Monday, June 28, 2010

It Had To Be Done

I refuse to believe that Paul Krugman coined the phrase "Invisible Bond Vigilantes" without expecting something like this to show up on the Internets:

Copyright notice: republish this image to your heart's content. It's simply too awesome not to share.

SCOTUS hearings

The only way I'm going to be able to tolerate these is if there's some sort of drinking game involved. In fact, even then I may have to read the transcripts and drink as I see the words rather than hear them. Presumably Kagan will manage to say next to nothing and a week or so we can all move on with our lives.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Global Leaders Remain in the Grips of Deficitmania

They seem to have unlearned the lessons of the 1930s:

TORONTO — Despite President Obama’s pitch at the summit meeting for developed nations here for continued stimulus measures to prevent another global economic downturn, the United States will go along with other leaders who are more concerned about rising debt and join in a commitment to cut their governments’ deficits in half by 2013, administration officials said on Saturday.

That goal is the proposal of Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada and the host of the two-day Group of 20 summit of developed nations.

Good times.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The "New Normal" Isn't Normal At All

The elite conversation about the recession has featured a great deal of hemming and hawing about what can and can't be done about the unemployment situation. In particular, there has been a tremendous rush to describe the unemployment as "structural", to point out that the bubble in housing led to a construction boom that ought not to be repeated, and to in general dissuade policymakers from doing too many things that might lead to inflation, even though inflation indicators suggest that in the short and medium term there's no real threat of inflation. But via Brad DeLong, we see that the American employment situation is unique among G7 countries.
This may help partially explain why some of the major European powers seem to be even more in the grips of deficit mania than the America. Germany, the most deficit-wary country, is almost all the way back to it's pre-recession employment figure. The rest of the countries are hovering between a 1% and 2% drop in employment. But across the pond, we're sitting on almost a 6% decline and no one seems to care very much. To cite DeLong again, "If we had 10% inflation and 1.2% unemployment, Ben Bernanke's Hair Would Be on Fire". But we have 10% unemployment and 1.2% inflation, so it's treated as a mild nuisance, the way you might treat a problem of having too many feral cats in your neighborhood, rather than mountain lions mauling your children.

The proper response to this sort of chart ought to be "Damn the inflation, full speed ahead!" But somehow the public conversation isn't obsessed with solving this drastic an unique unemployment problem.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Love Letter to European Soccer

Dear Europe,

We need to talk. The world has changed around you and I'm not sure you've noticed.

You see, it's just not your World Cup anymore. While the top seeded teams faired very well whether they hailed from Europe or South America, the unseeded teams from the Continent just weren't anything special. Here's the average number of points scored per game
  1. 2.25 -- CONMEBOL (South America) -- 2.25
  2. 1.16 -- AFC (Asia) 
  3. 1.13 -- UEFA
  4. 1.11 -- CONCACAF (North America, Central America, & Carribean)
  5. 1.00 -- OFC (Oceania, aka New Zealand)
  6. 0.67 -- CAF (Africa)
In addition, other than South Africa, the only seeded team to fail to make it out of group play, Italy, hails from Europe. And the points-per-game rating puts Europe in the best possible light (or, one might say, least worst possible light). Of the ten unseeded teams to advance, three are from South America, two each are from Europe, CONCACAF, and Asia, and one from Africa. But Europe sent eight unseeded teams to the World Cup, while the other conferences sent far fewer.

Going strictly by group play results, FIFA ought reduce the number of teams coming from Europe and Africa and plus up the number from South America an Asia. Had this happened this year, that would have replaced Algeria and Portugal with Bahrain and Ecuador. Now, Portugal did make it to the knockout round, but they haven't managed to score a goal against anyone other than North Korea. Color me unimpressed.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Jeff Merkley Is Awesome And I Gave His Leadership PAC $5000

Every time progressives have needed something to happen in the Senate over the past 18 months, Jeff Merkley was trying to do it. Back during the last days of the health care fight, he was trying to push the public option through the Senate using budget reconciliation. He's been working to get rid of the filibuster, perhaps on a 6-year delay so that a Senate minority has no short-term reason to oppose it. Most recently, he responded to bad news for cap-and-trade legislation in the Senate by coming up with a bunch of utilities-only proposals to give you most of the anti-CO2 benefits of the larger bill. And it's not just issues that our political culture is thinking about -- thanks to him, health care reform included provisions to help nursing mothers at work.

Financial reform provided a nice display of Merkley's progressivism and his tactical skill. He and Carl Levin came up with a proposal to ban banks from high-risk trading. When it got filibustered, he turned it into a second-degree amendment to a Republican proposal to exempt car dealers from financial regulations. With his proposal attached to theirs, Republicans gave up on their proposal.

Being a just-elected freshman Senator, Merkley isn't up for re-election until 2014. So I didn't give money to his ordinary campaign account. Instead, I donated to his leadership PAC. This is money he gives to other Democrats for their campaigns. Most of the money he's given out recently has gone to people running for the Senate this cycle. So basically I'm donating through him to Democratic efforts to retain the Senate. Some people's leadership PACs are just slush funds that they use for golf, but Merkley's been throwing nearly all the money to candidates.

The point of doing it through Merkley is that he can show up in the offices of people who took his money and persuade them to help out with the awesome stuff he's trying to do. As a random out-of-state contributor, I'm not really equipped to tell Senators to go support Jeff's stuff. Giving to a progressive legislator's leadership PAC seems to be the best way to both help Democrats retain the Senate and ensure that they vote for the right things. I lose some efficiency in terms of being able to pick the races where extra money will make the biggest impact, but I'm thinking that donating through somebody who can actually get in people's faces and call in favors more than makes up for that.

The last time I wrote a big post about Merkley, he was running for for Senate. He was right on all the major progressive issues -- supporting universal health care, gay marriage, public transit, and fair trade, while opposing the Iraq War from the beginning. The thing that really won me over, from a phone interview I did with him back in 2007, was his clear and eloquent explanation of the need for third world debt relief.

Not only was he right on the issues, but he was an excellent electoral and legislative tactician. He won Democrats a 31-29 majority in the Oregon House and became Speaker by recruiting a serious challenger to run against the previous Republican Speaker, tying her down so that she couldn't just go out and fundraise for everyone else. Then on the strength of that slender majority, he passed all sorts of awesome stuff -- same-sex domestic partnership benefits, requirements that insurance companies cover birth control, and all sorts of minor nifty good-government things I would've never thought of, like a law allowing people in trailer parks to join together and form co-ops to prevent the land they live on from being sold out from under them. Take a look -- it's pretty amazing.

So far, he's lived up to the amazing promise he showed as a candidate. And I'm optimistic that he has a long career as a great progressive Senator ahead of him. I'm hoping that we can increase his influence by giving him money to give away. If this sounds good to you, please think about donating to Democratic efforts to retain the Senate through his Leadership PAC!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

McChrystal And The Knives

Sir Charles has the right take on the McChrystal stuff -- Obama should use this opportunity to do good policy and put in a general who's interested in leading us out of Afghanistan. I hope that's what he's done.

I don't know which way is the right way to go as far as short-term perception stuff is concerned, and the things that I read McChrystal saying in the Rolling Stone article seemed quite mild to me. (Obviously I don't have any sense of what the norms are for military leaders talking about the President.) But the thing that'll have a big long-term effect here is the general direction of Afghanistan policy. Do that right.

On a different note, I found this part of the Rolling Stone article interesting:

Despite the tragedies and miscues, McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It's "insurgent math," as he calls it – for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. He has ordered convoys to curtail their reckless driving, put restrictions on the use of air power and severely limited night raids. He regularly apologizes to Hamid Karzai when civilians are killed, and berates commanders responsible for civilian deaths. "For a while," says one U.S. official, "the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan was in front of McChrystal after a 'civ cas' incident." The ISAF command has even discussed ways to make not killing into something you can win an award for: There's talk of creating a new medal for "courageous restraint," a buzzword that's unlikely to gain much traction in the gung-ho culture of the U.S. military.

But however strategic they may be, McChrystal's new marching orders have caused an intense backlash among his own troops. Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. "Bottom line?" says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers' lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing."

With soldiers like that, how can we win in Afghanistan? Look, you guys signed up for dangerous duty, and you're eager to follow dangerous orders if they're the orders to attack an enemy position or do some other offensive military action. Good for you. But now we're in a mission where victory depends on not shooting, given the insurgent math that McChrystal is talking about. Why can't you see the dangers of not shooting the same way you see the dangers of heading into combat -- a brave thing that needs to be done for victory?

COIN guru John Nagl has likened counterinsurgency warfare to eating soup with a knife -- something difficult that you should just try not commit yourself to doing. Maybe soldiers who learned to fight in an atmosphere with a courageous restraint medal and whatever else would be more spoonlike. But right now, knives is what we've got, and it's time to walk away from the table.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Utah Blackjack

Ed Kilgore describes the situation in Utah's 2nd district like this: Rep. Jim Matheson, a Blue Dog who opposed health care reform, is facing a primary challenge from Claudia Wright, who has solid left-wing views and is an out lesbian. Matheson tends to do pretty well in general election races, getting over 60% of the vote for the first time in 2008, but this is going to be a tough year for Democrats. I don't know how strong Republican opponent Morgan Philpot is, but he's a former state party vice-chair and state rep, so he's not some Alvin Greene character. Kilgore:
The recent Deseret News poll shows Matheson leading Wright 52-33. He is very likely to win, but even so, a close race will be interpreted as a leading indicator of the peril moderate-to-conservative Democrats court by opposing major progressive initiatives, even in a place like Utah.
Given that there's a major risk of Democrats losing the House this year, is the optimal outcome is for Wright to get as close to 50% as possible without hitting it and beating Matheson? That gives you more juice for the party discipline story, without actually raising the chances of Boehner becoming Speaker and turning the House into a chamber of obstructionist horrors for the rest of Obama's first term, right? Just given the poll numbers, I think this means 'vote for Wright' but I'm not in touch with the situation on the ground.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Daughters Of Republican Presidential Nominees: The Swing Voters Of 2010!

I like this thing with GOP presidential nominees' daughters turning leftwards. (The latest: young Barbara Bush supports Obamacare. (BTW, should Democrats embrace the name 'Obamacare'? I don't see why not.)) You've also got Meghan McCain, and going back to older times, Patti Reagan, who I always found quite intriguing.

Obviously, the conclusion I want to draw is that progressive views are the natural outcome of rational reflection on how the world should be, and their merits are especially obvious to young women, even those raised in the very center of Republican power.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Line Of The Day

From Jemele Hill, via Eugenia Beh: "The horrific call that forced Team USA to settle for a 2-2 tie with Slovenia was so bad that I'm surprised Texas Rep. Joe Barton hasn't already called Malian referee Koman Coulibaly to apologize for the harsh criticism the official undoubtedly deserves."


SVN 2 : 2 USA.

I'll take it, but Team America were clearly robbed on that free kick. And Findley shouldn't have gotten a yellow card. Lots of grit from the Yanks to come back in the second half.

At this point, assuming England handle Algeria, a 2-goal margin in our third match against Algeria guarantees advancing out of group play. Alternatively, if the ENG-SLV matchup ends in anything other than a draw (corrected), any victory against the North African side would be enough to advance.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

There Will Be Escrow Funds

BP's voluntary agreement to put $20B into an escrow fund earmarked for spill damages is, I think, a rather underappreciated development. It means that BP now has an incentive to resolve spill claims quickly rather than slowly. And keep in mind that "slowly" for an oil company means "until the claimants start dying". It took twenty years for Exxon-Mobil to pay out any claims from the Valdez spill. But now BP is in a situation where it has more interest in getting as many claims processed as possible, with the hope that those claims will total less than the size of the escrow fund and they can get a few bucks back. This is absolutely the right approach and it will mean that the residents of the Gulf Coast will see justice significantly faster than Alaskans.

The Future Is Here Bleg

Dear Lazyweb,

There's a somewhat famous article written in ... oh I don't know when ... where people talk about what they think the future will look like. One thing they say is that people won't go shopping; goods will be delivered to their house through a network of pneumatic tubes. This ends up leading to jokes about how they got it right, only the series of tubes was the Internet but we still have trucks to deliver the goods.

Does anyone know what I'm talking about? Can you find a link to the original article, or an excerpt?

Update: Wow, somehow remembered the source: Ladies Home Journal.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


A lot of Chipotle CEO Steve Ells' Senate testimony a few months ago in favor of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act reads like ad copy, but when you've set up a big fast-food chain that mostly uses naturally raised meat, you've earned the right to boast. More Chipotle-style fast food and less McDonalds-style fast food would be tastier and better for animal welfare. (McDonalds, incidentally, once owned a majority interest in Chipotle, but sold it all in 2006 to focus on their core business.) I haven't thought very much about the factory-farming antibiotic-resistance issue in the past, something it has in common with banking crises pre-2008 and giant oil spills pre-2010.

I guess the only real criticism of Chipotle that comes to mind is that I'd like to see smaller portion sizes made available, but that's mostly on behalf of other people. I'm a pretty big eater, and back in grad school I'd often eat two big meals a day, one of which was a burrito bowl. It's pretty high in sodium, too, but a drinking man needs his electrolytes.

Monday, June 14, 2010

GOP 2012 Chaos

I don't really have many specific things to say about David Bernstein's rankings of the 2012 GOP contenders, because I generally don't have views on who the Republican Party is going to pick in 2012. It's a chaotic situation, largely because the candidates are pretty bad.

The 2008 Democratic primary was a model of stability. For a very long time, the conventional wisdom was that Hillary, Obama, and Edwards were 1-2-3 with everybody else in a big mess behind them. That stayed pretty stable until Obama slowly pushed ahead over the course of the 2008 contests. Part of the reason for the stability is that (setting aside the ticking scandal bomb attached to Edwards) they were all very good candidates. Other than Al Gore, who made the wise choice not to run and thus maintained the implicit threat of making or breaking a campaign with an endorsement or a curse, there was nobody out there who could upset the order as it was.

It's basically the opposite situation with in the Republican primary. Everybody has some combination of general-election weakness, a very low public profile, or unacceptability to a large portion of the Republican base. The success of a campaign will depend in large part on who else is running and cutting into your territory.

I guess the only direct criticism I'll make of Bernstein is that you can't count Sarah Palin out in a race like this. Since she has a hardcore fanclub that's going to vote for her over anybody in her niche, she can easily be one of the last 4 or 5 candidates standing if she wants to. She'll need lots of luck to get the rest of the way, but so does everybody else at some stage or another.

Minerals and the Resource Curse

You may have read the DoD's PR offensive in the New York Times, which didn't contain news of any study fresher than 2007. Beyond what Michael Cohen said, I would add that if there's actual stuff in the ground that's worth money, the world has an obvious choice; we can let Afghanistan turn into a libertarian paradise Wild West of mining operations, a la Angola, the Congo, etc., or we can help push the country in the direction of Botswana and Chile (pictured here). Of course at the moment I'm firmly of the notion that there's more heat than light to this story, but we'll have to see what happens from here.

Update: With all the Nirvana references, I forgot that Evanescence also has a song titled "Lithium":

Friday, June 11, 2010

World Cup Open Thread

Oh it's on.

My typical MO during the World Cup is to root against Europe. UEFA views the World Cup as a Europe+Brazil+Argentina championship tournament to which they graciously invite a few of the sport's developing nations, though they'd prefer to just have more European sides. But really, what is the reason that third-tier European nations deserve a trip to the finals over second-tier Asian, South American, North American, and African countries? It's like inviting the 9th-best team in the Big East to take a #12 seed in the NCAA tournament.

I also usually root against Argentina, since they like to pretend that they're a European nation that just happens to be located in South America. But I'm a huge fan of Lionel Messi, pictured above. Argentina's struggles in the qualifying round (thanks, Maradona!) and Cristiano Ronaldo's outstanding play during the club season have led to Messi being eclipsed as a football wunderkind, but I suspect he will outperform expectations.

This is a world cup open thread.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Victory Of Lincoln, Hammer Of The Banks

Somebody at the White House is dissing on union support of Bill Halter in his primary loss to Blanche Lincoln, saying that "Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members' money down the toilet on a pointless exercise." I think Brian Montopoli is right that Lincoln's close call still works to labor's advantage, just because it'll put some fear into Democrats in the future. I don't know if that was worth more or less than $10 million, but it's something.

We should also thank the Bill Halter coalition for scaring Lincoln into helping out on derivatives regulation. It's hard for me to see why she would've been so useful without a primary challenge from the left. I don't understand financial regulation well enough to know how much Lincoln's contributions are worth, but my guess is that organized labor just bought America a gift worth more than the price they paid.

A 3000-vote election result is a close one that admits of many explanations, and one of the stories you could tell about it is that Lincoln won the primary by taking on the banks. Derivatives regulation may be a fairly complicated issue, but the financial industry is not well liked among Democratic primary voters these days. It would've been pretty easy for Halter to attack an unhelpful attitude from Lincoln. Lincoln smartly moved left, and best of luck to her in the general election.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Policy Detail In Primaries: It's Good!

Matt on policy detail during campaigns: "I wrote blog posts comparing the details of the Obama, Clinton, and Edwards “plans” on health care and climate change and it turns out this was all totally irrelevant."

I draw exactly the opposite conclusion. The details of these plans ended up being extraordinarily relevant. What we got in the end was the Edwards-Clinton plan, except with regulated competition on the exchanges replacing the public option. When a plan shows up in a primary, gets adopted by a major centrist Senator (Max Baucus in his Jekyll aspect) and ends up one or two centrist-vote-buying compromises away from the eventual thing that passes Congress, it suggests that health care plans introduced in primaries are a big deal.

It's true that Obama won and the policy we got was farthest from his plan. But that's just because the pro-individual-mandate forces won the debate, even as their candidates lost the election for other reasons. One of the beautiful achievements of the interminable 2008 Democratic primary was that Democrats got together and figured out that an individual mandate was good policy. A mandate is exactly the sort of technocratically essential but superficially icky proposal that wonks dream of but nobody will swallow. But we chewed on it for a good long time, and in the end we realized that it was good. So when the legislative process started, the Democratic base was ready to support a plan with a mandate.

It makes me proud to be a Democrat. Where Republicans made ridiculous smears about death panels, we took time to learn about adverse selection death spirals. We talked out the wonky details and formed a consensus behind a strange but good idea. The guy who won had proposed the wrong idea (probably because he was being a bit timid on the issue during the primary), but given that a consensus had developed about the details of the plan, he and influential moderates could embrace the consensus and do the good thing! Well done, people.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Anointed One? Or Angelus?

I've never had particularly negative feelings towards Jonah Goldberg, because I've never been able to take him seriously. It seemed to me that the guy would make a good minor Buffy antagonist -- the devil's nepotism hire, 9-to-5ing it without the venom or diabolical intelligence that would give him real talent for his craft, and producing books that state extreme right-wing positions in such naked absurdity that they make the National Review and the conservative movement look ridiculous.

So I'm surprised to see Dave Weigel write that "Goldberg has had, I'd argue, a bigger influence on the rhetoric and thought of the tea parties than any other single writer." Is this right? My impression was that Jonah was more correlation than causation. But Dave is an expert on this stuff.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The World's Imploding in Like Six Different Directions At The Moment ...

... and someone asked the White House Press Secretary about baseball?

Really? I hope whoever asked the question feels as proud of himself as the WaPo reporter who decided Obama's first East Room press conference merited a question on Alex Rodriguez's steroid use.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ross Douthat, Instant Replay, And The Divine Right Of Kings

Ross Douthat's argument against instant replay in baseball is a monsterpiece of conservatism. Sure, we've got the technology to make things more fair and prevent bad outcomes by setting up an instant replay system. But "baseball is also a game where history matters, and where continuity — those mystic chords of memory" that bind us to all the great heroes of the past give us reason to keep things exactly as they are. The spectacle of a bunch of noble players gracefully submitting to unfair decisions is something we'd all be poorer for missing out on.

It's the conservative approach to race, gender, and democracy. I like it more in baseball, because there it can do less harm.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Israel As Viewed From The Gelb Nebula

Via Jeffrey Goldberg, Les Gelb has lost touch with reality:
Well, where was all that international outrage and demand for explanations and retribution when the North Koreans sunk a South Korean ship? Where was it when the Gazans attacked Israel? Where, when Afghan men flogged their women for not wearing veils? Where, when Saudi Arabia funds terrorists around the world? This international outrage is highly selective, isn't it? The one consolation is that the international community, such as it has become, doesn't get anything of value done.
North Korea is a country with no allies that everybody thinks is crazy. The only reason we don't go harder on them is that it's tough to figure out what to do about the situation without punishing the innocent victims of Kim Jong Il's tyranny or dumping a massive refugee crisis on South Korea. For almost the last ten years, we've been fighting a big war against the guys in Afghanistan who are flogging women for not wearing veils. We're escalating it now. I'll agree with Gelb that Saudi Arabia deserves more ire, not just for terrorism but for the gruesome state of women's rights. We're shaking the devil's hand because it's oily. But the idea that anybody of significance is treating Israel's violations as worse than those of North Korea or Afghanistan suggests a poor grasp of political dynamics on Earth.

The only reason people don't make more noise about the bad guys in North Korea and Afghanistan is that US policy already takes full account of their badness. You'd be preaching to the choir. And they're so far gone that there's no point in asking them to explain themselves. The Taliban is a vicious enemy, and Kim Jong Il is a mad dictator. There's plenty of room for policy disagreements about the best way to deal with evil forces like this given limited resources and complicated consequences, but everyone agrees on how awful these guys are.

Israel, meanwhile, gets billions of dollars in foreign aid from the United States. If you're going to take large amounts of our foreign aid budget, you'd better give us a reason to think you're the good guys. With the bombing of Lebanon, the blockade of Gaza, the denial of voting rights to the Palestinians, and now commando raids on aid boats, it's hard for me to see why we should regard the Israelis as better than the Palestinians. The casualty ratios are crazy -- 117 Israelis have been killed in the conflict from 2005 to late 2008, comparied with 1754 Palestinians. 12 Israeli children have been killed in that period, compared to 309 Palestinians. People talk about Israel's right to defend itself, but when you're killing 25 times as many of the other side's kids as they're killing of yours, they've got the higher card in the self-defense suit.

There's a very good reason for Americans to hold Israel to a higher standard than North Korea or Afghanistan -- instead of diplomatically isolating them or invading them, we're giving them lots of money! And at a certain level, the demand for explanations is based on a presumption that Israel is a rational ally deserving of our support whom we can ask for explanations. If Gelb is right that we should stop asking Israel to explain itself to us, it's only because that presumption, and the support that goes with it, is making less and less sense.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Don't Become A Republican! They Will Eat You

Parker Griffith, the first-term Alabama Congressman who switched into the Republican Party, just lost his primary tonight. Voting against the Obama budget, the stimulus bill, health care reform, and climate change legislation didn't save him from a 51-33 defeat. He didn't even have a long record of voting for the other party's stuff like Arlen Specter did. If I were a conservative Democrat, I'd be nervous about the tough general election race ahead of me, but I'd be glad that I didn't do a silly thing like that.