Sunday, December 30, 2012

Saturday, December 29, 2012

All Current Filibuster Reform Proposals Are Small

We've got two Senate procedural reform proposals under heavy discussion these days -- the "talking filibuster" proposal from younger reformers like Merkley and Udall, and something else from McCain and Levin. As far as I can tell, neither proposal would've broken Dixiecrat filibusters of civil rights legislation, Republican filibusters of health care reform, or future Republican filibusters of climate change. Merkley's people think their proposal will help with smaller stuff here and there, and maybe it will. But it looks like Republicans can still block anything with an unending talking filibuster manned by Senators from conservative states who fear primaries more than general elections, and therefore are controlled by Fox News (there are at least 15 of these guys). Jonathan Bernstein has convincingly argued that that is the most likely outcome.

Because of this, I'm more focused on the long-term consequences for the Senate. Whatever happens this time around, I hope it eases the path to some kind of massive filibuster reform in the years to come. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

P122412PS-0121 Original caption: "First Lady Michelle Obama reacts while talking on the phone to children across the country as part of the annual NORAD Tracks Santa program. Mrs. Obama answered the phone calls from Kailua, Hawaii, Christmas Eve".

Since "Gangnam Style" is undoubtedly the youtube video & song of the year, here's the Pentatonix a capella version.

Some Senate Republicans Offer Invisible Filibuster Reform

Via Jonathan Bernstein, a collection of actual Moderate Democrats, Chickenshit Mainstream Democrats, and Republicans of various stripes are trying to put together a counterproposal of filibuster reforms, which will presumably do less to move the Senate in a majoritarian direction than the Merkley et al. talking filibuster proposals. But the people involved seem unwilling to talk about what they're doing at all. I realize the need for some level of secrecy in negotiations, but it's therefore impossible to gauge the impact of whatever reforms are being discussed. Considering the fact that the Senate is largely a norms-driven institution, the real question is if the bipartisan talks would produce a group of Republican Senators who simply refuse to go along with Mitch McConnell's delaying tactics, particularly when it comes to Presidential appointments.

I would also note that, with the exception of Mark Pryor and Lindsay Graham, the people involved with the bipartisan talks have a lot of seniority, while the more avid reformers have significantly less. Being a seniority driven institution, and given other instances of petty backbiting among Senators,  it wouldn't surprise me if one function of is to steal the thunder from whippersnappers like Merkley.

In related news, I fully expect House Impeachment manager Lindsay Graham to retire rather than run for re-election, since apparently he's too moderate for the South Carolina primary electorate. WTF, world.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Reason For Brian Schatz

I was initially perplexed when Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie nominated Lt. Gov Brian Schatz to fill Daniel Inouye's Senate seat, but after talking to some Hawaiians it seems to be a reasonable move. The other major option was Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who was Inouye's choice. If Abercrombie had appointed her, though, there would've been a special election to fill her House seat. Until then, the seat would've been open, leaving House Democrats below full strength for important votes early in the next session, most likely including the fiscal cliff.

Also, there's some possibility that a Republican would've won the special election, since those special elections don't have primaries in Hawaii. In 2010, Neil Abercrombie vacated his House seat to become Governor. Republican Charles Djou then won a three-way race against Democrats Colleen Hanabusa and Ed Case. The vote total was 39.4-30.8-27.6.  It's a perfect illustration of why two-party systems make sense. Nearly 60% of Hawaiian voters wanted a Democrat, but they were split evenly between two candidates, so the Democratic majority didn't get its way and a unified Republican minority won.

If Hanabusa wants to be in the Senate, though, she'll have an opportunity to run in 2014. I imagine that she'll be a formidable candidate, especially with Inouye's blessing upon her. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Invincible Daniel Inouye

I hadn't read up on exactly what Daniel Inouye was doing when he lost his arm in World War II, but it's a completely incredible story. He's leading his guys to attack these German machine guns and he gets shot in the stomach by a machine gun and then he destroys one machine gun nest and then leads his men to destroy another machine gun nest and then gets his arm smashed by a grenade and pries his own grenade out of the smashed arm and throws it with his good arm to destroy the last German machine gun nest and then shoots Germans and gets shot again in the leg and falls down and regains consciousness and when his men rescue him he orders them to keep fighting. And then he lived to be 88.

Apparently he picked Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to be his successor in the Senate, who sounds like a good choice to me. Ed Case, meanwhile, should not under any circumstances be chosen. I think the format is that the state party nominates three people and the Governor chooses one of them, which sounds like a perfectly reasonable format.

Update: It looks like the three party nominees are Rep. Hanabusa, Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, and state Land and Natural Resources Director Esther Kiaaina.  I assume that this leads to Hanabusa's ascension, but you'd have to ask someone who knows Hawaii politics better to be sure.

Update 2: Surprise!  It's Lt. Gov Brian Schatz. I don't know where things go from here in Hawaii politics, especially as regards the 2014 Senate general election.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Remembering Douglas Ginsburg

The Reagan-era judicial battle everyone remembers has to do with Robert Bork's nomination, and in the wake of his death, there's been a lot of discussion of that episode. Lots of ink has been spilled arguing that he was treated unfairly, and I really don't find it convincing. As Scott Lemieux argues, Ted Kennedy's speech attacking Robert Bork's views on abortion and other issues was accurate.  And as David Greenberg argues (via Bernstein), Bork's defeat wasn't unprecedented either.

The person who I think really didn't get a fair shake was Reagan's subsequent nominee. Nominated when Bork was defeated, Douglas Ginsburg withdrew after it was revealed that he had smoked marijuana even after becoming a professor at Harvard. I suppose it was embarrasing for Reagan, who started the War on Drugs, to have a nominee who had smoked marijuana. But in any event, this wasn't a good reason to reject a potential Supreme Court Justice. I don't know enough about Ginsburg's views to comment on whether he should've been confirmed in the end. But I do think he deserved to be considered on the basis of his judicial views rather than his marijuana use. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

A note on Sex & Violence in Media Products

Snark about Wayne LaPierre's shoutouts to movies and video games that were released before Adam Lanza was in kindergarten aside, I find myself for the first having some sympathy (that's the one where you don't have direct experience with their situation, but you still acknowledge the validity of their emotions) for the "it's Hollywood's fault!" argument. Clearly I'm #gettingold. But let me try to work through some of this.

Let's state the obvious: there is no connection between the presence of violent video games or movies in a culture and actual, real world violence. In the same way that the overwhelming majority of gun owners understand that "gun control" means hitting your target and not firing willy-nilly, the overwhelming majority of gamers understand the difference between reality and playing a game. The difference is all in what happens when this breaks down. If someone gets drunk and decide to take it out on some n00bs by playing Halo 4, the worst thing that happens is they spew some racist/misogynist/homophobic stuff in voice chat. More people than ever are playing video games, the summer blockbusters have gotten bigger and more explosive, and yet violent crime is down since the days of Space Invaders. Likewise, if I end up channeling my pent-up rage into Call of Duty, no one dies except in a virtual world (NOTE: I don't have any pent-up rage and I suck at FPS's so I don't even play Call of Duty, making me approximately the only gamer who doesn't own a copy). What's more, as the production of media products has been democratized more generally, the need for all content to be produce child-appropriate has declined. In an era where your media options are network TV and the movie theater, it makes a little more sense to have the government set some standards so that everyone can watch what you produce. But today cheap cameras, cable, and the internet have made it easier than ever to produce and distribute video. Why bother requiring network TV to skimp on sex, violence, and foul language, when no one is watching them anyway?

When released to theaters, this farce
was rated PG-13. But there are
two F-bombs and naked lady parts in it,
so today it's R.
But it's true that something has changed in the past generation. The MPAA doesn't publish the reasons for giving out specific ratings, but my moviewatching suggests that the raters have become much more willing to tolerate violence, particularly violence without blood, in non-R movies, but much less willing to tolerate sex. A twitter follower pointed me towards Woman In Red, released shortly after the adoption of the PG-13 rating in 1984. There's brief female nudity, off-screen sex that can be heard but not seen, two F-bombs, and that's it. The movie was PG-13. It has since been re-rated R. On the flip side, The Dark Knight features some incredibly gruesome killings, but hey, there's very little blood shown on the screen, so it gets a PG-13 rating today. I would be very surprised if it would have merited an R rating in the '80s. Likewise for the more recent James Bond movies.

Now, I don't want to cast too much judgement on this cultural shift. It simply is what it is. But surely our resident utilitarian-hedonist has an opinion on whether a high violence/low sex versus low violence/high sex media environment is better for humanity.

Bonus Friday "Did That Seriously Just Happen?" Music

In Honor of NRA president Wayne LaPierre blaming, among other things, a video game that came out when Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza was age two, here's Skrillex with "Reptile's Theme"

Friday Obama Caption Contest and Kitsch Cover

Security is getting lax at the White House. Look at this masked vigilante who snuck in! I fully expect Darrel Issa to hold months of hearings trying to drum up a scandal. WHERE IS THE OUTRAGE?!?

Today's kitsch cover comes to us from Spiderbait, performing Ram Jam's "Black Betty":

Apocalypse Predictions From Maya Are False

As Yglesias points out, Maya MacGuineas has been predicting that high deficits would be the end of the world for a very long time now. And yet, America is still able to borrow money at very low rates. There is no need for sacrifice.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What A New Gun Violence Law Might Look Like

Clinton-era Treasury Department Official (remember, ATF was part of Treasury until the Homeland Security Act) Susan Ginsburg lays out some good ideas on how to fit gun violence into a broader strategy of crime control. You can safely ignore the gun pedants (my new favorite type of internet troll) in the comments.

The main issue from a crime control perspective is not the existence of this or that type of weapon, but instead the fact that criminals are able to acquire weapons easily through private transfers, and that the chain of ownership of those weapons can't be traced. Closing the "gun-show loophole" by requiring all sale or transfer of guns to include a background check on the purchaser, would help a lot. Next up would be undoing various efforts to hamstring the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (formerly just Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms or "ATF") that were enacted during the Bush years. This is not to say that we should go back to the days of undercover agents enticing individual citizens to make technical violations of firearms laws. We should, however empower the agency to be more vigorous in ensuring that firearms sellers maintain good records, enabling law enforcement agencies to track over a longer period of time. The ATF has been understaffed for some time and cowed by a combination of approprations riders and the threat of Congerssional hearings from being more vigorous in -- well, in just about anything. I'm not an expert in this field by any means, but based on my reading of various CRS reports and other documents it appears that the vast majority of dealers are doing their part on the paperwork front, and that the problem is concentrated in a handful of unscrupulous dealers. Last but not least would be to speed the synchronization of various records of criminal and mental health histories. For instance, Colorado currently synchronizes the list of civil commitments for mental illness with the state's firearm registries every six months. Getting all relevant data to the NICS background check system in a more timely fashion will reduce the risk that someone who should fail the check will slip through.

The second question is whether or not it's worth reviving the ban on specific weapons. As Ginsburg points out, the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban didn't go far enough in two directions: the rules on what was legal and what wasn't had nothing to do with risk, and existing weapons were grandfathered in. To solve both problems, Ginsburg tries to make a category of weapons that ought to be regulated based on how much danger they pose. She suggests creating two new class of weapons under the NFA: one for any semi-automatic long guns that will accept high-capacity magazines, and another for semi-automatic pistols that both accept high-capacity magazines and certain calibers of bullets most commonly found in military weapons. Rather than ban and buy back these weapons, they would be subject to stricter regulations, probably something similar to but slightly less stringent than the rules governing fully automatic and selective fire weapons today.

The first set of reforms—the tightening of record-keeping and reporting requirements, putting an end to hamstrings on the ATF—are basically no-brainers that won't even affect a majority of gun owners. The second is more politically difficult, especially if handguns are included. An NFA-style regime for these weapons would be less onerous than an outright ban, and would eliminate the problems caused by grandfathering in existing weapons, but still might be annoying enough that no one wants to enact it.

Introduce Gun Control Legislation Now, And It May Pass In Six Years

There's a lot of gun control measures one can imagine. Within that group, there's some that are politically popular and would work. And within that group, there's a very small number of measures, or maybe none, that can pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, as Rep. Steve Cohen notes. But that's no reason to hold back on introducing legislation now. 

If House Republicans block the legislation, or more likely, don't let the legislation come up for a vote, that's another thing you get to attack House Republicans for in the 2014 elections. And maybe when Democrats finally control the House again, we get to pass the bill. The Brady Act was introduced in 1987, and passed six years later in 1993. If someone wants to write a Newtown Bill or whatnot that would've prevented Adam Lanza from killing so many people, now is the time.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

More on the Australia Semiautomatic Rifle Buyback

I spent a chunk of yesterday reading what is perhaps the most exciting document ever: an audit of the Australian gun buyback (PDF).

To recap, the government of Australia banned the manufacture and possession of semiautomatic long guns (rifles and shotguns) and high capacity magazines in 1996. They then spent about $500 million buying back existing guns, compensating gun dealers and for loss of business, etc. In total, roughly 650,000 guns were reclaimed and destroyed. Australia has lower overall gun ownership rates, and a higher share of those guns fell into this category; the buyback reduced the estimated number of guns in the country from 3.2 million (about 10 per 100 residents) to 2.6 million (about 6.5 per 100 residents). Australia hasn't had a mass shooting since. While suicides and homicides were declining anyway, suicides and homicides involving guns declined slightly faster, though studies differ on whether or not these declines can be attributed to the buyback.

Australia's "compulsory" gun buyback did not end with the
government raiding rural shooting ranges and dropping off
checks as compensation
Importantly, while the buyback was "compulsory", the Australian equivalent of the ATF did not raid compounds in the outback and attempt to pry guns from citizens' cold, dead hands. This despite the fact that the Australian government is pretty sure that many semiautomatic long guns remain in civilian hands. When the buyback ended, efforts to reclaim weapons simply stopped. If you held on to yours, and the government finds you with it, you'll be arrested and prosecuted, but if you live in the middle of nowhere (and Australia may be the one country that has more middle of nowhere than America) and squeeze off thirty rounds from an AR-15, you might get away with it. What's more, States have been permitted to operate amnesty programs where citizens can voluntarily surrender weapons without risk of criminal prosecution. Satisfaction with the buyback program among gun owners was very high (66% say they were very or mostly satisfied with their compensation). Gun dealers, shooting range operators, and others who make a living in the gun industry were less pleased, but a majority still said they were satisfied with the government's compensation. In addition, the government ended up buying back some weapons that were already illegal even though it's not clear that the 1996 law allowed them to do so (fully automatic weapons, airplane cannons -- no, seriously, someone turned in 20 airplane cannons).

The practical effect of such a buyback in the united states would be much more muted. The best estimates suggest there are between 2.5 and 4 million semiautomatic long guns in the US. That's roughly 1% of the total gun inventory, rather than the 30% that such guns made up in Australia. Still, semiautomatic guns are used in a number of spree shootings, and high capacity magazines are almost always used. Buying back those magazines would almost certainly be worth it.

Regional Income Thresholds for Tax & Spending Policy: Just Don't

Poor and middle-class residents of New York City
have a plethora of leisure & service options that
don't exist in Paducah, Kentucky
The discussion of monkeying with top marginal tax brackets has brought inevitable pleas to change tax brackets based on the cost of living associated with one's primary residence. This also sometimes comes up in questions of thresholds for various income-based subsidies such as food stamps, insurance subsidies, etc, to accommodate the added expense associated with living somewhere that's expensive. Is this a good idea or not? Here I'm going to argue that it isn't. Living in a bustling metropolis is in certain respects a luxury good, even if it doesn't feel like it all the time.

Over the past generation, the price of real estate has sent a strong signal that in metro areas like New York, DC, Seattle, San Francisco, etc., people should be building more housing and more office space. The Rent, as one might say, is Too Damn High. But these cities have some combination of geographic (bodies of water, etc.) or regulatory (nimby anti-development politics) constraints to adding more housing. People want to move there, but they simply can't. Cities that have fewer geographic or regulatory constraints to expansion, such Dallas and Atlanta, and to a lesser extent somewhere like Minneapolis, have experienced much smaller increases in housing & office space costs, even as their metro area populations have increased since the 1980s. Making cost-of-living adjustments distorts the price signals that the first group of cities are getting. If we let people living in high-cost areas pay lower tax rates, then more people will be able to afford living there and there will be less pressure to push down the price of housing by expanding supply. If you want cities to grow, --and it's obvious from real estate prices that lots of people do -- then letting city residents pay lower tax rates perversely makes them less likely to grow in population.

What's more, another reason prices are high in these regions because wages are high in these regions. The upper management of Apple simply can't do their job while living in Indianapolis. They have to be in Cupertino. Factory workers at Boeing (who get paid pretty well) can assemble the 787 in suburban Seattle, but not in Missoula. And while it sounds a little like "trickle down", to some extent service sector wages are dependent on the wages of goods-producing sectors. Someone living in New Mexico simply doesn't have the same opportunity to earn what someone living in New York. Why should urban residents get both better job opportunities and higher tax rates?

Last but not least, residents of a bustling metropolis have a much greater diversity of leisure and serviceswho live in low cost areas. I went to a cousin's wedding in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and we ate lunch pre-wedding at a Thai Restaurant. I think it's pretty neat that a fairly small town like Spartanburg can now support a Thai restaurant. But it was the only one. There are at least three within two blocks of my office in downtown Seattle. There's only one MOMA*, and if I lived in Paducah, Kentucky it'd be a giant pain in the ass to get there. And while it's not universal, cities tend to provide a wider array of social services than rural areas, simply because social services tend to be labor-intensive. The availability of these sorts of amenities don't feel like "luxuries", but for rural residents these amenities simply don't exist. I'm not trying to pooh pooh high school football, gun ranges, drinking Bud Light out of a can, and having breakfast at the local diner, but metropolitan residents have those options and many many more.

* yes, I know MOMA is a chain of sorts these days

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Chained CPI for Nothing is a Bad Deal

Thinking a bit more about the proposed fiscal cliff deal, Kevin Drum is right. switching Social Security COLA increases from CPI to Chained CPI in exchange for no additional improvement in Social Security financing is a sucker's move.

The backstory goes something like this: Social Security isn't quite in actuarial balance. Current payroll tax revenues don't raise enough money to cover current benefits. There's a decent chance that within the next 30 years, the trust fund will be exhausted. It's not guaranteed, as it's very hard to project the immigration rate, income distribution, and productivity growth over such a long time span. But there's a good chance it will happen. When that happens, if we do nothing, there will be an immediate cut in Social Security benefits of about 25%. So something ... well, nothing has to be done, but prudence suggests that doing something is in fact a little better than nothing.

And bringing Social Security back into actuarial balance isn't that hard. A mix of small benefit cuts and small tax increases get you there. Drum's favorite proposal is to (1)  raise the payroll tax cap from it's current $110,000 to $200,000 so that it once again covers 90% of income and (b) switch from CPI to chained-CPI for benefits. There are other proposals, such as raising the retirement age but only for high income earners to reflect the fact life expectancy has increased only for those at the top of the income distribution. But anyway, that's the gist of things. A bit more revenue, a bit less spending. It's not rocket science.

But the deal right now suggests cutting Social Security spending without bringing in more Social Security revenue. That's a dumb move and it shouldn't be made.

Elsewhere, I also note that there have been no noises about the sources of various unspecified cuts. If you're going to cut $120 billion a year and it's all in non-defense spending, that's pretty harsh. But if the cuts are split between Medicare, Medicaid, defense, and the rest of the budget, then maybe, just maybe, it's bearable. Right now no one is talking about defense cuts, but hopefully they're still on the table.

The Efficacy of Gun Laws is Depressing, But Not Hopeless

I keep trying to write a post on what an evidence-based approach to gun control would look like. But as Ezra points out, the whole thing is very depressing. Very few proposals to regulate gun ownership more tightly would have stopped Adam Lanza, and the CDC couldn't find any evidence linking changes in gun laws to lower crime rates. But I think Ezra's suffering from a failure of imagination when he says that banning clips a second time wouldn't accomplish anything.

There's one  surefire way to keep
items like thisSureFire high capacity
magazine from being used in
another mass shooting;
buy them all back from their
current owners.
If you want to ban semi-automatic long guns and high-capacity clips, you have to do what Australia did: ban the production of these items and buy back all of the existing ones. It would cost about $4 billion and take about two years. Looking at the evidence from the Australia assault-weapons ban and buyback, the rate of firearm-related deaths dropped by about 1 per 100,000 persons. In the US, that would mean saving roughly 3,000 lives per year. A one-time expense of $4B to save that many lives is a no-brainer. In fact, even if taking all the military-style weapons off the streets only saved 100 lives per year, since the expense is a one-shot deal, the buyback would be "cost-effective" from an actuarial perspective.

Now, we have to decide whether we want to do this. Military-style, semiautomatic long guns (rifles and shotguns) make up 1-2% of the guns in America. There are tens of millions of high capacity clips. Are we willing to say that, no, such a weapon has no hunting or home defense purpose, you should be able to get by with a semiautomatic pistol holding ten rounds, or a rifle/shotgun that isn't semiautomatic? Australians were willing to make that statementin the wake of a mass shooting. Perhaps we will do the same.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Getting Somewhere?

Ezra Klein, who seems to have become some sort of backchannel negotiating instrument in the House Leadership/White House negotiations on the fiscal cliff, says "many think they can see the agreement taking shape". Who these "many" are is unclear, but let's just leave that aside.

Boehner finally went over the edge and proposed letting rates go up for households earning $1 million (it's worth noting that no report has clarified what the ultimate rate would be -- the Clinton top rate of 39.6%? something higher? lower?). Combined with the White House's deduction limitations, something which has been in every Obama budget, the revenue side of the equation produced over $1 trillion in revenue compared to ... well, I'm not sure, but I'm assuming compared to current policy. In exchange, Obama gets democrats to swallow the use of Chained CPI--which is typically lower than official CPI--for various government indexing, like tax brackets, Social Security benefits, and then replacing the failed supercommittee/sequester with two separate committees devoted to tackling spending cuts and tax reform separately, but without a punitive "sequester" that both sides want to avoid. On the stimulus side of things, existing unemployment benefits would be extended, as has been customary during long periods of unemployment up until Obama was president. There would be some "infrastructure spending" that might serve as another boost to demand. Let's take each of these in turn.

  • Tax rates. As I wrote this, someone leaked details of Obama's counteroffer, which makes the Bush tax cutes permanent below $400,000. It's nice to see that both parties are so concerned about the well-being of the upper-upper middle class, but whatever. Barry Ritholtz thinks this is a fine compromise, pointing out that $250K in 1993 is almost $400K in today's dollars. Well, it's $375K if you use Chained CPI. The end result would be that America would have seven marginal tax brackets, up from two during the late Reagan years. And the top bracket would now more clearly delineate "rich"; while I'm sure a married couple with two kids in private school and a home in San Francisco might feel middle class, you're a homeowner in San Francisco and you have two kids in private school, for fuck's sake. Still, I think it might be useful to tack on another bracket between what I'll call the "first world problems" income level and "seriously, I have no idea how to spend this much money in a year" level. California, New York City, and New York State all have brackets that start at either $1 million or $2 million, as do a number of other jurisdictions (Oregon, for one). So if we're only going back to 39.6% at the $400K level, let's push the rate up for households earning above $1.5M to a level that would make up at least half the revenue lost in the $250-400K gap.
  • Chained CPI. This technical-sounding change would result in small, slow cuts in social security indexing, which would affect the oldest, poorest seniors the most. If we had been on Chained CPI since 1980, average benefits for a 95 year old would be roughly $100-150/month lower than they are today. That's fine if you have other sources of retirement income, but for 30% of retirees, Social Security accounts for over 90% of their income. For 60% of retirees, the program is at least half their retirement income. The Obama counteroffer suggests including "protections for the most vulnerable recipients", so the devil is in the details on that one.
  • Stimulus. Obama wants to keep extending the long-term unemployment benefits, and get some infrastructure spending (maybe we can modernize the power grid and build the Keystone XL pipeline? Does that sound like a good trade?), but looks like he will give up the fight on the payroll tax cut. The payroll tax cut has been one of the more effective stimulus measures out there, and the White House has been looking for a replacement that might be more politically attractive, but hasn't found it yet. Call this one a mixed bag, though I have no idea how much better he could do.
Lastly, as Brad DeLong points out, it's not clear that John Boehner really speaks for his caucus. DeLong thinks this means that any negotiations between Obama and Boehner will be dragged to the right by Eric Cantor and many rank-and-file House Republicans. I'm not so sure. After all, at any point, Obama can walk away and the public appears ready to blame Republicans. Either Obama gets a deal that's palatable to him (and to enough House Democrats that the deal can get through the House with either a "center-out" coalition or "left-in"), and it passes, or the whole thing falls apart, Eric Cantor stages a coup, the government shuts down in April, and everyone remembers that Republicans hate government.

Obamacare And Mental Health

In the wake of the Newtown massacre, many people have been interested in public policy measures to address mental health issues. So it may be good to mention the way that the Affordable Care Act promotes mental health coverage. From Colleen Barry and Haiden Huskamp in the New England Journal of Medicine:
Key ACA provisions hold promise for improving long-standing access problems and system fragmentation that affect the well-being of people with mental health or addiction disorders. Expansions of Medicaid, the mandate for employers to offer insurance, the creation of health insurance exchanges with subsidies for low-income people, and other reforms are expected to result in coverage for at least 3.7 million currently uninsured people with severe mental illnesses and many more with less severe needs for mental health and addiction treatment. The ACA goes beyond the requirements of the federal parity law by mandating that both Medicaid benchmark plans (i.e., alternative plan options created under the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005) and plans operating through the state-based insurance exchanges cover behavioral health services as part of an essential benefits package.
3.7 million is a big number. Unfortunately, these changes in the law will take until 2014. It's another time when one wishes that we could've gone for a faster rollout. Still, good stuff when it happens.

Friday, December 14, 2012

When Old Ideas Are Worth Pursuing. Again.

The politics of gun control are very thorny. Democrats have increased their hold on suburban districts compared to the 1990s. Bill Clinton blamed his party's support for gun control laws for a substantial portion of the 1994 house losses, and for the defeat of Al Gore in 2000. That said, on policy grounds he defends his decision to support gun control and said he failed at messaging. Since then, the national debate on what to do about gun violence largely has not existed. Indeed, Democrats like Brian Schweiter, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, and Howard Dean have touted their high marks from the NRA. The competitive House districts have become less suburban and more exurban/rural in their character, meaning that support for gun control is less of a political winner.

What's more, as a practical matter, attempts to ban individual types of guns won't be particularly effective, given the quantity of guns already in private hands. Even if the NRA weren't a joint venture of the Republican Party and the gun manufacturing industry, a ban on the sale of guns would do very little, and banning possession is effectively impossible.

Still, we can come up with a list of measures that ought to reduce gun violence without placing substantial burdens on gun owners.
  • Party like it's 1993 and Enact Pat Moynihan's bullet tax, which will help stem the tide of gun violence somewhat. Unlike guns, bullets can't be reused, and there are fewer bullets than there are guns.

    I'm not big on dedicating revenue streams to particular issues. But I think in this case we should make it clear to deter and mitigate gun violence--mental health services, felon & mental patient database synchronization, and as a sop to gun owners, ensure those who do use a gun know how to do so responsibly. So, hell, make gun safety courses free, give anyone who buys a gun a free gun safe if they don't have one, etc.
  • Close the background check loophole on private gun sales, popularly known as the "gun show loophole".
  • Synchronize state databases on felons and the mentally ill nationwide. Likewise, ban felons from purchasing a gun nationwide.
  • Crack down on straw purchasing (basically, buying a gun that you then give to someone who wouldn't otherwise be able to buy it legally), which is a major source of gun acquisition in many cities. The most straightforward way to do this is limit buyers to one handgun per month. Such laws aren't exactly popular, though I'm not sure what other means exist to limit straw buying.
I'm not sure what else exists that ought to be politically feasible, but this ought to be a good start. Limiting clip size would help mitigate the impact of mass shootings, though mass shootings are a relatively small slice of gun violence in America.

Update: Not on this list is "take judicial appointments seriously". But it should be.  Republicans have made court packing a political priority since the Reagan Administration. It's been much less important for Democrats, who haven't prioritized using the judicial system to advance their political agenda. That needs to change, not only to help shift the landscape on gun issues, but also to give Democratic constituencies a boost on other policy issues like labor law, consumer protection, racial inequality, and the like. This is another reason to enact Jeff Merkley's filibuster reform, as republican intrasigence is a big reason why Obama has appointed so few judges.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Debt Ceiling Fight 2: Fight Harder

Josh Marshall's instincts here are, I think, spot on. Marshall is puzzling through why speaker John Boehner (R-OH) is still hunting for a "grand bargain" now rather than passing the middle class tax cuts and waiting for the debt ceiling negotiations when he'll have "more leverage". His theory, and mine, is that Boehner knows he won't actually have more leverage at that point.

John Boehner may have been part of the original Contract with America, but he's been in Washington through the 1995 shutdown and the 2011 near shutdown. Both dealt substantial damage to the Republican party brand; Clinton coasted to reelection as the economy recovered and he could effectively tar Republicans as the anti-government party; and Republicans got a net negative 50 approval rating for their handling of 2011 debt ceiling negotiations. Congress is always unpopular, but most of the time a large chunk of the public just doesn't have an opinion on them one way or another. During the last debt ceiling fight, Republicans were just terribly unpopular, and if they stick to their no-taxes-evar guns to the point where National Parks close and hospitals start receiving IOUs, they'll be unpopular again. So if House Republicans threaten to jump off the debt ceiling cliff, Obama should let them unless they're willing to meet the President more than halfway. After lengthy negotiations where he appears to be the adult in the room, of course.

The Best Senator Keeps Getting Better

If every Senator were as awesome as Jeff Merkley,
this little bill would have a much better chance
of becoming a law.
As the unofficial fan site of Jeff Merkley (and soon, possibly, Jay Nixon, but more on that later), it warms our heart to hear that Senator Merkley is further committed to making the Senate a majoritarian body like almost every elected body in the history of humanity, including, for the most part and for most of its history, the United States Senate. His latest memo effectively ends the sixty-vote threshold entirely (emphasis mine).

The way this works is to think about three categories of outcomes for the vote to end debate. If fewer than 51 Senators want the debate to end, then debate continues under current pre-cloture rules. If more than 60 Senators want to end debate, then that's it; it's time to vote, and the bill will almost certainly pass. But in this middle ground, where a majority of Senators support a bill but not enough to break a filibuster, the rules change. The minority must engage in a "talking filibuster" and hold the floor continuously; if they fail to hold the floor, a new cloture vote occurs with a fifty vote threshold. Once that vote succeeds (which it likely will, unless Senators change their minds), the Senate moves to final passage. Amendments may be offered and debated at any point up until the second cloture vote.

Merkley's theory is that the threat of a talking filibuster will deter Senators from making frivilous filibusters. Organizing Senators to hold the floor continuously is surprisingly difficult in the modern era.

You can read the full memo from TPM's document collection. I especially like the part where Merkley points out that LBJ filed one cloture motion in his entire career, while Harry Reid has had to file 400 of them.

Pre-publishing update: Dylan Matthews put this all in flowchart form, which is always awesome.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Tax Brackets As Far As The Eye Can See

As I mentioned in my pony tax reform proposal, one of the key successes of Reagan conservatism has been to collapse the tax preferences of the upper-middle class, rich, super rich, and mind bogglingly rich, even as fractal inequality has led to a wider gap in living standings among these income tiers. Giving the same tax treatment to these varied levels of affluence has not always been customery.

Consider this: if Obama's tax plans were to become law, all married households earning $250,000/year or more would face the same top marginal tax rate of 39.6%. $250,000 in today's dollars is about $35,000 in 1960. According to the Tax Foundation's history of tax rates, in 1960 there were seventeen tax brackets above the $35,000 level, going all the way up to a 91% tax on income above $400,000 (about $3 million after adjusting for inflation). Even if we go back to the mid-Reagan years, there were four tax brackets on income levels above $125,000 which is $250,000 in today's dollars. Income above $360,000, about $720,000 in today's dollars, faced a 50% top marginal rate.

Ronald Reagan sought to shrink the number of brackets in the name of "tax simplification". But this is less relevant in an era of widespread computing resources and cheap tax software that's capable of helping most filers with their basic needs. Even if you don't use Turbo Tax or other filing assistance software, the number of brackets doesn't make computing tax liability hard. For the 85% of households below $100,000, the IRS publishes tax tables (PDF) so that you can compute your tax liability without even using a calculator. Above that level of income there's a three-step calculation, though most people who earn that much money with either pay for tax filing software or hire a tax accountant.

If we were to replace tax brackets with a smooth tax function, we can produce
progressive taxation that reflects the current record levels of inequality
at the top-end of the income spectrum. This example isn't perfect -- effective
income tax rates for anyone earning less than $30,000/year are zero instead of
today's 6.8% -- but it's a step in the right direction.
We could even make one's overall income tax rate a smooth function of income. A friend of mine in the finance industry suggested letting tax rates grow logarithmically. Subtract out the first $20,000 of income. Then, as your income increases as a multiple of 10, your tax rate increases by 21% on any income in excess of $20,000. So, someone earning $120,000 would owe $21,000 in taxes (21% of $100K); someone earning $1,020,000 would owe $420,000, (42% of $1 million) and so on. Taxes on the working poor and middle class would go down or stay flat; taxes on the upper-middle class would go up slightly; and taxes on the various levels of "f***ing loaded" would rise subtantially. Taxes on the top 5% of households ($300,000 in income) would rise from 24.1% to 30.4$; on the top 1%, they would rise from 28.9% to 46.2%, not far from my proposed millionaire's bracket of 45%. The top 400 tax filers -- who earn on average $20 million per year in wages--would face an income tax rate of 70.3%, versus an effective tax rate today of 20% (though their tax rate on earned income is probably closer to 35%). This particular tax function isn't perfect, since there's a big difference between collecting a little bit of revenue from the bottom 40% of households and collecting none at all, but the concept is sound. We just need to come up with a slightly better function.

The thing that actually makes tax filing complex is the various attempts we've made to institute social policy through the tax code. There are deductions and credits for rearing children, for student loan interest, for college tuition itself, for mortgage interest, for certain business & health care expenses, for teachers who purchase school supplies, for buying a hybrid car, and so on. Each deduction or credit has a different level (or levels!) at which the subsidy is reduced or eliminated. The more we can rely on direct government expenditure rather than tax credits to support whatever activity the government is trying to promote, the less time and money Americans will waste in April.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Nicholas's Pony Tax Reform Plan

While House Republicans tie themselves in knots trying to figure out how to negotiate with a White House that's finally learned how to negotiate, it's worth throwing out some novel ideas on how to bring government revenue in line with its expenses. Whether these ideas are "conservative" or "liberal" is hard to say; in general, the goal is to raise revenue from its current levels to fund a more energetic national government, but there's no a priori commitment to a French- or German-sized welfare state. If the major functions of the government can be provided on 22% of GDP as Warren Buffett seems to think, then that's fine.

Anyway, in the spirit of the Center for American Progress's tax reform whitepaper, here we go!
  • Repeal the Bush tax cuts on high income earners, and lower the threshold for what constitutes "high income". Our current political discourse defines "high income" as $125,000 for individual filers or $250,000 for joint filers, up from $200K when John Kerry ran for President in 2004. Below this number, households are deemed "middle class". This is an extremely expansive definition of "middle class", largely to pacify Democratic-leaning donor constituencies in urban areas like New York, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, where the rent is too damn high. The lower bound for this threshold is probably $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for joint filers, but I'm not picky on this one; $100,000/$200,000 would work just as well.
  • Create a new 45% marginal tax bracket at $1 million. Ronald Reagan's greatest political achievement was to align the interests of the almost-rich, rich, mega-rich, and stupendously rich by putting them all in the same tax bracket. Inequality has increased dramatically since the 1980s, but our tax code hasn't kept up with these social changes.

    A 45% tax rate means that someone living in New York City or San Francisco faces a top marginal rate of somewhere in the 55-60% range, which is about as high as you can go before rich people start making even more serious efforts to minimize their tax costs. The CAP proposal brings back the Clinton-era top rates at 39.6% at $422,000, so maybe that's a good starting point for the new rate. Warren Buffett has suggested a bracket for the mega-rich who earn at least $10 million a year; in that spirit, we could have one rate at $200,000, a 42.5% at $500,000, and a 47.5% at $5 million.

    The number of different tax rates does very little to make the tax code more complex; computing your tax liability once you've computed your adjusted gross income is a single calculation.
  • Eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax, and instead cap total deductions at 28% of gross income. Originally intended as a way to prevent the rich from using too many deductions, the AMT form has become quite complicated and must now be filled out by a large number of middle-class households, particularly those living in high-tax states like New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, and California. Every year Congress "patches" the AMT so that only households above some income threshold are affected. It's time for this to end. One way to do so is to repeal the AMT and instead rely on a limitation on deductions & credits to keep the tax liability of high income earners from getting too low.

    The CAP proposal replaces all deductions with an 18% tax credit, and 28% for charitable contributions. In otherwords, instead of a charitable contribution reducing your taxable income, the government simply reduces your tax liability by $0.28 for every $1 of charity. Business expenses or mortgage interest would drop your taxes by $0.18 for every $1. Credits are by and large more progressive than deductions. I'm agnostic as to which of these approaches is preferable, but both serve the same goal of reducing the ability of high income earners to shrink their tax liability through deductions.
  • Harmonize the means-testing phase-outs for all credits and deductions that appear on the 1040. I suppose it would be nice to eliminate these entirely in order to simplify tax filing. But these credits represent a significant chunk of American social policy. The IRS is currently the second largest anti-poverty agency in the Federal government, behind only the Social Security Administration. So doing away with these credits entirely won't fly.

    But we can make tax filing simpler by reducing the number of computations required. The Child Tax Credit, various Education Credits, Residential Energy credits, Retirement Plan Contribution credits, student loan interest deduction, and so forth, all phase out at different income levels. If they all had the same income threshold, it would make it much easier to file taxes. You'd total up all your available deductions and credits, and then calculate your actual deduction/credit amount based on your income.

    We really ought to look at which of these deductions & credits make sense as social policy, as well as which policies could be better served through direct subsidy, because each one makes the tax filing process more onerous than it needs to be.
  • Eliminate the carried interest loophole. This is some shenanigan by which money managers can treat their income as capital gains rather than earned income. It makes no sense. Just get rid of it.

    The CAP proposal also eliminates something they call the "Subchapter S loophole", by which high income earners can skirt out of some Medicare taxes. We should probably get rid of that one too, but I don't know enough about the underlying issue to say anything definitive.
  • Raise the tax on capital gains income to a Clinton-era 20%, or maybe even a Reagan-era 28%. Computing capital gains income is almost an entirely separate form from the rest of tax filing, but once you decide that you're going to tax capital gains, it's not any more complex to assign a different tax rate to capital gains than to ordinary income. The only question then is what's the right economic policy, and there seems to be some evidence that keeping the capital gains rate a hair lower than on earned income is actually desireably.
  • Treat dividend income as ordinary income. Dividend income, on the other hand, doesn't require any special handling. You just take the total of everything on your 1099-DIVs, add it up, and put it wherever the form tells you to. It can be taxed at the capital gains rate or the ordinary income rate. There's no reason to prefer dividend income to earned income.
  • Replace some or all of the payroll tax with a combination of a financial transactions tax and a tax on CO2 emissions. Workers by and large get out what they put in when it comes to the payroll tax, but at the margins the tax does increase the cost of hiring new workers. It would be better if we funded social insurance through things we have to have but don't want to much of. Carbon emissions and excess financial transactions definitely fall into this category.

    Replacing the payroll tax fully with a carbon tax would raise the price of gasoline by about $1.25/gallon. So you could definitely use a combination of carbon and financial transactions taxes to fund social security and (at least partially) Medicare. The end of the payroll tax would likely mean an increase in workers' wages that would more than offset the rising price of gasoline.
Not having access to the CBO, JCT, the Brookings Tax Policy Center, or the wonks at CAP, I have no idea how much revenue this would raise. It's probably more than what Obama proposed during the campaign, but less than what Obama's budget proposes.

There's no reason for wonks to limit themselves to the set of tax proposals that's deemed viable in the current political climate. Think big!

The Filibuster Reformation

Via Jonathan,  I liked David Roberts' interview with Jeff Merkley on filibuster reform.

On the 'talking filibuster' front, it was good to see Roberts raising the question of whether such a proposal would help very much, because the Republican base would keep supporting whichever Alabama Senator wanted to go up and spout GOP talking points for hours.  Merkley responded that it would help stop filibusters on things like the DISCLOSE Act which nobody is prepared to publicly argue against because the legislation is so obviously a good idea.  I guess there might be some bills like that where a talking filibuster helps.  But if we're trying to help with the major items on the progressive agenda, like health care reform last term or climate change and immigration reform in the future, you'll be able to find enough Republican Senators willing to go on for hours and hours to the acclaim of Rush Limbaugh.  Plenty of Republican Senators have more to fear in a primary challenge than a general election opponent, and doing a big filibuster with Limbaugh's approval would help them.

I liked this from Merkley: "There are some other ideas around. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has a terrific idea: He has proposed that, instead of requiring 60 votes to end debate, require 41 to extend debate. If you have senators who are missing now, they count as automatic no votes — automatic votes in favor of continuing debate. But if you have to get 41 votes to continue debate, those missing votes count on the side of “OK, let’s wrap things up.”" That sounds a lot more significant than the talking filibuster, in terms of actual impact.  I see that Republicans could probably set it up so that somebody was talking for them all the time.  But keeping 41 bodies in the chamber and awake so that they could keep voting to continue debate would be more cumbersome.

One thing I wonder about with all these proposals is why we care about sticking close to the original rules so much.  Filibuster reform isn't going to make much of a difference by itself to anybody's vote in November 2014, though the consequences of a functional or non-functional Senate might.  Even if you just went ahead and created a 50-vote Senate, it wouldn't lose you any votes.  So why not?

I suppose the answer is to be found in the chamber itself.  Within the Democratic Caucus, there may be people who want the numbers kept at 60, or at least don't want a majority-rules Senate, but are open to tinkering around the edges.  And as Nick considers, maybe there's some middle ground here where you can do some procedural tinkering and Mitch McConnell won't go ballistic about it and wreck everything.  If there is such a middle ground, it might be because McConnell knows that his countermeasures would infuriate even the reluctant members of the Democratic caucus and result in a majority-rules Senate.

This is all speculation, of course.  It's hard to get a clear picture of the strategic terrain without being a Senator or Mark Schmitt or Norman Ornstein or Sarah Binder or somebody like that.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Pelosi And The Cliff

An immediate reason why one wanted Nancy Pelosi to continue as Democratic Leader in the House was because she'd be best at using the (slight) influence of that position to make sure the fiscal cliff / austerity bomb negotiations between Boehner and Obama had as progressive an outcome as possible.  And that appears to be what we're getting, with Pelosi threatening a discharge petition to pass a left-wing solution with her caucus and 16 Republican defectors.  It probably won't work out that way, but it's something to constrain John Boehner's bargaining position.