This special midweek TWiA is the last one that will be found on this blog. We here at TWiA World Headquarters hope it's not inconvenient for our loyal readers, and hope that you'll stick with us (at both sites), but TWiA is moving over to http://jeff_mariotte.typepad.com/this_week_in_america/ , as of Friday's post.
It's been a little multiple-personality-ish around here, with book posts and personal posts and political posts all at the same place. Obviously, the books pay better than TWiA, so we don't want to dilute those posts. But TWiA is important to us, too. By having it at its own site, we'll be able to post any time during the week when it seems appropriate, rather than waiting until Friday (or doing special midweek posts). It's This Week in America all week, every week (in America, anyway).
We'll have more latitude to do in-depth analyses of the week's events. We don't think you'll ever turn to TWiA for breaking news coverage, but if you want to know what it all means and where it might lead, to explore connections that nobody else makes between different stories, then you'll know where to turn. We hope that by being more focused on the intersection of politics and policy, we'll be able to generate more conversation among you, the readers, about the events of the day.
So keep checking here for everything else, but keep an eye on the This Week in America dedicated blog as well. And, as always, thanks for reading!
This Week in the Economy
As we've noted here so many times regular readers are probably sick of it, conservative economic ideas are really about the ideas, not the economics. Conservatives tend to have strong opinions about the role of government in people's lives, which is all well and good. But they try to formulate their economic theories around those opinions, rather than around what works, and that's not good.
These days, they're anti-debt (even though many of their policies, like repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would increase the deficit and the debt). And they're seizing on a new report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) as evidence that the national debt is a huge problem, so the only solution is to cut spending.
The trouble with this is that the part they're really in favor of is cutting spending, because that's the way to make government less involved in our lives. And cutting spending is the real problem, not the debt. In their business lives, theoretically, conservatives understand what "investment" means. When you want to improve the balance sheet, sometimes you need to spend some money. Cutting spending now, to the degree sought by congressional Republicans, is asking for trouble.
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Ever since President Obama took office in January 2009, Republicans have been blaming him for the state of the economy. Obviously, he had very little influence over the pre-2009 economy, but then, many blame him for the federal government's slow response to 2005's Hurricane Katrina, too, so there's that.
But after he took office and started, with the help of a Democratic Congress, to push through his policies, the economy began to improve. We were in a very deep hole, so it took a long time to dig out. And there were roadblocks in the way, especially after the House fell into Republican hands and every meaningful attempt to create jobs was blocked. Still, although recovery was slower than it should have been, it has happened, and continues to. And now that the overall economy is in pretty good shape and Republicans can no longer point to slow job growth as an attack against the president (who hit a 50% approval rating this week), they're suddenly becoming populists and attacking the very income inequality that their preferred policies create and increase. And they're blaming it on the president.
That, frankly, is crazy talk (and one of the worst offenders is Heritage Foundation chief economist Stephen Moore, who we discussed last week, and who doubled down on his brand of crazy over the weekend. He's still wrong).
Danny Vinik explains why in the New Republic:
"The recovery has been slow compared to past recoveries but not compared to past recoveries after a financial crisis. By the latter comparison, this recovery is slightly above average—and it’s the envy of the developed world. Moore’s inflation trutherism is flat out wrong (such arguments should be disqualifying for any economist). And Americans are becoming more optimistic about the economy. The CBO’s newest report, released Monday, shows that our debt will only grow marginally over the next 10 years. Young Americans have dropped out of the labor force to bolster their resumes during the weak recovery. And, anyways, the fall in the labor force participation rate isn’t Obama’s fault.
"Expect to hear many of these arguments over the next few years. But they are all easily disproven. Americans are finally beginning to look at Obama’s economic agenda as a success. Boehner's argument and Moore’s article show how little ammunition the right has to combat the Democrats’ message."
Fortunately for Steve Moore's personal economy, he's not paid for being right, but for semi-convincingly misleading the public. Without the policies pursued by this president, the economy would be in considerably worse shape, and the income inequality gap Republican politicians have suddenly discovered would be far larger.
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Speaking of the Great Recession, new research debunks the myth that it was largely caused by "irresponsible lending to poor people," who couldn't pay the mortgages they'd committed to. In fact, "Zip codes that had large house price increases experienced significant changes in the composition of buyers, i.e. home buyers (mortgage applicants) had increasingly higher income than the average residents in an area. Poorer areas saw an expansion of credit mostly through the extensive margin, i.e. a larger numbers of mortgages originated, but at DTI levels in line with borrower income. When we break out the volume of mortgage origination from 2002 to 2006 by income deciles across the US population, we see that the distribution of mortgage debt is concentrated in middle and high income borrowers, not the poor. Middle and high income borrowers also contributed most significantly to the increase in defaults after 2007."
On a related note, black Americans suffered greater economic losses than white ones during the recession, and have been much slower to recover. The Washington Post has just done a series of articles on why middle-class blacks were hit so hard by the housing market. Hint: much of it has to do with predatory lending--but not to the poor.
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To no one's great surprise, the rich continue to do very well. According to the New York Times, "The share of total income (excluding capital gains) going to the top 1 percent remains above one-sixth, at 17.5 percent. By this measure, the concentration of income among the richest Americans remains at levels last seen nearly a century ago. ... After adjusting for inflation, the average income for the richest 1 percent (excluding capital gains) has risen from $871,100 in 2009 to $968,000 over 2012 and 2013. By contrast, for the remaining 99 percent, average incomes fell by a few dollars from $44,000 to $43,900. That is, so far all of the gains of the recovery have gone to the top 1 percent."
Many economists think 2015 is the year that stops being true, and only the vast majority of the gains will go to the top 1 percent.
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Speaker of the House John Boehner (R/OH) doesn't understand how the minimum wage works. You'd think there would be a minimal intelligence requirement to be two heartbeats from the presidency, but that's apparently not the case.
Side Note: Boehner seems to have trouble distinguishing like-sounding words, too. When told that his job was to legislate, he confused that with litigate. Nor is history his strong point--no link, because it was on TV, but we heard him call Israel "our longest ally." Since he's presumably not talking about physical dimensions, and means "the ally we've had for the longest time," then he's forgetting that France helped us fight the Revolutionary War, Great Britain stood strong besides us during WWII, etc. We've had allies since long before there was an Israel, Mr. Speaker.
* * *
Economics is complicated when you get down into the nitty-gritty, but in the broad strokes, it's not that hard. You look at what works, and what doesn't--and in a sane society, you lean toward what works. We're going to have two years (at least) of an insane Congress, and we'd better hope the executive branch can limit the damage.
(Keep reading for more on health care, White House security, campaign finance, bears, and a side trip to Naboo, below he fold.)
This Week in Health Care
Some interesting--if flawed--observations were made about the ACA this week. "Dr." Ben Carson (it's hard to take seriously the advanced educational achievements of anybody who makes such absurd statements and is so quick to compare America to Nazi Germany) said, "Even if it worked, I would oppose it." It's hard to know on what grounds a doctor--whose oath is supposed to be "First, do no harm"--would oppose a health care system that saves lives and prevents medical bankruptcies. Carson "explains" by making yet another nonsensical statement. "I don’t believe in taking the most important thing a person has, which is their health and their health care, and putting it in the hands of the government.”
Carson's argument literally makes no sense. The government has regulated the insurance business and medical care in this country for many, many years. Unless Carson wants to go back to the days of leeches as treatments for disease and snake-oil salesmen, phrenology, and Hooper's Female Pills, he has to accept that government has been involved in health care for some time. The ACA changed the degree of some of that involvment, largely where it pertains to people being able to afford health insurance; as a result, the newly insured are more than 10 million strong, and growing. More and more red states are signing on to Medicaid expansion. The new CBO report referenced above has had to revise down the cost of the ACA again, because medical inflation keeps falling, making the program cost considerably less than expected. The ACA is, by every meaningful measure, working. What the ACA doesn't do is put government between doctors and their patients; in fact, it removes many of the barriers that private health insurance companies used to put there, and increases the access Americans have to medical professionals.
It was only a couple of years ago (before he started running for president) that Carson advocated more government involvement in health care, not less. He says he has changed his mind in that time. Since he demonstrates an inability to understand what the ACA does and doesn't do, one has to wonder what confusion might have prompted the change.
Carson clearly shows us where his priorities are. "Even if it worked, I would oppose it." He's not clear about what his definition of "working" is, but that seems to be beside the point. Carson is saying his personal ideology, based on a misunderstanding of government's role in health care for the last hundred years or so, is more important than the law's effectiveness. So your grandfather can't afford his medication, without which he'll die tomorrow? Your child needs medical treatment for a potentially fatal condition, but her annual cap has already been reached? Carson, for purely ideological reasons, doesn't care.
And he still calls himself "Dr."
* * *
Meanwhile, over at the American Enterprise Institute, resident "scholar" Michael R. Strain says it's morally okay if repealing the ACA kills people (literally; we're not putting words in his mouth. Strain is making a moral argument in favor of easily preventable death)--it's more important to hew to the same ideology that Carson embraces than to save lives. Strain writes, "If Obamacare perishes — and I hope it does — conservatives should be ready to coalesce around a concrete replacement plan, like I’ve described here. And liberals should be ready to debate them, knowing all the while that they, too, are advocating policies that will fail to save some of the sick and injured from the fate that ultimately awaits us all."
Perhaps he's right, that conservatives should coalesce around a "concrete replacement plan," except that they haven't made any. They've made a number of vague proposals without any serious thought behind them, one or two of which Strain mentions in his piece. But none of those are remotely concrete or comprehensive, and so far, they've all been built on wishful thinking. Any plan that covers many or most of the uninsured--except "Medicare for all," the public option that conservatives won't even consider--ends up looking quite a bit like the ACA, which in turn looks quite a bit like the health care plans conservatives have been advocating for years.
At New York Magazine, Jon Chait begs to differ with Strain. "The [Republican] Party’s intellectuals are playing a laudable role of encouraging it to adopt an actual health-care plan. But the price of remaining in good standing as a Republican (in contrast to David Frum, who was fired from AEI after merely questioning the Party’s legislative strategy on Obamacare) is to pretend that their hoped-for alternative is some approximation of the real thing. Strain’s piece continues the Republican reformist tradition of comparing the actually existing Democratic health-care plan against a hypothetical Republican one. And the reason is that the actual trade-offs created by the Republican health care agenda — denying millions access to basic medical care, subjecting them to pain, financial ruin, and even easily preventable death -— is impossible to defend."
Brian Beutler at the New Republic tackles Strain's argument from a different angle. Strain says that in an age of limited resources, we necessarily have to make judgment calls all the time about how those resources will be spent, and it's possible that savings realized from not saving every life could go toward making other lives better. That's true, except for a couple of things. One, our resources aren't as limited as we've allowed them to become, by allowing them to be concentrated in the hands of the few instead of available for the needs of the many (TWiA's argument, not Beutler's). Beutler writes:
"This argument about ends is concise, unobjectionable, and completely unresponsive to the situation at hand. If the Supreme Court eliminates ACA subsidies in three dozen states this summer, the federal government will indeed spend less on health care. But none of the other tradeoffs Strain lists will happen. The savings will not be plied into programs that help the poor or be returned to taxpayers, individual liberty will not increase, and a wider array of health plans will not materialize. Millions will lose their coverage, insurance markets will collapse, and the public dividend will be a slightly lower budget deficit.
"The moral implications of this outcome are hideous, both in the general sense that (thanks to conservatives) the government will have pulled an enormous bait and switch on a huge swath of the uninsured public, and at the specific level where many thousands of individuals took the bait, and made irreversible medical choices with insurance they were told couldn’t be rescinded. This is why the Supreme Court is now a death panel."
With the exception of Beutler's mention of a "slightly lower budget deficit--which is correct only in the near term, but over the long haul ACA repeal would increase the debt considerably--Beutler and Chait are correct. Moral and ideological arguments pale against this undeniable fact: the ACA is saving lives, every day. Conservatives who once warned of nonexistent death panels are showing that their outrage was manufactured, a lie; they are now admitting that they would rather see Americans dying for lack of medical care than allow a system that has already made great improvements continue to improve. The ideological argument is simplistic and wrong; the only supposed freedom we give up due to the ACA is the freedom to let other Americans pay for the health care of those who could afford insurance but choose not to, and for the inefficient, ER-centered health care of those who can't afford it (care that commonly comes too late to prevent what would have been preventable). The moral argument is just as flawed; when no genuine alternative exists that could be slapped into place immediately, without any pause in coverage, repealing or otherwise demolishing the ACA would result in the deaths of people who didn't have to die, while not diverting funds toward other uses with equal or greater moral claim (unless one considers insurance company profits and gigantic salaries to insurance exectives to be morally equivalent to saving lives and preventing the destruction of family finances. We don't).
This Week in Campaign Finance
In 2016, the Republican and Democratic Parties are expected to spend about $1 billion each to elect a new president. The Koch Brothers (or Los K-Bros, as they're popularly known--at TWiA World Headquarters, if nowhere else) plan to spend $889 million.
One special interest group, directed by two billionaires who inherited their father's energy extraction business, is going to spend nearly as much as either party. Most or all of it will go to Republican candidates. That's a phenomenal amount of money, and it's not out of line to say that they're trying to buy the government they want. Can they do it? Signs point to "yes."
This Week in Juking the Stats
(Extra points to readers who get the reference to The Wire.)
Now that southeastern Arizona's votes have been counted and recounted, Martha McSally (R) has filled the House seat occupied by Ron Barber (D) since the resignation of the injured Gabby Giffords (D). One of Rep. McSally's first priorities has been to push a "border security" bill that could only make the border situation worse.
The bill demanded that by 2020, the border be completely sealed. If even a single undocumented person came across the border, the Department of Homeland Security would be penalized. It's a worthwhile goal, but an impossible ask. For a decade, TWiA World Headquarters was less than 15 miles from the border, and we can guarantee that closing the border to that extent would not only render every border community unlivable, but would cost billions and billions more than America wants to spend on it. The bill would encourage--almost mandate--juking the stats, because when you're given an impossible job, the best you can do is pretend you're doing it.
People escaped from Alcatraz. People slipped into and out of East Germany, despite the Berlin Wall. People sneak in and out of North Korea. Rep. McSally and her compatriots want a more authoritarian regime on our southern border than those places? Really?
Why try to legislate the impossible? Why not, instead, take the comprehensive approach that would make crossing without documents less appealing, while at the same time better funding the agencies tasked wtih securing the border?
And why, in none of their 2014 ads (and McSally was a prime offender), did none of those border security hawks complain that Presidents Bush and Obama (and all the ones before them) failed to secure the border? During Obama's administration, crossing has dropped to historic lows and deportations are at historic highs. Instead of acknowledging that simple truth, the right has done nothing but blame him for a problem that, with a net zero illegal immigration rate, has largely ceased to exist. Fortunately for us all, House leadership decided not to even bring the bill to the floor for a vote, because there were too many factions on both sides opposed to it. We hope it remains in limbo. If it's ever passed, we'll demand free birthday parties on the moon, a unicorn in every barn, and a billion dollars in the TWiA bank account. After all, those goals are every bit as realistic as McSally's.
This Week at the White House
A small quadcopter drone came down on the White House grounds on Monday. The president was never in danger, though; he was in India, and the White House has fool-proof anti-drone technology at its disposal.
This Week in 2016
Will former Texas Governor Rick (oops) Perry wind up in the White House, or the Big House?
This Week in Presumably Unintentional Irony
"If he runs again in 2016, Romney is determined to re-brand himself as authentic..."
Words fail us.
This Week on Naboo
Fathers say some strange things. Sometimes what they say is embarrassing to a politician trying to appear, shall we say, not quite a crazy as his or her outspoken parental unit (see Cruz, Ted and Rafael). Although both Sens. Ted Cruz (R/TX) and Rand Paul (R/KY) have fathers who are apt to go unhinged at a moment's notice, the difference is that Cruz didn't spend most of his political life trying to get his father elected president of the United States. Paul did. However hard he tries to run away from former Rep. Ron Paul (R/TX), the fact remains that not so long ago, and for a very long time, Rand told the nation that his father was the best person in the country to occupy the most important office in the land.
So when Rand Paul is trying to simultaneously pretend to be conservative and moderate, depending upon what audience he's speaking to, it's a little embarrassing to have his father out there saying things like, “A lot of times people think secession, they paint it as an absolute negative. You mean we should have been obedient to the king forever? So it’s all in the way you look at it.”
Ron Paul isn't quite old enough to remember the Civil War, but he's certainly old enough to have heard of it. He's also old enough to know that rebelling against colonial status is not the same thing as secession, and to understand that his fellow speakers at a day-long pro-secession event take a dim view of the United States of America, as created by our Constitution.
Rand Paul's moves away from his father's insanity don't go over well with all of his dad's fans. “'He is the Star Wars, Episode I, ' said Kent Ohler, 38, who records sound for TV and movies. He meant that the younger Paul was like the long-anticipated but largely disappointing sequel to the Star Wars movie franchise. 'You have to like him to some degree, just because the name’s still stuck [on him]. But at the end of the day, he’s just not freakin’ right.'”
Ohler and his brother carried the comparison further, as illustrated:
This Week in Free Speech
We here at TWiA World Headquarters disagree with one of the statements superhero Khamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel, makes here: "Free speech isn't a license to spread hate." Of course it is. If we limit free speech to speech that we agree with, then it's not free at all. Defending bigotry is one of the hardest parts about defending free speech, but it has to be done.
That said, allowing voices of love and acceptance to drown out the hate is perfectly okay, too, and we're glad to see the Marvel Comics character used in just that way.
(Thanks to TWiA special tights and capes correspondent Marcy Rockwell for the tip.)
This Week in Bears
Always environmentally minded, bears believe in recycling, even building nests in abandoned cars.