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“Almost Anything Would Be More Important”: Memo To Fiscal Hawks, The Long-Term Deficit Doesn’t Matter

Over the weekend I got in a long argument with some ally of the deficit hawk group Fix the Debt on Twitter, and while most of the conversation turned on who should be blamed for mass unemployment, it did reach an interesting place in one respect. This person took as a given that long-term deficit reduction is a policy priority of the first rank — a belief that is very common among America’s elite.

This priority is misguided both in detail and in general. Here’s why.

There are two points to make here: First, long-term deficits are entirely about the rising cost of health care. Centrist elites insist that this is a reason to make our social insurance programs less generous, but the reality is that America’s high prices are driven by inefficient service provision, not by excessively generous programs. American health care is unfair, monopolistic, and captured by specialist doctors, and our policies are designed poorly, which is why we pay about half again as much as the next-most-expensive developed nation for what is in fact a pretty threadbare safety net.

This point is crucial. What it means is that making our social insurance more stingy, by raising the Medicare eligibility age for example, will accomplish almost nothing. Unless you tackle the skyrocketing cost problem, the budgetary headroom created by benefit cuts will be eaten almost immediately by rising prices. In other words, no matter how many grannies you put into the poorhouse, on predicted trends eventually a single ibuprofen will cost the entire federal budget. (Unless, of course, you just repeal all social insurance altogether and let sick, poor, and old people go bankrupt and die in the hundreds of thousands per year.)

Fortunately, we just passed a gigantic health care reform package. You might have heard of it: It’s called ObamaCare, and it seems to be helping slow health care inflation.

Second, even if we set that issue aside and talk about the Platonic ideal of long-term deficits, there again the case for action is weak at best. The political problem is that America does not actually have the consensus necessary to reduce deficits on a long-term basis, despite the constant whining about it one hears all the time on cable news. One of our two political parties is composed of total hypocrites on this issue — just look at Paul Ryan. It is a near-certainty that any long-term work on the deficit would be immediately squandered on tax cuts for the rich the moment Republicans got a chance — it’s what happened in 2001.

But even on the merits, if you actually run through the economic reasoning (PDF), the case for worrying about the long-term deficit is weak at best. The U.S. is indebted in its own sovereign currency and cannot go bankrupt. Inflation could be a worry, but given current mass unemployment it’s a hypothetical concern at best.

So don’t worry about the deficit in 2050 or whatever. People ain’t got no jobs. People ain’t got no money. That’s what matters.


By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, March 3, 2014

March 5, 2014 Posted by | Deficits, Health Care Costs | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Yet Again, Money Influencing Politics”: How The Gun Lobby Became A Threat To Public Safety

Just a generation ago, the NRA was a nonpartisan and relatively non-ideological organization that advocated for responsible and safe gun ownership in addition to defending gun rights.

But in its 20 years under the leadership of chief executive Wayne LaPierre the organization has become another cog in the broader conservative advocacy machine.

At the same time, with gun ownership declining, the organization has come to rely less on its members’ dues and more on firearm manufacturers, which now account for over half of the NRA’s revenues according to Walter Hickey at Business Insider.

The gun lobby also lost a key element of what had long been its defining mission: Guns remain a hot-button topic for political debate, but in the courts the issue has largely been settled. Gun rights won.

In 2010, the Supreme Court settled a long-standing debate about whether the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to bear arms or only applied to, as the Constitution reads, “a well-regulated militia.” The court ruled that the right to own firearms, while not without limits, is as integral as the right to free speech or the free exercise of religion. Since then, a number of municipal bans on firearm ownership have been overturned — most recently when a federal court struck down a California law that allowed counties to restrict the concealed carry of guns.

But the gun makers’ lobby remains strong and well-financed, and it has an institutional imperative to keep lobbying. It is now in the business of selling guns by promoting the idea that we can never have too many, nor should there be any public places where firearms aren’t welcome — and by spinning conspiracy theories about various imagined plots to disarm law-abiding Americans.

Today, the NRA and its political allies promote such policies as allowing concealed weapons in bars, allowing the blind to carry firearms (“Blind gun user Michael Barber said: ‘When you shoot a gun, you take it out and point and shoot, and I don’t necessarily think eyesight is necessary’”), making it a felony for doctors to discuss gun safety with their patients (never mind the First Amendment) and barring private firms from telling their employees to keep their guns at home.

Pro-gun lawmakers have gotten the message. Last month, five Republican legislators in Washington State introduced a bill that would exempt all firearms and ammunition from the state’s sales tax. Now in theory at least, one reason for tax breaks is to encourage some social good. For example, 20 years of tax credits have played a role in the exponential increase of wind energy production in the US. Yet here was a proposed tax break that would only encourage the sale of more guns in a country that’s already bristling with them.

These laws are predicated on the belief that more guns make a society safer. One of the cosponsors of the Washington State bill, Matt Shea (R-Spokane Valley) told a local conservative talk radio host, “It’s beyond a shadow of a doubt: More firearms in a society cuts crime in that society.” (In fact, according to the UN, the US is believed to lead the world in private gun ownership and has the highest total crime rate among wealthy countries.)

Kentucky lawmakers proposed a similar measure back in December, and in Kansas, the belief that more guns mean more safety forms the basis of a law that only permits local officials to bar firearms from public buildings if they install costly metal detectors or hire security guards. In South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley is backing a law that would allow people to carry concealed guns without a permit or any safety training.

The problem is that this faith in guns for security, like global warming denialism, flies in the face of a mountain of serious, peer-reviewed research.

Last month, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a study conducted by epidemiologists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) finding that access to a firearm makes an individual almost twice as likely to become the victim of a homicide and three times more likely to commit suicide.

Previous studies had found that countries with higher rates of gun ownership also have higher rates of gun deaths and that states with more guns have higher homicide rates. But gun advocates dismissed those studies because they didn’t account for illegal gun sales. (The National Rifle Association’s side of the scholarly debate rests largely on the discredited and allegedly fraudulent work of economist John Lott.)

The UCSF study took a different approach, starting with a dead body and working backwards to see whether that person owned or had access to a firearm, legal or illegal. The study was a meta-analysis combining data from 15 previous, peer-reviewed papers.

It also found a significant gender gap in terms of homicide: Men with access to a gun were 29 percent more likely to be a victim of homicide, while women with a gun close at hand were almost three times more likely to be murdered. The report cited previous studies that found that most female murder victims knew their assailant, and three-quarters of women killed with a gun died in their own homes. Researchers concluded that the presence of guns may make impulsive killings during domestic disputes more common.

Another soon-to-be-published study may provide the most compelling evidence to date that looser gun laws lead to more bloodshed. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health were able to conduct a natural experiment in Missouri after the state repealed a law requiring handgun purchasers to get a license and pass a background check in 2007. According to the study’s authors, repealing the law “contributed to a sixteen percent increase in Missouri’s murder rate.”

That translated into 55 to 63 more murders per year in Missouri between 2008 and 2012, despite the fact that during the same period, “none of the states bordering Missouri experienced significant increases in murder rates and the U.S. murder rate actually declined by over five percent.” The increase in murders began in the first full year after the state’s licensing requirement was repealed, and the researchers “controlled for changes in policing, incarceration, burglaries, unemployment, poverty, and other state laws adopted during the study period that could affect violent crime.”

The conclusions presented in these studies, along with previous research, fly in the face of the persistent claim that more guns make a society safer. But this is as much a story of money influencing politics as anything else. With supporters like Springfield Armory, Inc, Pierce Bullet, Seal Target Systems, Beretta USA Corporation, Sturm Rugar & Co and Smith & Wesson, public safety simply isn’t a high priority for the gun lobby.


By: Joshua Holland, Moyers and Company, Bill Moyers Blog, March 4, 2014

March 5, 2014 Posted by | Guns, National Rifle Association, Politics | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Can Political Coverage Ever Get Better?”: There Are Strong Incentives For Reporters To Keep Coverage As Crappy As It Is

As we begin inching our way toward the next presidential campaign, it may be far too early to begin the idiotic speculation with which coverage at this stage tends to be consumed (Can anyone beat Hillary? Will Ted Cruz be the Tea Party darling? Who’ll win the Iowa straw poll? Dear god, who?). But it’s never too early to ask whether anything can be done to improve the news coverage through which Americans see campaigns.

Political scientist Hans Noel points to the uneasy relationship between reporters and scholars, even as the latter work hard to improve that coverage:

Every election cycle, journalists and pundits over-react to early polls that are not predictive of presidential nominations. They get excited about nonsense independent and third-party candidates who have no hope of being elected. They think an increasing number of voters are unaligned independents. They downplay and misrepresent the role of the economy and other fundamentals. And it’s not that they don’t know. They push back against political scientists who try to correct them.

I sort of understand it. As one very smart journalist (who shall remain nameless, as I was on the record for this conversation, but he really wasn’t) told me when interviewing me about a campaign-centered story, their professional incentives cut against social science. He said that if they accepted that inside baseball isn’t that important, they’d have nothing to write about every day, and no reason to follow the candidates around.

Part of the difficulty political scientists have in getting the truths to which he alludes across is the nature of the conversations they have with reporters. Nine times out of ten, when a reporter calls up a scholar, he isn’t looking for an interesting perspective on political developments. He’s looking for a quote that he can use in his story, and he wants it quickly. He doesn’t have time to have a leisurely, stimulating discussion about what research demonstrates, because he’s got a deadline in an hour. As the conversation proceeds, he’ll try to steer it to where that quote might be produced, no matter what the scholar wants to talk about.

Some reporters have a better ear for quotes than others; I’ve been on both sides of that conversation, and on more than one occasion when I was on the scholar side I served up what I thought was a perfect quote—pithy, insightful, not too long—only to find that the reporter decided instead to quote me using some utterly banal baseball metaphor (reporters find metaphors utterly irresistible). A reporters working on a tight deadline isn’t going to call up a scholar and say, “Tell me about the interesting research that’s out there.” And if she can’t give him the quote he’s looking for, he isn’t going to call her back next time. The result is usually a quote from a political scientist that sheds no particular light on the topic.

The good news is that more and more scholars are doing things like blogging to get their ideas out into the non-academic world, and the multiplication of forms of journalism and commentary means that there are more writers, even some affiliated with big media organizations like newspapers, who are interested in what the scholars have to say.

But there’s still the practical problem of what journalists confront on a day-to-day basis. In response to Noel, Jonathan Bernstein gives a shot to articulating a better way to cover campaigns. It’s worth quoting at length:

Let’s say we’re talking about general-election campaigns for the presidency, where overcoverage of gaffes and such is probably the most severe. And let’s say that reporters stopped believing (or pretending) that day-to-day campaigning has massive electoral effects. What would remain for them?

  • Policy coverage: What would the candidate actually do about public policy if she won? Is it realistic? How would it work?
  • Rhetoric coverage: Related, but not identical, to the first one. What is the candidate actually promising? Not just in terms of “issues,” but also about style? How might those promises help or constrain him if he wins?
  • Candidacy coverage: Who does the candidate surround himself with? What does that suggest about how she would act in office?
  • Voters coverage: What are voters taking away from candidate speeches? In-depth voter interviews are no substitute for polling coverage, but are a good compliment to it. What do voters hear when candidates talk about deficits, taxes, jobs and more?
  • Gaffe coverage: Funny, stupid, or just bizarre things that candidates do are interesting, even when they have zero effect on the November vote. Take a page from Hollywood reporting. No one pretends that the various gaffes and foibles of the stars will have any consequences at all, but so what? They’re still fun to watch and to read about.

By the way, if that’s not enough to justify following the candidates all the time (and I suspect it is), don’t forget that there are hundreds of other elections, lots of which are important and exciting, that receive little or no national attention. Just basic descriptive stuff on the best of those campaigns is more than enough to give reporters an excellent reason to stay out of the newsroom.

Bernstein’s list is a good one, but with the exception of the gaffes, the main problem may be that none of these things constitute events. Think about it this way: like a restaurant or a web site, campaigns have a front end and a back end. The back end—raising money, doing polls, managing voter lists, administering a large and dynamic organization—is stuff the campaign doesn’t want reporters to see. The front end is a series of events they put on, the multiple speeches and appearances the candidate does every day. Covering events is relatively easy for reporters. You go there, you write down what happened, you talk to some voters for their reactions, get a quote from a campaign staffer or two, and boom, you’ve got your story.

The other kinds of things Jonathan suggests talking about, as valuable as they are, require more work and thought, which is why they’re much more likely to be done by people like magazine reporters who have longer lead-times on their stories, and much less likely to be done by the newspaper and TV reporters who are out on the trail and have to do a story every day. Events are easier, and they’re always new (we do call it “news,” after all), even if today’s rally is pretty much exactly like the rally they candidate did yesterday and last week and last month.

Also (and I’m sure Jonathan would acknowledge this), the reporters can’t really be trusted to regularly distinguish between the things that are diverting and interesting but not particularly consequential, and the things that actually affect the outcome of the election. That isn’t because they don’t understand it, it’s because there are strong incentives to portray everything as consequential. It’s one of the most powerful biases in political reporting. The president’s approval went up two points? Comeback! The candidate got mustard on his tie? Game changer! It’s understandable, to a point: when you’re suffering through the drudgery of the campaign trail, you don’t want to believe this thing to which you’ve devoted a year of your life is all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

All that means that as long as those incentives remain in place, it’s going to be hard to make large improvements in campaign coverage. But every little bit helps.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, March 4, 2014

March 5, 2014 Posted by | Elections, Journalists, Media | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Rallying Around The Wrong President”: Blinded By Hatred, Republicans Just Can’t Seem To Make Up Their Minds

I’ve been fascinated of late by Republican praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but as Rachel noted on the show last night, Rudy Giuliani appears to have taken this affection to a new level. For those who can’t watch clips online, here’s the former mayor talking to Fox’s Neil Cavuto yesterday.

GIULIANI: Putin decides what he wants to do and he does it in half a day, right? He decided he had to go to their parliament. He went to their parliament. He got permission in 15 minutes.

 CAVUTO: Well, that was kind of like perfunctory.

 GIULIANI: But he makes a decision and he executes it, quickly. Then everybody reacts. That’s what you call a leader. President Obama, he’s got to think about it. He’s got to go over it again. He’s got to talk to more people about it.

It’s not unusual, during a time of crisis, for Americans to rally behind a president. In Giuliani’s case, the trouble is the New York Republican appears to be rallying behind the wrong president.

That said, it’s nevertheless important to appreciate the fact that, in Giuliani’s mind, the mark of an effective leader is seen in someone who acts unilaterally, invades a country, and doesn’t stop to think too much about it. Real leaders, the argument goes, simply act – then watch as “everybody reacts.”

But here’s the follow-up question for Giuliani and other conservatives swooning over Putin: if President Obama did act that way, wouldn’t you be calling him a lawless, out-of-control tyrant?

We’ve talked many times about the underlying contradictions embraced by Obama’s detractors. The president’s critics have presented two competing caricatures, both of which are wrong, but more importantly, both of which are incongruous.

Dana Milbank picked up on the theme today.

President Obama is such a weak strongman. What’s more, he is a feeble dictator and a timid tyrant.

That, at any rate, is Republicans’ critique of him. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Obama’s critics pivoted seamlessly from complaining about his overreach to fretting that he is being too cautious. Call it Operation Oxymoron.

Last Wednesday, I sat in a House hearing and listened to Republicans describe Obama exercising “unparalleled use of executive power” and operating an “uber-presidency.” They accused him of acting like a “king” and a “monarch,” of making the United States like a “dictatorship” or a “totalitarian government” by exercising “imperial” and “magisterial power.”

But after events in Ukraine, this very tyrant was said to be so weak that it’s “shocking.”

Once again, the right is going to have to pick a caricature and go with it. Obama can be a power-hungry dictator, ruthlessly wielding power, or he can be a weak pushover, afraid to act. He can’t be both.

For that matter, Republicans can long for an authoritarian leader, who acts without thinking or regard for consensus, or they can embrace a more deliberative style of leadership that cares about partnerships and checks and balances.

At this point, the right can’t seem to make up its mind.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 4, 2014

March 5, 2014 Posted by | Republicans, Ukraine | , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Hawks Do Love Those Hitler-Era Talking Points”: Take John McCain’s Russia Advice And You Might Get Another Cold War

I’m not sure what we should do about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I am, however, dead sure about what we shouldnt do. Please, Washington—don’t listen to John McCain!

The leader of the capital’s bombs-away caucus spoke exclusively over the weekend to the Beast’s Josh Rogin, who nailed the scoop. It was a relief to see McCain acknowledging that there is no plausible military option. So that’s progress. But the steps McCain advises are certain to heighten tensions and probably start a new Cold War, which is surely what the thuggish Putin wants. It’s most definitely not what the United States should want, at exactly the time when, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has proposed, we should be reducing the size of our military and the reach of our global commitments.

McCain floated three notions: tougher sanctions against Russia and its higher-ranking officials; NATO membership for Georgia; expanded and sped-up missile defense systems in Europe. The first is unobjectionable. The world has to do something here, and sanctions are that something. If we can’t prevent Putin from engaging in this kind of aggression—and face it, we can’t—we can at least do what we can to harm his economy and limit the foreign travel of his high government officials.

But Georgia in NATO and missile defense? McCain and other hawkish types (including, very distressingly, Joe Biden back in 2008) have been banging that gong for years now. Calls for Georgian entry into NATO go back to the mid-2000s, when “Rose Revolution” president Mikheil Saakashvili made it a top priority. It was a horrible idea then—expanding a military alliance right up to the doorstep of a certain country, all but surrounding it, is bound to be seen in that country, and not unreasonably, as a provocative act. It’s even worse when that country happens to have 8,500 nuclear weapons.

And don’t forget NATO’s famous Article 5: an attack on any NATO country will be taken as an attack on all. What would the implications of that commitment have been in 2008, during the Russo-Georgian war in Ossetia? It’s true that Georgia moved first in that conflict, but pretexts for such action are absurdly easy to establish. Would the United States and the other NATO countries have been forced into war against Russia in 2008 if Georgia had been a NATO member then? It’s not at all an idle question, and it’s one well worth keeping in mind now.

As for missile defense, the United States is already scheduled to install missile interceptors in Poland in 2018, which is mistake enough. But at least Obama has drawn back here from stronger commitments to Poland (a charter member of the coalition of the willing, remember?) made by the Bush administration. The Bush commitment was for interceptors of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Obama scaled that back to interceptors of intermediate-range missiles. There will now be pressure from McCain and others to go back to Bush’s plan, and to get them there faster than 2018, which is the Obama timetable.

I’m hardly an expert on the different types of missile interceptors, so if the question is which one to deploy, I readily confess I’m not your man. But I have a better question: What in blazes does Poland have to do with this anyway? Is Putin set to invade Poland—a member of the European Union and of NATO? Is this 1939? The hawks do love those Hitler-era talking points. Yes, certain parallels can be drawn between what Putin is doing here and what Hitler did in the Sudetenland. But do we really think he wants to drag all of Europe into a war, wipe Germany off the map, put Russia’s and Europe’s gay population in concentration camps? Putin is a hideous person, but a latter-day Hitler he is probably not, and even if he did want to do those things, trillions of dollars in trade are at stake for him in his relations with Europe in a way that wasn’t at all true in the 1930s.

In fact, yesterday Putin accepted Angela Merkel’s mediation offer for a contact group to discuss the crisis, suggesting perhaps that his aims here, however repugnant, may fall short of world domination

We have to express our disapproval, and we should impose sanctions. Beyond that, there just isn’t much we can do, and there isn’t much we should do. Timothy Snyder, a leading expert on the region, writes in The New Republic that the EU should undertake a series of moves designed in effect to banish Russia’s upper classes from European banks and cities and private schools and resort playgrounds, which might well get the attention of the only people (Putin-approved kleptocrats) who can possibly influence Putin’s behavior.

And as for McCain and his Cold War caucus: McCain wants the United States to do the things he wants it to do so that the United States remains the world’s only true hegemonic power. For almost all of John McCain’s sentient life, we had a bipolar world, and then, after 1991, a unipolar world. The McCains of America think the bipolar world was a freak accident of history and the unipolar world is the default way things ought to be.

But the unipolar era of U.S. dominance is—increasingly, was—itself a product of particular historical forces, and those forces are changing rapidly. We’re returning to a multipolar world in which there will be other powers that can operate more or less on the United States’ level. Far from resisting this we should welcome it. I’m not a liberal isolationist, and certainly no pacifist either. Although it’s not possible to quantify—it’s like trying to measure how much rain didn’t fall—I think there’s no doubt that our global military presence has prevented more problems than it has created, and we shouldn’t pull too far back. But we should start sharing that burden with other nations and multilateral organizations more than we have.

And most of all, recreating a bipolar world of U.S.-Russia conflict is at the very bottom of our global “to do” list. We don’t have to like Putin or what he’s doing here, but let’s not pretend that who controls the Crimea is a question of first-rank global importance, and let’s not play into Putin’s grubby hands. Demagogues only gain power when they can whip their people into a frenzy about an outside enemy. Obama must not help him, and must’nt let himself get cowed by a hectoring neocon right into saying things he shouldn’t say.


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, March 3, 2014

March 5, 2014 Posted by | John McCain, Russia, Ukraine | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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