Monday, May 31, 2010

Global Recovery

The Economist leads this week with a good roundup of the current state of the global economic recovery:

For much of the rich world, however, the most important consequences of Europe’s mess will be fiscal. Governments must steer between imposing premature austerity (in a bid to avoid becoming Greece) and allowing their public finances to deteriorate for too long. In some countries with big deficits, the fear of a bond-market rout is forcing rapid action. Britain’s new government spelled out useful initial spending cuts this week. But the emergency budget promised for June 22nd will be trickier: it needs to show resolve on the deficit without sending the country back into recession.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Fix It!

With a hat tip to Andrew Sullivan, I want to recommend this Daniel Larison piece tearing Peggy Noonan to shreds. I ask again, what should Obama be doing? I guess I have answers: put on a wet suit or set up camp on the Coast. And that would accomplish what?

Conservatives Don't Understand Stimulus

Via MinnPost, this is Tim Pawlenty's view of how stimulus works, from Meet the Press:

"So If I took a dollar from you, David — this is what government does — I’m extracting a dollar from you, in the form of taxes.  I’m the government. I take it from you, subtract 20 or 30 percent for overhead, because I’m going to manage, squirrel around, do compliance checks, audits, bureaucracy and the like.

Ok, I'll give him the general "government is inefficient" crap for the sake of argument, and because it's often true, though likely not to the extent Pawlenty thinks. Moving on.

"Then I’m going to redeploy your dollar back into the economy at say 70 or 80 cents on the dollar, based on a politicized agenda or a politicized set of priorities. That’s a model of decision-making that’s not efficient. It’s political, plus, it’s not growth. So what I mean by that is: You were gonna spend your dollar anyhow. Your dollar in your pocket was gonna buy you dinner that night. Was gonna pay for your kids’ college. You might’ve bought a car. You might’ve bought an iTunes, who knows? But your  dollar was gonna circulate in the economy.

Suddenly, Pawlenty veers off track. This is not how stimulus works. Not that it's really T-Paw's fault, this is conservative boiler-plate. First, the notion that the government is grabbing money out of your pocket to spend inefficiently is incorrect. We are actually grabbing China's money, and spending it in America. Stimulus is deficit-spending. So the money that is being used is essentially being printed, as far as the American economy is concerned. This is money that wouldn't otherwise be in the economy. The government is not just reallocating money that's already there. It is actively putting money into the economy.

This is one reason that extending unemployment benefits is really effective stimulus. When a person goes from gainful employment to unemployment, their dollars drop out of the economy. Even with unemployment benefits, they're spending less, but they're still spending money. People on unemployment spend a high percentage of that money, because they need to eat and pay their mortgage.

What stimulus is intended to do is boost aggregate demand. The way for the economy to pick up is for demand to go up. As people spend more, businesses need to create more products, hire more workers, invest in new facilities, etc. It all hinges on boosting aggregate demand, and the way you do that is by getting people to spend more.

Pawlenty is right that the stimulus was created in a highly politicized process, but politics are inherent in everything. It's always amusing when a politician (particularly one positioning himself for a presidential run) criticizes something as "political." The Obama administration did manage to accomplish a lot of smaller priorities under the umbrella of stimulus, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. As long as those projects increase aggregate demand, they're a net positive.

What's more, Pawlenty's construction that government stimulus money is used inefficiently is only half-right. According to the CBO, several forms of stimulus act as multipliers. That is to say, the government leverages its money so that its usefulness is more than the dollar amount would normally indicate. The best forms of stimulus, according to the CBO, are direct purchases by the federal government, followed by transfer payments to state and local governments. I already wrote about why giving money to state and local governments is so crucial.

Conservatives always point to tax cuts as the most effective stimulus. The idea being that the consumers will be more able to efficiently spend the money than the government. The CBO says that's just not true. Tax cuts, particularly for the wealthy and corporations, are rated as having the least stimulative effect. Really, going by the numbers, the ARRA should have had fewer tax cuts and more direct spending, which is exactly the opposite of what every conservative has called for.

"The notion that the federal government is gonna take money from you or anybody here, bring that into government and send that back out and declare that to be economic growth is a flawed decision-making. It’s what the economist call substitution or transference effects.

This sounds good in theory, but as I just explained, it's not how stimulus works.

I often grapple with the question of whether conservatives actually believe this stuff, or if it's just elaborately constructed justification for an already-decided-upon policy position, ie lower taxes. I have a dim view of the policy chops of your average politician, but some of these guys must know that they're completely misrepresenting the policies in question.

Why the lag? (II)

A while back, I asked why the US is so far behind Europe in creating a social welfare state, and why we seem to be so much more conservative. Dylan Matthews has another answer to add:

The answer, sadly, is largely racial. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. never built up a labor movement, let alone a labor or socialist party, with the power of those in most European states because racial animus prevented the black and white lower classes from organizing together. It was hardly the only factor, but it was a critical one. To this day, race is the best predictor of support for welfare, and during last year's debate, racial animus was correlated with opposition to health-care reform.

Sadly, this country's horrid history of racism will never fade entirely away.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Our Perverse Political System

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the criticism of the White House resulting from it illustrate a very odd aspect of our political system. We are very proud of the "checks and balances" in our system. In fact, we have a LOT of checks in our system, both on Presidential and Congressional power. On the other hand, we've evolved to the point where we see the President as this omniscient, omnipotent being. So we have a system where we see the President as the face of the government and expect him to be able to address every issue. Presidential campaigns reinforce this as Presidents get lots of face time saying "as President, I will do X."

Once Presidents are in office, they get to face up to all the checks on their power. In the campaign they laid out their plans. Now Congress gets to weigh in. And policy positions that make for good campaign points don't always make for good policy. People don't actually understand the checks in our system, so they blame the President for every broken promise and everything they expect him to do. As Andy Samberg (as Rahm Emanuel) put it in a hilarious SNL skit, he "needs 60 votes just to take a shit."

In the context of the oil spill, James Carville, Mike Pence, Bobby Jindal, and a whole bunch of others are bitching about the President not "taking charge," whatever that means. I assume they want him to personally take a submersible down and cap the leak himself. The President may be the most powerful person in the world, but he still has to deal with a massive bureaucracy, intransigent and juvenile Congress, and the fact that he's not God. This messianism with regards to the President is somewhat disturbing. And when it comes from a group of people who've been decrying him as some sort of "Soviet crack dealer," to steal another line from SNL, it should be treated as noise, nothing more. The bottom line is that the President can't solve every problem on his own. If he were interested in histrionics, I suppose he could talk more. But I'm not sure how helpful that would be.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Crazy



Conor Friedersdorf has an excellent article in Newsweek about the casual dismissal Libertarian policy positions are given in comparison to the seriousness with which far more insane "centrist" policies are treated.

If returning to the gold standard is unthinkable, is it not just as extreme that President Obama claims an unchecked power to assassinate, without due process, any American living abroad whom he designates as an enemy combatant? Or that Joe Lieberman wants to strip Americans of their citizenship not when they are convicted of terrorist activities, but upon their being accused and designated as enemy combatants? In domestic politics, policy experts scoff at ethanol subsidies, the home-mortgage-interest tax deduction, and rent control, but the mainstream politicians who advocate those policies are treated as perfectly serious people.

He's got a point. Really, it's just one more aspect of the status-quo bias inherent in our political discourse. Most of the policies he lists are already on the books, so people just accept them. Either way, he's right that we should scrutinize these policy positions more often. I try to do that in this blog. I'll endeavor to do a better job of it in the future.

Bipartisan Messianism (II)

I'm glad to have my opinion confirmed by someone who knows what he's talking about. A well-credentialed reader wrote in to TPM to correct some misconceptions. Worth a read.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Bipartisan Messianism

There now seems to be bipartisan consensus that Obama needs to Do Something about the BP oil spill. Or maybe he needs to Do More. Or Go Down To The Gulf. Since this seems to be the general consensus, I asked on twitter if there was something specifically that people want him to be doing? Despite my judicious use of the #oilspill hashtag, I did not get a response. At just about the same time, Dave Weigel indulged his sarcasm on the same topic. Then I turned on Hardball and heard about 45 minutes of Chris Matthews ranting about Obama's lack of engagement on the issue.

This strikes me as another instance where people just want visible action for its own sake. Do liberals really believe that Obama isn't doing everything he thinks is possible or necessary? He knows the stakes, he's aware of the "Obama's Katrina" rumblings, he's not just sitting on his tail. I get the feeling that Chris Matthews et al think Obama has a lot of spill-capping equipment hidden in the White House garage.

BP is taking point because they have the equipment and the know-how. The stories we've been hearing about how badly MMS is run make me less than thrilled about the possibility of them overseeing any of this. BP has the smarts and the know-how. Congressmen and senior administration officials assure us that every relevant scientist in the government is working on the problem. The solution is not for Obama to make grandiose gestures, it's for him to get smart people in the right places, and lean on BP. That's what he seems to be doing. The scale of the disaster is unprecedented, and they're working a mile below the water. It's not easy.

This reminds me of the height (or doldrums) of the health care debate. People were screaming that Obama should have "pivoted to jobs." Nobody actually said what could have been done about jobs. He had already ushered through a $787 stimulus package. Congress was paralyzed by deficit hawks and not likely to pass any more meaningful stimulus. The Fed did not want to loosen monetary policy. I suppose he could have shouted?

As for now, Obama could certainly set up camp in Mobile or New Orleans. But what would he really accomplish? BP has the equipment and the money. All he can do is put pressure on them to do the right thing. That's what he's doing. Until MMS stops snorting lines with the same oil industry folks they're supposed to be regulating, there's not much more to be done. In the after-action reports, we'll see if Ken Salazar has been negligent in changing the culture at Interior. But reversing eight years of damage isn't easy. Until we know more, all the screaming in the world isn't going to stop the oil from flowing. Let's cross our fingers that this "top kill" works.

The best thing that can be done right now is for Congress to raise the $75m cap on damages that oil companies are liable for. The Obama administration has come out in support of doing so, now it's up to congress.

A Line Item Theory

M.S. over at DiA has a theory for where to use the President's proposed new (almost) line item veto. I was quite pessimistic about it, but I like his theory:

[W]hat if there were an agency that was genuinely trying to cut wasteful spending, but kept being forced by Congress to buy expensive things it didn't want? What if that agency's budget really did amount to a substantial portion of federal spending? What if that agency's director's efforts to rationalise its spending were constantly being frustrated by a combination of industry contractors, lobbyists, its own renegade bureaucrats and officers, and congressional representatives? What if said director enjoyed the full support of the White House, and had asked the president to veto the budget if Congress kept the unwanted spending in? And what if that agency were housed in a building with, say, five sides? That might be an interesting way to use a line-item veto. Just sayin'.

The defense budget would be an excellent place to use that new veto power. The military-industrial complex is in full swing these days. Gates can use all the help he can get.

America's Tattered Infrastructure

South Side of Chicago Alderperson Sandi Jackson is on a crusade to provide internet to her constituents. Vast areas of her ward lack broadband internet access, and libraries have very few internet-connected computers.

“On the entire South Side and West Side, there’s a void in access to the Internet,” Jackson said. “This is like a secret society that lives among us.”

When we talk about infrastructure in this country, our roads and bridges most often come to mind. But our broadband infrastructure in this country is very poor. And the areas it is worst are the areas that need it most--poor areas like Ms Jackson's ward. Broadband speeds in this country are fairly poor anyway, and the total lack of access in some areas is even worse. It's not just poor urban areas, but also rural areas far from major cities that lack broadband internet. Thankfully, there was funding in the stimulus to expand broadband access. Google is also working on pilot plans to expand fiber-optic broadband access to areas that need it. This is a start, but as Chicago's 7th Ward knows, we've got a long way to go

Deficit Peacockism in the White House

The New York Times takes the Obama administration to task in an editorial this morning. Concerning the president's proposed new pseudo-line-item-veto intended to combat wasteful spending, the Times has this to say:

It is important to cut waste, but cutting waste is not enough. If the public is encouraged to believe that discretionary spending is the main problem — and cutting it is the real answer — there will never be adequate political support for the tough decisions ahead. 

I think the Times is dead on. Discretionary spending is not the problem. And allowing an executive to make largely cosmetic cuts just lets governments paper over the structural problems in the budget. In our case, those are entitlements. We need to make real strides toward putting the budget on a sustainable path. This is largely window-dressing.

Jonathan Bernstein, guesting for Ezra Klein, has an even less charitable take.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Erosion of Civil Liberties (III)

Lest I create the impression that it is just President Obama that is willing to "give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety," Congress just slapped him in the face over an actual attempt at making some progress on civil liberties. If the amendment had only stripped funding for Guantanamo-Illinois, that would be one thing. Maybe it could even be used as an excuse to not detain people indefinitely. But now congress wants to put a bunch of hoops in place for the executive to jump through when trying to resolve the issue of detainees in any way. In a time of "small government" rhetoric, where is the outcry at the routine way congress and this administration betray the ideals of this country in the name of the war on terror?

What's worse, Obama is being somewhat disingenuous on the issue of civil liberties. I previously pointed out how his rhetoric before he was actually governing has not matched his actions as president. Today, Spencer Ackerman points out how his current rhetoric is not matching his actions.

Via Twitter, Conor Friedersdorf challenged Matt Yglesias, as a member of the "establishment left," to do a better job of pushing back against this constant encroachment on civil liberties. He has a fair point. But the definition of "establishment left" is problematic. "Establishment Democrats" and "the left" are two different entities. As Adam Serwer pointed out, the left have been screaming about this. Democrats (and Republicans, it should go without saying) have been silent. Our leaders are failing us.

Does this mean that activists could be doing a better job? Certainly. One problem is that there isn't really a grassroots movement for this sort of thing. I'm not even sure it's possible to build one. Far too many people are fine with the loss of civil liberties when it overwhelmingly affects people with Arab/Muslim names. Wouldn't people throw a fit if "Howard Johnson" got thrown in prison for life without a trial because it was suspected that he was affiliated with some sort of white-supremacist group? Or would people be calling for him to be tortured in a CIA "black site" in the Washington Post?

This civil liberties erosion is a disturbing trend in our history. I suspect that it will eventually be looked upon as badly as the Alien and Sedition Acts passed under John Adams were.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Balancing the Budget

I agree with (almost) everything Ross Douthat says here. And yes, Ross, I'm in favor of means-testing entitlements. Actually, that's probably why movement Republicans consider his spot as "token conservative" at the Times as a joke. Smart conservatives get frowned upon these days.

This is linked in his article, but I highly recommend trying to balance the budget yourself.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sounds About Right

Via the often annoying and incomprehensible, yet also often thought-provoking Megan McArdle:

"Giving a juvenile life without parole may or may not be unconstitutional, but it's certainly stupid. Keeping a sex offender who has served his term in prison indefinitely because of the crimes he might commit may not be stupid, but it certainly ought to be unconstitutional." --Mark Kleiman

Banning the Burqa

There's been plenty of talk about the legislation to ban the burqa in public places in France. While I see that it is a symbol of the subjugation of women in fundamentalist/radical forms of Islam, I don't think it's the government's place to step in. I realize that France has far more government involvement in everyday life than the US, so perhaps this makes sense for them. But as an American I think that, regardless of First Amendment issues, this issue should be left alone. TNC has a similar take that I largely agree with:

I always think the way to win this fight is to have confidence in the strength of the culture, as opposed to the strength of the law. Put differently, I don't know that you can force integration. It has to hinge on the organic magnetism of your values.

The Insanity of Food Prices

David Leonhardt writes today about the battle over a tax on soft drinks. I've written before about taxing junk food. I've also written about the awful incentives our back-asswards subsidies give. A tax on junk food, especially soft drinks, is good policy. Anytime you can raise revenue while providing disincentive to risky or bad behavior, it's a win. But even if you don't read the article, look at the chart he posted. Over the past 30 years, the only foods whose prices have risen are fruits and vegetables and, to a much lesser extent, breakfast cereal. Soft drinks have dropped in price the most. If we can make it cheaper and easier for people to eat healthier and more expensive and difficult to eat crap, we can make headway against obesity in this country.

(HT: Yglesias)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tim Pawlenty: Problem Solver

Gov Pawlenty and the DFL controlled legislature reached a compromise yesterday in which the DFL gave Pawlenty nearly everything he asked for. Pawlenty had previously vetoed DFL proposals that increased revenues as well as making deep cuts to put the budget on more stable footing. Pawlenty rejected those, and the budget we got is balanced this year by putting off difficult decisions, making even deeper temporary cuts in essential services, and borrowing. Two-thirds of the "solution" merely involved putting off a ~$2bn education payment for a year. As a result, the next governor will come into office looking at a whopping $5.8bn deficit. Pawlenty did the equivalent of sticking some chewing gum in a crack on the dam. Next year that chewing gum will fall off and the dam will start to crumble.

In addition, many of the one-year cuts enacted were aid to local governments, which will now need to find new ways of replacing that revenue. Many of the municipalities will raise local property taxes. More teachers, police officers, and firemen will be laid off. Conservatives decry raising taxes in a recession, but they're willing to put people out of work in a state where there are 10 people unemployed for every job opening.

This obsession with making small cuts and not addressing underlying problems is endemic. Rep. Eric Cantor's YouCut contest allows people to vote on programs to cut that he promises to bring up to a vote. The programs amount to just under $6bn, when our deficit this year is over $1.5tn. The winning program, by the way, is a program that is one of the most effective at creating jobs, though you would never know it by reading its description on Cantor's site.

Really, anyone who wants to take on deficits and keeps talking about "non-defense discretionary spending" and "wasteful" spending is nothing but a deficit peacock. They're not serious and shouldn't be taken as such.

Monday, May 17, 2010

That Pesky EPA

The conventional wisdom is that the Environmental Protection Agency's moves towards regulating carbon dioxide are the stick intended to browbeat special interests and a few Republicans into supporting a climate bill in the Senate. Most people would probably prefer a comprehensive bill from congress to relying on EPA's interpretation of the Clean Air Act. The Economist's M.S. takes the opposite view:

For a moment I considered the problem that regulation that emerges from a line agency doesn't have the kind of democratic legitimacy that a bill passed by the Senate has. Then I looked at the words "Senate" and "democratic legitimacy" next to each other and decided that's really not much of an objection. A more serious problem is that if the EPA went ahead and cracked down on greenhouse-gas emissions, the Senate might freak out and try to strip them of their authority. But guess what? It'd only take 41 senators to filibuster a move like that. Basically, I'm now at a point where I would prefer that the EPA go wild and slather a thick layer of sticky regulation all over the major carbon-emitting sectors, then let the lobbyists get down and wrestle in it.

To clarify, the Senate has already tried to strip them of their authority. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Exxon AK) has been quite persistent in tacking amendments onto bills and trying every parliamentary tactic under the sun to strip the EPA of its authority.  I actually phone banked against a Lisa Murkoski amendment on this issue last fall. So far she has failed, but what she lacks in scruples, she makes up for in persistance.

There's probably something to be said for the merits of a comprehensive bill rather than whatever the EPA can squeeze out of their authority. A formal carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, coupled with subsidies for clean energy research and construction and a coherent transit policy would be excellent. But Kerry-Lieberman isn't that good before the amendments start. It's hard to make a choice here until we know exactly what the EPA is capable of. Regardless, its heartening to know that there is a plan B if the Senate doesn't pull through.

Mark Kirk is a Tim Pawlenty Fan

Mark Kirk wants to restore the line-item veto. Or, as Ward Room puts it:

Allowing the president to pick and choose among budget items is admitting that Congress is too irresponsible to fulfill its own duties, and needs a grown-up monitor. We can’t stop spending, so we’re going to ask the president to stop us!

Just ask the Minnesota state legislature how much they like giving the executive power over the purse. I'm not sure what makes the borderline psychopaths that run for executive offices more fiscally responsible than the borderline psychopaths that run for legislature. For some reason, Mark Kirk has faith in the executive branch.

States' Rights

NBC Chicago's Ward Room pokes holes in the conservative veneration for devolving government to local control:

It turns out that “local control” is a code word for protecting small town, conservative values from Washington’s meddling. When a small town has liberal values, well, then it’s Sarah Palin’s turn to meddle.

What's going on?

Josh Marshall doesn't really know, do you?

I'd like some help thinking this one through. What's your theory? Am I just over-thinking this one? Or do you have a similar sense that we're all blind men touching different parts of the elephant at this point with only a very limited grasp of what's happening?

I'm pretty sure nobody really knows what's going on. The political climate is... weird right now. I don't really know what to make of it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Erosion of Civil Liberties (II)

Kevin Drum offers his own thoughts, which are quite similar to mine:

[Obama's] early ban on torture was profoundly welcome, but aside from that he's mostly continued Bush-era policies with only minor changes and then added to them things that Bush and Cheney could only have dreamed of. In this one area, I feel betrayed.

As I wrote the previous post, I was afraid that I was falling into the same trap that many have regarding Obama. Namely, that they ascribed to him their own policy preferences, rather than looking closely at what he has said and written. I wasn't at home, so I didn't have my copy of his book handy. Now I do:

More often, though, finding the right balance between our competing values is difficult. Tensions arise not because we have steered a wrong course, but simply because we live in a complex and contradictory world. I firmly believe, for example, that since 9/11, we have played fast and loose with constitutional principles in the fight against terrorism. But I acknowledge that even the wisest president and most prudent Congress would struggle to balance the critical demands of our collective security  against the equally compelling need to uphold civil liberties.

(Emphasis mine.) In many ways, this is classic Obama. How often have we heard him use the "on one hand, on the other hand" rhetorical trope? I guess this isn't exactly unequivocal support for civil liberties, but it certainly seems to take a stronger line than he has in office. In his inaugural address, he made a great case for the importance of our ideals in defending our nation:

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.  Our Founding Fathers -- (applause) -- our Founding Fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man -- a charter expanded by the blood of generations.  Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake.

This line stuck in my head, but Obama's actions in this aspect certainly have not matched his rhetoric. It seems to me that he hasn't rejected the choice so much as made it. And the choice was safety over ideals.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Erosion of Civil Liberties

I'm not normally a big fan of Glenn Greenwald, but he has an excellent post up regarding the erosion of civil liberties in this country due to the war on terror:

A bipartisan group from Congress sponsors legislation to strip Americans of their citizenship based on Terrorism accusations.  Barack Obama claims the right to assassinate Americans far from any battlefield and with no due process of any kind.  The Obama administration begins covertly abandoning long-standing Miranda protections for American suspects by vastly expanding what had long been a very narrow "public safety" exception, and now Eric Holder explicitly advocates legislation to codify that erosion.  John McCain and Joe Lieberman introduce legislation to bar all Terrorism suspects, including Americans arrested on U.S. soil, from being tried in civilian courts

I've written before that Obama's civil liberties record has been, to me, far and away the most disappointing part of his presidency. For the most part, nothing Obama has done as president should have surprised anyone who paid close attention to his campaign and his books. Perhaps I'm misremembering, but I do not remember him being this blase about civil liberties.

Putting aside concerns about Obama's consistency on the issue or even problems with constitutionality, this erosion of our liberties threatens the very values our country was founded on. In addition, it's unnecessary and counterproductive. What are we, if not a country based on the rule of law? If we really want to combat terrorism, let's do it by showing what a great country this is. It's a country where everyone gets a fair trial, no matter their crime, ethnicity, or even citizenship.

The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize. Put another way, terrorism is violence done with the intention of provoking a reaction in the political realm. The best way to combat terrorism is to show that it doesn't work. Resist the temptation to give terrorists the reaction they're looking for. Unfortunately, we seem to exacerbate the problem. Every time we crack down on civil liberties, we do two things. First, we reinforce the impression that we are intent upon doing injustice to Muslims, making it more likely that we will be attacked again and again. Second, we make the US a less desirable place for skilled immigrants and tourists. By reacting as the terrorists want, we are helping them achieve their goals.

I said it before, the best response to terrorist attacks is to embrace our legal system, not circumvent it. Our liberty is our strength. I don't know why President Obama insists on undermining it.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Charlie Foxtrot

Ezra Klein, take it away:

Secret holds are just one of many insane Senate traditions that can be used to impede progress. In an effort to preserve them, DeMint used another. He attached a "secondary amendment" to the Wyden/Grassley amendment. Now, if you voted for the amendment to end secret holds, you'd also be voting for an amendment establishing a border fence.

World's worst deliberative body. Also, click the link above the quote, Ron Wyden's rant after Demint sank his amendment is very entertaining.

A Society of Selfishness

Michael Kinsley is the latest to take on Tea Partiers:

“Personal responsibility” has been a great conservative theme in recent decades, in response to the growth of the welfare state. It is a common theme among TPPs—even in response to health-care reform, as if losing your job and then getting cancer is something you shouldn’t have allowed to happen to yourself. But these days, conservatives far outdo liberals in excusing citizens from personal responsibility. To the TPPs, all of our problems are the fault of the government, and the government is a great “other,” a hideous monster over which we have no control. It spends our money and runs up vast deficits for mysterious reasons all its own. At bottom, this is a suspicion not of government but of democracy. After all, who elected this monster?

That's a fair point, but I think Kinsley hit it closer to the mark with this comment:

The Tea Party movement’s goals, when stated specifically, are mostly self-interested. And they lack poetry: cut my taxes; don’t let the government mess with my Medicare; and so on. I say “self-interested” and not “selfish” because pursuing your own self-interest is not illegitimate in a capitalist democracy. (Nor is poetry an essential requirement.) But the Tea Party’s atmospherics, all about personal grievance and taking umbrage and feeling put-upon, are a far cry from flower power.

We've become a country where empathy is scorned. The Golden Rule has evolved into "Look out for number one." This isn't limited to the Tea Party, by any means. We see it constantly in the short-sightedness of legislators and the polling numbers they take as gospel. Unfortunately, it seems to be the founding principle of the Tea Party. Their scorn of "big government" isn't matched by any actual policy suggestions that could meaningfully shrink the size of government. They don't want to be on the hook for anyone else, but they're fine taking Social Security and Medicare checks. Most of them likely dislike "welfare", but what is Social Security if not welfare for the elderly?

Examples of this abound, and it's seen on both sides of the aisle. You can't look at the downfall of the US auto industry without seeing the damage done by an overzealous UAW. The short-term goal of better pay and benefits for their workers caused the companies to sink beneath the weight of their own labor costs.

Investment banks jacked their leverage up to incredible heights, handed out sub-prime mortgages, and traded securities they didn't understand because of the massive profits involved. Unfortunately, they also managed to cause a global economic meltdown. But that didn't bother Wall Street, since most of the firms are profitable and back to the same old tricks, with the help of massive government guarantees. (Lehman and Bear Stearns being the obvious exceptions.) They're even fighting the reforms proposed to prevent another crisis from happening. What do they care about the millions of Americans who are still unemployed, and have been for months? Wall Street got theirs.

The list is nearly endless. If I started going through recent issues that show this attitude, this post would be New Yorker length. Far too many people look out for their short-term self-interest, and screw everyone else.

This, I think, is both the strength and the allure of the progressive movement for me. It is a movement based on on empathy. It is a movement of people who are willing to sacrifice to help others. It is a movement that includes the very wealthy people that I met while canvassing who would respond to my crack about their neighbors calling me a socialist with "what's wrong with socialism?", knowing full well that they're advocating something that would be bad for them financially. It is a movement that leads unions like the SEIU to go to bat for President Obama's health care plan, despite the fact that union members have some of the best health insurance in the country and despite the fact that the plan included an excise tax that would hit their insurance plans.

Conservatives have a tendency to ascribe motives to progressives that just don't exist. Progressives are accused of wanting government for the sake of government. That's the logical opposing viewpoint from the conservative viewpoint that "government IS the problem," but it just isn't true. Progressives have policy goals like providing a social safety net, ensuring that all Americans have access to health insurance, and preventing the eventual boiling of our planet with greenhouse gases. In these areas, the markets have failed, so progressives look to the government to help. It is to their credit that progressives look upon their fellow citizens with empathy and a willingness to help. That empathy is something we could all use more of.

The US is Not Greece

Let me say it again: The US is not Greece. I say that because deficit hawks everywhere are raising the specter of Greece at every available opportunity to scare the bejesus out of people about our spending. Krugman's column today takes this head on.

The short version is this: Greece's structural problems are far more severe. Our short-term deficits are caused by the recession and as the economy picks up, our finances will look much better. In the medium-term, drawing down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and letting Bush's tax cuts for the rich expire will help a lot. We do have a long-term problem. It's entirely because of health care costs. Obamacare was a start, but more needs to be done, especially on the provider side. If we get health care costs under control, we have our borrowing problem under control.

If there's one statistic I can leave you with to illustrate why we're not Greece, it's this: towards late April, Greece's two-year bond yields were over 12%. By way of comparison, today US Treasuries range from 0.15% for a 3-month bond to 4.36% for a 30 year bond. Clearly, investors are not worried. As long as the US can still borrow cheaply, we're not Greece. We're not even in danger of becoming Greece. Our debt problem is a long-term one. So next time someone screams about deficits and Greece when debating a couple billion in spending, ignore them. If you really want to work on our deficits, long-term work on health-care costs is the way to do it.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Proper Fucking Booming

A poster over at DailyKos has an absolutely fantastic primer on how to use those booms we see miles and miles of in the Gulf. Short story: You're fucking doin' it fucking wrong!

Read it. Seriously. That diary makes me weep for our government and our media. Also, you'll understand my excessive profanity in this post.

Counting Down the Days

Until we have a governor who might do something positive.

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I wrote previously about the deleterious effect Pawlenty's presidential ambitions have on his actions as governor.

The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial praising Pawlenty's vetoes. They don't mention that he's been unable to balance the budget with cuts and that the DFL plan balanced the budget using lots of cuts as well as tax hikes. MinnPost has a good takedown here.

Believe it or not, while I was writing this, Pawlenty vetoed another bill.

How to Attack a Republican From the Right (II)

The Alabama gubernatorial primary just outdid the Kentucky senate race in "You're not conservative enough."


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Actual Proposals to Tackle the Deficit

Pearlstein sets out a blueprint. Overall, I like it. I think I could pick apart some things, but it's a very good starting point in the discussion. We need politicians to say things like this. Or Tea Partiers.

Guantanamo Bay Career-Building

Spencer Ackerman did a very interesting interview on NPR's Fresh Air about the trial of Omar Khadr at Gauntanamo Bay. The whole thing is worth reading or listening to. There was one thing at the end that struck me as somewhat absurd, though. There are resume-building classes at GTMO for the detainees. Not that it's a bad thing, it just struck me as really odd. Incidentally, the detainees are also big fans of Deadliest Catch. Surreal.

How to Attack a Republican From the Right

Dave Weigel points to the ad that a conservative PAC is running against insurgent candidate Rand Paul in Kentucky:



The problem with Paul is that he is against farm subsidies, realizes that Iran having one nuke is bad, but not an existential threat to the US, and thinks coal is the worst energy source. All of which are, well, pretty much the consensus positions of experts on the issues. But that's how you attack someone from the right. Demagogue technocratic, well thought-out positions.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Bullets and Taxes

Tom Ricks points to some COIN literature from the 60s. This gets to the heart of why I continue to be quite bearish on Afghanistan. Our military can kill anyone and blow up anything, but that won't win the war. In fact, it could lose it. What will defeat the insurgency is building a government that can properly protect the population, enforce laws, collect taxes, and do everything else a government does. Currently, in many parts of the country the Taliban is better at this than the Afghan government. The US has its hands full trying to get the Karzai government to act in a way that will assist the counterinsurgency efforts. Unfortunately, as Andrew Exum points out in a new report for CNAS:

[As] Stephen Biddle noted almost immediately following [the publication of FM 3-24], much about the doctrine is politically na├»ve. When the United States wages counterinsurgency campaigns, it almost always does so as a third party acting on behalf of a host nation. And implicit in the manual’s assumptions is the idea that U.S. interests will be aligned with those of the host nation.

They almost never are, though.

Without a working, legitimate, and only mildly corrupt Afghan government, we will never defeat the Taliban. Just how likely are we to get that kind of government? I'm not optimistic.

Proselytizing Radical Islam

Londonstani (Amil Khan) posts over on Abu Muqawama about how the Times Square bomber was radicalized, and how radical Islam spreads in general.

The genius of the al-Qaeda-type extremism that we see today is its ability to seize on the inner turmoil of a diverse range of people (from Texas to Brixton to southern Punjab) and link them to its central world view and then motivate them to take action to they believe will lead to change - change they are not likely to live to see.

Read the whole thing, Londonstani knows what he's talking about, and it's a very interesting and sobering read. The problem is, of course, far more complicated than "they hate our freedom."

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Middle Ground Sucks

The Obama administration seems to be doing its signature triangulation on civil liberties, making full use of the exception that allows law enforcement to delay mirandizing suspects and interrogate first:

"It looks like to me they're trying to find this middle ground between saying the Constitution applies with full force and the Constitution doesn't apply," says Sam Kamin, a professor of criminal law and procedure at Sturm College of Law in Denver who has written about terrorism interrogations. "It seems to be a deliberate strategy."

I suppose it's better than not mirandizing at all, but this seems like an area where finding the middle ground isn't really a great thing (if it ever is).

Feel Good Fridays

If you haven't seen any of the work of the PS22 chorus, do yourself a favor and check them out. Since Iron Man 2 premiers today, here they are rockin' some Sabbath:




Incredible kids, with an incredible teacher.

Thoughts on April Job Numbers and the Economy

The economy added 290,000 jobs in April, while the top-line unemployment rate went up from 9.7% to 9.9%. If that seems counterintuitive, that's only because it is. The top-line unemployment number, known as U3, is the number of unemployed persons actively seeking work divided by the total workforce. Presumably because of increasing optimism about the economy, discouraged workers are reentering the workforce. So while the economy added jobs, it also added people looking for work. That weirdness is one reason I always like to look at a different unemployment indicator, U6. I've talked about this before, but U6 has underemployed and discouraged workers included. It edged up from 16.9% to 17.1%. That's not a good sign of a healthy economy. Long-term unemployment edged upwards, as well.

I'm also worried about how much of our current economic growth is being propped up by the stimulus, which will run out fairly soon. Without more people employed and spending money, the recovery will be slow. Once the stimulus runs out, it will be even slower.

My other worry is best described in visual form. Basically, while GDP is growing, it's not growing fast enough. This is a chart of GDP from 2006 to now (statistics from the Burea of Economic Analysis):

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So we're back growing at the rate we were before the recession, so that's good. I continue to worry that the growth will slow when the stimulus runs out, but the point I want to make is different. Growing at the rate of before the recession isn't enough. We've gotten GDP back to the point it was before the recession, that's good, but not good enough. This chart is our actual GDP compared to what would have happened if GDP grew at the average rate of growth in 07 and 06, in the absence of a recession:

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The gap between the lines worries me. If we keep growing at this rate, we're really just adding enough jobs for the new workers entering the workforce. A more robust recovery would allow us to add more jobs, so that stubborn unemployment number can go down.

More stimulus and looser monetary policy would be very helpful. Unfortunately, the Fed is still more concerned about inflation than mass unemployment, and congress seems to have no appetite for further stimulus. On top of that, the dollar is strengthening against the Euro, due to the crisis in Greece, and worries about the other "PIIGS" economies (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain). A stronger dollar is better for tourists, but it can hurt exports, as American products get comparatively more expensive.

Color me a pessimist.

(Disclaimor, it's been a while since I took Macroeconomics, so maybe some of this stuff is totally wrong. But I think I'm at least in the ballpark.)

EDIT: Krugman makes another point, and one that I didn't do a good job of making:

One month like this isn’t much. Second, on a reasonable estimate it would take something like 4 or 5 years of job growth at this rate to restore anything resembling full employment.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sorry, Timmy

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that Gov Pawlenty overstepped his bounds in unilaterally cutting over $2bn in spending through the "unallotment" process. The Supremes avoiding ruling on the constitutionality of unallotment, and decided(pdf) more narrowly that this instance was not consistent with the intent of the statute.

They held that the unallotment process was intended to fix unforseen shortfalls in revenue that cause an unbalanced budget. However, as Gov Pawlenty vetoed the revenue bill while signing the spending bill, there was never actually a balanced budget. In the absence of a balanced budget to start with, the unallotment statute does not come into play. Therefore, by taking it upon himself to cut $2bn of spending unilaterally, he was overstepping his bounds as executive. The legislature write the laws, he just signs or vetoes.

The unallotment statute provides the executive branch with authority to address an unanticipated deficit that arises after the legislative and executive branches have enacted a balanced budget. The statute does not shift to the executive branch a broad budget-making authority allowing the executive branch to address a deficit that remains after a legislative session because the legislative and executive branches have not resolved their differences.

I have to assume that Pawlenty will spin this as a liberal, activist court taking sides in a political issue. In reality, Pawlenty couldn't work with the legislature and took steps to balance the budget that were later judged to be beyond the scope of his powers. As far as politics goes, the important thing is that Pawlenty never raise taxes and that he cut spending as much as possible. He's got to be able to position himself as the fiscal conservative who's been there and done that on the state level. What he won't bring up is how his cuts to city and local funding caused them to raise property taxes to fix their own budget shortfalls. I've written about this before: Pawlenty's ideas on fiscal policy are divorced from reality.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Conservative War Against Intellect (III)

 Ezra Klein points to a pretty funny quote from John Thune, talking about Bob Corker:

"I think he’s a guy who’s willing to get down into the weeds," said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, who is No. 4 in GOP leadership. "Because he immerses himself in that and understands it so well — the positions he adopts may not always be the ones that everyone else in our conference comes to."
Yep, because he understands policy so well... he sometimes disagrees with the GOP.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Security Theater

Take it away, James Fallows:

You know what I "resent" about our freedoms? I resent the loss of them, through small-minded and smaller-hearted "security state" thinking, and the distortion of what it means to be an American. It should mean someone who takes things in stride, recognizes that life has ups and downs, and follows rules because the rules are reasonable and deserve respect. Thanks largely to security theater, Americans are coming to be people who scurry and worry, and follow rules no matter how obviously inane because they keep us "safe."

Constitutional Conservatism

The Fifth Amendment:

No person shall be held to answer for any capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

The 2008 GOP candidate for President:

"Don't give this guy his miranda rights until we find out what it's all about," [John] McCain added.

Yep. Real concerned with small government and the constitution. Unless, of course, you're indefinitely detaining US citizens without due process or right to a trial.

I'm very disappointed with Obama's civil liberties record thus far. But I'm not trading it in for the GOP position.

The Conservative War Against Intellect (II)

Stephen Fry offers his thoughts from across the pond:

When I was growing up ‘elitism’ was a word sneered from the lips of the Left, now it is sneered from the lips of the Right. The sneering was ugly then and it is ugly now. Knowledge, science, understanding, literacy and curiosity are absolute goods and to hell with anyone who tries to follow that American habit here and attempts to construct a discourse in which only a despised liberal elite are interested in science, the arts, history and ideas.

It's rather sad that our political discourse is seen that way by some in the UK. He's vacillating between Labour and Lib-Dem, incidentally. And I can't link to Stephen Fry without linking to this:

Big Government, Please

Dana Milbank is a snarky and obnoxious columnist. But today, he's dead on:

There is something exquisite about the moment when a conservative decides he needs more government in his life.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Consequences (II)

Several days later, Matthew Yglesias makes the same point I did, and extends it to point out that Tom Vilsack might be running for Senate (and doing well) in Iowa right now, if he weren't Secretary of Agriculture. I suppose we'll never know.

Demand vs Savings

A month ago, I wrote:

Consumer demand will bring us out of the recession, but it's also what got us into the recession. I don't envy Sec. Geithner or the folks at the Fed. 

Today, Paul Krugman writes:

[A] liquidity trap world is a paradox-of-thrift world, in which the virtuous individual decision to save more is a vice from the point of view of the economy as a whole. For now, it’s actually a good thing that consumers are behaving irresponsibly.


So my wish is that we be made chaste, continent, and thrifty — but not yet.

But when? Like I said, I'm glad I'm not making these decisions.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

New Rule

The next time someone talks about a military strike as an option for containing Iran, they need to look at this map and tell me how we're going to bomb all of those sites. Many of them are buried deep underground, do we nuke them? Also, most experts would tell you that we probably don't actually know where all the sites are. How long did the facility at Qom exist before we found out about it? Don't forget that when bombing sites filled with Uranium, you're going to be spraying radioactive material all over Iran. It's not just Ahmadinejad and Khameini in that country. You could be looking at health issues affecting very large swathes of the Iranian population for decades.

That doesn't even get into geopolitical issues. If America (or Israel, with our implicit consent) bombs the shit out of Iran, I have a feeling that Green Movement's pro-America leaning will disappear. Their leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, supports Iran's push for peaceful nuclear power, though not necessarily weaponizing. If America or Israel (and in the minds of most in the Middle East, they're one and the same) takes action against Iran, they'll end up helping the current Iranian regime. Suddenly, there's a common enemy.

If someone can offer a convincing answer to all of those issues, I'm listening. But I haven't heard it yet.