Tuesday, March 31, 2009


At the time of this writing, Scott Murphy (D) is down by 52-48 to Jim Tedisco (R), an absolute margin of 720 votes. Comparing the numbers to 2006, when Kirsten Gillibrand won 53-47, Murphy appears to be far enough behind that he's unlikel to make up the margin, considering how heavily he's losing in vote-rich Saratoga county.

There's going to be a temptation to read an awful lot into victory or defeat here, but in reality there is very little story beyond "Both Teams Played Hard". A district with a slight Republican lean went for a Democrat by a small margin in a year when Democrats won several red-leaning districts. In a special election three years late, Republicans may take it back by a similarly small margin. Because politics produces discrete winners and losers, and cable news attempts to read everything as a referendum on everything, it's often times hard to see just how small the changes are sometimes.

Update: Sixty-five votes? All I can say is that the past six months have been great economic stimulus if you're an election lawyer.

Does John Cornyn Like Lighting Money on Fire?

Because I can't find any other reason why he hasn't thrown Norm Coleman overboard. Coleman is going to lose. Despite years of aggressive court-packing by conservatives, tempered only modestly during the Clinton era, the law is the law and an election is an election; conservatives aren't going to undo an election count just because the results don't suit their tastes (note the distinction between Bush v. Gore wherin GOP allies on the Court stopped a count that might have changed the outcome). This isn't middle school kickball; you don't get endless do-overs or partial credit for coming very very close. Appeals are only going to postpone the inevitable.

But fifty-nine Democratic Senators are not much more dangerous than fifty-eight Democratic Senators. Arlen Specter has been effectively neutered by the primary process, flip-flopping on EFCA, probably the only bill where he would have been the deciding vote. Democrats have their hands full already between Ben Nelson, Evan Bayh, and the surprisingly skittish Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln. Any bill that passes will almost certainly have the votes of at least two Republican Senators, meaning that Franken is in some sense superfluous. So why waste the money, except perhaps because Cornyn wants Democrats to have an easier time getting to a veto-proof majority?

Arming The Elderly

After a crazy person shoots up a place and kills a lot of people, opponents of gun control often argue that the crime wouldn't have happened if people at that place were better armed and could shoot back. I generally take a dim view of this response -- the level of trigger-happiness that would successfully reduce casualties in mass shooting cases would probably cause enough mistaken shootings of innocent people in other cases not to be worthwhile.

I'm curious about whether anyone on the pro-gun side will make this argument in response to the recent shooting in a nursing home. I'm quite amused at the thought of arming elderly people in nursing homes, even as I know that it would be an extremely bad idea.

Peter Suderman, Consequentialism, And The Path Of The Wanker

Katha Pollitt on Ross Douthat going to the NYT:
So who would I like to see in the Kristol slot? Actually, Kristol. I was livid when they gave him the job, but he was perfect: a dull, complacent apparatchik who set forth the Bush line in all its fact-free glory. His columns were like press releases—you could hardly remember them two minutes after reading them. But his presence on the page reminded readers that David Brooks is not really what Republicanism is all about.
I'm not totally sure what to think of the whole thing (I don't know whether he'll be influential in pushing his freaky right-wing social views, or whether he'll just make those views look properly freaky), but Katha's view certainly seems plausible. Peter Suderman's response:
assuming Pollitt actually believes this, this strikes me as a deeply cynical exercise in intellectual bad faith. Partisans and hacks may want the other side to put forth their worst defenders, but shouldn’t anyone who considers herself an intellectual hope for the best from her political opponents?
Well, no. This seems to beg the question against any consequentialist intellectual. If the government enacted my favored policies (universal health care / climate change legislation / liberal social policies / humane foreign policy with huge global antipoverty spending), but the debate in major op-ed pages was reduced to ungrammatical raunchy limericks, I'd call that a wonderful state of affairs. And since I think that good consequences are the criterion of what you should do and what you ought to hope for, I'd say that Pollitt's hopes are in the right place. I don't see anything anti-intellectual about holding these views or honestly expressing them.

This doesn't mean that acting to produce good consequences is always consistent with retaining one's credibility as an intellectual. One can't maintain one's intellectual credibility while making bad arguments just because one thinks they'll be effective in getting people to vote the right way and make the right consequences happen. Now, in some situations, ceasing to be an intellectual and becoming a hack will be the morally right move, because in these situations, hackery has tremendous benefits to others. (Similarly, in some unusual situations, ceasing to be a law-abiding citizen and becoming a thief will be the morally right move, because there are large social goods to be generated by theft.) Of course, none of this is what Pollitt is doing -- she's just expressing an honest opinion about what will best serve her political ends.

Suderman's position seems to be that being an intellectual involves wanting public debate to go well, with smart people on both sides carrying on a respectful and informative discussion. I agree that that's a pretty good thing. But much more central to being an intellectual is presenting good, well-thought-out arguments that you believe in. Someone who honestly presents an interesting argument for why it would be okay for public debate to go to hell is doing the intellectual thing a lot better than somebody who presents a bad argument he doesn't actually believe for why it's important for public debate to be conducted on a high level.

A participant in high-minded public discussion who values high-mindedness so highly that he loses sight of the consequences for the outside world indulges in the vice of wankery. While good intellectual discussions can be quite pleasant and are certainly worthwhile, pursuing them should not lead one to lose track of important and valuable things in the outside world. My purpose is not to accuse Suderman of this vice, but to make clear that the path of the intellectual need not be the path of the wanker.

Pandagon: Porno Pottery

Things I learn from reading Pandagon:
Last year, I interviewed author Marty Klein about this weird irrationality about sex and technology, after seeing him lecture about the long history of people using sexual fears as an excuse to bash technological innovations. This actually dates back to the invention of pottery, he said, which caused a panic because people made pornographic pottery.
The post itself is about 'sexting', which is the latest in a long line of ways to do sexual things with new technologies. I suppose any time you have a new technology, there will be a group of people who don't understand it, and a partially overlapping group of people who are easily freaked out by sexuality.

Because I don't want to believe that my species is colossally dumb, I hope the group of people who didn't quite understand pottery was relatively small.

Monday, March 30, 2009

When Do We Downsize The Banks? Never

Josh Marshall: "When do we downsize these banks? A key part of the crisis, perhaps the key part of the crisis is that these banks were so big that we could not let them endure the normal fate of failed businesses, which is to fail. So when do we break them up into more smaller entities? Yes, we've got our hands full now. But companies always fight being broken up. So it'll be much harder if and when these companies struggle back to some level of health. So when does that happen?"

The most likely answer is "never", but under current circumstances the answer is almost certainly "not in any meaningful timeframe". Eight years passed between the DoJ's first antitrust filing against Ma Bell and the settlement, plus another two years to implement the settlement (it would take only twenty-one years for Ma Bell to reconstitute itself into a virtually nationwide local phone service provider, though the telecommuncations market had changed significantly during those two decades). The banks, of course, are much large businesses that directly affect much more of the US economy—even in the lean years of the '50s and '60s, the financial sector accounted for 7-10% of all US profits. Reorganizing the banking sector under current circumstances is impossible.

Now, circumstances can change. In particular if the banksters suddenly think they're about to be screwed by the Chinese Communist Party, they might accept wholesale industry reorganization. Likewise if the US economy continues to tank beyond even Geithner's stress tests and even more mortgage debt starts selling at 5 cents on the dollar, the government will have more leverage in the bailout. Thirdly, Congress could start feeling its oats and threaten to pass more and more dire financial regulation, which might press bank management into a deal sooner rather than later. But absent either a crisis much worse than the present situation, or a left-right coalition of free-market Republicans and anti-corporate Democrats, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and the like will still have hundreds of billions or trillions of assets under management.

I think the question of bank consolidation needs to be looked at from multiple angles. Usually people talk about large banks as a problem because the banks become "too big to fail" which leaves the government in sticky situations like the one we find ourselves in today. But in addition, a oligopoly or near-oligopoly will tend to reduce competition and thus drive up prices and profits. It's plausible that "decreased competition among banks" is one of the reasons for the run-up in financial sector profits over the last three decades.

Vroom Vroom vs. Scrilla Scrilla

There's a pretty straightforward reason why Obama is going socialist on the auto industry and not on the financial industry. Fixing the economy doesn't require more cars. It will require more loans. So he has a lot more leeway to be hard on the carmakers than the loanmakers.

America's Liberal Catholic Population

When you consider that the country's Catholic population includes a healthy number of culturally conservative Latinos, the fact that America's Catholics are slightly more liberal than their non-Catholic counterparts suggests that our white Catholic population is in fact fairly liberal. But press coverage discussing the "Catholic vote" invariably centers around discussions of white Catholics who attend church regularly, who are, unsurprisingly, conservative. But even then, church-going Catholics are still less conservative than church-going non-Catholics.

Via AmericaBlog.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Blue Dogs Want Your Fire

As Publius says, you've got moderate groups in the House and Senate (the Blue Dogs, the Evan Bayh squad) that exist primarily to give political cover to Democratic Congresscritters and Senators from conservative areas. Is there any reason these people don't want to be criticized from the left? If the point is to show off that they're moderates, don't they want liberals cursing their names -- including the expert liberal name-cursers who write on blogs? If this is correct, "holding fire for a bit" will be counterproductive -- they'll just keep moving right until we start firing and they can look moderate. I suppose if you're Nancy Pelosi or somebody with real power, you shouldn't do anything brutal to them, though noisy public threats of brutality may help their cause.

So the smart play for people at our keyboards would just be: start firing at them no matter where they are, unless they've uncharacteristically staked out such a progressive position on some random issue that it would just cause confusion. They'll thank you for it in December of an even-numbered year.

The Big Geithner Mystery

I've been up and down on Geithner, but the truth is that we just don't have any idea what the guy is doing. And I don't mean that in a bad way. He could be in the grips of an ideology that causes him to be unduly helpful to bank executives. Or not. Since the path he's taken so far is the way you'd go whether you wanted to run big giveaways or nationalization, there's really no way to tell.

I'm impressed by the argument that we have to get legitimate prices for all the securities prior to nationalizing banks if we want to do it without a tremendous lawsuit. The only way to do that is to actually have some of the securities be bought and sold. If banks are insolvent according to those prices, then we can shut them down.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Safety Is Not A Reason To End Off-Street Parking

The 2007 Seattle Ped-Bike Collision Report has a nice map of car-on-pedestrian collisions in the city. The overwhelming majority of such collisions occur on busy streets with very few residential units. Page 23 also lists collisions by "type" and shows that out of 531 collisions exactly one occurred in a driveway.

There are many reasons to avoid having too much off-street parking in dense residential or mixed-use neighborhoods. But pedestrian safety is not one of them.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Deep Thought

Remember the days of the Permanent Republican Majority? Those were good times.

Married Up

Make it stop. I'm sure Dr. Sharon Malone is an accomplished professional and a lovely person. Likewise it should be noted that Michelle Obama was an accomplished professional prior to the campaign's/Administration's effort to mommify her public profile. But this "Married Up" business started with Dubya, and as with all things Bush the humanity would be better off if it stopped there too.

Tell your speechwriters to find some new jokes Barack. Please, think of the children.

Mileage Standards

The prime difference between Bush and Obama on fuel standards is that the Bush adminstration tried to promulgate regulations that would have prevented California from enacting its own CO2 emission regulations. The fact that the Obama administration will allows those regulations will go forward makes much more difference than slowing the increase in fuel efficiency requirements; because california accounts for almost one eighth of the US economy, the chances that automakers will build separate, greener cars for the Golden state are almost zero.

Still, this is pretty weak tea.

Driveway-Pedestrian Accidents

Look, I understand that garages and driveways create dead space in an urban area, but how many times to pedestrians actually get hit by cars entering and exiting driveways? There can't be a real substantial safety gain here, right?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Republican Road to Recovery

Like any large institution, the National University of Singapore has its share of confusing bureaucracy. Yesterday I was looking at a flowchart that was supposed to explain how you get reimbursed for travel expenses, and one of the diamonds in the flowchart was totally empty. Three arrows were coming out of it and pointing to other diamonds. At least I'm not traveling with whoever designed that flowchart.

This brings me to the graphic laying out the health care plan in the Republican budget, posted by Ezra:
It's quite difficult to figure out what this is supposed to mean. But as a Nietzsche scholar, I specialize in interpreting cryptic texts, and after some effort I think I've got this one figured out. As one proceeds along the Republican Road To Recovery, one will bypass on one's left the goals of providing universal access to health care coverage and reforming Medicare and Medicaid (most likely through broad reforms covering the entire health care system). One will also bypass a goal on the right -- limiting federal spending. To reach these goals, one must go off the Republican Road To Recovery, following either of the thin lines branching off from it, as the road itself makes the goals unachievable.

Theories Blessed By Mammon

Yglesias says what lots of people like Kevin Drum say about tighter banking regulations, and they might not have helped us if we'd had them:
the vast majority of the human agents were in the grips of a neoclassical economic theory that told them that the operations of the private market couldn’t be problematic in this way and that any market failures that might have existed were surely trivial compared to the problems that would be created by government intervention. That theory’s wrong, but it’s hard to see how any ship of state piloted by people holding those beliefs could possibly have steered clear of the shoals.
I'm wondering where the problem originates. If the problem is just the prevalence of bad economic theories, it seems like what we need is some heroic economics professors to do a big study of the housing bubble disasters. Disasters like this can be the events that catalyze scientific revolutions, turning fields upside down and getting written about centuries later by intellectual historians. Are you listening, my colleague in the next building? You can save the world and get tenure while doing it!

Of course, it's highly significant in all of this that billions of dollars in income for highly influential people and firms depend on neoclassical economic theories maintaining their dominance, at least among the sort of people who in charge of financial regulation. How exactly one buys this sort of dominance for theories blessed by Mammon, I don't really understand. (There are straightforward things like buying a new Nobel Prize for a field that never had one before, but I bet it can work in a bunch more subtle ways.) I'd be curious to hear more about how this works. Are there entities doing a more respectable version of crap like this where businessmen give large grants to colleges in exchange for putting Ayn Rand on the curriculum?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Man Who Wants To Be President

John Huntsman is really going to try to run to the left in the Republican primary. That, or he just doesn't care anymore.

You may be surprised to see this sort of behavior coming out of the Republican governor of Utah. To the contrary, the fact that Utah (and Alaska, and Idaho) are one party states mean that lots of people who have fairly moderate views end up being Republicans, in the same way that plenty of people in New York and Massachusetts who have fairly conservative views on certain issues end up being Democrats.

Cheat Sheets

Ron Fournier is having a hard time with the fact that Barack Obama uses a teleprompter at press conferences. I guess he can't remember George W. Bush doing the same thing.

His memory might be right. Here's George W. Bush at a press conference, with what looks like a printed copy of his opening remarks and/or briefing notes:

Here's another:
I found these two in about ten minutes with Google Images, which, considering how few rear-view photos their are of press conference compared to normal shots, ought to tell you something about how often Bush goes into press conferences with out any material.

Oh, and just for old times sake:

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Misallocating Capital

Peter Boockvar at The Big Picture:
This program is also another huge gov’t intrusion into the financial markets on top of everything else and as we further socialize finance, we further misallocate capital as we distort the risk and reward.

Look, I know the titans of finance don't want to hear it, but the bubblicious nature of both the tech sector and housing over the past decade really ought to make people re-think the idea that financial markets are particularly good at allocating capital. It's not like the government could possibly do any worse.

Guess The WaPo Presser Question

So there's a Presidential press conference tonight. The last time we had one of these, the reporter for DC's paper of record, the Washington Post, used his time to ask the President for his thoughts on the news that Alex Rodriguez took steroids four or five years ago. Use the comments to place your bets on what trivia the Post will deem important tonight.

Deep Thought

If a "fiasco" has no discernible impact on a President's approval ratings, is it still a fiasco? I know he's been in office for almost sixty-five days and journalists haven't been able to start the "Failed Obama Presidency" narrative, but can't it wait just a little longer? The American people, it turns out, are not idiots, and seem to understand how little the President could have done about the bonuses before he even knew about them.

Evaluating The Geithner Plan

A couple emails from financial industry friend Ó Coileáin on the Geithner plan. The first email is a bit older, from right when rumors of the plan broke. I found the end of point 3 particularly interesting.
1) On balance, I'm sympathetic to the DeLong analysis of the bailout plan. The key point of Krugman's criticism is that he assumes we must be in one of two states: either the assets are undervalued at current marks or they're not. And this just isn't the case. Certainly, at least some of the assets are undervalued at current marks -- maybe not all, but just by assuming there's some distribution you can reasonably think that some are. If you further think that none of the usual bond suspects (banks, insurance companies) in their right mind want to own up to their investors that they hold subprime assets at any price or even lend against them, you can imagine that the only bids you'll be getting are at levels that provide equity-capital-driven speculators 20% (maybe higher, crisis) return targets unlevered (since there is no leverage to be had). So I think it's far from inconceivable that a fair chunk of these assets are priced underneath some kind of fundamental value.

2) I still have no real basis on which to assess Geithner's performance. It remains the case that if he were actually out to nationalize big banks he would be behaving no differently than he is now -- making happy noises, giving little inklings of his plans that don't screw over equity necessarily, and so on, all in preparation for the Night of the Long Tier 1 Capital Ratios that will be nationalization. At the same time, sadness that none of it is actually happening yet, that all existing plans appear to suck, etc.

3) Trying to nationalize B of A (say) without a damn good reason is probably inviting the legal showdown of the century. If the bank regulator acted not in accordance with existing regulations or did any little thing wrong you can imagine a lawsuit for $10b or even $100b very easily. Unless you get actual cooperation from management (Bear, AIG did cooperate, remember) for whatever plan you have, you're going to need an airtight case -- arbitrary action will probably stick you with a preliminary injunction and a giant court fight. You may remember from a recent NY times story that banks are marking at 60 securities that are currently selling for 30, on the grounds that the markets are too illiquid and firesale-based to trust; the only reason this situation should persist is that it can get by FDIC accountants, at least scared of biggest-lawsuit-in-history FDIC accountants. In keeping with this point, there's another virtue of TALF: you do get fair market bids on essentially everything in the universe, and bids that don't reflect distressed sales. If we're in the Krugman Scenario, where even at 6:1 leverage prices the big banks are insolvent, we have pretty incontrovertible evidence of that fact, which we can then use to safely put said banks down.
He follows up later in another email:
Congressional action probably can substitute for the implicit FDIC-accountant-stick in (3) (that is, managements can be made to cooperate either through the threat of old-style regulatory takeover or some new-style legal action); I'd probably still prefer to do without and avoid the congressional wrangling, but it's doable.

Many of the numerical examples floating around the internet are implicitly structured to maximize the value of the Geithner put. The "assets worth zero or 100" example is probably the worst offender because this is exactly where Brad DeLong's point bites: if senior tranches of pools of prime first-lien mortgages are worth zero, not only has essentially every borrower in the country defaulted but the houses securing those mortgages are also not worth the price of selling them, i.e. nobody has any money at all and it really is canned-goods-and-bottled-water time. On the other end of the scale you could use a binary model where assets were worth either 15% more or 15% less than new purchase price -- in this world, investors make +100% or -100% and the Geithner put is valueless (since the assets can't go below the value of the loan). Probably we're somewhere in between, but the point is that choice of constants really matters here and some of the more popular choices are wildly misleading.

I should further point out that, while I think that recourse loans would generate many of the same effects, I can see the case for making them non-recourse, particularly if you want to raise dedicated new money and/or don't want to do extensive credit analyses on every possible investor, but that's something I'll have to expand on when not running for a plane.

Monday, March 23, 2009

I Can't Even Begin To Respond

In Dallas, there's a strip club that hosts Guitar Hero/Rock Band tournaments.

... Um ... use the comments to make snarky observations about the clientele and/or owners?

Anger Is A Political Strategy

I'm a bit irritated by this "Anger isn't a governing strategy" stuff from Obama. Sure, it isn't, and the AIG bonus wars are a molehill anyway. But surely there's some sort of useful technocrat-blessed policy proposal that will piss of Wall Street while making America better off that you could channel today's populist rage into. The government is going to need more revenue sources in the future, so how about a higher marginal tax rate on millionaires that kicks in in 2011, once the need for stimulus will probably be gone? How about a similarly delayed increase in capital gains taxes, scheduled for that time? How about whatever new banking regulations you want to pass?

People have enough trust in Obama that he could take the anger of today and redirect it towards the systemic fixes that we need rather than trying to dissipate it.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Next Up: Kickboxers For Choice

Being aware of the shortcomings of vigilante justice, I wouldn't urge random people to ambush Chris Brown and beat him up. But I think it sends a positive social message for victorious Ultimate Fighting combatants to express their willingness to do so. To wit, Din Thomas:
"I have to address the Chris Brown-Rihanna situation. It's not cool to put your hands on a woman. If you need someone to kick his ass ... holla," said Thomas as the crowd roared with approval.
The referee had just stopped Thomas' fight in the first round after he knocked his opponent to the ground with several punches and a flying knee to the head.

If You Can Filibuster, We Can Use Reconciliation

This Wall Street Journal article suggests that Democrats aren't shy about doing just that to pass health care reform, which is an excellent sign:

the tactic -- allowing legislation to pass the Senate with 51 votes rather than the 60 need to overcome a possible filibuster -- has been used by Republican and Democratic administrations to secure major initiatives, from Bill Clinton's tax increases in 1993 to George W. Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003...

The parliamentary tactic, known as "reconciliation," was the main subject of conversation Wednesday night as White House Budget Director Peter Orszag met with Democratic leaders, Democratic leadership aides said. On Tuesday, Mr. Orszag had called it the norm, not an anomaly, for major budget initiatives.

The full House Democratic caucus has yet to be consulted on the issue. But the expectation is that the House will include reconciliation instructions in the budget plan that will be unveiled early next week. And if so, the language will be written to give enough time for the White House and lawmakers to reach a bipartisan deal without resorting to the tactic.

The article also contains whining from Republicans who helped Bush use reconciliation to pass his tax cuts, and who seem to think that the filibuster is a pillar of constitutional governance now that they're in the minority.

A Bad Deal

Some business types are trying to put together a compromise on EFCA that keeps the penalties for trying to rig the elections, weakens the organizing rules on card check, and drops the mandatory arbitration provisions. I'm sure Sir Charles can provide more, but this is a raw deal; if you want to drop something, drop the card check stuff and fight to the death for arbitration. Your phone company, your car dealership, and your cable/sattelite provider love having mandatory arbitration clauses in their contracts; if it's good enough for those deals, why shouldn't it be good enough for labor negotiations?

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Tim Geithner's bank rescue plan looks terrible. I don't want to go to Japan.

Update: So what are we rooting for here? Congress to shut this down? Geithner's opponents within the White House to get their knives out? Massive public outrage to stop pointless bank giveaways? I'd rather not degrade Obama's political capital before the health care fight -- everybody remembers NAFTA '94. But there are plenty of scenarios where that could end up happening.

Don't Burn Dollars! They're Worth Money!

Professional financial idiot Larry Kudlow has been burning dollars on television as part of a statement against the Fed's decision to buy up lots of non-Treasury securities. The idea is that this sort of behavior weakens the dollar, contributing to inflation. Of course, as Matt says, we're in a situation where deflation is much more of a problem than inflation. The dollar is really strong right now. Weakening it to get more money flowing around in the economy is a good idea.

To illustrate this, I've put up a bunch of charts showing how much the dollar buys you in other currencies, and how that quantity has changed over the past year. That first one is the British pound. A year ago, a dollar was worth 50 pence. Now it's closer to 70 pence. As Scotland uses the British pound, this has affected my life by causing me to buy lots of scotch when I'm in America.

The second chart shows the Euro, against which the dollar has also appreciated significantly. The third is the Australian dollar. When I went to Australia for a conference in July, everything seemed really expensive. I think I'll be going down there again in December and I look forward to buying local beers for the friendly philosophers down there when we're hanging out at pubs. The US dollar is worth 40% more than it was back then.

The strongest major currency in the world over the past year-plus has been the yen -- that's the fourth one, and the dollar has almost kept pace with it. There's kind of an interesting side note here about the "Yen carry trade". The Japanese central bank has been charging very low interest rates for a while now. Speculators would borrow Yen at 3%, then convert it into other kinds of money like the Icelandic Krona, and lend it out in places where interest rates were higher like Iceland at 15%. Sounds like a pretty neat idea, right? Well, it was until the Yen got super strong and the Krona collapsed. Then even if you got paid back on your 15% loan, you just had a bunch of worthless Krona and you couldn't pay off your Yen debt. Leverage would make this extra devastating.

The last chart is the Singapore dollar, since that's what I'm earning these days. Now, I have a vested interest in a weaker dollar at this point, because the strong dollar means my (still quite nice) salary is worth a bit less than I thought it'd be when I took this job. In any event, like anybody who lives abroad, I'm quite attuned to the strength of the dollar. And believe me, it's really strong. Having the Fed weaken it a little is no big problem. When you're burning it, you're burning real money.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Ahoy! Middle Ground

Brad DeLong argues that we should look at tech sector compensation when thinking about how Wall Street traders ought to get paid. As a technology sector employee a wholeheartedly endorse this. More seriously, I need to think about the problem a bit more.

What's Next, Imaginary Street Signs?

National Journal has a "scandalous" report that an underwhelming minority of Obama appointees—11 whole percent!—have been registered lobbyists at some point in the last five years. Obama's rules state that you can't work in the Administration if you've been a lobbyist in the last two years. Or ratehr, they say you can't work in an area where you've lobbied. And no, this is not some "govern in prose" walkback of a campaign promise; it matches the pledges he was making in 2007. In essence, National Journal has decided that after Barack Obama tried to meet any higher standard on lobbying and ethics than the law allows, he should be held to whatever arbitrarily high standard reporters can come up with.

All AIG All The Time

TPM has a nice history of AIG Financial Products. In essence, AIGFP's major sins were (1) to commit "ratings arbitrage"—exploit the fact that AIG the insurance company was AAA rated to allow AIG the trading/CDS-writing company to do all sort of things more cheaply than it might otherwise have to—(2) to fail to model housing prices correctly, in which they were not alone even though people on the outside looking in thought the whole enterprise was crazy, and (3) to assume that events that would trigger payments on some of their insurance/CDS contracts would require an economic collapse that would take out the counterparties first (oops!). Separately you have periods of time where AIG has trouble with its auditors or Eliot Spitzer, though it's unclear to me if their level of trouble was any higher than the average financial firm.

I keep groping for some middle ground, not out of instinct but because I know some of this work is actually valuable. Packaging up diverse loans to reduce risk makes a lot of sense; it just went bad when the packagers started making crazy assumptions about the housing market and their borrowers' ability to pay that everything went awry. Compensating traders fairly well makes senseit's just that when the compensation comes in the form of "guaranteed bonuses" that it looks crazy. I'm actually pretty confident that the people running the show understand that there's some value in the changes in Wall Street over the past thirty years, but the question is how to preserve all that value while taming the excesses.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Independent Specter?

In an interview with The Hill, Arlen Specter plays with the idea of running as an Independent in 2010 and caucusing with the Republicans, sort of a reverse Lieberman deal. He'd have to stay out of the GOP primary if he did this, because Pennsylvania's laws don't allow primary losers to run in general elections.

I'd be really surprised if Specter went independent in this way -- it would create a highly unpredictable 3-way race and give him a bigger chance of losing than any other option I've heard. This is the one scenario in which Pat Toomey has a serious chance of winning, though I'd probably give the Democrat the best shot, and the race would depend on a bunch of stuff that I can't predict. So I'm guessing that Specter is playing some kind of funky game here. I don't really have a good idea what that game is, though.

Goodbye Ellen Tauscher

Glenn Thrush lets us know that Ellen Tauscher is leaving California's 10th Congressional District to be the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security under Hillary Clinton. That sounds like a pretty important job, and I hope she doesn't screw it up. However, I'll be happy to have her out of the House, where she was a lot less liberal than her district would support. You don't want people from Northern California districts where Obama won with 64.7% of the vote to be vice-chairing the DLC and claiming membership in the Blue Dog coalition. You especially don't want them writing favors for banking interests into mortgage cramdown bills.

In her defense, she's a pretty good social liberal, and she introduced some legislation to end Don't Ask Don't Tell. But plenty of Democrats will be willing to introduce bills like that. Being rid of an influential banking industry shill is a worthwhile trade, and I look forward to the special election for her replacement.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

All Chalk

Obama picks three #1s and one #2 for the Final Four. I think Memphis is eternally overrated, but they did make the final four last year, albeit with Derrick Rose. If Lawson's not 100% I feel like Oklahoma ought to be the favorite in the South, but I don't think we can accuse Obama of pandering by picking UNC, considering he picked Louisville out of the Midwest and Memphis out of the West. Of the teams seeded below #2 I like Xavier, but I like Pittsurgh better; and I like West Virginia, but Louisville has a clear edge there. While the Huskies had a pleasantly surprising season and ended up seeded fourth, the Pac-10 was just miserable this year; this team isn't as strong as the Brandon Roy-led teams of yesteryear. That leaves the hope for a low seed in Kansas, Mizzou (which will warm the heart of @clairecmc), or an out-of-the-blue underdog. There's an awful lot of parity in college 'ball this year, it would seem. So perhaps Obama's chalk picks will hold up.

Update: Wow. Obama picked a whopping three upsets, plus two of the 8-9 games. Weak sauce.

Stan Greenberg's Assorted Thoughts

Stan Greenberg, who was Bill Clinton's pollster during the 1992 campaign, was at Town Hall Seattle last night to sell his new book and talk about assorted topics. Like most folks who end up getting extremely close, they tend to think that successful politicians are more honorable than the public gives them credit for. Here are some notes from what he said:
  • Almost all of Greenberg's answers emphasized the fact that voters aren't idiots and tend to think in broader terms than specific issue polling.
  • He thinks Obama's approach on health care is looking good. He likes the idea of trying to bring 'all of civic' life into the conversation. Second, he likes the fact that there's space in the budget for health care, so that in effect, the debate on the budget is a debate on how whether or not the government will invest in health care and at what level. This contrasts with the Clinton approach, which was fully designed by White House staff and tried much harder to keep costs off the government's books.
  • I asked him what he thought about the shift among white college educated voters shifting towards Obama, while white non-college voters stayed with Republicans, and what it would mean. Greenberg responded with a broader observation about how politics is defined by who is mobilized, then mentioned that 2008 saw higher levels of mobilization among African-Americans and Latinos than ever before. Then he said that the white working class abandoned Bush and the GOP in 2006, but "they paused there", so there is some question as to which direction they will turn going forward. Then he finally got to the youth vote and the upscale suburbs, observing that Macomb county is now "uninteresting" in the sense that it went for Obama by a modest margin, but that the surprising action is in the wealthier and more educated Oakland county, where Obama won by an even larger margin. He further claimed that the Republicans' post-election antics as the Know-Nothing party will further alienate these upscale suburban voters. Sadly he didn't have a chance to get into the question of how it would change progressive politics.
There were more, but those are the ones I can remember.

Important Tip: How To Make The New Facebook Suck Less

If, like me, you have a problem because the new Facebook layout, combined with SXSW, has laid bare the fact that many users' Tweets are now part of your status feed—pity the poor person who's Facebook friends with Ana Marie Cox—and that frequent Tweeters can make it nearly impossible to see updates from Everyone else. Sadly, there's no way to tell Facebook not to send you the updates people make via Twitter. But, you can at least push the Tweeps of your home page, which Twould be, twerrific! Here's how it's done.
  • Go to the Friends tab.
  • Make a New List. Put all of your friends in the list except for the pigf***ers who overuse Twitter.
  • Go back to your Facebook home. In the left hand column you should see you your new friends list. If not, click the topmost "More" chevron.
  • Drag it to the top of that list, so that it's above the thing labeled "News Feed".
  • Refresh the page. The column full of status updates should now exclude the pigf***ers who overuse Twitter
And Chris Willman has this whole saga about right.

Doctors Vs. Tanning Salons

The issue of the day pits the the Texas Dermatological Society against the Indoor Tanning Association: Should teenagers be prohibited from tanning unless they have a doctor's note?

My head sides with the dermatologists. In a modern technological society, we can't expect people to consider all the evidence on the wide variety of available technologies and correctly evaluate the risks. When I see disinterested doctors arguing, "That multiplies a teen's risk of squamous carcinoma by 3.6!" against a business lobby making personal freedom arguments in defense of their lucrative and frivolous service, my inclination is to side with the doctors.

Parts lower than my head emphatically agree, as I find milky-white skin quite pretty and regard tanning salons as places women go to become less attractive.

Why Are Headlines Left To Editors?

Here's T.A. Frank pointing out that he didn't write the bombastic headline for his article in the Guardian -- it's "The failed presidency of Barack Obama." And here's Michael Calderone at Brad DeLong's blog saying that "JournoList: Inside the echo chamber" wasn't his idea.

I've always thought it kind of weird that editors, not writers, generally write the headlines for articles. Headlines make a huge difference in how readers understand articles, especially if they're voracious speed-reading bloggers. It's unfortunate that they're controlled by people who usually understand the substance of the article in less depth than the writer, who haven't spent as much time thinking out clever and relevant turns of phrase, whose perspectives on the article are more likely to be idiosyncratic, and whose names don't appear on the final product.

I've heard people say that headlines are seen as a device to advertise the story -- that's what you use to pull readers in, so it should be in the hands of someone who specializes in evaluating reader-pulling phrases rather than the person who produced the content. But if that's what we're going for, we might as well randomly headline foreign policy articles "Lohan, Ronson Capture Osama" or "Obama Confirms Threesome With Olsen Twins" and have done with it.

California Demise

California is notorious for (a) the ease of passing changes to state law through ballot initiatives and (b) the 2/3 supermajority requirement to pass a budget. I was wondering whether it was possible to use (a) to get rid of (b). After the chaos surrounding the recently passed budget, voters would be receptive to a ballot initiative to eliminate the supermajority requirement and make it possible to pass budgets with a simple majority like reasonable states do, right?

Right! Or so it looks:
The PPIC Statewide Survey taken in mid-January finds for the first time that a majority – 54 percent of Californians – believe that it is a "good idea" to change the two-thirds majority to a 55 percent majority for the state Legislature to pass a budget. Five years ago, California voters soundly rejected an initiative that would have done exactly that. The Proposition 56 vote was 34 percent yes and 66 percent no, with majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents voting against this change, according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll. In every PPIC Statewide Survey asking this question since June 2003, fewer than half of Californians favored lowering the two-thirds vote requirement. As recently as May, just 39 percent of Californians said it was a "good idea."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Pride Of Authoritarianship

Julian catches George W. Bush talking about the book he plans to write, and saying... did he really say this? Appears so: "I’m going to put people in my place, so when the history of this administration is written at least there’s an authoritarian voice saying exactly what happened."

Your Morning Faux Irish Music

Today is usually a day for lots of Dropkick Murphys, Pogues, and the like, but here's a break from the usual suspects for Korpiklaani's "Happy Little Boozer":

Happy Little Boozer - Korpiklaani

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Why AIG Needs To Pay Out $100 Million In Bonuses

Here's part of an email from financial industry friend Ó Coileáin, explaining why we're paying AIG people $100 million in bonuses. Remember that unlike other bailout-involved firms, we own 80% of AIG now.
- AIGFP is in the hole something like $100b, with potential losses much higher than that. Unwinding all their contracts is a bitch, and the people who already understand how best to do that are the current employees. Unwinding strange positions effectively is a giant mess even if you already understand all or most of them. I believe that having new employees step in would cost way more than the 10 bps they're paying to current employees.

- Imagine you're a trader at AIGFP. You've done pretty well for yourself over the last decade, actually, and probably you've got enough savings to retire. Not in the kind of luxury you're accustomed to, maybe, but some. Certainly you can ride out the recession without changing your lifestyle. Do you really want to keep working at AIGFP for a small amount (to you) of money to minimize the cost of unwinding the thing? No reputation, no promotion, no head start on a new career of some kind, and the job itself will be no fun. Honestly, you've got lots of egg on your face, but why stay?

So sure, I have no desire to pay these idiots, but this is one of those things that you just suck up in a bad situation. If it helps retain staff at AIGFP (those bastards), that cash was probably money well spent.
Personally, I'd really like it if we could bundle in some big future tax increases on business -- perhaps a securities transaction tax, an increase in capital gains rates, or a boost to corporate income taxes -- with whatever bailout legislation we pass. If you don't want it to kick in immediately for stimulus reasons or whatever, schedule it for 2011 or something. It's too late to get our money back from the people who created this catastrophe, and we're in the sad position where giving them more money ends up being the best way to save ourselves money. But if we're going to do that and create benefits for everybody by preventing total economic catastrophe, we might as well take back some share of the future benefits to Wall Street.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Obamayana

Conservatives like to accuse liberals of thinking Obama is the Messiah, a sign that they don't read OpenLeft very much. I see that ThinkProgress is pushing back with a graphic that says, no, he's not the Messiah, he's an avatar of Vishnu.

In any event, while Yglesias has a nice response to any actual progressives who worry about Obama's focus on other stuff while the banking system needs to be fixed, some people expressing these worries may just not care so much for the other things (health care reform, cap and trade, etc).

What It Takes To Run For the GOP Nomination

Adding to the irony of Mark Sanford's inane decision to use stimulus money to pay down debt (the point of stimulus is to, you know, do things that provide employment rather than accelerate your debt service), during his non-SOTU SOTU Barack Obama invited Ty'Sheoma Bethea, a student from South Carolina's "Corridor of Shame", to sit in the First Lady's Box. Since Stanford is explicitly trying to repurpose the education money, this means teachers who might otherwise not be laid off will get their pink slips, and that Bethea's school won't see any renovations. All while South Carolina has the 2nd-highest unemployment in the nation. Good times.

Jim Cramer's America

I actually found the gotcha re-plays of the "Cramer tells people to commit securities fraud" video frustrating. He's not going to confess to federal crimes on air; it's not clear to me that those particular shenanigans were the source of the current collapse (probably not), nor is it clear how widespread that sort of behavior is (well, probably not prevalent, but not infinitesimal either), nor that CNBC is particularly complicit in hiding this stuff.

The real crime of CNBC, of course, is the other stuff that Stewart kept touching on; it's the fact that CNBC is, basically, a network of soothsayers who are trying to convince their audience that they can make money on the stock market in the short run. The station is bullish to the point of absurdity, and, it seems particularly bullish on ever increasing returns to the financial sector. Nouriel Roubini and Nassim Nicholas go on the show in the middle of an economic meltdown and get peppered with requests for stock tips. There's no need for a financial news network to be run this way; financial professionals are smart enough to tune out what talking heads have to say and listen to guests from the government or businesses, and Bloomberg TV doesn't have quite the same tone.

This raises the question of who CNBC sees as its target audience; people working on Wall Street, guys who listen to what Warren Buffet has to say, or daytraders sitting at their E*Trade consoles amped up on testosterone. My hunch is that they think their producing a product for that third group, probably because it's the easiest way to maximize ratings.

Lastly, as with Stewart's interview of Colin Powell, the fact that the anchor of a fake news show is the only person capable of performing a sufficiently in-depth interview demonstrates the utter absurdity of our current era in general and the behavior of major press outlets in particular. Time for a blogger ethics panel.

Update: shorter Nicholas Beaudrot: "... increasingly “business news” doesn’t report news about business so much as it does advocacy for investor class interests". This is why Matt Yglesias has a paid gig writing, and I have a paid gig programming and doing math.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Judicial Watch Redux

After ABC News actually looks at the FOIA'd documents, the good Mr. Thrush realizes that the seemingly insubstantial Pelosi airplane smear is even less substantial than it appeared. Moral of the story: Judicial Watch should be regarded as a partisan smear group, not some sort of good-government organization.


Seriously, if the new standard for Senate nominees is that they can't say anything mean about opposition party figures, future cabinet appointments will make the attempt to fill out the roster at Treasury look like a cakewalk. This is politics; man up and get used to this sort of thing.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

That's One Fewer Baseblogger For Man ...

Ross Douthat is headed to the Times. Obviously he a giant step up from Bill Kristol. Douthat's usual posture is one of being an interested heterodox conservative trying to turn the GOP into a sort of Christian Democrat-lite party, which actually provides some sort of financial support for the nuclear family structure that seems to be at the root of a lot of conservative activism. However, this is coupled with a penchant for veering into the an alternative universe wherein it's affront for taxpayer dollars to go to a non-profit that performs any abortions whatsoever, and where the "compromises" to reduce the number of abortions involve enacting legislative and logistical barriers that minimize access to safe abortion clinics. And then of course you can wash it all down with a shot of life-begins-at-conception. Like I said, progress over Bill Kristol. But as Lindsay observes the news is getting very different reactions depending on whether or not the writer has a Y chromosome. See Kevin Drum for another mixed take.

Even worse, unless the Times igoing to have Douthat keep a blog as well, his loss means one fewer baseball fan, putting the treacherous forces of basketblogging are on the march. To the barricades!

Though, does the New York Times (which, it should be said, steadfastly ignores the Mets in favor of more Yankee boosterism) know that Douthat is a lifelong Red Sox fan? Perhaps we can derail his new job offer through other means ...

Word To Glenn Thrush: Judicial Watch ≠ A "Good-Government Group"

I'm a big fan of Glenn Thrush's Congressional coverage on Politico, but he should know better than to call Judicial Watch a "good-government group". (To his credit, Thrush gives Pelosi aides adequate space to respond to the insubstantial Judicial Watch smears.)

I understand the impulse to be somewhat deferential to people's self-descriptions. But there has to be a limit on this sort of stuff. Just as you don't call NAMBLA a child welfare organization, you don't call a group that uses millions from Richard Mellon Scaife to harass the Clintons, push Swift Boat smears against John Kerry, and raise Terri Schiavo hysteria a "good government organization". These guys are just a right-wing pressure group, pure and simple.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Voice Vote

So I get why the amendment on, say, salary caps at Wall Street firms passed by voice vote. No Republican has the balls to oppose it, while enough Democrats don't have the balls to support it. But why is the budget allowed to pass on a voice vote? The budget is the governing blueprint of the United States; Senators really ought to be forced to say whether they are for or against it.

Get your omnibus cloture roll call here. Among Republicans, Kit Bond, Thad Cochran, Roger Wicker, Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe, and Richard Shelby end up voting for it. Russ Feingold, and Claire McCaskill, and Leading Democratic wanker Evan Bayh vote against.

Orange Crush

Wow, that was pretty cool. The Dominican Republic is clearly one of the elite teams in the WBC, along with Japan, Puerto Rico, the United States, and Cuba, so the Dutch win here (their second against the D.R.) is a real shocker. Baseball is built to have a fairly high likelihood of upsets, which is frustrating if you're, say, an Atlanta Braves fan, but it's games like this that make the set-up worthwhile.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Chinese Underwear Navy Intimidates US Ships

This is part of a serious story but I couldn't read it without laughing:
The Pentagon charged that a Chinese intelligence gathering vessel and four others "shadowed and maneuvered dangerously close" to the USNS Impeccable surveillance ship in the South China Sea on Sunday, then threw obstacles in the water as it tried to leave.

In an odd twist, the unarmed Impeccable, which is operated for the Navy by civilian mariners, turned fire hoses on one vessel that came within 50 feet of it. The Chinese crew stripped to their underwear, then closed to within 25 feet.

A Pentagon spokesman called that "immature" and said the Chinese behaved recklessly and in violation of international law.

"We view these as unprofessional maneuvers," spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
Still, I'm sure that valuable surveillance data was acquired.

Come Into My Parlor, Said The Spider To The Fucking Idiot

No sooner had Glenn Thrush reported on the Republicans' failure to touch Nancy Pelosi, full with quotes from the dude who ran ads against her in 2006, than Patrick McHenry came out and said “Our goal is to bring down approval numbers for Pelosi and for House Democrats. That will take repetition. This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

There's nothing inconsistent about Thrush's two reports, though, once you factor in the fact that Patrick McHenry is basically the bright young face of total Republican idiocy. I look forward to watching him embark on a marathon strategy doomed to failure.

A Quarter of A Million Dollar Salary: A Lot of F***ing Money

A small point in rebuttal of the idea that Obama's attempt to fund a tax cut for 90% of Americans, build new infrastructure, and keep the deficit under control by among other things returning to Clinton-era tax rates on families earning $250,000 a year will hit the "middle class". Some numbers of interest:
  • The average salary for a family practicioner with 10-19 years of experience is $141,671.
  • The median starting salary for law school graduates is $62,000. However, this doesn't tell you the whole picture; in reality, one set of law students graduate and take jobs making between $40,000 and $50,000, while the other (smaller) set takes jobs making between $130,000 and $160,000. The median salary for lawyers with 10-19 years in the industry is $102,915.
  • Software engineers with the same experience earn $83,188.
  • Full professors have a median earnings of $76,945.
  • Usually when Republicans bring this up, they come up with some trope about the tax increase hitting small businesses that file individually. But let's do the math to see how "small" we're talking. Margins for apparel retailers seem to be around 5%-7%; for hardware stores, 3-4%; similarly for Best Buy. Let's be extremely generous and say our small business owner has an 8% margin. To earn $250,000, then, the business would need $3.125 million in revenue. Retail sales in major malls are about $400-500 per square foot, as do the fancier mall-chain restaurants. So our small business needs 6,000-8,000 square feet. This means our small business owner needs either one very large chunk of floor space in some prime commercial real estate, or four or five smaller store fronts. Joe the Plumber this ain't; you've got to be a bonafide business and not just some dude operating out of your house to pull in this kind of money.
It is, in fact, quite possible that the overwhelming majority of Americans neither earn a $250,000 per year nor know anyone who does. There are probably entire towns where no one is this loaded. In terms of income earners as opposed to investors, that kind of money is exceedingly rare outside of high finance, successful tech firms, high-end law firms, doctors who are specialists, professors who are teaching at top schools, and a tiny fraction of entertainment personalities.

Better Factcheckers, Please

WaPo: "Partisan Fights ahead on Stem Cells, Omnibus"

Okay, the Omnibus bill I'll give you. But 20% of Republican House members voted for the 2007 Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. As did 30% of Republican Senate members. It's true that a number of those members have since retired or lost reelection (see Shays, Chris), but it's simply not true that Stem Cell research is a partisan issue.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Banks Have Already Failed

To tease out a point that Kevin Drum is getting at here, Richard Shelby's and John McCain's wishcasting to see GM in Chapter 11 and let Citigroup "fail" is just nonresponsive to the current problem. Just look at Citigroup's stock price. Or Bank of America's. Shareholders clearly understand that these banks are at best insolvent or at worst prime candidates for nationalization. They're done. The name "Bank of America" may continue to exist, but those who were expecting dividends or rising stock prices attached to that name won't be seeing any gains any time soon.

The question in either case has little to do with the particular decision to nationalize the banks or "let them fail"; the real question is about what happens next. The banks have depositors and bondholders and probably a host of other folks holding claims against the bank that will want to be repaid. Nationalization or not, dealing with this long line of people is the hard problem to which no elected Republican or Democrat has a particularly good answer.

We Are Good At Eventually Winning

I hadn't known before that George Wallace's daughter endorsed Obama.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Party Invitation

It's not just bloggers -- The Hill is speculating about the possibility of Arlen Specter joining the Democratic Party. Part of the analysis is that Pennsylvania has closed primaries so only Republicans can vote, and lots of moderate Republicans there have switched their registration to become Democrats in the past few years. What's left of the Pennsylvania GOP is more conservative than it was when Specter beat Pat Toomey 51-49 back in 2004. Toomey is running again, and it's going to be hard for Specter to beat him by talking about how conservative he is and then beat a Democrat by looking moderate.

Much simpler to just avoid the whole obstacle course and become a Democrat.

Nancy Cooks With Teflon

Interesting article from Glenn Thrush about Republicans admitting that attacking Nancy Pelosi has gotten them nowhere. I liked this bit:
“Pelosi’s a particularly tough demographic to demonize,” says a senior Republican strategist who has okayed several anti-Pelosi ads during the 2006 campaign.

“She’s a woman, and she’s of a certain age level, and that’s a demographic both parties are trying to court. She just doesn’t evoke that same kind of visceral reaction [as Limbaugh]. She’s not a big, bellowing heavyset guy who is prone to controversial statements.”

Asked to gauge the impact of dozens of anti-Pelosi ads and mailings created by the GOP in the past three election cycles, the consultant replied, “Bleh. Nothing.”
I've long wanted to have Nancy play 'bad cop,' ramming progressive legislation through the house so that Obama ends up looking relatively moderate (and so that the inevitable Collins/Snowe/Nelson crappification of everything in the Senate still results in good legislation). With Republicans admitting that they can't get anything to stick to her, the case for this sort of strategy only looks stronger.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Party Like It's 1981.

This rather nifty chart comparing unemployment in the current recession to previous recessions isn't exactly a pleasant read. We're getting close to the point where, in all previous post-war recessions, employment started to stabilize; only the 1981 recession saw job losses continue after 14 months. But the other difference is that the current recession didn't start getting really bad until the 8th or 9th month, while other recessions saw rapidly rising unemployment start somewhere between month two and month six. So based on historical data, then, we have between three and nine months of terrible BLS reports. Or something like that. Maybe.

(I'd hat tip, but the post is no longer in my google reader. Sorry, sorry.)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Our Negative Sum System

Kevin Drum on something really bad about the health care system:
the system massively overcharges you if you're uninsured, and they do it just because they can. If you're uninsured, you've got no leverage, no alternatives, no nothing. So you get screwed. It's like the shopkeepers who charge twenty bucks for a pair of flashlight batteries after hurricanes. Maybe it's the free market at work, but if so, that's all the worse for the free market.
As far as I can tell, it's even worse than the hurricane battery people. I can see how the opportunity to charge $20 for batteries at least generates good incentives. If I'm running the battery store after the hurricane, I'll make lots of money, and that possibility will give me incentives to make sure I have plenty of batteries on hand when people might come to suddenly need batteries.

What beneficial activity is incentivized by insurance companies using their bargaining power to push costs onto the uninsured? I can't see anything comparable here. This looks like a zero-sum game. And then when you consider that the uninsured are likely to be poorer and factor in the diminishing marginal utility of money, it's a negative sum game.

The Prompter vs the Printed Word

Just to be clear, the alternative to Barack Obama looking at a Teleprompter when he speaks is Barack Obama looking down at a printout of whatever his speechwriter just handed him. No President has time to write his own speeches, let alone memorize them.

For Great Justice!

I read this Krugman post and recognize the title meme, as any geek will. And then it occurs to me that a Nobel Prize winner is making All Your Base references on his blog.

More On Rush Limbaugh

If you haven't seen it yet, the DCCC's Rush Limbaugh apology generator is pretty cute. I think it could use a couple more entries (maybe an outlandish one involving zombies or something).

Part of what we're seeing here is the inability of an out-of-power party to control the media narrative. Lacking a powerful elected leader to be their representative, the Republicans can't really stop us from nudging that position into the hands of an egotistical and stupid talk radio extremist.

We had a similar problem in the '03-'06 years, lacking high-wattage leaders to speak for us, other than John Kerry for a few months, and he wasn't the best at speaking. Of course, the Republicans couldn't do the exact same trick on us -- if they tried to pick on Michael Moore or somebody like that, our party leaders would just run away from him. But the problem was that Republicans had control of the media narrative until external events like Katrina or out-of-control Iraq violence took it away. Remember when John Conyers tried to hold a hearing about Iraq War intelligence, and they wouldn't give him a proper room so he had to hold it in some kind of basement, and even Jon Stewart made fun of how a woman sitting in the background was breast-feeding during the hearing? That's what it looks like when you're out of power.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What's So Wrong About A Cat In A Bong?

Everybody seems to be angry at the stoner from Nebraska who put his kitten inside a large bong a few times while he smoked. The cat was in no danger from fire, as far as I know -- it just got high off of the marijuana. The dude's reason is kind of amusing: apparently he "told deputies 6-month-old Shadow was hyper and he was trying to calm her down." She seems to be mostly fine.

For my part, I don't see what the problem is. Assuming that human biology and cat biology are similar in the relevant respects, Shadow probably just had a good if slightly disorienting time in there and liked the way her cat food tasted afterwards. I mean, what are people so upset about here? Is it that marijuana is a "gateway drug" and the kitten will start snorting coke? That she'll drop out of school and have trouble keeping a job? Giving euphoria-inducing drugs to animals seems a fine thing to do.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Re-Education Through Limbaugh

The strangest thing about the latest round of public apologies after pointing out that Rush Limbaugh isn't the Messiah is that it's unclear to me who exactly is calling the shots. Can it really be the case that the Republican donor class, particularly the high-dollar, DC-centric class, is so wedded to Limbaugh that they can't have him hear a little honest criticism?

That said, while the Limbaugh strategy has a decent chance of working wonders in 2010 and 2012, I doubt it will be useful much longer than that. Just as George W. Bush duped us all with compassionate conservatism, a 2016 Republican candidate will be able to run on the same tired agenda simply by repeating the words "I am not like Rush Limbaugh" at every campaign stop.

Anti-Abortion Terrorism And Raffles

It'd actually be pretty nice if the religious right makes lots of noise about George Tiller in Kathleen Sebelius' confirmation hearings. He's the abortion doctor whom she had dinner with after he won a raffle. It would probably be fine even if she'd invited him for dinner by choice, but in these circumstances all honorable Americans will agree that the customs of raffles must be obeyed.

And then there's the fact that Tiller was shot in both arms by an anti-abortion activist in 1993. This seems like the kind of detail that is good at making its way into a story. Anti-abortion activists have done a pretty good job of not shooting people for the past few years, unlike the 1990s. (Nowadays they're more likely to set clinics on fire and blow stuff up.) If the fundamentalists want to remind people of their doctor-shooting ways, that's an arrangement we can live with.