Welcome to the second installment of This Week in America, this blog's newest attempt to make sense of and comment on the most significant, looney, or otherwise intriguing news stories of the week. As always, we make the rules, we say what's important, and we have definite opinions. But we welcome comments, especially from folks who don't agree with us.
This Week in Wonk
In the American political divide, both the right and the left have their wonks and their pundits. Sometimes these people are one and the same—the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, for example, publishes a regular blog and appears on TV shows to talk about issues, and he has a brilliant understanding of economics and economic policy, and he’s decidedly left-wing on most issues. Other times, the wonks are elected officials, as is the case with Representative Paul Ryan (R/WI), who’s often been held up as a “budget wonk” by those on the right.
There are notable differences between the two sides, though. For one thing, according to a new study of young voters, commissioned by the College National Republican Committee, although these young people identify leaders of the Democratic Party, they chose elected officials: Obama, Pelosi, the Clintons, Kennedy, Gore. But when they identified leaders of the Republican Party, they chose pundits: Limbaugh, O’Reilly, and Beck. That’s a problem for Republicans, since those three people—especially Limbaugh and Beck—represent the lunatic wing of the party. They promote insane conspiracy theories and favor obstruction over governing, and if they’re the face of the party then the party might as well give up on the political center and resign itself to capturing the fringes.
But the bigger issue is the wonk gap.
Whether the wonks in question are elected, are media figures, or are scholars whose research is used to promote one policy over another, the fact is that we need them. Most Americans don’t study these issues in obsessive detail—even those who are fully conversant with, for instance, the fact of the health care debate might not be as informed on climate change or fiscal policy. The wonks, therefore, perform the necessary service of breaking down complicated matters into more bite-size chunks. Ideally, those chunks enable the public to make informed choices in the voting booth, and to push their legislators in the direction of sensible policies that help the country move forward.
In practice, though, while wonks generally approach their topics with a definite point of view, those on the left are not generally flatly dishonest. They interpret the facts in the way that supports their biases, of course, but they’re still talking about facts. Unfortunately, the same can’t always be said about those on the right. The question this raises is whether they truly don’t know what they’re talking about, or whether they are intentionally misstating the facts to push their agenda.
A recent example is Avik Roy, who’s considered a smart guy by anybody’s standards. He’s studied health care, written a lot about it, and advised Mitt Romney on health care policy. Very few Americans, especially outside government service or a few think tanks, have spent as much time and effort on the topic as Roy has.
So last week, when he wrote a piece for Forbes titled “Rate Shock,” you might expect that he made a clear, conservative case for why the Affordable Care Act is a bad idea. In the piece, Roy makes what seems like a compelling argument, writing, “Obamacare, in fact, will increase individual-market premiums in California by as much as 146 percent.”
To “prove” his thesis, Roy went to eHealthInsurance.com and got rate offers for a healthy 25-year-old man and a healthy 40-year-old man, then compared those bids to some of those offered on the California healthcare exchange. Not surprisingly, the eHealthInsurance bids came in lower. From this tiny shred of “evidence,” Roy tries to make the case that the Affordable Care Act is a disaster in California.
But Roy never admits that throughout the writing and passage of the ACA, it was always acknowledged that for some people—primarily young and healthy ones—premiums would rise. Further, he doesn’t acknowledge the other side of the coin—that for most people, rates would go down. He doesn’t mention the federal subsidies for people below 400% of the poverty line. That’s $94,000 a year for a family of four. Most people buying health insurance on the California exchange will get subsidies. Overall, the costs of health insurance in California will go down, not up—a fact Roy conveniently ignores.
Don’t take my word for it. Here are Jonathan Cohn, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, the aforementioned Ezra Klein, Kevin Drum, and Rick Ungar (also writing for Forbes), describing what’s dishonest about Roy’s approach.
For the record, when I was a full-time freelance writer, I had to buy my own health insurance, and at first, I did so via eHealthInsurance.com. It wasn’t long before the premiums had escalated to the point that I could no longer afford them, and had to take a considerably cheaper policy—one that covered almost nothing, and was marketed to rural dwellers on the premise that, as the salesperson told me, “People who live in the country, if they cut off their thumb, would rather put it back on with duct tape than go to a doctor.”
The fact is, Roy’s piece was flagrantly dishonest, as much of the right-wing overreaction to Obamacare has been. And Roy is one of their “smart guys,” someone to whom politicians listen, someone who drives the policy decisions on the right. But they’re listening to someone who lies, to them and to us, about things that are really important. Roy is too smart to fail to grasp what he’s doing here. He’s not confused about this.
And since he’s not confused, he’s just not telling the truth.
Roy isn’t the only dishonest right-wing wonk when it comes to the ACA, either, as this takedown of Obamacare hater (and Paul Ryan adviser) Yuval Levin shows. Here’s another take on Levin’s fundamental dishonesty, and quite possibly the first published appearance of the term “wonk gap.”
The wonk gap isn’t just in health care, though. As mentioned above, Paul Ryan was constantly identified during 2012’s presidential race as a “policy wonk” or a “numbers wonk.” He’s supposed to be one of the Republican Party’s foremost thinkers on economic policy. His budget proposals are continually passed by the Republican House, where he chairs the Budget Committee. One of Ryan’s claims to fame is his document “Path to Prosperity,” in which he cites exactly one piece of “conclusive empirical evidence” to prove that “total debt exceeding 90 percent of the economy has a signiﬁcant negative effect on economic growth.”
Trouble is, the one study Ryan cites has been shown to be seriously flawed. Not only did its authors make highly questionable decisions about what data to leave in and what to leave out, but they made a simple Excel error, caught by a graduate student, that showed that Ryan and everyone else quoting this paper were relying on false assumptions. The truth appears to be the other way around—high debt doesn’t cause slow growth, but slow growth causes high debt.
The facts about this paper’s problems have been reported widely around the world. But has Ryan come out and admitted that the foundational element of his approach is wrong? No. In fact—since these revelations have come out, he’s doubled down, insisting that the “debt crisis” that doesn’t really exist is “irrefutably happening.”
In an even more recent example, on Tuesday, Senator Patty Murray (D/WA) convened a Senate Budget Committee hearing on austerity measures (the kind Paul Ryan advocates for). Republicans brought in an “expert” witness, Selim Furth, an economist at the conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation. Furth argued that tax increases harm the economy and spending cuts encourage economic growth—both false, but common Republican talking points. He also denied that Europe is experiencing austerity, saying, "Just ten OECD countries have tightened their cyclically adjusted deficits since 2006–2007. Despite major crises, even Ireland, Iceland, and Spain have increased their cyclically adjusted deficits."
Furth is no dummy, and Heritage is a well-funded operation, so he can get his hands on the latest statistics. Surely Furth knows the truth. But he chose to tell the lie.
When someone knows the facts, and denies them, that’s dishonest. When that someone is a supposed “wonk” to whom other people listen when they’re making policy judgments, that’s a problem. And when that someone is an elected official, the most recent vice presidential candidate and theoretically one of the right wing’s intellectual heavyweights (and others advise him and the most recent presidential candidate), it demonstrates that the wonk gap is real and important. Whether the topic is fiscal policy or healthcare or climate change or school vouchers, we need both sides of the debate to engage with facts, to admit reality, or as a nation we’re not being well served. Sadly for us, at the moment many of the wonks on the right refuse to face facts.
This Week in Crass Political Calculation
For a couple of months, President Obama won 71 percent of Latino voters in the 2012 presidential election, the country seemed like it was on a path toward bipartisan immigration reform. There was discussion of bringing the 12 million or so undocumented aliens into the light, and giving them a (long) path to citizenship that involved paying fines, paying taxes, working and living as good citizens. A new study shows that immigration reform would be a net economic benefit to the nation in many ways. Leading the effort for the Republicans was Senator Marco Rubio (R/FL), himself the child of Latino immigrants. He worked with the “gang of eight” to put together a reform bill.
But now Rubio says that unless border security is increased to an impossible level—essentially, making our 2,000-mile border with Mexico into the Berlin Wall, and adding “security” measures the gang of eight (including Rubio himself) already considered and rejected as unrealistic—he will vote against the bill that he helped write.
Why? Because he wants to run for president in 2016, and the hardcore conservative base is opposed to immigration reform—not because reform would hurt the country (because it would demonstrably improve the economy and by knowing who is in the country, we would be a safer, more productive nation), but apparently because they don’t like Latinos, and/or they’re afraid they’ll vote Democratic. What Rubio wants is to be able to tell Latino audiences that he helped write the immigration bill—and he’ll probably blame the House for not passing it—and to tell conservative audiences that he helped kill the immigration bill.
Which reminds me of a gag one of my college professors used to say: “If you don’t like my principles, I have others.”
(As an aside, if you've been wondering who's crossing the border these days, a new survey from the University of Arizona tries to answer that question.)
The other poster boy for crass political calculation this week is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Upon the death of Senator Frank Lautenberg, Christie had some decisions to make—who to appoint to serve in Lautenberg’s stead, and how long that replacement should serve. Christie decided to schedule a special election for October 2013 (and on a Wednesday, which is sure to depress turnout since everybody is used to voting on Tuesdays), despite the fact that there’s already a statewide election scheduled for November 2013. The cost of adding a special election three weeks before the existing election is estimated at $24 million. The “fiscally conservative” Christie said, “The costs associated with having the special election and primary, in my mind, cannot be measured against the value of having an elected member of the U.S. Senate. I don’t know what the costs are and quite frankly I don’t care.”
Between the special election and the general election—if the new senator is sworn in immediately—he or she will be in the Senate for 6 working days. Even the math-challenged should understand that’s $4 million a day. Hardly a fiscally conservative decision. So why did Christie make it?
Because almost certainly to be on the ballot for Senator is superhero Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, a Democrat. Booker’s the only politician in the state as popular as Christie (albeit with a largely different set of voters). And Christie himself will be on the November ballot, as he seeks a reelection he will certainly win. Having Booker’s name appearing on the same ballot (and the Senatorial race would be at the top of the ballot, by state law) would bring out a set of voters who would probably vote for Christie’s opponent. Christie’s popularity is such that he would still win easily, but the margin would be smaller. Because Christie also wants to run for president in 2016, he wants to be able to point to a huge victory (and he also wants to sweep more Republican legislators into office to help him drive his agenda).
For a guy who likes to paint himself as a courageous politician, the decision—at a cost of $4 million per working day—to hold the special election three weeks early is as cowardly as political calculation gets.
This Week in Bad Carryover
When President Obama took over from President Bush in January, 2009, he kept on Bush’s Defense Secretary and most of Bush’s counterterrorism programs (fortunately ending the practice of torture, though. He also tried to close Guantanamo, but was prevented from doing so by Congress). Now we’ve learned that he also kept one of the most obnoxious programs going and even expanded it (with the knowledge and consent of Congress)—the NSA forcing telecom companies (and internet companies) to hand over the phone records of millions of American citizens. According to what we know, the government isn’t listening to calls, or recording them, just getting the details about numbers called, duration of calls, etc. Still, unless they can point to a large, dangerous terrorist plot foiled by such measures—and if they could, I expect they would—this is a gross invasion of the privacy to which Americans should be entitled. It’s easy to understand why nobody wants to kill a counterterrorism program and then have the country struck by a deadly attack. But civil liberties should matter, too.
This Week in Confusion
In describing how he would abolish the IRS, Senator Ted Cruz (R/TX) explains why we need the IRS. At the same time, his embrace of a flat tax shows that he still doesn’t understand the simplest mechanics of economics. And he’s a United States senator, who gets paid to understand and to think about these things. Speaking of people who maybe shouldn't be senators...
This Week in Cluelessness
Senator Saxby Chambliss (R/GA) spoke at a hearing on sexual assault in the military—a real problem that’s only getting worse. Chambliss (who did, in fact, call on military leaders and Congress to address the problem) said this: “The young folks who are coming into each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22 or 23. Gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur.” And Senator Jeff Sessions (R/AL) blamed sexual assaults on the fact that PXs sell nudie magazines.
No, Senators. Rape is not about young people with overactive hormones or pictures of naked woman. If you think it is, perhaps you should spend some time volunteering at a rape crisis center. And you might think about resigning your senate seats in favor of someone who cares enough to understand the issue.
Chambliss, by the way, has served his entire Senate career under a cloud of contempt for the way he won his seat—running ads impugning the patriotism of decorated Vietnam veteran and triple amputee, Senator Max Cleland. Given that, it’s astonishing that Chambliss, who dodged the Vietnam War on student deferments and a claim of a bad knee from a football injury and has never worn the uniform of his country, would be allowed anywhere near any committee that oversees the military.
This Week in Gun Safety
In Florida, parent-of-the-year candidate was apparently too busy smoking marijuana and popping prescription pills to notice that he had left a loaded handgun on the couch, so when his 4-year-old son picked up the gun, he shot off part of his own finger. In Arkansas, a teenager playing “a zombie game” accidentally shot his friend with a loaded handgun from his mother’s drawer. In Texas, a girl died on her 13th birthday after her 19-year-old brother’s gun went off while he was cleaning it. Still in Texas, a 4-year-old boy shot himself in the shoulder with the gun his grandfather kept under a pillow. Also in Texas, it’s apparently okay to shoot and kill a prostitute if she won’t have sex with you. In my old hometown of San Diego, CA, a 10-year-old boy was fatally shot while he and a 9-year-old girl were playing with a 9-mil semiautomatic handgun. In Las Vegas, NV, a 13-year-old boy died after being shot inside a home, where he was with another 13-year-old. In Louisiana, a 3-year-old boy was admitted to the hospital after another child bumped a door, knocking over a rifle, which fired and shot the boy. In Chicago, IL, a 9-year-old boy in his mother’s car was one of 11 people shot within an 8-hour period that included two fatalities. And back in Florida five students at a Christian high school were arrested for selling stolen guns on campus. Also, here’s a terrific piece outlining the urban/rural divide on the gun issue. And finally, a panel convened after the Newtown school massacre has delivered a set of recommendations that should be acted upon.
This Week in Awesome Headlines
Thanks to the JournalStar newspaper out of Nebraska for this one: Pungent rats will serve as bait for endangered beetles along pipeline route.
And the Dallas, Texas Observer chimes in with: Report: Texans Are Astonishingly Bad at Making Friends, Caring About Stuff.
This Week in RIP
As mentioned earlier, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D/NJ) died on Monday of complications from viral pneumonia. Lautenberg, a champion of progressive ideals, was the last surviving WWII veteran in the Senate. Among his many legislative accomplishments were the bill that bans smoking on airplanes, the bill that makes it illegal for domestic abusers to possess firearms, and co-writing the new GI Bill for the 21st Century to ensure that today's veterans have the same opportunities that he--the son of a millworker, a child of the Great Depression--had. He'll be missed.
In honor of the senator, here’s a taste of Fresh Air, courtesy of Quicksilver Messenger Service.
This Week in BearsThe mayor of Danbury, CT, shows us what Twitter is for.