Monday, March 06, 2017

Cruising the Web

Ilya Somin links to a column by Catherine Rampbell analyzing how little the public knows about the national budget. For example, almost half those polled think that foreign aid is a big part of our debt.
Because most Americans — especially Republicans and Trump voters — vastly overestimate what the United States spends on foreign aid.

This truism was confirmed once again by a new Morning Consult/Politico poll of 2,000 registered voters. Respondents were asked whether various programs were big contributors to government debt. A whopping 46 percent said foreign aid contributes “a great deal” to government debt, whereas only 18 percent said the same about Medicare.

In fact, of all the programs included in this survey, “foreign aid” garnered the highest share of responses calling it a major contributor to federal debt.

For context, the United States plans to spend $36.5 billion this fiscal year on foreign assistance, compared with about $592 billion on Medicare (that’s net of premiums and other offsetting receipts).
So that explains why President Trump can talk about cutting foreign aid as a way to cover his increase in defense spending. And since people seem to have no idea how much of our national debt is driven by entitlements, the public just doesn't believe that there needs to be any trimming or reform of entitlements. And politicians from Trump to Sanders to Clinton to Obama can just pretend that there is nothing that they need to do for the biggest fiscal problem facing the country. Somin adds,
So long as the public doesn’t realize where tax money actually goes, politicians have strong incentives to pretend that we can solve our fiscal problems without touching any popular programs or significantly increasing taxes on anyone, except perhaps a few wealthy people. Even worse, public ignorance about spending is just one part of the broader problem of widespread political ignorance, which cuts across many other issues. As Trump might say if he weren’t himself benefiting from public ignorance so much : Sad!

There is no easy antidote to public ignorance about spending, or political ignorance generally. But we can start by recognizing that the problem exists, and taking it seriously.
About two-thirds of the budget is for entitlements and Trump has declared those off the table just as Obama did.

Stephen Hayes writes
on what we can expect in 20 years if we don't change our spending habits.
Twenty years. We will be there before a child born this week can legally have his first beer. Without changes, every penny of taxes collected by the federal government will fund entitlements, the drivers of our debt, and the interest on the debt driven by entitlements. No money for national defense. Not a cent for safeguarding our nuclear stockpile or energy research. Nothing for infrastructure, welfare for the truly needy, unemployment for those displaced in the changing economy.

External factors could slow slightly the spinning of the debt clock numbers (strong economic growth) or speed it up (higher interest rates). But there is nothing at all under serious consideration in Republican-run Washington to reverse them.

President Donald Trump mentioned debt only once in his speech to a joint session of Congress last week—and then only to blame Barack Obama for failing to take the challenge seriously. While Trump has suggested that he favors some cuts in discretionary domestic programs and insignificant line-items like foreign aid (roughly 1 percent of the federal budget), he has consistently opposed reforms to the entitlement programs at the heart of the problem, once predicting that even proposing reforms would be "political suicide."

Trump's view reflected the conventional wisdom. It is wrong.
We had a brief moment of true courage when Paul Ryan convinced the House GOP to embrace reforms to Medicare and Medicaid. But now, that courage seems to have faded away.
But with Trump giving them cover, some House and Senate Republicans want to retreat. Their reasoning: Why take a vote that Democrats can use against them if the president is on the record opposing bold reforms? The glimmer of good news is that House Budget chairman Diane Black intends to include entitlement reform in this year's budget, according to sources familiar with her thinking. Democrats, whose interest in entitlement reform begins and ends with politics, will surely howl. But including the reforms would be an important statement that Republicans understand the magnitude of the challenge.

The Trump White House, however, seems determined to put it off. Former congressman Mick Mulvaney, the South Carolina debt hawk who is now director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Trump administration, shrugged off questions about entitlement reform, telling ABC News: "Those are bigger discussions for another day.

This is exactly backwards. Because they're so big, these are discussions we need to have now.
We need politicians who can explain things to the public over and over again to set the stage for the sorts of difficult choices that need to be made. Instead, most of our nation's leaders prefer to sweep the problem under the rug and demagogue against anyone who dares to be serious. It makes me long for Ross Perot's campaign infomercials with his charts demonstrating how mandatory spending was eating up the entire budget.

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Speaking of how political demagoguery
fosters public ignorance...
A recent survey by LendEDU of 500 current college students found that 49.8% of them think that the federal government will forgive their loans after they graduate.

"In reality," LendEDU's Mike Brown notes, "a very small percentage of graduates will even qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. It is worrisome that current students may be over-borrowing on the hope that their student debt will be forgiven in the future."

Worrisome, indeed, particularly given that the amount federal student loan debt is currently $1.3 trillion, and rising fast.

Of that, $31 billion is seriously delinquent — meaning that debtors are at least 90 days past due on their payments. In fact, at 11.2%, the delinquency rate on student loans is 57% higher than credit card debt, and nearly four times the rate of all loans combined.

For the most part, it is President Obama who is to blame for this mess. One of his first actions as president was to nationalize the student loan program, cutting out private lenders and instead having the government lend directly to students.

As a result, direct lending went from 21% of federal student aid in 2009 to 73% today, and the total amount of student loan debt on the federal books doubled in eight years.

At the same time, Obama made it easier for students to avoid paying back the full cost of those loans, and repeatedly spoke as if students were victims who deserved to be protected from their own debt. In fact, Obama's "reforms" of student lending became widely known as the "Obama Student Loan Forgiveness" program.

However, the combination of making it easier to borrow and seemingly easier to avoid paying back loans created a vicious cycle. Students were more willing to borrow, and less concerned about the amount, on the assumption that they'd never had to pay it all back. Colleges used the tidal wave of new federal loan subsidies to sharply increase tuitions, which in turn forced students to take on more debt.

As a result, student loan debt accounts for 10% of all household debt, which is double its share from 2009, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
So students think that they're entitled to a free ride and paying back loans is just one option. They listened to Obama and Sanders and seem to not understand the problems that they're getting into.
That means that telling students that when they borrow money to pay for college — that is, when they invest in their own futures — they will have to pay that money back, with interest.

Reinforcing this message of responsibility will, in turn, push students to be more careful about their decisions regarding college costs, their selection of a major, and their decision about how to pay tuition.

This message won't be easy for many young people to hear. But then again, nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

Cato demonstrates how poll results can change if people are informed of the costs of policy options. This time they polled on provisions of Obamacare that are popular.
By a margin of 63% to 33%, Americans support the ACA’s community-rating provision that prevents health insurers from charging some customers higher rates based on their medical history. However, support flips with a majority opposed 60%-31% if the provision caused the quality of health care to get worse.

Majorities also come to oppose the ACA’s community-rating provision if it increased premiums (55% oppose, 39% favor), or raised taxes (53% oppose, 40% favor). However, threats to the to quality of care appear to be a pressure point for most Americans.
So many times, poll questions on complicated policy issues make it seem that some policy is cost-free with no tradeoffs involved. Honest polling would include possible consequences, but that would be no fun for ideological-driven media.
And that's not all. If people are told about how it might affect the quality of care, they're not so excited about preventing insurers from charging people who need more care a higher rate.
When respondents were asked follow-up questions about specific types of quality reductions, Americans turned against the ACA’s community-rating provision most if:

-It limits access to medical tests and treatments (66% oppose, 27% favor)

-People have to wait several months before seeing a specialist to receive medically necessary care (65% oppose, 25% favor)

-It limits access to top rated medical facilities and treatment centers for serious illnesses (62% oppose, 31% favor).

-If people received more surprise medical bills for services they thought were covered (64% oppose, 25% favor)
If people don't know the consequences of policy choices, they'll just respond to the topline promises of all the good that some choice would provide instead of pondering the tradeoffs. And politicians have a natural incentive to cater to that ignorance because their main concern is getting reelected. And the media facilitate this ignorance by asking simplistic poll questions and then crafting stories based around the responses born out of ignorance of tradeoffs that the polls provide. And the ones who will suffer are future generations bound to pay off the interest on these debts. It's a shameful cycle.

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Who knows what to think about this most recent round of allegations and counter-allegations about whether or not the Obama administration asked for FISA warrants on the Trump campaign or on Trump himself?

The WSJ is right
that Washington is just going nuts. This is not the sort of question that should be carried out on Twitter.
Pardon the gallows humor, but what a spectacle. Democratic leaders and the media wildly overreacted to last week’s news, based on a leak, that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. in the not-so-secret lair of his Senate office. Resign. Special prosecutor. Watergate.

Then the President, with his familiar self-restraint, replied with a Saturday morning Twitter barrage alleging that former President “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” Mr. Trump offered no evidence for his claims, which may have been based on a report by a radio talk-show host.

The political upshot is that, in this supposedly mature democracy, the current President is accusing his predecessor of trying to subvert his victory, while the former President’s party accuses Mr. Trump of colluding with the enemy in the Kremlin. Forget “Wag the Dog” or “The Manchurian Candidate.” Hollywood couldn’t make this up.
This is such poisonous stuff. We have allegations from a sitting president that the previous president's administration was spying on him during a campaign in which the former president was going all out to support Trump's opponent. We have allegations of I'm not sure what. I've never been clear on what exactly what is being alleged. We know that some of Trump's earlier associates in his campaign had monetary ties to Russia. We know that the Russians were behind hacking of Democrats' emails and then making those public through WikiLeaks. However, what action is the actual Trump campaign being accused of? Their actions weren't necessary for Putin to do what he did. We also have the stories of how Obama officials were actively working to make sure to leak information to make the Trump campaign look bad.
That question has become more urgent as we’ve learned the extent of the Obama Administration’s efforts to share raw intelligence about the Trump campaign far and wide. In January the White House changed its rules to let the National Security Agency share this intelligence with other agencies without privacy protections. The timing is suspicious to say the least.
The WSJ is right that we don't need a special counsel or a special committee in Congress. We have intelligence committees in Congress; let's use them.
The worst option for investigating all this is to appoint a special counsel in the Justice Department. The country doesn’t need another Inspector Javert spending months in secret looking for someone to indict. The country needs to know what happened.

The second worst idea is a joint House-Senate special committee. That would have to start from scratch and you can bet it would be filled with partisans. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer—who may eventually call for everyone in the Trump Administration to resign—would use it as a political weapon.

A last resort option would be a commission of nonelected graybeards like the Robb-Silberman effort that in 2004-2005 investigated the intelligence errors over weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq war. But that would also have to start de novo and take months or years.

Before going to that extreme, the better immediate options are the House and Senate intelligence committees that have been investigating Russia’s election meddling for months. These may be the last two committees in Congress that operate in bipartisan fashion, at least most of the time.

The two Republican Chairmen, Rep. Devin Nunes and Sen. Richard Burr, have said from the outset that they take Russian meddling seriously. The ranking Senate Democrat, Mark Warner, said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that “I have confidence that we are going to get to the bottom of this” and “Richard Burr and I are going to get this done.” Mr. Warner and his House colleague, Adam Schiff, will be under pressure from the left to portray the probes as a whitewash, but we don’t want to prejudge their motives or behavior.

Political collusion with a foreign power and the abuse of intelligence collection to smear an opponent threaten the integrity of democratic institutions. Let’s hope the intelligence committees rise above their putative party leaders and tell America what really happened.
We need more than a president tweeting ugly allegations based on something he read on Breitbart. Trump's tweets succeeded mostly in distracting attention from some of the best moments he had as president with his speech to Congress. If his allegation that the Obama administration had spied on him is true, it means that they had sufficient information to apply for a FISA warrant. If it's not true, it means that he's just being reckless and throwing out poisonous allegations based on little information. It would be accusation before evidence. I agree with Senator Sasse.
"We are in the midst of a civilization-warping crisis of public trust, and the President's allegations today demand the thorough and dispassionate attention of serious patriots. A quest for the full truth, rather than knee-jerk partisanship, must be our guide if we are going to rebuild civic trust and health."

Paul Mirengoff writes,
Moreover, Trump has far more to lose than does his predecessor. Obama can’t be impeached and he isn’t running for anything. Nor, assuming the administration secured the necessary order from the FISA court, has he done anything illegal. And his fans will admire him more than ever if he took legal steps in an effort to prevent the election of Donald Trump (or, as they see it, to prevent the Russians from electing Trump).

Why, then, did Trump magnify the Russia story? The simple explanation would be (justifiable) outrage that the Obama administration would tap his phone. However, this is a story that has been out there for a while. Apparently, Trump learned some new details, including the ones I discussed here. Maybe they caused him to go nuclear.

Or maybe Trump simply decided to play offense. He has seen the Russia story take down one of his key early backers — Gen. Flynn — and threaten to disable another — Jeff Sessions. He’s not one to sit back and let the opposition pick off his people one-by-one, with him the ultimate target.

We know that Trump’s practice is to “hit back twice as hard.” This looks the latest example.

The practice has served Trump well in business and, so far, in politics. So it is understandable that he would employ it now.

But, again, the situation here is asymmetrical. Unlike in his battles with Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Hillary Clinton, Trump has far more to lose than Obama.

Trump had better be confident either that any wire tap on him was illegal or that the evidence leading to its authorization included nothing damaging to him. One inference from his decision to go on offense is that he has that confidence. But one could also surmise that he sees new trouble ahead and wants to change, as best he can, the focus of the conversation.

This much is clear to me: the Russians are the winners in this dispute. A second-rate power with a third-rate economy is dominating American politics.
Steve Hayes writes on what we don't know at this point.
Let me begin with an admission, an observation, and a guess.

The admission: Even after weeks of reporting, with good sources in the national security world, on Capitol Hill, and (believe it or not) among Trump's team, I cannot claim with any real confidence to know the ground truth about Trump and Russia or potential federal investigations or Obama loyalists pushing storylines.

The observation
: Neither do most of the people closest to the back-and-forth allegations, including President Trump, or those talking in public about what is unfolding. Most of what we're seeing in the media is the public version of an elaborate game of "telephone" that's taking place behind the scenes.

The guess: March 4, 2017, will end up being a rather consequential day in the presidency of Donald Trump.

Either: the president used thinly sourced media reports to float a conspiracy theory about his predecessor and he was wrong; or, citing thinly sourced media reports, he overstated the details of an actual investigation into his activities or the activities of those around him, alleging presidential involvement without evidence; or, citing thinly sourced media reports, he accurately accused the former president of doing something highly illegal and accidentally uncovered what would surely be one of the biggest scandals in U.S. history. Whatever the case, the events of the last two days will undoubtedly have lasting effects.
Hayes reports that Trump has no idea if his allegations were true. He was just relying on his guesses of what happened based off of what he'd read in the media.
White House sources acknowledge that Trump had no idea whether the claims he was making were true when he made them. He was basing his claims on media reports—some of them months old—about the possibility that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had may have authorized surveillance of Trump associates, presumably pursuant to a federal investigation of their ties to Russia.

Later Saturday morning, White House Counsel Don McGahn told staffers to avoid discussions about the president's tweets or any possible investigation—an order that effectively paralyzed the White House staff for much of the day. Staffers were afraid to talk to one another for fear of running afoul of McGahn's guidance and even those authorized to talk to the media were nervous about doing so.
THe White House eventually issued a statement asking Congress's intelligence committees to look into this whole story.
The formal language masks the rather extraordinary work that this statement is doing: The White House is asking Congress to investigate in order to determine whether President Trump's tweeted claims were true.

This would not be the first time Trump has trafficked in conspiracy theories, of course. From his piloting of the nationwide Obama birther effort to his repeated, evidence-free claims that Rafael Cruz was involved with Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, Trump's mind is a welcome receptacle for unproven intrigue and imagined treacheries.
The original story emerges from a Heat Street writer who believes some evil stuff about Vladimir Putin who she believes had Andrew Breitbart murdered. There have been other media reports that might imply that the Obama administration was indeed listening in to Trump campaign associates. And, as Hayes points out, the Obama administration, in addition to the IRS scandal and going after reporters, has a history of using intelligence for political advantage.
And there are numerous examples of the Obama administration and the intelligence leaders loyal to the president politicizing intelligence. In collaboration with the Obama White House, CIA Director John Brennan and DNI James Clapper worked for more than five years to keep the documents captured in the Osama bin Laden raid from public view. (See here and here for the exhaustive details). During the heated debate over the Iran Deal, Clapper's office rewrote the threat assessment on Iran to downplay Iran's involvement in transnational terror.

Beyond that, we know that several high-ranking Obama administration officials were caught lying about the details of the Benghazi attacks in the weeks before the 2012 presidential election—and for several years after.

None of that means that what Trump alleged is true, of course. It's entirely possible that if there were FISA warrants, Obama had nothing to do with them. And it's entirely possible that there weren't FISA warrants.
Given Clapper's role in politicizing that intelligence and misleading Congress, should we take his word now that there was no FISA warrant? His statements to Congress that intelligence officials do not collect data on Americans in light of what we subsequently learned from the Snowden leaks are certainly much more egregious than Jeff Sessions answering a question by separating in his mind his work as a senator and his efforts on behalf of Trump's campaign.

If President Trump wanted to distract everyone from what his speech to Congress and the policy provisions he wants to enact, he certainly succeeded. And will we ever, as a nation, get a sense of what really went on? As Hayes wrote,
We won't know the full truth about all of this anytime soon. And even as we see bits of the truth revealed will we—will the country—recognize it? Or will Democrats believe their Democrat truth and Republicans believe their Republican truth?
I'm afraid not.

Jay Cost has
a good tweetstorm on all of this and the dangers of having bureaucrats leaking classified information for political purposes.

Read the rest of his tweetstorm.

Of course, the Obama administration is not innocent of using the power of the executive branch to go after those they perceived as opponents. Think of the IRS scandal. And then there was the DOJ under Eric Holder.
Obama’s Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder had a history of secretly obtained phone records. In 2013, he targeted journalists for printing a negative story about a failed operation in Yemen.

Mainstream media outlets and experts in the field called Holder’s seizing of phone records “astonishing” and “unprecedented.”

“This investigation is broader and less focused on an individual source or reporter than any of the others we’ve seen,” said Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, to The Washington Post. “They have swept up an entire collection of press communications. It’s an astonishing assault on core values of our society.”

Rather than subpoena the journalists themselves, Holder obtained the records through their telephone providers including Verizon Wireless. None of them warned the Associated Press that their information had been collected.

Similarly, Holder also went after Fox News reporter James Rosen, who the Justice Department labeled as a possible “criminal co-conspirator” for a report he did about North Korea in 2009.
Even The New York Times bashed Holder for his attack on Rosen.
“With the decision to label a Fox News television reporter a possible ‘co-conspirator’ in a criminal investigation of a news leak, the Obama administration has moved beyond protecting government secrets to threatening fundamental freedoms of the press to gather news.”

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post went a step further, characterizing Holder’s actions as Nixonian.
“The Rosen affair is as flagrant an assault on civil liberties as anything done by George W. Bush’s administration, and it uses technology to silence critics in a way Richard Nixon could only have dreamed of. To treat a reporter as a criminal for doing his job — seeking out information the government doesn’t want made public — deprives Americans of the First Amendment freedom on which all other constitutional rights are based.”

Ah, that peaceful Cuban regime with which Obama established diplomatic relations without getting any easing on its tyranny in return. Mary Anastasia O'Grady writes about the Castro regime's killing of one more dissident.
Score another kill for the Cuban military dictatorship: Last month it eliminated Afro-Cuban dissident Hamell Santiago Más Hernández, an inmate of one of its most notoriously brutal prisons.

The remarkable thing was not the death of a critic. That’s routine in a police state that holds all the guns, bayonets, money and food. What’s noteworthy is that the world hardly blinked, which is to say that two years after President Obama’s detente with Raúl Castro, the regime still dispatches adversaries with impunity. It also routinely blocks visitors to the island, even of the leftist stripe—more on this in a moment—in order to keep the population isolated. “Normalization” to the contrary, Cuba is the same totalitarian hellhole that it has been for the past 58 years.

Forty-five-year-old Más Hernández was a member of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, a group working for a peaceful transition to democracy. He was healthy when he was arrested in June and sentenced to four years in prison for “disrespect for authority”—a k a failure to bow to the masters of the slave plantation. His real crime was advocating for a free Cuba while black. There are few more lethal combinations.

The black Cuban is supposed to show gratitude to the revolution to sustain the myth that he has been elevated by communism. The grim reality is the opposite, but heaven help those who dare to say so.

In November, Más Hernández was transferred to Combinado del Este prison, a dungeon not fit for animals. There he developed a kidney infection. His wife told the independent media in Cuba that he lost almost 35 pounds. According to his overlords he died on Feb. 24 of a “heart attack.” Funny, that epidemic of heart disease among those who cross Castro.

His death ought to prick the conscience of the free world. But while the island is crawling with foreign news bureaus, the story has not appeared in the English-language press. President Obama may have opened Cuba to more tourists, but the regime takes pains to keep its 11 million captive souls and their misery invisible.

The Castro family is a crime syndicate and many American businesses want a piece of the action.

Is this really a surprise?
A majority of online and social media defenders of Obamacare are professionals who are "paid to post," according to a digital expert.

"Sixty percent of all the posts were made from 100 profiles, posting between the hours of 9 and 5 Pacific Time," said Michael Brown. "They were paid to post."

...He began investigating it [using social media to manipulate public opinion] after his criticism of the former president's health insurance program posted on the Obamacare Facebook page. He was hit hard by digital activists pretending to be regular people.

"Digital activists are paid employees; their purpose is to attack anyone who's posting something contrary to the view of the page owner wants expressed," he told Attkisson.

She reports that he evaluated 226,000 pro-Obamacare posts made by 40,000 Facebook profiles.

Brown: "Sixty percent of all the posts were made from 100 profiles, posting between the hours of 9 and 5 Pacific Time."

Sharyl: "Which means what?"

Brown: "They were paid to post."