Friday, October 26, 2012

Brad DeLong commemorates our debt to the Battle of Stalingrad

Daniel Bell once wrote that Joseph Schumpeter stood out as something fairly uncommon, an economist with a tragic sense of life.  It has struck me for a while that Brad DeLong is another good example of this species.  But that's just an introductory background remark ...

For several years now Brad has been liveblogging World War II—that is, each day he posts something from the corresponding day 70 years ago. It's been a valuable and fascinating project, and anyone who hasn't been following it might consider doing so.

Yesterday Brad stepped back to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, a gigantic struggle that stretched through the last months of 1942 and ended, of course, in a catastrophic German defeat that marked a key turning point of the war.  This victory, for which all of us should continue to feel grateful, was an epic achievement of a people ruled and oppressed by one of the most murderous and repressive regimes in history, which defeated the forces of an even more evil regime.  And we have to face the fact that it was also an achievement of that same appallingly evil regime.

Yes, it's true that if Stalin had not made his pact with Hitler, served as Hitler's ally for two years while Hitler conquered most of Europe and prepared for his assault on the USSR, devastated the Soviet officer corps during the purges, and committed so many other enormous crimes and blunders ... then it's possible that the Wehrmacht would never have reached the Volga in the first place.  But in the end the Soviet regime was brutally successful in mobilizing the human and material resources of its society to wage war on an almost unimaginable scale. And of all the armed forces in what eventually became the Allied coalition, , the Red Army played the single most crucial role in the process of halting and then destroying the Nazi war machine.  History is complicated and often tragic, not straightforward or morally simple.

My guess is that, for many people, the word "Stalingrad" no longer carries the emotional charge it did a generation ago.  It should.

And although it's important that we should never forget, downplay, excuse, or try to whitewash the enormous crimes and overwhelming atrocities of Stalinism and the Soviet Union, I think what Brad DeLong says in this passage (slightly amended) is also right:
The soldiers of the Red Army, and the workers and peasants of the Soviet Union who armed and fed them, allowed their dictatorial masters to commit crimes – and committed crimes themselves. But [they performed a] great service to humanity – and especially to western European humanity – [...] in the rubble along the Volga River 70 years ago this fall.

We are the heirs to their accomplishments. We are their debtors. And we cannot repay what we owe to them. We can only remember it.

But how many NATO leaders or European Union presidents and prime ministers have ever taken the time to visit the battle site, and perhaps lay a wreath to those whose sacrifice saved their civilization?

—Jeff Weintraub

==============================
Project Syndicate
October 25, 2012
Our Debt to Stalingrad
By Brad DeLong

BERKELEY – We are not newly created, innocent, rational, and reasonable beings. We are not created fresh in an unmarked Eden under a new sun. We are, instead, the products of hundreds of millions of years of myopic evolution, and thousands of years of unwritten and then recorded history. Our past has built up layer upon layer of instincts, propensities, habits of thought, patterns of interaction, and material resources.

On top of this historical foundation, we build our civilization. Were it not for our history, our labor would not just be in vain; it would be impossible.

And there are the crimes of human history. The horrible crimes. The unbelievable crimes. Our history grips us like a nightmare, for the crimes of the past scar the present and induce yet more crimes in the future.

And there are also the efforts to stop and undo the effects of past crimes.

So it is appropriate this month to write not about economics, but about something else. Seventy-nine years ago, Germany went mad. There was delinquency. There was also history and bad luck. The criminals are almost all dead now. Their descendants and successors in Germany have done – and are doing – better than anyone could have expected at grappling with and mastering the nation’s unmasterable past.

Seventy years ago, 200,000 Soviet soldiers – overwhelmingly male and predominantly Russian – crossed the Volga River to the city of Stalingrad. As members of Vasily Chuikov’s 62nd Army, they grabbed hold of the nose of the Nazi army and did not let go. For five months, they fought. And perhaps 80% of them died in the ruins of the city. On October 15 – a typical day – Chuikov’s battle diary records that a radio message was received from the 416th Regiment at 12:20 PM: “Have been encircled, ammunition and water available, death before surrender!” At 4:35 PM, Lieutenant Colonel Ustinov called down the artillery on his own encircled command post.

But they held on.

And so, 70 years ago this November – on November 19 to be precise – the million-soldier reserve of the Red Army was transferred to General Nikolai Vatutin’s Southwestern Front, Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky’s Don Front, and Marshal Andrei Yeremenko’s Stalingrad Front. They went on to spring the trap of Operation Uranus, the code name for the planned encirclement and annihilation of the German Sixth Army and Fourth Panzer Army. They would fight, die, win, and thus destroy the Nazi hope of dominating Eurasia for even one more year – let alone of establishing Hitler’s 1,000-year Reich.

Together, these 1.2 million Red Army soldiers, the workers who armed them, and the peasants who fed them turned the Battle of Stalingrad into the fight that, of any battle in human history, has made the greatest positive difference for humanity.

The Allies probably would have eventually won World War II even had the Nazis conquered Stalingrad, redistributed their spearhead forces as mobile reserves, repelled the Red Army’s subsequent winter 1942 offensive, and seized the Caucasus oil fields, thus depriving the Red Army of 90% of its motor fuel. But any Allied victory would have required the large-scale use of nuclear weapons, and a death toll in Europe that would most likely have been twice the actual World War II death toll of perhaps 40 million.

May there never be another such battle. May we never need another one.

The soldiers of the Red Army, and the workers and peasants of the Soviet Union who armed and fed them, allowed their dictatorial masters to commit crimes – and committed crimes themselves. But these crimes fall short by an order of magnitude of the great service to humanity – and especially to western European humanity – that they gave in the rubble along the Volga River 70 years ago this fall.

We are the heirs to their accomplishments. We are their debtors. And we cannot repay what we owe to them. We can only remember it.

But how many NATO leaders or European Union presidents and prime ministers have ever taken the time to visit the battle site, and perhaps lay a wreath to those whose sacrifice saved their civilization?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Egyptians don't hide their anti-semitism"

David Frum gets right to the point of the vignette captured in the video clip below.
Egyptian democracy in action folks. Egyptian president Morsi prays fervently in [the] front row as an imam calls for the dispersion of the Jews.
According to MEMRI, the source of the video, these are "excerpts from a sermon delivered by Egyptian cleric Futouh Abd Al-Nabi Mansour, Head of Religious Endowment, Matrouh governorate, in the presence of Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi. The sermon aired on Egyptian Channel 1 on October 19, 2012."
Futouh Abd Al-Nabi Mansour: [...] Oh Allah, absolve us of our sins, strengthen us, and grant us victory over the infidels. Oh Allah, deal with the Jews and their supporters. Oh Allah, disperse them, rend them asunder. Oh Allah, demonstrate Your might and greatness upon them. Show us Your omnipotence, oh Lord.
The real significance of this story lies in the fact that it's neither exceptional nor surprising. In a way, it's not even news. Instead, this sort of thing is quite ordinary and mundane in Egypt and most other Arab countries. (And incidentally, if you listen to the clip, you don't have to know Arabic, as I don't, to recognize that the word used by the preacher is "Yahud", which means "Jews"—not "Israelis" or "Zionists".)

—Jeff Weintraub



P.S. For more on the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), an extremely valuable enterprise that is often unfairly maligned, see here.

Efraim Halevy reminds us how Republican presidents have strong-armed Israel

I don't think I'm making an original or controversial point if I observe that Israel has a complex and distinctive place in American politics.  Many people in Europe and elsewhere are baffled and frustrated by the fact that public discourse in the US is less biased against Israel than they consider normal and appropriate, and there is often an understandable temptation to explain this bizarre situation with conspiracy theories whose guiding themes range from quasi-respectable anti-Zionism to outright anti-semitism.  At the very least, they figure, US support for Israel must be due to the wildly excessive influence American Jews (around 2% of the population) in national politics.

In reality, life is a bit more complicated than that.  Among other things, as Walter Russell Mead and others have pointed out, the great majority of those Americans who are more or less sympathetic to or supportive of Israel are non-Jews.  And the various constituencies that are sympathetic to Israel, in different ways and for different if sometimes overlapping reasons, often differ sharply from each other in other respects.  For example, while the great majority of American Jews remain strongly committed to the Democratic Party and disproportionately attached to its left-liberal wing (to a degree unmatched by any other white ethnic group), over the past few decades the tendencies in the Republican Party hostile to Israel and to US support for Israel (ranging from reactionary and isolationist ultra-nationalists like Pat Buchanan through big-business Arabist lobbies, self-styled foreign-policy "realists," and so on) have gradually been outweighed by more pro-Israel tendencies. This evolution has reached the point where Republicans often like to present themselves as the more "pro-Israel" party, and a lot of other people find this claim plausible (whether they approve or disapprove).

Of course, the notion that the Republican Party is now predominantly favorable to Israel has considerable basis.  But, again, political realities are more complicated and messy than this picture might suggest on the surface.  As it happens, the Democratic Party is also predominantly favorable to Israel. And let's leave aside the fact that some groups who consider themselves "pro-Israel" support policies that are actually catastrophic for Israel in the long run (including permanent Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and indifference or outright hostility to pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian/Arab-Israeli  peace agreement).

Matters are also more complex in terms of hard-core state-to-state geopolitics.  In an op-ed in today's New York Times Efraim Halevy, a former head of Mossad who continues to be an important player in Israel's national-security debates, highlights a significant fact about the historical record of relations between Republican presidents and Israel ("Who Threw Israel Under the Bus?"):

"Despite the Republican Party’s shrill campaign rhetoric on Israel, no Democratic president has ever strong-armed Israel on any key national security issue." On the other hand,
whenever the United States has put serious, sustained pressure on Israel’s leaders — from the 1950s on — it has come from Republican presidents, not Democratic ones. This was particularly true under Mr. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.

Just one week before the Iraq war began in March 2003, Mr. Bush was still struggling to form a broad international coalition to oust Saddam Hussein. [....] Britain was almost alone in aligning itself with America, and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s support was deemed crucial in Washington.

Just as the British Parliament was about to approve the joint venture, a group of Mr. Blair’s Labour Party colleagues threatened to revolt, demanding Israeli concessions to the Palestinians in exchange for their support for the Iraq invasion. This demand could have scuttled the war effort, and there was only one way that British support could be maintained: Mr. Bush would have to declare that the “road map” for Middle East peace, a proposal drafted early in his administration, was the formal policy of the United States.

Israel’s prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, had been vehemently opposed to the road map, which contained several “red lines” that he refused to accept, including a stipulation that the future status of Jerusalem would be determined by “a negotiated resolution” taking into account “the political and religious concerns of both sides.” This wording implied a possible end to Israel’s sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, which has been under Israeli control since 1967.

On March 13, 2003, senior Israeli officials were summarily informed that the United States would publicly adopt the draft road map as its policy. Washington made it clear to us that on the eve of a war, Israel was expected to refrain from criticizing the American policy and also to ensure that its sympathizers got the message.

The United States insisted that the road map be approved without any changes, saying Israel’s concerns would be addressed later. At a long and tense cabinet debate I attended in May 2003, Mr. Sharon reluctantly asked his ministers to accept Washington’s demand. Benjamin Netanyahu, then the finance minister, disagreed, and he abstained during the vote on the cabinet resolution, which eventually passed.

From that point on, the road map, including the language on Jerusalem, became the policy bible for America, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. Not only was Israel strong-armed by a Republican president, but it was also compelled to simply acquiesce and swallow the bitterest of pills.

Three years later, the Bush administration again pressured Israel into supporting a policy that ran counter to its interests. In early 2006, the terrorist group Hamas ran candidates in the Palestinian legislative elections. Israel had been adamant that no leader could campaign with a gun in his belt; the Palestinian party Fatah opposed Hamas’s participation, too. But the White House would have none of this; it pushed Fatah to allow Hamas candidates to run, and pressured Israel into allowing voting for Hamas — even in parts of East Jerusalem.

After Hamas won a clear majority, Washington sought to train Fatah forces to crush it militarily in the Gaza Strip. But Hamas pre-empted this scheme by taking control of Gaza in 2007, and the Palestinians have been ideologically and territorially divided ever since.

Despite the Republican Party’s shrill campaign rhetoric on Israel, no Democratic president has ever strong-armed Israel on any key national security issue. In the 1956 Suez Crisis, it was a Republican, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who joined the Soviet Union in forcing Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula after a joint Israeli-British-French attack on Egypt.

In 1991, when Iraqi Scud missiles rained down on Tel Aviv, the administration of the first President Bush urged Israel not to strike back so as to preserve the coalition of Arab states fighting Iraq. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir resisted his security chiefs’ recommendation to retaliate and bowed to American demands as his citizens reached for their gas masks.

After the war, Mr. Shamir agreed to go to Madrid for a Middle East peace conference set up by Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Fearful that Mr. Shamir would be intransigent at the negotiating table, the White House pressured him by withholding $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel, causing us serious economic problems. The eventual result was Mr. Shamir’s political downfall. The man who had saved Mr. Bush’s grand coalition against Saddam Hussein in 1991 was “thrown under the bus."

In all of these instances, a Republican White House acted in a cold and determined manner, with no regard for Israel’s national pride, strategic interests or sensitivities. That’s food for thought in October 2012.
Indeed.

—Jeff Weintraub

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Obama the Phantom Menace, as seen from Bullshit Mountain (Jon Stewart)

It's impossible to resist passing this on.

For those of you who don't watch Fox News or "The Daily Show," the phrase "not optimal" refers to a pseudo-scandal based on an exchange during Obama's interview with Jon Stewart last Thursday.  The two of them were discussing the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and its aftermath.  Stewart suggested that perhaps the series of public statements from the Obama administration following the attack did not add up to "the optimal response." Obama began his reply by noting that, of course, "if four Americans get killed, it's not optimal...."  The right-wing propaganda machine went into freakout mode about Obama's use of the phrase "not optimal"—which, as usual, they took completely out of context. As Stewart points out, this absurdly disproportionate and hysterical response fits into a more general pattern. For four years now they have been engaged in non-stop paranoid hyperventilating about an imaginary Obama "that only Republicans can see."

—Jeff Weintraub

Monday, October 22, 2012

What William Deresiewicz learned in India about the public household and the public good

In any society, the framework of the public household (to use Daniel Bell's very useful phrase) consists in large part of institutions, mores, and public policies, which need to be informed and supported by an effective sense of national community. But it also has a quite concrete physical and technological infrastructure. In the US we have been letting that run down for decades; and the fact that we've been doing this so heedlessly is one manifestation of a larger moral, political, and intellectual intellectual failure of the American body politic. Even from the perspective of so-called rational self-interest, this course of action (and inaction) represents the opposite of what Tocqueville would call "self-interest properly understood"; it comes closer to what he would describe as short-sighted "narrow individualism" and what C. Wright Mills would call "crackpot realism". The combination of private opulence and public squalor, as we have been warned by a long tradition of civic wisdom running from Roman statesmen through John Kenneth Galbraith, is foolish, shameful, morally and politically corrupting, socially corrosive, and ultimately self-defeating.

The experience of living in India and reflecting on it helped the writer William Deresiewicz to get a deeper understanding of some of these issues with respect to his own society, the United States, and to appreciate their significance. Here is (most of) a brief, thoughtful, and illuminating piece he wrote for The American Scholar earlier this year, nicely subtitled "What I learned in India about the public good" (to which I was alerted by Andrew Sullivan).

Yours for democratic citizenship,
Jeff Weintraub
---------------------------------------------

The blackout in India at the end of July—300 million people without electricity the first day, 670 million the next—reminded me of the year I spent in the country about a decade ago. The power would fail almost every day for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. [....]

We were living in a middle-class suburb of a small city: lots of single-family houses with neat gardens, all of them surrounded by walls. Here are some of the things you would see on the other side, the public side: overflowing dumpsters; unpaved streets lined with garbage; smoldering trash fires; little rows of shanties tucked into corners of the neighborhood for the local servant class, the kind of miserable hovels that stretch for miles in places like Mumbai; and a small, polluted lake that no one in their right mind would have swum in. We never drank from the tap, of course; even certain kinds of produce were said to be unsafe. The phone was temperamental, too, and so was the television cable. One thing we were thankful for, however: we could breathe without feeling like we were damaging our health, something that could not be said in any of the larger cities we visited and the reason we were living where we were.

Being rich in a poor country, I discovered that year, is like being rich and poor at the same time. We could eat in any restaurant we cared to, could have had a fleet of servants at our disposal had we so chosen, but we couldn’t buy our own electric grid, or water system, or air.

I’ve thought of all this during the debate we’ve been having this election season about the extent to which business owners are responsible for their success. On the one hand, Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama, trying to remind entrepreneurs that they didn’t build the highway system themselves, or put their employees through school. On the other, people who continue to insist that they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. Well, let them go to India and see what it’s like to live in a place where you can’t take public services for granted. We’ll see how far their bootstraps get them there.

Too many Americans, goes the common complaint, want other people to pay for them. Yet the same is true in generational terms. We have been able to live well, and do well, because we inherited a rich, well-functioning country, but for a long time now—I’m thinking of the tax revolt that began in 1978—we have refused to do our share to keep it going. Essentially, the bootstrap crowd is living off the civic-minded willingness to sacrifice of those who came before. The problem, in India, isn’t simply that the country is poor, but also that it has a very weak idea of the public good. That is what those walls meant in my neighborhood. I care about what happens within this perimeter, to me and my family; everyone else can fend for themselves. We’re in the midst of finding out how far that attitude will take us here.

Environmental policies that work (revisited) – Air pollution in the US, 1980 vs. 2008

This might not be a bad moment to revisit the post below, from April 2010. To repeat what I said then: "It's sometimes necessary to remind ourselves that sensible policies in the service of environmental sanity can work, if we make a serious effort." (Anyone who's interested might also want to revisit Environmental policies that work - Reducing air pollution in Mexico City. If it can be done there, it can be done anywhere.)

One aspect of recent American politics helps make revisiting this item especially timely. Historically, as I noted back in 2010, the Republican Party was not always or uniformly identified with opposition to environmentalist policies. Over the past several decades, however, across-the-board anti-environmentalism has increasingly become a central defining feature of Republican orthodoxy, especially though not exclusively on the Republican hard right—which, of course, has increasingly come to dominate the party and set its agenda. This ongoing process has only intensified in recent years; and nowadays, with just a few exceptions, reflex hostility to any and all forms of environmental sanity has become pervasive and obligatory.  ("Drill, Baby, Drill!")

To take one obvious example, a decade ago the problem of long-term climate change could be taken seriously by prominent Republicans like John McCain and, believe it or not, Newt Gingrich. (OK, in 2003 McCain was still in his "maverick" phase. But even his 2008 campaign platform included a cap-and-trade policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.) Now, however, Republican orthodoxy includes a monolithic, extreme, and almost quasi-theological commitment to climate-change denialism.

I know some serous and intelligent people who think it is unfair and even offensive to use the word "denialism" in this context, but I use it advisedly. Yes, I recognize that there are some thoughtful and reasonable forms of skepticism about climate change and its implications, whether or not one finds them convincing. But the perspective on climate change that now dominates the national Republican Party and the right-wing propaganda apparatus, running from talk radio and Fox News through right-wing think-tanks and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, goes way beyond that. (For one good illustrative example of how honest and intellectually serious climate-change skepticism might differ from intellectually irresponsible and crudely demagogic climate-change denialism, I recommend this piece by a skeptical conservative analyst of climate change and its implications, Jim Manzi.) And monolithic climate-change denialism is just one manifestation of a more general pattern.

Attacks on laws or regulations aimed at protecting or improving the environment often claim or imply or insinuate that such policies don't really work—or, at least, that their costs and other drawbacks always outweigh their benefits. Well, that's wrong.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

==============================
Environmental policies that work - Air pollution in the US, 1980 vs. 2008

(Via Brad DeLong.) It's sometimes necessary to remind ourselves that sensible policies in the service of environmental sanity can work, if we make a serious effort.

At first glance, I also can't help being struck by the fact that the downward trends in these forms of air pollution carried on through several anti-environmentalist Republican presidential administrations--beginning with Reagan in 1980. Back in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was created with the support of then-President Richard Nixon, and of course one of the founding fathers of the environmental cause in US national politics was the conservative reformer Teddy Roosevelt. Historically, the Republican Party was not always or uniformly identified with opposition to environmentalist policies. Since the commencement of the age of Reagan, that has changed. But once these policies are set in motion, they seem to develop their own momentum.

—Jeff Weintraub

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Some further post-debate commentary

Out of many collections of commentary, analysis, and reflection following the second Obama-Romney debate, here's one useful round-up from Andrew Sullivan.  Several of the pieces he quotes from are worth reading in full; and some others, which are off-base or superficial in substantive terms, are illuminating for symptomatic purposes.  [The additions in brackets are mine.]

=> According to the Gallup Poll:
Americans who report watching the second presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney believe Obama did a better job, by 51% to 38%. That is a sharp reversal from the first debate for which Romney was widely regarded as the winner.
But so far, at least, the second Obama-Romney debate has not been followed by nearly as great a swing in electoral polling numbers as the first debate.  It appears that while Obama repaired some of the damage from the first debate, he didn't repair all of it.  (Or, perhaps, the real point is that Romney hasn't lost everything he gained from the first debate.) Overall, Michael Tomasky's assessments on October 17 (see below) still look plausible today.
[T]his debate probably won’t change the dynamic as much as the first one did. [....] But certainly liberals and Democrats got the boost they wanted.[....] So how much difference does it all make? Not as much as the first debate, but my guess is probably enough. Obama needs these kinds of headlines: He’s back!
The third Obama-Romney debate is coming up on Monday.  And then it will probably be a nail-biter all the way to November 6. As Tomasky said, "It’s showtime."

—Jeff Weintraub

==============================
Andrew Sullivan (Daily Dish)
October 17, 2012 - 10:38 a.m.
 The Town-Hall Debate: Blog Reax II



[The very intelligent centrist political analyst Marc] Ambinder judges the debate:
Obama killed it. He outdebated Romney, he never once seemed churlish, he had a better command of the facts, and he conveyed the aura of a man who is confident about his choices. Romney kept hitting bumps. He didn't let go of small points. He seemed irritated and peevish. He was uncharacteristically tongue-tied. As I reviewed my notes after the debate, though, Romney probably did better than my gut told me. But Obama still won the evening, and did so convincingly. I think if this debate had been first, Republicans would have a conniption. But since Romney tightened a race that won't loosen up much no matter what happens, the momentum for Obama will probably be somewhat less.
[Designated reasonable-theo-con Republican columnist for the NYTimes Ross] Douthat thought Romney made two stylistic errors:
Romney is very skillful at the on-stage slash and parry, but he has weak spots, and veterans of the long Republican primary slog remember two of them particularly well. One is his tendency to argue pointlessly with the moderator and his opponents over the rules of order. The other is his habit of pressing his advantage too far, seeking a kind of alpha-male moment that can seem bullying instead of strong. (His attempt at a $10,000 bet with Rick Perry was the paradigmatic example.) He gave in to both temptations this time around.
Bob Wright [whose commentaries are frequently off-base or even stupid, but not in this case] analyzes Obama's stage presence:
I think Obama succeeded in striking a very delicate balance: He had to be sharp and feisty and tough (to erase those particular doubts about his first performance), but he had to stop short of Joe Biden levels of aggressiveness and remain essentially likeable. I think he did that. I've heard some commentators say Obama was "angry," but he didn't strike me as crossing that line -- except maybe a few times when he displayed righteous indignation that I thought was effective. Certainly he didn't seem angrier than Romney, and he wasn't as disrespectful of moderator Candy Crowley as Romney was.
[Relentlessly serious policy wonk par excellence] Ezra Klein looks at the substance:
After the first debate, President Obama’s supporters comforted themselves by saying Obama’s deficiencies were stylistic, and Romney’s victory was the result of confident lying. But reading the transcript, it quickly came clear that President Obama’s stylistic shortcomings were connected to his substantive shortcomings. His answers were rambling, his case for his candidacy was vague, and his attacks on Romney were often confused.  So I sat down tonight with a rush transcript of tonight’s debate. The same thing was true. The candidate who struggled on style also struggled on substance. But this time, that candidate was Romney.
[Jonathan] Chait celebrates Obama's victory:
President Obama is not a great debater, but in the second presidential debate, he gave his best performance. Mitt Romney came off well, but not nearly as well as he had during the first debate. Obama enjoyed friendly questions from an audience that obviously leaned left. But more importantly, Obama simply did not allow Romney to occupy the center as he had before.
[Premier right-wing hack at National Review Online] Jonah Goldberg complains about the questions:
I thought the questions, prescreened by Candy Crowley, were for the most part indistinguishable from questions the Obama campaign might as well have drafted for her. Nearly every one was asked from a fundamentally liberal premise. Why on earth this debate was handed to undecided voters in a state where Obama is leading by nearly 30 points is beyond me. These weren’t undecided voters; they were at best dyspeptic Democrats.
[Political scientist & blogger] Jonathan Bernstein pushes back:
I thought the questions favored Obama during the debate, but a second look convinced me that it's wrong: the questions were about as fair as it gets. From the "Town Hall" audience questions, I count three that were solidly pro-Obama and one that was somewhat pro-Obama; three solidly pro-Romney and one somewhat pro-Romney; and three neutral ones.
[Dissident moderately-conservative Republican Josh] Barro is disappointed by both candidates:
[I guess you want to know who won the debate, and the answer is President Barack Obama. He was as alive tonight as he was asleep two weeks ago. He defended his record and called out Mitt Romney on his flip-flops. Romney looked defensive and rattled, particularly when he badly botched the exchange on Libya.

But setting aside the horse race, I found the substance of tonight’s debate incredibly depressing, because neither candidate made a remotely convincing case that he can fix America’s economy. [....]

That’s not to say I’m surprised. If Obama had a serious economic agenda, he would presumably be working to implement it. Instead, his administration appears resigned to plod along in a tepid recovery that will leave unemployment above 6 percent for years to come.

And if Romney has a serious economic agenda, he has worked very hard to ensure that nobody finds out what it is.]

Romney and Obama fought with each other a lot tonight, but the subtext of their messages was sadly similar: If elected, they will sit around and hope the economy gets better. That's not a message that gives me much hope for the next four years, no matter who wins.
So is [another dissident Republican, conservative analyst and self-styled Voice of Reason on the right David] Frum:
For all the talk about competing with China, it is not Chinese industrial labor that is exerting downward pressure on the wages of the accountants, lab technicians, and paralegals of Long Island. Their jobs are being revolutionized by information technology or off shored to English-speaking Indians. President Obama touts higher education as the solution to all economic ills, but in the first half of the 00s, the wages of college graduates stagnated. What happens to the typical American worker in a world where routine white-collar work is exposed to the same global competition as blue-collar work?
[Consistently sharp economic journalist] John Cassidy finds that "the overwhelming majority of the pundits proclaimed the President the victor":
Even Charles Krauthammer and Laura Ingraham said that he won on points. With this type of unanimity, the media narrative for the next few days, which is at least as important as the debate itself, will run in favor of Obama and against Romney. The G.O.P. candidate, rather than being praised for having delivered a strong indictment of Obama’s economic record—the CBS News poll showed that sixty-five per cent of viewers thought he won the economic exchanges, against just thirty-seven per cent who thought Obama did—will be criticized for his blunders on Libya, guns, and women.
And [Michael] Tomasky declares, "Obama is back!":
[Obama won the debate. Won it big. Maybe not as big as Romney won the first one, but big enough to be clear. More interesting than that, though, is the way he won it.]  [....]

So how much difference does it all make? Not as much as the first debate, but my guess is probably enough. Obama needs these kinds of headlines: He’s back! Obama shows some fight. Obama on his game. Et cetera. He’ll get those, and he earned them. The press was hungry two weeks ago to get Romney back in this thing, so there’d be a race to write about, so the stories would get eyeballs. Romney delivered, and the press wrote it. The same will happen now.

But this debate probably won’t change the dynamic as much as the first one did. Probably fewer people watched. But certainly liberals and Democrats got the boost they wanted. And that bogeyman—Obama can’t debate, he’s frozen, and my own contribution, does he even want this?—is off his back. It’s showtime.

Jeffrey Goldberg – The real Benghazi embarrassment

As is often the case, Jeffrey Goldberg is on-target here.  What happened in Benghazi was a significant human and diplomatic loss that ought to be mourned and a local defeat that needs to be understood and learned from, but not in itself an embarrassment or humiliation. "The embarrassment is that political culture in America is such that we can't have an adult conversation about the lessons of Benghazi," but instead have been sidetracked into a superficial pseudo-scandal that has more to do with political opportunism and partisan point-scoring than serious analysis. And "[b]ecause the conversation around Benghazi is so stupid," if the US government does draw any long-term institutional lessons from this experience, those lessons are likely to be stupid, counter-productive, and self-defeating.

I can't do better than to quote from Goldberg's discussion, so see below.  (For some follow-ups on the gradually emerging picture of what probably happened in Benghazi, as well as its political aftermath in the US, see here & here.)

—Jeff Weintraub

==============================
Jeffrey Goldberg
October 12, 2012
The Benghazi Embarrassment

The embarrassment of the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi is not that it happened. America has its victories against terrorism, and its defeats, and the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three American security personnel represents one defeat in a long war. The embarrassment is that political culture in America is such that we can't have an adult conversation about the lessons of Benghazi, a conversation that would focus more on understanding al Qaeda affiliates in North Africa, on the limitations and imperfections of security, and on shortfalls in our intelligence gathering, than on who said what when in the Rose Garden.

What we've got now is a discussion about who needs to be fired, and which candidate is in a better position to score cheap points. Does Mitt Romney actually think that Barack Obama doesn't believe that what happened in Benghazi was an act of terror? A larger question: Does anyone seriously believe that Barack Obama, a president who is at war in more Muslim countries than any president in American history, is soft on al Qaeda? And one other question: Does Barack Obama believe that Republicans somehow aren't allowed to raise serious questions about the Administration's response to the attack? Again, I wish the Republicans would frame these questions not to raise doubts about the commander-in-chief's innermost feelings about terrorism, but to ask what specific actions do we need to take, quickly, to try to prevent follow-on attacks? Whatever happened to that whole notion of politics stopping at the water's edge?

Four quick points:

1) Because the conversation around Benghazi is so stupid, we're going to end up with more mindless CYA security "improvements" that will imprison American diplomats in their fortress compounds even more than they are already imprisoned.

[....]

4) As Blake Hounshell put it, "Amb. Chris Stevens was a big boy and he made his own decision to go to Benghazi despite the risks. If he thought it was too dangerous, he should not have gone." We've lost thousands of American government employees over the past 10 years in the Middle East and in Afghanistan. Nearly all of them were in uniform, but Foreign Service officers know the risks as well. We need to treat the loss of these four men in Libya as a battlefield loss. That would require people such as Darrell Issa, who chaired a House Oversight committee hearing on the Benghazi attacks, from saying foolish things, like he did the other day. I wrote about this in my Bloomberg View column:
What Republicans shouldn't do is make statements like the one Issa made on CBS's "Face the Nation" on Oct. 14. Issa argued that if security officials had repeatedly requested reinforcements for U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya "and that's not being heard, then it isn't just Ambassador Stevens who is now dead -- it's everybody who works throughout the Middle East is at risk."

Eleven years after the Sept. 11 attacks, and 12 years after the fatal raid on the USS Cole in Yemen, and Issa has just realized that assignment to the Middle East might pose risks for American government personnel!

Here's the problem with Issa's stunning insight: In his desire to cast the administration as incompetent, he does an enormous disservice to the cause of forward-leaning diplomacy and engagement. American embassies are already fortresses. Issa would dig a moat around them. After a point, there's simply no reason to dispatch diplomats to hostile capitals if they can't engage with actual citizens. Risk is inherent for U.S. diplomats posted to the Middle East.
[JW: Anne Applebaum also makes that last set of arguments, which strike me as correct and important. "To my mind, there is only one truly disturbing element of this discussion: the underlying assumptions — made by almost everyone participating in the argument — that no American diplomats should ever be exposed to any risk whatsoever and that it is always better to have too much security than too little. [....] Diplomats who have no contact with ordinary people get things very wrong and are liable to be badly misunderstood themselves. [....] There is such a thing as too much security."]

Is Romnesia contagious? Is it a curable condition?

The outcome of the presidential election may well turn on the answers to those two questions.  The video clip below speaks for itself, so just watch & listen   (The key punch line unrolls from 3:10 - 3:40, and it's worth going through the build-up to get there.) —Jeff Weintraub


Did "Homeland" slander Beirut?

There is a grim humor to the juxtaposition of these two recent stories.

=> Here's the first story (from the Associated Press, via Ha'aretz):
Militants carrying assault weapons clear the area around a street, shouting in Arabic for people to get out of the way. A jeep pulls up: The world's No. 1 jihadi has arrived for a meeting with top Hezbollah commanders. On rooftops, U.S. snipers crouch unseen, the kingpin in their crosshairs at last.

The scene, from a recent episode of the hit U.S. Showtime series "Homeland," is supposed to be Beirut. But it is really [filmed] in Israel, a country similar enough in some areas to stand in for Lebanon, yet a world away in most other respects.

The show about Arab terrorists and American turncoats has inadvertently become a tale of two cities. Some Beirutis are angry because the depiction of their city as swarming with militiamen is misleading and because they see Israel as the enemy. [....]

Lebanese Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud told The Associated Press on Thursday that he's so upset about the portrayal of Beirut that he's considering a lawsuit. [....]
It's understandable that a Tourism Minister might be upset about a portrayal of Beirut as a city "swarming with militiamen," where Hizbullah gunmen and international terrorists operate with impunity. But we might want to take this indignation with a grain of salt.  As the AP article goes on to point out:
Beirut itself has developed impressively in the two decades since its 15-year civil war ended, and its growing renown as a party city in its own right - the most liberal and fun-loving of major Arab cities - is a source of some fascination to Israelis who are barred from going there.

But the portrayal of Lebanon as swarming with guns is hardly unreasonable nonetheless.

The country has dozens of armed militias that still flourish, and an alarming number of private individuals have weapons in their homes, including hunting rifles, guns and even RPG launchers.

The biggest militia of all, Iranian-backed Hezbollah, has gained so much power and influence over the years that it's now part of the government, wielding virtual veto power, and long-running talks on disarmament have gone nowhere.

The abundance of weapons is one reason why conflicts here can turn deadly so quickly.

In May, an explosive, eight-hour shootout in a residential area of west Beirut, which apparently began after a domestic dispute, killed several people - including a man who was firing machine guns and lobbing grenades from his balcony.

Lebanon also has seen a rise in clashes stemming from the civil war in neighboring Syria. [....]
=> On the whole, though, isn't Beirut now a relatively safe, stable, and economically vibrant city? Isn't the portrayal of Beirut as violent and unsafe just an out-of-date stereotype left over from previous decades of civil war and foreign intervention?

Well, here's the second story, reported in yesterday's New York Times:
BEIRUT, Lebanon — A powerful bomb devastated a Christian neighborhood of this capital city of Lebanon on Friday, killing an intelligence official long viewed as an enemy by neighboring Syria and unnerving a nation as Syria’s sectarian-fueled civil war spills beyond its borders and threatens to engulf the region.

The blast, which sheared the faces off buildings, killed at least eight people, wounded 80 and transformed a quiet tree-lined street into a scene reminiscent of Lebanon’s long civil war, threatened to worsen sectarian tensions. [....]

Within hours of the attack, the Lebanese authorities announced that the dead included the intelligence chief of the country’s internal security service, Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, instantly spurring accusations that the Syrian government had assassinated him for recently uncovering what the authorities said was a Syrian plot to provoke unrest in Lebanon.

“They wanted to get him, and they got him,” said Paul Salem, a regional analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Center.

But if the attack was targeted, the blast was most certainly not. The force of the explosion left elderly residents fleeing their wrecked homes in bloodied pajamas and spewed charred metal as far as two blocks. [....]
=> This bombing was no doubt part of the regional spillover from the ongoing struggle for Syria, and it is understandable that at this point Lebanese political figures would prefer to blame it publicly on foreign actors rather than domestic opponents. But it's unrealistic to pretend that this bombing wasn't also linked to political conflicts within Lebanon itself. After all, Hizbullah is not only a client of the Assad regime (and of Assad's own patrons in Tehran), but is the most active and significant ally of the Syrian regime in the whole Arab world.  And they had every reason to view the assassination of Gen. Hassan with satisfaction, both for its own sake and in order to intimidate others.

In today's Ha'aretz Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff suggest, very plausibly, that "Even if the Syrian military provided the intelligence for Friday's car bombing in central Beirut, Hezbollah executed it. The alliance between them is closer than ever and is leading to friction with the Lebanese army." They argue further that this bombing should probably be regarded as the "opening shot in Hezbollah's battle for the future of Lebanon." Thar remains to be seen. But in the meantime, their analysis is worth reading in full.

—Jeff Weintraub

Andrew Sullivan lambasts the cynicism & hypocrisy of Republican complaints about Obama's lack of "bipartisanship"

Republican attacks on Obama for his alleged lack of "bipartisanship" are so blatantly dishonest, hypocritical, and absurd that it might seem almost redundant to point this out once again. But if someone repeatedly claims that the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, and this claim is even treated seriously in some circles, then it's worth repeating that it gets reality backward.

On this planet, the reality is that from the moment Obama took office, the Congressional Republicans in both houses have pursued a deliberate strategy of uncompromising partisan intransigence manifested in a campaign of unrelenting, promiscuous, and almost monolithic obstructionism—which has included an absolutely unprecedented volume of filibusters and other tactics of procedural sabotage, delay, and dysfunction.  (I mentioned a few more details a week ago here.)  After the Republicans recaptured the House in the 2010 mid-term elections their levels of intransigence and partisan confrontation escalated even further.  In 2011, for example, they threw off all pretense of moderation or restraint by triggering an entirely gratuitous and artificial crisis over lifting the debt ceiling, using this manufactured crisis as a lever for crude political extortion.  That spectacularly irresponsible game of chicken brought the federal government to the verge of its first default in US history, provoked a first-ever credit downgrade for US debt, and left the country facing the prospect of going over a "fiscal cliff" right after the November elections.  Of course, this manufactured crisis also undermined the economy's recovery from the recession, but from the Republicans' perspective this side-effect was a partisan bonus, not a drawback.

(At the same time, of course, Republicans continued to complain that the slowness of the economic recovery was due to businessmen's "uncertainty" about federal policies. That's a bogus analysis anyway, but when Republicans themselves are deliberately increasing the level of "uncertainty" for partisan purposes, the hypocrisy involved goes even beyond the usual standards.)

The fact that this was a deliberately chosen strategy of partisan polarization and rule-or-ruin intransigence (worked out before Obama even took office) should not be news to anyone, since key Republican figures made that quite clear for anyone who was paying attention.  Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, for example, explained in several interviews during 2009 that it was critical for Republicans to avoid even the appearance of bipartisan collaboration on “things like the budget, national security and then ultimately, obviously, health care.”
"It was absolutely critical that everybody [in the Republican caucus] be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out," Mr. McConnell said about the health legislation in an interview, suggesting that even minimal Republican support could sway the public. "It’s either bipartisan or it isn’t."
So no one should have been surprised when McConnell declared, in October 2010, that "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

Well, one might respond, what's odd about that?  Isn't that just normal partisan politics?  Yes and no, since the degree of party discipline, deliberate partisan polarization, and inflexible obstructionism on the Republican side are not historically normal, but extreme and exceptional.  However, if Republicans like McConnell genuinely believe that the policies of the Obama administration are disastrous for the country, wouldn't that justify using any means, however extreme, to undermine Obama's agenda, deny him any legislative successes, and get him defeated this November?

Perhaps.  But if Republicans do genuinely believe that a rule-or-ruin politics of all-out polarization, obstructionism, and non-collaboration is justified and even morally obligatory, it is a pretty sick joke to then turn reality on its head and blame Obama and the Democrats for partisan gridlock and the absence of "bipartisan" cooperation in Washington.  One might ask how they think they can get away with constantly repeating this transparent falsehood ... except that, to a depressing extent, they do seem to be getting away with it.

And as long as that's the case, why should they stop?  Quite aside from one's partisan preferences, to the extent that this strategy is successful and incurs no electoral costs, the consequences further poison American politics and are bad for the republic.

Andrew Sullivan made some of the same points yesterday, a bit more compactly, in an effective post marked by an appropriate combination of exasperation, disgust, indignation, and astonishment. See below.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

=========================
Andrew Sullivan (Daily Dish)
October 18, 2012
Romney's Etch-A-Sketch Complete: He's Now A White Obama

The cynicism of the GOP can sometimes make you laugh or cry. In 2009, a newly elected president was eager to reach out to Republicans, a Democrat who adopted tax cuts as a third of the stimulus, incorporated Republican ideas on the individual mandate and healthcare exchanges, increased domestic oil and gas production, decimated al Qaeda and killed bin Laden etc etc. He got zero House votes for a desperately needed stimulus in his first month as president. And yet that GOP now blames Obama for being obstructionist and portrays Romney as the great healer:



The cynicism turns my stomach. And what turns it even more is that it might just possibly work. He's been ahead nationally for ten days straight, after all.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Obama redeems himself

I think Jonathan Chait and others were quite right to warn that the "town hall" format of last night's presidential "debate" would make it especially difficult for Obama to accomplish the two tasks he needed to pull off simultaneously in order to repair the damage from the debacle of the first debate on October 3—i.e., to restore his own credibility and to counter-attack effectively against Governor Etch-a-Sketch.  But in the end Obama met that challenge successfully, with some help from Romney's own blunders and weaknesses.

Taegan Goddard's reaction cut to the heart of the matter:
If President Obama had done this well in the first debate, most would have already written off Mitt Romney. Obama won the debate decisively.

The president had a simple formula: Defend and explain his record while insisting that Romney wasn't being truthful. He kept Romney on the defensive and came prepared with counter-punches to nearly every topic. It was devastatingly effective. [....]
There's a lot of other post-debate commentary one could quote, but for the moment I will just stick to Andrew Sullivan. The first presidential debate left him deeply demoralized (and not entirely without cause).  After last night's debate, he was "elated".  Here's how he summed up his liveblogging of the second debate:
To my mind, Obama dominated Romney tonight in every single way: in substance, manner, style, and personal appeal. He came back like a lethal, but restrained predator. He was able to defend his own record, think swiftly on his feet, and his Benghazi answer was superb. He behaved like a president. He owned the presidency. And Romney? Well, he has no answers on the math question and was exposed. He was vulnerable on every social issue, especially immigration. And he had no real answer to the question of how he'd be different than George W Bush.

I'm excitable - but sometimes politics is about emotion as well as reason. And my view is that Obama halted Romney's momentum in its tracks and his performance will bring women voters in particular flooding back. He's just more persuasive. On watching with the sound off - apart from weird gaps in the CSPAN coverage - Obama did not grin like Biden; he smiled confidently, leaning forward. Within twenty minutes, Romney looked flush[ed] and a little schvitzy.

Game, set and match to Obama. He got it; he fought back; he gave us all more than ample reason to carry on the fight.
All that strikes me as correct. And Romney's discussion last night featured a number of prevarications, distortions, evasions, and outright lies that may come back to haunt him over the next few weeks. Of course, he was frequently dishonest in the first presidential debate, too.  But fact-checking usually has little effect on someone perceived to have "won" a debate decisively.  (If it worked, then who really cares whether the candidate's statements happened to be true or false?)  A candidate perceived as a loser may well be more vulnerable.  I guess we'll see.

Aside from reassuring and re-energizing Obama's supporters, will his victory in last night's debate have an important impact on the race?  Well, as Yogi Berra is supposed to have said, it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future. Again, we'll have to see.  But I do think it's safe to say that if Obama had blown this debate the way he blew the first one, his chances for re-election might well have been over.  Now things look very different. According to all available information, this remains a very close race. Stay tuned, and let's hope for the best.

Onward and upward!
Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  A transcript of the debate is here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Jonathan Chait warns Obama supporters not to expect too much from tonight's debate

We could all drown in pre-debate commentaries & speculations if we let ourselves get sucked into that swamp.  But I think it's worth paying attention to some brief & characteristically shrewd analysis from Jonathan Chait.  Chait argues that the structure and format of tonight's "town hall" debate make it unlikely that, even in the best of circumstances, Obama can use it to repair the damage from the first presidential debate very decisively.  Some highlights:
President Obama’s first debate was disastrous in two distinct ways. He appeared listless and professorial, unable to boil down his beliefs into crisp statements, and generally looked far less like a president than did Romney — forceful, poised, firing off bullet points with measured assurance. On top of that, he allowed Romney to execute, in the course of 90 minutes, the sort of ideological repositioning he usually requires months or even years to pull off, defining himself to middle America as a health-care-loving, tax-cut-for-the-rich-abhorring, anti–Wall Street Massachusetts moderate.

Obama’s dilemma in his second debate is that he can fix the first problem a lot more easily than the second.
Too true. And here's part of the reason.
A town hall debate is not really a debate. It is a kind of competitive question-answering show. The format revolves around undecided voters tossing queries at the candidates. The whole gestalt of the program is to privilege interaction between the candidates and the regular people speaking with them — for them to press each other with queries makes them look like they are avoiding the questions. Worst still, voters can be counted on to implore them to stop attacking each other and just get along.

And so the opportunities to expose the omissions and outright falsehoods in Romney’s repositioning will be vastly more limited than they were in the first debate, and the risks of attacking them much greater. This isn’t to say Obama can’t try to take Romney apart, only that the potential for such attacks to backfire is both large and — here is the crucial thing — uncertain. [....]
I suspect that's probably right.  The first presidential debate on October 3 offered Obama his best shot, and he blew it.  In tonight's debate he may be able to strengthen his candidacy to a certain extent, but probably not that much.  And he could easily blow it again, in a different way, if he's not careful.

On the other hand ... such matters are hard to predict, and all sorts of unexpected things might happen.  It's easy to imagine various ways that Romney could also blow it.

Chait is an exceptionally sharp and insightful political analyst, so his assessments and predictions always deserve careful attention.  But he can sometimes get things wrong too.  As Chait himself admitted, before the Biden-Ryan debate he "predicted that Paul Ryan would wipe the floor with Joe Biden," and this prediction turned out to be utterly wrong.  So we'll just have to see what happens tonight.  Like it or not, a lot may be riding on the outcome.

—Jeff Weintraub

FDR on the Romney/Ryan ticket ...

... via Jon Stewart.  —Jeff Weintraub


No, Social Security is not "going broke"

I don't want to get into a comprehensive rehashing of last Thursday's Biden-Ryan debate here.  (One place to go for a quick overview is this roundup of reactions & assessments that Greg Sargent posted the day after the debate.)

Obviously, for those of us who support Obama's re-election, the vice-presidential slugging match was a lot less disappointing, not to say excruciating, than the first Obama-Romney debate.  Still, it was not a knockout for either side, and I must confess that the parts of the discussion dealing with foreign policy, which consumed a lot of time, didn't strike me as having much depth or substance.  Both candidates stuck too much to sloganeering, evaded a lot of the most difficult and important issues, and made a number of questionable assertions.  Ryan came off looking a bit worse, I would say, if only because he made it clear that the Romney/Ryan attacks on Obama's foreign policies are superficial and mostly just rhetorical, at best, since they have no serious alternative policies to offer.  Ryan did repeat the standard Romney claims that Obama and his administration have been systematically "apologizing for America," "apologizing for our values," and so on.  Since these claims happen to be quite groundless and dishonest, I hope Ryan's demagoguery on this score helped chip away further at his highly inflated reputation for honesty and integrity; but I'm aware that for some parts of the electorate, these fabrications probably sound convincing.

On the other hand, when the discussion turned to domestic issues, which are the ones that most voters are really worried about, then it seems to me that Biden crushed Ryan—in terms of both substance and style.  (Of course, I realize that some readers, mostly Republicans, will disagree with me on that one.)  Biden hammed it up a bit, was sometimes a little imprecise, and pulled his punches on some important issues, which he mentioned but didn't drive home as fully or effectively as I would have liked.  On the other hand, the points he made were largely on-target and probably convincing to most voters (in my possibly fallible opinion).  And he responded effectively to Ryan's lies, prevarications, distortions, evasions, refusals to answer questions, and empty slogans by punching back with facts, cheerful mockery, and occasionally just laughing in Ryan's face.  The fact that so many Republicans and Republican-leaning pundits have been whining about Biden's impoliteness and "disrespect" for Ryan is good evidence that they know this strategy was pretty effective.

But as I said, I will avoid getting into detail on all that.

=> Instead, I'd like to highlight an interesting and revealing moment in the debate when the moderator, Martha Raddatz, offered a useful clue into the prevailing conventional wisdom by repeating a widely accepted but quite inaccurate right-wing propaganda point as though it were an established fact.
RADDATZ: Let's talk about Medicare and entitlements. Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke and taking a larger share of the budget in the process.
Will benefits for Americans under these programs have to change for the programs to survive?
Mr. Ryan?
RYAN: Absolutely. Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt. These are indisputable facts. [....]
Actually, no.  The claim that Social Security is "going bankrupt" has been repeated so frequently over the past decades by Republican politicians and right-wing propagandists (whose real agenda is to undermine and eventually dismantle Social Security, which they dislike in principle) that even people who should know better often vaguely assume that this claim must be correct, or at least plausible.  But it happens to be false.

Since this canard keeps coming back, and has to be refuted over and over again, I will just quote some things I've already said about it in the past (here).  Sometime during the next few decades, Social Security may well require a few small fixes and adjustments.  But it is not facing urgent financial problems, let alone imminent crisis, and unless the Republicans and gullible Democrats manage to sabotage it, there are no good reasons to worry that it is headed for financial collapse.
It's true that Medicare is on a path toward financial unsustainability (a problem intensified, perhaps intentionally, by the way the Bush/Rove prescription drug plan was designed) and will require some serious reforms down the line. As Paul Krugman has pointed out, right-wingers often try to blur the two together by talking about Social-Security-and-Medicare as if they were a single pathological entity. But that's just a rhetorical trick. In fact, the Social Security system is quite solvent; it is not due to run into even slight financial difficulties for decades; and those potential problems could indeed be solved with "some minor adjustments".
The fact that so many intelligent, well-intentioned, and otherwise well-informed people appear to believe otherwise
is a tribute to the effectiveness of a decades-long campaign of distortion and disinformation by right-wing politicians and propagandists, aided and abetted by widespread economic illiteracy among journalists and pundits. The point, of course, is to panic the electorate into letting them undermine, eviscerate, and eventually dismantle Social Security under the guise of "reforming" it.

So far they haven't been able to do that, but if they continue to bamboozle the public so successfully, they might pull it off sometime in the future [....]  So it's important to make it clear that this whole Chicken Little story about the imminent collapse of the Social Security system (a "Ponzi scheme" and "a monstrous lie," according to Rick Perry) is simply bogus.
Anyone interested in some further explanation & elaboration can look here & here & here & here.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Matthew Yglesias objects to yet another dishonest & hypocritical GOP talking point

Here is a point I was thinking of making myself, but I'll simply quote Matt Yglesias on this one:
4. Paul Ryan on partisanship: In 2009-10 "they had the ability to do anything of their choosing." That's nuts. In the real world, a minority of 41 senators can block almost any legislative measure. What's more, even smaller numbers of senators can create massive delays in the legislative process. The Republican caucus in 2009-10 was unusually aggressive in deploying these tools and it had a major impact on the course of legislation. GOP filibusters blocked the DREAM Act, kept Federal Reserve and Federal Housing Finance Agency offices vacant, killed hope for climate change legislation, blocked a number of fiscal stimulus measures, and so forth.
Of all the dishonest claims repeated endlessly by the Romney/Ryan campaign and the right-wing propaganda machine, the most shamelessly phony may be their complaints about Obama's supposed lack of "bipartisanship".  In the real world, from the moment that Obama took office, he faced an unrelenting campaign of monolithic and indiscriminate obstructionism by Senate Republicans, along with a systematic unwillingness to compromise or cooperate by Republicans in both Houses. (In 2011, after the Republicans had regained control of the House of Representatives, they escalated further by irresponsibly generating a completely artificial crisis over renewing the debt ceiling that brought the federal government to the brink of its first default in history, provoked a first-ever downgrade in the US credit rating, undermined economic confidence more generally, and reinforced the widespread impression that the US political system is incapable of dealing constructively with the country's problems.)

In the Senate, the use of the filibuster and other obstructionist procedural devices has become routine and promiscuous to a degree unprecedented in American history. And this dysfunctional situation is overwhelmingly the result of a deliberate rule-or-ruin strategy pursued by the Congressional Republicans, not an outcome that can be blamed even-handedly on both sides.  As James Fallows correctly pointed out a year ago, "requiring 60 votes for everything is new, and it is overwhelmingly a Republican tactic."

(For more details and elaboration, see Why "bipartisanship" won't work - Facing the underlying reality and an indispensable analysis published earlier this year by Thomas Mann & Norman Ornstein, "Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem".)

My impression is that these crucial facts are not widely understood or appreciated. And, on the whole, neither the Democrats nor political "journalists" do enough to make this situation clear to the general public.  That's unfortunate, since as long as the Republicans aren't called out for pursuing this strategy of obstructionism, sabotage, and partisan gridlock (alternating with uncompromising steamroller tactics when they happen to control the White House and Congress) they pay no electoral price for it.  And if they don't get punished for it, why should they stop?

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

Josh Barro nails the Romney/Ryan campaign's most recent dishonesty about its fake tax "plan"

Romney and Ryan propose, among other things, to retain all the Bush tax cuts and then add an across-the-board 20% cut in federal taxes on top of that.  They also claim that these tax cuts will not increase the deficit, because they will offset them by eliminating various "loopholes" and deductions--which they stubbornly refuse to specify, except to promise that they will not touch the mortgage interest deduction for non-wealthy families or existing deductions for medical & retirement savings, charitable contributions, and some other widely popular features of the federal tax code.  Recently, Romney has also begun to claim, in direct contrast to his earlier statements, that his changes in the tax code will not reduce the effective tax rates for the wealthy (after all those "loopholes" have been removed).  There's more, but that's enough for the moment.  They and their propagandists claim that their tax plan (which they refuse to spell out in any detail) can magically accomplish all these goals simultaneously.

At the same time, they plan to increase military spending dramatically (the cost of which will apparently be offset by firing Big Bird and cutting back Medicaid support for poor children and other vulnerable populations).

Various analysts have pointed out that for the Romney/Ryan tax plan to accomplish all these goals at once is simply impossible, so if they do follow through on those sweeping tax cuts, then some of the other promises will have to be broken.  On the basis of past experience with Republican campaign proposals of this sort (remember George W. Bush, way back in 2000?), I am willing to predict that, if Romney & Ryan win the election and have the chance to push through their policies, then (1) they will indeed push through sweeping tax cuts, (2) these tax cuts will disproportionately favor the wealthy, and (3) the overall results will indeed increase the deficit, just as common sense might suggest.  We have been through this charade several times before, haven't we?  What's the big mystery?

In response to those analyses, Romney/Ryan and their propagandists repeatedly cite "six studies" which allegedly demonstrate that fulfilling the whole package of promises in the Romney/Ryan tax plan is not mathematically impossible.  As one might expect, on close inspection this claim turns out to be deeply dishonest—as various people have shown after taking the trouble to examine these supposed "six studies."

=> One clear, concise, and definitive debunking of this malarkey was provided by Josh Barro—who is not a left-liberal firebrand, but a moderate Republican—in two pieces for Bloomberg View.  The second piece, "The Final Word on Mitt Romney’s Tax Plan," is below, and I recommend reading the whole thing.  But here are some highlights:
Mitt Romney's campaign says I'm full of it. I said Romney's tax plan is mathematically impossible:  he can't simultaneously keep his pledges to cut tax rates 20 percent and repeal the estate tax and alternative minimum tax; broaden the tax base enough to avoid growing the deficit; and not raise taxes on the middle class. They say they have six independent studies -- six! -- that "have confirmed the soundness of the Governor’s tax plan," and so I should stop whining. Let's take a tour of those studies and see how they measure up.

The Romney campaign sent over a list of the studies, but they are perhaps more accurately described as "analyses," since four of them are blog posts or op-eds. I'm not hating -- I blog for a living -- but I don't generally describe my posts as "studies."

None of the analyses do what Romney's campaign says: show that his tax plan is sound. [....]
Let's skip over the first two blog posts, which come from the right-wing American Enterprise Institute.
3 and 4. The Romney camp cites two analyses by Martin Feldstein: a Wall Street Journal op-ed and a blog post responding to criticism of that op-ed.

Feldstein ran the numbers and said Romney can cut tax rates by 20 percent and eliminate enough tax expenditures to balance the budget without raising taxes on the middle class. But Feldstein defines "middle class" differently than Romney does.

Feldstein allows for tax increases on people making more than $100,000. But on Sept. 14, Romney told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that he would hold people making less than $200,000 or $250,000 harmless from tax increases.

The Romney campaign, therefore, is dishonest in saying Feldstein's analyses "confirm the soundness" of Romney's tax plan. Feldstein is analyzing a different tax plan, which would allow tax increases on taxpayers making between $100,000 and $200,000. That's a large group, accounting for 24 percent of all adjusted gross income in 2009. But it's a group Romney has pledged not to touch.
OK, those are the first four out of the alleged "six studies," and not one is actually a "study" that has "confirmed the soundness of the Governor’s tax plan."

Then we get two actual papers by economists.
5. Next up is a paper by Curtis Dubay of the Heritage Foundation. Dubay raises the same issues as Brill on municipal bond interest, life insurance and economic growth. He adds another claim: Romney would likely change the rules about capital gains tax treatment on estates, raising additional revenue.
For Barro's explanation of why Dubay's argument is fallacious, which requires a little bit of technical detail, see his full piece below.
Finally we have Princeton's Harvey Rosen, who ran his own score of Romney's tax plan and finds that, even if Romney sets his tax increase threshold at $200,000, he can more than eliminate the deficit identified by TPC. But there are several problems with Rosen's analysis, as highlighted by William Gale, a co-author of the Tax Policy Center report that sparked this discussion.
Again, see the full piece below.  (Some more embarrassing details, from Harold Pollack, are here.) But the basic problem is that, in order to make the numbers add up, Gale has to rely on implausible assumptions (which might better be described as "supply-side" fantasies) about how those changes in the tax code will magically stimulate economic growth enough to offset the cuts in tax rates.  We've heard that song before, for over three decades now.  Should we really be fooled one more time?

=> In short, the Romney/Ryan claims on this score partly rely on distorting the facts and partly involve simply making things up.  What else is new?

—Jeff Weintraub

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Bloomberg View
October 12, 2012
The Final Word on Mitt Romney’s Tax Plan
By Josh Barro

Mitt Romney's campaign says I'm full of it. I said Romney's tax plan is mathematically impossible: he can't simultaneously keep his pledges to cut tax rates 20 percent and repeal the estate tax and alternative minimum tax; broaden the tax base enough to avoid growing the deficit; and not raise taxes on the middle class. They say they have six independent studies -- six! -- that "have confirmed the soundness of the Governor’s tax plan," and so I should stop whining.  Let's take a tour of those studies and see how they measure up.

The Romney campaign sent over a list of the studies, but they are perhaps more accurately described as "analyses," since four of them are blog posts or op-eds. I'm not hating -- I blog for a living -- but I don't generally describe my posts as "studies."

None of the analyses do what Romney's campaign says: show that his tax plan is sound. I'm going to walk through them individually, but first I want to make a broad point.

The Tax Policy Center paper that sparked this discussion found that Romney's plan couldn't work because his tax rate cuts would provide $86 billion more in tax relief to people making over $200,000 than Romney could recoup by eliminating tax expenditures for that group. That means his plan is necessarily a tax cut for the rich, so if Romney keeps his promise not to grow the deficit, he'll have to raise taxes on the middle class.

Various analyses have adjusted TPC's assumptions in an effort to bring down that $86 billion deficit. But getting from $86 billion down to $0 is not enough to make Romney's proposal work. For Romney's math to add up, he actually needs a substantial surplus of a high-income base broadening above the cost of his high-income rate cuts.

This is for two reasons. First, TPC's thought experiment -- eliminate as many deductions as possible at the top while holding those below $200,000 harmless from tax increases -- was not only exceedingly generous in granting Romney's assumptions. It was impossibly generous.  Under the terms analyzed by the TPC study, a taxpayer earning $199,999 would face a drastically higher tax bill for earning $1 more in income. That doesn't happen in the real world.

Instead you would need to phase in restrictions in deductions on the wealthy, which would reduce the amount of revenue those restrictions generated. Harvard Professor Martin Feldstein, in one of the analyses cited by the Romney campaign, makes a rough estimate that a phase-in would cost about $15 billion. My back-of-the-envelope calculations roughly match that.

There is a second reason Romney needs a big surplus for his plan to work. When asked why he won't lay out a specific plan to eliminate tax expenditures, Romney consistently says it's because he can't dictate a plan to Congress and will work with legislators from a menu of options. As he said in last week's debate:

I'm going to work together with Congress to say, OK, what are the various ways we could bring down deductions, for instance?. . . . There are alternatives to accomplish the objective I have, which is to bring down rates, broaden the base, simplify the code and create incentives for growth.

There are only meaningful "alternatives" to discuss with Congress if Romney can pick and choose from a pool of tax preferences for the wealthy that far exceeds the $250 billion annual cost of his rate cuts for them. If the pool of available base broadeners is just large enough to finance his tax cuts, then Romney actually is dictating a plan to Congress: if they don't eliminate exactly the set of preferences he proposes, his plan will either have to raise taxes on the middle class or grow the deficit.

TPC finds that Romney's rate cuts, plus elimination of the estate tax and Alternative Minimum Tax, would cost the Treasury about $250 billion in revenue from high earners. If he could somehow find, say, $300 billion in base broadeners from the wealthy, $15 billion of which would have to go to a phaseout, that wouldn't leave a lot of "alternatives" on the table. Yet there aren't enough base broadeners for Romney to reach the $300 billion level, let alone exceed it.

Now, on to the six studies.

1. The strongest of the six analyses is actually one of the shortest: An October 1 blog post from Alex Brill at the American Enterprise Institute. Brill chips away at the $86 billion figure by raising three objections to the TPC study.

TPC included in its baseline Obamacare taxes, which Romney did not say he would offset ($29 billion), and did not account for the possibility of eliminating favorable tax treatment of municipal bonds ($25 billion) and life insurance ($20 billion).

I think these objections are correct with regard to life insurance and Obamacare taxes, but mostly wrong with regard to municipal bond interest, which should be counted at just $5 billion. This is because the CBO estimates that only about 20 percent of the tax subsidy for municipal bond interest actually accrues to bondholders; the rest goes to state and local governments because bondholders will accept low interest rates on government debt in exchange for favorable tax treatment.

If the muni bond tax preference were eliminated, high income taxpayers would pay about $25 billion more in federal income taxes. But they would be relieved of roughly $20 billion in implicit taxes they pay to state and local governments in the form of reduced interest rates on municipal debt, for only $5 billion in actual added taxes.

Depending on your assumptions, it may be that the remaining $20 billion in muni bond subsidies effectively flows back to owners of capital generally, though not to municipal bondholders specifically, by inflating the yields on non-tax advantaged investments. If the muni bond tax exemption were repealed and replaced with nothing, this would broaden the tax base.

However, it is politically unthinkable that the muni bond subsidy would be repealed without something, such as tax credit bonds, taking its place and producing similar market-wide effects. Consequently, only 20 percent of the proceeds from eliminating the muni bond subsidy should be counted as actual base broadening on high earners. Or if the muni bond subsidy were somehow repealed without offset, a key effect would be state and local governments raising taxes (mostly not on the wealthy) to pay higher interest costs.

In total, this leaves Brill about $32 billion short of closing the deficit in the TPC report. Since he also needs about $15 billion to structure a phaseout and tens of billions more to allow Romney to offer a real menu of options to Congress, Brill is well short of "confirming the soundness" of the Romney tax plan.

Finally, Brill appeals to the possibility of added economic growth, as do several of the other analyses I discuss below. Tax reform might well produce some added economic growth. But claims about growth induced by tax policy changes are often overstated -- remember, the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts were also sold on the promise of higher economic growth offsetting much of the revenue loss. It didn't happen.

2. The second analysis the Romney campaign cites is an August 9 blog post by Brill's colleague, Matt Jensen. Jensen didn't actually claim that Romney's tax plan was sound, he just raised some questions about the TPC report. He previewed the municipal bond and life insurance issues that Brill discussed at greater length. He also suggested that Romney might use a lower threshold than $200,000 for "high income," but Romney later excluded that possibility in an interview with ABC News.

As such, Jensen's post does nothing to bolster Romney's plan beyond the limited support it gets from Brill.

3 and 4. The Romney camp cites two analyses by Martin Feldstein: a Wall Street Journal op-ed and a blog post responding to criticism of that op-ed.

Feldstein ran the numbers and said Romney can cut tax rates by 20 percent and eliminate enough tax expenditures to balance the budget without raising taxes on the middle class. But Feldstein defines "middle class" differently than Romney does.

Feldstein allows for tax increases on people making more than $100,000. But on Sept. 14, Romney told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that he would hold people making less than $200,000 or $250,000 harmless from tax increases.

The Romney campaign, therefore, is dishonest in saying Feldstein's analyses "confirm the soundness" of Romney's tax plan. Feldstein is analyzing a different tax plan, which would allow tax increases on taxpayers making between $100,000 and $200,000. That's a large group, accounting for 24 percent of all adjusted gross income in 2009. But it's a group Romney has pledged not to touch.

5. Next up is a paper by Curtis Dubay of the Heritage Foundation. Dubay raises the same issues as Brill on municipal bond interest, life insurance and economic growth. He adds another claim: Romney would likely change the rules about capital gains tax treatment on estates, raising additional revenue.

Currently, when you die, your heirs receive a "step-up," with the value of your assets determined at the time of your death. Say you bought your home for $100,000, it was worth $200,000 when you died and your heir eventually sold it for $250,000. Your heir would only owe capital gains tax on a gain of $50,000; the other $100,000 of gains would go untaxed. This is often described as an offset for the estate tax.

Dubay assumes that, when repealing the estate tax, Romney would adopt "carry-over" basis, meaning your heir would assume the gains accrued during your lifetime and pay tax on the entire gain when he sells those assets. Dubay says this would raise $19 billion annually from people earning over $200,000.

But that's wrong. Dubay is citing a report from the Office of Management and Budget that compares the current step-up basis rules to a regime in which accrued capital gains are taxed immediately upon death. Though Dubay has protested that this isn't so, you can see it plainly in footnote 74 on page 272 of the OMB report.

I have not seen an estimate of the revenue impact of moving to carry-over basis at death, but it would surely be much less than the revenue impact of forcing the realization of capital gains at death.

6. Finally we have Princeton's Harvey Rosen, who ran his own score of Romney's tax plan and finds that, even if Romney sets his tax increase threshold at $200,000, he can more than eliminate the deficit identified by TPC. But there are several problems with Rosen's analysis, as highlighted by William Gale, a co-author of the Tax Policy Center report that sparked this discussion.

Rosen calculates the revenues needed to offset Romney's cuts to tax rates, but he does not include revenue loss due to repealing the estate tax and the Alternative Minimum Tax. And he makes very aggressive assumptions about dynamic effects, where taxpayers respond to lower tax rates by reporting more taxable income. Gale emails:

Rosen discusses and includes the effects of how taxpayers adjust their activities in response to lower tax rates (“micro behavioral” responses to tax rate cuts, which tend to reduce the revenue loss) but he neglects to include similar effects for how taxpayers respond to base-broadening measures. For example, he does not allow for the possibility that taxpayers with mortgages would likely choose to pay down their mortgages with taxable assets (and thus reduce taxable investment income) if the mortgage interest deduction were removed.

Rosen also depends on aggressive assumptions about macro-level dynamic effects, where taxes rise not because individual taxpayers report more taxable income but because the economy grows as a whole. In other words, he is depending on rosy -- and not necessarily warranted -- economic assumptions to make the numbers pencil.

There you have the six "studies" on which the Romney campaign has based its defense of Romney's tax plan. Individually and collectively they fail the task.

Finally, I would note one item that the Romney campaign does not cite in support of its tax plan: Any analysis actually prepared for the campaign in preparation for announcing the plan in February. You would expect that, in advance of announcing a tax plan, the campaign would commission an analysis to make sure that all of its planks can coexist. Releasing that analysis now would be to the campaign's advantage, helping them put down claims like mine that their math doesn't add up.

Why don't they release that analysis? My guess is because the analysis doesn't exist, and the 20 percent rate cut figure was plucked out of thin air for political reasons without regard to whether it was feasible.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)