Archive for December, 2012
These comments by Mitt Romney’s son Tagg have gotten a lot of attention in the last couple of days:
In an interview with the Boston Globe examining what went wrong with the Romney campaign, his eldest son Tagg explains that his father had been a reluctant candidate from the start.
After failing to win the 2008 Republican nomination, Romney told his family he would not run again and had to be persuaded to enter the 2012 White House race by his wife Ann and son Tagg.
“He wanted to be president less than anyone I’ve met in my life. He had no desire… to run,” Tagg Romney said. “If he could have found someone else to take his place… he would have been ecstatic to step aside.”
By coincidence, I happened to be reading Joseph Epstein’s profile of Adlai Stevenson in his new book, Essays in Biography. To the extent that these revelations can be taken at face value, the resemblance to Stevenson’s approach to power is remarkable.
Let’s start by acknowledging some differences between Stevenson and Romney. While both were bright, Romney is probably more intellectual than Stevenson was (Stevenson played the part of the intellectual better, but the only book on his nightstand when he died was the social register), and Stevenson was probably a better governor. He could have had the 2nd term in Illinois if he had wanted it instead of the presidential nomination, whereas it’s not clear at all that Romney would have had a 2nd term if he had run, rather than prepare for his 2008 run.
But both Romney and Stevenson appear to have had a healthy, philosopher-king style distrust of power, enough that it evidently made them each uneasy about having it themselves. That’s not necessarily the reason they lost, but in Stevenson’s case, his public prevarications seem to have projected enough weakness that the public went the other way. At least Romney had the sense to keep any doubts private. And while he made the strategic error of not answering the personal attacks sooner, nobody really thinks that’s because he was trying to take a dive.
Stevenson, like Romney, also seems to have lacked a coherent governing philosophy. In Epstein’s telling:
The style, it is said, is the message. But in the case of Adlai Stevenson, the style seemed sometimes to persist in the absence of any clear message whatsoever. He preached sanity; he preached reason; his very person seemed to exert a pull toward decency in public affairs. Yet there is little evidence in any of his speeches or writing that he had a very precise idea of how American society was, or ought to be, organized. His understanding of the American political process was less than perfect, as can be seen from his predilection for the bipartisan approach to so many of the issues of his time. One might almost say that Stevenson tried to set up shop as a modern, disinterested Pericles, but that he failed to realize that the America of the 1950s was a long way from the Golden Age of Athens.
Ultimately, Stevenson was better at not saying much; his rhetoric influenced both Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s sale of the Great Society; whomever the Republicans nominate in 2016 will likely owe little to Romney’s campaign talks.
I don’t want to overdraw the comparison. Romney only ran in one general election; in some ways, his 2012 race contains elements both of Stevenson’s initial 1952 run and his rematch with Eisenhower in 1956, but in other ways, was completely different. Having never been the party’s nominee in 2008, Romney couldn’t lead the party in-between elections. The Republicans as a whole are coming to understand what Stevenson learned in 1952 – that a Presidential campaign is a terrible place to define issues and educate the public; individual personalities simply play too large a part in any single-office election.
But the biggest difference is how Romney will react after his loss, compared to how Stevenson reacted after his. Stevenson desperately wanted the nomination in 1960, only couldn’t bring himself to say so until it was too late. He wanted it, but he wanted to be asked, rather than having to ask. Romney really does seem done with politics, except for the inevitable post mortems.
I first read Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions about 25 years ago, at the urging of a friend of mine. Sowell’s book is devoted to explaining the underlying assumptions that divide modern conservatives and modern liberals, in particular, the notion of human perfectibility. Liberals, since Jefferson, have tended to believe that human beings and human society are infinitely perfectible, if only sufficient and correct resources are brought to bear perfecting them. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend towards the Burkean tradition of accepting that the crooked timber of humanity is likely to remain so, and we must plan accordingly.
Interesting then, that in the particular case of gun control, the left, rather than looking to improve human nature, instead chooses to focus on the hardware itself. It’s an unusual position for them to take, although I suppose it’s at least consistent with the contemporary Left’s trust of state power over the judgment of their fellow citizens. But it’s also, I think, consistent with their attempts to perfect society, if not the individual. In this case, they’d like to make society safer by taking away dangerous weapons from everyone. Presumably, they envision a softer, gentler world, with a lower overall blood pressure, so to speak.
Personally, I think that’s a delusion that, far from making us safer, will make us far less safe. After all, an attacker doesn’t need a gun to threaten me. He can have a knife, or if he’s sufficiently muscular, his bare hands. I’m never going to turn a gun on innocents; for me, it’s purely a sorely-needed equalizer in my own absolute right to self-defense.
Now one might be tempted to argue that the converse is true of conservatives – that in this case, they’re choosing to believe in education over technology. But that would be wrong. Conservatives are merely recognizing that no matter what technology is available, some people will be inspired by mental illness or just plain evil to put them to destructive use, and that the best thing we can do is to equip ourselves with the best defense available. It should go without saying that when that defense involves potentially deadly force, there’s a moral responsibility to train ourselves to use it effectively and only in circumstances where it’s necessary.
To the degree that we have talked about mental illness, it’s been to get people off the street, get them whatever treatment may be available, and to keep them from getting their hands on weapons they can’t possibly be expected to use safely. And while society may make the facilities for treatment or confinement available, ultimately it will remain the job of families and communities to identify at-risk individuals.
We are being completely consistent with a philosophy that takes the world as it is, rather than as we wish it would be.
For Human Rights Day (yes, there is such a thing), the UN’s Regional Information Center, located in the global Mordor of bureaucracy, Brussels, put out the following chart, explaining to residents of Europe how they can get involved in “public life.” For anyone who thinks that the goal of the current administration is to make us more like Europe, it ought to be at least a little dispiriting:
The differences between the American and European concepts of citizenship couldn’t be clearer. To Americans, participation in public life isn’t just about the government or politics, it’s also about community organizations, fraternal groups, religious institutions, and so forth. To the extent that we have the right to participate in politics, that participation is neither granted by or even really circumscribed by the Constitution. That document exists to limit government and define its powers; our right to participate in government is really the right to be a part of government, and it comes from God. Of course, neither the EU nor the UN could ever say such a thing.
In his book about charitable giving and the characteristics of charitable givers, Who Really Cares?, Arthur Brooks devotes an entire chapter to the notion of “continental drift,” in the subject. Private giving, to private foundations dedicated to the public good, is minuscule in Europe compared to the United States. Along with that has come a withering of civil society, as most of those functions have been taken over by the state, and the state has increasingly become devoted to income redistribution. (Brooks shows that those who believe that a primary function of government is income redistribution are among those least likely to contribute time or money to charities. This is true whether or not such redistribution actually takes place.)
As the government becomes the only venue for channeling help to fellow citizens, politics becomes the only means of differentiating where that help goes, what forms it takes, what conditions attach to it, and what incentives it creates. Or at least it would, if Europe had a healthy political system. (As Mark Steyn has pointed out endlessly, the parties that European voters choose between are left-of-right-of-center, and right-of-left-of-center, and the big decisions have already been made and locked in.) But it’s also likely true that a country without a healthy civil society can’t have a healthy political system for long, either.
I’ve seen this in my own work on the JCRC. While it’s true that most of the Jewish organizations who sit on it are temperamentally leftish, if not outright leftist, to begin with, it’s also true that many are less willing to criticize a system on which they have come to depend for a substantial part of their operating expenses. They have decided that it’s easier and cheaper to hire a lobbyist rattle a tin cup in front of a state legislative or Congressional committee than to hire a PR person and make the case to the community at large of the value of their services. So along with Big Labor and Big Business becoming arms of the federal government, Big Philanthropy is headed in that direction, as well.
In the wake of the Aurora Theater Shootings, CNN’s Candy Crowley interviewed Gov. John Hickenlooper, and tried mightily – and unsuccessfully – to get him to declare in favor of increased gun control. Hickenlooper didn’t necessarily commit. But one would be hard-pressed to see the interview, and read the transcript, and not come away with the impression that the Governor wasn’t interested in imposing new restrictions on Colorado gun owners:
Crowley: Do you see any law anywhere that could stop a man with no record in a society that protects the 2nd Amendment that might have prevented this?
Hickenlooper: You know, we are certainly looking at that and trying to say, “How do you prevent this?” You know, the Virginia Tech shootings, I look at – been looking at the shootings all across the country. And I try to say, how do we preserve our freedoms – right? – and all those things that define this country, and yet try to prevent something like this happening. Let me tell you, there’s no easy answer.
Crowley: What I hear from you is you would be open to people who wanted to suggest a gun law or something that might prevent this sort of thing, but at the moment you can’t imagine what that would be.
Hickenlooper: Yeah, I’m happy to look at anything, but this person, if there were no assault weapons available, if there were no this or no that, this guy’s going to find something right? He’s going to know how to create a bomb, he’s going to – I mean, who knows where his mind would have gone. Clearly a very intelligent individual, however twisted. You know, I know that’s the problem. This is really a human issue, in some profound way, that this level of disturbed individual, that we can’t recognize it.
What a difference a few months – and an election – make. The Denver Post reports that Hickenlooper is now singing a different tune:
In a significant shift from his statements earlier this year, Gov. John Hickenlooper now says “the time is right” for Colorado lawmakers to consider further gun restrictions.
The Democratic governor made his comments in an interview with The Associated Pressthat comes less than half a year after the mass shooting in an Aurora movie theater that killed 12 and injured at least 58. His latest words also follow a shooting in an Oregon mall Tuesday that left three dead, including the gunman, who shot himself.
“I wanted to have at least a couple of months off after the shooting in Aurora to let people process and grieve and get a little space, but … I think, now … the time is right,” Hickenlooper said in the Wednesday interview.
Hickenlooper didn’t, at the time, say anything like, “Now isn’t the time to be considering this, in the heat of the moment.” He spoke in terms of protecting freedoms and rights, the difficulty of crafting a bill that wouldn’t impinge on those, and the fact that Holmes would have used other items at his disposal to wreak havoc, if guns hadn’t been available.
But that was then. The state House of Representatives was in Republican hands, and there was little-to-no chance of passing any sort of gun control legislation.
Now, with the House set to be firmly in Democrat control, Hickenlooper has changed his mind. This position may more closely resembles his actual views on the matter. Alternately, whether this may be merely the first of a series of instances where a more hard-line liberal legislature will force him to make difficult choices he has thus far been able to avoid.
In the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat, and poor showing among Hispanics, Republicans and conservatives in general are reassessing their position on immigration. At least part of this is driven by vote calculations. Some proponents of reform have been pushing entirely unrealistic numbers in terms of the Hispanic vote for Republicans, such as winning half the Hispanic vote. Such hopes are fool’s gold, and I fear that expectations of sudden electoral riches may end up driving Republicans to make a bad bargain, both for themselves and the country.
Democrats won’t let the Republicans off the hook that easily. The party of institutionalized racism and identity politics certainly isn’t going to simply give up on what’s been a winning hand for them for decades now. There’s also reason to believe that only a fairly small part of the Hispanic vote, above Romney’s 29%, is available to Republicans, anyway. A recent forum at the Wilson Center on the Latino Vote had a lot to offer on the subject, but a few points stood out to confirm this assessment.
Writer Roberto Suro dissected the Hispanic vote into some of its component parts. While some elements may be more socially conservative, he pointed out that the Puerto Rican vote in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut is among the most liberal in the country, voting upwards of 85% Democrat. I’d add that the next generation of Cuban voters, with only second- or third-hand knowledge of Castro’s depredations, is also proving to be more liberal in its voting.
As for the first point, Obama flack Dan Restrepo wasn’t shy at all about calling legalization, anything short of citizenship, “second-class status here in the United States.” If the deal is some sort of legalization without citizenship, expect to hear a lot of that phrase.
Suro also had this to say, on a somewhat more mundane level:
I have to respectfully disagree. If you look back over the last 10 years or so of failure in immigration policy-making – actually more than 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, depends on how far back you want to go – one of the developments, particularly since the mid-2000s, has been the emergence of a fairly vigorous immigrant-rights movement in this country, and a litigation power and a protest power that didn’t exist before.
All of you have talked here, as if you missed the key to all immigration legislation in the past, maybe it will be different this time, has been in the details. So, “a legalization,” this means nothing.
There are two things we know from past experience about the nature of these proposals.
One is that a legalization proposal is going to be a giant game of chutes and ladders, with all kinds of qualifications, a process for getting into it. There are going to be right to the last minute, bargaining over, “let’s set the start date here, or here,” and you’re tossing a million people one way or the other depending on a deal that’s made in one of those gilded rooms in the Capitol building, when it goes to conference, right? So we know that.
All that stuff will be litigated. It will be the process – the process of legalization itself, given the current framework, is designed to be long. So it is going to be litigated, and it is going to be a process that people are going to be going through for a long time.
And it will be full of potholes, full of questions about implementation, rights to counsel. I mean, we’re talking about taking a framework now, legally, that is intensely hostile to the legal rights of the foreign-born.
The other piece of the architecture of immigration policy that we can be pretty confident about is that as you build an umbrella under which certain people are sheltered, life outside that umbrella gets harsher. That means that whoever doesn’t get in, is going to face a much more wicked situation, in terms of much higher rates of deportation, fewer rights when you –
People are portraying this as, “Oh, by April we’ll pass this law, and then Latinos will forget about it.” It will be a living, breathing controversy in Latino communities for the next decade.
Suro’s point is that these battles and gaps are inherently unavoidable. There’s simply no way to take immigration off the table. And in all of that litigation, and all of those bureaucratic debates, expect the Democrats to pose as the champions of the Hispanics, dragging out resolution of each and every issue as long as there is electoral advantage to it.
None of this is to suggest that Republicans shouldn’t rethink where they stand on immigration. The current system is a mess on many levels, and needs to be reworked to better serve our national interests. If the election helps do that, it will be a net plus. And a smart policy can also help avoid cementing self-inflicted wounds. But the sooner Republicans understand that they’re not going to walk away with 50% of the Hispanic vote any time soon, if ever, the better-positioned they’ll be to craft a policy that makes sense for the country, as well as to avoid making concession to Democrats who will work the negotiations with elections in mind.
When sequestration was designed by the Obama administration, the idea was that the required spending cuts would be unpalatable to both sides – cuts to Democrat-favored patronage programs would be balanced by cuts to Republican-favored defense spending. Few of us who supported the debt ceiling deal realized how seriously the deck was stacked against Republicans, with tax increases scheduled to take effect, at the same time that entitlement spending remains untouched.
The game is to box the Republicans into permitting tax increases now, in return for promises of spending cuts, and promises to examine entitlements. I’m sure Obama will give entitlements all the attention he can, in-between the front and back nines.
The game is aided and abetted by a number of institutional and political factors. They have a President who seemingly believes that whatever the consequences of raising taxes on a fragile economy, and defense cuts in a world whose stability largely rests on US power, the political blame will largely fall on Republicans. Republicans have allowed themselves to be trapped by the
Democrat publicity arm media into negotiating with themselves on national television. The President hints darkly about “not playing that game” of using the debt ceiling for leverage, but in the absence of a proper budget process, Congress institutionally has no other leverage to control executive spending.
While Harry Reid has steadfastly refused – in blatant violation of the law – to pass a budget, Speaker Boehner has abandoned that process in favor of closed-door negotiations. The Speakership simply is simply not a position that generally produces men suited to that role. Boehner is acting like most Speakers – a legislator who sees it as his job to legislate. It is the relentless logic of the situation that led Boehner to punish fiscal hawks by removing them from key committee positions; he’s assumed a role that he really shouldn’t be in at all, and it’s led him to take some rash and unwise personnel decisions in order to try to preserve caucus unity. He would be better served by trusting his committee chairmen in a complex process such as this.
But as long as the Republicans are committed to this process, the defense angle may not be as one-sided as we’ve been thinking. Walter Russell Mead provides the clue:
The rising regional tensions, if anything, underline the need for a continuing U.S. presence. The Philippine foreign minister, like Japan, has welcomed that presence and agreed to “more U.S. ship visits and more joint training exercises.” This is a good sign. America is a stabilizing force in the region; we don’t want war, and we don’t want boundaries changed by force.
Reassuring our allies while reaching out to China and trying to keep the temperature cool is going to be a tough assignment, and there is no way to do this on the cheap. The President and his new Secretary of State have their work cut out for them. Pivoting is hard work.
Indeed it is. The US has already been initially shut out of a new multi-lateral trade pact in Asia, and much of the Chinese aggressiveness can be traced to administration weakness around the world. We can survive a couple of months of sequestration, if it leads the administration to recognize that its plans for its pivot to Asia depend on having a naval presence to back it up, assuming they really care.
In fact, the House Republicans could always simply walk away and let the cliff happen. They could also do as Rand Paul suggests, pass the President’s plan, an immanentize the financial eschaton. But they have a number of better options: they could pass Bowles-Simpson and dare the President and Harry Reid to ignore it; they could pass a bill retaining all of the Bush tax rates, and then pass an additional package that would target tax benefits largely enjoyed by blue-state limousine liberals. They could pass actual budget and tax bills, and inform Sen. Reid that until he returns to lawful and orderly governance, there will be no debt ceiling increase. The knowledge that the President’s high-profile foreign policy initiatives depend on getting a deal done should strengthen their hand considerably.
In the previous post, I mentioned that PERA, in retaining its 8% expected rate of return, was persisting in an unwarranted optimism, one that is likely to end up costing the citizens of Colorado billions of dollars down the line. Part of the evidence was that other municipal pension plans around the nation have recently lowered their expected rates of return. That said, as of 2009, the overwhelming number of plans in the Center for Retirement Research’s Public Plans database were living in what can only be described as Fantasyland, as the following histogram shows:
I’m sure the right part of the graph, which resembles a strong signal from those plans to their taxpayers footing the bills, is only accidental.
In fact, between 2001 and 2009, plans were extremely reluctant to revise their expected rates of return, despite the fact that they rarely met them for more than a year at a time, and continued to fall farther behind in their funding. If you look at actual returns for those years, they don’t come anywhere close to what was projected:
The result is that plan assets haven’t kept up at all with plan liabilities, even in these years when the market has performed reasonably well (Source: Public Fund Survey):
Understanding that many factors go into whether a plan’s funded level increases or decreases, the fact is that looking forward from 2001 to 2009, over the succeeding 21 years, the median plan would have to return about 10.5% over the following 21 years, to make up for having fallen behind in the first decade:
The problem, of course, is that plans have spending requirement every year; they can’t simply choose to sit on their assets and wait for their investments to catch up. It means that low returns in early years require even higher returns in the later years for the plans to return to 100% funded levels, without increasing cash infusions or a reduction in benefits.
One guess as to which will be the plans’, the governments’, and the SEIU’s first choice.
PERA’s Board recently voted to retain its wildly optimistic expected rate of return of 8% over the next 30 years. The decision has the effect of reducing the unfunded liability twice – once through higher returns, and again because they mistakenly use the rate of return as the discount rate. Remarkably, PERA’s board made that decision even as pension plans all over the country are reducing their expected rates of return.
The latest is the Orange County Employees Retirement System, which called a special meeting for Thursday evening to lower its expected return from 7.75% to 7.25%. It follows CalPERS, CalSTRS, and about 40 others of the 126 public plans in the National Association of State Retirement Administrators’ Public Fund Survey.
The most direct parallel is the change made only Tuesday by the Pennsylvania Municipal Retirement System, which lowered its expected rate of return from 6% to 5.5%, starting January 1. PMRS’s returns closely track those of PERA, returning an annualized 0.5% less per year over the last 10 years than PERA:
That comes to an annualized rate of 5.3% over the last decade for PMRS, or just below their new rate of 5.5%. PERA’s barely done better, and 5.8%, but insists on retain an industry standard, and wildly unrealistic, 8% expected rate of return.
Note that PERA’s average rate of return is 6.9%, while its cumulative average return is 5.8%. Of course, you can’t spend average returns, you can only spend cumulative returns. Yet another reason for PERA to be more, rather than less, conservative.
On the other hand, it must be encouraging to see PERA’s resolute optimism at a time when so many other plans are losing heart.
One of the hardest things about discussing PERA’s liability is the sheer magnitude of the numbers involved. Twenty-five billion used to sound like a lot, until we started throwing around trillions. Forty billion, likely closer to the real number, sounds like it might be more, but it’s almost impossible to gauge how much more.
The chart below tries to show how PERA’s unfunded liability has grown in terms of our ability to pay it off. In 2000, PERA was nominally overfunded, meaning that all of its long-term liabilities were accounted for, and then some. In reality, this almost certainly wasn’t the case, but for the purposes of this post, we’ll just use PERA’s own current-dollar estimates of its unfunded liability.
Using BEA numbers for Colorado’s GDP, its total Personal Incomes, and its population, it’s a little easier to see the threatening direction this debt is taking. On a per-person basis, the unfunded liability now sits at just over $4000. That means that, to pay off the unfunded liability, it’s $4000 out of the earnings of the average Coloradoan. This includes those who are too old and too young to work, so for the average worker, the number is much higher. Four thousand dollars may not sound like a lot, but of course, it’s going to get worse – likely, much worse – before it starts to get better.
As a percentage of the state GDP and Personal Income, things are even more discouraging. PERA’s liability amounts to 8.15% of Colorado’s GDP, and nearly 10% of the total Personal Income. But this isn’t the only debt that the state, local, and district governments owe on your behalf, and it’s likely not the only debt you owe, either.
From 2004 to 2007, the ratios appeared to improve, but if you look closely, you’ll see that during a period of strong growth, the per-person dollar liability was flat, and the per-GDP and per-PI percentages barely moved. This strongly suggests that this is a liability that it’s going to be very hard to grow out of.
PERA will be quick to point out that you’re not going to be expected to cough up all of this money at once, and that they have a long-term, 30-year glide path to solvency. Any time any government program says it has a 30-year plan for solvency, you should stop listening and start moving your money someplace else. As we’ve noted before, PERA is significantly understating the size of the unfunded liability, both by overstating the rate of return and by misusing the discount rate. Moreover, mentally amortizing the liability over 30 years makes it that much easier to ignore until someone misses a payment, and the whole structure comes crashing down. I’m sure that San Bernadino and Stockton were using similarly comforting thoughts before they filed for Chapter 13.
Word is that Sen. Michael Bennet will accept the position as the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), reuniting there with his old chief of staff, Guy Cecil, who’s now the DSCC’s Executive Director. It’s tempting to conclude that the appointment is largely on the strength of the unexpectedly strong Democrat showing in this year’s Senate elections.
Cecil was credited with having created “the largest gender gap in the country,” here in Colorado, in 2010’s Senate elections. That gap helped ease Bennet over the finish line against Ken Buck, and was predicated on painting Buck as extreme on women’s reproductive issues, and then waiting for him to do something to justify the claim. Cecil never made any secret of the fact that his plan was to reproduce that strategy nationally in 2012, pointing to it in interviews back in early 2012 and at the DNC in September. Bennet himself claimed it would be the Democrats’ path to victory at a speech to the Colorado delegation at the DNC. It certainly appears to have been key to Democrats’ Senate victories on Election Day.
That said, this could end up being a trap for Cecil.
First, while Obama won Colorado this year, he did so without any noticeable gender gap. If anything, it appears that he won men here by 3 points, while tying Romney among women – a reverse gender gap. This was achieved in part by aggressive push-back from conservative women’s groups like My Purse Politics and the Colorado Women’s Alliance. It suggests that perhaps this is a difficult strategy to repeat. There are states that will have 2014 Senate elections that didn’t in 2012, but since this strategy was also adopted by the President’s re-election campaign, voters in those states will already have been exposed to it. The lack of first-time shock value, combined with a determined opposition message, could limit its success in 2014.
Perhaps as important, the 6th year of a 2-term presidency is historically terrible for the party controlling the White House. In 1958, the Democrats picked up an astonishing 16 seats, going from a 49-47 majority to a 65-35 lead, with the addition of Alaska and Hawaii to the union. In 1986, the Republicans lost the Senate, which they had held since the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. In 2006, the Democrats picked up a net 6 seats (including two independents that caucused with them) to gain control. While the 1986 results could be seen as a regression to the middle for Republicans, with many marginal 1980 pickups reverting to form, the 2006 elections don’t confirm that as a pattern; the Democrats picked up 4 seats in 2000.
Both 1974 and 1998’s numbers were distorted as a result of impeachments; in 1974, the Democrats went from 56 to 60 seats, and in 1998 it was a wash, with no net gain for the Republicans. These results should serve as a reminder that impeachment is a political process much more than a legal one.