Public Nuisance

Random commentary and senseless acts of blogging.

The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Monday, January 14, 2008
You probably didn't catch it, but something interesting happened in minute 42 of Hillary Clinton's full hour Meet The Press interview Sunday. Tim Russert asked her, for the first and only time during the hour, a question about what she intended to do if elected to the Presidency. (Every other question was about the campaign or her past actions or statements, particularly her vote to authorize the Iraq War - certainly a crucial subject to raise, since that vote has been so little discussed until now.) Here is the exchange:
SEN CLINTON:...What people are talking to me about is the economy. They're losing their jobs. You know, economic activity is slowing down. We need to focus very clearly on what we're going to do to make this economy as, you know, ready to be able to navigate through the potential of a recession. We're slipping toward recession. Some people think we're in recession right now. And I've proposed a very vigorous package of economic action that I think would, you know, forestall and maybe, hopefully mitigate against what is going on in the economy.

MR. RUSSERT: You don't pay for it.

SEN. CLINTON: Well, you know, Tim, I am probably the strongest on fiscal responsibility in this campaign. Senator Edwards, I respect, he said that's not a priority for him. Senator Obama puts out a lot of his policies without paying for them, about 50 billion, as we have calculated. I have paid for everything. I tell you how I will pay for my healthcare plan, how I will pay for the American retirement accounts.

MR. RUSSERT: But not for this stimulus.

SEN. CLINTON: But this--stimulus shouldn't be paid for. The whole point of stimulus--now, as we end the war in Iraq, we're going to be bringing that money home. But the stimulus, by the very nature of the economic problems we're facing, is going to require an injection of federal funding.

Russert wants to know if the Clinton stimulus plan will increase the deficit. That's more or less reasonable, although, as Clinton correctly pointed out, stimulus packages increase the deficit pretty much by definition. But is he being consistent? Clinton's proposed stimulus is a one-time shot of about $100 Bn. Other candidates in the race have proposal to blow far bigger holes in the budget. Every Republican candidate - except for Huckabee and Paul, who propose to eliminate the income tax completely - has called for making the Bush tax cuts permanent, which will cost about $2 Tn over 10 years, and most, again excepting Paul, want to increase the size of the military. What is Russert asking about their plans? It turns out mostly he just wants to know if they're really as anti-tax as they claim to be. What the consequences of their proposals might be is beneath his attention.

Mike Huckabee states on his web site, "I will expand the army and increase the defense budget." On taxes, he is backing the Fair Tax, a national sales tax plan that is cuckoo for too many reasons to go into here; some of them are explained here. it's likely the most ambitious, and the most deeply flawed, domestic proposal put forward by any major candidate in the last few decades. And Russert, interviewing Huckabee on Dec 30, never mentioned it. Instead, he only pressed on apparent contradictions between Huckabee's claim to be an demented anti-tax lunatic and his record in Arkansas of being relatively responsible on tax issues:
MR. RUSSERT: But you raised taxes, and the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, gave you a D and an F for your tenureship as governor. So there have been some legitimate criticisms of you as a Republican for raising taxes and for spending money.

GOV. HUCKABEE: Well, I don't think they're legitimate criticisms when you improve education for the children of your state or when you build highways that give you economic incentives and capacities that, frankly, created the lowest unemployment numbers that our state had over had over a sustained period of time. We saw more new jobs created. That's what being a governor is about. It's about creating opportunities for the people of your state.

MR. RUSSERT: Even if it means raising taxes?

Mitt Romney says, "We must strengthen our military by increasing the size of our military by 100,000 troops and dedicating at least four percent of our gross domestic product to defense." He also proposes to "Lower The Corporate Tax Rate....Lower Taxes For All. Lower income tax rates across the board to reward productivity....Eliminate all taxes on interest, dividends, and capital gains for anyone with Adjusted Gross Income under $200,000....Make The Bush Tax Cuts Permanent....Eliminate The Death Tax Once And For All." (As far as I could determine from a quick look at his issues pages, Romney isn't even giving lip service to a balanced budget or even lowering the deficit, which seems to be true of most of this year's GOP crew.)

Here is the only section of the Romney interview where tax policy is discussed:
MR. RUSSERT:As you campaign around the country, you talk about your record in Massachusetts with budgets and taxes and so forth. The Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, gave you a C as governor of Massachusetts. And they say, "His first budget, presented under the cloud of a $2 billion deficit, balanced the budget with some spending cuts, but" "$500 million increase in various fees was the largest component of the budget fix." The AP says it this way: "When Romney wanted to balance the Massachusetts budget, the blind, mentally retarded and gun owners were asked to help pay. In all, then-Gov. Romney proposed creating 33 new fees," "increasing 57 others." The head of the Bay State Council of the Blind said that your name was "Fee-Fee"; that you just raised fee after fee after fee. That's a tax.

GOV. ROMNEY: Well, let's, let's step back and get all the numbers right. First of all, it was nearly a $3 billion budget gap that we faced as we came into office, my team and I. Secondly, we raised fees, and we generated about $240 million worth of increased revenue. So of a $3 billion budget gap, we raised fees of about $240 million. Now, these were not broad-based fees. I said I'm not going to go after driver's license fees or automobile fees for registration because these apply to everybody, and any...

MR. RUSSERT: Duplicate driver's license fee.

GOV. ROMNEY: Because, because if they're broad, broad-based, they, they have the--they have a sense, a feeling like a tax. But a fee is different than a tax in that it's for a particular service. And we had some fees that hadn't been changed in over a decade....

MR. RUSSERT: A fee's not a tax?...Governor, that's, that's gimmick.

What's not a gimmick, of course, is to propose what likely amounts to $2,5 Tn or more in tax cuts, plus spending increases, with the explanation that it will all be fine because there will be unspecified spending cuts.

One week before Hillary, Russert was blessed with the sacred presence of Saint McCain of the Straight Talk. McCain thinks it would be dandy if American troops remain in Iraq for the next 100 years. He also advocates, "The development and deployment of theater and national missile defenses....[Enlarging] the size of our armed forces to meet new challenges to our security....As requirements expand in the global war on terrorism so must our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard be reconfigured to meet these new challenges. John McCain thinks it is especially important to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps to defend against the threats we face today....Modernizing American armed forces involves procuring advanced weapons systems that will help rapidly and decisively defeat any adversary and protect American lives. It also requires addressing force protection needs to make sure that America's combat personnel have the best safety and survivability equipment available." He'd also like to, "permanently repeal the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT)...Make the Bush income and investment tax cuts permanent....Reform and make permanent the research and development (R&D) tax credit." Although McCain tries to make it look bigger with promises to ban various types of taxes that don't currently exist, it's a modest plan by current GOP standards. And that's remarkable because, after all, in pledging to make the Bush cuts permanent and eliminate the AMT, McCain is actually promising substantially larger tax cuts in an era of a large and growing deficit than Bush promised while running with a surplus - yet his tax cuts are the lightest of any Republican candidate. I won't actually quote from the discussion of taxes, which is somewhat longer than for other hopefuls, but just note that Russert is interested solely in McCain's admittedly desperate attempts to reconcile his votes against the Bush tax cuts with his current pledge to make them permanent. The potential effects of making those cuts permanent is never raised.

When Giuliani appeared on Dec 9, he had not yet unveiled his recent tax cut plan, which would make the Bush tax cuts look positively Lilliputian. He had made vague commitments to, "keep America on offense in the Terrorists’ War on Us" and "cut taxes and reform the tax code". Here is the only tax discussion which took place:
MR. RUSSERT: Would you pledge to balance the budget if you were elected president?

MR. GIULIANI: Sure, I would make the goal—I would make it a goal of...

MR. RUSSERT: But not a pledge.

MR. GIULIANI: I don’t do pledges. I didn’t do a pledge on taxes. I stated my intention. I said my intention is to lower taxes. I have a record of lowering taxes. My intention would be to balance the budget. I have a record of eight balanced budgets in a city where we had some serious economic and financial difficulties at various times, and we figured out a way to balance the budget. So I have a really good record on that.

Fred Thompson, who goes in for button points in a big way in his "white Papers", wants to "

  • Be prepared to increase the core defense budget up to 4.5% of GDP to support the expansion, modernization, and increased readiness of U.S. military forces
  • Build a "Million-Member"ground force capable of handling peacetime and wartime tasks without wearing out the troops and increasing U.S. vulnerability.
  • Increase the pay and benefits of our Military Personnel, and the care of our Veterans, to enhance recruitment, retention, and quality of life.
  • Increase the U.S. Navy fleet to at least 325 ships to increase mission capability across the full spectrum of operations and maintain the ability to project power globally.
  • Complete the modernization of the U.S. Air Force to ensure continued tactical air dominance over all potential adversaries and the ability to project power globally.

At the same time, lets:
  • Permanently Extend the 2001 and 2003 Tax Cuts.
  • Permanently Repeal the Death Tax.
  • Repeal the Alternative Minimum Tax.
  • Reduce the Corporate Tax Rate.
  • Permanently Extend Small Business Expensing.
  • Update and Simplify Depreciation Schedules.

The last one (which actually costs the IRS relatively little money) is original and might even qualify as wonky, if the whole thing wasn't done with such obvious contempt for the basic wonk skill of addition.

Thompson also complains that, "Congress has consistently refused to balance the budget and address the deficit" and does say he will balance the budget. Those magical, unspecified spending cuts - is there anything they can't do? We may never know, because, when Thompson did his MTP gig on Nov 4, the subject never came up.

Five out of five mainstream Republicans have proposal that would blast holes in the federal budget bigger than the iceberg made in the Titanic - and not one got a single question on it. (Ron Paul actually was pressed fairly hard on his plan to eliminate the IRS, confirming that he is definitely not part of the in crowd.) However, Hillary and Ron Paul weren't the only ones to get a grilling on their fiscal soundness. Here are some excerpts from the interviews with Biden and Edwards: (No similar questions were asked of Richardson or Obama, and I couldn't find a transcript for Dodd.)
MR. RUSSERT: Yeah. Here’s what you say about energy: “Biden would make a substantial national commitment by dramatically increasing investment in energy and climate change research” “technology" “Health care” “expand health insurance for children” “relieve” the “families and” business “of the burden of expensive catastrophic cases.

“Education” “expand help for families by increasing” “tax” deductions “for tuition payments.” “Expand Pell grants to cover the average tuition” to “public colleges for low income families.” “Expand national service programs” to help “high school students so” “they can earn money for college.

“Homeland Security” “take back one year of the tax cuts for Americans who make over a million dollars” “and put this money in a dedicated Homeland Security and Public Safety Trust Fund.

“Crime: Biden’s priority is restoring the nearly $2 billion” that’s “been cut from state and local law enforcement.”

All noble goals for Democrats, but it’s more money, more money, more money.

SEN. BIDEN: Yeah, but it’s...

MR. RUSSERT: Where you going to get it?

SEN. BIDEN: I’ll tell you where you get it. First of all, we’re going to end this war. It’s 100--$100 billion a year we’re spending. Number one, it’s 100 billion. Eliminate the tax cuts for people making over a million bucks, and they’ll go for it. They, they didn’t ask for it; they know they don’t need it. That’s 85 billion bucks a year.

MR. RUSSERT: But that goes to the trust fund. You still have...

SEN. BIDEN: No, you have—you have...

MR. RUSSERT:, health care, education.

SEN. BIDEN: No, I got it. I got it. Let’s go through them, because I think you’re asking, obviously, a fair question.

Eliminate the, the, the tax break for investment on dividends and—which is $195 billion is, is, is the cost of that. And begin to do, for example, on the crime side, it’s pointed out in my crime bill for every single dollar we spent we saved the public $6, $6 dollars. We have to have—there’s a fancy word down here—a little new paradigm down here in Washington, as my Republican friends like to say. Investment in these areas saves money. For example, for $26 billion a year, I can insure every single solitary child under the age of 18 in the United States. America doesn’t have health insurance. For $3 billion a year, I can double the investment we have on alternative energy sources and research. For a billion dollars a year I can put 50,000 more cops back on the street. And so this is where—we’re, we’re talking manageable numbers. But the larger point here, in my view, the larger point here, and I think distinguishes me from Democrats, I think we got to start looking at the direct savings that come from the investments we make. If we make an investment in wellness, we save hundreds of billions of dollars here. And so we got to look at it differently, Tim. But you need start-up dollars. The place I’d start off with is somewhere over $220 billion a year by the tax cuts and ending the war. And, by the way, all you need is $10 billion a year for the next five years to fund every single solitary aspect of the 9/11 Commission report, and I would only use 10 of the 85 billion from the top 1 percent for that purpose.

MR. RUSSERT: But, senator, we have a deficit. We have Social Security and Medicare looming. The number of people on Social Security and Medicare is now 40 million people. It’s going to be 80 million in 15 years. Would you consider looking at those programs, age of eligibility...

SEN. BIDEN: Absolutely.

MR. RUSSERT: ...cost of living, put it all on the table.

SEN. BIDEN: The answer is absolutely. You have to. You know, it’s—one of the things that my, you know, the political advisers say to me is, “Whoa, don’t touch that third”—look, the American people aren’t stupid. It’s a real simple proposition.

MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. Senator Edwards, Friday you spoke to the Democratic National Committee about health care. I want to show that clip and come back and talk about it.

(Videotape, DNC Winter Meeting, Friday)

SEN. EDWARDS: Can we finally say we stand now and forever for every single man, woman and child in America having health care, universal health care? We will leave no one behind. We will not allow a single family or a single child in America to not have health care coverage and to not have the health care that they need and deserve.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Universal health care, noble goal, but that’s 47 million more men, women and children. How much would that cost and what kind of plan would you propose?

SEN. EDWARDS: It’d cost between 90 and 120 billion a year once it’s—once it’s fully implemented. I will, on this show and tomorrow, be laying out details of a universal health care plan. Basically, we start with the problem, which are—we want to get—make sure that the 47 million people who don’t have health care coverage are covered immediately. Second, we want to do—deal with the costs that middle class families, who may have health care coverage but are worried about paying for it, worried about keeping it. Premiums are up 90 percent, literally 90 percent just over the last few years. So I want to do something to bring costs down for others. And we want to create some efficiencies that allow competition. And, and then finally—here, here’s the bottom line. We want to make sure everybody’s covered, we want to help middle class families with the costs, we want—we want to try to create competition that doesn’t exist today. And I think the best, most effective way to do that I—which is what my plan will be as I lay it out tomorrow, is we take the 46 million, 47 million people who don’t have health care coverage, we expand Medicaid, we provide subsidies for people who don’t have coverage. We ask employers to play a bigger role, which means they either have to have coverage, or they have to buy into what we’re calling health markets. We’re going to create health markets all across the country which will help provide some of these efficiencies. One of the choices, by the way, available in these health markets is the government plan. So people who like the idea of a single-payer insurer health plan, that is actually one of the alternatives that people can choose. They’ll be allowed to choose. We expand SCHIP; we expand Medicaid. The bottom line is we’re asking everybody to share in the responsibility of making health care work in this country. Employers, those who are in the medical insurance business, employees, the American people—everyone will have to contribute in order to make this work.

MR. RUSSERT: Would you be willing to raise taxes in order to help pay for this?

SEN. EDWARDS: Yes, we’ll have to raise taxes. The, the only way you can pay for a health care plan, from 90--that costs anywhere from $90 billion to $120 billion is there has to be a revenue source. The revenue source for paying for the plan that I’m proposing is, is first we get rid of George Bush’s tax cuts for people who make over $200,000 a year. This plan, in and of itself, creates some efficiencies and helps to reduce the cost of health care globally in America. And then, finally, we need to do a much better job of collecting the taxes that are—that are already owed. And a very specific example of something we should do, we should have brokerage houses report the capital gains that, that people are incurring, because we’re losing billions and billions of dollars in tax revenue, and billions and billions of dollars from capital gains not being reported.

MR. RUSSERT: But you’d be willing to increase taxes to provide health care?

SEN. EDWARDS: Yes, absolutely.

MR. RUSSERT: What about Social Security and Medicare? There’s 40 million people on Social Security and Medicare now. The next 15 years it’s going to go to 80 million. The chairmen of the Federal Reserve say, if we do nothing, you’ll have to raise taxes by a third and cut all the rest of government by 50 percent in order to meet those demands and expectations of the entitlement programs.

SEN. EDWARDS: Yes. Well, we have a huge challenge on this front. I think the starting place is Medicare, not Social Security, simply because Social Security is stronger, longer—significantly longer than Medicare. So let me, if I can, start with, with Medicare. You know, the, the—Medicare has very serious short-term, intense financial problems, and there—and there are things we can do that we’re not doing, which is—we ought to have much better chronic care management than we have today. We ought to be investing in a serious and systemic way in preventative care, which we’re not doing today. And we have significant fraud and abuse in the Medicare system. It’s—every study that’s been done demonstrates that. So I think there are things we can do to strengthen Medicare. And we ought to be using like, for example, in my universal health care plan, we create these health markets which require providers to, to compete against each other. We ought to be using the power of the federal government to negotiate better prices in Medicare. And it was a—it was a foolish thing, in the Medicare prescription drug law that was passed, which I voted against, to not allow the government to use its market power to negotiate better prices. And those are all things we can do that will help, help strengthen Medicare.

One consequence of this conduct was well described by Matthew Yglesias in a recent discussion of one of Russert's Village confederates: "Fiscal responsibility, as defined by The Washington Post, means something like `new spending must be financed by unpopular tax hikes unless it's spending on a war or the military or spending proposed by Republicans; also, budget deficits are an acute problem if a Democrat is president or if they're forecast to occur far in the future as a result of Social Security.` That, obviously, is a political framework designed to make progressive governance impossible while simultaneously giving lip service to the desirability of spending money on important priorities like health care, education, clean energy, infrastructure, etc." It's also important to note that modern Republican policy on taxes and the budget is utterly indefensible in any serious, reality based analysis, and that fact would quickly come out if Republican politicians were closely questioned on this topic by probing, informed reporters. Which they never are, so even most well informed people have wildly inaccurate ideas about the size of the deficit and what would have to be done to fix it. This extremism also seems to be out of touch with an overwhelming majority of voters. Exit polls in NH showed that, even in that traditionally anti-tax state, a majority of the Republican voters felt that reducing the deficit was a higher priority than cutting taxes. Not one GOP candidate agreed with the GOP electorate. Those voters went for McCain, who has legitimate standing as a spending hawk, but no longer has any honest claim to his reputation as a deficit hawk.
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
Reports today are that turnout in NH is off the charts, with apparently more demand for Democratic than Republican ballots. That's good news for Obama, of course, who is a prohibitive favorite if he wins tonight with a healthy margin, as seems likely. It's bad news for McCain, who needs those independent votes. (I'm pretty sure that McCain in 2000 lost every primary in which only Republicans voted.) But don't worry, however the votes come out, it's a Big Win For McCain in the media.

The interesting question, for NH and beyond, is where Huckabee fits in. Bill Kristol's first column suggests that the dean of neocon pundits is willing to accept the rise of Huckabee. This will spread, and has always been inevitable. Who is Huckabee? A Southern governor, a fundamentalist evangelical with roots in the Christian Right, a man who likes to talk about the poor but whose policy proposals pretending to help the poor are in fact geared to the extremely rich, a candidate who criticizes his predecessor for an overly aggressive foreign policy but has advisers committed to at least equally aggressive views, a man who feels comfortable running for President although his grasp of public policy is roughly that of a village idiot. This is an agent for change? This is the guy who is more like Dubya than Jeb is. That there was even hesitation to accept him shows the deep power of ruling class condescension in the leading circles of the Conservative movement.
Thursday, January 03, 2008
One prediction is safe to make for the upcoming Iowa/New Hampshire fetes: the big story coming out of one or both will be John McCain's brilliant comeback. That's not because McCain will do extremely well: he might, but it's far from certain. It's because that's the story the the political media are dying to write: McCain does better than expected. And since expectations are such a flexible bar, almost anything will give them an excuse to write it. If Ron Paul wins NH in a landslide and McCain finishes 3rd, the media story coming out will be that McCain did better than expected.

McCain gave another example of his famous straight talk this weekend, absurdly pretending his attack ad on Romney wasn't an attack ad, because he was merely quoting attacks from others, and simultaneously waxing indignant over Romney's (much less nasty and personal) attack ads. (You can see the ad here.)

McCain: I didn't say those words. Those were the Concord Monitor and the Manchester Union Leader's words. They were their words.
Steph (Talking over McCain): Well, wait a second. You paid for people, you paid for people to see those words calling him a phony. Do you think he's a phony?
McCain: No, I paid, I paid for the ad to, that put up the words of the respected newspapers here in the state of New Hampshire and I think that's perfectly appropriate....Frankly, the voters of New Hampshire don't like this kind of negative campaigning, and they reject his negative ads....
Steph: Do you think Mitt Romney's a phony or not?
McCain: No. I think he's a, he's a person who's changed his positions on many issues and the voters know that and they'll decide that. But, that, that's what, I'll continue to quote from respected newspapers if necessary. But I'm not, as I said, we're going to move forward with this campaign.

Huckabee has, quite appropriately, been hammered for his press conference at which he announced he wouldn't run his new negative ads and proceeded to show them. For Saint McCain, naturally, no criticism.

My own guess on Iowa today: the Democratic side will be determined by where the backers of non-viable candidates go in the second round of voting. I think they'll go away from Hillary, giving either Obama or Edwards the victory. The big question will be whether her lead in NH holds. If it does, she's still a prohibitive favorite to take the nomination. If she loses both, she's in very big trouble. If Obama wins both, he's the next president.

On the dark side, I think Huckabee will win Iowa. If Romney does, he may be unstoppable straight through to the convention. I think Huckabee is the most likely winner of the GOP nod, because he's most in synch with what the party is today, but this is still hard to predict.

Note: anyone who really cares to take the time can look in my archives and see my past record on predicting elections. Let's just say, based on precedents, you might be able to make big money betting against my picks. But no guarantees I won't actually be right this time.

Update: Who needs returns? Bob Schieffer on CBS just announced that the McCain surge is the big story from Iowa. How many votes did McCain get? Who knows - Schieffer didn't bother waiting for results to announce the story.

Kos now has results up from about 1/4 of the Repub caucuses. If these early results hold, the actual big story is that McCain is doing below expectations, while Thompson is in 3rd place and doing better. Huckabee has been called by a few networks as the winner.