Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

The First Debate Changed Things the Way They Would Have Changed Anyway

24 November 2012

I just read a John Sides post on Ten Miles Square about the impact of the first presidential debate on this fall’s national election, and posted this response:

The first debate did move the polls, but they were bound to tighten up anyway when the Romney campaign reached full swing.

The Pollster polling average is misleading about the impact of the first debate. The Pollster average curve is smoothed in a way that makes it look like a trend was developing several days before a poll-changing event. You can get around that by looking separately at periods before and after an important event, such as the first debate.

If you go here you see a steady four-point Obama lead in the week leading up to the first debate. Then, the week after it is a nearly flat, nearly tied race, with Romney up one by 10 Oct. But Romney never had a better week, so even that seeming trend is questionable. By late October Obama was edging ahead, even before Sandy.

My conclusion is that the event of the first debate did produce a Romney bump, and he kept most of that gain but not enough to win. So the debate mattered.

But I think the mere fact of the debate mattered more than whether Romney was seen as winning the debate. It was a couple hours of free TV for the candidate who was less familiar to the public and had been painted unfavorably in news media and advertising. Just getting on TV and making a good personal impression was all he had to do. I don’t believe Obama could have stopped that from happening.

In the later debates, though, there was nothing more for Romney to gain. His human face and rhetorical skills had already got out there. They were always going to get out there eventually, even if there weren’t any debates. But the first debate was a big opportunity for him to get them out there all at once, for free. He did that and tightened up the race, but that was all he could do, and it wasn’t enough.


Gov. Brownback and the High School Kid

26 November 2011

I was just reading this, about Kansas governor Sam Brownback’s staff trying to get a high school student in trouble for tweeting bad things about him while she was on a field trip to Topeka. The student, Emma Sullivan, tweeted,

Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot

She says she got hassled by her principal about it after the Brownback people tattled on her about the tweet. She also says she didn’t really say anything to Brownback.

Lest everybody overreact to the overreaction, it is not categorically out of line for a principal to scold a student for false public statements about students behaving inappropriately at school events, and rude comments to a public official or anyone else are not appropriate by most schools’ standards. Tweeting about it even though it didn’t happen is still a public relations problem for the principal.

The governor’s staff should, however, refrain from contacting schools about trivial misdeeds like this one tweet. The principal should clarify that his only concern was false and inflammatory information about what went on on the field trip, not whether students say unkind things about the governor on their own time or in an appropriate forum.

The Trust Fund Is Real, and It Can Deliver

19 October 2011

When anyone tells Social Security doomsayers that the baby boomers are provided for by the Social Security Trust Fund, they tend to say that the trust fund is not real, that it is an accounting gimmick, that it doesn’t matter because the United States government still has to come up all that money it needs to pay the trust fund back, which is gong to be, like, impossible. Therefore, disaster looms.

The doomsayers have it wrong. These claims don’t hold up to scrutiny.

The trust fund is real, because it exists by law and the trustees of the Social Security system by law have the authority to redeem the Treasury obligations in the trust fund whenever they need to.

But when the Treasury needs to pay off those obligations so that baby room retirees can get their benefits, won’t that put an insupportable burden on the taxpayers? No. There will be a considerable burden, but it won’t be of any larger scale than several other major spending needs and debt repayments.

The total debt of the US Treasury at the present is 15 trillion dollars, and 2.5 trillion of that is owed to Social Security. So Social Security is a big chunk of debt but still only one sixth of the total.

To recap, then, is there money set aside to pay benefits to retiring baby boomers? Yes. Is it reasonable to believe that the government can deliver that money when it is needed? Yes.

For a later post, I’ll cover the issue of whether Social Security revenues, backed up by the trust fund, are really going to be enough to pay retirees for the foreseeable future. But the trust fund is there and will be needed, along with continued payroll tax contributions from working Americans.

The Only Good Deviant Is a Jailed Deviant?

15 October 2011

This bishop behaved decently, but of course he must be punished for not throwing one of his priests to the wolves fast enough. (Here‘s a guy who seems to know all the answers.)

I hope no one reading this has had a close friend or family member attempt suicide. But if you can imagine having the responsibility to try to help a person who seems inexorably drawn to self-destructive behavior, you might also imagine that you would hesitate to rat that person out to police if you found out he had child pornography on his computer, especially if the guy had attempted suicide within hours of that devastating discovery.

The question isn’t whether the Catholic Church has a great track record in dealing with pedophilia, it’s whether we as a society have the capacity both to protect children and to provide counsel and rehabilitation to people with abnormal sexual desires. It’s not obvious that we are prepared to temper justice with compassion in cases of nonviolent sexual offenders. I hope we are, but I don’t know.

If I were the bishop, I wouldn’t have turned this priest in to civil authorities until it was clear he couldn’t keep out of temptation’s way. I might have thought sending him to a convent was a good start. Instead, Missouri might very well send him to prison, for taking weird photos for his own viewing. Maybe that won’t be necessary, and there will be a just resolution that isn’t vindictive. I wouldn’t count on it, though.

Social Security Taxes Pay for Social Security

12 October 2011

Social Security taxes pay for Social Security. Now, I can’t say, “It’s just that simple,” because there are a few fine points. A lot of people don’t know about the fine points, or they have wrong ideas about what the fine points are. Let me run a couple by you:

1. Social Security taxes are a stream of money from workers’ earnings into the U.S. Treasury. Social Security benefits are a stream of money from the U.S. Treasury to retired workers, disabled workers, and to spouses and to children of retired, disabled, or deceased workers. The stream of money in, over the long term, should balance the stream of money out. Whether they are balanced or not depends on detailed analysis that is beyond the ken of most of us. That doesn’t mean a workable balance can’t be achieved. It just means our government has to employ some nerdy financial types to collect information and crunch numbers, and we have to apply their knowledge in structuring the taxes and benefits.

2. Keeping Social Security money flows balanced for the long term entails dealing with the baby boom, which swelled the work force for several decades and now will swell the retired population for the next couple decades. For the last 30 years, the way we approached this has been to set Social Security tax rates high enough that Social Security would pile up enough extra money while the baby boomers were working to be able to pay them their benefits when they retired.

I will have further points in later posts, but these two points are a good start. Both 1. and 2. are real governing principles of Social Security, and they are good principles. However, the latest information from the Social Security trustees is that the tax and benefit schedules aren’t quite balanced for the long term, so if we are to follow those principles, some adjustments are called for.

The rest of the federal budget, unfortunately, is a lot further out of whack. We need to keep focused on fixing the general budget, and we ought to get going on that before we touch a hair on Social Security’s old gray head.

Jobs Lost, Jobs Regained

2 September 2011

I found myself commenting at The Snark Who Hunts Back a few days ago that the economic stimulus enacted by the federal government worked! Just look at what happened with employment.

Things were going very badly before the stimulus took effect, and got much better while the stimulus was applied. My observation is that we went from losing 500,000 jobs a month to gaining 100,000 a month.

Here is a summary of the pace of job losses and job gains over the last three years. I derived these numbers from the archived employment reports at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Changes in total nonfarm employment 2008–2011
Data from US business establishments, seasonally adjusted



Avg. mo. chg.

Notable events
G. W. Bush

Jan ’08–Jul ’08


Recession begins
G. W. Bush Jul ’08–Jan ’09 –370,000

Lehman Brothers collapse
B. H. Obama

Jan ’09–Jul ’09


ARRA signed
B. H. Obama Jul ’09–Jan ’10 –300,000

Recession ends
B. H. Obama Jan ’10–Jul ’10 80,000

B. H. Obama Jul ’10–Jan ’11 –3,000

Tax cuts extended
B. H. Obama Jan ’11–Jul ’11 140,000

Most of the spending programs and tax breaks of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) were limited to 2009 and 2010. Some of its provisions are still in effect for 2011 and beyond, however.

There’s no way to be sure how many jobs would have been lost or gained without the stimulus. People who consider themselves economic experts will make all kinds of claims about whether there should have been more stimulus or a different kind of stimulus or none at all. I just can’t see how anyone looks at the facts and concludes that the stimulus didn’t work at all.

The Patriotic President

15 August 2011

It’s about time Americans got behind their president and started believing again in what we accomplish as a nation. What I admire most about Barack Obama is his constant insistence on making progress for all of America, not just some some chunk of our society. This is never going to be popular with Americans who are heavily into hating other Americans.

How to Confront Reality

8 August 2011

41% conservative, 21% liberal

A few days ago I caught Steve Benen bemoaning and marveling and explaining away the long-established fact that in the United States self-identified conservatives outnumber self-identified liberals by a lot. The comments on Benen’s blog were heavily into explanations of how the word “liberal” has been defined as bad by right-wingers, and how lots of people have liberal views but are afraid to call themselves “liberal”.

Let’s get real. There are more conservatives than liberals. People who don’t like liberalism for the most part know what it is they don’t like. They aren’t just put off by what they’ve heard said about “liberals”. They really, really don’t like you.

Accept that. There may be fewer of you liberals, and many conservatives dislike you. That doesn’t mean you aren’t right. It does mean that your politics don’t succeed nationally unless you build bridges to people who don’t call themselves liberal. Like those 36 percent who claim to be moderate. Most of those folks will listen to reason and might vote for a candidate you like. You don’t increase your credibility with those voters when you call Obama a sellout for endorsing positions that moderates tend to agree with, like “government spending is too high.” It also doesn’t help to heap scorn on Christian belief, or go off on racism or middle-class people who “vote against their own best interest.” They vote the way they see fit; it’s not usually a winning approach to explain to them that you know what’s best for them. Try not to discount the possibility, on this issue or that, that the other guy might be right about what’s best for him, and you might be wrong.

You don’t have to be agreeable with everybody, but you’re better off ignoring some people. You can write off a lot of conservatives. Many of them can’t be moved. Don’t disgrace yourself by getting down in the dirt with them, if that’s where they go.

[Updated to correct typo “they way they see fit”.]

Reagan Made Me a Democrat

24 July 2011

In 1980, when I was in college, I had no enthusiasm for Jimmy Carter. I didn’t have a political party preference, but I held some conservative views and was interested to see who the Republican nominee for president would be. The contest was between George Bush, the moderate with the foreign policy and national security credentials, and Ronald Reagan, conservative critic of big government.

To me, the salient dispute between the two was in fiscal policy. Reagan touted a theory of Arthur Laffer that tax rates were too high, and that lowering them would actually increase revenue. George Bush called that “voodoo economics”. I thought Bush had that right.

The Republicans nominated Ronald Reagan. I didn’t vote for him or for Carter. I voted for John Anderson, largely because I believed him to be a credible fiscal conservative. Reagan won, and he brought the voodoo, all right. After Reagan’s ridiculous huge tax cuts, the deficit grew, despite some remedial tax hikes later on in Reagan’s tenure. By 1982 I believed that the party label meant more than a candidate’s individual character or political pitch, and I was pretty much in the Democratic camp. In 1984 Mondale was my man and so would any other Democrat have been. I have been Democratic all the way since then.

I still have my conservative leanings that comfortably coexist with my liberal ones. Sometimes I’m dismayed with the Democratic Party, but I despise Republicans, on the national level at least.

Republicans in Washington have refused to support any tax increase in the face of huge deficits, while promoting more military spending than ever, against small enemies we keep creating for ourselves, and making no meaningful reduction in federal spending despite many years in control of both the White House and the Capitol. There’s nothing for me to like there.

When Republicans impeached a president for the alleged high crime of lying to a special prosecutor about his sexual relations with a White House staffer, I vowed never to vote for a Republican for Congress until every last impeachment supporter in the Republican caucus was gone from Congress. They weren’t upholding principles of morality or personal integrity, they were cynically magnifying the scandal in an enormous abuse of their own constitutional power.

I have to sigh and consider the millions of my fellow Americans who still have an affinity for this Republican Party. I suppose, if you want a government in Washington that safeguards individual wealth and gives free rein to diverse powers in business, media, and religion, especially catering to the viewpoint of white English-speaking socially conservative Christians, then the Republican Party seems to be tailor-made for you. They can start wars with disastrous results, but they make it feel righteous. They can preside over economic slumps, but they always have arguments, suitable for endless repetition, about how the liberals are to blame.

But where’s the balance? My fellow white cultural champions (yes, I am one), don’t you even want to be able to look at Americans who have darker skin or strange accents or religions, or who don’t conform to your idea of normal sexual boundaries, and say, “I want this country to work for you, too”? Do you not believe there exist any facts that do not support the view of the world that you are comfortable with? Do you seriously believe that your interests aren’t protected and advanced by our present governmental and financial system, the one you seem eager to see blasted to pieces, or drowned in Grover Norquist’s bathtub?

How much not-Republican am I? They’ve left Reagan’s style of leadership far behind, and are pursuing a purified and radical realization of his rhetoric. And I am not some old broad-minded Reaganite who thinks we just need to add some wisdom back to the Reagan philosophy. Reaganism is at the root of the problem, and I knew it when I first saw it.

In 1980, Reagan was unrealistic and too far off to the right for me, although he could voice a conservative ideology that had some appeal. Now the Republicans—well, they are so far right they’ve left America, you might say.

Update, 24 July: Fixed my spelling of “rein”.

Just Because You Think It’s a Good Idea Doesn’t Mean My Insurance Ought to Pay For It

21 July 2011

I want to take this on now. Kevin Drum cites a Washington Post article about an advisory panel’s recommendations, now under consideration by Health and Human Services, that health insurers be required to pay all of an insured’s costs for prescription birth control. According to the WaPo article, Jeanne Monahan at the Family Research Council voiced concerns that some insured might object on religious grounds to paying for birth control through their insurance premiums. Kevin derisively casts Monahan’s stance as

Everyone should have the right to insist that they be covered by an insurance company that doesn’t cover anything they disapprove of for other people.

Well, if this means the right to choose from among different insurers based on what you like or don’t like about their coverage, that seems all right to me. I don’t think that’s the actual policy question here. All most religious conservatives would expect is that health insurers be allowed to refrain from covering things that a large number of insurance customers might not consider essential or proper health care services.

I think religious objections are worthy of consideration, but free-market objections might have more weight. Insurance should not cover things that almost everyone can manage to choose, plan for, and pay for out of their own pockets. This especially applies to services that some significant cultural group would avoid using even if it was paid for by insurance. Even if no one had a moral objection to someone else’s use of contraceptives, that still would not mean that everyone would be happy with having their health insurance plan bear the cost. I can pay for my own contraceptives, if and when I decide I want them; let others do the same. (Similarly, I buy my own running shoes and other fitness equipment. No health insurance coverage on those, yet.)

I understand that there’s some reasonable basis for treating birth control as preventive care. It makes good sense for those responsible for paying for a person’s health care to nudge that person into taking inexpensive steps now to head off more expensive health issues later (like a pregnancy). I do wonder why anyone thinks an insurer has to be required to pay for such things, when it is so plainly in the insurer’s financial interest to do so.

If the thinking is that some insurers might be swayed by religious groups to leave birth control uncovered, I say let’s let them be swayed according to how they gauge their customers’ preferences. Must we always demand that commerce serve to advance some centrally determined code of justice?

[Update: edited typo “oost” for “cost”.]
[Later update: another typing/wording fix: “understand there some” -> “understand that there’s some”.]