Saturday, September 15, 2012

Real Time With Bill Maher: Retrospective (9/14/12)

We had a good show tonight, folks. All of the guests were well spoken, intelligent, and there was a lot more reasonable push and pull. That being said, there are a few points on the show that I'd like to flesh out, which is why I do this segment. So let's get to it:

Voter suppression: The supposed strawman that Maher set up "You need an ID to buy alcohol, why not vote?" was actually a decent argument. Because even if voter fraud isn't an issue (and I'll be the first to admit that the incidence rates are extraordinarily low and have zero chance of affecting a national election), you can't just let anybody show up to the polls and take their word on good faith that they are eligible to vote.

If you've ever worked retail at a place that sells alcohol, your company has policies in place that basically say "unless the dude looks like he could be your grandparent, check his ID before you sell him alcohol". The reason why is because the government will contract secret shoppers to buy alcohol and see if they can get away with it without having to show ID. That store or company then gets slapped with a burdensome fine.

So why is the government imposing a different standard on voting? Even though John Legend is right, and that individual voter fraud has zero material benefit for the voter, most people consider voting more important than buying alcohol. It makes sense that you should be able to prove you're eligible to vote before you vote.

That being said, I will freely admit that Republicans probably are trying to suppress the vote. But considering the fact that the voter ID stipulations are no more burdensome than the actual requirements to register to vote, I fail to see how this is a huge deal.

The Chicago Teachers Union Strike: I was heartened by the fact that John Legend adopted many of arguments that school reformers like Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, Davis Guggenheim, etc that this is different than the Wisconsin controversy (which was more of a budget issue than an education issue, considering Wisconsin's students perform much better than students trapped in the dropout factory that is Chicago Public Schools).

I think Maher has spent a little too much time in ultra left-leaning circles and bought into the PC hype about schools. Yes, of course parents are the biggest determinant of a child's academic success. But that doesn't mean that teachers have no effect either. And the extraordinary cost that the public pays for education isn't worth it in many respects, especially if you really believe that it's all about the parents and not about the teachers, or, as Legend said, you might as well call them babysitters and not teachers.

Principals need more power in determining who gets to teacher in their schools. And teachers need to be able to be fired easily when it's clear that they're not performing on the job or have extreme, criminal behavioral issues.

Arguing About Polling Numbers: To set the record straight, the moving average for the Obama-Romney matchup, provided by Real Clear Politics, is (at the time of this writing) 3.1%, with only Rasmussen showing Romney with a lead.

Opinions and polls about the candidates harden during the debates in most elections, because that's when everybody is paying attention. Anything you see now is really noise considering the state of electoral politics (and our economic situation) today.

Nate Silver (of the NYTimes' excellent electoral mathematical analysis blog 538) has written many times on the "House Effect" of polls. It's probably true that Rasmussen is overstating the amount of support for Romney, but as John (the Republican talking head on the show, not John Legend) pointed out, there's still a lot of time left in the election, and a 3.1% national lead is not something to crow about 2 months before election day with unemployment over 8% with a stagnant labor market.

Which brings us to Maher's outrageous point....

Maher: The only way for Republicans to win, if they win, is by cheating: This kind of incendiary claim is made when the bravado doesn't match their actual confidence level. I remember in 2008 when we were running up to election day where Maher made a similar claim to the effect of: "If Obama loses, it's because America is still secretly racist".

But as far as things go, if the race remains static until election day, President Obama will win reelection in a not-that-close final result. There are two potential gamechangers: the debates and any sudden disruption in the economy. For Mitt Romney to win, he needs the economy to be about where it is right now and then smoke Obama in the debates, or he needs for the economy to begin to nosedive and have a decent performance in the debates. That's the only way for the Republican candidate to win this election.

Maher: Bush never paid for anything and Republicans never called him out on it: The libertarian wing did call him out on it, but it never gained traction under the Bush Administration because the largest deficit under Bush was fiscal 2008 with a 459 billion dollar deficit at 3.2% of GDP. The public debt (different from the total national debt, but the more important figure) was just 6.369 trillion dollars at 44.8% of GDP. That is a very healthy debt picture for the United States.

Things have changed during the Obama Administration. The highest deficit ever recorded under a full year of President Obama was 1.3 trillion dollars in fiscal 2010 at 9.9% of the GDP. Our current public debt to GDP ratio is 72.4% (at the time of this writing), which isn't disastrous (Greece at the time of its fiscal collapse was over 140%), but it's still much worse than the worst year under Bush.

Democrats love to pounce on the "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter" line uttered by Dick Cheney because they use it as political cover for the deficits that were incurred under the Obama Administration. But the fiscal picture when Reagan was in charge was much better, and the economy was growing at an extraordinary clip. The increase in debt doesn't matter when the economy grows at a faster rate. If I make 100k per year and suddenly I make 120k while my debt grows from 50k to 55k, I'm still better off financially even though I took on more debt.

You can't look back and apply the standards of yesterday to today because everything is different. No decision or action is ever taken in a vacuum, which is why it's impossible to prove causality in public policy. But at the same time, let's not be politically opportunistic when it comes to real issues. That might be impossible for a politician, but it's less impossible for a political pundit.

Chris Hayes: And here's why. Chris Hayes at least admitted that he thinks taxes have to go up on everybody (not just the rich). You will never see a Federally elected Democrat admit to that during this election cycle.

Overall, he played the traditional very left-leaning pundit, but he wasn't annoyingly so. We need more Chris Hayes on the show and less Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddows.

Zanny Minton Beddoes: I really wish she answered whether she thought the current level of regulation was too much for businesses instead of just saying that there is the "general perception" of it among businesses themselves. She touched on the issue further in Overtime but still never gave her opinion. I would have paid money for her to publicly state her honest opinion.

Overall, an intelligent, well spoken, polite centrist. I would expect nothing less from an editor at the Economist.

John Feehery: I think this guy is suffering from Mitt Romney syndrome. I know a lot of Republicans privately cringe at the rampant anti-intellectualism and overt and subtle racism of certain elements of the Republican Party but feel compelled to finesse the issue because, as Rick Santorum put it, politics is a team sport.

Overall, I think he did a good job presenting the Republican point of view on things. The fact that it's a left-leaning crowd just didn't give the impression (if you were a Democrat).

John Legend: Good interview guest. The guy is very well spoken, intelligent, and isn't a slave to the Democratic party line on education, which is great. I think education is going to be the next real battleground for the two parties, and I truly believe that Republicans are on the right side of this particular issue. But it might take a Nixonian pivot from guys like Legend to help make it so.

Bob Costas: I remember him on the show a couple years back and I was surprised at how a sports journalist could be so intelligent and thoughtful on issues that had nothing to do with sports. Costas is the rare breed of sports journalist who appreciates sports, but also appreciates everything else and is disciplined enough to apply the same rigor to every subject he talks about. The world needs more Bob Costases.

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