Litmus test

Romney’s tape helps identify Red Team members who aren’t batsh*t crazy.

Now that Mitt Romney has done us all a favor by explicitly stating an indefensible position, reactions to the story seem to be neatly dividing the Red team into its crazy and non-crazy (or at least less-crazy) factions. David Brooks, Reihan Salam, and even Ramesh (Party of Death) Ponnuru see clearly the falsity of Romney’s factual claims, the moral horror embodied in his world view, and the political suicidality of saying it out loud. Anyone defending the tape (e.g. Erick Erickson) – as opposed to sticking with Romney despite the tape – can now be written off as utterly beyond redemption.

Romney himself could have chosen to join the less-crazy faction by backing off from, and apologizing for, his gormless and heartless remarks – as Barack Obama did in his parallel “bitter clingers” moment – but instead he chose to declare himself the Chief Bull Loony.

In response to the previous post, commenter “bdbd” points out “the ease and fluidity with which Romney talked to that fundraiser audience, completely unlike the stumbling discomfort he shows when speaking to a audience that might have some lazy moochers in it.” Perhaps we have finally penetrated the mystery of the real Romney: in his heart of hearts, he may actually be Thurston Howell III (as David Brooks calls him). Or, as Josh Marshall says, the caricature Mitt Romney is actually the man himself.

Update Bill Kristol chimes in: “Romney seems to have contempt not just for the Democrats who oppose him, but for tens of millions who intend to vote for him.” I’d never categorize Kristol as non-crazy – let alone non-evil – but at least he’s non-stupid. That distinguishes him – and Rich Lowry – from the riff-raff who seem to be drunkenly yelling, “Yeah! You tell ’em, Mitt!”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

27 thoughts on “Litmus test”

  1. I don’t think Mitt Romney believes this stuff at all. He just thinks he’s always the smartest guy in the room and can even bamboozle his fellow masters of the universe by telling them what they wanna hear before putting his hand out for the check. He was a governor who’s primary accomplishment was a statewide program that was largely funded by maximizing Medicaid enrollment; he oversaw the administration of welfare benefits. He knows quite well that it’s misleading to claim that 47% of people pay no income tax and totally wrong to claim that that 47% will overwhelmingly vote for Barack Obama. Rather, he’s making the bogus connection to scare other billionaires into giving him a few tens of millions of dollars.

  2. David Brooks may see the falsity of Romney’s claims, but he has no problem making bizarre claims of his own:

    Sure, there are some government programs that cultivate patterns of dependency in some people. I’d put federal disability payments and unemployment insurance in this category. But, as a description of America today, Romney’s comment is a country-club fantasy. It’s what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other. It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney.

    Personally, I think he’s a kind, decent man who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not — some sort of cartoonish government-hater. But it scarcely matters. He’s running a depressingly inept presidential campaign. Mr. Romney, your entitlement reform ideas are essential, but when will the incompetence stop?

    Talk about depressing. Disability payments and unemployment insurance are are fundamental features of a decent society. The R&R entitlement reforms are neither essential nor sensible. And on what basis does Brooks conclude that Romney – who not even Brooks can deny is a habitual liar – is a kind and decent man?

    1. I hate to defend David Brooks, but when he’s half-right, he’s half-right. Both unemployment and disability programs contain some inherent moral hazard. Unemployment has never been generous enough in America to create appreciable moral hazard (Brooks is wrong here although he may be right for some European countries), but some disability programs have been horribly abused by substantial numbers of people. However, federal disability programs (which are the ones Brooks mentioned) are hard to abuse. The real abuse has come from bogus soft-tissue injuries claimed by various local public service personnel, with the complicity of their management structures.

      1. “Half-right?” “inherent moral hazard?”

        Bah, humbug.

        Every insurance scheme creates some inherent moral hazard. But first of all that’s not the same thing as a pattern of dependency. Second of all, size matters. Is the effect so large that we ought to be worrying that lots of people aren’t looking for work because they’re living high on the hog on unemployment benefits or federal disability payments? I don’t think so.

        It’s true that some non-federal disability programs, including private ones, have been abused, sometimes criminally so, but that has nothing to to do with Brooks’ point, which seems to be about federal programs, since he’s writing the context of a Presidential campaign.

        1. I too have to stand up for UI folk. The problem you face when you’re unemployed — besides all the practical ones — is that you know that if you take a job that pays you a lot less than the one you just lost, you’re maybe never getting that money back. (Well, that’s complicated b/c of course, no one with a brain goes around *actually telling* employers what the last person paid them. But, many, many people are too honest to know that they should *never* cough that up. Big mistake. Better to say you are contractually obligated not to disclose it.)

          That means, practically, that you may never be able to pay off your debts. So every choice you make – IF you get any choice at all — is bad, generally.

          I can see why people lie about all this, is what I’m saying. And to accuse people of being lazy is a bit much, coming from all these privileged folk. When I watched the GOP convention, I had to turn it off b/c I just couldn’t take the smugness. Where I come from, being stuck up — especially when it’s sooooo *unearned* — is one of the worst sins there is. Better to be a failure or an alcoholic than to behave that way. Seriously.

          1. Also, if you happen to be one of those who threw all those people on unemployment out of work to begin with, it “takes some brass ” to blame a “culture of dependency” for their predicament.

      2. The European experience seems to be generally that the primary economic harm in this area comes from illicit work (thus not contributing their share to the social safety net, and evading income tax and VAT), not people drawing on welfare that they have no right to. The “welfare queen” type of fraud appears to be largely a boogeyman (not that it doesn’t exist, but it’s a relatively minor part of the European shadow economies; people working off the books is the big issue).

        On top of that, some of the policies that aim at minimizing fraud and abuse can cause considerable economic harm themselves. For example, part of the German Hartz IV reforms was that welfare recipients had to take every “acceptable” job offered to them, with a very low threshold for what was considered acceptable. While that reduced unemployment, it also led to “wage dumping” in lower income brackets, i.e. a reduction in the average wage, because it created a buyer’s market for employers and hampered the ability of employees to negotiate fair wages.

        So, no, Brooks isn’t really right for Europe, either. Like many people who go off anecdotal data with respect to welfare abuse and dependency claims, he doesn’t really seem to have studied the underlying issues very well.

        Personally, as a taxpayer in the UK, I’m more worried that the Jobseeker’s Allowance may be too little to live on than that someone may waste too much of it on a few pints at the local pub.

        1. Katja,
          I was thinking more of the Netherlands, which found it necessary to tighten unemployment benefits in the 1980’s. However, IIRC, their tightening of unemployment benefits was accompanied by a general move toward a Scandinavian-type labor market (high job turnover, high wages, low unemployment, active governmental policies, significant taxes to pay for it all.)

          1. To be clear, I was talking about Europe in general.

            The big driver of labor reform in the Netherlands in the 1980s, as I recall, was the Wassenaar Agreement, especially the effect it had on stopping wage increases from spiralling out of control (which is why it sometimes still gets cited in the context of the Euro crisis) and how much easier it made getting part-time work. The agreement had a very noticeable and quick effect.

            The unemployment benefits reform that occured concurrently had, as far as I know, a far more limited effect on the labor market; the primary cause of unemployment was the wage structure in conjunction with restrictive labor laws, and a reform of the disability insurance system that occurred a few years later and mirrored what had been done to unemployment benefits had practically no effect.

          2. Re the Netherlands: it sounds better than what we have here now. High job turnover might mean better chances of actually finding one.

          3. NCG, a model that I think could work better in our culture (once we decide to actually pay for a decent social safety net) is the Danish Flexicurity system. Briefly, while the Danish system allows employers to fire employees at will, if you lose your job, you will receive 90% of your previous salary as unemployment benefits (up to a maximum of 2,000 Euro per month) for up to two years (and social assistance afterwards). This is combined with an active labor market policy that tries to get the unemployed back to work.

        2. Not to mention that socializing is actually one of the more reliable ways to *find* a job. I’m not kidding. Trying to go through the front door these days is a serious mistake.

        3. Katya,
          As you’re in the UK you’re doubtless thoroughly aware that the current ConDem government is seeking to throw an awful lot of people off of a federal disability benefit. The people I read say this is horrifically illegitimate, that many people incapable of work or even just incapable generally are being falsely classified as able in order to remove their benefits (but then, the people I would read would say that), but it’s not like the UK doesn’t have its own right-wing culture of denouncing “dependency on the state”.

          See also “Dole Scum”.

          1. Warren, I’m absolutely aware of that. It’s actually part of a bigger scheme of welfare cuts. Let’s just say that if I could vote in the UK general elections, you’d have to put a gun to my head to make me vote for the Conservatives (and the LibDems would have to come crawling back for forgiveness first). The UK’s social safety net is already one of the weaker ones compared to the rest of Europe, and cuts in the middle of a recession when lots of people already have trouble making ends meet and the austerity policies are making matters worse, welfare cuts are about the last thing you’d want.

            That’s why I mentioned the JSA — it’s already bordering on the too much to starve, too little to live on category.

    2. Bernie, I do not find Brooks’ claims to be “bizarre.”

      He says “cultivate patterns of dependency in some people.” From my own first hand knowledge, I think that is correct. I know more than one person who has told me (with a touch of bragging in his voice) how little he has to work to regain his eligibility for his next round of unemployment benefits. When I mentioned to each of them that I was surprised and disappointed in them, their response was the same — “Why should I work more than I have to?”

      And by the way, that’s very little different than Greg Mankiw wrote when he complained of progressive taxation.

      In re: “on what basis does Brooks conclude …?” Perhaps, as Brooks wrote, it is his personal contact with Romney. Do you seriously doubt that Brooks knows Romney personally?

      1. I’ve never understood why Mankiw thinks that tax policies that *might* encourage him to work less would be any kind of problem to the rest of us.

        1. I’ve never understood why Mankiw thinks that tax policies that *might* encourage him to work less would be any kind of problem to the rest of us.

          Exactly. Someone else will fill the niche. That’s the way the world works.
          So why?

          Because Mankiw thinks he is special and no one else can possibly fill his shoes.
          And so the world will go wanting for want his Galtness.

          If there is one thing the internet has taught us it is that the world is filled with enormously talented people.
          There is nothing Mankiw does that a 1000s of others can do just as well if not better.
          And for a whole lot cheaper too.

          Mankiw thinks he is enormously vital.
          I think the world won’t miss a beat if he stayed in bed 4 days a week.
          This is even more true for CEOs and finance man and billionaires.

          Tax the snot out of them…
          If they work less– Good. Someone else will pick up the slack and the wealth gets spread.

          Why is spreading the wealth important?
          An economy based on the energy of money doesn’t work if lots of people don’t have money/energy to spend.

          Mankiw arrogance about his “specialness” isn’t confined to just Mankiw of course.
          The human species as a whole is arrogant to the point of obnoxiousness.
          I think that is one of our fundamental qualities.
          But I won’t bore you with my proof of that…
          Except for this:

          Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.

      2. Ken,

        I’m not sure I’d call that a “culture of dependency” as much as gaming the system. Maybe that’s just semantics, but when I think of the former I think of people who are basically made helpless by being supported by others: trust fund babies and the like :-). Does that happen with unemployment benefits? Sometimes, surely. But I also think the word “culture” implies that it’s a widespread phenomenon – that it involves a large share of Romney’s 47%. I don’t think that’s accurate.

        Does Brooks know Romney? Probably, and no doubt they are on friendly terms. But has he seen Romney’s character tested? I’d bet that the only time he’s sen that is in this campaign, and by his own words he is unimpressed with what he sees there.

        1. Bernie, I don’t disagree with a single word of this reply. But remember, Brooks didn’t say “culture of dependency.” What he said was sort of the opposite. He said “Sure, there are some government programs that cultivate patterns of dependency in some people. But, as a description of America today, Romney’s comment is a country-club fantasy. It’s what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other.”

  3. Hey! Coulda been worse! At least Romney did not say what Gary Bauer said a few days earlier at the Values Voter Summit, that the Obama vote comes not just from the dependent moochers, but from fraudulent voters in urban areas, which are full of you-know-what color people. Give the guy a break, everyone!

  4. I can easily believe that Brooks, Ponnuru, Salam and to a lesser extent Douthat are sincere in their criticisms. As far as Kristol and Lowry: something rats something something ship?

    1. “As far as Kristol and Lowry: something rats something something ship?”

      Exactly. I have zero interest in giving credit to these assholes. They don’t view it as a substantive policy mistake, but a PR snafu. They’ve been doing a version of the “47% are parasites” riff for years. The memory hole is getting clogged from too much flushing.

  5. Commenter Skjellifetti over at Brad deLong:

    Romney has just called the vast majority of our volunteer military personnel deployed in combat zones and elsewhere moochers.

    The ad writes itself. Video shots of SEALs in helicopters, infantrymen in Afghanistan, bomb-loaders on aircraft carriers, with overlays of their pay and federal tax liability, and Romney’s voice-over, repeated.

  6. Another non-douche-y column by Reihan. I might have to start reading him. I mean, I can’t get with most of it, but at least he seems smart and recognizably human.

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