a system!  Ony man wull tell ye, ye can dae naethin properly wi'oot ye hae a system.

LILY   And ony womman'll tell ye that there's nae system ever inventit that disna go a tae Hell when ye've a hoose-fu o weans an a done aul granny tae look efter.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

"Known known": Rumsfeld fixated on Iraq from 9/12/01?

In a well-documented take-down of Donald Rumsfeld's memoir Known Unknowns, Bob Woodward uses records from his own interviews and George W. Bush's Decision Points to dispute Rumsfeld's claim that Bush asked him to look at  then-current military plans for invading Iraq shortly after 9/11 -- on 9/26/01, to be exact. Woodward, offended that Rumsfeld "tries to push so much off on Bush", is at pains to demonstrate that Rumsfeld himself was floating the idea of invading Iraq on 9/11 and 9/12 -- and that "the record shows that it was Rumsfeld stoking the Iraq fires" before Bush did indeed ask for plans in late November. 

Woodward's evidence is from his own Plan of Attack and from the 9/11 Commission Report.  Former counterterrorism director Richard A. Clarke's Against All Enemies provides corroboration that Rumsfeld was fixated on Iraq from the beginning. Clarke implies that driving Rumsfeld's focus was Wolfowitz:

On the morning of the 12th DOD's focus was already beginning to shift from al Qaeda. CIA was explicit now that al Qaeda was guilty of the attacks, but Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld's deputy, was not yet persuaded. It was too sophisticated and complicated an operation, he said, for a terrorist group to have pulled off by itself, without a state sponsor--Iraq must have been helping them...

By the afternoon on Wednesday, Secretary Rumsfeld was talking about broadening the objectives of our response and "getting Iraq."  Secretary Powell pushed back, urging a focus on al Qaeda...

Freshman GOP delusions

A freshman GOP congressman's attempt to differentiate a government shutdown today from the shutdown in 1995 is a study in distinctions without a difference  -- and in differences that cut against his argument. From a Jennifer Steinhauer story in yesterday's NYT:
“I don’t believe now and 1995 are similar times,” said Representative Lou Barletta, a freshman from Pennsylvania. “Back then it was more about how to balance the budget. Now it is about how to keep the country from going broke. Unemployment was much lower than now. The debt was 5 trillion. Now it is 14 trillion. In 1995 the Congress wanted to get its house in order. Now it’s the American people that want that, and that’s the only reason why we are here.” 
Let's take these assertions one at a time: