Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.

Wonkbook dashboard

RCP Obama vs. Romney: Romney +0.6%; 7-day change: Romney +0.5%.

RCP Obama approval: 49.8%; 7-day change: +0.6%.

Intrade percent chance of Obama win: 59.6%; 7-day change: +1.8%.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 3.5 million. That's the number of 20-page glossy policy booklets the Obama campaign will mail to voters in swing states. The platform is called "The New Economic Patriotism," and it leads with specific policy proposals for small-business, manufacturing, green jobs, and education. Though assembled for the first time as a second-term plan, most of these ideas have been drawn from previous speeches and legislative proposals. Nevertheless, with only 13 days before Election Day, the move represents a last-minute grounding of the re-election message in policy specifics for the proposed second term.

Top story: The Obama campaign goes specific -- though not always intentionally -- on policy

His hand forced after an interview transcript was released, Obama goes into detail on his second-term agenda. "President Obama, criticized as failing to offer a vision for a potential second term, has begun sketching out his agenda with greater specificity in recent days, including a pledge to solve the nation’s in­trac­table budget problems within 'the first six months.' In an interview made public Wednesday, Obama said he would pursue a 'grand bargain' with Republicans to tame the national debt and would quickly follow that with a push to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws...With polls in battleground states showing the race tightening to a virtual dead heat, Obama appears to be shifting away from a strategy dominated by attacks on his opponent to one that includes a rationale for skeptical voters to send him back to the White House for another four years. The Obama campaign is distributing glossy brochures that repackage his proposals to hire more teachers, promote manufacturing and raise taxes on the wealthy as 'The New Economic Patriotism: A Plan for Jobs & Middle-Class Security.'" Lori Montgomery and Peter Wallsten in The Washington Post.

Read: 'The New Economic Patriotism" (PDF) and the Obama campaign website's new "Plans" page.

What, exactly, Obama said to the Des Moines Register: "'I am absolutely confident that we can get what is the equivalent of the grand bargain that essentially I’ve been offering to the Republicans for a very long time, which is $2.50 worth of [spending] cuts for every dollar in [tax revenue increases], and work to reduce the costs of our health care programs...The second thing I’m confident we’ll get done next year is immigration reform...So assume that you get those two things done in the first year, and we’re implementing Wall Street reform, Obamacare turns out not to have been the scary monster that the other side has painted. Now we’re in a position where we can start on some things that really historically have not been ideological. We can start looking at a serious corporate tax reform agenda that’s revenue-neutral but lowers rates and broadens the base.'" Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

Read: The full transcript of the interview which was supposed to be off-the-record.

@damianpaletta: Obama, in Des Moines Register off-record, predicts debt deal will get done but says -- “It will probably be messy. It won’t be pleasant.”

The 11th-hour shift to a policy-focused message reflects anxiety in the Obama camp. "Everything was going great for Barack Obama until about 9:04 on the night of Oct. 3, when Mitt Romney startled everybody by refusing to live up to his caricature as The Worst Candidate Ever. Romney’s late-game comeback -- an unexpected assertion of presidential competence in front of 67 million viewers -- robbed Obama of his momentum and forced the president’s team to make a subtle yet significant change to their closing argument in the critical last two weeks of the 2012 campaign...That led his campaign on Tuesday to release a detailed, bullet-point plan for his second term -- a formal agenda his team had long resisted." Glenn Thrush in Politico.

@mattyglesias: If Obama gets really desperate, he'll point out that Romney's never released his tax returns and made a fortune exploiting tax loopholes.

Up tomorrow, also, is major economic policy speech from Romney. "Mitt Romney plans on Friday to deliver a major address in Ames, Iowa on the economy that he hopes will help crystallize the choice voters face in the presidential election...Romney has begun making his closing pitch this week at big rallies in battleground states, telling voters, as he did Tuesday night in Colorado, that he has a plan to turn around the economy and that Americans don’t have to settle for a continuation of President Obama’s policies." Philip Rucker in The Washington Post.

@fivethirtyeight: It looks from the model that Obama's regained about 1 point since his post-Denver lows after Romney's ~4 point bounce.

In advertisements, the contrasting visions are now underlined by policy platforms. "The ad then features Mr. Obama’s direct remarks to the camera. 'Here’s my plan for the next four years,' he says, as text on the screen underlines his bullet points: 'Education & Training,' 'Invest in American Energy' and 'Wealthy Pay More,' among others...The Obama campaign, which said the ad would run in nine battleground states, is responding to what has become a chorus of Republican criticism that the president has nothing to offer in a second term. The Obama campaign bristles at the suggestion that Mr. Obama has not laid out detailed plans for building on the recovery." Trip Gabriel in The New York Times.

Watch: The new, policy-centered ads from Obama and Romney.

Top op-eds

KLEIN: The key question in the election is the future of the Affordable Care Act. "The most important fact of the 2012 election is that the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010; it just hasn’t been fully implemented yet. If President Barack Obama is re-elected, the bulk of it will roll out on schedule in 2014....If Obama is re-elected, in other words, we will see the first iteration of a uniquely American universal health-care system. If history is any guide, it will become effectively permanent soon after it is introduced. The reforms will be reformed, of course, as experience teaches us what works (and what doesn’t) and as future politicians put their stamps on the system. But the basic guarantee -- that the state will provide health insurance or subsidies to purchase it for those in need - - will likely prove immutable. If Romney wins, by contrast, the Affordable Care Act will probably be fully or largely repealed, with no clear prospect of a replacement." Ezra Klein in Bloomberg.

HASSETT AND MATHUR: The myths of inequality. "Today we hear that the gains from economic growth accrue to the highest-income earners while the standard of living of the poor and middle America stagnates and the gap between the richest and the poorest grows ever wider. That portrait of the country is wrong. To be sure, there are studies of income inequality -- most prominently by Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley -- that report that the share of income of the wealthiest Americans has grown over the past few decades while the share of income at the bottom has not. The studies have problems...The data suggest the following picture. Over time, Americans have constructed a vast safety net that has adequately served the poor and helped them -- as well as the middle class -- to maintain significant consumption growth despite the apparent stagnation of cash incomes. The notion that a society that has accomplished such a feat is rigged or fundamentally unjust is ludicrous." Kevin A. Hassett and Aparna Mathur in The Wall Street Journal.

@MattZeitlin: That people find the connection between higher inequality and lower social mobility to be surprising is kinda weird

@jbarro: Mitt Romney would be a drastically better president than John McCain would have been. Better than George W. Bush, too.

DIONNE: How 2012 has crushed the far-right. "The right wing has lost the election of 2012. The evidence for this is overwhelming, yet it is the year’s best-kept secret. Mitt Romney would not be throwing virtually all of his past positions overboard if he thought the nation were ready to endorse the full-throated conservatism he embraced to win the Republican nomination...The right is going along because its partisans know Romney has no other option. This, too, is an acknowledgment of defeat, a recognition that the grand ideological experiment heralded by the rise of the tea party has gained no traction...The total rout of the right’s ideology, particularly its neoconservative brand, was visible in Monday’s debate." E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post.

@pourmecoffee: Relax. Electing Mitt Romney to lead along with House GOP would only be terrifying if he had history of conforming to current norms.

THALER: Making risk-taking riskier will hurt startups. "A recurring theme of this year’s presidential campaign is the need to encourage the formation of new businesses...[I]f we really want to encourage risk takers and job creators, we should concentrate on what will happen to them in the all-too-likely event that their brilliant idea doesn’t pan out and the new venture flops...Cutting taxes on high-income earners is unlikely to be the most cost-effective way of stimulating new business startups. If entrepreneurs who hit it big have to pay the same tax rate on their capital gains as on their ordinary income, they are unlikely to give up on their dreams. When people are contemplating starting a new enterprise, the last thing they are worried about is the tax rate their heirs might have to pay if they die as billionaires. But if they aren’t sure they can provide health insurance and a home to live in for their family should they fail, they may play it safe." Richard H. Thaler in Bloomberg.

JOHNSON: The value of public funding for diabetes research. "Researchers are on the verge of achieving once-unthinkable goals in the battle against diabetes that will improve the physical health of the American people and provide enormous savings in health-care spending...[T]he $150 million in annual funding provided by [Special Diabetes Program] has led to significant discoveries into what causes Type 1 diabetes and how to better treat the disease...Unfortunately, all of this is in jeopardy if Congress doesn't approve long-term funding of the SDP before 2013...[W]ithout this guaranteed funding, important multiyear research will be dragged out or discontinued as researchers move on to other projects." Woody Johnson in The Wall Street Journal.

Top long reads

Aaron Bady and Mike Konczal explore the "slow death" of America's public higher education system: "Elected governor of California in 1966 after running a scorched-earth campaign against the University of California, Reagan vowed to 'clean up that mess in Berkeley'...When Reagan assumed office, he immediately set about doing exactly what he had promised. He cut state funding for higher education, laid the foundations for a shift to a tuition-based funding model, and called in the National Guard to crush student protest, which it did with unprecedented severity...It’s important to remember this chapter in California history because it may, in retrospect, have signaled the beginning of the end of public higher education in the United States as we’d known it...Thanks to the Reagan revolution, in short, we’ve forgotten that the United States was building public schools and universities for a lot longer than it has been letting them crumble."

Noam Schieber profiles Tagg Romney: "This was supposed to be the race that Tagg Romney took easy. When his father ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, Tagg signed on as a full-time staffer and even served as the campaign manager for Mitt’s running mate. Four years later, when Mitt began to run for president, Tagg moved his family back to Boston from Los Angeles so he could man a desk at campaign headquarters. But by the beginning of this campaign season, Tagg had a daughter in high school and twins on the way. He’d recently started a private-equity firm called Solamere. He was in his early forties and gave the impression of someone who had better things to do than hole up in a cubicle piled high with pizza boxes...It didn’t quite work out that way. This summer, staffers noticed Tagg turning up at Romney headquarters...[I]f all families have their own myths, a kind of founding narrative that’s passed down through the generations, for the Romneys it’s about personal initiative...What’s so strange about the Romney myth is that its grip hasn’t weakened even as it has become less true. The affluence Mitt was born into paid for his elite education and financed his first home. The wealth Tagg stands to inherit has given him the freedom to pursue any career and take any professional risk he wants."

Artistic interlude: Surrealist photography gallery from Kyle Thompson.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Still to come: the corporation-consumer split; 7 factors driving up the cost of health care; modernizing American waterways; nukes, solar, wind, oh my; and auto-tuning the final debate.


Corporations are Eeyore. Consumers are Tigger. What gives? "Consumers may finally be feeling more optimistic about the economy, but corporate America is not sharing the sentiment. A host of market bellwethers reported disappointing results Tuesday and cut their outlook for future growth, sending stocks into a tailspin and highlighting the divide between companies and consumers...The pessimism is all the more notable because after years of wariness, consumers are feeling more buoyant. Consumer confidence is at its highest point since before the financial crisis. The housing market is showing signs of life. And retail sales actually sped up in the third quarter, fueling the hopes of retailers for a robust holiday season...One reason for the disparity is that businesses are much more focused on conditions abroad than consumers in the United States...Looking ahead, optimists say the new willingness of consumers to spend will ultimately bolster corporate results, but there is a lingering fear that the struggles of American companies may be pointing the way."Nelson D. Schwartz and Nathianel Popper in The New York Times.

Whom Romney would appoint as Fed chair depends what he wants out of the Fed. "[T]he difficulty in predicting Romney’s choice for the Fed is the same difficulty that attends to predicting most any of his policy choices: Will Romney make the choice that’s most consistent with conservative orthodoxy and the bulk of his rhetoric over the last year? Or will he make the choice that’s most consistent with a strong recovery as the deleveraging cycle plays itself out? In the Fed realm, the choice is between replacing Ben Bernanke with one of the Romney advisers who is broadly Bernanke-like on monetary policy (remember that Bernanke was originally a George W. Bush appointee) like Greg Mankiw or Glenn Hubbard or replacing him with a firmer advocate of tighter money, like John Taylor. The latter really could hurt the recovery and scare the markets, but it would be much more consistent with the hard money arguments that have come to dominate the right, and which Romney (and Paul Ryan) has often professed sympathy for." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

@JimPethokoukis: Housing collapse arguably helped create a downturn, but Fed blew it up into GR

The Fed's latest policy statement came out. "The Federal Reserve said Wednesday that it is standing firm on its plan to stimulate the economy for the foreseeable future and will keep up its open-ended, bond-buying program. Wrapping up a two-day policy meeting, the Fed made little change to its latest policy statement after declaring last month that it would take aggressive new action to bolster economic growth to try to drive down unemployment. At the time, the central bank said it would buy $143 billion of mortgage bonds through the remainder of the year and, using surprising new language, would continue to support the economy even when the recovery shows signs of strengthening." Zachary A. Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

Will we be better off in 2016? "As this political cycle comes to a close, it’s clear that the U.S. has entered a new economic chapter. By the next election, the upheaval of the past few years will have (hopefully) settled, and we’ll be looking at a clearer vision of our future. I asked several leading experts to project what the U.S. will look like by 2016, and there was a consensus. Instead of a sudden bounce back, Harvard’s Jeffry Frieden told me, there will be steady but far-too-slow growth. Unemployment will be at around 6.4 percent, according to Nigel Gault of IHS Global Insight, an economic forecaster. More significant, by 2016, Frieden and Bremmer noted, the U.S. will be adjusting to an economy in which inequality is a structural fixture. There will be millions who are unable to get work, and tens of millions more who will have to adapt to lower income. Meanwhile, those with college and advanced degrees will experience a country that has rebounded. Their incomes will grow." Adam Davidson in The New York Times.

How's your home's value doing? Turns out your political leaning is related. "The uneven recovery in home prices seems to be favoring Republican voters over Democratic ones...Home prices have recovered from the lows of the crisis in 22 of the 24 Republican states, the exceptions being North and South Carolina. But prices are below the crisis lows in 12 of the 18 Democratic states...Of the eight tossup states, prices are above the crisis low in five of the states (Colorado, Virginia, Florida, Iowa and Ohio) and below that level in three states (New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Nevada)." Floyd Norris in The New York Times.

Auto-tune interlude: The final debate edition..

Health Care

Dept. of Health and Human Services faces threat of subpoena from Ways and Means Cmte. "Another House committee chairman is threatening to subpoena HHS -- this time over the agency’s efforts to promote 'Obamacare.'...'The department’s failure to provide a single responsive document to the Committee’s reasonable requests leaves only two possibilities: either the department is unable to keep track of the work products it buys with taxpayer dollars or the department is trying to delay any response until after this year’s election,' they wrote in a letter to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. The pair is demanding that HHS turn over 'information on the use of taxpayer dollars ... on contracts for public relations, advertisements, polling, message testing and similar services.'" Kyle Cheney in Politico.

Kaiser Health News explains: 7 factors driving up the cost of health care.

What if buying surgery was like buying a car? "Andy Grove has an interesting piece in Wired looking at how increased transparency revolutionized the experience of purchasing a car — and what that might mean for health-care markets. In the 1950s, car prices varied from dealer to dealer, and from customer to customer. That made shopping for a car hugely difficult. Enter, Sen. Mike Monroney...In 1958, U.S. Sen. Mike Monroney of Oklahoma shepherded a bill through Congress requiring that official pricing information be glued to the window of every new automobile sold in the country...[T]he health insurance market seems to be changing to give patients more exposure to costs -- more 'skin in the game,' in health-wonk terms. Employers are shifting toward high-deductible health plans, in which their workers get a set of amount of money to purchase health care. All of a sudden, the price tag becomes a lot more important. That might not matter in emergency medicine, but in more routine matters, it could change the way patients think about where to seek care -- in the same way standardized stickers changed how we buy cars." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Domestic Policy

A bill to modernize American waterways, ports. "Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) announced Wednesday that he and a bipartisan group of senators would introduce a bill to modernize America’s ports, locks and dams when the Senate returns after the November election. The American Waterworks Act would try to address shortfalls in U.S. port and waterway infrastructure, in preparation for the 2014 completion of the expansion of the Panama Canal, which will provide the United States with more trade opportunities...The bill would also speed up construction permit approval and authorize a 5-year construction program to expand harbors to accommodate the larger ships expected after the Panama Canal expansion." Ramsey Cox in The Hill.

Defense contractors armor up to withstand fiscal cliff. "The nation’s largest defense contractors reported mixed financial results Wednesday as the companies continue to take steps to safeguard against possible federal budget cuts associated with the 'fiscal cliff.'...But at the core of their concerns is the process called 'sequestration,' the series of automatic budget cuts looming at the first of the year that would hack about $55 billion out of Pentagon programs next year." Sarah Halzack in The Washington Post.

@SuzyKhimm: 1/2 of sequester is non-defense, & Dems don't want its defense cuts either. The idea that Obama has "lost" this as bargaining chip seems odd

Organized labor doesn't want a 'grand bargain.' "Organized labor has been fairly quiet on the fiscal cliff so far. But as we’re coming closer to the Dec. 31 deadline -- and to the end of election season -- they’re starting to stake out their position in the debate. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, has a Politico op-ed denouncing any attempts to use the fiscal cliff to work out a 'grand bargain' deal that would reduce the structural deficit through a combination of revenue increases and entitlement reforms. Instead, Trumka praises the argument that Sen. Chuck Schumer has made that tax hikes on the wealthiest should be used for deficit reduction." Suzy Khimm in The Washington Post.

New regulation from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "Debt collection agencies, whose sometimes aggressive tactics have earned them scrutiny from consumer protection groups and state regulators, will come under federal supervision for the first time beginning Jan. 2, when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau begins oversight...The authority to oversee debt collection agencies comes under the portion of the Dodd-Frank regulatory law that deals with so-called nonbank financial companies. The consumer agency will examine companies to ensure that they properly identify themselves to consumers and properly disclose the amount of debt owed. In addition, collectors must have a process to resolve disputes and communicate 'civilly and honestly' with consumers." Edward Wyatt in The New York Times.

Brainy deliciousness interlude: Rubik's cube in fruit salad.


Why we're mothballing nuke plants. "The conventional wisdom about nuclear reactors is that they are expensive to build but cheap to run. But electricity on the wholesale market is so inexpensive, its price depressed by cheap natural gas, that some reactors may not have enough revenue to justify needed capital expenditures. Experts say that as a result, the nuclear industry may be nearing its first round of retirements since the mid-1990s...Some plants, like Indian Point in New York and Vermont Yankee, face determined political challenges to their continued operation. But plain old economics could affect a lot more plants...According to an internal industry document from the Electric Utility Cost Group, for the period 2008 to 2010, maintenance and fuel costs for the one-fourth of the reactor fleet with the highest costs averaged $51.42 per megawatt hour. That is perilously close to wholesale electricity costs these days." Matthew L. Wald in The New York Times.

How software can help solar panels be more efficient. "Carlos F. Coimbra knew from the outset that he would have to crack the code of clouds...Coimbra, a Brazilian-born expert in fluid mechanics with a flair for computer modeling, tried a new kind of forecast. The campus would make better use of sun power if he could figure out exactly when a puffy drifter would arrive overhead. He wrote a computer algorithm to project how clouds move and change shape as they move across the sky — one of the most complex and chaotic phenomena on earth, influenced by an endless set of variables...Coimbra, 44, and his collaborator, Jan P. Kleissl, 37, have created a forecasting engine that they say is 20 to 40 percent more accurate than the model in common use. Weather, energy and power grid experts said that the innovation could accelerate the adoption of renewable energy [and] save billions of dollars in energy costs." David Ferris in The New York Times.

Want a more substantive Obama-Romney debate on energy and climate? Read this. "As every green group in D.C. has now pointed out twenty times apiece, President Obama and Mitt Romney didn’t wade too deeply into energy and environmental issues during the debates. They skipped over climate change entirely. And there were all sorts of minor topics that never got mentioned. Bad news for energy wonks. Fortunately, there’s a second-best solution for those who still want to hear more from the campaigns about this issue. In early October, E&E News and the MIT Energy Initiative held a wide-reaching energy and climate debate between surrogates from the two campaigns. Joseph Aldy, a former administration official now at Harvard’s Kennedy School, stood in for Obama. On the other side was Oren Cass, Romney’s policy director. The debate between Aldy and Cass was fascinating and substantive." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

The changes in the energy market, though, may dwarf any change in energy policy. "The oil and shale gas drilling boom is reshaping the nation’s energy map, and it is still difficult to predict the extent of its ramifications...Over the same period, domestic natural gas production has risen by 15 percent, producing a glut that has forced down the gas price by nearly two-thirds. Plentiful, cheap natural gas has crowded out much of the expected growth of renewable energy like wind and solar power, but it has cut domestic consumption of dirtier coal even more sharply. Electrical generation from wind, solar, geothermal and biomass have expanded to 5.8 percent of the country’s electricity, from 3.1 percent, since Mr. Obama took office, partly because of tax incentives and other support from the administration’s stimulus package. But the expansion of power driven by natural gas has arguably been even more impressive. Cheap natural gas fuels a bit more than 30 percent of American power production, up from just over 20 percent in 2008." Clifford Krauss in The New York Times.

What you need to know about the refining business, an important theater of energy markets. "The refinery business has long been the difficult stepchild of the oil industry, expensive to run, prone to accidents and a low-margin headache for executives who preferred drilling for gushers...Now a new drilling boom in South Texas is delivering local crude oil several dollars a barrel cheaper than international prices. Another domestic drilling surge, in natural gas, has produced a 60 percent drop in domestic prices over the last four years. Together those changes have provided the Valero refinery $665,000 a day in savings, raising profit by 400 percent since 2008...The price advantage of United States refiners over their foreign competitors helped the country last year become a net exporter of refined petroleum products for the first time since the late 1940s, producing nearly $10 billion in annual revenue from daily net exports of 370,000 barrels a day of gasoline and diesel." Clifford Krauss in The New York Times.

How energy conservation is becoming a working business model. "The business model and performance-based contracting offered by energy service companies are not new; the market began to form in the early 1980s after the energy crises of the previous decade, which saw prices rise drastically. Today, about 35 large energy service companies offering contracts with guaranteed savings as their core business model dominate the market, according to the National Association of Energy Service Companies, a trade association. What has changed is the growing appeal of the model among public entities. Now, 80 to 90 percent of energy service company revenues come from projects with municipalities, public universities and schools, hospitals and federal government agencies...At the federal level, since 1998, 25 agencies have used performance contracts on about 580 projects, saving $13.4 billion and enough energy to power a city of 900,000 residents for a year, according to the Federal Energy Management Program. Wide use of performance-based contracts has also required a reworking of purchasing policies for public agencies. Long-term agreements with vendors were outside the bounds of traditional procurement rules, so legislation authorizing the use of performance contracts for federal agencies was enacted as part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992. Now almost all states have passed similar legislation." Jim Witkin in The New York Times.

Battery costs for electric cars are plunging. "[T]here is consensus that by 2020 battery prices will have reached an economically practical level -- in the range of $200 to $250 a kilowatt-hour. That is a significant decline from the $1,000-a-kilowatt-hour cost that was the auto industry’s rule of thumb until recently." Kevin Cameron in The New York Times.

Wind-power consumption rises as nation’s overall energy use drops. "Wind power posted the greatest gain in domestic energy consumption in 2011 as overall energy use dropped, according to an analysis by the Energy Department's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). Energy consumption from wind power rose 27 percent in 2011 to 1.17 quadrillion Btu (British thermal units), up from 0.92 in 2010, LLNL said, citing U.S. Energy Information Administration data...While wind energy consumption rose, overall energy consumption dropped 7 percent to 97.3 quadrillion Btu, down from 98 quadrillion Btu, LLNL noted. The lab credited that to a shift to more energy-efficient transportation and residential technologies." Zack Colman in The Hill.

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