Saturday, July 30, 2011

Let's play 'Spot the Important Detail'

ABC News has learned that Republicans and the White House have struck a tenative[sic] deal to raise the debt ceiling before the Aug. 2 deadline. It's not done yet, but here is the framework of the tentative deal they have worked out, according to a source familiar with the negotiations:
  • Debt ceiling increase of up to $2.8 trillion
  • Spending cuts of roughly $1 trillion
  • Special committee to recommend cuts of $1.8 trillion (or whatever it takes to add up to the total of the debt ceiling increase) Committee must make recommendations before Thanksgiving recess
  • If Congress does not approve those cuts by late December, automatic across-the-board cuts go into effect, including cuts to Defense and Medicare.
Did you find it? Because it's certainly not a number, and it's certainly not reported above. The key to whether this deal is going to be a great deal or a terrible deal rests on one big factor.

How is the "special committee" going to be constituted?

This deal actually looks pretty good if you make a lot of unlikely assumptions about intentions and personnel of the "Special Committee." The primary assumption is that Speaker Boehner and Mitch McConnell want a deal. An equally important, but secondary assumption is that McConnell and Boehner leadership teams command enough support to invoke cloture in the Senate and pass a bill that enjoys significant Democratic support. If all Democrats voted for the bill (an unlikely assumption), Only 24 Republicans would be needed to pass it. And of course, the most egregious assumption: Democrats are in this fight to protect the middle class and poor, find some ways to spur job growth, and invest in America. If they're in this just to get the debt ceiling lifted and avoid a catastrophe, they're walking into a used car dealership having decided that they have to buy a car today.

Friday, July 29, 2011

No Tools For This Job

There's an old adage that goes, "When you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." You make do, often terribly, with what tools are at your disposal.

This explains the box in which Senate Democrats and President Obama find themselves. They have no real tools at their disposal to legislate effectively, and so they use the only tool that they have available: compromise. An otherwise very bright sociologist asked me yesterday, "Why isn't Obama doing anything to raise the debt ceiling?" There simply aren't any tools that the Presdient has at his disposal. He offered some insane incentives to the Republicans for them not to risk forcing a default on treasury debt, like raising the medicare age and indexing social security benefits to less generous measures. Republicans say that these are the main incentives that they're after, yet the compromise offer failed.

Democrats find themselves in a position where they only thing they can do is compromise, and so every Republican looks like a good-faith negotiator.

Strictly speaking, there are other tools available to President Obama, but they would certainly enact a much larger constitutional crisis. The simple option of ignoring the debt ceiling would ring as a grab of power, even though the fact is that Congress already supplanted the debt ceiling when it legislated a budget that forced the Treasury to borrow above that limit. Electoral tools are too far away; voting the bums out of office in 2012 won't prevent an economic catastrophe in 2011. No state provides for the recall of its congressional representatives. Direct appeals for public involvement haven't born any legislative fruit. The President's invitation to call congressional offices Monday night overloaded the Hill telephone system for a day, but no Republicans recanted their opposition to passing a clean debt ceiling increase. Democrats are still applying political pressure; the @BarackObama twitter account provided a laundry list of intransigent house members to followers. The move flooded twitter streams of 10,000,000 some followers with the twitter handles of their elected representatives. There's actually concern trolling from Mediaite about @BarackObama followers unfollowing the account, complete a hilariously how-to-lie-with-statistics example graph.

The ineffectiveness of the President against an entrenched domestic opposition highlights that the Executive branch's power over domestic policy direction is vastly more attenuated than its power over its foreign policy. While Obama's foreign policy is paying dividends, the domestic side of his portfolio is under sustained, heavy challenge. If only there were an acceptable democratic equivalent of Seal Team Six. The President needs a decisive moment, but dealing with this group of Congressional Republicans, there any reasonable option would be shot done. They've already shot down some pretty unreasonable concessions (for instance, the Reid plan, which gives Republicans literally everything that Boehner has asked for). There is no tool in the executive repertoire for working with such an obstinate Congress.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Clock Still Running

It is now a full two business days since John Boehner had promised to deliver even a basic, non-compromise option to lift the debt ceiling. He said he would be able to pass a bill through the House of Representatives by Wednesday. It is now Friday morning, and nothing has emerged from the Republican chamber. A failure lift the debt ceiling would have serious and potentially catastrophic effects on the American economy, especially for borrowers, businesses, and investors. Maybe the heavy lifting has been too hard for Boehner; he certainly has the option of passing a much simpler bill (and one that would be passed by the Senate and signed by the President): lift the debt ceiling enough that the 112th Congress won't have to deal with it again, or abolish it altogether. No strings attached, no policy wrangling needed.

If John Boehner couldn't get enough of his own party to vote for the Republican option to raise the debt ceiling, he should try for a simpler solution. Send a clean debt ceiling bill to the Senate. Put the partisan games aside. Start governing responsibly. If he can deliver even a couple dozen Republican votes for a responsible plan to end this manufactured crisis, the Democrats will provide the rest to put the measure over the top.

The key questions facing Americans today whether there are 24 pragmatic House Republicans willing to look past a narcissist tea party ideology, and will Boehner let them work with Democrats to remove this insane crisis of choice? I'm not exactly hopeful that the answer to either of those questions is a yes.

Monday, July 25, 2011

When Simple Things Become Hard

After the Republican takeover of the US House, I proposed a simple model of productivity we could expect from the 112th Congress. It plotted the number of house members that the President's party controlled in the House versus the number of 'major legislative accomplishments' passed that year. It was a little flimsy as far as political science models go, but the simple story seemed right. Over the past 40 years, there has been an obvious trend pointing towards more legislative business being completed as the President's party controls more seats in the House. Based purely on the number of Democrats elected to the House in November, my model predicted 14 major accomplishments over the course of 2011-2012. That number looks very wrong right now.

The 112th Congress has completed no major accomplishments in its first 6 months of action, barely scraping together a budget to avert a government shutdown, and now failing to lift the debt ceiling. Congress has lifted the debt ceiling 70 times since the debt ceiling's inception. What makes it so hard on the 71st lift? The muscles of the American political system seem to have atrophied entirely. John Boehner (who, the President hastens to interject, is not a bad guy despite his total inability to lead) must do the basic work of showing up on the House Floor and ushering together enough votes to avoid a global financial crisis. It wouldn't be so hard if his leadership hadn't pinned a dystopian vision onto the debt ceiling bill.

America's credit rating, however, was one hostage-taking too far. When home buyers go to a bank in a month for a mortgage or a college graduate applies for a credit card, she will pay the price for Boehner's intransigence in higher cost of borrowing, constricted credit, not to mention the limp that the Republicans are putting into an already too-slow jobs recovery. It should be a routine vote, but the Republicans in Congress are failing to perform a necessary task that Congress has done 70 times before. It's when the simple things become hard that you have to wonder about how soon the end is coming. It's hard to watch a parent begin to misremember your name or see them lose the ability to perform simple tasks. For American citizens, this long painful goodnight to adult governance is doubly depressing. Dearly held civics lessons about loyal opposition and good-faith democracy have been shattered, but more importantly, we're on the brink of doing the same to our economy.

To paraphrase Sting, I hope the Republicans care about their interest rates, too.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Push that Boulder Up the Hill, New York Times

The New York Times has recommitted itself to providing the context for the debt-ceiling crisis with a helpful infographic and article. How did the deficit get so big?
With President Obama and Republican leaders calling for cutting the budget by trillions over the next 10 years, it is worth asking how we got here — from healthy surpluses at the end of the Clinton era, and the promise of future surpluses, to nine straight years of deficits, including the $1.3 trillion shortfall in 2010. The answer is largely the Bush-era tax cuts, war spending in Iraq and Afghanistan, and recessions.
It's a factual statement. It's been repeated ad nauseum. It has no effect on the American right's philosophic depedence on cutting unrelated government priorities.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Conservative Media's Approach To Policy

"Forget all the numbers being tossed around in Washington," begins today's New York Post article about domestic policy. I think I've heard that one before. It's as good a starting out place as any when thinking about policy. After all, the point of any deliberative decision making process (or even a meaningful thought experiment) is to throw reality, constraints, and facts out the window. Who cares that the federal debt can't be paid for by discretionary spending cuts alone? Just ignore that fact. We already established that facts don't exist.

Allow me to respond to the New York Post:
Think about a few key numbers that might help any person grope towards a reasonable macroeconomic policy in the next few years.
There's, for instance, the length of the current economic recession: 5 years and counting. There's the depth of the recession: 14 million unemployed Americans. Then there's the economy-contracting factor of taking money out of the economy in a period of anemic economic growth: for every dollar the Republicans take out of the economy, the economy will shrink by 1.6 dollars. For every dollar that the government spends by contrast, the economy grows by 1.6 dollars.

Those are the numbers that News Corp its business conglomerate allies want you to forget. They want you to ignore that 1 in 7 Americans is below the poverty line (The Koch-funded Heritage foundation even released a report attacking the poverty line yesterday). They want you to forget that the money that budget deficit we're facing was caused by shoveling $1.8 trillion of federal money into the pockets of the wealthy, super wealthy, and obscenely wealthy. And the current "debt crisis" was helped along by Republicans demanding an extension of additional tax cuts last December, costing Americans an additional $3.9 trillion. Incidentally, the obscenely wealthy got the most bang for their buck. And the middle class got a pittance back; less than the worth of government services to which they lost access.

Don't Call It a Debt Crisis

For once in American politics, the nation is focusing on a serious political crisis. Republicans have used their control over the U.S. House to demand massive cuts in American investment, a budgetary result of their program of massive tax cuts for the massively wealthy.

Republican intransigence on the budget has caused a political crisis. This political crisis will make it impossible for the federal government to pay its creditors starting on August 2nd. This is not truly the same as a 'debt crisis' that CBS labels it. The CBS poll finds that 71% of Americans disapprove of the "handling of debt ceiling negotiations" by congressional Republicans. Not all of the disapproval is coming from the political center, either. 51% of Republicans expressed disapproval of Republican negotiators. There is broad dissatisfaction with the negotiations in general (of course, negotiations at a standstill should be unpopoular).

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Define Similar

The New York Times has an article out on "Bath Salts" the grey-market desigern drug stimulant that has been banned by 38 states.
Bath salts contain manmade chemicals like mephedrone and methylenedioxypyrovalerone, or MDPV, also known as substituted cathinones. Both drugs are related to khat, an organic stimulant found in Arab and East African countries that is illegal in the United States.

They are similar to so-called synthetic marijuana, which has also caused a surge in medical emergencies and been banned in a number of states. In March, the Drug Enforcement Administration used emergency powers to temporarily ban five chemicals used in synthetic marijuana, which is sold in the same types of shops as bath salts.
Now to my knowledge, MDPV has nothing to do chemically, behaviorally, or pharmacologically with synthetic cannabinoids that were banned by the DEA. So how are they similar? they're synthetic psychoactives and have an inflated market share becuase their traditional behavioral analogues are criminalized.

Full disclosure: I designed and conducted experimental animal research with a synthetic cannabinoid WIN-55215,2 on its effects on memory.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Government Shutdown Puts Minnesota on Last Kegs

In November, Minnesota voters sent Democrat Mark Dayton to the governor's mansion but control of both houses of the state legislature to Republicans. Mirroring the national political scene, state Republicans forced a government shutdown when they refused to pass a balanced budget that raised any revenues. Tim Pawlenty left the state with a $4 billion deficit, a budget hole that incoming Republican legislators and the new governor must paper over in order to set next year's budget. When the new financial year hit, the funding for government services ran out, as Republicans staunchly opposed any revenue raising measures.

While temporary cuts in government services were expected only to gut services to the poor (such as state-administered food stamps, Medicaid, job training, and of course, state jobs), even middle class and wealthy Minnesotans are finding themselves deprived of government services. Bars in Minnesota are required to purchase not only a liquor license to serve alcohol, but also a nominal $20 license to buy beer. Dozens of bars rushed to renew their annual purchasers' licence, but were not able to get their card renewed before the government shutdown. Republican intransigence on taxes has actually jeopardized the legal beer supply in bars across Minnesota.

Minnesota also requires beer suppliers to register their brands with the state, which means that MillerCoors, the (only?) American beer megaconglomerate will be unable to sell the Miller Lite, Coors, MGD or 32 other brands in Minnesota. The partnership between Coors and Miller accounts for roughly 38% of market share.

Shutting down business interests and alienating six-pack drinkers. It's essentially a political suicide note from Minnesota Republicans.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Headline Correction: Bigot Leaves Government Position

Politico has the story of a bigot resigning as a town clerk in New York. Good riddance to bad public servants, I say. The Politico headline reads: "N.Y. Clerk Quits Over Gay Marriage." I think the more journalistically responsible headline is "Bigot Out, Gay Marriage In For Rural NY Town." Why is it worthy of note in a national political rag that some bigot decided that doing her job is against her moral compass? Because we can expect Michele Bachmann, leader of the Republican party, to claim this homophobic coward as a martyr. The defense of this clerk will be a new litmus test in national Republican politics. And it still won't matter to anybody outside this bigot's ex-jurisdiction.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Elections Have Consequences

In November, the Republicans gained control over the U.S. House of Representatives, a handful of governors' mansions and quite a few state legislatures (ok, I'm being lazy today about precise numbers. Deal with it.)

Notice an inflection in the job gain/loss trend around that time? There is certainly the early spring hiring binge that is visible across the last three years (one of the reasons that economists use seasonally adjusted time-series to evaluate employment statistics). Subtracting that pattern out (i.e. normalizing the jobs added/lost numbers relative to the extra noise), there is a clear inflection point at about November 2010. Businesses slowed their increase in job offerings, state budgets became a punitive tool against the poor and working class, and the jobs recovery began to reverse itself.

We should place a large amount of faith in what the market tells us. Millions of economic actors operating on disparate sets of information provides a more important signal(and one informed more by facts than theory) than economic modeling, political ideology, or theory alone. The market is clearly telling us that the promised Republican policies are going to shrink the job growth at the firm level across the nation, including their rush to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act and their plan to take trillions of dollars out of the economy during a recession. The market has spoken.

Friday, July 8, 2011

What Happened to the Economy?

In 2006, the American economy entered a recession, which was abruptly amplified by the financial crisis of Fall 2008, with the collapse of Lehman brothers, AIG, and dozens of banks. For years job losess were getting worse and worse, reaching a point where the American economy was shedding about 800,000 jobs per month.

Government intervention into the crisis, begun under the Bush Administration, prevented a Great Depression-scale crisis, and under the Obama administration, job losses began shrinking. Over the next year and a half, job losses steadily got smaller and slower. In September 2010, the econonmy actually started to add jobs, and has added jobs every month since.

That may end soon, as the job growth has slowed dramatically in the last two months. This means that this is the first two months in which the job trends have been going in the wrong direction during the Obama administration. The rate of change in jobs added to the economy essentially flatlined over the previous six months, and the 57,000 jobs added to the private sector in June certainly is disappointing. So what may have caused this reversal?

So far this year, local and state governmetns have shed 355,000 jobs. This comes mostly from state and local political inability to ask for higher taxes from the citizens. In many states, the decline of revenues is tied directly to the decline of the housing market, as many states rely primarily on property taxes for revenue. In other states, such as Wisconsin, newly elected Republican legislators began giving tax cuts to corporations and wealthy patrons, firing public servants to fund the massive corporate welfare schemes.

The long-term economic effects of these efforts is far from being realized, but the short-term effects are obvious. Fewer teachers are being paid (the largest job loss sector is in public education), and they are spending less in the economy. Republicans have sapped national demand for new products and services, which has taken the stuffing out of the economic revival that the President and a Democratic Congress encouraged over the last two years. It's no wonder that in the 6 months since Republicans have taken over state houses and governors' mansions as well as the U.S. House, a lot of the power of the recovery has dissipated. Republicans on the state level have gutted the engines of short-term growth (including health care programs, nutritional assistance, housing programs for the poor). The only surprise about this economic slow down is the speed with which it has occured since the Republican takeover.

The White House prefers to talk of "economic head winds" created by large-scale, far flung economic problems, like worry over the Euopean debt crisis (crises?) and the continuing economic devastation of Japan (which has interrupted American manufacturing too). Yet the American economy has added over a quarter million jobs in manufacturing since the beginning of the year, the strongest six-month growth in that sector in a decade. It's a decent explanation, and there may be a grain of truth to it. But May, the first month that hiring really took a tumble, was also the first month that Republicans seriously threatened to block payments to American creditors in a political fight over the debt ceiling. It was the first month in which the American government turned its attention to 'defecit reduction' which will likely cause another contraction of demand. If businesses are looking at economic trends and making smart decisions based on the information available (and this is the theoretical basis of microeconomics, mind you), we would expect a massive stall in hiring for May and />

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Yes We've All Seen the Dark Knight

DHS has warned foreign counterparts that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula may attempt to surgically implant weapons into airline passengers. Bombs could walk themselves into secure areas before detonating. It's a scary idea, especially because there's no obvious way to keep suicide bombers from being successful--that is if they can survive the surgery in the first place. However, the threat is not strictly new Surgically implanted bombs are a logical progression from genital-area concealment of bombs, whose first instance was in an attack against a Saudi prince in 2009, and was followed up by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Initial reports from the 2009 Saudi attack indicated that the attacker had concealed an explosive device in his rectum.

Now that we have cavity imaging technology, the terroristic asymmetrical arms race continues. This idea is hardly inventive though. In essence, the Department of Homeland Security foresees a new terror threat from Al Qaeda: the transformation into Joker character from the Dark Knight. DHS has picked up on intelligence from AQAP is seriously considering the tactic, copying one of the more stunning moments of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.
But one senior Homeland Security Department official said that the new intelligence originally surfaced about a month ago, had been vetted since then and appeared to be linked to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. “The new intelligence indicated at least a fresh look at this possible tactic” by the terrorist group, this official said.
The Joker planted a former insane asylum inmate into the central detention station with a bomb implanted into his stomach cavity.

One of the problems with imaginative thinking is that it tends to mimic already established ideas. When DARPA gathers junior officers from the military to gather new ideas for development ideas, the ideas all originate with Hollywood. In the nineties, soldiers wanted DARPA to invent technologies to mimic Star Trek. I have little doubt that modern soldiers get most of their wish list from the Splinter Cell video game franchise.

At least Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is as unimaginative as the US Military. It's a nice reminder that even those who wish us mortal harm watch the same movies.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

DOJ: DOMA is Unconstitutional

In Golinski v. Office of Personnel Management, federal employee Karen Golinski is suing the federal government's Office of Personnel Management. She demands that they extend the same health insurance coverage to her partner that would be afforded to a heterosexual marriage. Golinski and her partner are married under California law, but § 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, including in the provision of employee benefits.

The Department of Justice announced last month that it would no longer defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, prompting Congressional Republicans to hire their own counsel to defend the indefensible. The Republicans' lawyer, Mr. Clement filed the first brief in which he has attempted to defend the constitutionality of DOMA on the merits in a motion to dismiss Golinski's suit. Yesterday, the DOJ filed a full rebuttal in an expansive 31 page brief that argues that the law is unconstitutional. This is the first time that the Department of Justice has expanded upon the letter that Attorney General Holder sent to House Speaker Boehner explaining that the law would not be defended in court.

The brief argues that that classifications based on sexual orientation must meet a middle standard. Classes o The 'heightened scrutiny' that DOJ argues for would put sexual orientation on the same level as gender under the regime of rights-protections in the courts. Laws can discriminate between genders, but only if the objective of the law is to fulfill an important government imperative and the means through which the law meets that objective is 'substantially related' to the goal. This is a much more stringent standard than the one that Congressional Republicans are arguing that the court should use in analysis. The lowest standard of review, the rational basis test, requires only that a law be a reasonable object of government attention and that the means employed could be rationally construed at achieving those means. The actual standard of review may not matter in some cases; the Prop 8 debacle demonstrates that discrimination in marriage law against same-sex couples also fails a rational basis test.

That the DOJ is asking for a higher standard of review for laws that use a sexual orientation classification in general is the bigger news of the day. Using a heightened standard of review would certainly have made Don't Ask Don't Tell impossible as an administrative policy in the army. The army currently can discriminate against women--keeping them out of combat roles--but certainly cannot prohibit service outright based on gender. If heightened scrutiny is used as the standard for sexual orientation, sexual minorities will receie the same general process protections as women.

The courts can reject this standard or they can use it; the likelihood of appeal to the 9th circuit regardless of outcome in the district court is high. If the circuit adopts the heightened scrutiny standard, a lot of state law will have to meet a humane and reasonable standard. I think the likelihood of adopting that standard in the 9th circuit is fairly good. If someone wants to discriminate against gay and lesbian Americans in the Western United States, they'll have to seek some carefully tailored means and be in pursuit of some important goals.