Tag Archives: politics

Grover Still Matters

By James Kwak

Last week I wrote a post arguing that Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge is alive and well and still a binding constraint on Republican lawmakers. The media continue to push the story of Republicans renouncing the pledge, however, and who knows, I could turn out to be wrong. Maybe some Republicans will vote to reduce deductions without a compensating reduction in marginal rates.

Even in that world, however, the pledge will still have a major impact. All this focus on the pledge makes it seem as if the few apostates—Peter King, Lindsey Graham, etc.—are making some enormous, admirable stand on principle. In fact, all they are saying is that they might be willing to close a few loopholes and keep tax rates where George W. Bush left them; they are still adamantly opposed to increases in tax rates (even though those increases, set to take effect on January 1, are the result of Bush’s choosing to use reconciliation to pass his tax cuts).

The specter of the pledge has allowed them to dress up a tiny concession—conservatives should want to get rid of distortions anyway, since they distort economic choices—as a major move to the center. In return for breaking the pledge, they can demand that Democrats agree to major changes to entitlement programs.

The tactical beauty of the pledge is that it credibly committed the Republican Party to never increase taxes, thereby forcing Democrats to meet them not in the middle, but all the way over on their side. (See the tax compromise of December 2010 and the debt ceiling compromise of August 2011, for example.) Even if a few signatories break free, it will still have much the same effect.

Maybe Nate Silver Was Wrong

By James Kwak

I think Nate Silver does a good job aggregating polls to make meaningful quantitative predictions about upcoming elections. But as he said himself shortly before the election, if the polls he relies on are systematically biased, then his forecasts are going to be off.* Many people have noted that Silver (and other quantitative poll aggregators like Sam Wang) correctly predicted an Obama victory and the outcomes in most if not all states.

But the fact remains that Obama did modestly better than the polls, and hence the poll aggregators, expected (not to mention than the Romney campaign expected). We shouldn’t read too much into this, as even where Obama significantly overperformed—like in Iowa, where Silver forecast a 3.2 percentage point victory and the actual came in at 5.7 points—the results were within the confidence intervals. But it’s also possible that the polls really were systematically biased, only they were biased against Obama—not against Romney, as conservative pundits were claiming in the last days.

Continue reading

Some Things Don’t Change

By James Kwak

Which of these things doesn’t belong? John Boehner: “The year 2013 should be the year we begin to solve our country’s debt problem through entitlement reform and a new tax code with fewer loopholes and lower rates.”

Can you imagine Bill Belichick (or any other football coach) saying, “This should be the year we win more games by giving up fewer yards on defense and improving our offense by reducing turnovers and gaining fewer yards per play”?

As long as Republicans persist in claiming to believe that lower tax rates will reduce deficits, nothing in Washington will change. Given their ability to deny both climate change and evolution, denying simple budgetary arithmetic is trivially easy.

And a Few Thoughts About the Election

By James Kwak

Just about everything has been said already, but:

  • There was a lot of talk, and rightly so, about Barack Obama’s overwhelming victory among Latinos. There was little talk about Obama’s even more overwhelming victory among Asian-Americans, who are the fastest-growing demographic group in the country. For decades people have said that Asian-Americans are a natural Republican constituency. But they said that about Latinos, too.
  • In the broad sweep of history, it will be hard to see 2012 as a turning point, given its endorsement of the status quo. With one exception: it was the night that gay rights broke through. Besides Tammy Baldwin, besides victory in all four states (Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Washington), there was the roar of applause when Barack Obama said “gay or straight,” and even the Republican commentators talking about how their party had to get on the right side of the issue.
  • Last night, when the outcome was clear, David Brooks said that if Obama reached across the aisle, he could gain the support of 15 to 20 Republican senators—proving that he can smoothly transition from being unable to interpret polls to being unable to interpret election results.
  • Amid all the gratifying things about election night (with Elizabeth Warren at the top of the list), here are  few more: “Joe” the “Plumber” losing, the replacement of Joe Lieberman, Karl Rove and Donald Trump displaying their craziness.
  • And, of course, the final word must go to xkcd. Go math!

 

The Economist on Romney’s Fiscal Policy

By James Kwak

It should be no surprise that I am voting for Barack Obama on Tuesday, despite all his flaws and failures of the past four years. There are just too many dimensions on which he is clearly preferable to Mitt Romney. One of the more important ones, on which I spent most of last year (writing White House Burning), is fiscal policy. And here, since anything I write will be dismissed by many readers as liberal propaganda, is The Economist on the topic:

“Yet far from being the voice of fiscal prudence, Mr Romney wants to start with huge tax cuts (which will disproportionately favour the wealthy), while dramatically increasing defence spending. Together those measures would add $7 trillion to the ten-year deficit. He would balance the books through eliminating loopholes (a good idea, but he will not specify which ones) and through savage cuts to programmes that help America’s poor (a bad idea, which will increase inequality still further). At least Mr Obama, although he distanced himself from Bowles-Simpson, has made it clear that any long-term solution has to involve both entitlement reform and tax rises. Mr Romney is still in the cloud-cuckoo-land of thinking you can do it entirely through spending cuts: the Republican even rejected a ratio of ten parts spending cuts to one part tax rises.”

That’s just about the same summary I would have written.

Why Do People Think the Race Is a Tossup?

By James Kwak

There’s been a minor controversy in the blogosphere not about whether Obama or Romney should be president, and not about whether Obama or Romney is ahead in the polls, but about the esoteric question of whether one should interpret the polls to mean that Obama is the favorite or that the race is a “tossup.” This debate has largely swirled around Nate Silver, who aggregates polling data, recalculates confidence intervals, and incorporates other factors (drawn from analysis of previous elections), and for the past few weeks has rated Obama as having about a 60–80% chance of winning the election. In response, various members of the pundit class have argued that the national polls show a tied race, polls can’t predict the future, or even that since both sides (supposedly) think each has a 50.1 percent chance of winning, their chances must be equal. (See Felix Salmon for a summary.)

Silver has responded to all of the coherent objections that might be made to his forecast, in detail. But what’s at work here isn’t a reasoned debate about how to interpret polls. It’s sheer innumeracy, pure and simple. The statement that Obama has about a 75–80 percent chance of winning is roughly equivalent to the statement—which no one contests—that his average lead in Ohio is about 2–3 points, once you take the confidence interval into account. As Silver has said, it’s analogous to the statement that a team that’s ahead by a field goal deep in the fourth quarter has a better chance of winning than the team that’s behind; no one would call that game a “tossup,” even though either team could win. Even if you can’t predict the next turnover or breakaway running play, that wouldn’t lead you to believe the three-point lead is irrelevant.

It’s the same thing we saw in Moneyball—people who can’t understand numbers claiming that numbers have no practical value. Unfortunately, in political journalism the sample size is so small and the monetary stakes are so low that the incoherent innumerates will never be drummed out of the marketplace.

Revolving Doors Matter

By James Kwak

It is common fare for people like me to point disapprovingly to the revolving door between business and government, which ensures that every Treasury Department is well stocked with representatives of Goldman Sachs. In 13 Bankers, the revolving door was one of the three major channels through which the financial sector influenced government policy, alongside campaign contributions and the ideology of finance. The counterargument comes in various forms: people like Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson are dedicated civil servants who wouldn’t favor their firms or their industries, the government needs people with appropriate industry experience, etc.

It is certainly possible that industry experts provide valuable skills and experience to the government. But that value comes with a cost; put another way, it’s not just the public good that benefits. Using data on Defense Department appointments, Simon Luechinger and Christoph Moser (paper; Vox summary) measured the impact of political appointments on the stock market valuation of appointees’ former firms; they also measured the impact on firms’ stock market valuations of hiring a former government official. In both cases, the stock market reacted positively to new turns of the revolving door. Here’s the chart for political appointments:

Continue reading

Bobbing and Weaving

By James Kwak

Mitt Romney’s latest attempt to make his tax plan seem plausible (that is to say, not a pack of blatant lies) is the idea of capping deductions at some level, like $17,000 or $25,000. Of course, as we all know, it doesn’t add up; Dylan Matthews provides a quick summary. If you cap deductions and you cut rates by 20 percent, everyone’s taxes go down, and the very rich (but not the super-super-rich) benefit the most.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone, because this problem has already been solved in its general form: there’s no way his numbers add up, because you could eliminate all the tax breaks for the rich and still not pay for a 20 percent rate cut. I confess I have some attachment to this issue because I think I was one of the first people to point out the mathematical impossibility of the Romney tax plan (the day after he announced the 20 percent rate cut).

Unfortunately, of course, this is all about politics, and arithmetic coherence is not the bar Romney needs to clear. He just needs to get enough undecided voters (stop and think for a second about what it means to be undecided right now) to think that his tax plan isn’t a complete fraud and to think that all of us self-appointed defenders-of-math are just Obama hacks. And this latest cap on deductions is probably enough to clear that much lower bar.

43.4 = 30.9?

By James Kwak

Adam Davidson wrote his latest New York Times Magazine column about how Barack Obama and Mitt Romney largely agree on economic questions. This is a classic example of how to mislead through deceptively selective citation.

Here’s the core assertion:

For someone who lived in the first 150 years or so of this country, it might be hard to see what’s so different about the economic policies of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Romney seeks a 25 percent top corporate tax rate, and Obama is proposing 28 percent. Romney wants to eliminate capital-gains taxes for the typical investor and leave the rate at 15 percent for higher earners. Obama wants to increase it to 20 percent. They differ on how to tax the highest incomes. But for most Americans, the distinctions might be mistaken for a rounding error. Both men strongly support expanding free trade and maintaining close to the same level of Social Security and welfare benefits.

As anyone who follows fiscal policy knows, the corporate tax rate is a sideshow. It’s the individual income tax and payroll taxes that bring in the big dollars, and it’s the individual income tax that has the real impact (or not) on inequality.

Continue reading

Voters: Not So Stupid?

By James Kwak

In July, a New York Times article on Priorities USA Action mentioned a focus group in which participants refused to believe that any presidential candidate could be in favor of “ending Medicare as we know it” (replacing guaranteed coverage with vouchers that will pay for an unknown percentage of guaranteed coverage) and tax cuts for the rich. At the time, I called this no less than “the problem with American politics.” 

But perhaps the problem isn’t so bad. Here are some results from recent Times/Quinnipiac polls of swing states (click on the image for a bigger version):

 

Continue reading

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

By James Kwak

By now most of you probably know about the video of Mitt Romney at a fund-raiser for rich people dissing 47 percent of Americans, including seniors, one of his core constituencies. (Many seniors don’t pay income tax because they don’t have enough income, since Social Security is not taxed except for high-income households. For more on the “47 percent,” see here.)

Continue reading

No There There

By James Kwak

On the one hand, over in Romney headquarters, they can take heart from the fact that the economy continues to sputter, as evidenced by the latest jobs report. On the other hand, as the election draws near, people will only ask more questions about what President Romney would actually do. For months now, the campaign has whispered one thing to the base (e.g., “severely conservative”) while being purposefully vague to everyone else, hoping that independents will assume he is still the moderate who introduced universal health care to Massachusetts. Now that strategy is breaking down.

Exhibit A is yesterday’s comical back-and-forth-and-forth-and-back on the Affordable Care Act. But the more important Exhibit B is the Romney “tax plan”—you know, the one that cuts rates for everyone by 20 percent, yet does not reduce revenues, does not increase taxes on the middle class, and achieves this miracle by eliminating tax expenditures, but without touching the preferences for investment income or the mortgage interest tax deduction.

Continue reading

Small Government or Smallish-Sort-of-Mediumish-Nicer-Better Government

By James Kwak

The conventional wisdom about Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate is that it sets the stage for a debate about the role of government in society, between Romney and Ryan as champions of small government and Obama and Biden as supporters of big government. Indeed, that’s the thrust of the lead story in the Wall Street Journal this morning. And it’s pretty clear why Mitt Romney wants to have this debate.

First, the politics: The choice of Ryan should be slightly encouraging to Democrats for one reason—it confirms what the polls and Nate Silver have been saying for months: President Obama is winning, though not by much. One of Romney’s options was to simply run against the incumbent, pointing to the bad economy and making a bland case for himself as some kind of business guru. Apparently that wasn’t working, so he decided to double down on the Tea Party and the idea of radically reforming government—something that he’s been distinctly bad at throughout the election so far.

In the longer term, Democrats should be worried, because Romney and Ryan have the better debating position. Their position is simple and superficially compelling: Government is bad. (Cf. the DMV—it’s state, not federal, and the one in Massachusetts works very well, but whatever; BATF; EPA; IRS; whatever agency your audience happens to dislike. Compare to Apple as if all private sector businesses were like Apple.) Government infringes on individual liberty. Cut down the government and we will have (a) more liberty, (b) more economic growth, and (c) lower taxes.

Continue reading

When Did The Economist Become Comically Stupid?

By James Kwak

I recently got around to looking at my latest issue of The Economist.  Here’s the cover:

If you can’t make it out, that’s a huge Barack Obama, a small Mitt Romney, and the following caption: “Big government or small? America’s great debate.”

Now, how you could draw a contrast between two men who passed structurally identical health care plans—in which government regulation is used to incent people to buy insurance from private companies—baffled me. The caption, if anything, should have been “Small government or tiny?” So I peeked inside, where things get worse.

Continue reading

The One-Sided Deficit Debate

By James Kwak

Michael Hiltzik (hat tip Mark Thoma) wrote a column lamenting the domination of the government deficit debate by the wealthy. He clearly has a point. The fact that Simpson-Bowles—which uses its mandate of deficit reduction to call for . . . lower tax rates?—has become widely perceived as a centrist starting-point for discussion is clear evidence of how far to the right the inside-the-Beltway discourse has shifted, both over time and relative to the preferences of the population as a whole.

What’s more, the “consensus” of the self-styled “centrists” is what now makes the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 seem positively reasonable. With Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin both calling for tax rates below those established in 2001, George W. Bush now looks like a moderate; even many Democrats now endorse the Bush tax cuts for families making up to $250,000 per year, which is still a lot of money (for most people, at least).

Continue reading