Friday, August 31, 2012

Eric Cantor tries to explain Paul Ryan's position on Medicare

As a follow-up to Paul Ryan’s Convention speech in 3 words ... here's a clarifying item via Paul Krugman:
Eric Cantor explains Paul Ryan’s position on Medicare cuts:

Attacking Obama’s health care reform law, Ryan said its “biggest, coldest power play of all” targeted seniors for $716 billion in cuts. But Ryan’s own budget counted on those same savings, which in fact would be squeezed from reimbursement payments to hospitals and insurers. Asked about the inconsistency of Ryan attacking cuts his own plan embraced, Cantor begged off. “The assumption was that, um, the, the, ah, again — I probably can’t speak to that in an exact way so I better just not,” he said.

[....]
—Jeff Weintraub

Paul Ryan’s Convention speech in 3 words (Sally Kohn)

Partisan oratory at national conventions should not be subject to the same standards of accuracy and honesty as courtroom testimony or scientific publications.  A certain amount of exaggerated sloganeering, looseness with facts, and rhetorical hypocrisy are par for the course and perhaps even appropriate.  But these things are a matter of degree. The level of blatant and shameless dishonesty that pervaded the just-completed Republican National Convention in Tampa, ranging from distortion and misrepresentation and prevarication to outright lying, was pretty astonishing—but not surprising, since it was simply an extension of the relentless cynical dishonesty that has been a hallmark of the whole Romney presidential campaign and, over the past decade, of right-wing political discourse more generally.

(As I've noted in the past, one ought to emphasize that Republicans and right-wingers have no monopoly on dishonesty, hypocrisy, delusional groupthink, and cynical demagoguery.  But right now anyone who tries to claim or pretend that there is moral equivalence between the two major parties in this respect is not facing reality.)

A prime example was Congressman Paul Ryan's speech accepting the vice-presidential nomination. Even many people who regard Romney, fairly or unfairly, as pandering hypocrite without real convictions, whose statements can't be taken seriously because he's willing to say anything for political advantage, have accepted a picture of Paul Ryan as as a principled and serious truth-teller, whether or not one agrees with him.  (Take, for example, the right-of-center columnist Clive Crook. In a recent piece, while conceding that Ryan's budget proposals are largely "fantasy"—something that took him a while to recognize—Crook nevertheless reiterated an earlier judgment that Ryan's "Medicare plan is serious, brave and not to be dismissed."). Ryan's speech on Wednesday night should have been a reality check for some of these people.  As Paul Krugman correctly observed:
Paul Ryan’s speech Wednesday night may have accomplished one good thing: It finally may have dispelled the myth that he is a Serious, Honest Conservative. Indeed, Mr. Ryan’s brazen dishonesty left even his critics breathless.
Well, when illusions of this sort are so firmly embedded in the conventional wisdom of the punditry, it is often hard to dislodge them with mere evidence.  But Ryan's speech has  indeed been subjected to rapid and devastating fact-checking by a a number of critics and other analysts.  Paul Krugman's critique of the Romney/Ryan Medicare scam is worth reading in full, as well as more general take-downs by Jonathan Chait, James Fallows, Michael Tomasky, Jonathan Cohn, and others.

However, one of the most acute compact assessments of Ryan's speech came, surprisingly, from a writer for Fox News, Sally Kohn (Paul Ryan’s speech in 3 words). I recommend reading the whole thing (below), but here are some highlights. Kohn's three words are Dazzling (which strikes me as excessive, but I see what she means), Deceiving, and Distracting:
1. Dazzling

At least a quarter of Americans still don’t know who Paul Ryan is, and only about half who know and have an opinion of him view him favorably.

So, Ryan’s primary job tonight was to introduce himself and make himself seem likeable, and he did that well. [....] To anyone watching Ryan’s speech who hasn’t been paying much attention to the ins and outs and accusations of the campaign, I suspect Ryan came across as a smart, passionate and all-around nice guy — the sort of guy you can imagine having a friendly chat with while watching your kids play soccer together. [...] [w]ith his speech, Ryan humanized himself and presumably by extension, the top of the ticket.

2. Deceiving

On the other hand, to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to facts, Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech. On this measure, while it was  Romney who ran the Olympics, Ryan earned the gold.

[JW: I think this underestimates Romney's own prowess in the mendacity sweepstakes, but it's true that if you just compare their two Convention speeches, Ryan comes out ahead, since the parts of Romney's speech when he wasn't talking about his family life were mostly vacuous.]

[....] Fact: While Ryan tried to pin the downgrade of the United States’ credit rating on spending under President Obama, the credit rating was actually downgraded because Republicans threatened not to raise the debt ceiling. [....]

Fact: Though Paul Ryan accused President Obama of taking $716 billion out of Medicare, the fact is that that amount was savings in Medicare reimbursement rates (which, incidentally, save Medicare recipients out-of-pocket costs, too) and Ryan himself embraced these savings in his budget plan. [....]

3. Distracting

And then there’s what Ryan didn’t talk about.

Ryan didn’t mention his extremist stance on banning all abortions with no exception for rape or incest, a stance that is out of touch with 75% of American voters.

Ryan didn’t mention his previous plan to hand over Social Security to Wall Street.

Ryan didn’t mention his numerous votes to raise spending and balloon the deficit when George W. Bush was president.

Ryan didn’t mention how his budget would eviscerate programs that help the poor and raise taxes on 95% of Americans in order to cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires even further and increase — yes, increasethe deficit. [....]
And so on. And so on.  Kohn doesn't have room to mention all of Ryan's whoppers and misleading omissions, including the one about his role in the Simpson/Bowles deficit-reduction commission.

I think Krugman is right to suggest that, amidst all these distortions and omissions and untruths, the things that Ryan said and didn't say about Medicare add up to the central Big Lie of his speech. In this respect, it is startling that after Ryan had built up so much of his reputation as a serious policy-oriented politician by very publicly formulating an aggressive program to "reform" (i.e., dismantle) Medicare and then getting the House Republican majority to vote for it overwhelmingly ... in his Convention speech he abandoned and, in effect, repudiated his own position as if all that had never happened. This really was a breathtaking, almost Romneyesque, flip-flop.

Peter Suderman, one of the market-utopian enthusiasts at Reason magazine who really would like to see Medicare eviscerated and dismantled, nicely captured the extent to which Ryan's speech betrayed Ryan's own stated principles:
The GOP has now made its intentions clear: Defend Medicare at all costs, now and forever. And in doing so, it's weakened one of the party's most promising policy reformers.

Even though the party's latest platform acknowledges that Medicare is the largest single driver of the debt, and even as the party has inched toward making reform of the seniors health program a priority, it has also declared its intention to protect and defend the program at all costs. The GOP would have us believe that Medicare is both the biggest problem and the biggest success in American government, wrecking our public finances but also in need of saving from the current administration's cuts.

On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney has declared that it was wrong for Obama to cut Medicare, and promised never to cut the program himself. Now Rep. Paul Ryan, the chief GOP proponent of Medicare reform in Congress and Romney's running mate, has thoroughly bought into this argument. Ryan's GOP convention speech tonight went all in on the defense of Medicare. [....]

What we're seeing is the war between two Paul Ryans. He has always been a conservative policy reformer as well as a good party soldier. [JW: OK, I know that the kind of ultra-individualist market-utopian approach represented by Ryan is rather bizarrely called "conservative" in US politics nowadays, though in a broader historical perspective it should more accurately be seen as an extremist version of economic liberalism. In this respect, I think Newt Gingrich, of all people, got it right when he described the Ryan budget as an example of "right-wing social engineering".] But when the two have come into conflict, the party soldier has almost always won. [...] He made his name as an energetic Medicare reformer, someone who believed the program wasn't working, was too expensive, and needed to be changed. But tonight, in the most prominent speech of his career, he chose to defend the idea that the program was not only worth preserving but worth defending from any and all of the other party's cuts. [....]
Suderman would like to think that Ryan doesn't really believe any of the things he's saying about Medicare now. And I'm sure that Suderman is right about that--which is one reason why putting the future of Medicare and other important programs in the hands of the Republicans is such a dangerous prospect.

 => Meanwhile, will the Romney/Ryan ticket and the Republican Party get away with this scam? Maybe, maybe not. At one level, I suspect that both Suderman and Kohn would agree with this statement by Kohn:
Elections should be about competing based on your record in the past and your vision for the future, not competing to see who can get away with the most lies and distortions without voters noticing or bother to care. Both parties should hold themselves to that standard.
I agree with that, too. However, given the actual record of the past four years, one can see why Romney and the Republicans might conclude that shameless mendacity is more likely to be a winning strategy. With luck, the results of the November elections won't encourage them further.

 —Jeff Weintraub

==============================
FoxNews.com
August 30, 2012
Paul Ryan’s speech in 3 words
By

1. Dazzling

At least a quarter of Americans still don’t know who Paul Ryan is, and only about half who know and have an opinion of him view him favorably.

So, Ryan’s primary job tonight was to introduce himself and make himself seem likeable, and he did that well. The personal parts of the speech were very personally delivered, especially the touching parts where Ryan talked about his father and mother and their roles in his life. And at the end of the speech, when Ryan cheered the crowd to its feet, he showed an energy and enthusiasm that’s what voters want in leaders and what Republicans have been desperately lacking in this campaign.

To anyone watching Ryan’s speech who hasn’t been paying much attention to the ins and outs and accusations of the campaign, I suspect Ryan came across as a smart, passionate and all-around nice guy — the sort of guy you can imagine having a friendly chat with while watching your kids play soccer together. And for a lot of voters, what matters isn’t what candidates have done or what they promise to do —it’s personality. On this measure, Mitt Romney has been catastrophically struggling and with his speech, Ryan humanized himself and presumably by extension, the top of the ticket.

2. Deceiving

On the other hand, to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to facts, Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech. On this measure, while it was  Romney who ran the Olympics, Ryan earned the gold.

The good news is that the Romney-Ryan campaign has likely created dozens of new jobs among the legions of additional fact checkers that media outlets are rushing to hire to sift through the mountain of cow dung that flowed from Ryan’s mouth. Said fact checkers have already condemned certain arguments that Ryan still irresponsibly repeated.

Fact: While Ryan tried to pin the downgrade of the United States’ credit rating on spending under President Obama, the credit rating was actually downgraded because Republicans threatened not to raise the debt ceiling.

Fact: While Ryan blamed President Obama for the shut down of a GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, the plant was actually closed under President George W. Bush. Ryan actually asked for federal spending to save the plant, while Romney has criticized the auto industry bailout that President Obama ultimately enacted to prevent other plants from closing.

Fact: Though Ryan insisted that President Obama wants to give all the credit for private sector success to government, that isn't what the president said. Period.

Fact: Though Paul Ryan accused President Obama of taking $716 billion out of Medicare, the fact is that that amount was savings in Medicare reimbursement rates (which, incidentally, save Medicare recipients out-of-pocket costs, too) and Ryan himself embraced these savings in his budget plan.

Elections should be about competing based on your record in the past and your vision for the future, not competing to see who can get away with the most lies and distortions without voters noticing or bother to care. Both parties should hold themselves to that standard. Republicans should be ashamed that there was even one misrepresentation in Ryan’s speech but sadly, there were many.

3. Distracting

And then there’s what Ryan didn’t talk about.

Ryan didn’t mention his extremist stance on banning all abortions with no exception for rape or incest, a stance that is out of touch with 75% of American voters.

Ryan didn’t mention his previous plan to hand over Social Security to Wall Street.

Ryan didn’t mention his numerous votes to raise spending and balloon the deficit when George W. Bush was president.

Ryan didn’t mention how his budget would eviscerate programs that help the poor and raise taxes on 95% of Americans in order to cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires even further and increase — yes, increasethe deficit.

These aspects of Ryan’s resume and ideology are sticky to say the least. He would have been wise to tackle them head on and try and explain them away in his first real introduction to voters. But instead of Ryan airing his own dirty laundry, Democrats will get the chance.

At the end of his speech, Ryan quoted his dad, who used to say to him, “"Son. You have a choice: You can be part of the problem, or you can be part of the solution."

Ryan may have helped solve some of the likeability problems facing Romney, but ultimately by trying to deceive voters about basic facts and trying to distract voters from his own record, Ryan’s speech caused a much larger problem for himself and his running mate.

Sally Kohn is a Fox News contributor and writer.  You can find her online at http://sallykohn.com or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sallykohn.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Should we vote for the Party of Sodom? (Gershon Gorenberg)

Below is a recent piece by Gershom Gorenberg that my friend Sam Fleischacker, whose Jewish religious education is far superior to mine, describes as a "must read". I'm inclined to agree.

As we know from the Book of Genesis, G-d was so angry with the people of Sodom and Gomorrah that he destroyed both cities. Why?

According to the interpretations of this story by the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel and by later rabbinical commentaries, the crucial sins of Sodom and Gomorrah did not have to do with homosexuality and non-procreative sex. "In Judaism, Sodom stands for economic injustice, selfishness and refusal to redistribute wealth." Or, to put it another way, Sodom was "a polis run by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, where redistribution of wealth was regarded as immoral, where government had the responsibility to protect private property but not to insure the well-being of the people."

As it happens, I noticed this little polemic when Gorenberg posted it on July 23. And now that the Republicans are poised to nominate a candidate for Vice-President who has named Ayn Rand as his prime source of inspiration in political life (though more recently he's tried to pretend he didn't mean it), this discussion has become even more timely.

 –Jeff Weintraub

 ========================================
The Daily Beast (Open Zion)
Jul 23, 2012
Republicans and the 'Quality of Sodom'
By Gershom Gorenberg

Eavesdropping from afar on the debate about how American Jews will vote this year is a slightly surrealistic business. Not just the claim that Jews will vote Republican because of Israel. Anyone who has passed Polling 101 knows that few Jews choose their presidential candidate based on the Israel issue. [JW: Though matters would be different, and properly so, if they were presented with a candidate who was genuinely hostile to Israel or indifferent to its survival.] What's truly strange about the idea of Jews–especially Jews connected to Jewish religious tradition–voting Republican is that the GOP is rather obviously committed to the quality of Sodom.

Sorry. Let me clear up the confusion caused by the English language and its religious history. I am definitely not referring to sexual orientation. The idea that sodomy has to do with sex is one more piece of evidence that Judaism and Christianity are two religions separated by a common scripture. In Judaism, Sodom stands for economic injustice, selfishness and refusal to redistribute wealth.

In Tractate Avot of the Talmud, there's a discussion of attitudes toward ownership. In the view of some sages, to say "what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours"–keep your hands off please, don't ask me to pay for his troubles–is moral mediocrity. According to other sages, that's "the quality of Sodom." The latter view is more strongly rooted in biblical texts and rabbinic commentary. This week's haftarah, the furious prophetic riff that the sages chose as the annual prelude to commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem, is just one example: When Isaiah denounces the leaders of his country as the "captains of Sodom," he's talking about how they treat the powerless, personified by widows and orphans. Ezekiel, more pedagogically blunt, says that "the sin of your sister Sodom" was that the city-state "had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not support the poor and needy."

Both prophets were referring to cultural knowledge that they shared with their audiences: the original story of Sodom in Genesis. A couple of strangers show up in town. In the previous chapter they had arrived at the tent of Abraham, who hurried to put out the best meal he could provide. His wealth, he understood, was merely a trusteeship, something he'd been granted in order to share. In Sodom, the mob comes to get the strangers and the bleeding-heart liberal who tried to put a roof over their head. The threatened gang-rape is the means of aggression, not the point of it. Sodom is the original ungodly city, whose customs are the opposite of the justice that Abraham will teach his descendants.

Lest you think that Sodom was only stingy with outsiders, an ancient rabbinic tradition (preserved in Breshit Rabba) explains why the divine inquiry commission was sent to investigate the city in the first place: Sodom had a law against giving to the poor. This is meant as hyperbole; the point is that "what's mine is mine" was public policy in Sodom.

Sodom, in short, was a polis run by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, where redistribution of wealth was regarded as immoral, where government had the responsibility to protect private property but not to insure the well-being of the people. Upstanding Sodomites would not have accepted a decision by the city elders requiring them to put coins in the kitty to pay healers who might treat people besides themselves. They would have argued that "I'm responsible for myself and I'm not responsible for other people… I should get the fruits of my labor and I shouldn't have to divvy it up with other people." The city elders would not have asked people to pay for more teachers to educate other people's children, and certainly not to pay for food for those who couldn't afford it. Not to put too fine a point on it, but in Sodom there would have been no problem passing the Ryan budget plan.

Yes, I know I'm making an argument validated by a particular religion. I would advance secular arguments were I to join the general American debate of economics. But this page is supposed to be home to discussion of "the Jewish future" and right now I'm talking inside the family.

And yes, I know that Benjamin Netanyahu's economics are as selfish as those of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. But America is the last empire standing, the capital of the early 21st century. The ideas it chooses have an influence far beyond its shores, and have to matter to me.  Besides that, I have read the surrealistic reports that some Jews are considering voting for the party of Sodom. Sisters and brothers, please reconsider.

Mitt Romney's (uninformed) praise for Israel's thoroughly un-Republican health care system

There has been a lot of chatter about Mitt Romney's various gaffes and stumbles during his recent trip abroad. But one of those incidents is worth examining more carefully, because the subject involves serious policy implications for us here in the US. While Romney was in Israel, he praised the Israelis for running a high-quality health care system while spending a dramatically smaller proportion of their national income on health care than the US. Informed analysts seem to agree that this is an accurate assessment of what Israel has accomplished. But how has it done so? NOT by moving toward an unregulated market in health care, with minimal government involvement. Instead, Israeli health care is dominated by a single-payer non-profit system with universal coverage, an individual mandate, tight government regulation, and effective cost controls.

There may be some lessons there—though giving them due consideration would require both knee-jerk free-market fundamentalists and habitual Israel-bashers to look beyond some of their ideological prejudices.

A recent piece by Sarah Kliff (see below) would be a good place to start. I was going to offer some highlights, but the piece is clear and concise, so just read the whole thing.

It's worth paying especially close attention to the two graphs in this article. Their combined message, as Kliff sums it up, is that "Israel’s health care costs have hovered around 8 percent of its gross domestic product for over two decades, while other countries’ have seen theirs rise," but at the same time "Israel’s lower health care spending does not look to sacrifice the quality of care. It has made more improvements than the United States on numerous quality metrics, and the country continues to have a higher life expectancy."  Given that the US is a considerably richer country than Israel, and that Israel—like the US—is an ethnically diverse country which now has higher levels of income inequality than most European countries, those last points are worth noticing. I'm impressed.

Of course, one shouldn't get too carried away.  I don't think anyone claims that Israel's health care system is ideal, or close to it.  And like health care systems in all countries, the full picture is complex enough to resist easy summary. In Israel's case, those complications include the fact that not all medical services are covered by the core single-payer system, and most Israelis supplement it with some private health insurance.  But the basic point seems clear enough.  The central features of Israel's health care system that make it work well are precisely those that Mitt Romney's party (and, nowadays, Mitt Romney) would denounce as "socialized medicine" and a "government take-over of health care." So far, I haven't seen any serious arguments to the contrary.

—Jeff Weintraub

(P.S. For an enlightening discussion of another comparison case by a committed pro-market ideologue who is, nevertheless, also willing to take account of his own personal experiences, see Matt Welch admits that the French health care system is much better than ours. From what I have read, the funding for French health care seems to involve a basically single-payer system combined with a role for non-governmental insurance companies that are non-profit, tightly regulated, and subject to cost controls. Of course, there is a lot more to health care systems than their funding mechanisms.)

========================================
Ezra Klein's Wonkblog
July 30, 2012
Romney praises health care in Israel, where research says ‘strong government influence’ has driven down costs
By Sarah Kliff

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had some very kind things to say about the Israeli health care system at a fundraiser there Monday. He praised Israel for spending just 8 percent of its GDP on health care and still remaining a “pretty healthy nation:”
 When our health care costs are completely out of control. Do you realize what health care spending is as a percentage of the GDP in Israel? 8 percent. You spend 8 percent of GDP on health care. And you’re a pretty healthy nation. We spend 18 percent of our GDP on health care. 10 percentage points more. That gap, that 10 percent cost, let me compare that with the size of our military. Our military budget is 4 percent. Our gap with Israel is 10 points of GDP. We have to find ways, not just to provide health care to more people, but to find ways to finally manage our health care costs.
Romney’s point about Israel’s success in controlling health care costs is spot on: Its health care system has seen health care costs grow much slower than other industrialized nations.

How it has gotten there, however, may not be to the Republican candidate’s liking: Israel regulates its health care system aggressively, requiring all residents to carry insurance and capping revenue for various parts of the country’s health care system.

Israel created a national health care system in 1995, largely funded through payroll and general tax revenue. The government provides all citizens with health insurance: They get to pick from one of four competing, nonprofit plans. Those insurance plans have to accept all customers—including people with pre-existing conditions—and provide residents with a broad set of government-mandated benefits.

Health insurance does not, however, cover every medical service. Dental and vision care, for example, fall outside of the standard government set of benefits. The majority of Israelis—81 percent —purchase a supplemental health insurance plan to “use the private health care system for services that may not be available in through the public system,” according to a paper by Health Affairs.

Now, let’s get to the costs. As you can see in the chart below, Israel’s health care costs have hovered around 8 percent of its gross domestic product for over two decades, while other countries’ have seen theirs rise:



Israel’s lower health care spending does not look to sacrifice the quality of care. It has made more improvements than the United States on numerous quality metrics, and the country continues to have a higher life expectancy:


Source: New England Journal of Medicine

How’d they do it? Jack Zwanziger and Shuli Brammli-Greenberg took a crack at that question in a 2011 Health Affairs paper. The answer, they say, has a lot to do with "strong government influence":
The national government exerts direct operational control over a large proportion of total health care expenditures, through a range of mechanisms, including caps on hospital revenue and national contracts with salaried physicians. The Ministry of Finance has been able to persuade the national government to agree to relatively small increases in the health care budget because the system has performed well, with a very high level of public satisfaction.
The Israeli Ministry of Finance controls about 40 percent of Israel’s health care expenditures through those payments to the four insurance plans. The  ministry decides how much it will pay the health plans for each Israeli citizen they enroll, making adjustments for how old a person is and how high their health care costs are expected to be.

It’s then up to the health insurance plan to figure out how to provide coverage within that set budget. If they spend too much—have a patient who is constantly in the hospital, for example—they will find themselves in the red. It’s that set budget—a capitated budget, in health policy terms—that seems to be crucial to the Israeli health care system’s success in cost control.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why the US bill on Jewish refugees is a Good Thing

I haven't actually gotten around to blogging about this myself. But I did write a message about it to someone I will call X, which I then shared with some other people (while keeping my first corresponded anonymous).  Lyn Julius proposed posting it on her extremely valuable Point of No Return blog, an offer that I accepted with alacrity and appreciation.  So if you're interested, here's what I think about this:

Why the US bill on Jewish refugees is a Good Thing

—Jeff Weintraub

Saturday, August 11, 2012

By going with Paul Ryan for VP, Romney gambles on a Goldwater candidacy

Ryan Lizza's recent profile of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan in the New Yorker was subtitled "How Paul Ryan captured the G.O.P.". That assessment now looks prescient as well as perceptive. If you haven't been paying close attention to Paul Ryan's career and ideas, this would be a good time to catch up, and Lizza's profile would be one good place to start.

=> The neo-conservative writer David Frum, who has been dismayed by the increasing turn toward hard-right extremism and demagogic know-nothingism in Republican politics, has clung to Romney as representing the Last Chance for a viable and acceptable alternative to Obama—mostly on the basis of hoping that Romney doesn't really mean all the things he's been saying in 2011 and 2012, but has merely been pandering to the so-called Republican "base". In November 2011, discussing his "indecisive" feelings about the Republican primary field, Frum put it this way:
So that leaves us with the two governors, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. Romney has the better record as an administrator. I still think that his Massachusetts health-care plan showed creative leadership on an important problem — even if he himself now declines to defend his own accomplishment.

Romney has spoken well and firmly about the need to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program. He has a keen understanding of the debt and financial problems of the U.S. and Europe. [JW:  ????]

Yet it’s also true that Romney has reversed so many of his positions so abruptly that voting for him is like taking a random walk. We can be sure that a Romney White House will be well-run. But what will it do? That’s anybody’s guess.

Huntsman, by contrast, has bravely challenged the Republican party’s strident, uncompromising radical style. I also like Huntsman’s willingness to re-examine the Afghanistan commitment and to focus more on the economic challenge from China. On the other hand, Huntsman’s economic platform is pure Wall Street Journal editorial page: Big tax cuts for the highest-income earners, radical cuts in retirement benefits for people now under 55. The more supple Romney has carefully avoided any such radical commitment.

The Washington, D.C., primary is set for April 3. I’ll probably cast a vote that day for Huntsman, if only to show support for a brave and independent-minded candidate — and in hope that a strong Huntsman showing will be interpreted as a call for a more modern and inclusive Republican party.

If Mitt Romney emerges as the ultimate nominee, I’ll place my hope that the Romney who enters the Oval Office will be the innovative, solutions-oriented Romney 1.0 — and not the placate-every-GOP-interest-group Romney 3.0 we’ve seen on the 2011 campaign trail.
Any other nominee would gravely test my commitment to the political party I’ve supported since I entered the United States as a college student in the fall of 1978.
Well, Romney became the nominee.  But now Romney has chosen as his running mate the candidate par excellence of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Paul Ryan. In doing so he's made precisely the kind of "radical commitment" Frum congratulated him for avoiding, by tying himself irrevocably to the highly radical Ryan Budget—which not only seeks to dismantle Medicare (for everyone born after 1956) but has also been condemned as unjust and morally unacceptable by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, no less, because of its callous disregard for the poor and vulnerable. Barring some very unexpected developments, the radically free-market-fundamentalist and pro-plutocratic agenda embodied in the Ryan Budget, with combines unreconstructed pre-Keynesian economic ideology with a comprehensive assault on the public household and on the remaining legacies of the New Deal, will almost certainly be a central focus of the partisan battle between now and the November election.

=> Frum's reaction gets to the heart of the matter, I think:
Mitt Romney is a famously cautious man, very alert to downside risks. Yet by selecting Paul Ryan as his running mate (assuming the late-night reports are indeed correct) Romney has taken an awesome ideological gamble. This election—which Romney once intended to make a referendum on Obama's record—will now become a referendum on Paul Ryan's bold budget ideas.
That's almost certainly right.
Why would Romney make such a choice and take such a risk?
Why indeed? Frum runs through and considers several possibilities, which basically fall into two categories: either Romney himself "has been genuinely radicalized since 2008", or he has succumbed to pressures from the Republican right, including the demands of his donors and the desires of the so-called Republican "base". (Or maybe both.)
When I air skepticism about this pick, I get push-back from overjoyed conservatives. On Ryan's behalf, it must be said: he's intelligent, serious-minded, and refreshingly sincere. In character, Paul Ryan is everything one would want in a national political leader.
I feel compelled to register my disagreement on that point. As far as I'm concerned, Ryan is a narrowly dogmatic, dangerously simplistic, and wildly misguided ideologue (a good example of what the 19th-century conservative historian Jacob Burckhardt described as "terrible simplifiers" in politics). He is no doubt less disgusting as a person than Newt Gingrich, and he's not a clown like Herman Cain, a sincere theocratic bigot like Rick Santorum, or a neo-McCarthyite loon like Michele Bachmann (to mention just some of the contenders for this year's Republican presidential nomination). But those are easy bars to clear. Overall, in my (possibly fallible) opinion, Ryan epitomizes a whole range of beliefs, inclinations, and character traits that one should not want to see in a national political leader.

But be that as it may ... this assessment strikes me as on-target.
Yet it's also true that Ryan has been pushed forward by people who do not much like or respect Mitt Romney, precisely with a view to constraining and controlling a Romney presidency. By acceding to that pressure—for whichever of the five reasons above, or for some sixth or seventh reason—Romney has transformed a campaign about jobs and growth into a campaign about entitlements and Medicare. Romney will now have to spend the next months explaining how and why shrinking Medicare after 2023 will create prosperity in 2013. Economic conditions are so tough—the Obama reelection proposition is so weak—that Romney may win anyway. But wow, the job just got harder.
I certainly hope so. My own guess is that running on this platform will turn out to be a loser for the Republicans in November—once again, barring unpredictable developments that could range from Democratic incompetence to the side-effects of a deepening European economic crisis. In a more reasonable world, one could even imagine this gamble leading to another Goldwater-style landslide defeat, though in the actual world I'm not expecting that (and we have to remember that the movement behind Goldwater eventually captured the GOP and then the country).  But if the Republicans run on this platform and win, the consequences will be disastrous for all of us. At least we're getting what one Goldwater campaign slogan promised in 1964: "A choice, not an echo." Stay tuned.

—Jeff Weintraub

White folks explain why they blame Obama

Satire! Parody!


Unintentional self-parody:

       

Ditto, combined with plutocratic whining:



—Jeff Weintraub

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Republican Congressman Steve King takes things to their logical conclusion

This seems to be a real news report, not a parody:
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an outspoken critic of just about everything President Obama supports, is considering introducing a bill that would repeal everything Obama has signed into law.

King put forward this suggestion to an Iowa audience on Tuesday, when he also reiterated his threat to sue the Obama administration for its June decision not to deport younger illegal immigrants. [...]
Yes, all political parties have some loudmouth buffoons and extremist demagogues.  But even though King is a well-known whacko, he's not exactly a fringe whacko.  This bill he's semi-proposing is not really that far from the perspective that actually motivates a decisive chunk of the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives (and a fair number of Senate Republicans, of the sort epitomized most flamboyantly by Jim DeMint of South Carolina).  It's just that King wants to stop going through the motions of normal legislative processes and simply cut to the chase.  If the Republicans manage to get control of all three branches of the US government in November, which is well within the bounds of possibility, this is pretty much what they're committed to doing, though in a more piecemeal fashion.

—Jeff Weintraub

Subcultures in America – The alternative reality of Fox Nation (David Frum)

An enlightening sociological observation from the conservative writer David Frum, a former neo-conservative Republican star and Bush administration staffer (the notorious "Axis of Evil" speech was mostly his brainchild) who is now trying to serve as the Voice of Reason on the right.  I'm not on the e-mail lists he's talking about here, but I do occasionally get the kinds of chain messages he's describing, and his overall analysis sounds right to me.

(Of course, right-wing social circles are not the only ones that generate subcultures pervaded by absurd urban legends, fantasied grievances, and mass delusions facilitated by the internet.)

—Jeff Weintraub

=================================
Daily Beast
August 8, 2012
The Fox News Wink: Is Obama "Gay"? or "Gay Gay"?
By

On Fox News' "The Five," moderator Greg Gutfeld offered up this comment in a jokey yuck-yuck tone:

"Obama is now out of the closet … he's officially gay for class warfare."

Speaking of opening the closet, Gutfeld's comment exposes something important that many observers miss about this campaign and the way Fox News covers it:

It's very important to understand that for Fox viewers, Fox is only the most visible part of a vast alternative reality. Fox's coverage of the news cannot be properly understood in isolation, but only in conjunction with the rest of that system—and especially the chain emails that do so much to shape the worldview of Fox viewers.

You cannot "get" Gutfeld's joke unless you "get" that a large part of his audience ardently believes that Obama is in fact gay, that his marriage is a sham, and that Mrs. Obama leads a life of Marie Antoinette like extravagance to compensate her for her husband's neglect while he disports himself with his personal aides.

Don't believe me? Just as an indicator, try this:

Google: obama + gay + "reggie love"

That search pulls up more than 80,000 hits.

Here's a quote from the first:
It’s quite clear that in the years ahead Barack Obama will replace Elton John as the reigning, party queen, gay icon. After he leaves the White House and exiles himself in Hawaii come 2013, supposedly to focus on building his presidential library in Honolulu (but, I think, in no small part to scope out the hotties in their board shorts), I bet Barack Obama will nurse his wounds and discover his inner fabulous.

With no political career left to worry about, he can openly be himself. Draped in colorful muumuus, with a retinue of hunky shirtless Secret Service studs around him, Barack Obama will find himself in a new kind of paradise no doubt.

Go ahead and laugh at the idea now, if you want. I remember hearing how some women scoffed at the idea that Elton John was gay back in the day too. “But he’s married!”, “He has a wife!”, “I can’t believe he’s gay!”. Well, believe it, sisters.

The current President of the United States is as gay, or even more gay, as Elton John. It might take ten years or so for him to finally come out and hold court on the circuit party scene, or this might be a case like with Rock Hudson and Liberace where the truth only comes out once Barack Obama has passed on far into the future…but there’s just no reason for guys like Kal Penn and Reggie Love to play the strange roles that they have played in Barack Obama’s life unless they were his boyfriends.
But Google can only very partially retrieve information that mostly moves in other ways. You can hear the impress of this "under news" in the calls to radio talk shows and in the comment sections of right-wing blogs. Listeners and commenters often share a set of references and a perception of reality only vaguely hinted at—understood by initiates, but opaque to the rest of the world.

Thus when Fox reports on (false) claims that President Obama seeks to limit military voting, they report to an audience that has for years absorbed a fictitious narrative about systematic presidential disrespect for the military.

Eg, like this:
Dear ,

Today I was incensed at the conclusion of a traditional Serbian-Orthodox funeral for my beloved 85-year-old uncle, Daniel Martich, who proudly served in the US Army during the Korean conflict. During the committal service at a Pittsburgh cemetery the local military detachment performed their ritual, then folded and presented the American Flag to my aunt.

As I'm sure you have witnessed during military funerals, a soldier bends to one knee and recites a scripted message to a surviving relative that begins 'On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation, I wish to present you with this flag in appreciation for your husband's service ...'

After the service, I approached the soldier who presented the flag to my aunt to inquire about the change in language. His response was: "The White House notified all military funeral service detachments to immediately remove 'the President' and insert 'the Secretary of Defense'.

I couldn't believe what I heard! The soldier just smiled and said, "You can draw your own conclusion, Sir, but that was the order".

He, too, was ashamed of what he was required to say.

Obama has taken off the gloves. My only response to this endless cesspool of anti-American rhetoric dripping from his mouth is to borrow a phrase "with one minor change" uttered by another temporary Washington resident living in government housing (his wife!): "Today for the first time in my adult life, I am ashamed of the current U.S. President!"
Etc.

You'll not hear something quite so bizarre as that on television. But Fox News is edited and reported for an audience much of which believes such stories to be true, and edited and reported by producers and on-screen talent highly attuned to those beliefs.

David Frum is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast and a CNN contributor.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

A quick follow-up on the alleged Romney economic plan (Ezra Klein)

A P.S. to my post from earlier today: Romney's economic advisers try to pretend that there is a credible "Romney Program for Economic Recovery, Growth, and Jobs" ... and Brad DeLong patiently explains why their arguments range from unconvincing to misleading to inaccurate to flatly dishonest.

Ezra Klein read the statement issued by Romney's economic advisers, noted the economic research they cited in support of their arguments, and contacted some of the economists who did those cited studies. Here's what he found:
On Tuesday, the Romney campaign responded to the fire it’s taking from economic analysts by unleashing some artillery of their own. They released a paper by four decorated economists associated with the campaign — Glenn Hubbard, Greg Mankiw, John Taylor, and Kevin Hassett — that tried to lend some empirical backing to “The Romney Program for Economic Recovery, Growth, and Jobs.”

Hubbard, Mankiw, Taylor and Hassett make three main points: The first is that this recovery has been terribly slow, even by the standards of post-financial crisis recoveries. The second is that the Obama administration made a grievous error by relying on stimulus. And the third is that Romney’s tax and economic plans would usher in an era of rapid growth that would both be good for the country and provide the boost to revenues and employment necessary to make their numbers work out.

Each of these sections include supporting documents from independent economists. And so I contacted some of the named economists to ask what they thought of the Romney campaign’s interpretation of their research. In every case, they responded with a polite version of Marshall McLuhan’s famous riposte [from "Annie Hall]. The Romney campaign, they said, knows little of their work. Or of their policy proposals. [...]
And that's just for starters.  They also said that in so far as Romney & his team have actually proposed substantive policies to address the problems they think are important, those proposals are at best incoherent and/or unconvincing.

Rather than reproducing the main substance of Ezra Klein's piece, let me advise you to read it here.  It's hard to disagree with his conclusion::
So even the studies that the Romney campaign’s economists handpicked to bolster their case don’t prove what the Romney campaign says they prove. And some of the key policy recommendations that flow from those studies are anathema to the Romney campaign. And in perhaps the key policy area highlighted by these studies, the Romney campaign doesn’t have a formal policy. If this is the best they can do in support of their economic plan, well, it’s not likely to quiet the critics.
It's also worth reflecting that three of the four the authors of this pro-Romney manifesto are high-profile economists at prestigious universities.  (The fourth, Hassett, is high-profile only in the sense that in 1999 he co-authored the notoriously laughable book Dow 36,000: The New Strategy for Profiting from the Coming Rise in the Stock Market.)  If even they can't do better than that, one has to wonder whether there's really any plan there that can be seriously defended.

—Jeff Weintraub

Romney's economic advisers try to pretend that there is a credible "Romney Program for Economic Recovery, Growth, and Jobs" ...

... and Brad DeLong patiently explains why their arguments range from unconvincing to misleading to inaccurate to flatly dishonest. See below.

What follows may strike some readers as off-puttingly long, detailed, and technical. But I know that even some otherwise intelligent and well-informed people continue to cling to the illusion that Romney and his campaign are offering honest, serious, and credible arguments about economic policy. So if you're one of those people (or you know any of them), you owe it to yourself to work through the details here and consider them carefully.

Bear in mind that this paper by Kevin Hassett (American Enterprise Institute), Glenn Hubbard (Columbia), Gregory Mankiw (Harvard), and John Taylor (Stanford), "The Romney Program for Economic Recovery, Growth, and Jobs", is intended as a serious intervention in public policy debates, not a TV campaign ad (where appropriate standards for precision and plausibility might be a bit looser). Actually, I think that on some points Brad DeLong is a bit too mild (I mention one of them below). But overall, his demolition job is careful, devastating, and enlightening—in my (possibly fallible) opinion.

Some Romney supporters console themselves with the thought that nothing Romney says (or fails to say) now needs to be taken seriously, because it's just empty campaign rhetoric.  I think the extent to which Romney's well-established reputation as a persistent liar and total hypocrite is one of his political assets has often been underestimated.  But that seems like a poor basis on which to choose a President—and, at all events, we shouldn't pretend that Romney has a serious, honest, coherent, and credible position on a subject when he doesn't.
Some economists--Miles Kimball comes to mind--think that the ultimate Romney plan will turn out to be something sensible, but that Romney cannot say what it is because doing so would disrupt the con Romney is currently running on the Republican base. Miles may be right. I fear he is overoptimistic.
Furthermore, one standard right-wing talking-point, repeated in this manifesto, is that the continuing weakness of the recovery from the current recession, which began with the economic crash of 2007-2009, is due to "uncertainty about tax and regulatory policy." Well, as Brad correctly concludes:
[Vowing to repeal] Dodd-Frank—with not a hint as to what will replace it—does not decrease but increases regulatory uncertainty. [Vowing to repeal] ObamaCare—also with not a hint as to what will replace it—does not decrease but increases regulatory uncertainty, especially as up through the middle of 2009 what we now call ObamaCare was then called RomneyCare, and its biggest booster was Mitt Romney. How can uncertainty fail to be generated by would-be President Romney’s declaration that he opposes RomneyCare and seeks to replace it with something else that he will not reveal?

Similarly, Romney has not even the outlines of a plan for how to reduce federal spending to 20% of GDP, or how he could possibly broaden the tax base to keep his tax cuts for the rich revenue-neutral.

If you do indeed fear uncertainty about tax and regulatory policy, you need to vote against Romney as you would vote against the plague—and urge everybody you know to vote against Romney, and urge them in the strongest possible terms.
Amen.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  For a quick follow-up, see here.

========================================
Brad DeLong's blog (Grasping Reality with Both Invisible Hands)
August 7, 2012 at 08:17 a.m.
Things Wrong with Hassett, Hubbard, Mankiw, and Taylor, "The Romney Program for Economic Recovery, Growth, and Jobs"

Notes on HHMT: Kevin Hassett, Glenn Hubbard, Gregory Mankiw, and John Taylor, "The Romney Program for Economic Recovery, Growth, and Jobs"


HHMT: We are presently in the most anemic economic recovery in the memory of most Americans, with significant joblessness and long-term unemployment, as well as lost income and savings.

WRONG: We are in the worst downturn, but we are not in the “most anemic” recovery--the recovery of 2001-2004 was more anemic. HHMT should know: three of them held high federal office in the George W. Bush administration that managed that recovery,and back then all four attempted (unconvincingly, IMHO) to rebut claims from people (like me) that the early 2000s recovery was anemic and that more stimulative policies were then needed.

Why don’t HHMT make the true claim that we are in the worst downturn? Why do they make the wrong claim that we are in the most anemic recovery? Because they do not want to talk about how back when they were in office they played their role in failing to use their leverage to argue for more expansionary fiscal and monetary policies to speed the then-recovery.

Why weren’t HHMT arguing, back in 2001-4, either inside or outside the government, for more expansionary fiscal and monetary policies to speed the then-recovery? I don’t know.

Those of us who were so arguing would have found their help most welcome.

HHMT: The Obama administration says that the economy’s awful performance reflects the reality of the aftermath of a financial crisis and that the administration’s policies generated what little recovery we have seen from the severe 2007-2009 recession – Americans should stay the course. But the historical record is clear: Our economy usually recovers quickly from recessions, and the more severe the recession, the faster the subsequent catch-up growth...

DOES NOT FOLLOW: The argument that recovery is highly likely to be slow in the aftermath of a financial crisis is a powerful one—made by many who are not Obama administrationflunkies, including the well-respected Reinhart and Rogoff (2010) and the IMF (2011). The “But” sentence does not rebut this powerful argument—although HHMT mean for their readers to think that it does.

HHMT: The Romney economic program will change the direction of policy to focus on economic growth. Its pro-growth effects will work in two basic ways: It will speed up the recovery in the short run, and it will create stronger sustainable growth in the long run.

WRONG: There is no Romney program—a program is complete, coherent, and scoreable, Romney has repeatedly said that his statements are not scoreable. In order to estimate the economic effect of any program, you have to know what its pieces will do--you need to have it scored. Until Romney presents a complete and coherent program with scoreable pieces, HHMT have no basis for asserting anything about its economic impact.

One of the most annoying things here is the partisan asymmetry: the rules of the game seem to be that Democratic proposals have to be scoreable and coherent, while Republican proposals don't.
It would have been very nice if HHMT had done what we Democratic economists do--told their political masters that they could not estimate economic impacts until they were given a coherent, complete, and scoreable plan.

Why they did not do this I do not claim to know.

HHMT: Declines in business investment and employment were particularly sharp in this recession. Far from being a lightning bolt hitting a smoothly running economy, the crisis was exacerbated by structural biases against business investment (from the tax code and regulation), financial imbalances (particularly fueled by biases against private saving and by the need to borrow abroad to finance our government deficits), and regulatory choices (excessive promotion of housing investment and inadequate attention to existing financial regulations and the rise of and consequences of shadow banking). No single party or administration is responsible for structural headwinds to growth, but the Obama administration’s errors and choices exacerbated the economy’s structural problems and weakened the recovery.
FRED Graph  St Louis Fed 1

DOES NOT FOLLOW: The argument that America has over the last two decades suffered from structural biases against business investment in categories like equipment and software simply does not follow at all. Business investment grew at a very healthy pace during the Clinton administration—and has grown twice as fast under Obama as it did in the years of what National Review used to call the “Bush Boom”.

The pieces of autonomous spending that are right now far-below the values seen before the crisis and the downturn are (i) primarily residential construction, and (ii) secondarily government purchases--these are the results of a broken housing finance system and of Republican austerity programs, not of an anti-business climate.

The pieces of autonomous spending that are responsive to the business climate--the willingness of businesses to purchase equipment and the confidence of businesses that make them willing to export--are doing just fine right now. If residential construction and government purchases were doing as well, we would be out of this current mess.

Thus the point about “excessive promotion of housing investment and inadequate attention to existing financial regulations and the rise of and consequences of shadow banking” is well-taken—it is the collapse of housing investment and its failure to recover that is at the core of our still-deep downturn. HHMT should have done something about those policies when they were in office—or at least they should have tried hard enough to do something about them that the rest of us could see that they were in a fight.

We don’t see any signs of that.

HHMT: Rather than focusing on the structural problems revealed by the financial crisis and the ensuing recession, the Obama administration focused on short-term fiscal ‘stimulus.’

FALSE: I am sorry, but here I just have to escalate from "WRONG" to "FALSE", because this is not just wrong, this is false--and knowingly false.

Obama administration attempts to focus on the structural problems revealed by the financial crisis were hobbled by Republican obstruction to the reform effort that eventually yielded Dodd-Frank.

HHMT were conspicuous by their absence in the lobbying for reforms to deal with the defects of existing financial regulations and with the rise of and consequences of shadow banking.
Why they were conspicuous by their absence I do not claim to know.

HHMT: To put the economy back on track, they borrowed deliberately and spent recklessly, ignoring weaknesses in housing, business investment, and employment. These short-term stimulus packages were ineffective, leaving the nation with higher debt, which acts as a drag on long-term growth because households and businesses understand that the administration must raise taxes significantly to pay off that debt.

WRONG: In the model of Mankiw and Weinzerl (2011), at least, households and businesses that understand that government debt must be paid off or monetized respond by increasing their spending because of lower real interest rates. What HHMT call “reckless spending” is from the MW point of view a useful adjunct to and perhaps a necessary part of optimal quantitative easing monetary policies.

HHMT: The negative effect of the administration’s ‘stimulus’ policies has been documented in a number of empirical studies. Research by Atif Mian of the University of California, Berkeley, and Amir Sufi of the University of Chicago showed that the cash-for-clunkers program merely moved new car purchases ahead a few months with no lasting effect.

DOES NOT FOLLOW: Such policies are supposed to shift demand forward in time into periods where the crisis is acute from future periods in which, it is hoped, demand is less slack. When Mian and Sufi present their work, they characterize it not as showing the failure but rather the success of programs like CFC.

HHMT: In short, the Obama administration chose to emphasize short-term fixes – ineffective stimulus,cash for clunkers, myriad housing programs that went nowhere, and a rush to invest in 'green' companies irrespective of cost – rather than restoring long-term growth and productive private-sector job creation.

FALSE: The Obama administration from December 2009 on focused on the long run—on rebalancing the long-run financing of America’s social insurance state. Their attempts to strike a bipartisan deal to match future spending with future taxes were blocked by obstructionist Republicans, who believed that Obama must on no account be allowed to accomplish anything.
It was my view—and the view of others—that this pivot to the long-term structural was a mistake and was premature.

But for HHMT to claim that Obama did not so pivot is false, and knowingly false.

HHMT: As a consequence of short-termism, uncertainty over policy – particularly over tax and regulatory policy – limited both the recovery and job creation. One recent study by Scott Baker and Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University and Steven Davis of the University of Chicago found that this uncertainty reduced GDP by 1.4 percent in 2011 alone, and that restoring pre-crisis levels of uncertainty would add 2.3 million jobs in 18 months.

LIE: I am sorry, but I have to escalate from "FALSE" to "LIE". The phrase "particularly over tax and regulatory policy" makes this a lie.

As Simon van Norden writes:
To understand the integrity of [the HHMT] argument, consider his claim that ‘uncertainty over policy--particularly over tax and regulatory policy--slowed the recovery and limited job creation. One recent study by Scott Baker and Nicholas Bloom of Stanford University and Steven Davis of the University of Chicago found that this uncertainty reduced GDP by 1.4% in 2011 alone.’ Note the phrase ‘this uncertainty’: he's talking about uncertainty ‘particularly over tax and regulatory policy’. Now read the analysis by Baker, Bloom and Davis http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2000734. From their abstract: ‘The index spikes around presidential elections and major events such as the Gulf wars and the 9/11 attack. Index values are high in recent years and show clear jumps associated with the Lehman bankruptcy, the 2010 midterm elections, the Euro crisis and the U.S. debt-ceiling dispute.’ Uncertainty over regulatory policy? No mention. Uncertainty over tax policy? No mention. What Hubbard seems to be doing is interpreting the uncertainty created by elections (and the debt-ceiling showdown) as uncertainty about regulatory and tax policy (as opposed to, say, government spending.)

HHMT: In addition to these policy errors, the Obama administration has made choices to bypass reforms that would jumpstart long-term growth and job creation. Such reforms would address our anti-competitive tax code and unsustainable trajectory of federal debt – but the president ignored his own deficit commission and submitted no plan for entitlement reform.

FALSE: The Affordable Care Act—ObamaCare—is by itself a major, major entitlement reform, scored by CBO in its current-law fiscal scenario as removing 2/3 of the long-run fiscal gap. Other Obama proposals—many other Obama administration proposals—have been rejected by Republicans in Congress for no reason other than their political decision to make sure Obama accomplishes as little as possible.

HHMT: The president’s choices cannot be ascribed to a political tug of war with Republicans in Congress. President Obama and Democratic congressional majorities had two years to tackle anypriority they chose.

LIE: I am sorry. I think we have to escalate from “FALSE” here.

There were at least seven Democratic senators in 2009-2010—Baucus, Landrieu, Lincoln, Bayh, Nelson, Pryor, Spector, Webb—who were “professionally bipartisan” in that they would not vote for cloture in any but the most extraordinary circumstances without Republicans voting by their side. Unless the Democrats could peel off a Collins, a Snowe, or a Voinovich, they had not a filibuster-proof working majority of 60 but rather a filibuster-vulnerable working majority of 53.
[JW: Brad's rebuttal here is correct as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough.

First, although some people have come to accept it as normal that getting any business through the Senate requires "a filibuster-proof working majority of 60," in reality this situation is unprecedented and pathological (as I'm sure Brad is well aware).  It has come into being because, since Obama's election, Senate Republicans have pursued a highly effective strategy of monolithic and indiscriminate obstructionism that involves threatening to filibuster any and all measures—not just laws and appropriations but executive-branch and judicial appointments, etc.—which forces endless delays and gums up the works even if some measures do manage to clear the hurdle of cloture and come to a vote.  This strategy of generalized legislative sabotage makes it harder to get anything done and helps to explain why Congress looks even more dysfunctional than usual.

Second, after Al Franken won election to the Senate in November 2008, the Republicans managed to tie up the result in the courts for 7 months, so Franken was not seated in the Senate until July 2009.  Thus, the only time that the Democrats had a reliable filibuster-proof majority in the Senate was for the next 7 months, running from July 2009 to February 2010. Contrary to persistent Republican sloganeering, 7 months does not = 2 years.]


HHMT: Governor Romney’s economic plan will completely change the direction of economic policy.... Measuring from the first quarter of 2013 through the fourth quarter of 2022, the average growth rate is expected to be approximately 4 percent per year with the upper long-term growth range,and about 3.5 percent with the lower long-term growth range. This compares favorably with the approximately 2 percent pace of the current recovery. Real GDP under the Romney plan will be between $5.5 and $6.5 trillion higher than today, and between $2.1 and $3.1 trillion higher in2022 than it would be under a continuation of current slow growth. The difference between these expected outcomes and the record and plans of the Obama administration is stark. That difference reflects both new economic ideas and policy choices.

DOES NOT FOLLOW: The CBO currently estimates potential real GDP at the end of 2022—what we would expect without policy changes to boost economic growth—to be $18.5 trillion real dollars. Current real GDP is $13.5 trillion. Applying HHMT’s lower-range growth numbers produces an end-of-2012 real GDP not $2.1 trillion higher than CBO projects but rather $0.6 trillion higher. $1.5 trillion of their claims thus arise not from faster growth of the economy’s productive potential but from an implicit—and unmotivated—assumption that under Romney policies aggregate demand in 2022 is equal to potential output, but under other policies it is not.

HHMT: Assessing growth effects from the change in economic policy under the Romney plan can be done by analyzing likely growth effects of individual elements of the plan.... A significant body of economic research concludes that fundamental tax reform could increase real GDP growth over the next decade by 0.5 to 1 percentage point per year. Kevin Hassett and Alan Auerbach surveyed the literature and found that tax reform could increase output by between 5 and 10 percent.

DOES NOT FOLLOW: Romney has not proposed and is not proposing the shift without long-lasting transition rules to a consumption tax needed in order to fit the definition of “fundamental tax reform”. The HA estimates do not apply to the Romney plan—whatever the Romney plan turns out to be.

Some economists--Miles Kimball comes to mind--think that the ultimate Romney plan will turn out to be something sensible, but that Romney cannot say what it is because doing so would disrupt the con Romney is currently running on the Republican base. Miles may be right. I fear he is overoptimistic.

HHMT: The epitome of the deviations from basic principles is the self-inflicted fiscal cliff where many important provisions of the tax code change at the end of 2012.

DOES NOT FOLLOW: HHMT were conspicuously absent in 2010 and 2011 from the ranks of those of us arguing that the economy was being harmed by the debt-ceiling debate, the debate that produced the “fiscal cliff” as the only outcome congressional Republicans could be induced to accept.

Those of us who were arguing then for consistent and coherent long-run fiscal policies would have found their help most welcome.

HHMT: Recent research by John Cogan and John Taylor of Stanford University and Volker Wieland and Maik Wolters of Goethe University estimates that the output effects of a fiscal consolidation, like the Romney plan, would gradually reduce federal spending relative to GDP. In a long-run model, the fiscal consolidation raises both investment and output (the latter by almost 2 percent). In an alternative model with short-run rigidities, the spending consolidation also raises output by about 2 percent. In both cases, output rises even in the short run, as households and businesses respond to lower expected future tax rates as a result of the fiscal consolidation.

FALSE: I have seen the CTWW team in action before, back in 2009, when they were arguing that the Recovery Act would do nothing because it would lead the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates.

False then. False now.

Back in 2009 they claimed that their model had produced very different results than the Romer-Bernstein model for “exactly the same economic policy change”. When I dug into it, it turned out that the CTWW claim was not correct: the policy change that Romer-Bernstein modeled was one in which the government increased government spending. and the Federal Reserve held short-term safe nominal interest rates constant. The CTWW policy change was one in which the government increased government spending and the Federal Reserve raised short-term safe interest rates in order to keep the inflation rate constant. Yet CTWW claimed that the Romer-Bernstein model must be wrong because it produced different estimates for “exactly the same” policy change.

In Europe, that gets you four red cards. In America, that gets you sent to the showers.
After that, I don’t count citations to CTWW as evidence of anything.

HHMT: Recent research by Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna of Harvard University argues that policies to increase economic growth are more effective if done with tax cuts than with spending increases. In their conclusion, they write about the Obama stimulus: “About two-thirds of this fiscal package is constituted by increases in spending, including public investment transfers, and government consumption. According to our results, fiscal stimuli based upon tax cuts are much more likely to be growth-enhancing than those on the spending side.”... Separate research by Andrew Mountford of the University of London and Harald Uhlig of Humboldt University concurs: “Our key finding is that the best fiscal policy to stimulate the economy is a deficit-financed tax cut and that long-term costs of fiscal expansion through government spending are probably greater than the short-term gains.” (See Andrew Mountford and Harald Uhlig, “What Are the Effects of Fiscal Policy Shocks?,” CEPR Discussion Paper, July 2005.)

DOES NOT FOLLOW: AA and MU both consider an economy far from the zero lower bound on nominal interest rates. Their conclusions do not apply to an economy at the ZLB.

HHMT: Recent research by Ellen McGratten and Nobel laureate Edward Prescott concludes that higher regulatory costs reduced both R&D and fixed investment during the financial crisis and its aftermath; and regulations continue to increase.

DOES NOT FOLLOW: Edward Prescott also believes that the American economy was crippled during the twentieth century by the policies of Roosevelt--Theodore Roosevelt, assisted by that interventionist statist Calvin Coolidge.

HHMT: Policy responses in the early 1980s aimed not just at overcoming the 1981-1982 recession, but at overcoming the structural problems of the 1970s. By reducing domestic discretionary spending, setting out a three-year program to reduce tax rates, and alleviating the regulatory burden, policymakers sought to make it profitable to invest in America again. These principles match those in the Romney plan. Governor Romney would reduce the size and cost of the federal government. He champions a reduction in marginal tax rates in the context of a general tax reform. Particularly powerful are his proposals to reduce marginal tax rates on business income earned by corporate and unincorporated businesses alike.

DOES NOT FOLLOW: As noted above, there is no business unwillingness to invest in America. Our problems are insufficient investment by government—the results of austerity programs—and insufficient investment in residential construction—the results of a broken and unfixed housing-finance system.

And the embarrassing reality underlying the Reagan years 1981-1989 is that the rate of growth of America’s productive potential, as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office, was no faster over 1981-1989 than it had been over 1973-1981. If Reagan administration policies were truly aimed at boosting American growth, they failed—in large part because of the drag placed on investment by the high real interest rates that businesses had to pay in the Reagan years, as they competed for scarce pools of capital left over after the U.S. government had financed the Reagan deficits.

If you want to make it more attractive to invest in America, you simply do not take Ronald Reagan’s economic policies as your model.**

HHMT: The Romney plan will achieve these objectives with four main economic pillars.... reduce federal spending as a share of GDP to 20 percent – its pre-crisis average – by 2016; reduce individual marginal income tax rates across-the-board by 20 percent, while keeping current low tax rates on dividends and capital gains... [r]educe the corporate income tax rate... to 25 percent... broaden the tax base to ensure that tax reform is revenue-neutral;... reduce growth in Social Security and Medicare benefits... block grant the Medicaid program to states; remove regulatory impediments to energy production and innovation... repeal and replace the Dodd-Frank Act and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act...

DOES NOT FOLLOW: Repealing Dodd-Frank—with not a hint as to what will replace it—does not decrease but increases regulatory uncertainty. Repealing ObamaCare—also with not a hint as to what will replace it—does not decrease but increases regulatory uncertainty, especially as up through the middle of 2009 what we now call ObamaCare was then called RomneyCare, and its biggest booster was Mitt Romney. How can uncertainty fail to be generated by would-be President Romney’s declaration that he opposes RomneyCare and seeks to replace it with something else that he will not reveal?

Similarly, Romney has not even the outlines of a plan for how to reduce federal spending to 20% of GDP, or how he could possibly broaden the tax base to keep his tax cuts for the rich revenue-neutral.

If you do indeed fear uncertainty about tax and regulatory policy, you need to vote against Romney as you would vote against the plague—and urge everybody you know to vote against Romney, and urge them in the strongest possible terms.

Are Iran's secret agents losing the shadow war with Israel & the US?

I don't pretend to know the answer to that question, but there are some indications that they may be. An overview by Christopher Dickey, who is usually well informed about such matters, argues that "In Syria and around the world, Iran’s covert operatives are in trouble". If this is true, and not just a transitory impression, it could be significant in a range of ways. Some highlights from Dickey's piece:

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The powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, its infamous expeditionary unit, the Quds Force, and the network of Hezbollah operatives it supports around the world, are starting to look like the proverbial gang that couldn’t shoot straight. They’re still dangerous, to be sure, but a series of recent incidents widely attributed to these groups suggest that as spies, assassins, and terrorists, they just aren’t what they used to be. And Tehran is getting worried.

Last weekend, for instance, Syrian rebels captured a group of 48 Iranians who were alleged to be IRGC members on “a reconnaissance mission” in Damascus. Rumors have circulated extensively in Tehran (a very rumor-prone city) that the head of the Quds Force, Qasem Suleimani himself, was wounded recently when his convoy was attacked in Damascus. Over the last year, at least nine apparent Iranian assassination and bomb plots around the world have failed or been thwarted. The grim attack on a bus full of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last month, which killed seven people and wounded 30, appears to have been the exceptional “success” for these murderers rather than the rule.

On almost every front in a wide-ranging covert war with Israel and the United States, Iran appears to be suffering major setbacks. Its nuclear program was disrupted by the Stuxnet computer worm in 2010 and at least one virus since. Its scientists have been attacked and five of them murdered. According to one source, recent leaks provided Western intelligence services with detailed information about work on the Iranian nuclear program at the Parchin military complex, which may have encouraged the Americans and their allies to toughen their stand in the faltering talks meant to defuse the crisis. [....]

Last month, intelligence analysts at the New York City Police Department prepared a detailed chronology of nine alleged Iran-backed plots in other cities around the world this year, all of them apparently aimed at Jewish targets. [JW: It's worth noting that the NYPD's counter-terrorism operation is widely regarded as world-class—probably of higher quality, allowing for size, than the US government's.] The NYPD stepped up security around several similar sites in New York City. Some of the alleged IRGC plots appear so convoluted it’s hard to believe they were ever serious, or, indeed, ever existed. Would the Iranians really have tried to hire members of a Mexican drug cartel to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington in a crowded D.C. restaurant last year? Mansour Arbabsiar, an Iranian-American former used-car salesman from Texas, whose lawyers say is bipolar, is awaiting trial in New York for his alleged role as a middleman in that plot. [....]

The back and forth of denial and recrimination is reminiscent of events 30 years ago in Lebanon, when Iranian agents were captured by hostile militias and the retaliation came in the form of multiple Iranian-backed kidnappings that targeted American journalists, a CIA station chief, an American colonel, and other Westerners.

Back then, however, the Iranians and their agents working under the government’s Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) showed impressive, if frightening, tradecraft. Throughout the 1980s and early '90s, the Iranians pulled off a series of assassinations targeting opponents of the regime in Paris, Geneva, Rome, Vienna, and elsewhere. Sometimes they used guns and sometimes car bombs, as in two attacks on Jewish targets in Argentina that took more than 100 lives in the early '90s. On August 6, 1981, Iranian agents murdered a former Iranian prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, in his own heavily guarded house outside of Paris with a knife from his kitchen, then calmly walked out the front door.
[JW: Dickey might also have mentioned the successful bombings of the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994, respectively, which are generally regarded as having been joint Iranian-Hizbullah operations. So why do they appear to be getting sloppier and less efficient?  According to Dickey's report, some of the reasons may be connected to ongoing factional struggles within the Iranian regime.]
In recent years, however, especially since the political upheaval following rigged presidential elections in 2009, the MOIS has been pushed aside in many areas by the separate, independent, and much clumsier IRGC. “ [....]

According to one of our correspondents in the region who is in close contact with various governmental sources in Iran, senior leaders of the regular Iranian army, which has been sidelined for decades as the IRGC gained strength, are now accusing the IRGC of squandering precious military resources and political capital in its efforts to save the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. [....] According to our correspondent, who is not named for security reasons, a “mole hunt” has begun inside the Quds Force, looking for the source or sources of mismanagement and potentially disastrous leaks to hostile intelligence forces. As in many bureaucracies, it is easier to blame conspirators than incompetents. [....]
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Perhaps.  Anyway, it's worth reading the whole piece.

=>   And, by the way, regarding those 48 Iranians seized by anti-regime insurgents in Syria:
The Iranian government insists the Iranian citizens who are now “hostages” in Syrian rebel hands were mere religious pilgrims visiting the Shia shrine of Sayyida Zeinab in Damascus. But Tehran says it will hold the United States responsible for their treatment.
Well, that was then. Today Iran's Foreign Minister complicated that picture a bit by conceding that the Iranians being held hostage include "retired" members of the Revolutionary Guards and the army. Since Iran has not been sending pilgrims to Syria since large-scale fighting broke out there (as the Foreign Minister also mentioned), this explanation sounds fishy, to say the least—though, of course, at this point we can't say for sure whether or not there's any truth to it. At all events, whether or not those "pilgrims" are active members of the IRGC (which seems plausible to me), this incident further highlights Iran's role as one of the major outside forces involved in the proxy-war dimension of the struggle for Syria.

 —Jeff Weintraub

Monday, August 06, 2012

Rats leaving the sinking ship in Syria? Yes and no.

As the struggle for Syria has ground on for the past year and a half, there has been an increasing stream of defections from the regime's armed forces and government apparatus.  These began with ordinary soldiers (and policemen), but they've been joined by increasing numbers of high-ranking officers and officials.  In July, the biggest news along these lines was the defection of Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, whose family—including his father, former Defense Minister (and exceptionally outspoken and disgusting anti-semite) Mustafa Tlass—had been part of the Assad regime's inner circle since the early 1970s. On the civilian side, recent defections have included the top Syrian diplomat in Britain and Syria's ambassador to Iraq.  And now the Prime Minister of Syria, Riyad Hijab, has fled the country and joined the opposition.

Does all this suggest that the regime is starting to unravel from within?  To a certain extent, that is what it looks like; but in important respects the answer would have to be more complicated.

So far, the high-profile defectors have all come from the Sunni Muslim majority and not from the Alawite core of the ruling elite, and that also seems to be overwhelmingly true of lower-level defectors.  For some time the larger dynamic of the Syrian conflict seems to have generated an intensifying sectarian polarization, in which the bulk of the Sunni majority (as well as almost all Sunni-dominated states in the region, including Turkey) have turned sharply against the Assad regime, while the regime continues to receive solid support from the Alawite minority (around 10-12% of the population) and more or less active support, or at least acquiescence, from other religious minorities including smaller Muslim sects, Christians, Druze, and others. (The Druze consider themselves Muslims, and I don't mean to suggest otherwise, but not all Sunni Muslims agree. These non-Sunni minorities probably add up to somewhere between a quarter and a third of the Syrian population, depending on which estimates you believe.)  Regional support for the Assad regime has come almost exclusively from Shiite Iran, its long-time ally and patron, and the Lebanese Shiite group Hizbullah (also a client of Iran). 

Now this sectarian polarization seems to be emerging, or intensifying, within the regime itself.  It may turn out that the regime has entered into a terminal phase of self-reinforcing disintegration.  But the more likely result is that it is getting stripped down to its really hard core.  They may well get defeated in the end, but if so they will probably go down fighting.

As reported by Reuters:
The opposition Syrian National Council said a further two ministers and three army generals had defected with Hijab. That assertion could not immediately be verified.

Hijab was a top official of the ruling Baath party but, like all other senior defectors so far from the government and armed forces, he was also a Sunni Muslim rather than a member of Assad's Alawite sect, which has long dominated the Syrian state. [....]

Assad and his father, who was president [i.e., dictator] before him, have consistently appointed premiers from the majority Sunni community. However, the position is largely powerless and control has remained with Assad, his family and security chiefs from the Alawite community, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Defections are occurring in all components of the regime save its hard inner core, which for now has given no signs of fracturing," said Peter Harling at the International Crisis Group think-tank.

"For months the regime has been eroding and shedding its outer layers, while rebuilding itself around a large, diehard fighting force," he said. "The regime as we knew it is certainly much weakened, but the question remains of how to deal with what it has become." [....]
=> There is one ethnic factor that may complicate this overall picture of sectarian polarization.  It involves Syria's Kurdish minority, which numbers between 2 and 3 million (depending on which estimates one follows), or around 10% of the population.  Syria's Kurds are largely Sunni Muslims but, of course, are not Arabs. Some Syrian Kurds are involved in the anti-Assad insurgency and in expatriate opposition organizations (including the titular head of the umbrella Syrian National Council).  But the most significant Kurdish political forces in Syria seem to be trying to stay out of the fight between the Assad regime and the insurgents.  And in northeast Syria Kurdish militias may even be in the process of carving out a semi-autonomous enclave of their own, as the Assad regime has withdrawn its forces to focus on crushing the rebellions in Syria's big cities.

But otherwise, sectarian polarization between Sunni Arabs and everyone else seems to be the main pattern.  With luck, this will not wind up escalating into a full-scale inter-sectarian bloodbath.

—Jeff Weintraub

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Reuters
Monday, August 6, 2012
Syria premier defects to anti-Assad opposition
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis (Amman, Jordan)

(Reuters) - Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab has defected to the opposition seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, a spokesman for Hijab said on Monday, marking one of the highest profile desertions from the Damascus government.

Syrian state television said Hijab had been fired, but an official source in the Jordanian capital Amman said he had been dismissed only after he fled across the border with his family.

"I announce today my defection from the killing and terrorist regime and I announce that I have joined the ranks of the freedom and dignity revolution," Hijab said in a statement read in his name by the spokesman, which was broadcast on Al Jazeera television. "I announce that I am from today a soldier in this blessed revolution."

Syrian state television reported Hijab's dismissal as government forces appeared to prepare a ground assault to clear battered rebels from Aleppo, the country's biggest city.

The opposition Syrian National Council said a further two ministers and three army generals had defected with Hijab. That assertion could not immediately be verified. Hijab was a top official of the ruling Baath party but, like all other senior defectors so far from the government and armed forces, he was also a Sunni Muslim rather than a member of Assad's Alawite sect, which has long dominated the Syrian state.

"Hijab is in Jordan with his family," said the Jordanian official source, who did not want to be further identified. The source said Hijab had defected to Jordan before his sacking.

Assad appointed Hijab, formerly agriculture minister, as prime minister only in June following a parliamentary election which authorities said was a step towards political reform but which opponents dismissed as a sham.

Hijab's home province of Deir al-Zor has been under heavy Syrian army shelling for several weeks as Assad's forces try to dislodge rebels from large areas of countryside there.

Syrian television said Omar Ghalawanji, who was previously a deputy prime minister, had been appointed to lead a temporary, caretaker government on Monday.

Assad and his father, who was president before him, have consistently appointed premiers from the majority Sunni community. However, the position is largely powerless and control has remained with Assad, his family and security chiefs from the Alawite community, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

"Defections are occurring in all components of the regime save its hard inner core, which for now has given no signs of fracturing," said Peter Harling at the International Crisis Group think-tank.

"For months the regime has been eroding and shedding its outer layers, while rebuilding itself around a large, diehard fighting force," he said. "The regime as we knew it is certainly much weakened, but the question remains of how to deal with what it has become."

BOMB BLAST

Earlier in the day, a bomb blast hit the Damascus headquarters of Syria's state broadcaster as troops backed by fighter jets kept up an offensive against the last rebel bastion in the capital.

The bomb exploded on the third floor of the state television and radio building, state TV said. However, while the rebels may have struck a symbolic blow in their 17-month-old uprising against Assad, Information Minister Omran Zoabi said none of the injuries was serious, and the channel continued broadcasting.

Rebels in districts of Aleppo visited by Reuters journalists seemed battered, overwhelmed and running low on ammunition after days of intense shelling of their positions by tanks and heavy machinegun fire from helicopter gunships.

Emboldened by an audacious bomb attack in Damascus that killed four of Assad's top security officials last month, the rebels had tried to overrun the Damascus and Aleppo, the country's commercial hub, near the Turkish border.

But the lightly armed rebels have been outgunned by the Syrian army's superior weaponry. They were largely driven out of Damascus and are struggling to hold on to territorial gains made in Aleppo, a city of 2.5 million.

Damascus has criticized Gulf Arab states and Turkey for calling for the rebels to be armed, and state television has described the rebels as a "Turkish-Gulf militia", saying dead Turkish and Afghan fighters had been found in Aleppo.

Paralysis in the U.N. Security Council over how to stop the bloodshed forced peace envoy Kofi Annan to resign last week, his ceasefire plan a distant memory.

The violence has already shown elements of a proxy war between Sunni and Shi'ite Islam which could spill beyond Syria's border. The rebels claimed responsibility for capturing 48 Iranians in Syria, forcing Tehran to call on Turkey and Qatar - major supporters of the rebels - to help secure their release.

On Monday, Syrian army tanks shelled alleyways in Aleppo where rebels sought cover as a helicopter gunship fired heavy machineguns.

Snipers ran on rooftops targeting rebels, and one of them shot at a rebel car filled with bombs, setting the vehicle on fire. Women and children fled the city, some crammed in the back of pickup trucks, while others walked on foot, heading to relatively safer rural areas.

ALEPPO GATEWAY

The main focus of fighting in Aleppo has been the Salaheddine district. One shell on Sunday hit a building next to the Reuters reporting team, pouring rubble on to the street and sending billows of smoke and dust into the sky.

State television said Assad's forces were "cleansing the terrorist filth" from the country, which has been sucked into an increasingly sectarian conflict that has killed about 18,000 people and could spill into neighboring states.

The army appeared to be using a similar strategy in Aleppo to the one used in other cities where they subjected opposition districts to heavy bombardment for days, weakening the rebels before moving in on the ground, clearing district by district.

Syria's two main cities had been relatively free of violence until last month when fighters poured into them, transforming the war. The government largely repelled the assault on Damascus but has had more difficulty recapturing Aleppo.

Rebel commanders say they anticipate a major Syrian army offensive in Aleppo and one fighter said they had already had to pull back from some streets after army snipers advanced on Saturday under cover of the fierce aerial and tank bombardment.

"The Syrian army is penetrating our lines," said Mohammad Salifi, a 35-year-old former government employee. "So we were forced to strategically retreat until the shelling ends," he said, adding the rebels were trying to push the army back again.

Late on Sunday rebels clashed with the army in Aleppo's southeastern Nayrab district, a fighter who called himself Abu Jumaa said. The army responded by shelling eastern districts. There were also clashes on the southern ring road, which could be a sign the army was preparing to surround the city.

RUINS

Once a busy shopping and restaurant district where residents would spend evenings with their families, Salaheddine is now white with dust, broken concrete and rubble.

Tank shell holes gape wide on the top of buildings near the front line, and homes of families have been turned into look-outs and sniper locations for rebel fighters.

Large mounds of concrete are used as barriers to close off streets. Lamp-posts lie horizontally across the road after being downed by shelling.

Civilians trickle back to collect their belongings and check on their homes. Late on Saturday, a confused old man stumbled into 15th street as rebels exchanged fire with the army.

"Get out of the way! Get off the street!" fighters shouted, grabbing him and taking him to shelter.

"I just wanted to buy some blackberry juice," he told the fighters, his face reflecting confusion and horror at the damage to his street. Instinctively, he took his personal ID card out of his chest pocket to show the rebels, a habit from the strict days of the Assad security officials.

During the day, others emerged from damaged buildings. A couple stood shaking with fear at an intersection a few meters from the fighting as a medic waved a car down to take them to safety.

"Just to hold power he is willing to destroy our streets, our homes, kill our sons," wept Fawzia Um Ahmed, referring to Assad's determined counter-offensive against the rebels.

"I can't recognize these streets any more."

IRANIAN SUPPORT

Assad is supported by Shi'ite Iran and Lebanon's armed Shi'ite Hezbollah movement.

But the Sunni-ruled Muslim Gulf Arab states have called for rebels to be armed and Turkey has provided them with a base, angering Damascus and prompting Syrian state television on Sunday to refer to the rebels as a "Turkish-Gulf militia".

It said the bodies of Turkish and Afghan fighters had been found in Aleppo, without giving details.

On Sunday Syrian rebels said they were checking the identities of the captured Iranians to show that Tehran was involved in fighting for Assad, a rebel officer said.

Iran says the captives were pilgrims visiting holy sites in Syria, abducted from a bus in Damascus.

A senior Syrian intelligence officer defected to Jordan, Al Arabiya television reported on Sunday. It said Yarub Shara was head of the Damascus branch of Political Security, an intelligence organization responsible for monitoring and suppressing dissent.

In Damascus, residents said the bodies of six Palestinians arrested during a security sweep by the army in the southern Tadamon district were discovered on Sunday. Another nine men were missing, they said. Accounts from the capital could not be verified because the government restricts access.

(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman,; Yeganeh Torbati and Mirna Sleiman in Dubai; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by David Stamp)