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Matthew Yglesias

Why Not Massive Increases?

Another day, another Robert Samuelson column:
Our continued unwillingness to address this disconnect counts as one of 2005's big stories. We should ask ourselves: Why? After all, the need is well known. Consider the Congressional Budget Office's just released projections. By 2030, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid may cost 15 percent of national income -- almost double their level in 2000 and equal to 75 percent of today's federal budget. Left alone, these programs would require massive tax increases, cause immense deficits or crowd out other important government programs. We also know of at least partial solutions: curb costs by slowly raising eligibility ages and cutting benefits for wealthier recipients.
I assume Samuelson is referring to this long-term fiscal outlook document. It projects that in 2030, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will account for 15.2 percent of GDP. Overall federal spending will be at 22.5 percent of GDP. In the late Clinton years, taxes were higher enough to generate 20.9 percent of GDP in revenue, and I don't recall that having led to an economic catastrophe. Restoring revenue to that level would still leave us with a deficit of 1.6 percent of GDP. Is that an "immense" deficit? Well, we had bigger ones in 1971-72, 1975-78, 1980-1995, and 2003-2005 -- so it would actually be a smaller than unusual deficit.

And, of course, it's certainly not clear that anything catastrophic would happen if over the next 25 years revenues rose not to 20.9 percent of GDP but to 22.5 percent. That would be a high level of federal revenue as a share of the economy by historical standards, but still a low one by global standards. Real after tax income would still be higher than it is today and, indeed, higher than it's ever been in history. Now it's true, of course, that even getting back to 20.9 percent would, as Samuelson says, require "massive" tax increases. But that's simply because we've had massive tax cuts in recent years. So why not massive increases?

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Dec 28, 2005 -- 10:40:02 AM EST

That Explains It

At least part of the mystery of why the administration would want to launch a bunch of illegal wiretaps is now solved -- they tried to get a bunch of legal wiretaps and judges told them their applications were no good. Traditionally, the FISA court has been very deferential to the executive, and there's no reason to think 9/11 made them less lax about what they would approve. But when judicial oversight doesn't go your way, real men break the law, I guess.

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Dec 27, 2005 -- 11:43:14 PM EST

The Case for Video Games

Good column from Sebastian Mallaby. The way I'm really sure video games make you smarter is that after not playing any from roughly 1998-2005 I now find that all the games I try and way too complicated and difficult and I just give up and go back to doing something easy like reading books or blogging. The next generation is going to be scary.

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Dec 27, 2005 -- 12:51:55 PM EST

Gifted Children Left Behind?

A Washington Post op-ed complaints that with No Child Left Behind forcing schools to focus more attention on their worst-performing students, the "gifted" are being left out of the picture. Paul Glastris says "Progressive-minded folks ought to be shouting from the rooftops about this problem" while also conceding that "there are morally compelling reasons to focus on low-performing students." Andrew Rotherham thinks there's a "false choice" at the core of the op-ed's argument, but then seems to lean heavily on Paul's to-be-sure point and says that, really, we should care more about low-performing students and the glaring inequities in the current system.

I agree with that, but I also think the choice isn't necessarily all that false. The rhetoric of No Child Left Behind is, I think, an appealing one. The idea is that, well, no child should be left behind. It's an essentially egalitarian aspiration -- the school system should try to do well for the hardest to teach kids, included ones coming from difficult backgrounds and ones who simply for whatever reason have a hard time with school. The idea of "gifted" programs is basically the reverse vision -- that the school system should focus on the easiest cases and push them to the highest level of achievement possible.

There's not a stark either/or choice between the hard cases and the easy cases, but at some level you do need to make a decision about priorities. Insofar as we're serious about educational equality, that will to some extent involve shortchanging the best and the brightest. Insofar as we're serious about taking the most talented as far as they can go, that will involve shortchanging equity. The former strikes me as more desirable than the latter, especially for people who want to think of themselves as being on the left.

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Dec 27, 2005 -- 11:05:57 AM EST

Doing The Math

Legal issues aside, is having the NSA do some kind of wide-net surveillance for the purposes of counterterrorist data mining a good idea? Arguably, yes, but it's very hard to know without knowing more about the program. But here's a thought. Suppose I have an algorithm that's supposed to listen to a certain amount of recorded conversation and evaluate whether or not the speaker is a terrorist. It's a pretty damn good program, but thanks to the inherent difficulty of the task, the challenges of voice-recognition and dealing with foreign languages, etc., it has a ten percent error rate. That's to say -- if the program says you're a terrorist, nine times out of ten you are, in fact, a terrorist. That's a pretty decent program. So what happens if we put it into use on a widespread basis? Well, it sort of depends:

Continue Reading Here... (54 comments, 787 words in story)
Dec 26, 2005 -- 12:24:30 PM EST

Merry Christmas...

. . . for a variety of reasons the "holiday season" tends to make me more grumpy than merry. On the other hand, I've been having a perfectly good time this weekend doing such traditional Christmas-y things as playing NCAA Football 2006, watching the Giants' tragic loss to the Redskins, and I'm looking forward to the basketball games this afternoon. Slacking off on the blog has also been fun. But a friend of mine stayed up late at home last night to produce a Christmas morning edition of Slate's today's paper, which puts any not-in-the-spirit things I could do to shame. So in the spirit of Christian generosity and what have you, I'll say that I think the counterattack on the "war on Christmas" has done me -- and perhaps the world -- some good.

As I said, I'm not normally much for the holiday season. As I result, I tend to neither with people "happily holidays" nor a "Merry Christmas." But thanks to Bill O'Reilly, John Gibson, et. al. I've become obsessed with who's saying what. Consequently, I'm now running around town -- at the 711, Rite Aid, DC9, wherever -- wishing people a Merry Christmas or, if I think they maybe look not-so-christian a happy holidays. It's the polite thing to do and I haven't been so good about it over the years. So, yes, The O'Reilly Factor is making me a better person, which I hope is not a sentiment I'll need to repeat in the near future.

And I'll leave you with that thought, but if for some reason you're trolling the internet looking for political content let me note that there's actually important stuff in today's newspapers well worth discussing in the near future.

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Dec 25, 2005 -- 11:19:29 AM EST

Checks and Balances

Conveniently enough, the White House that thinks it's okay to break the law wants to put a justice on the Supreme Court who thinks official wrongdoing should always go unpunished.

Comments >> (16 comments)
Dec 24, 2005 -- 01:13:00 AM EST

Statistics Bleg

Because what you want to do with your holiday weekend is help me crunch some numbers....

There's a debate raging between Larry Bartels, Thomas Frank, and others about the right way to define the "white working class." On one definition -- white people who don't have four-year college degrees -- the National Election Survey indicates that Bush won this group by a hefty margin. On another definition -- white people in the bottom third of the household income distribution -- Kerry did just fine. One can sort of argue 'till the cows come home about who the "real" working class is. Leaving that aside, I read here that 29 percent of the NES sample has "Some College, no Degree" while 46 percent never attended college.

I'd be interested in disaggragating Bush's performance among whites with "some college" from his performance among whites with no college. In principle, one should be able to figure this out from the data available on the NES site, but I lack the requisite savvy. I also imagine someone has already done this breakdown, but my Googling efforts haven't located it. Any help readers could provide would be welcome.

Comments >> (17 comments)
Dec 23, 2005 -- 10:55:09 AM EST

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Matthew Yglesias -- Why Not Massive Increases?: Another day, another Robert Samuelson column: Our continued unwillingness to address this disconnect counts as one of 2005's big stories....
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Matthew Yglesias -- Gifted Children Left Behind?: A Washington Post op-ed complaints that with No Child Left Behind forcing schools to focus more attention on their worst-performing...
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