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“Keep Calm And Carry On”: Jolly’s Win Does Not Presage Republican Wave

David Jolly won an upset victory over Democrat Alex Sink in Tuesday’s special election in Florida’s 13th congressional district, sending another Republican to the House of Representatives, and unleashing a torrent of breathless predictions that Democrats are doomed in 2014.

A National Journal article by Josh Kraushaar, titled “Why a Republican Wave in 2014 is Looking More Likely Now,” and Joe Scarborough’s declaration that “we may have something historic here happening, where you have one act [Obamacare] actually causing grave damage to a political party two midterms in a row” typify this brand of speculative political analysis.

That makes for an easy narrative, but it’s grounded in very few facts. It’s entirely possible — or even probable — that Republicans make major gains in the 2014 midterms. They may even win a Senate majority. But if they do, it will have nothing to do with what happened in Pinellas County on Tuesday night.

For starters, as political scientist Alan Abramowitz pointed out after a 2011 special election in New York — in which Republican Bob Turner upset Democrat David Weprin, prompting excited (and false) reports of an impending Republican wave in 2012 — the results of special elections do not accurately predict the results of subsequent general elections.

“An analysis of the results of all special House elections since World War II shows that while there is a weak relationship between the net party swing in special elections and the net party swing in the subsequent general election (the correlation is .32), special election results have no impact once you control for other factors such as the party of the president in midterm elections, seats held by the parties going into the election and the incumbent president’s approval rating,” Abramowitz wrote.

A quick look at the specifics of Florida’s special election makes it clear that this contest is no exception.

First, turnout was very low. Just 183,634 voters cast ballots in the election, down from 329,347 in the 2012 general election, and 266,934 in the 2010 midterm. To be clear, Republicans — who have a narrow registration advantage in the district — did a much better job getting their voters out to the polls than Democrats did. But Florida Democrats’ failure to convince voters to turn out for Alex Sink in March tells us exceedingly little about, say, Alaska Democrats’ ability to get out the vote for Mark Begich in November.

Second, there’s no evidence that Obamacare — which has been widely labeled as the hinge on which the election swung — actually served as a decisive factor in the election. There is no exit polling available for the race, but polls leading up to election day suggested that voters had other priorities; a Februrary Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/WUSF Public Media poll, for example, found that while 39 percent said the Affordable Care Act was “very important” to their voting preference, 33 percent said it was just “somewhat important,” and 26 percent said it is “not at all important” (in fairness, that poll also said that Sink would win).

And while the Affordable Care Act featured prominently in the barrage of television ads that saturated the airwaves throughout the campaign, it was hardly the sole focus of the race. In fact, Jolly didn’t even mention the law in his victory speech, choosing instead to focus on his commitment to local issues.

But even if it turns out that Obamacare did seal the victory for Jolly, there’s no reason to assume that the issue will spark a Republican wave. As Abramowitz reminds us, the way that 180,000 Floridians feel about the law in March tells us very little about how some two million voters in North Carolina or Georgia will feel about it eight months from now. And national polls suggest that the law is not set up to be a clear electoral winner for either party.

Finally, in Florida’s election, one must consider Libertartian candidate Lucas Overby, who won about 5 percent of the vote. As Nick Gillespie points out in Reason, Overby’s platform makes it very plausible that he pulled more votes away from Sink than he did from Jolly (in the same manner that Libertarian Robert Sarvis pulled more votes from Democrat Terry McAuliffe than he did from Republican Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia’s recent gubernatorial election). Again, with no exit polls, it’s impossible to know for sure. But there’s a chance that were Overby not in the race, Sink would have won. If that were the case, would the media be running with overheated reports that Democrats will be in the catbird seat come November?

There’s no question that Sink’s loss should be a major disappointment for Democrats, who squandered a real shot at winning a seat that Republicans have held for decades. And there’s also no question that Democrats, saddled by an unfriendly electoral map and an unpopular president, are in danger of suffering big losses in the midterms. But there is simply no reason to believe that last night’s result provides a roadmap for future elections across the nation. If Republicans do make big gains in November, it will have nothing to do with David Jolly or Alex Sink.


By: Henry Decker, The National Memo, March 12, 2014

March 15, 2014 Posted by | Election 2014, Special Elections | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Deeply Foolish”: The Wrong Way To Tackle Immigration

At first blush, the fact that House Republicans actually voted on a bill related to immigration policy yesterday may have encouraged reform proponents. The GOP majority has been inclined to largely ignore the issue for quite a while.

But the legislation the House took up yesterday didn’t support reform progress; it did the opposite.

A House Republican bill aimed at forcing President Barack Obama to enforce immigration and other laws as they are written drew sharp rebukes Wednesday from the White House and House Democrats, who ripped the measure as anti-immigrant.

The legal dispute over President Barack Obama’s unilateral decision to suspend deportations for people brought to the country illegally by their parents, known as “dreamers,” has split the GOP and Democrats before.

At least on paper, the legislation, which passed 233 to 181, wasn’t explicitly about immigration. Rather, this was yet another election-year “message bill,” in which House Republicans pretended to be outraged about President Obama’s entirely routine executive orders. GOP leaders put together a bill – subtlely called the ENFORCE Act – intended to make it easier for members of Congress to sue the White House, forcing the administration to prioritize law enforcement in line with lawmakers’ wishes.

It is, by any sensible measure, a deeply foolish proposal. How many House Republicans, some of whom surely knew better, had the sense to vote against this transparent nonsense? Zero.

But immigration stood at the center of the debate because Republicans put it there: to prove Obama’s tyrannical tendencies, GOP lawmakers used the administration’s deferred action on Dream Act kids as Exhibit A.

In practical terms, then, the Republican bill was part of an effort to force Obama to deport immigrant children who came to the United States with their families.

It’s almost as if House Republicans decided, as an election-year gambit, to enrage the Latino community on purpose.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was eager to criticize the GOP scheme.

“[T}his runs contrary to our most deeply held values as Americans, and asks law enforcement officials to treat these DREAMers the same way as they would treat those with criminal records, those with violent criminal records.

“We urge House Republicans to focus on actually fixing our broken immigration system to provide opportunity for all instead of legislation designed to deny opportunity to those who are Americans in every way, in their hearts, in their minds, in their experiences in every way but on paper.

“So you hear a lot of talk about where people are on this issue. It doesn’t require much to look at what House Republicans are doing today to question whether or not they’re serious about moving forward on comprehensive immigration reform.”

Looking ahead, the bill approved by the House yesterday stands no chance of success in the Democratic-led Senate and would be quickly vetoed by the president if it somehow reached his desk. GOP leaders obviously know this, but wasted time on the bill anyway, instead of doing real work (on immigration or anything else).

Why? Party leaders apparently decided it was time for a little stunt to show the party’s far-right base that House Republicans are standing up to Obama for using his executive authority the exact same way every other president has for more than two centuries.

As for the future of immigration reform, the DREAM Coalition, a group representing the children of undocumented immigrants, said the vote “demonstrates Republicans can no longer be relied upon to bring up a sensible and practicable immigration reform bill this year.”


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 13, 2014

March 15, 2014 Posted by | House Republican Caucus, Immigration Reform | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Challenge To Conservative Principles”: Humankind Is Better Off Than It Has Ever Been, And It’s Thanks To Government

There has never been a better time to be a human being than in March 2014. People live longer, wealthier, happier lives than they ever have. Each of the Four Horsemen — disease, famine, war, and death — are being beaten back.

This isn’t just my opinion. The data is incontrovertible. Life expectancy is the highest it’s ever been, and getting higher. Global GDP has never reached our present heights. The number of humans in poverty has never been lower. Wars between nations are almost extinct, and wars in general are getting less deadly.

The notion of human progress isn’t a grand theory anymore; it’s a fact. So why do so many people insist on telling you it’s impossible?

Almost everywhere you turn, some pundit or “literary intellectual” is aching to tell you the “hard, eternal truths” about the way the world works. Progress is a false idol, they’ll say — and worse, an American one. The harsh reality is that nothing ever changes; the sad truth of the human condition is pain and misery.

These people position themselves as besieged truth tellers, braving the wrath of the masses to challenge our dominant, rose-tinted national narrative. In reality, they’re just saying what most people think. A reasonably large majority of Americans think the country’s “best years” are behind it. Post-Great Recession, doom-and-gloom is in.

But while pessimism may be the conventional wisdom nowadays, its intellectual avatars have never been more anemic. Take British philosopher John Gray. Gray has made debunking the notion of “progress” his life’s work, having written two whole books on the matter in addition to innumerable columns and magazine articles. His review of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, a book that carefully assembles immense amounts of statistical evidence showing that war and violence claim fewer lives than ever, does not dispute a single bit of Pinker’s data. Incredibly, Gray thinks pointing out that some Enlightenment thinkers disagreed with each other constitutes a devastating rebuttal to Pinker’s detailed empirical argument. The review’s shallowness is emblematic of the general tenor of Gray’s sad crusade.

It’s not just John Gray. Given the enormous amounts of data on the optimists’ side, pessimists have little more than handwaving left to them. The pessimists babble on about “permanent human nature” and “timeless verities.” The optimists cite U.N. life expectancy statistics and U.S. government crime data. Having no answer to books like Pinker’s, Charles Kenny’s Getting Better, or Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape, the pessimists resort to empty pieties.

The irony here is obvious. The pessimists accuse optimists of falling prey to a seductive ideological thinking; “the worship of Progress,” as Christian conservative Rod Dreher puts it. Yet the only people being seduced are the pessimists, clutching the pillars of their ideological house while its foundation shatters.

Today’s optimists notice clear evidence that humanity’s lot is getting better — a point that does not require assuming that it must get better as a consequence of some inevitable historical law. Opponents respond by asserting the world simply cannot be getting better, as their own pessimistic theory of history says it’s impossible. The critics of blind faith have put out their own eyes.

The reason that purportedly hard-boiled realists adhere to the absurd pessimistic ideology is plain. Their own political views depend crucially on the idea that nothing about the world can be improved. The clear evidence that human inventions — government, the market, medicine, international institutions, etc. — have improved the world point to devastating truths adherents to pessimistic ideologies are loath to admit.

The two ideologies I have in mind have been at odds of late: American conservatism and foreign policy “realism.” Yet popular versions of both rely on the notion of an unchanging, conflict-filled political landscape.

For many conservatives, the idea of “progress” constitutes liberalism’s fatal conceit. Russell Kirk put it most eloquently: “Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created.” Bill Kristol, living proof that movement conservatism has been immune from the happy trends improving the world, is more blunt. “Progressivism is a touchingly simple-minded faith,” he says. “The higher the number of the century, the better things should be. But progressivism happens not to be true.”

Kristol’s understanding of progressivism is wanting, to say the least. But the reason he needs to stamp his feet and deny the evidence of progress is that hard evidence of human improvement challenges his conservative first principles. Improvements in human welfare have come from government — most notably through public health programs, like the campaign against leaded gasoline, but also through institutions like the welfare state and mixed-market economies. It’s no surprise that the wealthiest, healthiest, and happiest countries are all welfare state democracies.

But more fundamentally, human progress runs against the conservative assumption that human nature does not permit fundamental victories over evils like war. Government will always fail, as Kirk suggests, because human nature will frustrate any attempt to eradicate suffering.

But as it turns out, human nature itself is shaped crucially by the institutions we find ourselves surrounded by — including government. The newest research on humanity’s basic psychology, lucidly explained in recent books by neuroscientist Jonathan Greene and primatologist Frans de Waal, find that human “nature” is malleable. We’re naturally inclined toward both conflict and cooperation, and thus have the potential for both great good and great evil. The crucial deciding factor is the circumstances we find ourselves in. The reality of human progress, then, suggests that the political and social arrangements we’ve created are bringing out our better angels. This is a truth the conservative view of human nature cannot abide.

Foreign policy realists are also concerned by human nature, but nowadays tend to rely more on arguments about “the international system.” For them, global harmony is impossible because nations can never trust each other. Without a world government, no one can really ensure that another country’s army won’t come calling on your doorstep. States are driven to conflict by the need to secure themselves from an always-there risk to their security.

The decline in violence constitutes an existential threat to this worldview. There is strong evidence that international institutions, trade interdependences, and the spread of democracy have all contributed to war’s decline. If that’s true, then it really does seem like the globe isn’t destined for conflict forever. Neither human nature nor the international system make war inevitable.

Now, there are real grounds to worry about the future of human progress. Most notably, climate change has the potential to wipe out much of what we’ve accomplished. The reality of human progress isn’t an argument against heading off ecological disaster.

But that crisis hasn’t happened yet. You can simultaneously celebrate the fact that humanity is better off than it has ever been and argue that we need to take drastic action if we want to make sure that progress doesn’t stop with our generation.

So there’s no reason not to sing progress’ praises. Today’s world is much more Lego Movie than True Detective: everything really is kind of awesome, and time is not a damn flat circle.


By: Zack Beauchamp, The Week, March, 13, 2014

March 15, 2014 Posted by | Conservatives, Government | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“At The Intersection Of Calendars And The ACA”: The Success Of The System Will Not Rise Or Fall Based On Monthly Tallies

The Affordable Care Act enrollment figures for February were released yesterday afternoon, and for the most part, the numbers looked pretty good for those hoping to see the U.S. system succeed.

But news consumers can be forgiven for thinking the opposite. The Hill ran this headline: “ObamaCare enrollments dip.” The Washington Post had a similar message: “Obamacare enrollment drops off in February.” The conservative Washington Examiner told readers: “Obamacare signups slow down in February.”

Sounds discouraging, doesn’t it? January’s enrollment totals were heartening, but if you just skimmed the headlines out of D.C., you’d think February represented a step backwards.

But it didn’t.

The months HHS has been using for tabulation don’t correspond precisely to the calendar, because of state reporting methods and where weekends fall. As it turns out, “February” is actually February 2 through March 1. That’s 28 days. “January” is actually December 29 through February 1. That’s 35 days. Plug in the numbers, and you’ll see the average daily enrollment for January was 32,744 and for February it was 33,673. As you can see in the graph, the pace actually increased a bit. Among the very few who noticed were Charles Gaba of and Sy Mukherjee of ThinkProgress.

At a superficial level, the raw monthly totals offer a misleading picture. Someone sees 1.2 million sign-ups in January, followed by 943,000 in February. That looks like a drop.

Until we’re reminded that February is the shortest month.

Stepping back, it’s worth noting that these month-to-month totals are interesting, but their broader importance is limited. I always make a point to highlight the totals as a way of documenting ACA progress, and there’s a political salience as more Americans get invested – literally and figuratively – in the law’s future, but the success of the system will not rise or fall based on monthly tallies and the degree to which they meet preliminary projections.

As Rachel has noted on the show more than once, when a very similar system was established in Massachusetts eight years ago, officials worked under the assumption that enrollment would be slow at first and would then improve in time. In the very first month of the state’s open-enrollment period, a grand total of 123 residents of Massachusetts actually signed up.

And while that may sound like a disaster, no one much cared – in fact, no one even bothered to acknowledge the total at the time, and the figure was only dug up later.

The Affordable Care Act is following a similar trajectory. And since the Massachusetts system is working quite well, that’s probably a pretty good sign.

By most estimates, by the end of March, a little over 5 million consumers will have enrolled through exchange marketplaces, and a similar number will have gained coverage through Medicaid. That’s not quite what the CBO projected before the process began – whether the 7 million figure could have been reached if worked from the outset we’ll never know – but it’s a perfectly fine number when it comes to sustainability.

Keep this in mind the next time you’re perusing the Beltway media’s headlines about the system’s progress.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 12, 2014

March 15, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Obamacare | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Don’t Buy It”: The “Paid-What-You’re-Worth” Myth

It’s often assumed that people are paid what they’re worth. According to this logic, minimum wage workers aren’t worth more than the $7.25 an hour they now receive. If they were worth more, they’d earn more. Any attempt to force employers to pay them more will only kill jobs.

According to this same logic, CEOs of big companies are worth their giant compensation packages, now averaging 300 times pay of the typical American worker. They must be worth it or they wouldn’t be paid this much. Any attempt to limit their pay is fruitless because their pay will only take some other form.

“Paid-what-you’re-worth” is a dangerous myth.

Fifty years ago, when General Motors was the largest employer in America, the typical GM worker got paid $35 an hour in today’s dollars. Today, America’s largest employer is Walmart, and the typical Walmart workers earns $8.80 an hour.

Does this mean the typical GM employee a half-century ago was worth four times what today’s typical Walmart employee is worth? Not at all. Yes, that GM worker helped produce cars rather than retail sales. But he wasn’t much better educated or even that much more productive. He often hadn’t graduated from high school. And he worked on a slow-moving assembly line. Today’s Walmart worker is surrounded by digital gadgets — mobile inventory controls, instant checkout devices, retail search engines — making him or her quite productive.

The real difference is the GM worker a half-century ago had a strong union behind him that summoned the collective bargaining power of all autoworkers to get a substantial share of company revenues for its members. And because more than a third of workers across America belonged to a labor union, the bargains those unions struck with employers raised the wages and benefits of non-unionized workers as well. Non-union firms knew they’d be unionized if they didn’t come close to matching the union contracts.

Today’s Walmart workers don’t have a union to negotiate a better deal. They’re on their own. And because fewer than 7 percent of today’s private-sector workers are unionized, non-union employers across America don’t have to match union contracts. This puts unionized firms at a competitive disadvantage. The result has been a race to the bottom.

By the same token, today’s CEOs don’t rake in 300 times the pay of average workers because they’re “worth” it. They get these humongous pay packages because they appoint the compensation committees on their boards that decide executive pay. Or their boards don’t want to be seen by investors as having hired a “second-string” CEO who’s paid less than the CEOs of their major competitors. Either way, the result has been a race to the top.

If you still believe people are paid what they’re worth, take a look at Wall Street bonuses. Last year’s average bonus was up 15 percent over the year before, to more than $164,000. It was the largest average Wall Street bonus since the 2008 financial crisis and the third highest on record, according to New York’s state comptroller. Remember, we’re talking bonuses, above and beyond salaries.

All told, the Street paid out a whopping $26.7 billion in bonuses last year.

Are Wall Street bankers really worth it? Not if you figure in the hidden subsidy flowing to the big Wall Street banks that ever since the bailout of 2008 have been considered too big to fail.

People who park their savings in these banks accept a lower interest rate on deposits or loans than they require from America’s smaller banks. That’s because smaller banks are riskier places to park money. Unlike the big banks, the smaller ones won’t be bailed out if they get into trouble.

This hidden subsidy gives Wall Street banks a competitive advantage over the smaller banks, which means Wall Street makes more money. And as their profits grow, the big banks keep getting bigger.

How large is this hidden subsidy? Two researchers, Kenichi Ueda of the International Monetary Fund and Beatrice Weder di Mauro of the University of Mainz, have calculated it’s about eight tenths of a percentage point.

This may not sound like much but multiply it by the total amount of money parked in the ten biggest Wall Street banks and you get a huge amount — roughly $83 billion a year.

Recall that the Street paid out $26.7 billion in bonuses last year. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or even a Wall Street banker to see that the hidden subsidy the Wall Street banks enjoy because they’re  too big to fail is about three times what Wall Street paid out in bonuses.

Without the subsidy, no bonus pool.

By the way, the lion’s share of that subsidy ($64 billion a year) goes to the top five banks — JPMorgan, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo. and Goldman Sachs. This amount just about equals these banks’ typical annual profits. In other words, take away the subsidy and not only does the bonus pool disappear, but so do all the profits.

The reason Wall Street bankers got fat paychecks plus a total of $26.7 billion in bonuses last year wasn’t because they worked so much harder or were so much more clever or insightful than most other Americans. They cleaned up because they happen to work in institutions — big Wall Street banks — that hold a privileged place in the American political economy.

And why, exactly, do these institutions continue to have such privileges? Why hasn’t Congress used the antitrust laws to cut them down to size so they’re not too big to fail, or at least taxed away their hidden subsidy (which, after all, results from their taxpayer-financed bailout)?

Perhaps it’s because Wall Street also accounts for a large proportion of campaign donations to major candidates for Congress and the presidency of both parties.

America’s low-wage workers don’t have privileged positions. They work very hard — many holding down two or more jobs. But they can’t afford to make major campaign contributions and they have no political clout.

According to the Institute for Policy Studies, the $26.7 billion of bonuses Wall Street banks paid out last year would be enough to more than double the pay of every one of America’s 1,085,000 full-time minimum wage workers.

The remainder of the $83 billion of hidden subsidy going to those same banks would almost be enough to double what the government now provides low-wage workers in the form of wage subsidies under the Earned Income Tax Credit.

But I don’t expect Congress to make these sorts of adjustments any time soon.

The “paid-what-your-worth” argument is fundamentally misleading because it ignores power, overlooks institutions, and disregards politics. As such, it lures the unsuspecting into thinking nothing whatever should be done to change what people are paid, because nothing can be done.

Don’t buy it.


By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, March 13, 2014

March 15, 2014 Posted by | Big Banks, Unions, Wall Street | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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