Friday, December 31, 2010

Today in "Shit State Legislators Say": Gold Coinage

Continuing this theme, TPM spots State Rep. Bobby Franklin (R-GA), introducing a bill to mandate that all taxes be paid in gold and silver bullion. Good times!

"Shit State Legislators Say" is probably more likely to pick up crazy stories emanating from Georgia and Virginia, since those states are both breeding grounds for hard-right crankery, and both are in close proximity to Atlanta (headquarters of CNN) and DC. Closeness to major media markets is also one of the root causes of the overcoverage of Christine O'Donnell's (R-DE) Senate candidacy (that and the fact that she's relatively young and attractive, though no one will say that's a factor).

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Jeff Merkley Continues To Be Awesome, Gets More Of My Money

The first time I solicited donations for Jeff Merkley, he was running for the Oregon Senate seat. I was impressed by his solidly progressive positions on all kinds of issues, and especially by his brilliance as Speaker of the House in Oregon. After masterminding a successful effort to take control of the chamber in 2006, he had used a slim 31-29 majority to pass wonderful legislation on issues large and small.

The second time, he had won the Senate seat and was pulling all kinds of useful tricks to strengthen health care reform and bank regulation. I was asking people to give to his leadership PAC -- the fund he uses to contribute to other (Democratic) Senators' re-election campaigns. Much like donating to a campaign directly, this helps Democrats win elections. The added bonus is that then those Senators will owe Jeff favors, and he'll be able to get them to support the good stuff that he supports. As a random person sending in money over the internet, it's hard for you to get the Senators whose re-election you supported to vote for progressive stuff. Jeff, however, can get in their faces and do it for you.

Now that the 2010 election is over, we can see what Jeff's leadership PAC did with the money. Its 2010 expenditures are on the chart at left. I'm happy! Corrupt people's leadership PACs can just be slush funds for golf outings, but here we see Jeff doing useful stuff.

Right at the top of the list is a $10K donation to Harry Reid. This is exactly what I wanted Jeff to do with the money: help an influential Senate Democrat win re-election. I like Harry Reid, and I really like Harry Reid winning and having Jeff to thank.

Next up are two Oregon things -- Ron Wyden's re-election and Future PAC, which I believe helps Democrats lower down in Oregon. Wyden was a shoo-in so it's not like we saved a seat there, but some of this Oregon back-scratching is what you have to expect. I'm sure Wyden will repay the favor when Jeff comes up for re-election in 2014. Helping Democrats at the state level in Oregon is a fine thing to do as well.

Next we see Jeff supporting the victories of two solid progressive female Democratic Senators who were in close races much of the way. And then there's the victory by 0.5% of capable public servant Michael Bennet over angry misogynist Ken Buck.

A lot of this donation activity went on in the early part of the year, so you see him spreading his bets, including contributions to some campaigns that failed or didn't even happen. That's a risk you take with donating early, but it's matched by giving a campaign more options with when and how to use the money. All in all, this is an excellent record.

Over the last week or two, we've seen Jeff using his influence in the Senate to excellent effect, getting all 53 of the Democrats in the next Senate to support filibuster reform spearheaded by himself and Senator Udall of New Mexico. You can check out his recent interview with Ezra Klein. To have a Senator who got elected just two years ago throwing his weight around like this is pretty spectacular.

So what am I doing now? I just donated $2400 to Merkley's re-election fund, to intimidate anybody who would think about challenging him in 2014, and help him win that election. We've got something good going here, and I want to make sure we can keep it. And when the New Year rolls around, I'm going to be doing that again and tossing another $5K to Merkley's leadership PAC. I've set up an ActBlue page for this, and feel free to use it if you're so inspired! The leadership PAC is the best thing to give to.

I'm feeling really good about this -- I think I've found one of the best ways to use my limited-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things money to make things go better in the world. If you'd like to help out too, that would be wonderful.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Your Messiah Is Not Your Second Choice

Let me add to Jonathan's takedown of the Democrats-thought-Obama-was-Messiah meme most recently being pushed by Ross Douthat. If this meme is any sort of acceptable generalization about Democrats, why wasn't he the first choice for most of them?

The 2008 Democratic primary was extraordinarily drawn-out, with each state voting before Hillary Clinton officially conceded. Hillary got a big chunk of the Democratic primary electorate. And a fair number of people who ended up choosing Obama over Hillary initially supported another candidate (in my case, John Edwards) who fell out of the running before they got to vote. While the measures of the primary popular vote that make sense to me have Obama getting the most votes in the end, enough of those have to come from former supporters of other candidates that it's ludicrous to regard Obama as everybody's Messiah. He wasn't even a majority of Democrats' first choice.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Rarely Is the Question Asked: Is Our Senators Learning?

I've previously written about the unsustainability of current Senate structure. Essentially, the rules of the Senate assume a level of bipartisan cooperation to which very few current members of the Senate—and only seven Republicans, among them the partisan Minority leader Mitch McConnell —have experienced for any extended period of time.

All that is some throat clearing to say that it's a very, very good thing that Senate Democrats are considering re-writing Senate rules in order to deal with Republican abuse of the filibuster. The current filibuster rules have been in place since the mid-1970s, which is actually a very long time for Senate rules to go unmodified. We are well overdue for a change, and Lord knows Senate Republicans will not think twice about killing the filibuster if it suits their needs in 2012 or 2016. Given the number of cloture votes filed on bills that eventually pass with overwhelming majorities, and the giant number of nominations that have been ignored, this is all well overdue.

Also, Jeff Merkley (D-OR) is one smart cookie. He and Ezra Klein had a really good talk about Senate operations. You should read the whole thing, but let me hilight this one piece in particular:
I always make reference to when I was an intern in '76, and I was working on the Hill in the '80s, the Senate functioned. It doesn't really function now. We didn't pass a budget, we didn't pass any of our appropriations bills. We didn't get to a host of House legislation, we didn't get to a whole lot of nominations to the executive branch and the judicial branch. This is not an acceptable state of affairs.

So if the social contract is broken, the contract that said "I understand that only under the most pressing, important circumstances will I utilize my privilege to delay the Senate and demand a supermajority vote," if that social contract is gone and it's a routine thing because one wants to paralyze the Senate and keep it from operating, then we need to adjust the rules.

Well said.

Truth In Headlines

In addition to "Shit State Legislators Say", one of my other ideas for recurring thematic content is to hold "Truth In Headlines" contests. Often times, headline writers must be rather euphemistic in choosing the big bold text for certain topics, or they are forced to take certain ideas or people seriously even though they are, to coin a phrase, full of shit. (Worse is the possibility that journalists might actually take certain people or ideas--such as Jim Demint, or anything that comes off of Sarah Palin's Twitter feed or Facebook page--seriously when they are in fact full of shit).

Anyway, with that introduction, come up with a more truthful headline that WSJ's "Joe Miller Won't Block Murkowski's Swearing In". Bonus points if you can find a headline in The Onion that is more truthful than this one.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hooray For Things Passing

I looked at a newspaper over someone's shoulder in the hostel last night and saw that New START was going to pass the Senate. The media is reporting that it's a victory for Barack Obama, and I suppose that's right. People more willing to comment on matters of substance might note that it's a victory for those of us averse to the destruction of humanity.

On the other lame duck stuff, I'm fine with the tax cut / stimulus deal -- it's a decent compromise that could put the Democrats in a better position in 2012 when we have to decide whether to renew the tax cuts. More obviously, it's good that gay people can serve openly in the military now. Andrew Sullivan, this may be time to say something nice about Harry Reid. Telegenic talking head skills < Senate Majority Leader skills.

A Man Who No Longer Wishes To Be A Senator

By my count, Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) has voted against the earmark ban and for the new START treaty.

Do you think he prefers golf or fishing?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


I have two pieces of news for the Obama administration, which seems to think that they need to propose Social Security cuts in the State of the Union in "to pre-empt an even more draconian set of budget cuts likely to be proposed by the incoming House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), as a condition of extending the debt ceiling."
  • In the past election, Republicans ran about $500 million worth of ads attacking Democrats for cutting Medicare.
  • The President has a much more direct way of preempting Ryan's hypothetical cuts. He can veto them.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Obama's Glass: More Than Half-Full In Some Places; Less In Others

The Glass is Half Full!
As Kevin Drum points out, in the grand scheme of things the Obama administration is two-for-three on the major priorities of the day. Health care reform happened, even if it wasn't pretty. And our misadventure in Iraq has come to an end. In addition, Don't Ask Don't Tell has finally been repealed (and credit to Harry Reid for basically daring Republicans to vote against a standalone bill), the financial reform bill, compromised as it was, was certainly better than what would have happened under a Republican President. Behind the scenes, the Obama administration has made progress on rebuilding the country's regulatory apparatus in various places, notably EPA and antitrust but also mundane but important agencies such as the FDA, FCC, and so forth. Those are some serious high lights.

The lowlights are also pretty clear:
  • Obama got everyone to say some nice things at Copenhagen, but really, doing anything to slow down carbon-based pollution has been a total bust.
  • Immigration reform hasn't happened, though it was pretty obvious bipartisan cooperation there was dead for a long time halfway through Bush's second term.
  • As Drum mentions, despite some early positive indications, unwinding Bush's travesties on civil liberties basically hasn't happened.
  • The health care reform bill leaves a lot to be desired. Forget the lack of a public option; the climbdown on end-of-life care, on covering non-citizens, on doing more to make insurance more affordable for those living at working class wages, left much to be desired.
  • Appointments to subcabinet positions have been bad, and to the judiciary have been even worse.
  • There's a general distate for Obama's habit of negotiating with himself. How this is perceived by the median voter is still unclear to me, though.
  • There seems to be a lot of fear that deficit-reduction hysteria is going to lead to some terrible budgets in the near future, along with an awful reduction in promised--and paid for-- Social Security benefits.
It's hard to say that the bad outweighed the good here. The first two years of the Obama administration alone mean that he will end up as the most progressive President since LBJ (or, if you like the Kennedy/Johnson years) when it comes to domestic policy, and the mess in Afghanistan pales in comparison to what we had in Vietnam. If he ends up working out an awful Social Security "compromise", that could change the calculus, but we'll have to see what happens there. I have a hard time believing anyone wants to look like they're cutting Social Security during a Presidential Election year. For now, though, a solid A- for Team Obama.

cc photo by flickr user Ibn-Ar Rashid

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Our Completely Unserious Discourse

Various budget chickenhawks have banded together to hand out some awards to their favorite elected officials. This year, they've chosen Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Governor Mitch Daniels (R-IN). As you can see, "concern" about the deficit is bipartisan.

Yes, the same Kent Conrad who in mid-November thought we ought to temporarily extend all of Bush's debt-financed tax cuts and then "get serious" about deficit reduction. And that's the same Mitch Daniels who was the OMB director under George W. Bush. Say what you will about Orszag's new job at Citigroup, he managed to shepherd a health care bill that is modestly deficit reducing in the short term and substantially deficit-reducing in the long term. Daniels, on the other hand ... well, let's turn the mic over to Brad DeLong:
One of the threads of Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty is that Mitch Daniels simply did not do his job as Bush's OMB Director. The OMB Director is the principal--indeed, the only--voice inside the White House for fiscal prudence, for trying to ensure that the money the government spends is spent well and that the resources the government raises are adequate for the spending plans the White House evolves. While he was Bush OMB Director, Daniels simply did not do his job.
Very serious!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Monday, December 13, 2010


Security in Auckland Airport had a ruler taped to the counter marked for the maximum legal length for knives (6 cm) and the maximum legal length for boomerangs (40 cm). I have a hard time getting a handle on airplane boomerang terrorism scenarios.

<s>closing</s> redirecting the revolving door

The Obama administration has made it somewhat more difficult for executive branch officials to cash in on their government service by becoming lobbyists, which is a step in the right direction.

Of course, that doesn't stop them from becoming vice presidents of major banks primarily due to their ability to advise ion government affairs, but we can't have everything in life.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


A while ago, I recorded a philosophy podcast with Luke Muehlhauser on Possible Girls, the Humean theory of motivation, and my version of hedonic utilitarianism. He's gone to the trouble of transcribing the whole thing so you can click over there and read it or download it to listen as you please. Luke has been doing this sort of thing for a while with lots of philosophers and he asks good questions.

He also has a link to my dissertation. It's 188 pages long. Don't bother reading that unless you're very interested in the role of desire in motivation and have a lot of time to spare. Maybe sometime I'll post my shorter-but-still-long paper on that stuff here and explain it a bit. It's probably my biggest career success to date, as it was published in what's probably the top journal in philosophy.

With that, I return to my travels through Australia and New Zealand. Things have been going quite well down here. People at the conference liked my paper titled "Why My Pants Are Not Subject To Requirements of Rationality." Because of philosophy (I have one more talk to give at ANU on Thursday), fun tourism stuff (I'm going to be visiting the Great Barrier Reef from the 19th to the 25th), and internet availability issues, it's not clear when I'll get back to my usual blogging pace. At worst, it'll be around the end of the month.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Deal, or, A Failure of Imagination

If you size up the tax cuts Republicans wanted, and you size up the tax cuts President Obama wanted, the deal struck some time Monday night or during the day on Tuesday looks like a pretty good deal. Short of expanding the EITC or Child Tax Credit, a payroll tax cut is the most progressive way to cut taxes right now. Extending the unemployment benefits for over a year is crucial given the state of hiring, and with a little luck it may be long enough that hiring will have picked up by the next time they come due. The electorate in Presidential years is more amenable toward raising taxes, and Obama will have more opportunity to control the terms of debate. Really, if Democrats can extract any concessions they want in exchange for cutting the estate tax, they should take that deal every time.

But Barack Obama campaigned against "the smallness of our current politics". He talked about the failure of the country to envision a government capable of doing big things. And he has now delivered us a debate between two governing parties that doesn't extend beyond the four corners of a Heritage Foundation whitepaper. The best thing government can deliver to the American people is a tax cut, and the only difference between the two parties is the question of which taxes get cut. I don't know about you, but I would have a hard time waking up in the morning to go work in OEOB if that's all I were there for.

Obviously, we shouldn't overlook the fact that passing health care reform was a Big Fucking Deal that might not have happened under another President. But carbon pricing appears to be dead in the water and no one has any interest in reviving it. Compromise on infrastructure investments seems to be impossible, since apparently it's now Republican orthodoxy that we never put another dollar into rail investments, even if it means a Republican governor turns down free money from the Feds. At the moment we're suffering from a failure to imagine what it is our government is capable of, and no one seems interested in coming up with any good answers.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Brief History of Senate Malapportionment

With filibuster reform bubbling its way up the agenda (since, let's face it, the next Republican Senate will effectively eliminate the filibuster no matter what), I thought I'd look at the question of whether current Senate dysfunction is driven by the increasing population gap between small states and large states. I took a weighted sum of the population of the largest 10% of states, and compared it to the same figure for the smallest 10% of states. For example, there were 13 states during the initial 1790 Census. So I took 100% of the population of the largest state and added it to 30% of the population of the second-largest state. Then I did the same with the two smallest states, and divided the first number by the second. If this ratio goes up, it means that the large states are growing faster than the smaller states, and that the large states' underrepresentation is getting worse.

When the colonies ratified the Constitution, Virginia and Pennsylvania had roughly twelve times the population of Delaware and Rhode Island. The large states continued to grow faster through the pre-Civil War era. Most of this growth occurred in the Northeast and Midwest. During post-Civil War reconstruction, Republicans aggressively granted statehood to prairie and mountain west states to expand their political coalition, causing the ratio to spike in 1890 with the addition of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. In the second half of the 20th century, three major events reshuffle. The addition of Alaska and Hawaii to the Union; modern air conditioning making the Sun Belt a more attractive place to live; and the decline of industrial employment in the Northeast and Midwest. Today, the large states are more underrepresented than they have been at any time in the country's history, except moments where new (usually small) states were added to the union. But the large states aren't that much more underrepresented than they were in, say, 1950.

Let's look at a slightly different number, the percentage of the U.S. population living in those large states.

This paints a much clearer picture. The large states constitute a larger and larger share of the country's population. And the situation has gotten steadily worse since 1970. It's possible that by the end of the next decade, 40% of the country's population will be represented by 10% of the members of the U.S. Senate. That is not a recipe for political sustainability. But once again, current underrepresentation is only modestly worse than it was during much of the 20th century.

In conclusion, underrepresentation of large states is bad, and it's getting worse. But because it's not dramatically worse than it's been in recent times, it is hard to say that large-state underrepresentation is the root cause of the Senate's current dysfunction. Instead, we have to look to the fact that partisan alignment now mirrors ideological alignment (which was not true in the era of Dixiecrats and liberal Northeastern Republicans), and to the decay of Senate norms that prevented the minority party from using procedural gimmicks to obstruct the majority at each and every turn.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Deportation and Eleven Dimensional Chess

My understanding of the Obama administrations attempts to beef up immigration enforcement is that they're both (a) yet another unilateral concession to Republicans and (b) yet another backdoor attempt to persuade business lobbyists to support piece of the Obama agenda. In the same way that the EPA's CO2 emissions rules are designed to make the need for Congress to pass a carbon pricing scheme, tougher enforcement is supposed to convince farmers, meatpackers, construction companies, and the like to get behind some form of normalization for the millions of undocumented workers in this country.

Needless to say, it hasn't worked out so well.

(Photo of immigrants standing in line at Ellis Island from the NYPL collection)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ending the Filibuster-As-Time-Sink

Kevin Drum hilights Jeff Merkley's smart proposal to keep the spirit of the filibuster—allowing the Senate to continue debate in the presence of a small but vocal minority—while eliminating its use as a tool to simply slow down basic governance functions. The basic trade is that while the minority's right  to extend debate indefinitely becomes is reduced, their right to offer amendments is expanded. It's a good trade and Senate Democrats should take it. To state the obvious, in the event of a Republican President and Republican House/Senate in 2012 (which has at least a 12.5% chance of happening just by pure luck), the filibuster will be destroyed instantly and we all know it. Better to fly into the teeth of the thing and allow the Senate to go about its business for a couple of years before shit really hits the fan.

More Awesome Nancy

While I have the next post up, why not mention this interesting WikiLeak as well?
China was "scared to death" over a visit by US Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is outspoken on human rights, and rejected her request to visit to Tibet, according to files leaked Monday... Her visit last year came just a week before the 20th anniversary of China's crackdown on student protests in Tiananmen Square. On a previous trip, Pelosi unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square in remembrance of those killed.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Scientists Discover New Life Form Based On Awesomeness

House Democrats separated middle class tax cuts from tax cuts for the rich, and passed the middle class tax cuts with all but 3 Republicans voting no. David Kurtz, please take this moment to reflect on why Nancy Pelosi deserves to continue as Democratic leader in the House. Anyone who thinks that the leadership fights somehow made our situation in the House worse should also pay attention.

Since the Senate is unlikely to pass this, the practical implications are that tax cuts may expire (which is good, because it means more long-term revenue). Or we could end up with a situation where Democrats end up letting Republicans having a temporary extension of tax cuts for the rich in exchange for something we want (which could be good, if we get a good deal).

And in any case, we bank a Democratic vote for middle-class tax cuts which all these Republican incumbents opposed. Sadly we can't get next year's incoming GOP freshman on the hook for it, and a lot of them are from the districts we're going to need to win back. But still, it's a political and substantive win.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Today in DADT double standards.

A quote from the DADT report, from MSNBC's First Read:
"Repeatedly we heard service members express the view that 'open' homosexuality would lead to widespread and overt displays of effeminacy among men, homosexual promiscuity, harassment, and unwelcome advances within units, invasion of personal privacy, and an overall erosion of standards of conduct, unit cohesion, and morality."
Because in today's military, there are no overt displays of effeminancy, homosocial promiscuity, harrassment, and unwelcome advances. Okay, then.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Nature And Nurture In The Animal Kingdom

This is a heartwarming animal video about a mother cat who has adopted a baby squirrel, and nurses it with her own kittens. Apparently the squirrel now makes purring noises and behaves quite differently from ordinary wild squirrels.

As pet owners know, there's a huge amount of variety in the way animals even within one species behave, based on their upbringing and the situations in which they've developed. I'm not so much thinking about the purring here, but the general indoor behavior of the squirrel. (On that note, there's an interesting story about social norms in savanna baboons that I wanted to link but it's behind a paywall so see the short version here.) It's the most extreme in humans, the champion learners of the animal kingdom, but it's true all over. It adds to my skepticism about claims that humans are hard-wired to perform that many highly complex social phenomena.

Polluting Wikileaks

One more Wikileaks thought: how do they ensure that the stuff they present is correct? If I were a highly placed Wikileaks hater, I'd just have somebody leak them lots of false stuff, so I could call them on it and reduce the credibility of all their disclosures. Why wouldn't this work? Looking at the information on Wikipedia about how they verify things doesn't tell me much about how they can rule out false disclosures.

Update: Or if I was more a propagandizer than a hater, I'd just send my own juicy propaganda into Wikileaks and confirm it when it came out. If it was juicy enough, it'd become the real story and the media would ignore any other stuff that was detrimental to me.


The obvious way to read the Wikileaks revelation about Saudi Arabia supporting an attack on Iran is just that everybody wants the US to beat up their local rival, right?

Also, I'm taken aback at how totally Julian Assange's actual life is every paranoid person's delusion of grandeur.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Boehner's Challenges

I found Jonathan Bernstein's post on the political challenges facing John Boehner quite good.

Boehner has to satisfy people in the Republican base who watch Rush, Beck, and Hannity without passing any of the big crazy things they want, since Democrats control the White House and the Senate. As commenters note, a lot of whether he can keep the base happy is going to depend on how much right-wing media figures feel like demanding of him. Perhaps they'll demand the impossible. Perhaps they'll be okay with it if he delivers only minor symbolic things. I really don't know.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Turkey Venison Day!

Venison with jus and parsley.
It turns out that the main attraction at the First Thanksgiving—you know, the one where all the white people wore buckled hats—was vension, and not turkey. So here is a freely usable picture of some delicious venison courtesy of the Swedish flickr user ulterior epicure.

Today is a day to be thankful for many things, including the ability to get freely usable high quality photos of random stuff.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Public Goods

Via Matt, I'm looking at Daniel Mitchell's post titled "Tax Loopholes Are Corrupt and Inefficient, but They Should only Be Eliminated if Every Penny of New Revenue Is Used to Lower Tax Rates." I'm wondering what people who write these things think about public goods. Do they not believe in them? Do they think free markets have means to fund public goods efficiently, and free markets will solve collective action problems of their own accord? Do they think we've already funded all the public goods that it would be economically efficient to pay for?

There are plenty of excellent projects out there to be funded that would create a good return on capital distributed across society, but for which no private funder is positioned to collect enough of the returns. You could give out basic research grants to academic or government scientists who publish their findings, so the knowledge ends up moving everybody forward rather than being a trade secret. You could expand the successful pre-K programs for poor kids so they end up being more productive workers. You could build more energy-efficient public transit. Why not fund things like this rather than settling for the sad square of the prisoners' dilemma?

If You're On Martin Luther King, There's Some Violence Going On Mundane Economic Activity

A study from 2007 suggests that, to a first-order approximation, economic opportunity on streets re-named after Dr. King aren't that much different from the cities where they're located. In the South, they're somewhat tilted towards super-small businesses, and overall the composition of employers is different (more funeral homes, bail bondsmen,and  barber shops; fewer professional services), but as measured by crude revenue figures, businesses on MLK are able to support employment that's fairly typical for city living.

Hat tip to Ryan McNeely, who I am unable to find a good link to.

The Most Important House Democrat for the Next Two Years

I know very little about Steve Israel, the incoming chair of the DCCC. In the most recent session of Congress, DW-NOMINATE rates him as the 155th most liberal member; slightly more liberal than his rating of 166th most liberal in the 2001-2002 session. Israel will have to win roughly half of the roughly 60 seats currently held by Republicans who represent districts that voted for Barack Obama. A number of those are fairly entrenched Northeastern Republicans with modest pro-labor records (Peter King, Frank Lobiondo, etc.), so this will be an uphill climb unless the economy makes a serious rebound.

One of my big regrets this election cycle is that I got distracted by the bigger and slightly better news in the Senate, and paid less attention to the competition for the House and state/local races. With redistricting fights set to begin across the country, it should be easier to keep tabs on the situation this year.


A dude claiming to be a Taliban leader held secret talks with Afghan officials. We bribed him to participate helpfully. It turned out that he wasn't a Taliban leader at all, and he ran off with the money.

The Eye Of Sauron Turns Upon The Fed

I knew that Tea Party types and goldbugs didn't like the Fed loosening monetary policy, but as you'd expect, that sentiment has now percolated up into the upper reaches of the Republican Party.

I'm interested in the direction this sentiment has taken. Mike Pence has introduced legislation to eliminate the Fed's mandate to reduce unemployment. In the short-term, this fits his political incentives -- it's good for Pence and Congressional Republicans if unemployment stays high, because Obama will get most of the blame.

But what happens in the long term? When we get a Republican president, will the GOP realize that it's in their interest to have lower unemployment? Or will hard-money views have become such a theological issue within the Republican Party that they'll genuinely come to think that having the Fed fight inflation no matter who is President is the right move?

A lot of this will depend on the economic advisors that have a Republican president's ear at at that point. If it's conservative economists who are keeping quiet now as the Republican Party displays total economic illiteracy, so that they can get good GOP jobs in the future, we'll probably see the GOP suddenly lose interest in fighting inflation. But if they get displaced by people who have risen to power as prophets of the new goldbuggery, we end up with Republicans who find a really easy way to drive themselves out of power when they get in.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Wyden Holds Up Copyright Bill

Thanks to Senator Ron Wyden, a bill that would've given the Department of Justice the power to just shut down copyright-infringing websites isn't going to pass this legislative session. Wyden put a hold on the legislation, delaying consideration of it until after Congress adjourns. I don't know if prospects for blocking the legislation next session are any better -- it got out of committee 19-0 -- but I'm happy with Wyden for doing what he could. According to Sam Gustin, the bill
would give the Attorney General the right to shut down websites with a court order if copyright infringement is deemed “central to the activity” of the site — regardless if the website has actually committed a crime. The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) is among the most draconian laws ever considered to combat digital piracy, and contains what some have called the “nuclear option,” which would essentially allow the Attorney General to turn suspected websites “off.”
Now a comment about Senate procedure that gets trumped by a comment about how to be a non-stupid political actor. I don't like the rule that allows one Senator to delay action by doing this hold business. It should be changed! But as long as the rule is there, I want my people to use it, and that's exactly what Wyden is doing. So the intellectual-property-stealing image at right, showing one hero standing up against various forces of evil, is dedicated to him.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Minority Leader Election Aftermath

I don't think there's any reason to be too worried about the fact that 43 Democrats voted against Pelosi for Minority Leader. (150 voted for her, for an easy victory.) After the last election cycle, some Democrats from tough districts probably want to be able to say "Hey, I voted for Noneck McJock instead of Nancy Pelosi" if they have to on the campaign trail. And Heath Shuler probably has some buddies. And some people probably just don't like Pelosi for some personal reason. I can easily see that adding up to 43.

And this seems like good thinking ahead:
But others sought to let the air out of her opponents' fear that she will once again be used against them when campaign season rolls around again. No matter who serves as Democratic leader, in 2012, all members will be running on the Barack Obama ticket.

"I think that's pretty standard political knowledge that in two years it will be the President's election," said Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

2012 General Election Polling: An Exercise in Futility

Already, we're seeing some state-level polls on the 2012 general election crop up. I'm not linking them for the simple reason that they have exactly zero value to anyone other than pollsters or news outlets trying to generate some buzz. For the sake of everyone involved, they should be ignored. At this time in the 2008 election cycle, John Edwards was ahead in the Iowa caucus polls and appeared to be the most viable Democrat in a large number of Southern and Midwestern states. In the middle of the Democratic primaries, polls showed Obama losing to McCain in a number of states he would go on to win, as some voters who preferred Hillary Clinton didn't come back to the Democratic fold until late August.

Electioneers should be thinking about how to get viable candidates into as many House and Senate races, how to reignite the Obama campaign's volunteers, and so forth. Don't worry too much about the polls.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

DeMint Watch: Post-Election Poll

I've been thinking that Jim DeMint is a likely Republican candidate in 2012. And: buying up DeMint contracts on Intrade! I have an open order outstanding, so posting this is strictly speaking contrary to my financial interests. Please totally disagree and literally sell DeMint short so I can get a good deal on him.

Via TigerHawk, here's a poll of 70 conservative bloggers including questions about who helped and hurt them most in the 2010 elections. Here are the results:
1) Out of the following people and groups, which do you think was the most valuable player in the election cycle?

Jim DeMint: 10.6% (7 votes)
The NRCC: 16.7% (11 votes)
The NRSC: 0.0% (0 votes)
Sarah Palin: 62.1% (41 votes)
The RGA: 9.1% (6 votes)
The RNC: 1.5% (1 vote)

2) Out of the following people and groups, which do you think did the most disappointing job during the election cycle?

Jim DeMint: 0.0% (0 votes)
The NRCC: 4.5% (3 votes)
The NRSC: 55.2% (37 votes)
Sarah Palin: 6% (4 votes)
The RNC: 34.3% (23 votes)
The RGA: 0.0% (0 votes)
The idea that Sarah Palin is the Republican MVP strikes me as kind of bonkers, but it shouldn't surprise us very much that right-wing bloggers love her. What is interesting is that "Jim DeMint" is one of only two non-acronym names that the people at Right Wing News bother to mention in their poll, and that he gets the kind of response that an emerging candidate should get at this stage -- plugged-in members of the party base saying, "yeah, I like that guy!" and nobody really hating on him. Obviously he needs more love by the time 2012 comes around -- people have to really love the guy to vote for him. But there's a clear path from here to there. Activists tell other activists about you, and over a year it's all the way down to the rank and file.

DeMint recently came out and said he wasn't running in exactly the way that you do if you're running.

Friday, November 12, 2010

God Does Not Do That With The Universe Either

This artist wants God to create more universes. So he is trying to incite God's sexual lust with quark-gluon plasma porn. His previous projects included porn for houseplants.

I think the God porn looks better than the plant porn. I doubt that it'll incite divine sexual lust, but it certainly succeeded in getting me to link to an article about him, so well done, artist guy.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Is It Better To Vote No Than Not To Vote At All?

There's an interesting post at the Monkey Cage arguing that Democratic incumbents paid a substantial cost for having voted yes on the major legislation the party supported. The size of the cost varied, of course, and people in very liberal districts probably gained support for having voted yes. But in the average Democrat-represented district, each yes vote on major legislation (TARP, stimulus, health care, cap and trade) cost 2/3 of a percentage point. In very conservative districts, each yes vote costs 4%.

I'd like to ask John Sides and Eric McGhee whether we have to understand the result entirely in terms of the costs of having to vote yes. Part of it could be in terms of the benefits of voting no. If major legislation is introduced and you get to vote no, it's something you can talk about to emphasize your moderation and independence from the party. If they never introduced the legislation in the first place, you wouldn't get to do this. It's possible that getting to vote no is a genuine plus, relative to never having the issue come up for a vote at all.

This isn't a big issue when you're considering how to vote on a piece of legislation in front of you. when you're evaluating the decision of party leaders to bring up the legislation in the first place, it's an important question. Holding votes on ideologically charged legislation could actually help a party's moderates -- or at least the ones who vote no.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Good Sign From Susan Collins

Recently I've wondered how long Susan Collins (up for re-election in 2014) and Olympia Snowe (up in 2012) would remain Republicans. After watching the Tea Party end the careers of moderate and even not-so-moderate Republicans, I'm sure they're worried about their future in the party. The best course here is probably to become Democratic-caucusing independents in exchange for assurances from Democratic leaders that voting the right way would earn them the Bernie Sanders treatment, where the Democratic Party just stands down and doesn't run a serious candidate against them.

So I'm happy to see Susan Collins attacking Sarah Palin for being a "celebrity commentator" instead of governing.

Hoyer, Clyburn, Pelosi

I just sent an email to Josh Marshall. Why not make it a blog post? BTW, I feel like I absorbed some of the pacing of Josh's writing style (which I like) as I was writing it.
Dear Josh,

I appreciate your coverage of the Hoyer-Clyburn leadership contest. But especially where it concerns potential problems for Pelosi, I think your commentary is making mountains out of molehills.

There's no reason to think that Pelosi is risking anything valuable by tacitly supporting Clyburn. Let's accept the premise that this is Murtha II, as you put it. Did Murtha I actually have any bad consequences? Not as far as I can see. Pelosi worked very well alongside Hoyer this session. Passing health care reform was the acid test for our House leadership. Things went beautifully.

The title of your post, "Don't Strike If You Can't Win" assumes that Pelosi is striking. I'm not sure. My thought is that Pelosi is just doing whatever is consistent with old favors and allegiances. The way Clyburn is acting, it seems that he's the prime mover here. Probably he thought he could win this and leaned on his allies to help out.

I saw the old Murtha-Hoyer fight the same way. Pelosi owed Murtha for taking the lead on Iraq withdrawal. After the election, Murtha thought he had a shot at the Majority Leadership, and he cashed in his chips. Turned out they weren't enough. But looking back, I'm sure Pelosi thinks that successfully repositioning her party on Iraq was worth the cost of backing a loser.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Health Care And The Hillary Counterfactual

A lot of people are wondering how health care reform would've gone differently if Hillary Clinton had been president. It's a question that interests people because Democratic primary voters had a choice between her and Obama, and we want to know if we did the right thing.

But there's a slightly different question that's actually more relevant to our choice. How would health care reform have gone if we had nominated Hillary Clinton? And here I think the answer is: significantly worse.

The big question I have about a world where we nominate Hillary is: Does Al Franken still win the Minnesota Senate race? After a long recount, dragged out by Republican legal challenges aimed at keeping Democrats down a Senate seat, Franken prevailed by 312 votes out of nearly 3 million cast. With a margin so thin, the question of who's at the top of the ticket could very well have made the difference.

There's some reason to think that Obama was more appealing to Minnesota voters than Hillary was. (I think Nick made this argument at some point but I can't find it.) Looking back at the primary, Hillary's strength was concentrated in the Appalachians. Obama did better in areas with either a high black population or a large number of college-educated voters, and Minnesota falls squarely into the latter category. If who does better in the primary is a good proxy for who's going to get a bit of extra base turnout, and thus who gives Franken better coattails, it looks like Obama might've put Franken over the top. And then when it came time to get 60 in the Senate, Franken put health care reform over the top.

I don't think there's any similarly close Senate race we lost where Hillary would've tipped the balance in the other direction. In general, coattail effects probably aren't very large. It's just that this race was incredibly tight, so a bunch of small things made the difference. And that's what eventually allowed us to break the filibuster and pass health care reform.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Cheese Standard

Problem 1: The World Bank head promotes an international currency system based on gold.

Problem 2: The USDA promotes overconsumption of cheese, in tension with its anti-obesity drive.

Both of these are bad ideas from authorities who should know better. But with minor modifications, we can unite both of these foolish proposals into a superior one. Namely: a new international monetary order based around the Cheese Standard.

In an economic environment characterized by high unemployment and low to negative inflation, gold is inferior to cheese as a medium of exchange. Since cheese can't be stored indefinitely, it must be spent quickly, stimulating the economy and boosting employment. Gold has exactly the opposite properties. And as a medium of exchange whose supply is relatively fixed and beyond any government's immediate control, gold leaves expansionary monetary policy unable to help anyone.

And that's how I answer Robert Zoellick's demands for a Gold Standard. He may press upon the brow of labor a crown of cheese. But he shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Leadership Races

It looks like Nancy Pelosi will continue as leader of the Democratic caucus. And that is good.

The interesting question concerns the Minority Whip election, where it appears to be James Clyburn versus Steny Hoyer. Pelosi and Hoyer have an odd relationship as rivals who fight against each other during each major leadership race, but then work together perfectly well when the fighting is done. The most well-known recent case is when Pelosi supported Murtha's run against Hoyer for the majority leadership back in 2006. My take on that is just that Murtha had done a favor for Pelosi (leading the charge against the Iraq War) so Pelosi felt obligated to pay him back. But you wouldn't know it from what happened over the next few years, they worked together more or less seamlessly on major issues. Now Clyburn appears to be running with tacit Pelosi support against Hoyer.

Despite being the pro-business candidate, Hoyer has some progressive support. Leadership elections involve a whole lot of favor-trading and the question of who helped out more with funding your campaign is an important one. Also, I've heard that Hoyer's network will sometimes face off against Pelosi's network on the question of which particular progressive member or conservative member gets a particular leadership post that was going to that ideological bloc anyway. So it's no surprise that you have people with all different alignments in each network, even though the question of who actually leads the caucus is ideologically very significant.

I don't have a very clear view of how this sort of thing turns out. I assume that Pelosi is supporting the people she supports as part of some kind of Byzantine internal dealmaking that's mostly about returning past favors. I'd also guess that Hoyer retains his leadership position. But with lots of the more pro-Hoyer Blue Dogs gone from the House (after biting themselves in the foot by pushing for a small stimulus) it's conceivable that Clyburn will win. In any case, it'll make interesting TV.

Consequences Of The Senate Calendar

Assuming that Barack Obama wins a second term, he's still unlikely to ever have a Senate majority like he did for the last two years. 2006 and 2008 were good Democratic years in the Senate, and as a result we're mostly playing defense in 2012 and 2014.

Take-home message 1 (and the message of the linked post): Obama's ability to pass major legislation depends on filibuster reform.

Take-home message 2: 2016 is the new 2008.

Russ Feingold, Good And Bad

The big reason I'll miss Russ Feingold is the same as it is for most other Democrats. He was a fairly reliable vote in favor of good stuff and against bad stuff. His votes against the Patriot Act and the Iraq War are the shining examples that set him apart from a lot of his colleagues.

It's sad to see him lose to a rich right-winger. Not knowing anything about our bench in Wisconsin, I'm interested in seeing whether he wants to run for Herb Kohl's seat in 2012 in the event that the then-77-years-old Kohl decides to call it quits, just because he's won statewide in Wisconsin before and maybe he'd have a good shot at winning again.

There's a downside to this, though. One vote is only one vote. If I'm going to lose a vote and bad stuff is going to pass or good stuff won't, it doesn't matter that much whether I lose 99-1 or 100-0. What I want is somebody who'll be successful in using influence to bring other Senators along to the good side. I'd even take somebody who'd go over and vote for the bad stuff in exchange for a concession that'd make it significantly less bad. (This wouldn't have been possible in the Patriot Act case, as far as I can tell. It's more plausible in the Iraq War case, because of the chance to pass the Levin amendment or get Biden-Lugar rather than the eventual disastrous Lieberman Iraq War Resolution.) And this is where there isn't a whole lot to say for Feingold -- I try to get as much detail as I can on who's doing what behind the scenes, and I can't recall ever reading something and thinking, "whoa, there's Russ Feingold doing something useful."

At the worst end of the spectrum, I remember when Feingold introduced a resolution to censure President Bush for warrantless wiretapping a few years ago. Feingold immediately went on cable TV (Fox News no less) calling out not only Bush, but the weak and ineffectual Democrats who wouldn't get behind his resolution. The whole affair caught Harry Reid entirely by surprise -- Feingold hadn't even given his caucus any advance notice that the resolution was coming. If you didn't dig into the behind-the-scenes details, you might've been overjoyed with him, and a lot of the Democratic Party faithful were. But stunts like this aren't actually the way you pass legislation through the Senate, or block opposing legislation, or get your colleagues to see things your way, or actually accomplish anything useful.

More recently, he's done plenty of things that should have earned him more scorn from progressive activists. He joined the GOP in filibustering financial reform because he thought it should've been tougher on banks. What eventually happened? Well, Democrats needed an additional vote to break the filibuster, so they got Scott Brown to turn against the filibuster in exchange for an $18 billion giveaway to banks, mostly in his state. The net effect of Feingold's filibuster was giving $18 billion to banks. This is the sort of thing that anybody with more tactical sense than a popsicle would recognize and then go along with the bill.

He does plain weird stuff sometimes. Back when they were trying to impeach Bill Clinton, he was the only Democrat who voted against the motion to just dismiss the impeachment proceedings. If he was casting a cowardly vote to drive up his own poll numbers before re-election, well, that's a good reason! I'd rather have him do that than give Republicans any edge over him. But if he can do that, I'd also like him to apply that sort of calculating attitude to the things he does in the Senate.

My big complaint about him recently is that he seems to be on the wrong side of filibuster reform. Feingold is on the list of Democrats who are leaning against the measure. By making it harder to change laws, the filibuster entrenches old prejudices and sticks us with primitive social welfare programs instead of the well-funded ones you see in European countries. If you're really going to be a progressive Democrat, vote to change the processes in ways that allow progressives to succeed.

So I can't really get on board with all the Feingold love I'm seeing from other people. He was unusually good in some respects, but unusually bad in others. All in all he was an okay Democratic Senator, and it's a real shame that he lost his race to a rich plastic products manufacturer who loves Atlas Shrugged.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original Caption: "President Barack Obama makes an election night phone call to Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) from his Treaty Room office in the White House residence a couple of minutes after midnight, Nov. 3, 2010."

Today's Kitsch Cover is William Shatner performing Cee-lo's masterpiece, "Fuck You":

Bennet Beats Buck

I mentioned this in dissing on the Tea Party earlier, but the Colorado Senate race was one of the most exciting ones for me, because I like Michael Bennet and despise Ken Buck. Bennet, the Democrat, won by a 47.5-47 margin. A Green Party candidate got 3% and I remember thinking on election night, please don't let us get Nadered on this one!

I'd encourage any Democrats looking for something to feel good about to take a look at the wikipedia pages on Bennet and Buck's past careers and views on issues. It's really good that the capable smart public servant beat the angry misogynist.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Failing Upwards

Owen-Beaudrot Wedding Teaser Photo (3/3)
As punishment for not doing enough blogging here, I'm now ... guest blogging for the newly engaged Ezra Klein at the Washington Post. Between this and some recent life changes (most notably, the event that you see to your right is over, meaning I don't spend any daytime hours talking to wedding vendors, or nighttime hours looking at budget spreadsheets), I should have more time for blogging in the near future.

Note: there should be some limit on the number of times a blogger is allowed to write "I'm sorry for not writing more. But things should be getting better soon." Five? Ten? Twenty-five? Anyway, when you hit that number, you either have to quit or find a way to make blogging your full-time job.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Barry Goldwater's Revenge

The long, slow, transformation of the (White) Deep South into a Republican one-party state may now be complete. In 1964, Barry Goldwater bested Lyndon Johnson in exactly six states—his home state of Arizona, and five Southern states  where African-Americans make up more that 25% of the population: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Congressional Democrats were able to survive in these regions of the country through a combination of overwhelming support among newly enfranchised African-Americans, piling up "centrist" voting records, watching out for local issues, and so forth.

The results of the 2010, suggest the effectiveness of these tactics may be coming to an end. Here is the complete list of Democrats still standing, along with the Cook PVI for each district, and the percentage of the district's population that's African-American:
  • Jim Clyburn, SC-06 (D +12, 53%)
  • Hank Johnson, GA-04 (D +24, 51%)
  • John Lewis, GA-05 (D +26, 50%)
  • John Barrow, GA-12 (D +1, 38%)
  • David Scott, GA-13 (D +15, 49%)
  • Terri Sewell, AL-07 (D +18, 61%)
  • Bennie Thompson, MS-02 (D +12, 63%)
  • Cedric Richmond, LA-02 (D +25, 52%)
Of the eight remaining Democrats, seven are African-American. All eight districts have very high concentrations of African-American voters. This is the mirror image of the destruction of the Northeastern Republican Party. And we shouldn't blind ourselves to why this is happening. It's impolitic to discuss ... let's call it "race-conscious voting" ... in American politics. But it exists, and anyone who claims it doesn't is either a liar, a fool, or running for public office.

Tonight, Northeastern Republicans made a modest comeback, winning back two seats in New Hampshire, as well as several additional seats in New York and Eastern Pennsylvania. Whether or not Democrats can put together a similar revival in the Deep South, or in similar regions in the Appalachians and Ozarks where Obama's poor performance dates back to the 2008 primaries (and where House Dems suffered big losses tonight), is unclear.

Deep Thought

When I tried to go to bed a few hours ago, I thought Democrats were on pace to lose almost 70 seats. At the moment, on net they've lost 59 seats, though a few more may turn for the worse. In essence, tonight's election wipes out all of the gains from 2006 and 2008, and then tacks on a handful of additional losses for good measure. The Republicans majority of between 238 and 252 seats will most likely be larger in size than the Democrats majority of 2006-2008, but smaller than the current Democratic majority.

A quick scan of the GOP takeovers shows a number of districts that will be competitive in an election closer to the near 50-50 elections of 2000 and 2004. Several races in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Washington state will be within easy reach and Colorado. Seats in Illinois, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and otherwise. The prospect of re-taking the House in 2012 is doable.

Further analysis from yours truly is going to have to wait until later.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Thanks, Tea Party!

I'm very happy to see Harry Reid win re-election in Nevada and Chris Coons get to the Senate from Delaware. Colorado remains incredibly close, and it's possible that Michael Bennet, who seems to be a good reform-minded Democratic Senator, will pull out the victory there. That's two or three Senate seats which the Tea Party gave to Democrats by nominating bad candidates.

If popular centrist Mike Castle had been the Republican candidate from Delaware, he almost certainly would've won. Instead, the Tea Party nominated everybody's favorite non-witch against masturbation, Christine O'Donnell. Harry Reid won in Nevada despite 14% unemployment, facing off against the Tea Party's Sharron Angle. (The candidate I feared was Danny Tarkanian, who was low-key enough to just plod his way to victory and then become a very bad Senator.) And if Republicans had gone for establishment pick Jane Norton instead of Tea Party favorite Ken Buck in Colorado, they wouldn't have had to deal with Buck's shameful treatment of a rape victim when he was District Attorney, which threw the race back into play. Now Josh Marshall is saying that Bennet will probably win, since the remaining votes are from areas where he's strong.

I can see how the Tea Party helps Republicans maintain party discipline, keeping any Republicans from supporting things like health care reform for fear of losing their primaries. But sometimes they nominate candidates who aren't housebroken when there's an alternative who would have won. Those of us who admire Michael Bennet, laughed at Christine O'Donnell, and are happy to see Harry Reid return to the Senate have the Tea Party to thank.

Don't Leave Us, Nancy!

Regular readers will know that I'm with Paul Waldman on this: I'll be much more optimistic if Nancy Pelosi is still in charge of the House Democrats after this election. I don't know why she wouldn't be, but I keep hearing that there's some uncertainty about this so maybe it's worth commenting on.

I haven't heard any serious rumblings about people within the caucus wanting her to go, for good reason -- she's led them more or less flawlessly ever since she took power the dark days of mid-November 2004 when it looked like everything was going to hell. From defeating Social Security privatization, to using Jack Murtha to turn the Democrats into a firmly antiwar party over the objections of Hoyer and Emanuel, to leading us through two elections where we made big gains in the House, to the amazing amount of stuff we got through the House this year, she could very well be the most impressive American politician of my lifetime.

Voting Day!

I don't have any predictions -- other folks are better at that. I'd urge you to vote, but since you're reading this blog, you're probably doing that already. I'd tell some kind of story about what I'm doing at the polls, but I'm here in Singapore with my absentee ballot hopefully in the hands of the Travis County election people.

While the outlook is obviously gloomy, it's important not to lose perspective. Assuming that the expected scenarios come to pass, and Democrats hold the Senate while clearly losing the House, things will still be better politically than they were for most of the last ten years. It's not like the Republican Party can just run off and start more disastrous wars. On the downside, GOP attack politics will be really messy and we won't be able to make any serious legislative progress on substantive issues like climate change and the bad economy. That last part is what's really depressing. Hopefully Obama can use the powers of the executive branch to just fix some of this stuff.

I expect that we come out of this with a playable hand. Maybe we end up playing it badly and disaster unfolds over the next several years. Maybe we play it well and we're in shape to clear out 2010's Sharron Angle types when 2016 rolls around for full control of Washington again, this time without as many Byrds and Dodds making process objections when we want to pass legislation. Republicans have overreached before in doing their bizarre Congressional publicity stunts -- impeachment, Terri Schiavo -- so it remains to see whether GOP Congressional leaders will make smart tactical choices too. There's lots of action ahead of us, folks.

And if any of you happen to be in Singapore on Friday, there's going to be a party at my place. We don't know yet whether it'll be a drunken depressed party or a drunken mildly relieved party, but either way it's on.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Talk To Your Parents About Marijuana Before It's Too Late

With things looking up for Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer, the big thing I'm hoping for out of California but feeling unlikely to get is marijuana legalization.

Nicholas Kristof, again putting his op-ed spot at the NYT to good use, notes that nationwide marijuana legalization would improve the nation's finances by $17 billion through taxing pot and not wasting police resources on a non-problem. It's the kind of article that I wish I'd discussed with my parents before they voted, because I don't really know what their views on this issue are. Mom has already voted early -- she's going to be volunteering as an election worker. So I just sent the article to Dad in hopes that he'll vote for prop 19 if he hasn't cast his ballot yet.

A Giant Black Friday Sale On Money

Banker friend Ó Coileáin has useful things to say on why we should borrow more money and ignore the mouth noises made by people who own Treasury bonds:
There's two states in which government borrowing dominates private borrowing:

1) Interest rates are high. If I can get 8% or 10% on treasuries and the government looks reasonably healthy, why invest privately for a small percentage pickup? I have lots of space to make up margin by funding cheaply, particularly if I'm a bank. In the real economy, lots of stuff fails to happen because it can't generate a safe 8-10%. Think of this as a "high time value of money" world.

2) Flight to quality. If everything else in the world is so scary that you don't want to touch it, you buy treasuries and wait. Rates get cut to zero, but you don't care because you're worried about blowing up from risk. Here, lots of real economy stuff fails to happen because investors are too spooked to fund. Think of this as a "high risk premium" world.

There's a big difference in investor attitudes between (1) and (2). In (1), inflation may be high but you're still making a nice outsized return supposing that default is unlikely. You buy treasuries because they yield a lot. Investors are happy. In (2), nobody owns treasuries because they want to, they own them because the rest of the world is worse. Probably you've been badly burned recently and are skittish about doing anything levered or risky despite the tiny return on your treasuries. Investors are unhappy.

There's also a difference from a "return to normalcy" perspective. If the world stabilizes back to 5% or so long term interest rates if the time value of money is high, treasury investors make money: interest rates down, value of bonds up. In the high risk premium world, rates are low and stabilization means treasury investors lose money: interest rates up, value of bonds down. That is, in the second scenario bond investors are actually short economic recovery.

The key point here for me was Bill Gross of PIMCO saying a few months ago that treasuries are the "least dirty shirt." It's not that he wants to own treasury bonds, more that he doesn't want to own anything else. There are risks to government bonds, but they're less bad than the alternatives if you're spooked.

The usual suspects (Delong, Krugman) say "hey, we can borrow for 10 years at 2.63%! Let's do that!" And they're right as far as that goes -- and the people who argue that markets can turn on a dime usually don't have much analysis to support the conclusion. What's truer: interest rates are probably only as low as they are because bond markets are spooked out of their minds. Markets will likely become un-spooked only slowly; there could also be a shock to confidence in treasuries relative to other things, but what that might look like is unclear.

I think this actually makes the case for short-term deficits better -- it's like a giant Black Friday sale on money and we should take advantage before it goes away! This, of course, is exactly what current treasury buyers are afraid of, since we're talking about actions that will raise inflation and interest rates, restore normalcy, and thus lose them money if they only own treasuries. They do know this; they're just too spooked to go buy something else. So we hear the cries of unhappy bond investors essentially begging the government not to take advantage of them. Happy bond investors in scenario (1) don't complain, they cheer recovery; unhappy bond investors whine loudly in an effort to dodge what they clearly have coming.

Point being, revealed preference is what you do, not what you say -- for all the screams of bond investors wanting to avoid inflation, they're still buying at 2.63% for ten years and until they actually stop it's just jawboning. Economically, I think we would do well to extend maturities (kind of the opposite of QE2 unless it's never reversed) and just generally let bond investors have it with a small dose of inflation. After all, bond investors have seen a thirty-year rally in treasuries: they deserve to be disappointed for once.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Other Side's Partisans

It took religious conservatives quite a while to get serious about screening and installing judges who were part of their movement. Up until then, there were plenty of judges appointed by Republican presidents, even while the liberal wing of the Republican Party was well in decline, who ended up infuriating the religious right. The important point was to assert control over the GOP judge-producing process so that they'd stop getting judicial technocrats and start getting their own ideologues. Now they've done that, and they're getting judges like Roberts and Alito instead of O'Connor and Souter.

I'm reading Matt's comment that "A party whose leaders realized that economic results were the most important driver of public opinion wouldn't have renominated a conservative Republican to head the Federal Reserve" and hoping we can at least stop appointing the other side's partisans and ideologues. Bernanke isn't as total a disaster as the Ayn-Rand-loving Greenspan, but I'd prefer somebody who won't see it as a minus if economic stimulus helps a Democratic president. I hope Democrats are waking up to what a problem this is.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Lee Fisher

In the wake of near-certain defeat, Lee Fisher, Democratic Senate nominee in Ohio, has turned over $100,000 of his money to the state Democratic Party. He ought to be thanked for making sure that the ship wouldn't go down with him. Current polling can be seen at right. If only Kendrick Meek could learn by example.

I haven't been following this race very closely. What exactly happened here? Some kind of huge divergence opened up in August and just kept getting wider. Was there some major news event, or did Fisher's campaign do something dumb, or what?

Coins Of Singapore

I'll support Nick's call for penny elimination below. Here in Singapore we're transitioning through the elimination of the 5-cent coin. (The penny, depicted at top right, was abolished well before my time.) Merchants will accept the 5-cent coin, but prices for lots of things are in 10-cent increments and it's slowly receding from circulation. At current exchange rates, the Singaporean dollar is worth 77 US cents, so we're basically moving into a system where the smallest coin is worth 7.7 US cents. We're enjoying the benefit of not fiddling around with insignificant coins, with no obvious drawbacks.

One of the nice things about the Singaporean system is that it's pretty well suited for transitioning through nickel elimination. Any value difference between any quantity our remaining existent coins can be bridged by some number of ten-cent coins. This works fine in the US system as far as penny elimination is concerned, because you can bridge any gap with some number of nickels. But in the future we're going to have trouble getting rid of the nickel, there's going to be trouble because if something costs 20 cents and you've got a quarter, there'll be no way to make change. Going straight decimal instead of messing with quarters would've had its advantages.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Pennied and Nickeled and Dimed.

In re: Ezra Klein's new discussion of the penny,

I believe that not only does a penny cost more to make than a penny, but a nickel now costs more to make than a nickel. So, I propose that we drop the penny and make a zinc-based nickel. When I say, "I propose", what I'm really saying is "I mostly agree with James Poulos". There are some transition concerns, and questions of which President gets bumped and such, but overall this plan makes sense.

This plan at least mitigates the problem of Big Zinc, but it doesn't do anything about Big Vending Machine, which has to figure out how to deal with the new currency.

A World Of Surprises

I can understand why Founders worried about uneducated popular sentiment driving a democracy to foolish decisions might set up a bicameral structure in which it's harder to pass legislation. That's the cooling-saucer idea of the Senate (though as far as I can tell, the cooling saucer metaphor is based on an apocryphal story). Under such conditions, it makes sense to make the upper house have six-year terms so it doesn't suddenly turn over. If you're going overboard, you might also have other elites at the state level choose the Senators, as was originally done.

But if you assume a world of sudden and surprising challenges which technocrats can solve, but which the people are generally confused about, creating barriers to passing legislation ends up making popular sentiment win at the expense of the technocrats. Rather than having the barriers to passing legislation keep uneducated popular sentiment in check, it keeps technocrats from implementing any of their solutions. For example, you might have a financial crisis or a climate crisis, and the solutions are kind of funny-looking, but they'll work with minimal pain. In a unicameral system existing policymakers could just push them through, but with bicameralism it's easier for them to get stuck, which popular sentiment supports.

I remember Yglesias and Bernstein going on a while ago about how the Constitution is actually structured to protect a bunch of interest groups at the expense of technocratic policy proposals. That's certainly going on here. I guess what I find interesting is that if you're in a rapidly changing world where new challenges come at you from every direction, rather than a steady and stable world, political structures designed to keep popular sentiment from exerting too much force actually help that sentiment attain its ends.