Saturday, February 28, 2009

OMBlog Update

Have you heard that statisticians may be the new sex symbols? America's leading strapping young egghead, OMB director Peter Orszag, will be on ABC's This Week Sunday morning to talk about the budget, and defend it from various bogus Republican criticisms.

Fun Orszag fact: he war a blue shirt and orange tie to the inauguration. Presumably he went with orange since he graduated from some school in South Jersey that no one's heard of. The blue was probably the only color that went well with it. At least, that's what I'm telling myself.

The Only Way This Makes Sense ...

Is if the master plan is to have HHS Secretary Sebelius successfully advocate for and serve as administrator for the roll-out of the Obama health plan in the coming 3 years, then have Biden not serve as VP in 2012 and let Sebelius take over. Then this makes sense. Otherwise, unless Barack Obama enjoys having Arlen Specter and Olympia Snowe water down his legislation, so that he can point to them when The Left asks why he hasn't done everything they want, he's just making life harder for himself.

Nobody Could Have Predicted ...

Warren Buffet's 2008 letter to Berkshire-Hathwaya shareholders is out, and by far the most interesting bit is the section on financing as the Oracle of Omaha talks about Berkshire's manufactured homes unit. You see, everything that's happening to day in the wider housing market already happened in the manufactured home market ten years ago:

This 1997-2000 fiasco should have served as a canary-in-the-coal-mine warning for the far-larger conventional housing market. But investors, government and rating agencies learned exactly nothing from the manufactured-home debacle. Instead, in an eerie rerun of that disaster, the same mistakes were repeated with conventional homes in the 2004-07 period: Lenders happily made loans that borrowers couldn’t repay out of their incomes, and borrowers just as happily signed up to meet those payments. Both parties counted on “house-price appreciation” to make this otherwise impossible arrangement work. It was Scarlett O’Hara all over again: “I’ll think about it tomorrow.” The consequences of this behavior are now reverberating through every corner of our economy.

Clayton’s 198,888 borrowers, however, have continued to pay normally throughout the housing crash, handing us no unexpected losses. This is not because these borrowers are unusually creditworthy, a point proved by FICO scores (a standard measure of credit risk). Their median FICO score is 644, compared to a national median of 723, and about 35% are below 620, the segment usually designated “sub-prime.” Many disastrous pools of mortgages on conventional homes are populated by borrowers with far better credit, as measured by FICO scores.

Yet at yearend, our delinquency rate on loans we have originated was 3.6%, up only modestly from 2.9% in 2006 and 2.9% in 2004. (In addition to our originated loans, we’ve also bought bulk portfolios of various types from other financial institutions.) Clayton’s foreclosures during 2008 were 3.0% of originated loans compared to 3.8% in 2006 and 5.3% in 2004.
The root cause of the run-up in housing prices was always pretty clear; banks were offering untenable loans just to get the deals done. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with subprime loans; it was the desire to make a big pile of of money off the loans, subprime or not that caused everything to go haywire. Accept modestly lower profits over a longer horizon and you can lend to poor people just fine.

Making the Comparative Effectiveness Research Battle Look Like a Cake Walk

Tom Harkin (D-IA) , who convinced Bill Clinton to appropriate funds for the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, is annoyed that the NCCAM keeps finding that many alternative therapies don't work, perhaps because ... many alternative therapies don't work. This is of course the crux of the problem with Evidence-Based Medicine, which, even though it sounds good, has the tendency to tell lots of smart people who make lots of money that what they're doing isn't actually helping anyone. Only the people who do lumbar surgeries or sell slightly better prescription drugs make a lot more money and thus make this fight even harder.

That Kind of Conservatism Just Soothes The Soul

Newt Gingrich is back, baby! And he's got a 12 point plan, which will presumably morph over time until all 12 points poll at 70% or higher (this was one of the rules for the Contract With America). This looks like it will be fun.

  1. Payroll Tax Stimulus. Tax cut #1. Um, we're already doing this, just not at the insane, bankrupt Social Security rate that Newt wants.
  2. Real Middle-Income Tax Relief. Tax cut #2. This is Mitch McConnell's idea to reduce the middle tax bracket from 25% to 15%, which would deliver much more benefit to super-rich households than it would to the middle class. Nice try.
  3. Reduce the Business Tax Rate. Tax cut #3. Ah yes, Ireland, the conservative's paradise, where business tax revenues are a higher percentage of GDP than in the United states, because Parliament doesn't try to jimmy with the tax code for this and that industry. So man up, Newt; propose the elimination of all loopholes in the corporate tax rate and I'm on board. I'll actually give Newt half credit for this one; I don't think he's just being a shill for corporate interests here, and that in some hypothetical world with a President Gingrich and a Democratic Congress you could get a "broad base; low rates" tax reform that ended up with an Ireland-esque corporate tax code.
  4. Homeowner's Assistance. Tax cut #4. This is the Isakson house flippin g idea, only now we're using the tax code to hand out money to people who've already bought there homes in order to keep them in them. I'm not sure what this does to prevent home values from dropping, unless Gingrich is seriously talking about further subsidizing home ownership forever. Of course, government policy that treated home ownership unadulterated good is part of what got us in this mess; why we'd want more of it escapes me.
  5. Control Spending So We Can Move to a Balanced Budget. Ignore the fact that the public cares way less about balancing the budget than we did in the era of Ross Perot. Ignore the fact that there's considerable consensus even among right-leaning economists that running a deficit is a good idea during a recession. What's their big idea here? End earmarks! Which make up some tiny portion of the federal budget.
  6. No State Aid Without Protection from Fraud. It's nice to see the party of local control and states' rights embracing federal mandates; considering Bobby Jindal just rejected money for unemployment insurance because it mandated changes to his state's tax system. I'm not even sure what this means, but pretty much everyone is against fraud, so we'll give him credit for this one.
  7. More American Energy Now. Ironically due to declining demand, falling prices, and the credit crunch, domestic oil and natural gas production is down from its September 2008 peak. But perhaps if we open up more land to offshore drilling the market will suddenly reverse itself. Okay, maybe not.
  8. Abolish Taxes on Capital Gains. Tax cut #5. And of course, this leads Gingrich to speak approvingly of an East Asian dictatorship (China), and an East Asian city-state with one-party rule (Singapore).
  9. Protect the Rights of American Workers. If by "Protect the Rights" you mean "make it more difficult for Workers to form Unions to Protect the rights".
  10. Replace Sarbanes-Oxley. Newt's reason here is incorrect; the impact of SOX is felt primarily by large businesses; but it does actually have a fairly large negative impact for very marginal gains in accountability. You could design a much better set of accounting reform rules that didn't have the same impact. So, that's a nother one.
  11. Abolish The Death Tax. Tax cut #6. We've been through this eight million times; no point in doing it again.
  12. Invest in Energy and Transportation Infrastructure. We're already about to spend a ton of federal dollars modernizing the power grid, so that one's taken care of. That leave's Newt's latest hobbyhorse of modernizing the Air Traffic Control system, which has the convenient side effect of "cut[ing] the number of unionized air-traffic controllers by 7,000". Half of me thinks this might be a good idea; the other half thinks Newt is still re-fighting PATCO in his own mind. But even if it's a good idea, it wouldn't fix the root of the problem. The main reason for flight delays has little to do with air-traffic control and much more to do with capacity; why Newt doesn't call for knocking down barriers to airport expansion is unclear to me. And the main reason individuals feel like travel takes so long is because we've boosted security screening requirements. Propose eliminating the shoe and coat rules and I think we'll be in business.
So out of twelve ideas, six of them are tax cuts, and two and a half of them might be good ideas. These days, that's a good batting average for conservatives; it's certainly much better than what you get from Mike Pence or what have you. And it's not quite Conservatism's Greatest Hits Of the 1990s; there's no tort reform, either for the medical practice in particular or product liability in general. Maybe he just forgot that one.

They that in politics, you should hope for better enemies, just in case they win. This isn't very much progress.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday Kitsch Cover

TV On the Radio perform's David Bowie's "Heroes"

It turns out this song is on War Child - Heroes Vol.1, an album whose profits go to support a British charity which supports, well, children in war torn countries.

Leave your nominations for next week's Kitsch Cover in the comments

(and yes, I'm in your budgets, analyzing your figures; I will emerge with charts and stuff early next week).

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Shooting The Loan Wolves

Via Ezra, Dana Goldstein tells us about something nice in Obama's budget: "The administration wants to originate all student loans in the direct lending program, cutting out wasteful middle-men."

This is good news, especially after big scandals in which private lenders were bribing college officials to steer students towards overpriced loans. I remember this from the Daily Texan, back when I was in Austin, and it's just embarrassing:

UT's Office of Student Financial Services accepted steak house dinners, after-work happy hours, ice cream carts and goodie buckets from lenders vying to keep or obtain a spot on the University's preferred lender list.

According to documents obtained through an open records request, the financial aid office used "treats" as a unit of measurement in preferred-lender list analysis. The documents also indicate that the financial aid office prefers for those lenders to have a strong "lender presence" in the office.

"Treats" was one of the criteria? How did anyone think that was okay? When ordinary crooked people take bribes, they have the decency to do it in secret. Well, good on Obama for ending these scams permanently. Nifty title pun stolen from Jon Chait's article on the topic.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

More Funning With Bunning

Our favorite Kentucky Senator on the possibility that the NRSC would find a primary challenger for him: "If they recruited someone to run in a primary against me, I would sue them because they are not following their bylaws." Spoken like a man who won't need plenty of money from the NRSC next cycle, because he has a lot more than $150K in the bank. Unfortunately, such a man would be in a different position from Jim Bunning.

Get Your Health Care Wonk On

Catch CBO director Doug Elmendorf and others testifying to the Senate Finance Committee here.

Lava: It's Not Good

Even when Republican rhetoric is misleading, you can usually see how it's supposed to affect people. The War on Terror stuff scared people into thinking that only Bush could protect us from terrorists. The attacks on STD prevention exploited the inability of Americans to think clearly when sex is mentioned. Attacks on gay marriage play on the ickiness of gay sex to non-liberals. (Personally, I don't really have much of an 'ick!' reaction to gay sex anymore. I guess if they're doing something really gross, that's one thing, but then I'd probably be grossed out by straight people doing it too.)

Anyway, I have absolutely no idea why the people who wrote Bobby Jindal's State of the Union speech thought attacking funds for volcano monitoring was a political winner. The idea that volcanoes can mess up your life by destroying everything with rivers of molten lava is a pretty intuitive one. It's one of the first things that comes to mind when you think about volcanoes. So it seems like monitoring volcanos would be an obvious good idea. But I guess Republican speechwriters don't see it that way.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On Abortion Rights, Cato Is Bullshit

I see that Cato has added anti-abortion guys Tucker Carlson and Nat Hentoff to its ranks. I've been complimentary of Cato in the past for supporting unpopular positions liberals and libertarians can agree on, like stopping the drug war that's ripping apart Mexico and urban America.

But look, Cato people. This is bullshit.

I get some of the basic intuitions that make libertarianism go. I understand that people don't want the government wiretapping them. I see how people could be unhappy with the deal they're getting when the government takes away a big chunk of their annual income for a bunch of services. I get how it'd annoy you if there was some mutually agreeable contract you wanted to make and the government stopped you, or if onerous regulations blocked a beneficial way for you to develop your business. I get how you might not like the government telling you what you could smoke or drink or snort. Having no need for additional protection or a symbolic extra penis, I don't really get the gun thing, but I can see how some people get into it.

But you know what would be worse than having the government deny your liberty in any of these ways? If the government made you grow a creature your abdomen for nine months, despite the fact that you desperately didn't want it to be there and there was a simple way for it to be taken out. If this weren't a core part of the policy agenda of the until-recently-dominant political party, it'd sound like the premise of some kind of wacky sci-fi dystopia.

Look, you can tap my phone. You can overtax me and hedge my business in with weird regulations. You can keep me from smoking or drinking or snorting stuff. And, guns, whatever. But please, don't force unwilling people to grow other people inside their tummies for nine months. Here's David Boaz getting all upset about how pro-choicers aren't cool with the whole libertarian program and its focus on choice. There's a reason for that, Mr. Boaz. It's because all the other rights you mention look pretty darned trivial compared to the one at stake in the abortion debate. Who a lady can hire is negotiable. Whether the government can force her to grow a living creature inside her abdomen is not.

If there were a solid case for an early-term fetus having even the faintest glimmer of a mind, that would make a difference. You might have to do some heavy stuff when a creature capable of reason and feeling is located inside another creature capable of reason and feeling. Fortunately, we aren't faced with that problem, since the neural circuitry for something as simple as experiencing pain doesn't show up until the end of the second trimester. Bringing in the law in after that might not be unreasonable. But abortions that late are almost always done because the mother's life or health is at risk, giving us reasons not to constrain doctors unnecessarily.

Cato does have people -- well, one person, Sigrid Fry-Revere -- who gets the size of the rights violation involved in banning abortion. But mostly, it isn't an issue they care a lot about. While this guy says he's pro-choice, his article is about how abortion isn't as big a deal as other stuff. Plenty of the commentary is of the "oh you say you're pro-choice, but why do you support public arts funding" variety.

Which shows you something. When it comes to one of the most central and obvious cases -- whether the law can force an unwilling person to grow another creature inside her body for nine months -- feminists have a much better grip on individual rights than so-called libertarians.

Monday, February 23, 2009


Mark Sanford: "We've all seen the spaghetti string style districts that don't really represent people; they are designed solely about the process of politics." Yes we have. I think this one's my favorite; Mike McCaul (R-TX) represents a district stretching from Austin to suburban Houston. If you tilt your head it looks a bit like farfalle.

The Senate Is A Strange Place

A while ago, we quoted somebody from Pandagon who explained why Harry Reid couldn't force the Republicans to engage in interminable humiliating filibuster speeches. Basically, it only takes one quiet Republican making repeated procedural motions to filibuster -- no long speeches need to be given. Via Ezra, I'm glad that Ryan Grim talked to Senate Parliamentarians, who basically said the same thing. What I didn't know about was this from the 1980s:
Byrd, fed up and deprived of the spectacle of non-stop-speechifying, ordered the sergeant-at-arms to arrest Sen. Bob Packwood (R-OR) and physically carry him to the Senate floor so he could be counted in a quorum call. Such a move is within the legal right of a majority leader, but it backfired when the sergeant-at-arms accidentally injured the 6'6", 235-pound Packwood.
Wait, it's within the legal right of a majority leader to have the sergeant-at-arms grab senators from the minority and drag them around? Why haven't we used this power before?

Jim Bunning, Kentucky Gentleman

It looks like Jim Bunning, the pride of Kentucky, just went out to a local GOP dinner thing and "predicted... that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would likely be dead from pancreatic cancer within nine months." The context makes it especially odd -- he was telling them that he supported conservative judges. If he thinks he'll be able to vote for a conservative replacement for her, well, good luck.

Bunning has gotten a lot of attention recently for resisting the entreaties of GOP Senate leaders who want him to retire. He has a meager $150K in the bank, and Democrats will probably be able to field a top-tier candidate against him. Nate has his seat as our 4th-best pickup opportunity.

The picture on the right is from late in Bunning's 2004 re-election campaign, which he won by only 1% after erratic behavior that made people worry that age might have eroded his mental abilities. (In a sterling example of Neil picking the close elections that we lose by tiny amounts, his opponent Dan Mongiardo was the one Senate candidate I gave money to that year.) I don't know who his advance guy is working for nowadays, but looking at where he had his boss standing, I'm happy he isn't on our side.

Spain Legalizes Abortion

A big step forward for a country where the Catholic Church has substantial political power. The Vatican was fighting hard to block this.

I don't imagine that there's any easy way for non-Catholics to have a positive effect on the election of a new Pope -- I'm sure the Cardinals who vote would be suspicious of the intervention of outside groups on behalf of some candidate. But if there was some way to help potential Popes who were interested in helping poor people, rather than in making contraception and abortion unavailable to women, that'd be something to look into.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Long Way From Roncevaux Pass

Josh Marshall asks, "Alright, how long do you give Burris?" And I'm sad to say that I don't think we're going to be rid of him easily. Anybody who went out and accepted the Blagojevich nomination isn't especially sensitive to the social sentiments that would cause you to leave in shame. If we get rid of him, it'll either be by formal means of some sort (something like impeachment, though I don't know if remedies like that are available) or by taking some kind of action that basically makes it impossible for him to do his job. Which is bad, because his kind of drama doesn't help things, and because I don't think somebody who does what he did is going to be an especially good Senator for Illinois, and because I'd love to have the megaprogressive Jan Schakowsky in there instead.

As I said before, good on Harry Reid for trying to keep this guy out. Even if he failed, it'll go a long way in quarantining the perceptions of corruption.

Update: Maybe I actually can get some Schakowsky, with the possibility of Illinois changing the law to have a special election. We'll see.


When seeing Hilzoy's parodies of this atrocious poll question, I squawked out loud.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Libertarians And The Mexican Drug War

Amanda has a good post about hell breaking loose in Mexico as the government faces off against drug cartels. 6,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in the past year. In a twist I hadn't heard about before, the government is bringing in the military to patrol some especially violent regions, people are protesting the military presence, and the government is saying that the protestors are backed by the cartels. From our perspective, it's hard to know whether this is the case.

I wondered whether the DC libertarian infrastructure was making noise about the Mexican drug war. And as it turns out, they are -- here's one of Cato's foreign policy guys writing about it. Here's some other stuff they've got going on. You can easily google up more if you like. And, hey, good for them.

Now, libertarians aren't the sort of big political bloc that will put you over the top in your Senate race, but they're pretty well represented in elite public opinion. Which is sort of interesting, given that the venues of elite opinion don't usually carry much commentary that's supportive of drug legalization, whereas they've got plenty of other libertarian stuff going on. I don't know how you'd build such a thing, but I'd be amused to see a map of media outlets where you find pro-legalization commentary versus places where you find libertarian commentary that better serves the interests of the wealthy, like incorrect histories of the New Deal.

No On Could Have Predicted ...

... that a declining economy would lead to lower approval ratings for elected officials. One wonders why journalists blame Mike Bloomberg's fall in the polls on economy, something he can't control), while Paterson's are blamed on his appointment of Kirsten Gillibrand and the state's finance, both of which are at least somewhat under his control.

This is not rocket science; people tend to say they disapprove of their elected officials when times are tough. Under certain circumstances, you can get credit for "making hard choices" but you have to have a lot of credibility with the public on economic matters, and you have to be able to deliver results within a year or so. But at the moment we're still in the crisis stage. Most governor and mayors haven't really put forward coherent plans to deal with the fiscal gap; they're too busy trying to estimate just how large it's going to be. We should expect approval ratings to be in flux until some time this summer, at which point it will be clear which governor's and mayors have convinced the public they have a handle on the situation.

Norm Coleman: Making Minnesota The Only State With One Senator

Am I missing something here, or is Norm Coleman's plan in continuing to contest Al Franken's victory in the Minnesota Senate race mostly to deny the Democrats their 59th Senator for as long as possible? I have to imagine that the benefits to Republicans on that count exceed the benefits of Coleman winning times the infinitesimal probability that he comes out ahead.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Fuzzy Math of The American Issues Project

I was trying to figure out what exactly to say about the latest round of Republicans making arguments that wouldn't pass muster with a fourth grader, but I think Stephen treats this with the appropriate level of scorn and mockery.

The fact is, $1 million spread across the entire country is not a lot of money. It's about $0.003 per person. Under the Jesus method of accounting, if you spread that money across every man, woman, and child, by today you'd end up with about $2,160. Which is probably less than the amount of stimulus we need, when you consider the current output gap.

Of The Bones Of The Entitlement Scare Orszag Will Make Our Bread

Jane Hamsher hasn't responded to what I understand as Ezra's point, so let me make the point again.

There's a bunch of Washington Post types who have been pushing the "entitlements are going to bankrupt us, let's cut Social Security" line for a while now. Orszag's response: "Social Security faces an actuarial deficit over the next 75-100 years. In the past, I’ve resisted the term ‘crisis’ to describe that kind of situation. This is not quantitatively as important as getting health care done.” And then, charts like this.

So, Mr. Broder, how do you like the idea of spending 18% of America's GDP on Medicare? Half of that, mind you, will be because of "excess cost growth." Now wouldn't you like a plan to control excess cost growth?

The idea is to give entitlement scaremongers something to really be scared of. That is, rising health care costs, which Ezra has argued is Orszag's obsession. (You can see it on Orszag's old blog.) Do this right, and you make them our allies, or at the very least not our opponents, in the health care fight. They're the sorts of people who will buy a story about big costs eating us in the future. Sell it to them.

Nationalization Beckons

Citigroup has fallen to $2 per share, a 20% decline on the day and a big drop from the $3.60 it was trading at five days ago. It's spent a lot of this decade around $50. Bank of America is at $3.36. These stocks aren't so much a crapshoot at this point as a single-number roulette bet. If the ball lands on "The government corruptly saves Citi and BoA" you win big. But again, that's moving towards roulette odds, which is a good sign, even if bank failures don't bode well.

Nationalization or some other process where the stocks go to 0 is the likely end state. I'm interested in Mankiw's thing where you wipe out the old equity holders and turn a bunch of the bondholders into the new equity holders, thus recapitalizing the banks and avoiding the Japan-style zombie scenario where you have a bunch of insolvent banks failing to do the useful things banks do and eating people's brains instead.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thursday Obama Caption Contest

This one's too good to pass up.

I Brag Of Orszag

There's a nice Politico article on the role that OMB director and health wonk hero Peter Orszag played in the final negotiations on the stimulus package:
At the end of the day last Wednesday, Obama aides and a handful of Senators hashed out the details of a $787 billion spending package in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office.

Larry Summers, the architect of the plan, was no longer in the room, and even Rahm Emanuel – who was leading the White House team – sometimes stepped out for meetings. To Reid’s surprise, that left a familiar figure, Peter Orszag, the boyish, gangly director of Obama’s Office of Management and Budget in a position to shape the final compromise.

“Senator Reid seemed particularly surprised that I was effective,” Orszag recalled during an interview in the Old Executive Office Building Tuesday. “He kept saying, like, ‘Aren’t you an academic?’”

"In my mind if there is hero in all of this it is Peter Orszag,” Reid, who knew Orszag from his previous role as director of the Congressional Budget Office, observed, unprompted, to Politico’s David Rogers after the deal was done. “He was wonderful.”
It's a daydream. In addition to being a philosophy professor, I try to do other things well, and maybe I'll do them really well, and somebody, amazed, will say, "Aren't you an academic?" And then the President will sign a big increase in humanitarian aid to poor countries / the colonel and I will turn and walk away from the corpse of Osama Bin Laden / she'll drift off contentedly to sleep.

Anyway, plenty more good stuff in the article about Orszag laying the groundwork for health care reform.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bring Back The White House Office Of Political Affairs...

...So that there is someone around to tell Barack Obama not to make Kathleen Sebelius his HHS Secretary. I've said this before, but this is very clear cut:
  • There are a half dozen people who would be roughly as effective as Sebelius at being the HHS Secretary.
  • There are exactly zero people who would even be one tenth as effective as Sebelius as a Democratic Candidate for Sam Brownback's Senate seat in 2010.
  • The bottleneck to getting things done is the lack of cooperation from Republicans. Either we need fewer Republicans, or Republicans need at least one more electoral drubbing before deciding that maybe their policies need to change.
  • Either way, Democrats needs as many hands on deck for the House and Senate races. We can't afford to lose Sebelius.
Obama has already pulled Janet Napolitano away from running for Senate in 2010; he can't do the same thing with Sebelius. He just can't. Someone has to tell him there are competing priorities beyond building his ideal cabinet.

CQ has a nice piece on the dual stresses placed on moderate Republicans by a popular Democratic President and a powerful death cult that should be put flame by rational men Republican Study Committee. At the moment, the death cult seems to be winning, considering that every House Republican voted against the stimulus bill. What's more, when your model for a comeback candidate is a Republican who won in rural Kansas, you're not exactly looking at the median voter in the national electorate. GOP moderates have a long, tough road ahead of them.

Of Bigness, And Failing

There's been plenty of discussion about the moral hazard issues that arise because banks (and some other corporations like GM) are too big to fail. If you know that the government has to to bail you out at the risk of widespread economic catastrophe, you may be more likely to take what would ordinarily be foolish risks, knowing that someone else will share the losses.

There's another problem that arises with enterprises the size of Citigroup and GM. Unlike smaller enterprises, they can create an enormous amount of chaos with large stupid decisions before they get removed from the economy.

Good arguments for capitalism don't assume that businessmen are inherently any smarter than civil servants. These groups can just be people of the same average intelligence. The point is that market forces provide a good way of eliminating poorly run enterprises. The mechanisms for getting rid of a poorly run government program are a lot more clunky -- you need to go through the electoral process or use public pressure.

This works quite well if you have a whole bunch of small enterprises. The bad ones vanish quickly, the good ones grow, and things get better. Among a large number of small businesses, there are going to be some doing a really good job, and they will come to serve more and more people as they grow. (I think the restaurant business more or less works this way. Don't nationalize the restaurant business.)

But suppose you have a small number of large businesses. If one of them ends up being poorly run, its substantial resources will allow it to linger for a long time, using resources inefficiently. And if nobody is doing a particularly good job, which is possible when the number of businesses is small, this situation can be fairly stable. Nobody grabs market share away from everybody else. Things stagnate. Low-quality vehicles are produced and nobody in the country builds an electric car.

Or, most everybody gets full of toxic mortgage bonds and there aren't enough smart firms with liquidity to buy up all the losers, even at fire-sale prices.


In Soviet Russia, cheezburger can haz you.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

No More M&Ms

We can debate whether Obama really expected the House GOP to vote for his stimulus bill, or if that was all part of some clever gambit to make all observers aware that they were a death cult who should be put to the flame by rational men. In any event, that fact has been noticed by all participants and the media. Here's Glenn Thrush of Politico:
Here are seven lessons the Democrats should take from the stimulus, culled from two dozen Politico interviews with the people who hammered out the deal:

1. House Republicans are furniture

Over and over, Nancy Pelosi and her allies privately delivered the same message to Barack Obama: Mr. President, you can have bipartisanship or you can have a stimulus bill, but you can’t have both.

He seems to have gotten the message. House Republicans, badly outnumbered and shorn of let's-make-a-deal moderates by their losses in the two elections, have proven remarkably immune to crossover appeals, as have most GOP senators.

On Thursday, Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s point man, told reporters that his boss was still committed to bipartisanship, but admitted something fundamental had changed when the GOP “shift[ed] from bipartisan overtures to outright mockery.”

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) put it more bluntly — blaming much of the week’s drama on Obama’s commitment to courting House Republicans, even after it was apparent they wanted to cast a unanimous nay as a point of partisan pride and principle.

"I don't think he should have set the expectation he was going to get Republican votes," the Financial Services chairman told Politico on Friday. "He set himself a high bar — and an irrelevant bar… and he didn't achieve it… He should not have legitimized [the notion of bipartisanship], that prompted their partisan reaction... I don't think he's going to make that mistake again."

One Democrat likened Obama’s desire to score even a single GOP defector to Abraham’s pursuit of a “single virtuous man” in Sodom and Gomorrah.

After Friday’s stimulus shutout, House Republicans were snickering at Obama’s courtship of moderate Michigan GOPer Fred Upton, who got an invite to the president’s Super Bowl party and a ride on Air Force One – and still voted no.

“The president learned a lesson,” one GOP aide quipped. “Fred’s going to ride on your plane, eat your M&Ms, but he ain’t going to vote for your bill.”
Well reported. "House Republicans are furniture" is a nice way of putting it, though I prefer some kinkier reference to how they are now property of the nice lady from San Francisco. In any case, it's good to see that everybody knows the score.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Nate Silver Vs. David Sirota

It's not a fight that I really wanted to see. I see how it happens, though -- these two are not the kinds of creatures who get along in the wild.

It would've been better for Nate to pick on somebody his own shape. If he had taken on a more thoughtful academic sort who shares many of Sirota's views, like former English grad student Chris Bowers, well, that'd be an exchange we could learn a lot from. But people who have blogs will rant about whatever makes them angry, and I guess Nate eventually got fed up with Sirota and couldn't take it anymore. For my part, I don't read Sirota all the time, because I tend to learn a lot less from reading him than I do from, say, Matt or Ezra. And he's often way too quick to demonize opponents without understanding what they're saying.

This time, however, Sirota's response was more thoughtful than I expected. (He was quite nice to Nate too. Maybe because Nate called him 'dangerous' and Sirota seems to sort of like that.) Anyway, I feel that we're looking at an unusually bad Nate post here.

Why a bad Nate post? For one thing, the big "Rational Progressives" vs. "Radical Progressives" chart falls well short of typical Silverian insight -- it's largely an encapsulation of familiar stereotypes, without getting at what holds those stereotypes together in the cases where they're true. (Plus, labeling yourself 'rational' in contrast to your opponents is a dick move. I suspect that the unifying principle behind the chart is really 'Names I Want To Call David Sirota'.) Ordinary moderate vs. radical ideological cleavages, applicable to any situation with people closer to the status quo and people farther from it, suffice to explain a lot here.

Why are the 'rationals' optimistic while the 'radicals' are pessimistic, for example? It's not just a matter of personal temperament. One reason is because the moderates have policy preferences closer to the status quo, and they see that they're likely to get what they want. If your preferences are far from the status quo, a lot of stuff has to happen for you to get what you want, and it's reasonable to be pessimistic about all that happening.

There's also the 'empirical' vs. 'normative' thing. Nate should also learn that there are lots of normative claims embedded in his view. He doesn't write about them a lot, I suppose because his normative views are relatively mainstream (progressive taxation is fair, violent revolution is extremely undesirable) and his specialty is elsewhere, anyway. There are also lots of empirical claims in Sirota's view (corporations have enormous influence in our political culture). Everybody's got both, so don't tell me that "empirical vs. normative" is a dividing line here. And let's remember that radicals were right on a number of very important empirical issues during the earlier parts of the Iraq War debate that the mainstream political culture and the 'rational progressives' plugged into it were wrong on.

Probably the thing I found most worthy of lengthy response was this:
I'm suspicious of people who line up on the same side of the ideological divide on every single issue. The world is more complicated than that, especially when one strives to see the world through a scientific, empirical lens.
I sort of feel this way too, and a lot of smart people I know do. But let me say a word in defense of the people who line up on the left side of the divide everywhere.

From a philosophical point of view, the normative views embedded in mainstream Republican opinion are just really weird. From the weird complexity of right-wing sexual morality, to the corporatist views about economic fairness disguised as some kind of oddly selective libertarianism, to the xenophobia, you've got a huge mess of junk that nobody would arrive at if they weren't indoctrinated into a culture where these values reigned. (And where corporations had lots of money with which to pay for Overton Window remodeling.)

This doesn't even mention the false empirical claims that are erected as a rationalization of the normative views -- tax cuts for the rich are economic magic! global warming is fake! evolution is a lie! gays threaten straight marriage!

The extent of normative disagreement between John Rawls, Karl Marx, your average mainstream Democrat, and a hedonic utilitarian like myself is quite large. (I want to put everybody in the bliss machine, for example. Nobody else wants that.) But put us in a country where 40% of the people are Republicans, and you'll see us lining up on the same side very often. That's because a lot of the distinctive normative views of the GOP are ridiculous, and that'll warp the ways that the battle lines are drawn. No wonder we'll all end up on the same side so much of the time.

As a matter of fact, when you're in a country that's pretty well divided between Republicans and reasonable people, knee-jerk opposition to the politically controversial demands of major GOP interest groups ends up being a pretty reliable way of orienting yourself. Sure, it relies on your fellow non-Republicans being smart and making controversy in the right places. But in a modern world like this you're always going to be relying on other people for stuff.

Unanticipated Side Benefits of SUPeRTRAINs: More Dance Parties

Headline: "Vancouver transit party planned on Facebook".

Mr. President, we must not allow ... a subway dance party gap. Via RK.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Get Your Rock On

We're not quite sure how this is going to work, but if anyone who's planning on playing Rock Band 2 with us today doesn't have a headset, you can use this "live blog" as a chat window.

Sing Cuccu. Sing Cuccu Nu!

With Obama as President, a 59-seat Senate majority, and Pelosi running the House, progressive bloggers will often have better things to do than mock right-wing authors. As a result, right-wingers must rise to amazing levels of absurdity in order to generate writing worthy of mockery. Michael Ledeen rises to the task, arguing that since current Democratic proposals like TARP and the stimulus package don't go all the way to socialist dreams of abolishing private property*, they are fascism.

Look, I'm a philosopher. I try to interpret this stuff charitably, reconstructing my opponent's argument so that it makes sense. Maybe "fascism" is some kind of typo for "mixed economy"? But even if you're using the Dvorak keyboard, the letters are not close together. (I checked.)

Jonah Goldberg of Liberal Fascism fame promises to weigh in tomorrow. My guess is that his bizarre misuse of the term "fascism" is in significant ways different from Ledeen's bizarre misuse, but that both men will focus on the overlap between their views, so as to create a more harmonious right-wing synthesis of total nonsense.

*I know. Socialists just want the state to own the means of production and distribute goods in a generally egalitarian way. Bear with me.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

No Joeke

Via Publius at Obsidian Wings, it appears that Joe Lieberman was helpful in getting the stimulus bill to go through. Which doesn't mean that it was a bad idea for people on the left to call for his head -- if this good behavior continues, it just means it was a good idea for Barack to save his head from them.

GWB: Hit Moar Notez

This is just another reminder that tomorrow, you can join Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon and I to get in touch with your inner rock star. Rock Band 2 (and perhaps Rock Band if Amanda has the disc and their are folks out there without the sequel) starts at 4pm Eastern/1pm Pacific and goes until whenever (at least 6pm/3pm and probably a bit later). Send a Friend Request or message to niq24601 to join the partay.

I'm Too Xe For My Record Of Shooting Iraqi Civilians

Blackwater has changed its name to Xe. Not that 'Blackwater' was a very friendly name or anything. But it's generally unwise to choose a name that sounds like a shadowy group of ruthless thugs from a movie. Yes, even if you're a shadowy group of ruthless thugs in reality.

Friday, February 13, 2009


More substantive posting coming soon, but basically, What Josh Marshall Said.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Economic Policy As Culture War

Krugman is right about this:
And the argument that our culture won’t stand for nationalization — well, our culture isn’t too friendly towards bank bailouts of any kind. Yet those bailouts are necessary; and even in America they may be more palatable if taxpayers at least get to throw the bums out.
If you polled the American electorate right now about whether it'd be better to nationalize failing banks or do another big bailout package, I'd put my money on nationalization being the more popular option. I've always thought the "You blew up the economy, Wall Street Guy, so we're taking your bank away from you" line would play pretty well in Ohio.

Of course, if you limited the poll to people from Geithner and Summers' culture, the results might come out the other way. I'd rather Obama take his political feasibility advice from Axelrod than from those two.

Thoughts On The Stimulus Plan

-As far as I can tell, it's all over but the signing now. Good work, House leadership.

-If Susan Collins wants to come out and bless the stimulus package by spouting nonsense about how going below $800 billion puts it at a 'fiscally responsible number', fine with me. Wish she hadn't screwed with the package so much in the first place, but her whole game is a sham and we might as well get a piece of the shammy action.

-Isakson's idiotic $15K tax break per house for home-flippers is gone, and a bunch of the aid to states is back.

-I hope the Obama administration has learned its lesson / cannily demonstrated what needed to be demonstrated to America about Republicans: Apart from like 3 Senators, they have zero interest in doing the bipartisan thing. From now on, no point designing legislation that will respect their concerns and complaints. Ram stuff through the House while John Boehner tries to scream through the Pelosi-district ball gag in his mouth, let Susan Collins make a symbolic change to the legislation to beat the Senate filibuster, take Susan's change out in conference committee, and it's off to the Rose Garden for a signing ceremony. (Cutting out the Susan Collins steps via budget reconciliation is even better if you can pull it off.)

Confessions Of A Renegade Trolleyologist

Thanks to everyone who responded to the railway tunnel post. Unless I'm being entirely confused by time zone issues, the volume of responses has slowed down. So I might as well come out and explain what was going on.

As Stentor pointed out, this problem is structurally very similar to the 'fat man' case in the trolley problem literature:
a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
According to Marc Hauser's data, only 10% of people are willing to push the fat man.

It seems to me that people will always imagine the death of the fat man in the above scenario more vividly than they'll imagine the deaths of the five people on the track. There are a couple reasons for this. For one thing, there's direct physical contact with the fat man in that case (though apparently Hauser has gotten similar results from cases involving less direct contact). There's also the way that deciding to push the fat man forces us to imagine all the intermediate steps between our action and its intended goal, raising lots of negative emotions. When we contemplate doing nothing in the fat man case, however, we aren't forced by the nature of deliberation to imagine anything in particular. So the same violent negative emotions don't arise.

Sort of like matt w said in comments, my example tried to correct for this by thrusting the (gruesome) deaths of the five workmen in your face, so you couldn't escape vividly imagining their predicament. At the same time, it put the guy whose body would block the train at a distance and out of view. Judging from the responses in comments, a majority of the people would push the button to make the guy on the scaffolding fall down. Even if this is a somewhat weirdly collected sample in some respects, this is a lot more than Hauser's 10%.

The larger point I'm hoping to make with this example is that many of the factors that drive people towards deontology may arise from how the structure of deliberation forces us to imagine different harms with different vividness, rather than from genuine moral convictions in support of deontology. This plays into an argument against deontology. Differentially vivid imagination is implicated in lots of irrational behavior -- for example, I think it explains why people fail to delay gratification, choosing smaller pleasures presented vividly before them at great long-term cost. Insofar as I can explain the appeal of deontology in terms of how the structure of deliberation keeps us from imagining all outcomes with equal vividness, I can argue that deontological constraints are based on something irrational, and that we should accordingly diminish their significance in moral theory.

Anyway, the deadline for submitting papers to December's American Philosophical Association meeting is Feb. 15, so it's time for me to cram out a short paper on this stuff. Thanks again to all who helped.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Nine Old White Dudes And Charlie Rangel

The Fate of America is in their hands. Why are Republicans who neither voted for the stimulus nor likely to vote for the eventual conference report even in the room? Is there any reasonable change that can be made that would convince them to vote for the final bill? Who cares what they think?

Washington is a strange place.

Update: Oh, that makes more sense.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Railway Tunnel

So, a little philosophical research. I'm curious what people think is the right thing to do in this case. Read the story carefully, figure out what you think the right decision is, and post it in comments. If you think it over and you're totally undecided, post that too, and if you need something to be clarified, please ask and I'll post it at the bottom. I'd like to get as many comments as I can, so feel free to post even if twenty or more people already have. Try not to be swayed by other people's opinions. I'll explain what the significance of the case is later.
You look uphill into a very long railway tunnel and see five men working in the middle of it. You see two of them stand up, hearing something at the far end of the tunnel. “It’s a train!” one of them shouts. “Run!”

The train appears in the distance, outside the far entrance of the tunnel. Next to you, there is a button on the wall that you can push to collapse the scaffolding that is over the far entrance. You can’t see the scaffolding, since it’s on the other side of the tunnel, but an indicator beside the button tells you that one man is working on it. You know that if you push the button, that man will fall to his death and his body will stop the train from going into the tunnel. Whether you push the button or not, you’re safe, since you’re outside the bottom of the tunnel and you can easily move aside.

You see the five workmen, now running down the tunnel as fast as they can. You know that they cannot get out. They are too much far from you, and the train will speed up as it goes down the steep slope.

There was an accident like this many years ago. The bodies of the men in that accident were crushed so badly that they were unrecognizable. You know that each of the five men you see in the tunnel will meet the same fate unless you push the button.

Do you push the button?

[Clarification: Assume that the train is empty. (Maybe it was poorly secured and rolled down the hill.) The only people affected in the situation are the people on the scaffolding or in the tunnel.]

"You Think You Represent The American People"

George Bush was right about one thing: what happens in Washington may or may not bear any resemblance to what's happening in the rest of the country. Chris van Hollen observes that local news coverage of the stimulus is overwhelming positive in districts where Democrats gained house seats in 2006 or 2008. This is one of my favorite hobbyhorses, so I'm happy to help push back against the drivel that CNN needs to fill up the airwaves.

Average vs Median: the Fuzzy Math of Michael Kinsley

Via Ross Douthat, Michael Kinsley has a riff on entitlement spending on Social Security and Medicare, which has this lovely nugget: "American families may have borrowed irresponsibly, and may have elected politicians who borrow even more irresponsibly on their behalf, but the typical American family is not bankrupt. The average couple age 65-74 has accumulated a net worth (not counting entitlement promises as either assets or liabilities) of $691,000, according to the Federal Reserve in 2004.".

Stop right there.

You probably know what's coming: Kinsley is citing the average net worth rather than the median. But of course, wealth in the United States is fairly concentrated at the top; it's not as top-heavy as Colombia or Mexico, but it's top-heavy nonetheless. The median household age 65-74, also according to the Fed, has a net worth around $209,000. The two figures are right next to each other on table, so Kinsley really has no excuse. To get to a net worth of $650,000 you have to go all the way to the top 25% of U.S. Households, and that's still a figure that most retirees will spend down almost entirely by the time they die. The data suggests that what Kinsley really wanst is either an extremely high threshold for Social Security means testing (basically, if you qualify for whatever reformed AMT we end up with, you don't get your Social Security Check) or the estate tax, not a sudden shift to eliminate Social Security benefits for the middle class.

Hopefully Douthat will have an easier time spotting the next time the economic royalist wing of his party tries to pull the wool over his eyes with crappy data.

No One Could Have Predicted ...

What's that you say? Since being nominated to the Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand has flip-flopped to support gay marriage, said nice things about SUPERTRAIN funding, and now embraces Mayor Bloomberg's fight to keep illegally purchased firearms off the street? Surely no on could have ...

... no, wait, I believe someone did predict this one. Whoever knew that Gillibrand would shift her views to reflect her new constituents' more progressive outlook is one smart cookie.

Gaming With Bloggers (Fake Plastic Instrument Edition)

The stimulus bill is headed to conference, no cabinet nominees seem to have been derailed, and the Village seems to be on remarkably good behavior by Village standards. I say it's high time to take a few hours' break this weekend. This Sunday, Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon and I will be playing a little Rock Band 2 over Xbox Live, and we invite all of you to join us. Whether you play guitar, drums, or sing, send a message or friend request to 'niq24601' -- that's me -- and maybe tell us what instrument you want to play. The music starts at 4pm Eastern/1pm Pacific and will probably
run between two and three hours. We'll send out game invites throughout that time, so even if you don't get one right at 4, stay online!

And just as a heads up, using 'gay' or 'rape' in that casual gamer way will get you kicked. Don't do that.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Specter to House: Drop Dead

No Arlen, Fuck You. Entering House-Senate negotiations by saying you expect the Senate bill to come back completely intact. I continue to be confused by the intransigence of Chuck Grassley and Dick Lugar, who represent Obama states and have in the cast be reasonable guys. Perhaps further trips to the Midwest by President Obama would change their mind.

News Conference Live Blogging

I should probably turn this into a drinking game somehow based on the inanity of questions from the press corps. But let's give this a try. Times are in Eastern.

8:04 Some pre-buttal for the haters who say that the fact that Obama didn't give the greatest speech in the history of the English language; evidence from the Clinton SOTU's is that people like it when the President gets a little bit wonky.

8:09 Obama: "What I've said is what other economists have said" ... when did he get his PhD.

8:13 Obama: "$800B ... that wasn't some number that I just plucked out of ... ". Pause. Oh man, how awesome would have been to have the President say "my ass"?

8:17 Obama: "Iran's actions ... are not in the interest of International Peace". Hippie.

8:20 It took twenty minutes to get to the first question about bipartisanship? That's pretty good by DC standards.

8:22 I'm really getting tired of this "Creates or saves" formulation; it's ripe for fuzzy math. I get why it's being made, but beyond straight transfers to states or programs like Medicaid I'm not sure when you can tell this stimulus ends up "saving" a job.

8:28 Chuck Todd asks about consumer spending being the source of the problem; Obama points out that the real root here is crappy risk management by banks which gave people the ability to up their standard of living in the short term.

8:38 Oh man. Obama says that after employment and credit, his next goal is "stabilizing the housing market". Don't get me started.

8:45 Obama: "I don't remember what Joe was referring to ... Not surprisingly." I'm glad Obama is self-aware of these games.

8:47 Steroids! Can someone explain to me why it is that this ends up rising to the level of a worthy subject for a Presidential news conference?

8:49 Wow. That's two unbelievably loaded questions from Helen Thomas. Since it confused me, let me point out to readers that Obama isn't saying the "Fatah region", obviously Palestinians are not in Pakistan. He's saying the "FATA region" which is where all the trouble is. The other question was "Do you know if any nation in the Middle East has nuclear weapons". Which is, I assume, a proxy for "will you end the polite fiction that Israel does not have a nuclear arsenal".

8:52 Huffington Post gets a Q! Hooray for the Internets! After all, if quasi-niche outlets like Bloomberg get one, and CNN has similar audience size.

8:54 More on bipartisanship! It's been a suprisingly bipartisan-free press conference.

8:58 The reformist wing is going to love this riff on education.

9:00 "Ideological blockage" sounds like something that Congress can fix by visiting a good New Age Therapist.

9:00 I never understand the schmuck who tries to get the last question in, especially at formal conferences. He's the President of the United States. He's not going to take just one more. Jeez.

And we're done. Just in time for me to move my car.

I Don't Have To Outrun The Bear ...

It's worth pointing out that two-party politics is necessarily a zero-sum game; that is, one party's loss is always the other party's gain. So the fact that people think the Congressional Republicans are not behaving very well suggests that all this posturing has so far been for naught. I know it's fashionable to argue that the GOP is playing its hand correctly; that Obama will get credit for recovery under any circumstances, and thus the best thing they can do is force the stimulus bill to be as weak as possible, vote against it anyway, and then hope it fails. That may be true. But it at present, the public isn't buying what they're selling.

600,000 Jobs For Pelosi To Save From Snowe And Nelson

Matt's been doing the Lord's work lately, pointing out how the Snowe/Nelson stimulus deletions rip out highly valuable stuff from the bill like school construction spending and aid to states, even as Snowe and Nelson praise those very things in their public comments.

I'd assume that Snowe and Nelson aren't driven by any principled opposition to school construction and such here. They're just trying to do the thing that maintains their moderate images. The optimistic take going forward is that they've accomplished that, and the image gains they've achieved won't be lost if their changes get undone in conference committee. So they don't have that much of an incentive to fight hard for the substance of the legislation.

If they don't, I hope Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats call out the two Senators who took 600,000 jobs out of the stimulus package, in exactly those terms.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Mohammed Khatami For President!

Of Iran. He's running in June's elections. I'd have to imagine that the prospects for big agreements that prevent nuclear proliferation in the region get a lot better with him running Iran while Obama is our president. Of course, the bulk of the power (including the power to actually use nuclear weapons, if Iran should acquire them) sits in the hands of the mullahs and not the president. But a Khatami administration with strong popular support would probably be able to get things done. Even dictators have to worry about popular sentiment at some level.

According to the article, "Unofficial polling shows Khatami would beat the incumbent by a two-to-one margin." Which is great, and I have to imagine that Ahmadinejad's anti-American rhetoric loses a lot of its appeal when Barack Obama is president.

The Independent Women's Forum <3 Arab Dictatorships That Deny Women's Rights

Amanda and other good feminist bloggers warned me about the Independent Women's Forum a long time ago. They're an antifeminist front group that finds it easier to smear left-wingers by using a feminist-sounding name. Via Matt, recent news is that IWF member Donna Wiesner Keene just got a letter to the editor into the New York Times, criticizing a writer who said that all rich countries have big governments. She says, "Think Dubai, free and rich."

Dubai actually isn't a country -- it's the biggest city in the United Arab Emirates. I decided to go over to a big Freedom House article on women's rights in lots of different North African / Middle Eastern countries and see what the situation in the UAE with regard to women's rights is. Sentences dealing with the UAE specifically:
In the UAE, the law requires a woman to surrender her UAE citizenship if she marries a man who is not a citizen of a Gulf state.

Independent women's groups advocating for women's legal equality are not permitted to openly operate in the UAE or Saudi Arabia.
"Free and rich" indeed. They've also got a big set of rankings of countries in the region with regard to women's rights. Even among the 16 countries in that benighted region, the UAE scores in the bottom 3 on "Nondiscrimination and Access to Justice", gets mediocre scores on "Autonomy, Security, and Freedom of the Person," does slightly better on "Economic Rights and Equal Opportunity," is again in the bottom three on "Political Rights and Civic Voice" due to denial of women's suffrage, and does pretty badly on "Social and Cultural Rights" as well.

As Matt says, this is what happens when your conception of freedom is "lower taxes for rich people" rather than anything involving, say, women being able to vote. Which gives you an idea where the Independent Women's Forum's priorities are.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


She's in your House, repairing your stimulus package through the conference committee process. Wish her luck.

Sign Me Up For the Sinhababu Tax Plan

With the news (via AmericaBlog) that GS will pay back the government early to avoid "[c]ompensation restrictions and certain capital requirements" (read: they want to re-open the casino and have their employees get rich off of it) and CEOs like Reed Hastings (of Netflix) saying we should raise their taxes, the Sinhababu tax plan—instituting high top marginal rates to force even the highest-paid employees to work for long-term rather than short term success—is sounding more and more appealing to me. The UK currently has a top marginal rate of 40%, and Canada's is 29% (!!), so we will have to figure out how to stop every corporate HQ from moving to Toronto if we jack the top rate to 55%. But it would be a start.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Cry Me A River

It's nice to see the Washington Post allow itself to be used as a conduit for network executives who, having made nary a peep about primetime preemptions during the Bush era (financial meltdown, immigration, Katrina, Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, 9/11 ... am I missing any?), suddenly decide that a couple of appearances by President Obama will be just too much for either the networks or their poor beleaguered viewers to bear. Gimme a break. Obama currently enjoys approval ratings George W. Bush hasn't seen since June of 2003; while I'm sure The Today Show will be able to dig up a suburban white male small-business owner (read: someone who has a number of demographic predispositions to being a Republican) who was unhappy that they're a week behind on House, given the state of the economy I suspect most people will be fine with seeing Obama on the teevee.

Run, Sebelius! Run!

This is just patently obvious: Kathleen Sebelius should not be the next HHS Secretary; she should be the next Senator from Kansas. With the stimulus debate it's become abundantly clear that the main bottleneck to Getting Things Done is the Know-Nothing economic attitude of large numbers of Republican elected officials. The only way one can hope to change that is by delivering repeated electoral defeats to the GOP. Obviously losing 14 Senate seats and 50 House in two years has not been enough, so Democrats will need all hands on deck for a third offensive campaign in 2010.

There are probably a dozen or more people qualified to be the next HHS Secretary. There isn't even one other person who can be the next Democratic Senator from Kansas. I don't care if she wants to be the chair of the Appropriations committe, Bob Menendez shoudl give it to her.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Postmodernism And Conservatism: The Fruit Salad Of Poison Trees

Paul Gowder, in response to a guy who calls himself the 'Postmodern Conservative' and says all sorts of weird things: "Combining postmodern and conservative is like combining enema and lye." This is certainly the standard understanding of the matter, which I think has something to do with why various people in academia are interested in finding clever ways to fit the views together in a way that doesn't cause serious intestinal pain. But I think these two things fit together a lot better than is commonly appreciated.

We liberals are the heirs of a long Enlightenment tradition of creating moral progress through reason. Feminism and the civil rights movement are good examples of how this looks in action. These movements are best understood as presupposing the idea that there are culture-independent facts about what's right and wrong, and that human beings can make progress in discovering them. After all, if all the facts about right and wrong are constituted by what societies approve and disapprove of, a feminist trying to reform the values of a deeply sexist society is automatically wrong.

A lot of postmodernism is about rejecting the ideals of the Enlightenment as hopeless and misguided, just as a lot of conservatism is about opposing these ideals. Certainly, old-fashioned conservatives take their moral views as capturing the truth about objective, culture-independent facts, while postmodernists don't. But if you go over to postmodernist views about moral truth, you deny Enlightenment liberals the external standards they need to justify their moral reforms. If you're in a culture with sexism, racism, and authoritarian politics, defending those things becomes a lot easier.

This isn't to say that there aren't some big differences between them, especially as regards religion. But they've got enough in common that I have to think that the big overlap between 'liberals' and people sympathetic to postmodern views is largely an artifact of demography. Liberals live closer to the marketplace of ideas, and that's where people are trying to sell you postmodernism.

Deep Thought

Wait, whuh? Now the stimulus looks like a safe bet to pass? Reid saying he's got the votes to invoke cloture? I think there's only one plausible explanation:

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

CEO Pay: Make Them Think Long Term

I like the idea of capping CEO pay at firms receiving bailout money at $500,000. This would do a much better job of aligning executives' interests with the interests of their companies and the larger American economy.

You don't want the people running these companies to be thinking of their jobs as opportunities to get rich quick. Obviously, $500,000 makes you rich, but not crazy mega insane rich like people used to get in the sector. I hope that there's some way to contain future CEO pay, but in all likelihood once the economy returns to health, salaries will jump to several times $500,000. And that's actually not such a bad thing, because people running these companies need to be thinking about keeping their companies alive so they stay in their jobs and eventually get the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The 148 Republicans (and 10 Democrats) Who Want To Take Away Your Teevee

Get the list here. Why does John Boehner hate Lost?

HHS: Herb Kohl? The Marylanders?

I was going through the list of Senators to find a possible replacement for Tom Daschle as HHS nominee. Screening for longtime Senators with good public health records who come from blue states* with Democratic governors, Herb Kohl caught my eye -- dude is 73 and has been in the Senate for twenty years, so when he calls up and begs someone to vote for Obama's bill, that may turn out well. I don't know what his re-election plans are. The Marylanders -- Mikulski and Sarbanes -- also appeared interesting.

*I suppose Wisconsin is an indigo state, or maybe an aquamarine state if your color vision is as bad as mine. Obama's comfortable margin of victory makes the red/blue talk a little bit less useful, because we have less of a down-the-middle division that splits the country into neat halves. I guess that's how his presidency transcends the red/blue division and unites America...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Dudes Need To Step Up

I'm wondering why we haven't seen more members of Obama's all-star economics team stepping up to defend items in the stimulus package. I'd love to see, say, Paul Volcker out there saying what we have to do. And if Larry Summers wants a big helping of feminist forgiveness, there's not much better he could do than step up and defend family planning and STD prevention funding.

I feel like I'm in August 2008 again, wondering why these guys don't care about winning news cycles and aren't putting up hard-hitting ads. And sure, it worked out well back then, but this time around there's no legitimate analog to spending your money on the field operation.

Explaining Daschle

Says Ezra:
I hope people spin Daschle's withdrawal as a consequence of the revelations that he advised insurance companies and made hundreds of thousands giving speeches to industry groups. That would be a much healthier lesson for future political appointees than "don't forget to pay taxes on your free limo."
That'd certainly be the more beneficial way for the spin to go. I don't really know what the cause is here, but in defense of the beneficial spin, one could point out that Geithner had tax issues too, and wasn't a former colleague of lots and lots of Senators, and hadn't helped Obama out very early on. So you're going to need another variable to explain why Daschle had to pull out.

Meaningless Numbers; The Fuzzy Math of John Thune

It appears that the Republican Party's message has been reduced to making a little kids game about how the stimulus package is a bunch of money. This was cool, back when I was in third grade. Yesterday we had Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky/4th grade) observing that if you paid a $1 million every day between now and the day Jesus was born, you wouldn't get to a $1 trillon. This is just a clever way of saying there are not 1 million days between now and December 25th, 1 BCE. It's cutesy, but it doesn't mean anything; if you gave $1 million to a different person each day, you wouldn't even get the population of metro Cincinatti, let alone McConnell's home state. Now we have John Thune (R-SD/2nd grade) observing that if you stacked $1 trillion of $100 bills, it would reach 689 miles into space. Scary! But if you stacked the human population of the United States, they would reach almost 60,000 miles. That's almost 100 times higher! So I guess according to Thune's logic, we need much more stimulus, not less.

Mitch McConnell is the Senate Minority Leader. John Thune is frequently mentioned as a potential Republican Presidential candidate. How did this happen?

Judd Gregg Out, Bonnie Newman In, Werewolf Cautiously Optimistic

Judd Gregg to Commerce, with Democratic governor John Lynch nominating Bonnie Newman:

By yesterday, speculation centered on Bonnie Newman, a North Hampton Republican who has high-profile ties to Gregg and Lynch. The former University of New Hampshire and Harvard dean worked for Gregg when he was a congressman before going on to work for Presidents Reagan and Bush. In 2004, Newman crossed party lines to become an early Republican backer of Lynch.

Newman, 63, did not return calls for comment to her home and office yesterday, but Republicans across the spectrum cheered the idea yesterday.

"I am a fan. She has impeccable Republican credentials," said former Republican Party chairman Fergus Cullen, citing her ties to Gregg, Reagan and Bush. "She's thoughtful. She's pragmatic. She's not an ideologue."

Peterson called Newman a "centrist Republican of the old school, with an appreciation for some of the issues that they are more tolerant on."

No one, however, claimed to know exactly where Newman stands on political issues such as abortion and taxes.

I'm not upset that Lynch nominated a Republican -- Gregg wouldn't have departed without a pledge to do so. While it might've been nice to raise the profile of some bright young Democrat by putting him/her in the cabinet, Commerce is sort of a backwater. And it's good to get Gregg out of the way. As Nick said: "In the 110th Congress, Gregg was the 15th most conservative Senator, which is impressive except that he 10th in the 108th, 9th in the 107th, and 2nd (!) in the 109th."

Now, at this point in the day and year, we have only fuzzy probabilities to work from regarding Bonnie Newman. But compared to Gregg, I'm willing to accept the whole set of coin flips she represents, in terms of her political views, willingness to run again, and electability if she does.

Digression: In the Politico article on Gregg, Trent Lott eats his foot again, though fortunately in a non-racist way. Says Lott, "There’s that old joke when a House member goes to the Senate, the intellect of both bodies goes up. Well when Judd Gregg leaves, the Senate’s intellect will go down." Read that first sentence again -- the only way it makes sense is if average intelligence in the House is greater than in the Senate. You lose one of your dumber House guys and send him to the Senate, where he's smarter than most people there. I don't think the former Senate Republican Leader wanted to say that.

Update: Pejman Yousefzadeh sends a facebook message noting that the joke appears in John Barry's The Ambition And The Power, and it's something House members tell each other. So Lott wasn't getting things mixed up or being self-deprecating -- he was just citing somebody else's joke. Given House/Senate stereotypes, I see why the joke doesn't have especially wide currency.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Sell Buy American To Two Buyers At Once

In other Mitch McConnell news, he's objecting to the 'Buy American' provisions in the stimulus package. If there's some way to simultaneously trade these provisions off (1) to other countries in exchange for their doing big unrestricted fiscal stimulus that helps our economy and (2) to Mitch as a big symbolic concession that will make him look like a partisan meanie when he votes against the package, that would be optimal. Maybe we can only get one of two, which is still cool. I'm sure Mitch has the unpopular position on this one, anyway.

When Is Mitch McConnell Trying To Pull The Wool Over Your Eyes?

Whenever his lips are moving. Here's the latest bit of chicanery:

On Capitol Hill, however, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said most Republicans support a package that "would be dramatically different from what passed the House, and, frankly, dramatically different from what we currently see out of the [Senate] Finance Committee and the Appropriations Committee."

McConnell stressed that "nobody that I know of is trying to keep a package from passing." Instead, he said, "we're trying to reform it, reformulate it, put it in a different place."

Translation: Mitch McConnell is all for bipartisanship, as long as it doesn't involve working with Congressional Democrats.

Roll The Dice on a Gregg Placeholder?

Publius is skeptical about the idea of even naming a placeholder to replace Judd Gregg (R-NH), claiming that at the very least Gregg is up for reelection in 2010, and voting with Obama and the Democrats at least some of the time would ease his reelection chances. Not surprisingly, there's some evidence for this; just compare at the DW-NOMINATE rankings for Senators who lost in 2004 2008 in the 109th and 110th Congresses. John Sununu, probably the closest comparison, went from being one of the most conservative members of the Senate to being roughly an average Senate Republican. And that wasn't an isolated case; even Rick Santorum managed to get a little less wingnutty in the run-up to his 2006 defeat.

Still, if Gregg drops from 95th most liberal to 75th most liberal, it's not clear how much good he's doing for the progressive cause. On the other hand, there's at least some chance that Lynch can appoint a caretaker who has already drunk the "modern Republicans have lost their mind" Kool-aid. I don't know much about Rudman's tenure in the Senate, or about Bonnie Newman's history, but simply by being part of an older breed of Northeastern Republican there's at least some chance they won't gel with the Southern-Fried leadership.

How Does This Work?

Asks the good Dave Noon, "Why oh why does anyone take Amity Shlaes seriously?" Actual historian Eric Rauchway explains that taking the country off the gold standard actually was a good idea.

I wish I had a better understanding of how it is that one gets regarded as a Person Who Should Write Op-Eds by the People Who Let You Write Op-Eds. I guess it's not a problem if your book is considered "plausible history, if not authoritative, novel or deeply analytical." Anyway, figuring out how to get people into that position would be a strategically useful piece of knowledge.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Wow. I was on a plane during last year's Super Bowl, so I hadn't seen one with the outcome really in doubt that close to the end the end since the Panthers-Patriots game four years ago (The Eagles-Patriots matchup was technically very close, but the Eagles needed a successful onside kick, and I seem to recall Reid engaging poor clock management).

But what a great finish. The shotgun-max protect-go route call was a brilliant call; there's nothing else worth doing on third-and-ten on your own one yard line. I think even the Cardinals were stunned at the hold-in-the-end-zone that called it back, since the first down would have ended the game. They didn't show enough of the All-22 to see why Fitzgerald got so open for his TD; the Steelers looked like they were in cover-2, but why did both safeties pinch out? Was it an error or was there some deception? Holmes's catch was one for the ages, and I'm always happy to see a non-QB, non-RB player earn the game MVP award (had the Cardinals won, it would have been a coin toss between Fitzgerald and Warner). And of course the general pass-wackiness of the ache will give Gregg Easterbrook heartburn, which is always an appealing thought.

Like Ezra, I'm pretty sure Warner's arm was moving forward on the endgame "fumble". In addition, the Steelers seemed to benefited from a couple of other questionable calls (not that I'm bitter or anything), particularly the roughing the passer shove (to avoid a penalty, I believe the Cardinals' player would have needed to hold his hands up and try to twist to the side, all in the span of one step, which borders on the absurd). But on balance nothing that hugely changed the outcome.

I hope next year the Competition Committee takes a look at lightening up on roughing the passer calls, while getting much more agressive about penalizing and fining open-field, leave-your-feet, lead-with-your-shoulder hits. Those are the ones putting people on stretchers (see McGahee, Willis) for no good reason; if you're in a position to make those kinds of hits, you should be wrapping the guy up anyway. Alternatively Sportscenter and the NFL Network could simply refuse to show those hits, which would probably have almost the same effect.