Monday, December 31, 2012

As in December 2010, trading tax cuts

The pending debt ceiling deal is shaping up as quite a Rorschach test. On the left, Michael Cohen crows that the GOP caved, while Noam Scheiber is convinced that Obama has finally and definitively destroyed his negotiating cred.  Reception on the left was shaped this morning, as the deal came gradually into focus, by an uncharacteristic freakout from Jonathan Chait. Just returned from vacation, Chait seemed to be reacting more to Obama's offer several weeks ago to start income tax hikes at the $400k level than to overnight developments (though the overnight news did move that higher threshold to the realm of the more limited deal).  Me, I wavered between "poles of hope and fear... Dec 2010 tax deal vs.crappy Jul 2011 deal Boehner did O favor of pulling out of. ' My hope:  "Perhaps cliff deal postmortem will look like 12/2010 - jaw-dropping headline concession offset by lower profile plusses."

My sense at this point is that the pending deal does look something like the 2010 agreement: a steep headline price paid to preserve core Obama priorities, with judgment yet again to be deferred until another round of deficit reduction is negotiated in 2013. On that second point, Obama laid down a key marker in his press statement this afternoon: that all subsequent spending cuts would have to be offset by tax hikes of equal value.  It's unclear how he would enforce that: his ability to do so depends both on how the sequester is handled and how he plans to make good his proclaimed refusal to negotiate under threat of a debt ceiling default. If he can make his own ground rules stick, then this is indeed a good deal.

The deal resembles the December 2010 agreement insofar as in both cases, the two sides found it easier to trade favored tax cuts than to either cut spending or raise revenue (surprise...).  In exchange for holding households earning $250k--$450k nearly harmless (though they are subject to some deduction limitations), the Democrats will have secured (if the deal goes through) 5-year extensions of Obama's tax credits for low- and middle-income Americans (expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and the credit for college tuition), alternative energy, and business investment, along with a one year unemployment benefit extension. Thus Obama continues to forego hardball to maximize future revenue in favor of easing financial pressure on the needy and nonwealthy, stimulating the economy, and advancing his energy policy.  Long-term, I suspect he thinks that revenue can be squeezed out of the GOP in stages, but that the economy and Americans with stagnant incomes need help now.  Those who insist that our chief challenge is to stimulate the economy rather than reduce the deficit ought to be pleased.

If Dems scotch a deal, cont.

Reports that Biden, taking up the fiscal cliff baton, is on the point of giving away the store have sparked deep depression in the left-side twittersphere this morning, leading me to this acid flashback:
another past pattern possible: Dems balk as crappy deal takes shape; O makes a last-minute ask to pacify them; Repubs reject & go home
And on cue, we have this from Senator Tom Harkin this morning:
December 31st, 2012 11:13 AM ET Washington (CNN) - Sen. Tom Harkin, a veteran Democrat and a leading liberal voice, told CNN Monday that he and other Democrats may try to block the fiscal cliff deal that's being furiously negotiated ahead of the year-end deadline.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

At cliff's edge, Obama lays down his conciliator chips

President Obama invested a large sum of political capital in his interview with David Gregory on Meet the Press this morning.

All published accounts (1, 2) highlight -- because no one could miss -- the forcefulness with which he rejected false equivalence regarding the causes of his standoff with the GOP and blamed them for taking us to the brink.  What I would stress is that to the extent that you can genuinely credit Obama with playing a long game, this is its locus: convincing the public that he is the reasonable one, the one willing to compromise, the one putting forth centrist, mainstream, "balanced" proposals for deficit reduction.  That self-portrait is now backed by several rounds of negotiations in which he appeared (to supporters at least) to yield too much, always stressing that he was doing the best he could in the face of implacable opposition by ideological fanatics.  Now, when the leverage is on his side, he has a long history backing his claim that he is not the intransigent party.

Political scientists are at pains to demonstrate to us that presidential rhetoric per se does not sway public opinion. But a president's track record does register, I think, and long-term repetition of certain themes in word and deed do sink in. Perhaps more to the point, public opinion is a potent weapon when the public is already on your side, as they essentially always have been for Obama regarding the high-end Bush tax cuts. Polls showed broad public support for the broad outlines Obama's "balanced approach" to deficit reduction in the summer of 2011, and it registered that Republicans would not budge on that front, and that Obama essentially caved in the face of the debt ceiling threat. Likewise, in the fall of 2010, Obama claimed public support for letting the Bush income tax expire for the top two brackets. Compare his language in the December 2010 press conference in which he announced the budget agreement that extended both the Bush cuts and his own middle class tax cuts, along with unemployment insurance (adding the payroll tax cut).  Below, in 2010, he is challenged as to why he could not raise taxes on the top 2% (my emphasis throughout):

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The dangers of last-minute dealing

Greg Sargent is salivating at the prospect of Obama daring the Senate GOP to veto a stripped-down fiscal cliff bill that would raise marginal rates on the top two brackets and extend unemployment benefits, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the child tax credit.  Jonathan Cohn, while acknowledging the dangers of going over the cliff, is cautiously optimistic that if we do so Obama will be able to a) impose a better deal, and b) blame Republicans for the deadlock:
And then there are the polls, which suggest that the public overwhelmingly blames Republicans, rather than Obama, for inaction. Polls don’t always predict how people will react to actual political developments in real time. But chances are good that, the longer it takes for a deal, the more pressure Republicans will feel from the voters—not to mention their supporters in the business community—to abandon their opposition to tax increases and determination to cut entitlements.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Does Andrew Dream of Electrified Woodchucks?

Serving our Jersey suburb is a pest control company (maybe many) that will catch unwanted rodents (woodchucks, raccoons) in have-a-heart traps and allegedly transport them to public land at least ten miles away (sounds suspiciously like giving Rex to a farm family, but bear with me).  Contemplating an invisible fence for a prospective new dog (alas, only blind Merlin of blessed memory could be contained by our 15-inch stone wall at the back), my sons started speculating about a have-a-heart exterminator that would catch unwanted rodents, tranquilize them and collar them.*  That raised the problem of the collared pests' offspring and led us to the inevitable conclusion that responsiveness to the invisible fence would would have to be infused by genetic modification.

Ergo, the answer to this post's title is yes.  And getting there (here, sort of) is the whole purpose of this post. 


*We also speculated that widespread adoption would lead to pest infestation of lower-income neighborhoods abutting the served towns or neighborhoods, but that does not get us where we're going here.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Undone by the gun lobby

I rarely react to news stories with unfiltered rage. Maybe it's a lack of moral imagination or empathy on my part, since outrages are reported daily.  But today's front-page New York Times account of how the gun lobby, working through a corrupt Congress, has hampered the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco's ability to track guns to their owners and crack down on corrupt dealers left me choking over my leftover Christmas rum cake.

The gun lobby's hobbling of rational gun control is perhaps the perfect instance of government corruption through lobbying, in that the lobby works not simply by buying Congressional reps but by whipping up a substantial, vociferous constituency that gives the corrupted reps political cover; they can cast themselves as defenders of liberty and rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The effect is to weaken the kinds of safeguards that even a large majority of gun owners say they support, such as criminal background checks for all gun buyers. The only credible motivation for legislation recounted by the Times' Erica Goode and Sheryl Gay Stolberg is to boost gun sales:
law enforcement officials and criminal justice experts who would like the A.T.F. to have greater latitude in fighting crime say its effectiveness in reducing gun violence is still hampered by a thicket of laws that limit the information it can obtain and constrain its day-to-day functioning.

The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, for example, prohibits A.T.F. agents from making more than one unannounced inspection per year of licensed gun dealers. The law also reduced the falsification of records by dealers to a misdemeanor and put in place vague language defining what it meant to “engage in business” without a dealer’s license. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Tyler Cowen's modest proposal for an imaginary GOP

Tyler Cowen would have Republicans shake up the tax debate by proposing a tiny across-the-board income tax hike in addition to the moderate tax hike for the wealthy proposed by President Obama. Further tax hikes would then kick in automatically as (or if) spending rises. He regards this direction for tax reform as fairer and more sustainable than current proposals, as everyone would feel the effects of "paying" for whatever level of social services and other spending we collectively undertake. Here's the meat of it:
To see how this could work, consider this script: Let’s say the Republicans decide to largely give in to what the President Obama is proposing. There is, however, a catch: the president has to agree to raise marginal tax rates on all income classes, not just on the rich. The tax increase would be one-quarter of a percentage point, or some other arbitrary small amount, with larger increases possible for higher incomes, as has been discussed. The deal also stipulates that both the president and Congress must publicly acknowledge that current plans for government spending can’t be financed unless taxes on most or all income groups climb further yet, and by some hefty amount. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Epistemic closure: the prequel

Thanks to the Lincoln movie and Ta-Nehisi Coates, I've been reading This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War by James M. MacPherson just as our current tax/spending battles reach their Little Round Top.  One essay, "Long-Legged Yankee Lies: The Lost Cause Textbook Crusade" recounts how self-appointed guardians of historical truth in the postwar South inculcated the mythology of the Lost Cause -- a noble, benevolent, freedom-loving southern society crushed by the aggression and fanaticism of Lincoln's north. That news from 1919 gave a deja-vu quality to my absorption of  statements by GOP leaders this week:

"It’s not a gun problem; it’s a people problem."

Washington doesn't have a revenue problem—it has a spending problem!  

"I've become convinced the president is unwilling to stand up to his own party on the big issues that face our country."

Friday, December 21, 2012

Dark matter in John Boehner's pool

John Boehner used some revealing language in his press conference today to defend the Plan B that his caucus refused to support yesterday. In Republicanspeak, Boehner is champion of the 99%:
Listen, there was a perception created that that vote last night was going to increase taxes. Now, I disagree with that characterization of the bill. but that impression was out there. and we had a number of our members who just really didn't want to be perceived as having to raise taxes. That was the real issue. now, one of my colleagues the other night had an analogy of 100 people drowning in a pool, and then he was the lifeguard. and because he couldn't save any of them, does that mean he shouldn't have done anything? His point to them is, if I can go in there and save 99 people that are drowning, that's what I should do as a lifeguard. but the perception was out there, and a lot of our members did not want to have to deal with it.
It's no secret that in addition to cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans by leaving most of the goodies in the Bush tax cuts intact, Plan B would  raise taxes on most Americans, and raise them substantially for low-income Americans, by letting the Obama tax cuts enacted in 2009 expire. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities summarizes:

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Chaining ourselves to (slightly) higher tax rates

I was going to suggest a couple of potentially good things about chained-CPI, a slower and allegedly more accurate measure of inflation than the one currently in use, as a means of boosting tax revenue. Josh Barro slowed me up. Having criticized chained-CPI as a means of reducing Social Security benefits, which Barro believes should be indexed to income growth rather than inflation, he moves on to taxes:
Inflation indexing of the income tax code also makes little sense. Every year, income tax brackets are adjusted upward in line with CPI. So, while the 25 percent federal income tax bracket started at $34,500 of taxable income in 2011, it doesn't start until $35,350 for 2012. But, except in recessions, incomes tend to rise faster than price inflation. That means that, absent changes in tax law, a taxpayer at any given place in the income distribution will face a higher effective tax rate over time.

This effect is called "real bracket creep," and it’s undesirable if we want a tax code that produces stable collections and a stable distribution of the tax burden over time. Indexing tax brackets to national income would cause the bracket thresholds to rise faster, eliminating real bracket creep.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

At least chained-CPI is chained to reality

The good folks at WonkBlog have been castigating the proposed move to a "chained-CPI" to slow the rate of Social Security benefit growth as "obscurantist,"  as Dylan Matthews called it this morning.  Three hours later, Ezra Klein elaborated the complaint:
Chained-CPI, in [Bowles-Simpson's] telling, is simply an effort to correct a measurement error in the way we calculate inflation. It’s a tweak, a fix, a policy designed to achieve a higher level of technical precision. And who could be against that?

There’s something to this line of argument. The way we measure inflation right now really does mismeasure inflation. Chained-CPI really is a bit more accurate. But that’s not why we’re considering moving to chained-CPI. If all we wanted to do was correct the technical problem, we could make the correction and then compensate the losers.

But no one ever considers that. The only reason we’re considering moving to chained-CPI because it saves money, and it saves money by cutting Social Security benefits and raising taxes, and it’s a much more regressive approach to cutting Social Security benefits and raising taxes than some of the other options on the table.

The question worth asking, then, is if we want to cut Social Security benefits, why are we talking about chained-CPI, rather than some other approach to cutting benefits that’s perhaps more equitable? The answer is that chained-CPI’s role in correcting inflation measurement error is helpful in distracting people from its role in cutting Social Security benefits.
Klein may well be right that there are better ways to cut Social Security than moving to chained-CPI and leaving benefits otherwise unaltered (or that we're better off not cutting Social Security benefits at all).  But there's something fundamentally wrong with his critique, too. If he's right on policy, he's wrong on semantics. And frankly, I'm still trying to figure out whether the semantic error may also imply a policy error.

Monday, December 17, 2012

When SSI is the only route to health insurance

Re that Nicholas Kristof column alleging skewed incentives in the children's Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program: in a prior post, I looked at a study Kristof cited that does not clearly demonstrate what Kristof implies it does --that an undue proportion of children on SSI transition directly to adult SSI when their eligibility for the children's benefit ends at age 18.

The 2009 study, by Jeffrey Hemmeter, Jacqueline Kauff, and David Wittenberg, does indicate a variety of incentives, some of them potentially perverse, for staying on children's SSI while eligible and for transitioning to adult SSI if possible.  One set of incentives is indeed skewed, thanks to a dearth of resources outside the program.  It's this: SSI, for children and adults alike, can be the only source for health insurance and specific health services:

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Obama bridges a chasm

Waiting for Obama to speak tonight, I thought, as I'm sure many did, that he could not simply give another tender and eloquent consolation speech, as he did when Gabby Giffords was shot.  He can be so eloquent about love, and family, and the nation as family -- you could even say that's why he was elected, as that theme catapulted him to prominence in 2004.   But that would not be enough tonight. The policy void is too gaping, the collective guilt about all these mass murders too raw, his own silence on the gun front too deafening.

And yet, he could not very well talk to an auditorium full of grieving parents and a grieving community about legislation he would send up to Congress.   How would he square that circle?

He did so in the simplest terms. He boiled down all human endeavor, our whole duty, from the personal to the professional to the political, to taking care of children, to creating a community that takes care of its children.  And after five years of uplifting flattery, he said that we all have to do it better. He drew a straight line from the love we all feel for our children to our collective failure to keep them, and all of us (not just children literally understood, as he invoked all the recent massacres), safe from mayhem - and more broadly, to foster their welfare and potential. The speech text is not up yet; here is a NYT quote-and-paraphrase:

When Nick Kristof stretches a study

They say that three times is a trend, so I will have to make do with two thirds of a trend regarding Nicholas Kristof's use of social science research. Or more precisely, regarding Kristof's use of research to back what he presents as inconvenient truths regarding the behavior of poor people or the efficacy of attempts to help them.

Instance 1: Kristof is currently taking a lot of heat from liberal social policy experts for using anecdotal evidence to suggest that significant numbers of parents of children receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) deliberately keep their children illiterate to avoid losing the child's disability check.  More precisely, Kristof uses anecdotal evidence supported by statistical sleight-of-hand.

Harold Polllack rather gently points to the questionable deployment of data. I'd like to elaborate a bit. Pollack's case first:

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Hobbit, or “Gone Forever”

Introducing xpostfactoid's first guest post! -- by son Jonah.
----

The first book I grew to love was A.A. Milne’s The World of Pooh, as read to me by my father. In his eyes, it was a pinnacle of English literature, and he cursed the copyright laws that allowed Disney to turn it into popular pablum. You don’t really know the violence of the Free Market, he’d say, until it breaks something you love.*

    Eventually, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit came to replace Pooh as our long-car-ride staple. As for many boys it was one of the first “chapter books” I made it through on my own, and I felt notably older upon finishing. The book pretty much defined adventure for me; I can remember looking out middle school windows at our suburban NJ hills (which, though full of buildings, manage to look tree-covered from certain angles) and thinking: how sweet it would be to just start walking, with nothing but a stick and a small pack!

In which I jump to a conclusion

Jonathan Bernstein jumped in early yesterday with a characteristic caution regarding Susan Rice's withdrawal of herself from consideration for Secretary of State:
I’d caution everyone to wait a bit before drawing any firm conclusions about what happened here. We don’t know she was Barack Obama’s first choice. We don’t know, if she was the top choice, why she didn’t wind up the pick. If outside objections mattered — say, from John McCain — we don’t know which ones mattered, and it’s not necessarily the loudest ones.
It's certainly true that we don't know everything Bernstein says we don't know. Nonetheless, when I saw the news, my own mind jumped to a conclusion simultaneous with processing it: shit, Obama caved. I consider that a significant data point, not because I'm particularly knowledgeable about this process or about Rice, but because I'm not. I think anyone who followed the course of this prospective nomination even casually would have leaped to the same conclusion. And those optics suggest a major White House failure, whatever the merits of Rice as Secretary of State.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Free to be, day by day

A burst of attention in its 40th anniversary year to Free to Be You and Me, Marlo Thomas' children's record devoted to shaking up sex role stereotypes in song and story, has put me in mind of an equally consequential work from the same era. That is Non-Sexist Education for Young Children by my mother, Barbara Sprung, first director of the Non-Sexist Child Development Project at the Women's Action Alliance, founded by Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin in 1971.  Published in 1975, the book was the fruit of a then-three year old field project devoted to combating sex role stereotyping in nursery schools and day care centers.



When my mother undertook this project in 1972, she was an experienced nursery school teacher who had just completed a Masters at Bank Street College of Education. She got the job at the WAA from a posting on a Bank Street bulletin board. She did not know she was a feminist until Letty Pogrebin, interviewing her for the job, asked her. (It may be a false memory, but as I recall, I asked the same question after she took the job, and my mother answered, after a brief pause, "Yes, I am.")  The project began effectively as a listening tour at twenty-five daycare centers, and it reflects the common-sense, hands-on experience of nursery school teachers awakening to gross inequities they partly struggled against and partly promulgated day-by-day.  Four of the childcare centers became pilot sites for a revamped curriculum.

The book reads well today. Its goals and methods, laid out in the Chapter 1 excerpt below, are moderate, common-sense and concrete, its archaisms relatively few.  See for yourself.
     In 1972, at the very beginning of its existence, the Women's Action Alliance began receiving mail from women all over the country who were concerned that their children were being forced into rigidly stereotyped roles, even in pre-school. The Alliance did some research into the problem and came to the conclusion that although people were working to reduce stereotyping at every other strata of education, virtually nothing was being done at the pre-school level. The Alliance felt strongly that non-sexist education should start at the beginning of a child's educational life rather than somewhere further up the line when much that had already been learned in a sexist way would have to be "relearned."
     The Women's Action Alliance decided to undertake the development of a non-sexist early childhood program. It would free girls and boys of sex-role stereotyping and allow them to develop to their fullest potential, unhampered by societally imposed restrictions regarding appropriate behavior for each sex. The goals of the program were:
  • To present men and women in a nurturing role so that children understand that people are free to choose their work from an enormous variety of options unhampered by sex typing. In many cases, we have presented men and women in counterpart jobs to underscore the fact that most jobs can be performed equally well by men and women.
  • To encourage girls as well as boys to engage in active play and to encourage boys as well as girls to enjoy quiet play. In all media, girls are overwhelmingly presented as passive creatures watching boys at play, while boys are presented as always active, unflaggingly energetic dynamos.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

If loophole closures are benefit cuts, are benefit cuts tax hikes?

Eduardo Porter suggests that raising new tax revenue by cutting loopholes opens up a semantic loophole:
Though the offer to raise money by closing loopholes has a bipartisan pedigree — based on a plan proposed last year by the Democrat Erskine Bowles and the Republican Alan Simpson, the chairmen of President Obama’s deficit commission — it relies on rhetorical sleight of hand. If tax breaks are equivalent to government spending, eliminating them is equivalent to spending cuts. Mr. Boehner’s offer to do away with tax breaks in exchange for cutting entitlements raises no new revenue. It amounts to cutting spending twice.
Porter goes on to point out that a) Democrats have opened many "loopholes" for the poor and middle class because it's often the only form of social spending that Republicans will allow, but b) on balance, tax deductions disproportionately benefit the wealthy. His main point: we should consider each break on its merits, not make a shibboleth out of closing out as many as possible.

I would add a couple of wrinkles. First, Republicans are conflicted about whether to regard tax breaks for the nonwealthy as spending or tax cuts.  On the one hand, they've not only acceded to Democrat-initiated lower-income tax breaks, but sweetened their own wealthy-tilted tax cut goodies by cutting taxes and expanding loopholes for the nonwealthy as well.  On the other hand, they've come to regret the low-end largess, as all that bitching about the 47%, the lucky duckies who pay no income taxes, demonstrates.

Second, if Republicans are pulling the wool over by treating loophole closures as tax hikes, they've got themselves fooled as well.  When such tax "increases" were being bruited in the debt ceiling negotiations of 2011, Tom Coburn and others struggling to wriggle out of Grover Norquist's embrace experimented with casting  loophole closures (e.g., the ethanol subsidy) as "spending cuts."  It didn't fly; Norquist screamed that any phased out tax break would have to be offset by another tax break, and the GOP fell in line.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

In which Henry Aaron talks himself into supporting a raised Medicare eligibility age

Henry Aaron of Brookings, one of the nation's top healthcare economists, has a rather odd perspective on the current brewing battle over so-called "entitlement reform." On the one hand, he focuses his concern on the older elderly, with their ever-dwindling purchasing power, which leaves him less hostile to raising the Medicare eligibility age than other left-of-center economists who acknowledge a need to trim benefits. He is more distressed by proposals to trim cost-of-living increases, e.g. the so-called chained CPU, which seem to strike most observers as a milder, more gradual mode of trimming benefits. Indeed, in the fullness of time, when the ACA is fully up and running and providing affordable care to the uninsured, Aaron favors raising the Medicare eligibility age to expand the ratio of working to retired adults.

On another front, Aaron at once provides historical and comparative data to demonstrate that U.S. senior health and pension benefits are unduly skimpy, and effectively concedes that given our political culture, we need to plan how best to make them skimpier still. He suggests that only by agreeing to benefit cuts can Democrats forestall more radical proposals to shred the safety net, e.g. via private accounts for social security or voucherization of Medicare. At the same time, he argues for benefits that increase with age, with offsets for lower-income younger elderly for whom raised retirement ages are a burden, and for a variety of formulas to shift costs onto the wealthier elderly (his Medicare reforms look something like those proposed by Senators Lieberman and Coburn: providing catastrophic insurance but ending Medigap as we know it, and making the wealthy elderly pay a much higher percentage of the actuarial value of their coverage).

I find it odd that Aaron argues, in effect, for preemptive concessions -- proposing policy choices he regards as less than optimal as a means of forestalling more radical, Paul Ryanesque attacks on safety net programs: 

Monday, December 10, 2012

White man: "whaddaya mean, we?"

"Epistemic closure" is by now a tired, not say clunky, phrase. But how else do describe this dead-end thinking, relayed in today's Playbook?
‘Political consultants in Washington are panicking about Hispanics, and their solution is to grant amnesty,’ said a conservative GOP lawmaker … ‘They’re afraid Hispanics hate Republicans, so they want more of them? It doesn’t pass the laugh test. … [M]embers are right to be worried about getting primaried.’ …
The unlaughable strategy, then, is to keep Hispanics out -- and by extension, to work overtime to keep the voting population as white as possible.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Obama, intrextrovert

For a year or two, we've been awash in stories casting Obama as a singularity among politicians: a successful introvert.  He doesn't schmooze congress-folk, we read ad infinitum; he doesn't butter up billionaires, or at least doesn't keep them well buttered.

It's true he's no Bill Clinton, sniffing out crowds to soothe a recurring jones for mass adulation.  But he's no classic introvert, either, as this remembrance from Maraniss's Obama reminds me:
There were certain aspects of organizing at which he excelled. 280 While Loretta Augustine-Herron and Yvonne Lloyd were wary of some streets, even in familiar neighborhoods, and warned Obama away, he had no qualms about walking down any block or entering any house, no matter how threatening or odd. His life’s history was at work here. When you spend several formative years starting at age six immersed in an unfamiliar culture on the other side of the world, walking the exotic alleyways and pathways of the Menteng Dalam neighborhood of Jakarta, and figure out how to survive and thrive there, learning the language, seeming so at home that Indonesians come to think of you as one of them, nothing after that can seem too intimidating. But Lloyd was shocked one day when Obama reported that he had eaten at the house of a woman who was known for being a packrat, with old newspapers and detritus stacked high everywhere. “I said, ‘Did you go over and eat in that house? It’s not exactly the safest place in the world.’… He’d say, ‘Yeah, it was interesting.’ We’d say, ‘You need to stay away. Don’t walk through there.’ He’d laugh. It didn’t bother him. He was on that level with all of those people. I don’t know how he managed it because they were leery [of anyone walking up to their doors]. It was the way he approached them. That has a lot to do with why they would let him in. It’s like he belonged. Now he didn’t, and we know he didn’t, but he gave them kind of that feeling.”

Saturday, December 08, 2012

The price of dealing with an extremist opposition?

There is a meme gathering steam on the left -- whether triggered by Ezra Klein or by multiple people in the know or making the same deduction -- that Obama will accede to raising the Medicare eligibility age as the price for pretty much getting his way on taxes (and stimulus)?  Here's how Don Taylor compressed the logic in a tweet
it is only thing Rs have on health. Inevitable & some D political advantages per ACA even tho bad policy

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Obama on the power of words

One moment in the formation of Obama's habit of mind that David Maraniss spotlights in his magisterial biography occured in high school:
Barry was not the most talkative student in her class, [English teacher Barbara Czurles-Nelson] recalled. He would sit near the back of the room, relaxed, waiting for his opening in the conversation. One day they were dealing with a philosophical question about what people should most fear. The answers included loneliness, death, hell, and war. Then Barry straightened up. That was the sign that he was ready to participate, Nelson thought, when he was sure to sharpen the class discussion.  “Words,” he said. “Words are the power to be feared most.… Whether directed personally or internationally, words can be weapons of destruction” (pp. 299-300, Kindle Edition).

Though the emphasis is on danger, the resemblance is still striking to the moment that first fully impressed on me Obama's potential to be the transformative president he said he wanted to be, when he again spoke of the power of words. It was in a debate with Hillary, between  the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, Jan. 5, 2008:

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

De-deducting your way to $800 billion in new revenue

Available information about Obama's fiscal proposal is surprisingly sketchy, unless I'm missing something.  Forgive me, then, if I get something fundamentally wrong here. But the proposal is said to closely track Obama's 2013 budget, and it seems to me that if you moderately expand a key revenue raising proposal in that budget, it would be possible to raise $800 billion in revenue over ten years by reducing deductions for the wealthy. Maybe not desirable as an opening gambit, but hardly mathematically impossible.

The provision in question, on page 39 of the budget, would reduce the value of itemized deductions and other tax preferences to 28 percent for families with incomes over $250,000 and individuals with incomes over $200,000 (at 2009 levels, to be adjusted for inflation).  That is, suppose you're taxed at a 33% rate and you make $3600 in charitable contributions. At present, deducting that amount would lower your tax bill by $1200.  At a 28 percent deduction level, your bill would be lowered by $1008; you would pay $192 more.  That change, across all deductions, is projected to reduce the deficit by $584 billion over ten years.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

An incentive that works less well than I thought

A recent study indicating that tax incentives for retirement savings are not very effective is changing my thinking about that incentive, specifically about how it's worked in my life.

My wife and I are savers. Arguably, we've had to be, as our income was pretty low until our late thirties, and neither of us is building a fixed pension.  Plus, we've had maybe 40-60% of our money in stock funds since we started saving in the late nineties, and what with two market crashes I reckon our return has been less than 5% per year.

Since the late '90s I've had the kind of solo retirement accounts allowed to the self-employed. Early on, I was allowed to save 20% of my income, and I was comfortable with that, and my wife has done the same through her employer.  Since the individual 401k was created in 2004 or 2005, however, I've been allowed to tack on an ever-increasing contribution on top of the 20% -- this year, an extra $22.5k, since I'm over 50.  That is a tall order.  I am always acutely conscious that a large chunk of every allowable dollar that I fail to contribute goes to taxes -- avoidably. So I come as close to maxing out as I can.  I've always assumed that this a good thing -- that this incentive is working as it should.

Monday, December 03, 2012

You want real deficit reduction? Try this...

Like most progressives, I've been pleased to witness Obama thus far refusing to negotiate with himself in the fiscal cliff battle. With his tax proposals and modest proposed spending cuts on the table -- a package derived from his 2013 budget -- it would seem to make sense to let Republicans detail the deeper entitlement cuts they say they want. As Paul Krugman highlights today, the Republican leadership seems unwilling to go on record proposing deep, substantive cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. So the progressive consensus is clear: let them put up or shut up.

Nonetheless, there remain calls among some Obama supporters -- e.g., natch, Andrew Sullivan -- for Obama to "seize the center" and propose more thoroughgoing plans to restrain long-term spending.  And there may in fact be political opportunity for him in doing so -- on his own terms.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

In Spielberg's Lincoln, don't underestimate Thaddeus Stevens

There is a legitimate criticism to be made that Steven Spielberg's Lincoln underplays the role of African Americans in their own liberation. The charge holds, notwithstanding that the opening battle sequence prominently spotlights black soldiers in a battle tableau of intense horror, immediately followed by a powerful scene in which a young black soldier, present at that battle, challenges Lincoln with the nation's failure to live up to the lofty sentiments expressed in the Gettysburg address. Kate Masur makes a convincing case  that  "it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them." Masur's complaint that the film renders passive two African American White House servants who were in fact effective activists seems to me inarguable.

Less legitimate, it seems to me, are complaints that the film glorifies political compromise (as opposed to inviting us to assent to ethically compromised political machinations, which it does do) - or that in valorizing Lincoln's pragmatic maneuvering, it correspondingly devalues the unalloyed abolitionism and racial egalitarianism of the radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens. So argues Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

If only votes were weighted by net worth...

Okay, this may be a pointless exercise. But Stuart Stevens, chief strategist for the Romney campaign, has just published such a transcendentally stupid, transparently sophistic, willfully delusive campaign post-mortem that I found myself mouthing rebuttals after nearly every sentence. So I thought I'd bottle my indignation. In italics, below, interspersed with Stevens' text.
Over the years, one of the more troubling characteristics of the Democratic Party and the left in general has been a shortage of loyalty and an abundance of self-loathing. It would be a shame if we Republicans took a narrow presidential loss as a signal that those are traits we should emulate.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The benefits of union

An excellent article by the AP's Adam Geller on New York's massive flood protection challenges holds up Houston's Texas Medical Center, which was devastated by Hurricane Allison in 2001, as a shining example of an institution that learned from experience:
A review of the area's flood weaknesses led officials to create a list of 112 projects, including widening the bayou and building culverts that funnel water away from the campus. But many of the projects were based on acknowledging that even if planners couldn't ensure that all the water from a future storm would stay out, they could at least work to limit the damage.

TMC's member hospitals moved their electrical vaults and backup generators out of basements to areas above flood level. They rejiggered the way they used their space, rebuilding and moving facilities like research labs, many of which were destroyed by the flood, to higher floors. Scores of existing buildings were fitted with flood gates, and new buildings were built surrounded by berms. Underground tunnels were outfitted with 100 submarine doors, some 12 feet tall.
 Nice planning, guys!  And who paid?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Notes from the bully pulpit: no one hears you when unemployment is at 10%

As Obama gears up for the fiscal cliff end game, David Corn is out with a timely reminder that the deal Obama struck in December 2010, trading extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy for a payroll tax cut, unemployment benefit extension and other stimulus, was far from the cave-in that liberal allies portrayed it as. Rather, it was a successful a bid to win "something bigger and better: more stimulus to aid the ailing economy."

This was actually obvious at the time, for those with eyes to see. According to Mark Zandi, the Democratic proposals that became part of the deal yielded $336 billion worth of stimulus from 2010-2012.  Even Paul Krugman admitted at the time that the provisions Obama fought for were likely to provide significant help to the economy. In concert with the payroll tax cut and and unemployment benefits extension Obama bludgeoned the GOP into accepting in early 2012, those stimulative measures probably secured his reelection.

While debunking the tax-deal-as-cave-in myth, Corn does subscribe to another narrative that does have some truth to it over the long haul but in my view is also exaggerated:  that Obama was ineffective at communicating his policy.  Here's Corn's read:

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Writhing out of Norquist's embrace, Part V

Here we go again: Senator Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, one of the Quixotes of the Senate Gang of Six, is writhing out of Grover Norquist's embrace, almost exactly as in March 2011 when the Gang first got in gear to try to reincarnate, or rather fully incarnate, Bowles-Simpson.*  In this iteration, Chambliss says, "I care more about my country than I do about a 20 year-old pledge"; Norquist shoots back that Chambliss's oath is to the people of Georgia, not to him. Then Norquist revives a nonsense claim from the prior round:
Norquist also highlighted a letter Chambliss signed with fellow Gang of Six members Mike Crapo of Idaho and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma where the three said they hoped for a plan with “lower individual and corporate tax rates for all Americans.”

Friday, November 23, 2012

Post-truth political appreciation

For once, I found myself nodding straight through a David Brooks column. Today he pays tribute both to Lincoln and to the new film by that name:
The movie portrays the nobility of politics in exactly the right way.

It shows that you can do more good in politics than in any other sphere. You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty. But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others — if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Does the Affordable Care Act "soak the young"?

Avik Roy revives the complaint that formed the emotional core of the legal case against the Affordable Care Act: that the act shafts young adults by forcing them to buy coverage that effectively subsidizes insurance for older adults. Here's the basis of his complaint:
Under free-market conditions—what insurance pros call experience rating—the typical 18-year-old costs one-sixth what it costs to insure the typical 64-year-old.

But Obamacare, in a sop to the AARP, requires that insurers only charge three times as much to their costliest beneficiaries what they charge to their least-costly ones. As the illustration below shows, this increases the cost of insurance for the young by 75 percent, while offering only a modest 13 percent subsidy to older Americans.
Before moving on to the core alleged problem, let's note a couple of sleights of hand at the outset:

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Beautiful speech, but...

I am troubled by my tribalism.

I am susceptible, in case no one has noticed, to Obama's rhetoric.  I see myself, as I once noted, in the self-mocking confession of an old graduate school classmate (I give the provenance, because grad students in the humanities are likely to be of this tribe):
I love Obama...Every time he speaks I emit a small sigh of joy, love and delight.  I know, perhaps my eyes are clouded, but he seems so completely appropriate each time he speaks, that he could be singing the national anthem in Swahili, and I wouldn't care.
So when I read Obama's historic address to the students of the University of Yangon, Burma's principal university, my heart naturally swelled in my breast,  and tears welled up. It was, as you might expect (if you're so susceptible), a beautifully constructed speech -- opening dazzling prospects of freedom and prosperity to the Burmese, applying subtle pressure at all the right points on their leaders (as I heard no less tough a judge than Human Right Watch's Tom Malinowski affirm last night), honoring Burma's dissidents, making a cogent case, as Obama always does, that America's best values are or ought to be universal values, softening the paternalism by acknowledging past American error (i.e., in Foxspeak, "apologizing").

Monday, November 19, 2012

NRO's Jim Geraghty: Romney lost - tis all for the best

I'm not familiar with the thinking of NRO's Jim Geraghty. But this bit of self-contradicting self-consolation, from the NRO "Morning Jolt" email*, struck me as curious:
One other thought, and before I go further, I want to emphasize I wish Romney had won. But I felt a strange sense of relief upon hearing our nominee's post-election remarks:

Sunday, November 18, 2012

David Frum's seductive vision of the Moderate Mitt that might have been

David Frum, as I noted last week, has been a consistent, clear-eyed and constructive critic of today's extremist, dead-end GOP.  His ebook Why Romney Lost is terrific as to diagnosis, though as usual I shake my head at the critique of Obama at the beginning and the rather hasty policy prescriptions at the end. I would take issue, too -- as I think Frum kind of does with himself -- on a perhaps moot point: the degree of responsibility Romney bears for his loss.

The basic premise is incontrovertible: the party forced Romney too far to the right:
In poll after poll, big majorities described the Republican nominee as favoring the wealthy over the middle class. 1 No surprise, therefore, that throughout the spring and summer of 2012, Obama held a multi-point lead.  over Romney, despite the president’s sub-50 percent job-approval rating. Then, in the final month of the election, Romney’s team at last released “Moderate Mitt from Massachusetts” from his six-year seclusion. Abruptly the election tightened (location 34).

Friday, November 16, 2012

In which I cozy up to my GOP governor

Gee, I never would have keyboarded such a letter before Hurricane Sandy -- at least, the tone would have been different. Politics!

Dear Governor Christie:

I urge you to take an active role in establishing New Jersey's health insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act.  All Americans citizens should have access to affordable care, and the exchange is far likelier to serve the needs of New Jersey citizens effectively if your administration does its utmost to make the exchange work. Indeed, NJ has an effective precursor: when my oldest son was fresh out of college, before the ACA enabled adults under 26 to be covered under their parents' plans, he bought an Amerihealth policy, selecting it from clear information available on a NJ website. It was affordable, adequate coverage. Please help New Jersey take the next step and make more comprehensive insurance available to a wider range of citizens who can't get insurance through their employers.

The GOP needs to end its emotional, knee-jerk, self-serving opposition to a health reform effort modeled on Gov. Romney's successful Massachusetts program. As a party leader, you can  *lead* in this regard. The times they are a-changin for the GOP -- please throw in your lot with its better instincts.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A prophet not without honor save in his own party

How many political prognostications hold up well nearly five years later?  Give Republican Cassandra David Frum credit for seeing the landscape clearly in February 2008:
John Mitchell, Richard Nixon’s attorney-general, predicted in 1970: “This country is going so far right you won’t recognise it.” His prophecy was vindicated. Now its time is up: 2008 is shaping up to be the first decisive Democratic victory since 1964 – a 1980 in reverse...

In 2002, equal numbers of Americans identified as Republicans and Democrats. In the six years since, Republican identification has collapsed back to the level recorded before Ronald Reagan. The decline has been steepest among young voters. If they eat right, exercise and wear seatbelts, today’s 20-somethings will be voting against George W. Bush deep into the 2060s. Most ominously, US polls show an ideological sea change: a desire for a more activist government, a loss of interest in the tax question and a shift to the left on most social issues (although not, interestingly, abortion).

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Obama can't quite keep it simple

[11/15: several updates at bottom]

In response to the first 'fiscal cliff' question in his press conference today, Obama seemed to shut the door on any alternative to letting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% expire -- that is, to raising the top marginal income tax rate. But there was a little sliver of light along the doorjamb, and when Chuck Todd pushed on it, Obama swung the door open.

First, this seemed all but definitive:
QUESTION: You’ve said that the wealthiest must pay more. Would closing loopholes instead of raising rates for them satisfy you?

OBAMA: I think that there are loopholes that can be closed, and we should look at how we can make the process of deductions, the filing process easier, simpler. But when it comes to the top 2 percent, what I’m not going to do is to extend further a tax cut for folks who don’t need it, which would cost close to a trillion dollars.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Contrast of conservatives: Brooks vs. Bartlett

By coincidence no doubt, the New York Times today showcases two diametrically opposed conservative approaches to fiscal cliff negotiations (in the parallel online/print universes): that of Bruce Bartlett, a genuine old-school deficit hawk, and of David Brooks, a well-meaning unwitting (if intermittent) sap for the current extremist frauds who dictate GOP policy.

Contemplating what Obama has called a "forcing mechanism" to give him his revenue increase -- the leverage afforded by the expiration of the Bush tax cuts -- Brooks urges a fresh bout of conciliation on the president:

Monday, November 12, 2012

Change I still believe in

As both sides gear up for tax-and-spending battles at the edge of the fiscal...slope, and as Obama quite noisily proclaims that public opinion is on his side with regard to raising taxes on the top 2%, I want to repost my best recent attempt to understand Obama's current stated theory of how 'change' gets done. Hint: it's not a matter of trying to sway public opinion -- Obama is as aware as Brendan Nyhan that that's a futile enterprise. It's a matter of deploying public opinion that's already on his side -- as he did with some modest success in 2012.  Here's the argument, engaged (one-sidedly, natch) with Ezra Klein six weeks ago.

Sept. 21, 2012

Ezra Klein, noting that Obama has recently revamped the way he talks about "change," attempts a massive debunk.  Obama is now claiming that he's learned, "you can't change Washington from the inside..you can only change it from the outside. That's how I got elected. That's how the big accomplishments like health care got done."

Nonsense, protests Ezra. All the change that Obama effected was the result of inside baseball -- buying off corporate interests, herding Democratic cats, striving (mostly unsuccessfully) to win opposition buy-in. Obama brought policy change, but not change in the way Washington works. The latter is an impossible goal for a president or any one person.

In my view, Klein is viewing this question too narrowly. Obama is well aware of the limitations of the bully pulpit, and he's got to know better than any person on the planet that presidential advocacy polarizes, entrenching the opposing party in implacable opposition to whatever the president proposes. Yet, in presenting a revamped theory of how the presidency works, he's not just feeding us a line of BS.  And if Obama wins reelection, I believe that we will look back five or ten or twenty years from now and recognize that yes, Obama did change the way Washington works. Or at the very least, he kept the US on a sane policy course in a time of extreme polarization and thus gave (will have given...) the system space to self-correct, as it has in the past.

Let's start with Klein's objection to Obama's characterization of how healthcare reform got done:

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Another silver bullet for election forecasting

My wife's hospital floor (she's a nurse midwife) is staffed by doctors and nurses from all over the world. Politics comes up quite a bit, at least in election season. One Nigerian nurse, whenever my wife expressed anxiety about Obama, would always respond, "Cindy, don't worry. God will take care of him."

As election day hurtled toward us, this nurse told Cindy, "At 10 o'clock on Tuesday, you will be drinking champagne."  Not strictly true, since at 10 that night Cindy was attending a birth (with a woman who pumped her fist and shouted "Obama!" between contractions). And the forecast was of course off by about 75 minutes.  But about as good as Nate Silver, no?

As for me, this "God will take care of him" mantra was relayed to me repeatedly. I did envy this lady her faith.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The real final score: Obama 11, Romney 1

Nate Silver does have a way with data visualization. His analysis of the Democrats' current electoral college edge includes a electoral scorecard that lists the 50 states in order of the margin of victory, beginning with Obama's wins and moving on to Romney's. The close states in the middle reveal a striking fact: Romney won only one state by a margin of less than eight points. Obama won eleven.

Forget for a moment the demographic contest -- one candidate's large advantage among whites vs. the other's larger advantage among all ethnic minorities.  Forget, too, the strategic plusses and minuses of pursuing independents vs. turning out your base. Forget national popular vote margins. The simple fact is that Romney won only one state that any Republican would not have won.  A dozen states were competitive, and Obama won eleven of them -- by margins that were increasing rapidly at the end, and exceeded the final polls. He outperformed on every front --turnout, targeted advertising, and ultimately, the debates. He just kicked Romney's ass across the political field.

Update: it occurs to me that Silver comes to a very different conclusion: that even if Romney had won the national popular vote by two percentage points, Obama still would have won the electoral college. That is, Obama's advantage was structural, and would be shared by any Democrat at present. That assumes, I believe, a proportionality between Obama's margins in the swing states and the popular vote totals. But most of the direct competing was done in the swing states.  The tipping point, in Silver's reckoning, was Colorado: that is, Romney would have had to win Colorado and every other state that Obama won by a lesser margin than Colorado (Virginia, Ohio, Florida) to win the election.  And Obama won Colorado by 4.7 percentage points -- quite a large margin for Romney to have overcome. Does that mean that Obama's advantage was structural, i.e., that no competent Republican could have overcome it this year?  I don't know.  The margin there, and in all the truly competitive swing states, seemed much smaller just a few days before the election.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Obama to his young supporters: Haply I think on thee...

Thanking his young supporters after his reelection victory, Obama reproduced the spirit of a Shakespeare sonnet. Those sonnets are mainly an arduous outpouring of love to a young man spoken by an "old" poet of 40-plus years -- an almost maternal love, as the great Shakespearean C.L. Barber characterized it.

After suggesting to his assembled staff that they all had far more direction and focus and skills than he did as a twenty-something community organizer, Obama, with more than enough pauses and "uhs" to sink him in a debate, came to this peroration:

Fiscal cliff notes: speak however, but wield that stick

Re the fiscal cliff: Obama has promised repeatedly, from the December 2010 press conference in which he announced his Bush-tax-cut-extension-for-payroll-tax-cut-and-unemployment-benefit-extension deal, to the present, that he would not agree to another extension of the Bush marginal rate cuts for the wealthiest 2% this time around.

He gained further leverage when the "sequestered" budget cuts triggered by the failure of the budget supercommittee last November became law -- and Republicans began screaming about the mandated defense cuts far louder than Democrats have protested the domestic cuts.  Once Obama refused to lift a finger to stop the sequester, I began to wonder whether the Budget Control Act of August 2011 wasn't a 60-yard punt.  If so, he is now taking possession.

After coming close to ratifying a truly crappy grand bargain with Boehner in July 2011, has Obama learned to use the leverage he's gathered?  Signs are that he may have. Here's what he told the Des Moines Register a couple of weeks ago:

Thursday, November 08, 2012

How's that "more perfect union" working out?

His high praise of Obama notwithstanding, Adam Gopnik thinks the president is kind of bullshitting us (and himself, perhaps) with his renewed declaration of national unity:
his political intelligence is so keen that he knows when unreality best serves his ends. Political intelligence is as distinct and intuitive a gift as any of the other kinds of intelligence—the situational intelligence of the athlete or the analytic intelligence of the intellectual—and a large component of political intelligence lies in being faithful to your own fictions. The new Spielberg-Kushner-Lewis movie, “Lincoln,” reminds us (or will, once widely released) that Lincoln’s entire conduct in office during the war was based on the fiction that the secession had never happened—that the South was not a rebellious nation but, rather, a bunch of outlaws running around in gang regalia. What you could see had just happened—a bunch of states becoming an alien nation—had not. This fiction of continuity, of an indissoluble union in the face of its rather evident dissolution, was essential to Lincoln’s case and to his credo.

To this list of—what shall we call them?—higher liars (sounds harsh, though it conveys something of the idea) most other great politicians might be added. F.D.R., with his assertion that fear was all there was to fear when there was so much real stuff to be frightened of; and Reagan, for that matter, with his many repeated myths and mantras. By now Obama must know the virtues of fighting and the limits of the invocation of unity, but he knows, too, that a cool man who does not cherish his own warmest rhetoric becomes a mere hot-air artist. If that knowledge can make him seem at times naïve, or even willfully perverse—well, after all, he’s the one who’s the phenomenon, not you.
Stimulating, methinks, but not the whole story. No doubt, Obama's "not just red states and blue states" mantra puts forward a national image that's highly, shall we say, idealized -- that is, part bullshit. But only partly, because Obama lays the real beside the ideal, embracing disunity within unity -- as in his victory speech last night:

Psychology of campaign donations: reverse-causation giving

I made my first donation to Obama's reelection campaign more or less when first asked, in February 2011, and doled it out in gradually accelerating dribs and drabs as campaign season kicked into gear, keeping a rough count in my head -- corrected and ratified, starting I think this past August, with occasional emails from the campaign spelling out the total.  I went from about once a month to twice a month to 3x at the end, and I let various moments of personal anxiety or perceived need (almost never induced by the 20 emails a day I was getting) spike it.

As with voting, if you're not a megadonor you know your money won't make a measurable difference -- my $100 won't make a dent in the $10 million Super PAC buy I just read about. So why do it?   The simple answer is you do what you can and hope others will too -- but over time I noticed a slightly magical element to that. It seems I was acting on a kind of reverse causation assumption: that I was part of a kind of herd mind, and that if I decided to donate at a particular moment, it was a good bet that others would too. So I could make it happen by letting it happen.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Obama claims victory for his "United States"

Obama thrilled the country at the 2004 DNC when for the first time on the national stage he decried the division of the country into red states and blue states, asserting "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America."  Conversely, when he told the country's citizens at the 2012 DNC  that the election in 2008 "wasn't about me...you were the change," some viewed that as a cop-out of sorts: I failed to change Washington, so you do it. Gone were the promises to bridge the red-blue divide himself with the GOP Congress; he wrote them off as dead-enders, and effectively asked the electorate to change Congress by expression of popular will.

Obama's victory speech last night further elaborated the connection between the national unity he has always asserted and the political "change" he seeks. The heart of it came at the end. After telling the tale of a couple whose daughter's leukemia would have cost them everything had Obamacare not kicked in, he said, describing a crowd listening to the father tell his story:

Annus mirabilis

If I may repeat a thought from September 8, mentally converting the conditional into the indicative as I reread:

With breath held as the billion-dollar Romney air assault kicks into post-convention gear, I am also prepared to be proud.  Step back and contemplate that in the face of 8-plus percent unemployment, and a united opposition that has sabotaged and demonized his every initiative for 44 months, Obama remains at least a slight favorite for reelection.  Renewing our vows would be even more awe-inspiring than electing Obama in the first place.

In the euphoria of 2008, it was possible to think that racism was losing its potency, was not a major factor in our politics. After we lost that innocence, after four years of more and less racially coded attacks, from birtherism to Gingrich's food stamp president to Romney's subtler charge that Obama doesn't understand what makes America unique; after the death panel screams and the debt ceiling debacle; Obama's support has never fully cratered, and is looking more likely than not to carry him over the finish line. His basic competence, and intelligence, and dignity, and concern for the mass of the people, and integrity are manifest enough that a large plurality has always stuck with him.

Pundits moan no end about the stupidity of the electorate. Progressives worry, with reason, about the effects of unprecedented and unaccountable billions flowing into campaign coffers, and an equally unprecedented willingness to base a campaign entirely on lies. And yet, in the face of all, it appears more likely than not that the race-baiting, compromise-ditching, economy-sabotaging, government-gutting, corporate-controlled GOP is going to fail to fool most of the people enough of the time to unseat Obama.

If he prevails again, it will be America's finest hour since the Voting Rights Act.

----

So he has prevailed. And let's pause for a moment to remember -- and, in his triumph, savor -- the rings of fire he has passed through: economic freefall. Implacable disloyal opposition from the day he was elected; sabotage and smear, to the point where the real effects of his economy-saving and built-to-last stimulus bill were erased from the public perception. The heaviest legislative lift since the Voting Rights Act, resulting in the most important addition to the safety net since Medicare. The midterm shellacking, followed by the debt ceiling debacle, out of which he salvaged a debt ceiling-free run to the present and massive leverage at the edge of the fiscal cliff, and after which he learned to hammer an opposition incapable of compromise. Whitewater rafting past the rocks of Supreme Court ruling on the ACA, Israeli threats to set the world afire, and European meltdown.  Hard-won backdoor stimulus in the form of payroll tax cuts and unemployment extensions.

Obama knows how to be president now.  He knows what his opposition is an dhow to deal with it.  He is free to cement the pillars of his legacy, the long-term investments in the future: universal healthcare with evolving cost controls, a new banking regime dependent on rule-writing by an administration serious about curbing the industry's excesses, ongoing investment in alternative energy, moderating the Supreme Court, completing the gay rights revolution, a peaceful resolution to Iran's nuclear development, continued patient, subtle leadership in the continued development of multilateral institutions...the list goes on.

Jonathan Chait recently argued convincingly that Obama has been a great president. Second terms are notorious for setbacks and dissipated energy. More than most presidents, though, Obama has a full plate simply in the hard, essential work of implementing and building on his towering legislative accomplishments. I am confident that he will be a good steward of those works in progress.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Burning off the nerves on election night

I've been first too busy and work and then too keyed up (this evening) to blog for a couple of days, so I thought I'd work off a little nervous energy, not exactly with a live blog, but with a few scattered thoughts and notes.

1) I've been afraid to look at the early tea leaves, so when the Obama campaign texted me at about 8 ET to make some last minute calls, I responded and started calling Colorado an hour before the polls closed. The calls were to people who had requested mail-in ballots, to tell them that if they didn't get the ballot on time they could go to their polling place (provided on-screen) and fill out a provisional ballot. I reached a good handful of people, and they were very nice -- at the end, GOTV is almost all supporters, and a couple calmed me down a bit, as they were chatty and more sanguine than I was feeling.  I also learned something interesting from one guy: that if you didn't mail in your provisional ballot on time you could walk it in today, and it would be counted with conventional votes. So I started leaving that info, along w/ polling places, on voicemail -- all of 45 min to a half hour before closing time. Silly, but as good a way to kill the time as, say, this.

2) Earlier in the evening I had been calling PA voters, and that too offered a bit of reassurance as virtually everyone I talked to was a supporter and virtually all had voted already.  That indicates to me that the GOTV winnowing process was working well.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The president as champion of the people

I listened last night to a speech that Obama gave in Bristow, Virginia yesterday (Nov. 3), and it included a riff that was new to me. I've found it in a transcript of a speech delivered on the same day, in Dubuque,Iowa. It offers a singular - -and in a sense, conservative -- view of the president's role in our government:
See, the folks at the very top in this country, they don't need a champion in Washington. They'll always have a seat at the table. They'll always have access. They'll always have influence. That's the way things are.

The people who need a champion are you the Americans whose letters I read late at night after I'm done with my work in the office; the men and women I meet on the campaign trail every day; the folks I met that first summer when I was traveling around Iowa, and nobody could pronounce my name.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Obamacare and the End of Days

Canvassing in Allentown, PA today, I met a young white woman coming out of her apartment, lighting up a cigarette. She was listed on the contact sheet as a supporter, and she said she was going to vote, and when I asked for who she said somewhat doubtfully, probably Obama, or I guess Obama, or something like that. I asked whether she had any doubts, and she said several positive things about Obama -- that he came in facing a mess, and had started to turn things around (I wish I could remember the good metaphor she used), that Romney was just for the rich. She seemed neither educated nor politically unaware.  Then she pointed to her forearm and said, "what about that chip?"

I had heard this once before. A Hispanic girl of about 13, translating for her mother who remained far from the door, asked us whether Obama was going to put a chip in everyone's arm through which we could be controlled. I asked one of the district coordinators about this, and she said they had heard the tale occasionally, and thought one of the churches was spreading the rumor (she may have said a Seventh Day Adventist church, or that may be my memory embellishing). 

Friday, November 02, 2012

Capitulate, Chait! Succumb, Drum! Obama's rhetoric is a force for change

Two of the admirers of Obama I'm most attuned to claim a tough-minded immunity to the alleged intoxications of the president's rhetoric. Jonathan Chait, in a truly moving and incisive tribute to Obama's radical pragmatism, protests at the outset, "I never felt his election would change everything about American politics or government...Nothing Obama did or said ever made me well up with tears." Kevin Drum goes him one better:
I simply never took seriously any of Obama's high-flown rhetoric—Hope and change, Yes we can! You are the solution, etc.—dismissing it as nothing more than typical campaign windiness.
To which I must respond: Gentlemen! Tune in, turn on, don't cop out. Listen to what the man has been saying these five-plus years.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The tribute Obama deserves

has been delivered by Jonathan Chait:
What can be said without equivocation is that Obama has proven himself morally, intellectually, temperamentally, and strategically. In my lifetime, or my parents’, he is easily the best president. On his own terms, and not merely as a contrast to an unacceptable alternative, he overwhelmingly deserves reelection.
Chait understands that true pragmatism is the rarest and most powerful lever of leadership:
Obama’s résumé of accomplishments is broad and deep, running the gamut from economic to social to foreign policy. The general thrust of his reforms, especially in economic policy, has been a combination of politically radical and ideologically moderate. The combination has confused liberals into thinking of Obamaism as a series of sad half-measures, and conservatives to deem it socialism, but the truth is neither. Obama’s agenda has generally hewed to the consensus of mainstream economists and policy experts. What makes the agenda radical is that, historically, vast realms of policy had been shaped by special interests for their own benefit. Plans to rationalize those things, to write laws that make sense, molder on think-tank shelves for years, even generations. They are often boring. But then Obama, in a frenetic burst of activity, made many of them happen all at once.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Romney's quicksilver Detroit turnaround

Can anyone stand yet another picking over Romney's actual position(s) regarding the Detroit bailouts?

Despite the reams that have been written, what Romney actually recommended in his now-famous Nov. 2008 op-ed and in subsequent elaborations remains elusive -- as is generally the case when you're dealing with a consummate bullshitter. Still, I've combed some of  his pronouncements from November 2008 through June 2009 and would venture to clarify a few points:

1) Romney never called for the liquidation of GM or Chrysler. That much should be obvious -- though his call for a "managed bankruptcy" to commence immediately upon the companies running out of money following their request for government aid in November 2008 would probably have led to liquidation.

2) By pronouncing "Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check," Romney set up a  false choice. As the event proved, GM and Chrysler both needed both -- first one, and then the other.

3) In calling for a "managed bankruptcy" in his November 2008 op-ed, Romney did not explicitly recommend a privately funded turnaround.  Rather, with a calculated vagueness that has since become numbingly familiar, he left unstated how and by whom the companies' continued operations would be funded.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Romney Rules special edition: the meta-ethics of the post-truth campaign

Paul Krugman dubbed Mitt Romney's drive for the presidency the post-truth campaign. Steven Benen chronicles 20-50 verifiable instances of Mitt's mendacity every week (a record future generations will marvel at). I like to focus on the campaign's meta-ethics -- its explicit justifications for willfully misleading the public.  

That has happened on at least four occasions. Here they are*, in reverse chronological order:  

1) The most recent is the most egregious: the campaign is defending an ad, now running in Ohio, that gives the clear false impression that Chrysler is going to move its U.S.-based Jeep production to China, whereas the company has merely stated an intention to build Jeeps in China for the Chinese market. The ad follows on the heels of a false statement by Romney last week that Chrysler was moving U.S. Jeep manufactures to China.  Asked by Buzzfeed, to explain the ad, an unnamed Romney aide responded, ""What's in there that's false? Are they building Jeeps in China or not?" Context doesn't matter; artful omissions are okay; deliberately creating a false impression is okay.

"Ohio Slipping Away?"

I get 20 emails a day from Democrats trying to scare me into donating, so I know to take campaign emails that raise an alarm ("we're being outspent!) with a grain of salt.  Ergo, I'm not going to get too excited by this campaign email from Josh Mandel, the GOP Senate candidate in Ohio, relayed by National Review. But it is rather cheering -- and a jarring counter-narrative to the one put forward by Romney momentum-mongers. Subject line: Ohio Slipping Away?

I would add, too, that by current American standards it's a fair pitch. The enemy is liberalism, spending, taxes. Nothing incendiary.  But there is a, shall we say, archetypal subtext: Democrats are voting early by the busload (you know what kind of people rely on buses); they want to bank enough \votes to win before election day (clever thieves that they are); I need you (patriotic American) to stand with me (the marine) and block the invading end-running busloaders marshaled out of their "strongholds" by the "Obama-Brown machine." We few, we happy few....

Here's the letter:
Dear Patriot,

Early voting has begun in Ohio.


And the Obama campaign is turning out Democrat voters by the busload.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Paul Krugman closes his own private enthusiasm gap

No one on the more or less mainstream left has been harder on Obama than Paul Krugman, who began tearing out his hair at the proposed size of the stimulus before Obama took office and did not let up for almost three years thereafter. The nadir came as details of the debt ceiling deal emerged last summer: Krugman's July 31, 2011 column was originally titled "Capitulation" and lives on online as The President Surrenders.  His bitterness reached this crescendo:
In fact, Republicans will surely be emboldened by the way Mr. Obama keeps folding in the face of their threats. He surrendered last December, extending all the Bush tax cuts; he surrendered in the spring when they threatened to shut down the government; and he has now surrendered on a grand scale to raw extortion over the debt ceiling. Maybe it’s just me, but I see a pattern here.

Yes, the debt ceiling deal was disillusioning, and droves of Democrats followed Krugman into the slough of despond.  Nine days later, the disgust peaked with Drew Westen's What Happened to Obama, a 3000-word screed on the front page of the New York Times Sunday Review that portrayed Obama as a craven conflict-averse surrender monkey while belittling his legislative accomplishments.  As I pointed out at the time, this rhetorical nuke dropped on ground zero in the liberal heartland relied almost entirely on Krugman's critique of the stimulus for its substantive attack on Obama's record.

Yet Krugman has had a change of heart over the past year. His esteem for the president has grown more swiftly than the economy -- to the point where, if Obama's base followed Krugman's lead, there would be no enthusiasm gap. Perhaps it's an accelerating case of 'you don't know what you've got till it's [almost] gone.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Obama looks forward to the whip hand

There are no real surprises in Obama's "off the record" interview with the Des Moines Register, which the administration very sensibly put on the record after being publicly challenged to do so by editor Rick Green  (kudos to Green for getting it done). But there is some blunt talk, and a coherent vision of sustainable economic growth laid out in more detail than the campaign trail allows.

The blunt talk,  about how he will deal with Republicans in upcoming months, highlights lessons learned in the debt ceiling negotiations of summer. There's no mention of a mutual will to compromise, or coming together for the good of the country, or both sides giving a little, or there being good ideas on both sides. It's about leverage, or rather, a set of blunt instruments:

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Conservative debate watchers have a point, but...

On one hand, I am pissed that Republican spin on the last debate is getting some credence in the media -- Politico and ABC both retailed the hypothesis that the debate might strengthen Romney's position, since he came across as credible an unscary -- and the electorate doesn't much care about foreign policy.

On the other hand, I think that the conservative analysis digested by the Dish -- by Douthat, Levin, Lowry and Ponnuru -- has some validity. Lowry summarizes their collective take well:
I think Romney executed what must have been his strategy nearly flawlessly: reassure people that he’s not a bomb-thrower; project strength but not bellicosity; go out of his way to say how many Obama policies he agrees with to create a sense of his reasonableness; focus on the big picture of a world that seems out of control; get it back to the economy as much as possible; and communicate a real passion for the future.
In fact, my own reaction to Romney's performance, taken by itself, was somewhat similar.  I disagree, though, with this from Levin, and in that disagreement lies hope:

Monday, October 22, 2012

Moderate Mitt vs. Nimble Obama

As I expected, Romney brought Moderate Mitt to this debate. Practically the first word out of his mouth was "peace" -- and throughout, he stressed that he wanted to foster peace. In fact, he had a simple two-track message, peace/strength.  And I do think, taking his performance as a solo, that he hit his core objectives: he was 1) moderate Mitt, and 2) versed Mitt, reeling off for-show nuances like the power hierarchy in Pakistan, and rattling off 4- and 5-point plans and systematic rebuttals. .  Oh, and as always, 3) Dominating Mitt, talking over everyone.  Objective 4) was to paint a weak Obama, and that one didn't go so well.

One thing Romney did well --advancing his image as a peacemaker not a warmonger -- was deliver firm one-word answers to "should we" questions.  Should we divorce Pakistan? No. Should we have propped up Mubarek? No.  Should we take more decisive military action in Syria (beyond arming the 'right' rebels)? No.

The promise of an Obama second term

E.J. Dionne makes a great case today that Obama has a substantive and productive second term agenda, whether or not he makes the case for it as strongly as he might. After reminding us that Obama has in fact laid out a detailed deficit reduction plan -- attacked from left and right, but no less credible for that, he gets to what I consider the core:
Some dismiss what an Obama second term might achieve by claiming that it will be mainly concerned with consolidating his first-term accomplishments. If these had been trivial, that might be a legitimate criticism. But does anyone seriously believe that implementing a massive new health insurance program that will cover an additional 30 million Americans is unimportant? Can anyone argue that translating the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms into workable regulations is a minor undertaking?
Here is the case for a term of consolidation that I made informally, in a letter to a friend:

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