Sometimes I Think This Country Is Too Stupid To Survive

Here’s an example (this one is from Catherine Rampell of The Washington Post, with my comments in italics):

How much does President Biden’s proposed agenda cost?

This seems like a straightforward question, but the answer varies wildly depending on your accounting method. And this has caused headaches as Democrats try to lock in crucial . . . votes within their own party.

In recent years, there has been something of a budgeting double standard in the framing of Republican and Democratic economic proposals. Consider Republicans’ signature achievement during the T____ era, their 2017 tax cut. This bill was usually referred to as a “$1.5 trillion” tax cut because that was the initial estimate for its net cost over a decade.

A bill’s net cost refers to the price if you add up all the provisions that raise money, subtract all the provisions that lose money and then see how it all washes out. For the 2017 tax bill, the net result was forecast as a $1.5 trillion increase in deficits over a decade. (This was later revised upward, to nearly $2 trillion.)

If, however, we had counted only the law’s gross costs (i.e., without offsetting revenue-raisers, such as the cap on state and local tax deductions), its price tag would have looked multiple times more expensive.

But that’s exactly how most politicians and journalists are tallying the “cost” of Democrats’ safety-net-and-climate legislation.

As Republicans did in 2017, Democrats are trying to pass their legislation through “reconciliation,” a process that requires only a party-line vote. Most references to the Democrats’ package describe it as costing $3.5 trillion.

That number reflects the gross costs of Democrats’ agenda items, such as paid leave, health-care expansions, universal pre-K and child tax credits.

In other words, the $3.5 trillion headline refers to only one side of the ledger. However, Democrats plan to pay for at least some of these priorities with various offsets, such as higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Once you include the offsets, the net cost will be lower.

How much lower? That’s TBD. Democrats are still fighting over what will make it into the bill, including various tax hikes.

We know the maximum possible net cost, though. When a bill goes through reconciliation, lawmakers must commit in advance to a ceiling on how much the bill can raise deficits.

Last month, lawmakers agreed to a maximum deficit increase of about $1.75 trillion over a decade. They could ultimately choose a smaller number. The White House says it’s aiming for a fully paid-for bill — i.e., with a net cost of zero — though that outcome seems unlikely.

The $1.75 trillion maximum net cost has gotten almost no attention, while the $3.5 trillion gross figure dominates news coverage. This has irked White House officials, one of whom complained to me that “ ‘$3.5 trillion’ is disconnected from any kind of meaningful measure of what this developing legislation is,” since it doesn’t reflect the bill’s deficit impact or even the total size of its spending items. (The proposal cuts some taxes, too.)

And the framing matters because it has been distorting congressional negotiations.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) reportedly has drawn a red line for the bill’s “size” at no more than $1.5 trillion. If he were focusing on a net cost of up to $1.5 trillion, Democrats could cram a lot of priorities in the bill, so long as they also include substantial pay-fors. But Manchin has apparently anchored his demands around the bill’s gross costs [ignoring how the bill would be paid for!].

That severely constrains what programs Democrats can create or expand, no matter how enormous the offsets are.

How come Republicans got to use bookkeeping that made their legislation seem less costly, while Democrats are saddled with metrics that overstate their fiscal profligacy?

. . . [One explanation is that] some Democrats emphasize their agenda’s gross costs because they want to play up the scale of progressive ambitions. When comparing an agenda to the New Deal, it helps to make it sound larger. And recent polls suggest Democratic voters increasingly like the sound of Bigger Government.

So progressive leaders don’t guide the debate away from that $3.5 trillion gross figure, and reorient discussions toward (smaller) net costs, as White House officials might prefer; after Manchin’s downsizing demands, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) declared that $3.5 trillion is “the very least” the plan should cost [even though it wouldn’t cost that much!]. . . .

Cutting Taxes for the Rich Simply Helps the Rich (Duh)

Some counterintuitive ideas are fine. Others counterintuitive ideas are stupid (and self-serving).

A counterintuitive idea popular among conservatives is that helping the rich makes them productive while helping the poor makes them lazy. Another is that cutting taxes on the rich increases what the government collects in taxes. Sure it does!

From CBS News:

Tax cuts for the wealthy have long drawn support from conservative lawmakers and economists who argue that such measures will “trickle down” and eventually boost jobs and incomes for everyone else. But a new study from the London School of Economics says 50 years of such tax cuts have only helped one group — the rich.

The new paper by [two British economists] examines 18 developed countries — from Australia to the United States — over a 50-year period from 1965 to 2015. The study compared countries that passed tax cuts in a specific year, such as the U.S. in 1982 when President Ronald Reagan slashed taxes on the wealthy, with those that didn’t, and then examined their economic outcomes. 

Per capita gross domestic product and unemployment rates were nearly identical after five years in countries that slashed taxes on the rich and in those that didn’t, the study found. 

But the analysis discovered one major change: The incomes of the rich grew much faster in countries where tax rates were lowered. Instead of trickling down to the middle class, tax cuts for the rich may not accomplish much more than help the rich keep more of their riches and exacerbate income inequality, the research indicates.

“Based on our research, we would argue that the economic rationale for keeping taxes on the rich low is weak” said a co-author of the study. “In fact, if we look back into history, the period with the highest taxes on the rich — the postwar period — was also a period with high economic growth and low unemployment.”

Unquote.

But not to worry, conservatives! Facts have a well-known liberal bias.

The Great Knee Defender Controversy

There are some issues on which everyone thinks they’re an expert. This explains why today’s New York Times article in defense of the Knee Defender has a couple hundred comments so far.

The Knee Defender was invented by a guy who was tired of people in front of him reclining their airline seats so far back that they made uncomfortable contact with his knees. You attach the thing to the tray table and it stops the seat in front of you from reclining. This made the news recently when a one passenger (a man, presumably tall) used the Knee Defender and another passenger (a woman, presumably not so tall) retaliated with a cup of water. The flight was diverted and both passengers were kicked off the plane.

Speaking as someone who is taller than average and has avoided coach only two or three times in his life, I can understand the motivation behind the Knee Defender. It’s bad enough with the limited legroom in coach without the person in front of you reducing your space even more. I’d never use the Knee Defender, however, because a more civilized approach is to communicate one’s discomfort to the reclining passenger in front of you, hoping thereby to evoke a sympathetic response. Also, life is too short.

Speaking as someone who doesn’t run an airline, I can also understand the motivation behind cramming as many passengers as possible into an airplane. There is efficiency (mostly $$$) at stake.

Nevertheless, if airlines are going to limit legroom, they need to limit how far back seats can recline. Otherwise they’re inviting conflict between their customers. Seats that can recline way back are an obsolete technology from a time when flying was one of those enjoyable experiences relatively few people ever had.

Of course, the airlines could simply rely on the common sense and common decency of their passengers. There are people who ask the person behind them if their reclined seat is causing a problem. There are other people who tell the person in front of them in a nice way that their reclined seat is too far back. People do these things.

But then there are other people who shouldn’t be allowed out in public. Many who responded to the Times article argued that they have a right to recline their seats as far back as they will go. If they’ve paid good money for a seat that can recline 30 degrees, they are damn well entitled to recline their seats 30 degrees, no matter what effect it has on the person sitting behind them. In effect, people (some of whom used their real names) made this claim: If an airline has given me the ability to do X, I have the right to do X.

Of course, most of us understand that “can” does not imply “should”. Airlines make it possible for passengers to throw water on other passengers, but passengers shouldn’t do that. Airlines also make it possible for their customers to lock restroom doors and occupy those rooms for hours at a time, but their customers shouldn’t do that either.

To be fair, the Times article these readers were responding to was a defense of the Knee Defender. So maybe they got carried away and went overboard when they wrote their unthinking responses. It’s clear, however, that although everyone may think they’re an expert on a topic like this, that isn’t really true.

Stupid Remarks Continue to Offend and Entertain

We who make, report, attack or defend stupid remarks have helped make the Internet what it is today, whatever that is. As my 160 (!) followers would attest, I’ve made my own tiny contribution to this ongoing effort. That is, they would attest if any of them actually read the stuff I painstakingly write here at WOCS. (Unfortunately, Internet statistics don’t lie.)

Furthermore, I promise to keep contributing as long as Republicans keep talking.

Keeping with this practice, although in a relatively non-political vein, I’m now going to discuss a few stupid remarks that have recently been reported, criticized and even defended.

First, it’s hardly worth noting that someone on FOX TV said that Santa Claus is white and Jesus was too. As a friend recently pointed out, saying things like that is what people on FOX do for a living. What was more remarkable was the story about a New Mexico high school teacher who criticized a black student’s decision to dress up as Santa Claus, implying that it would have been better if he had dressed up as an elf, reindeer or candy cane. 

According to the school district, the teacher apologized and was placed on “administrative leave”, so there is some truth to this story. Even though the student was deeply embarrassed, I hope the teacher was making a joke (the kind of jocular remark colloquially known in some quarters as “breaking balls”, as in “Hey, Ralph, don’t you know Santa Claus was white!” “No, I thought he was Italian.” “Boom!”). If the teacher wasn’t trying to be funny, we’d have to conclude that yet another education professional has lost his or her mind.

Another recent controversy involves a person with a very long beard who is part of a TV show called “Duck Dynasty”. He got into trouble when he said that it’s more logical for a man to want to put his penis in a vagina than in another man’s butt, suggesting that vaginal intercourse should be more pleasurable for a man than gay anal intercourse. He added, in an apparent attempt at explanation, that sin (in this case, gay sex) isn’t logical. It seems clear from the context that he wasn’t joking.

Now, it isn’t surprising that this person believes gay sex is sinful. Lots of misguided people believe that and say it all the time, even people who aren’t on FOX or in Congress. Nor is it interesting that he thinks sin is illogical. After all, if there are such things as sins, you could wind up in Hell by committing one (that, as Randy Newman once sang, would put you in a terrible position).

What I thought was interesting about this particular stupid remark was that the speaker may misunderstand evolution (even though he apparently spends a lot of time outdoors). It does make sense that vaginal intercourse is pleasurable for both men and women, because men and women who enjoy it tend to have children who will enjoy it too (and so on, and so on, until the nth generation). But that’s no reason to think that a person with a penis might not get a lot of pleasure, and even more pleasure, from putting it somewhere else or doing something else with it. Behavior evolves because it contributes to the survival of one’s offspring, not because it’s more pleasurable than other behavior. People on TV should grasp standard biological principles like this.

A third stupid remark hasn’t received much attention, so far as I know. But it’s also interesting in a way. A woman who works for a “leading internet and media company” sent this out on Twitter yesterday: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” In this case, the speaker claimed to be making a joke.

When I read about this, I had the impression I’d heard the joke before. Then I remembered watching a video of Sarah Silverman telling a similar joke at a benefit concert:  “Last month I did two benefits. One was for AIDS… It was great, but tonight’s benefit is going to be better. I won’t have to worry about who I hook up with. (pause) That’s terrible! (pause) WHOM I hook up with!”. She got a very big laugh.

What would the reaction have been if it was funny Sarah Silverman who tweeted the Africa AIDS remark? People on Twitter might have thought it wasn’t up to her usual comedic standards instead of calling her a stupid racist. I wonder if Justine Sacco’s co-workers in the London office of IAC thought her tweet was yet another example of Justine being her wild and crazy self (as when, earlier this year, she tweeted “I can’t be fired for things I say while intoxicated right?”).

It’s doubtful, but perhaps Justine Sacco goes to Africa on her vacation every year to work with AIDS patients. But, so far as most of us are concerned, she might as well be a talking, albeit insensitive, dog (ok, I’ve finished writing this post, will someone take me for a walk now?).

Breaking news update!!! Steve Martin has apologized for tweeting a lame joke about the African-American spelling of “lasagna” yesterday. Communication continues to be a dangerous thing, even for talented communicators. (The TMZ site, by the way, actually labeled this story BREAKING NEWS.)

Woof, woof!

nYdog

A Scandal of Enormous Proportions — And It’s Funny, Too

Along with Paul Krugman, Stephen Colbert and his writers are among the best analysts of current affairs working today. Here, the brilliant Mr. Colbert discusses a recent discovery: the principal academic evidence for cutting government spending during a serious economic downturn is baloney, and not the nourishing kind. The Harvard professors who issued the study didn’t share their data with other economists, ignored data that didn’t fit their hypothesis and made a crucial Excel coding error.

The mind reels. And workers and families worldwide suffer.

(For some reason, I couldn’t get the video to embed, so you’ll probably have to put up with a brief commercial.)

http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/425748/april-23-2013/austerity-s-spreadsheet-error?xrs=share_copy

Paul Krugman discusses the same issue with fewer laughs:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/19/opinion/krugman-the-excel-depression.html?_r=0