Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What is President Obama's drone war in Pakistan doing?

Here's an important new study on our drone war based on 130 interviews, including with Pakistani victims and witnesses of drone attacks. (PDF of the complete report.) The study says:

In public statements, the US states that there have been “no” or “single digit” civilian casualties.” It is difficult to obtain data on strike casualties because of US efforts to shield the drone program from democratic accountability, compounded by the obstacles to independent investigation of strikes in North Waziristan. The best currently available public aggregate data on drone strikes are provided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization. TBIJ reports that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children. TBIJ reports that these strikes also injured an additional 1,228-1,362 individuals. Where media accounts do report civilian casualties, rarely is any information provided about the victims or the communities they leave behind.
But the problem goes far beyond "civilian casualties":
Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behavior. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators. Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school. Waziris told our researchers that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals. In addition, families who lost loved ones or their homes in drone strikes now struggle to support themselves. . . .
The report points out that the government considers any Pakistani man who's killed in a drone strike to be a "militant," and the media seems to blindly go along with this:
Journalists and media outlets should cease the common practice of referring simply to “militant” deaths, without further explanation. All reporting of government accounts of “militant” deaths should include acknowledgment that the US government counts all adult males killed by strikes as “militants,” absent exonerating evidence. Media accounts relying on anonymous government sources should also highlight the fact of their single-source information and of the past record of false government reports. . . .
What's President Obama's role in all this?
When President Bush left office in January 2009, the US had carried out at least 45 drone strikes according to the New America Foundation, or 52 according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), inside Pakistan. Since then, President Obama has reportedly carried out more than five times that number: 292 strikes in just over three and a half years. This dramatic escalation in the US use of drones to carry out targeted killings has brought with it escalating tensions between the US and Pakistan, as well as continued questions about the efficacy and accuracy of such strikes.

A key feature of the Obama administration’s use of drones has been a reported expansion in the use of “signature” strikes. Between 2002 and 2007, the Bush administration reportedly focused targeted killings on “personality” strikes targeting named, allegedly high-value leaders of armed, non-state groups like Salim Sinan al Harethi and Nek Mohammad. Under Obama, the program expanded to include far more “profile” or so-called “signature” strikes based on a “pattern of life” analysis. According to US authorities, these strikes target “groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t known.” Just what those “defining characteristics” are has never been made public. In 2012, the New York Times paraphrased a view shared by several officials that “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.” The Times also reported that some in the Obama administration joke that when the CIA sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” they think it is a terrorist training camp. . . .

[T]he President acts as the final decision maker, at least with respect to the decision to carry out “personality strikes” targeting named individuals. . . .

The administration claims to have a thorough vetting process by which names are chosen. It is unclear what, if any, process is in place for [these] decisions.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"Government-funded film critics do grotesque damage to freedom of speech."

Mark Steyn at National Review observes:

The more that U.S.-government officials talk about the so-called film Innocence of Muslims (which is actually merely a YouTube trailer) the more they confirm the mob’s belief that works of “art” are the proper responsibility of government. Obama and Clinton are currently starring as the Siskel & Ebert of Pakistani TV, giving two thumbs down to Innocence of Muslims in hopes that it will dissuade local moviegoers from giving two heads off to consular officials. “The United States government had absolutely nothing to do with this video,” says Hillary Clinton. “We absolutely reject its content, and message.” “We reject the efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others,” adds Barack Obama. . . .

What other entertainments have senior U.S. officials reviewed lately? Last year Hillary Clinton went to see the Broadway musical Book of Mormon. “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others”? The Book of Mormon’s big showstopper is “Hasa Diga Eebowai” which apparently translates as “F*** you, God.” The U.S. secretary of state stood and cheered.

Why does Secretary Clinton regard “F*** you, God” as a fun toe-tapper for all the family but “F*** you, Allah” as “disgusting and reprehensible”? The obvious answer is that, if you sing the latter, you’ll find a far more motivated crowd waiting for you at the stage door."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Why did Rick Perry fail?

It might have been sleep apnea.

Is Romney wrong about economic mobility in the United States?

In a Washington Post editorial, Ruth Marcus writes that Mitt Romney is presenting a "Fantasyland version of the American Dream." According to Marcus, Romney claims that

all it takes to succeed in this country is determination and hard work. Government merely needs to get out of the way, roust the Entitlement Society slackers and let the Opportunity Society strivers go for it.

“Frankly, I was born with a silver spoon, which is the greatest gift you could have, which is to get born in America,” Romney told donors at the now-famous Florida fundraiser. “I’ll tell you ... 95 percent of life is set up for you if you’re born in this country.”

Describing his own path, Romney noted that he gave away the money his father left him. “I have inherited nothing,” he said. “Everything I earned I earned the old-fashioned way.”

There’s only one thing wrong with this cozy, self-satisfied worldview: It omits the enormous advantages accruing to those born on third base. It ignores the grim reality that those born to less-privileged families are far less likely than the Bushes or Romneys of the world to secure their place in the middle class or above.

It imagines an America where economic mobility is far more fluid than it is in reality. Being born in America is an advantage, to be sure, but some spoons are a lot more sterling than others.

A new study from the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families underscores Romney’s misperception. “The reality is that economic success in America is not purely meritocratic,” write authors Isabel V. Sawhill, Scott Winship and Kerry Searle Grannis. Rather, they say, “It helps if you have the right parents. Those born into rich or poor families have a high probability of remaining rich or poor as adults.”
This seems to be flawed reasoning. The statement in that last paragraph assumes that merit is randomly distributed throughout the population. But that's not the only plausible theory. How about this alternate theory? Parents earn their money through their actions. They took those actions because of some combination of their genes and their environment (including how they were raised by their parents). The parents obviously pass on their genes to their children, and they can also pass on some of their upbringing by raising their kids to share their values and so on. The children will tend to act in similar ways to their parents. In short, parents can pass on their "merit" to their children. If that's correct, then in a meritocracy, you'd expect a person's level of economic success to be fairly similar — although far from identical — to their parents.

And that's what the study shows:
People do move up and down the ladder, both over their careers and between generations, but it helps if you have the right parents. Children born into middle-income families have a roughly equal chance of moving up or down once they become adults, but those born into rich or poor families have a high probability of remaining rich or poor as adults. The chance that a child born into a family in the top income quintile will end up in one of the top three quintiles by the time they are in their forties is 82 percent, while the chance for a child born into a family in the bottom quintile is only 30 percent. In short, a rich child in the U.S. is more than twice as likely as a poor child to end up in the middle class or above.
As Tyler Cowen wrote in a blog post called "Why Economic Mobility Measures are Overrated" (which I've blogged twice before):
How much of immobility is due to “inherited talent plus diminishing role for random circumstance”? Is not this cause of immobility very different — both practically and morally — from such factors as discrimination, bad schools, occupational licensing, etc.? What are you supposed to get when you combine genetics with meritocracy? I do not know how much of current American (or other) immobility is due to this factor, but I find it discomforting that complaints about mobility are so infrequently accompanied by an analysis of this topic.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

People and percentages

Paul Krugman points out the fallacy of characterizing a group of people as a 47% bloc: people don't stay in the same situation for their whole lives. So a statistical percentage isn't equivalent to a group of actual human beings.

The exact same fallacy is committed by those who divide the country into "the 1%" and "the 99%."

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Brunch conversation

Me: Do you want some of my watermelon?

My girlfriend: You're only asking me that because I'm black.


(At the highly recommended Americana Vineyards in Interlaken, New York, near Ithaca.)

David Brooks analyzes Mitt Romney's hidden-camera comments

Brooks writes an insightful column on Romney's infamous comments:

Romney, who criticizes President Obama for dividing the nation, divided the nation into two groups: the makers and the moochers. Forty-seven percent of the country, he said, are people “who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to take care of them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

This comment suggests a few things. First, it suggests that he really doesn’t know much about the country he inhabits. Who are these freeloaders? Is it the Iraq war veteran who goes to the V.A.? Is it the student getting a loan to go to college? Is it the retiree on Social Security or Medicare?

It suggests that Romney doesn’t know much about the culture of America. Yes, the entitlement state has expanded, but America remains one of the hardest-working nations on earth. Americans work longer hours than just about anyone else. Americans believe in work more than almost any other people. Ninety-two percent say that hard work is the key to success, according to a 2009 Pew Research Survey.

It says that Romney doesn’t know much about the political culture. Americans haven’t become childlike worshipers of big government. On the contrary, trust in government has declined. The number of people who think government spending promotes social mobility has fallen.

The people who receive the disproportionate share of government spending are not big-government lovers. They are Republicans. They are senior citizens. They are white men with high school degrees. As Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution has noted, the people who have benefited from the entitlements explosion are middle-class workers, more so than the dependent poor. . . .

The final thing the comment suggests is that Romney knows nothing about ambition and motivation. The formula he sketches is this: People who are forced to make it on their own have drive. People who receive benefits have dependency.

But, of course, no middle-class parent acts as if this is true. Middle-class parents don’t deprive their children of benefits so they can learn to struggle on their own. They shower benefits on their children to give them more opportunities — so they can play sports, go on foreign trips and develop more skills.
I agree with most of that. But Brooks's line of reasoning about parents and children, though clever, is also potentially dangerous. Adults aren't children. And the government isn't — or, shouldn't be — our parents.

By the way, who are the 47% of people Romney referred to as not paying income taxes? Here are a few charts with the answer. As you can see from that link, Romney is about right if you're looking at federal income taxes paid in 2011: 46.4% of households didn't pay them. But most of those households (28.3%) paid payroll taxes instead. Among the remaining 18.1%, most of them (10.3% of the total) were elderly, and almost all of the younger ones (6.9%) made less than $20,000 a year. It's fine for Romney and others to make the case that more of them should pay higher taxes. But let's be clear about who we're talking about.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Do tax increases discourage the wealthy from working hard?

Judge Richard Posner (who's considered "conservative") has this to say on the subject:

Increasing income taxes can . . . reduce the amount of work. But when the issue is increasing marginal income tax rates, the likelihood of a significant effect on work depends critically not only on the amount of the increase but also on where the margin is set. The Obama Administration proposes by allowing some of the Bush tax cuts to expire on schedule to increase the marginal income tax rate of persons whose taxable income exceeds $250,000 a year from 35 to 39.6 percent. . . . The effect on most of these taxpayers would be small. Suppose a person earning $300,000 in taxable income pays $75,000 in taxes currently. If his marginal rate (the rate for taxable income above $250,000) rises from 35 to 39.6 percent (for simplicity I’ll round this up to 40 percent), then his total income tax bill will rise from $75,000 to $77,500 (because on the last $50,000 of his income he will pay an extra 5 percent in tax). Will this increase in his total federal income tax bill, of 3.3 percent, cause him to work less? I would like to see evidence that it would.

Because of tax avoidance opportunities, it seems that very few people pay more than about a quarter of their income in federal income tax. Suppose someone has an income of $10 million on which he currently pays $2.5 million in income tax. The Administration’s tax increase would raise his income tax by $487,500 ([$10 million - $250,000] x .05), or slightly less than 20 percent. Would that affect how hard he works? I’m skeptical.

Income tax on earned income . . . does increase the cost of work relative to leisure, which is the basis for concern that increasing income tax rates, especially marginal rates, will cause a shift from work to leisure (and . . . to nonpecuniary work such as household production). But there is another effect: by lowering disposable income, an increase in income tax may cause a person to work harder in order to maintain his previous standard of living. The net effect on income of a higher tax is therefore uncertain. . . .

Americans are accustomed to working hard and to achieving and maintaining a high level of expenditure on consumer goods. In addition, people who earn high incomes tend to be highly competitive and to rate themselves by their income relative to the income of peers. Because of the absence of an aristocracy and the presence of a generally philistine attitude toward culture, money is the key index to prestige and social standing in the United States and, for many Americans, to a feeling of self-worth. These features of American society lead to me to be skeptical in general about the effect on work and therefore income of increasing marginal income tax rates to the levels contempated by the Administration.
A Berkeley economics professor, Owen Zidar, has studied the macroeconomic effects of tax changes on different income groups by looking at decades of data on U.S. federal and state taxes (respectively, from 1945-2010 and 1980-2011). (Here's the abstract with a link to download the whole paper.) He concludes:
Do tax cuts that go to high income taxpayers generate more output and employment growth than similarly sized tax cuts for low and moderate income taxpayers? . . .

If tax cuts for high-income earners generate substantial economic activity and job creation, then we should expect to see three things in the data. First, employment growth should tend to be higher in the years following exogenous tax cuts for the rich. Second, places with a higher share of rich people should grow faster following national tax cuts for the rich (since these areas receive more tax cuts for rich people in dollar per capita terms). Similarly, growth should be lower following tax increases on the rich, especially in places where many rich people live. None of these predictions are born out out in the data.

I find that the relationship between upper income tax changes and growth is negligible in magnitude and substantially weaker than equivalently sized tax changes for the bottom 90%. The point estimates suggest that almost all of the stimulative effect of exogenous tax cuts is due to tax cuts for the bottom 90%. Differential consumption responses help explain why a dollar of tax cuts for the top 10% produces less growth than those for the bottom 90%. Investment responses are also stronger following tax cuts for the bottom 90%, suggesting that the effects of additional economic growth tend to exceed the effects from income changes among those who are more likely to save. Overall, tax cuts for the bottom 90% tend to result in more output, employment, consumption and investment growth than equivalently sized tax cuts for the top 10%.
(You might object that this kind of study is skewed by the fact that taxes are sometimes raised or cut in response to specific economic conditions. But Professor Zidar tried to exclude those kinds of tax changes from his study.)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Does Obamacare let everyone keep their health insurance plan?

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook:

Got a long letter from my health insurance saying the Affordable Care Act is causing my health benefits to be significantly reduced and my premiums to increase. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Dear Obama, that's fine, but don't call it the Affordable Care Act.
Here's Politifact on President Obama's claim that "[i]f you're one of the more than 250 million Americans who already have health insurance, you will keep your health insurance. This law will only make it more secure and more affordable." Politifact says:
[A] March 2012 study by the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan number-crunching arm of Congress, projected that 3 million to 5 million fewer non-elderly people would obtain coverage through their employer each year from 2019 through 2022 than would have been the case before the law was passed. Including those with individually purchased policies enlarges that decline by an additional 1 million to 3 million Americans.

CBO’s estimate is broadly in line with a number of other independent estimates. . . .

In reality, Americans are not simply able to keep their insurance through thick and thin. Even before the law has taken effect, the rate of forced plan-switching among policyholders every year is substantial, and the CBO figures suggest that the law could increase that rate, at least modestly, even if Americans on balance benefit from the law’s provisions.
Politifact concludes: "We rate Obama’s claim Half True." That seems pretty generous.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Nietzsche on Obama?

1. "Our social order will slowly melt away, as all earlier orders have done when the suns of new ideas shone forth with new warmth over the people. One can desire this melting only in that one has hope; and one may reasonably have hope only if one credits his own heart and head, and that of his equals, with more strength than one credits to the representatives of the existing order. Usually, then, this hope will be arrogance, an overestimation."

— Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (1878), #443

2. "[S]ome individuals . . . are driven through the waves of the most exciting turns of fate, of the most varied currents of their time or nation, and yet always stay lightly on the surface, like cork."

— Nietzsche, id., #627

3. "There are men so presumptuous that they can only praise a greatness which they publicly admire by representing it as steps and bridges that lead to themselves.

— Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: The Wanderer and His Shadow (1880), #210

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Is there more entitlement spending under Democratic or Republican presidents?

Republicans, according to this editorial in the Wall Street Journal:

In current political discourse, it is common to think of the Democrats as the party of entitlements, but long-term trends seem to tell a somewhat different tale. From a purely statistical standpoint, the growth of entitlement spending over the past half-century has been distinctly greater under Republican administrations than Democratic ones. Between 1960 and 2010, the growth of entitlement spending was exponential, but in any given year, it was on the whole roughly 8% higher if the president happened to be a Republican rather than a Democrat.

This is in keeping with the basic facts of the time: Notwithstanding the criticisms of "big government" that emanated from their Oval Offices from time to time, the administrations of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George W. Bush presided over especially lavish expansions of the American entitlement state. Irrespective of the reputations and the rhetoric of the Democratic and Republican parties today, the empirical correspondence between Republican presidencies and turbocharged entitlement expenditures should underscore the unsettling truth that both political parties have, on the whole, been working together in an often unspoken consensus to fuel the explosion of entitlement spending.