Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Violence Against Members of Congress?

Let's hope this isn't actually what it looks like . . . the attempted murder of a congressman's brother.

In general, I think the portrayal of Tea Party protesters has been a bit exaggerated. From what I've seen, most of the people who attend the rallies just seem like run-of-the-mill partisan activists. A lot of the rhetoric that I've heard is outrageous, but most of it isn't bigoted or overtly threatening.

Of course, I don't work on the Hill, and many of the staffers with whom I've spoken have had to endure at least a few menacing telephone calls.

I realized that some Tea Party protesters have said and done things that are appalling. But I really do think that there is a way to condemn these few without asserting that the entire movement is composed of bigots and terrorists. Many of the protesters who I've seen strike me as frustrated partisans, who simply want to voice their disapproval with a Democratic government they regard as their ideological adversary.

In my view, they should be allowed to protest as loudly and fervently as they wish to, as long as their actions aren't directly causing or inciting violence. Writing something mean on a sign isn't the same as cutting someone's gas line. Protesters at anti-war rallies routinely wrote vicious, hateful, and even threatening things about President Bush. However, these rallies rarely provoked actual violence - and, unsurprisingly, they were rarely condemned by Democratic members of Congress.

This doesn't excuse any real act of violence or genuine threat of violence. But freedom of speech is essential, even if that speech strikes you as nasty and vitriolic.

What I'd really like to see is a bit more willingness on the part of Republicans to discourage violence and lawless conduct, and a bit more willingness on the part of Democrats to tolerate the anger displayed by members of the Tea Party movement.

They're allowed to be angry and say mean things and draw pictures of guns. They're not allowed to throw bricks through windows and cut people's gas lines.

Update: House Republican Eric Cantor says that someone shot a bullet through the window of his district office in Richmond, VA.

Cantor blames the Democratic leadership, arguing that they have used threats of violence against Democratic lawmakers to "fan the flames" of violence against Republican lawmakers.

This is getting very meta, isn't it?

I assume that the Democrats will soon respond that Cantor's wild accusations about the role that the Democratic leadership played in stirring up violence against Republican members could easily incite more violence against Democratic members . . . .

Saturday, March 20, 2010

What's the Deal with CBO's Scoring?

There's been a lot of wonky discussion about the CBO's scoring methods lately. The other day, Ezra Klein defended the CBO against conservative critics, insisting that the agency's costs estimates represent the "best guess of the town's most rigorous guesser."

Ezra writes:

[B]e very careful with any criticism of CBO that seems to be merited by a particular score rather than a particular methodological difficulty. To put that slightly differently, does anyone think that conservatives would be squawking if CBO had disappointed Democrats by saying the bill would save less money than either the House or Senate incarnations? If not, then keep in mind that this is a political, not technical, dispute. To establish my own credentials on this, here's the post I wrote defending the CBO when liberals were arguing that it was underestimating health-care reform's savings.
I think Ezra is a bit disingenuous when he pretends that he's never engaged in partisan attacks of specific CBO cost estimates. (See here, for example.) But there is a much bigger criticism of Ezra's point, which Greg Mankiw articulates very well here.

By convention, the CBO uses something called "static" budget scoring to determine a bill's impact on the federal budget. This kind of scoring essentially disregards the macroeconomic implications of federal actions.

Here is how former CBO director Douglas Holtz-Eakin explained it:

For every piece of legislation . . . the budgetary impacts are estimated using the same, unchanging baseline projections of overall gross domestic product (GDP) and its aggregate income components. Specifically, the estimates do not include the effects of legislation on the supply of labor or on saving (and hence on overall economic growth); they do not include effects on income that might result from the influence outlays and taxes, say, may have on technological progress; they do not include the increases or decreases in output that are caused by the way subsidies or taxes reallocate resources among various activities; they do not include the effects on national saving and other incentive effects that result from the government’s financing of the budget change; and they do not include the income and employment effects that arise from the impact of fiscal policy on aggregate spending in the economy in a recession.
To steal a premise from Paul Ryan, this means that the CBO's current scoring methods would assume no macroeconomic impact if the federal government increased spending by, say, 50 trillion dollars . . . just as long as that new spending was offset by 50 trillion dollars in tax increases.

The alternative to static scoring is some kind of "dynamic" budget analysis, which would account for macroeconomic feedback effects rather than simply holding baselines GDP estimates constant. This would give us a much more accurate cost estimate for large policy changes.

Under the current assumptions, we're virtually guaranteed to get an faulty score.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Saletan Makes a Strange Argument

I love Will Saletan, but this doesn't make any sense to me:

Democracy isn't about doing what might sell in the next election. It's about doing what you promised in the last one. If you're in Congress, and if you think this bill is good for the country, vote for it. Even if it costs you your job.

Losing your job is a scary idea. It's natural to look for a way out. It's also natural to rationalize your self-preservation. You aren't really caving; you're just serving the public by heeding the polls. Isn't that a legislator's job?

No. It isn't. Your job description is in the nation's founding documents. The Constitution specifies representative democracy, not direct democracy. The Declaration of Independence explains that to secure citizens' rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." The consent authorizes powers, not bills. And it precedes the exercise of those powers. Your job now is to use your powers wisely.
This is the only time I've ever heard anyone use the phrase "deriving their . . . powers from the consent of the governed" to justify passing legislation that flies in the face of public opinion. By Saletan's logic, "consent" must only be given at the ballot box. Once the voters have chosen a representative, public involvement becomes immaterial. Representatives should be ruled by their individual consciences, not the whims of the people.

But if that's true, why did the the Founders see fit to draw up a Bill of Rights which - among other things - guarantees the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances? And why has the Supreme Court repeatedly interpreted this clause to mean the right to lobby your legislators? Further, why is this right considered among the "fundamental rights" which have been selectively incorporated to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

I think Saletan's argument is a little silly. We have a representative democracy, sure, but that doesn't mean that it shouldn't be a participatory democracy. People should be involved at every stage of the process because the decisions that their government makes affect their daily lives.

Sullivan Defends Beck?

Andrew Sullivan offers a heavily qualified defense of Glenn Beck's pronouncement that Christians should reject their church if it preaches "social justice" or "economic justice."

Money quote:

I have to say I'm going to side a tiny bit with Beck on this matter.

It seems to me that although helping the poor is obviously a critical facet of Jesus' teaching, it is a legitimate matter of debate how to help the poor.

Socialism, for example, clearly does not help the poor: it just makes everyone poorer. It can spring from envy, not charity. It can instill dependency, not self-respect. And charity is not something anyone can delegate to an institution. A state cannot feel love and cannot be redeemed. Only a human being can. Sometimes, an over-weening welfare state can actually remove the capacity of many people to be personally generous by taxing their worldly goods before they have a chance to give them away.

My own view is that there should be a collective and strong safety net for the poor, combined with, for Christians, a very powerful, indeed binding, injunction to give and give generously to others, and to take a personal interest in the needs of others. There's a balance here, in other words, between social justice and statist redistributionism. And while Beck is obviously out of line - the Catholic Church's teachings on social justice could not be further removed from Ayn Rand - I'm suspicious of the dangers of taking the virtue of social justice and turning it into the system of socialism.

Beck's statement is, I think, verifiably false. But the response to Beck has been a little overstated. Saying that Beck is wrong isn't quite the same as saying that free-market ideology is fundamentally un-Christian. I'm certainly not a Biblical scholar, but I think the conservative position on social justice is fully reconcilable with the message of Jesus.

A person can support social justice, while still opposing federal policies that seek to mandate social justice through income redistribution or price controls.

Pornography on the Left and the Right

Ryan Sager at True/Slant looks at the research on pornography and social depravation:
While the question of free speech is philosophical, the question of whether porn does any social harm is an empirical one. And the data is pretty clear: Pornography either reduces sex crime by giving males a non-violent outlet for excess sexual impulses, or it has no effect.
I find this result pretty unsurprising, but of course I tend toward a libertarian perspective on social issues.

The debate over pornography has always made for strange bedfellows. Feminists usually oppose it, arguing that sexual objectification of women leads to violence against women. Social conservatives typically see it as a gateway to infidelity and a threat to strong families. For years, both groups have maintained that the research bolsters their argument, pointing to (among other things) the methodologically flawed Meese Report as evidence of the connection between porn and various social ills. But most of the recent research suggests quite the opposite.

While it’s impossible to produce a perfect study on the subject, it seems fairly clear at this point that pornography is not the evil that many on the left and right insisted it was.

The implications for feminism are quite profound. If pornography reduces violence against women, isn’t it something that should be promoted? Should visceral opposition to sexual objectification really trump empirical reality?

Social conservatives confront a similar dilemma. The crime rate has long been an important metric for those on the right. Many conservatives have argued that pornography leads to antisocial behavior, which ultimately leads to higher incidents of crime. But if the opposite is true – if pornography actually reduces crime – shouldn’t social conservatives rethink their position?

I realize that there are broader points of opposition among feminists and conservatives, but at the very least, I think that both groups need to seriously wrestle with their ideological preconceptions on this issue.

The Politics of Good and Evil

This might just be Ross's best column yet.

Read it, read it, read it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Krugman on Health Care Myths

Paul Krugman had a good op-ed in yesterday's NYT.

He rails against what he deems the three big "myths" about the health care bill, namely: that it's a government take-over of the the health care sector, that it does nothing to control costs, and that it's fiscally irresponsible.

I agree with the first two points, but the third is kind of a bait-and-switch. It's true that the bill would not be anything like a "government take-over." And certainly there are some cost-control measures in the bill, even though it's unclear whether the most important measures will really be inserted into the final version.

In regard to fiscal responsibility, Krugman argues that even some of the more cynical projections show that reform would only raise total health care spending by about one percent, while expanding coverage to tens of millions of Americans. This, he suggests, is a "good deal."

Covering tens of millions of Americans while only adding one percent to total health care spending does sound like a pretty amazing bargain. The problem is that, if the projections are even remotely accurate, we're already on an unsustainable path. What we need to do is bend the cost curve down dramatically.

One percent would be fine if health care spending weren't expected to envelop the federal budget and substantially weaken our economy over the next several decades. According to CBO's intermediate projections, health care spending could reach nearly 50 percent of GDP by 2080.

Telling people that, after reform, health care spending would only reach 50.5 percent of GDP is not very comforting.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

An Open Letter to Andrew Sullivan


You recently wrote:

The explosion in medical costs since 2000 or 2003, along with the brutal recession, and a greater awareness of the real suffering this has created, has also convinced me that systematic reform is necessary, as long as it is fiscally responsible.
This comes after a long string of posts in which you've encouraged Congress to "pass the damn bill." I understand the sentiment, but it still seems like you’re missing the point.

I agree that any genuine conservative should support a “fiscally responsible” health care reform plan that expands health coverage to millions of Americans. You’re right to criticize congressional Republicans who – in spite of their protestations to the contrary – seem to be aligned against any kind of meaningful reform.

But there are legitimate concerns as to whether this bill would actually be deficit-reducing or even deficit-neutral. Many of the key cost-saving provisions will likely be excluded (or diluted) if the bill is pushed through in reconciliation. And even in its current form, the Senate bill seems to contain an awful lot of cost-saving gimmickry that was thrown in to achieve an attractive score from CBO.

I’m not sure how you can read David’s latest column without at least pausing to consider whether the kind of systematic reform that we’re likely to get is truly going to control costs or simply create another large, unsustainable entitlement.

You continue to assert that the bill is “fiscally responsible” without – as far as I can tell – seriously addressing the concerns of those who suspect otherwise.

What's the deal?

Update: Is Andrew becoming an ideologue on this issue?

This response to Megan McArdle's criticism makes absolutely no sense to me. Are we looking at the same scatter plots?

Maybe I'm missing something . . .

Friday, March 5, 2010

Ezra Klein v. Paul Ryan

Ezra Klein and Paul Ryan recently had an excellent back-and-forth on the health care bill.

f you're looking for some seriously wonky discussion of Paul Ryan's comments at the Blair House Summit, see Ezra's critism and Ryan's response.

Ross Douthat also offers his thoughts here.

Will Repealing DADT Damage Our Military Readiness?

I've written before about what I see as the proper way to think about Don't Ask, Don't Tell:

It's undeniable that DADT has had an effect on and recruitment rates. However, if this is a primary concern for policymakers, then the real question is: How would repealing DADT impact retention and recruitment rates?
Today, the NYT offers a well-reasoned op-ed by retired Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill McPeak.

McPeak makes a similar point regarding recruitment and retention, but goes a bit further to make his case. If anti-discrimination legislation applies to the military, he asks, must exclusions based on physical or mental characteristics -- weight, height, IQ -- also be overturned?

I'm not sure of the legalities here, but practically I think McPeak is taking his argument too far. There is a big difference between denying homosexuals the right to serve openly and waiving weight and height requirements. (In fact, it's important to note that the military has eased its standards in recent years because of declining recruitment.)

Homosexuality may impact unit cohesion, but it's not akin to severe asthma, for example, which might make the soldier unfit for duty. Being a homosexual does not make an individual any less qualified to serve.

Over the past few year, the military has issued more waivers for things like criminal conduct than ever before -- without, to my knowledge, seriously considering the impact on unit morale. If we're interested in consistency, why hasn't the military put more effort into studying whether soldiers with criminal records could potentially undermine unit cohesion or reduce military readiness? McPeak makes no mention of this.

I do think that McPeak is correct to suggest that the method of cost accounting employed by advocates of repeal is extremely one-sided. He also makes the important point that "many . . . removals would have occurred in any case, since they were the result of unacceptable conduct and not just a declaration of sexual orientation." But he's simply wrong to imply that standards on sexuality are comparable to other kinds of enlistment standards.

McPeak's second argument focuses on the history of desegregation in the military:

There is also some misunderstanding about President Harry Truman’s executive order of 1948, calling for equality in the armed forces, which is often cited as a model that President Obama should follow. No doubt Truman’s action was a landmark in the civil rights struggle. However, the order was not actually sufficient inducement for the armed forces to do the right thing.

At the time, the Air Force had prepared itself for racial integration and its leadership pushed hard to make it work. As a consequence, the integration of blacks in the Air Force is one of the great success stories of the civil rights movement.

The Army and Navy, however, were models of passive resistance. The Air Force had nearly completed integration before the Army really started. Technically, Truman’s order made no reference to ending segregation, speaking only of equality of opportunity and treatment regardless of “race, color, religion or national origin.” And the Army, at first, argued it was in full compliance. Its subsequent integration was largely forced on it by combat losses in all-white units during the first months of the Korean War. The Navy continued much of its policy of tokenism into the 1960s, with a black steward corps still waiting tables 10 years after the executive order.

Harry Truman did not simply pass his hand over the Pentagon and bring about racial justice. Only after the leaders of each service committed their institutions did we make real progress.

Thus allowing an openly gay presence in ranks will be very difficult until we have committed leadership for it. I certainly had trouble figuring out how to provide such leadership in 1993. While I believed all people are created equal, I did not believe such equality extended to all ideas or all cultures. And since I didn’t know how to advocate the assimilation of this particular form of diversity, I saw no way to prevent it from undermining unit cohesion.

I think this is key argument in favor of caution, and one of the reasons why an incremental approach -- perhaps selectively repealing aspects of DADT and gauging the impact on unit cohesion -- may be more prudent than immediately scrapping the entire policy.

Overall, I think that McPeak makes some important points that advocates of repeal have to seriously grapple with. I've said before that I think opponents of DADT should stick to making the moral argument. I still believe that, but perhaps some honest consideration of the policy implications might also help to create common ground on this issue.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Have Americans become more liberal?

The truth is, I don't know if Americans are becoming more liberal or more conservative. But I think one major miscalculation on the left has been interpreting Americans’ dissatisfaction with the Bush administration as resentment toward “conservatism” writ large. In fact, the opposite seems to hold true.

Whether they knew it or not, I believe that many Americans were reacting against the large-scale changes imposed by a Republican administration that was anything but conservative. It wasn’t a liberal impulse that caused Americans to become disenchanted with the Iraq War. It was genuine conservatism – a distrust of government power and large-scale foreign interventions – that ultimately compelled so many of us to abandon our support for President Bush.

“Change” was the theme of the 2008 campaign, but the underlying message was much simpler: putting things back to normal. The lesson that should be gleaned is not that Americans favor progressive – rather than “conservative” – policy solutions, but that Americans are skeptical of dramatic shifts in policy.

I think this is a big part of the reason why we’ve see support for many of the individual provisions in the health care reform bills that have been proposed in Congress, but an overall sense of opposition to comprehensive approach that would generate such sweeping legislation. Incremental reforms are fine, but package them together and you’ve gone too far.

In an era of change, conservatism makes sense. We are, after all, creatures of memory.

To quote Andrew Sullivan:

[I]n those moments of confrontation with time, we are all conservatives. Sure, we all move on. In America, the future is always more imperative than the past. But the past lingers; and America, for all its restlessness, or perhaps because of its restlessness, is a very conservative place. . . . Intrinsic to the human experience – what separates us from animals –is the memory of things past, and the fashioning of that memory into a self-conscious identity. So loss imprints itself on our minds and souls and forms us. It’s part of what we are.

There's a lot more to this, of course. In many ways, America is also a deeply progressive place. We've always had a complex political culture, and we've always tried to have it both ways.

Anyway, just thought I'd think "outloud" for a bit. I'll try to write more on this later.

Update: In his column today, David Brooks makes a similar point about the Tea Party movement:

[B]oth the New Left and the Tea Party movement are radically anticonservative. Conservatism is built on the idea of original sin — on the assumption of human fallibility and uncertainty. To remedy our fallen condition, conservatives believe in civilization — in social structures, permanent institutions and just authorities, which embody the accumulated wisdom of the ages and structure individual longings.

That idea was rejected in the 1960s by people who put their faith in unrestrained passion and zealotry. The New Left then, like the Tea Partiers now, had a legitimate point about the failure of the ruling class. But they ruined it through their own imprudence, self-righteousness and naïve radicalism. The Tea Partiers will not take over the G.O.P., but it seems as though the ’60s political style will always be with us — first on the left, now the right.

As I recently explained to a friend, modern-day conservatism traces its roots to Edmund Burke. But Burkean conservatism is nothing like today's Movement Conservatism, which seems to have spawned the Tea Parties. Burke was skeptical of large-scale policy changes, favoring an incremental approach. Many contemporary conservatives seem to have abandoned this skepticism, as they routinely employ reactionary language and endorse dramatic policy shifts. Today, congressional Republicans appear to be far more focused on achieving specific ideological priorities, even when that requires massive federal legislation or massive changes in the status quo. It's not conservative to totally dismantle the Social Security system, for example.

I think it's good to be skeptical of sweeping policy changes, but it's also important to acknowledge that even that skepticism must be questioned regularly. For example, would slow, incremental changes have been appropriate during the Civil Rights Era, or are there some issues so morally pressing that we need to push for immediate, broad-based changes in society?