2009 - %3, November

More Stimulus, Please

| Wed Nov. 25, 2009 1:22 PM EST

Matt Yglesias thinks the Fed needs to do more to stimulate the economy:

I’ve had some correspondents suggest that the Fed really does want to be more accommodating but there’s nothing more they can do. That’s certainly not the way recent statements have sounded to me. On the contrary, it seems to me that Ben Bernanke and co. are just flagrantly ignoring their actual legal mandate to balance considerations of employment, growth, and price stability. If we had five percent unemployment and five percent inflation instead of 10 percent unemployment and no inflation, the Fed would be freaking out. So why not freak out at 10 percent unemployment.

Actually, I'd like an answer to that question.  What should the Fed do at this point?  When inflation is high, the answer is obvious: if it wants to, the Fed can simply keep raising interest rates until inflation is under control.  The sky's the limit.  But the other direction is harder.  With interest rates already at zero and trillions of dollars of quantitative easing already in place, what's left to bring down unemployment?  Brad DeLong suggests that the Fed announce a long-term inflation target of 3% instead of 2%, but I haven't heard a lot of other proposals.

If the answer is even more dramatic quantitative easing, that's fine.  But is it?  Inquiring non-economists want to know.

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HIV Travel Ban Update

| Wed Nov. 25, 2009 1:13 PM EST

The HIV travel ban will officially be lifted on January 4.  It's about time.

Chamber Accuses Mother Jones of Reporting Stories "of Dubious Accuracy"

| Wed Nov. 25, 2009 1:11 PM EST

Is Mother Jones part of a vast liberal conspiracy? The US Chamber of Commerce says it has uncovered "a predictable pattern" in our reporting on the nation's biggest, beleagured business lobby: "An advocacy group such as the Yes Men or Velvet Revolution, SEIU, Center for American Progress, the NRDC. . .will post something of dubious accuracy," said Chamber flak Thomas J. Collamore, speaking yesterday at a forum of conservative bloggers hosted by the Heritage Foundation. "And then Huffington Post or Mother Jones will pick it up and treat it as a fact. And then more mainstream sources such as MSNBC or the Washington Post will treat it as a real story and follow up with us."

"The Chamber isn't blinking," he added. "We're trying to stay on the high road."

So far, the Chamber has taken the high road by making blanket statements about the "dubious accuracy" of our stories. It hasn't said which of our pieces it takes issue with, but a new Chamber web page, boldly titled "The Facts," offers a hint. It disputes the assertion, first made by me, that the Chamber was forced to lower its membership claims by 90%. "Our direct membership comprises 300,000 businesses," the page says. "Our federation contains over three million businesses and organizations. We represent both sets [of numbers]."

The Chamber isn't saying anything new here. It continues to ignore the fact that it almost never cited its true membership number or explained the meaning of the 3 million figure before I pointed out the discrepancy. (I've addressed its flip-flops here, here, and here). The Columbia Journalism Review has compiled an archive of the Chamber's use of the two numbers that clearly illustrates how it has willfully misstated its true size. Even now, most of the Chamber's web pages and press releases, including the one announcing the "The Facts" site, misleadingly cite only the larger number.

Far from following a "predictable pattern" of parroting advocacy groups, the idea to fact-check the Chamber's membership claims was entirely my own. In turn, my reporting was picked up by other journalists, several of whom independently reviewed the issue and confirmed my conclusions. As a result, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Washington Post have all embraced the correct membership number. This isn't a case of dubious information passing through a liberal echo chamber: It's a textbook example of reporters doing their jobs. (And the Chamber getting slammed by advocacy groups at the same time).

The Chamber's accusation that its critics have blurred the line between fact and spin is ironic: A spokesman for a conservative advocacy group speaks at an event for conservative bloggers hosted by another conservative advocacy group, where he makes a statement of dubious accuracy. Will those conservative bloggers pick it up and treat it as fact?

Has Obama Fizzled?

| Wed Nov. 25, 2009 1:05 PM EST

I haven't read one of Richard Cohen's columns in a long time, but yesterday a regular reader alerted me to his latest buffoonery.  Apparently Obama's "moral clarity" has disappeared:

As president [] he has tried so hard to be the un-George Bush that the former president's overweening moralism — his insistence on seeing things as either black or white — has become an Obama gray. Human rights in general has been treated as if it's a Republican idea. Obama should reread his Philadelphia speech. He'll find a good man there.

Blah blah blah.  Obama the famously supple and nuanced campaigner saw things in black and white?  WTF?  [Oops.  Sorry.  Cohen is talking about George W. Bush here.  I misread.  But the general point stands: Cohen thinks Obama has lost his "moral clarity."] But apparently this has become a trend.  Here's Michelle Cottle:

As its "Arena" question to pundits this morning, Politico has "Obama's Charisma: Where Did He Leave it?"

The implication seems to be — and I feel as though I've heard a variation on this question asked not infrequently of late — that Obama was such a dazzling, inspirational, transformational campaigner that it's hard to fathom where this wonky, chilly, pathologically measured grind of a president came from.

What? Are we all suffering from short-term memory loss?....Yes, Obama has the juice to thrill the globe with his from-the-pulpit-esque speeches. (Which he still delivers when occasion calls.) But it's not as though the guy has ever been known for his overwhelming warmth or charisma in the daily ebb and flow of things. He is as he has always presented himself to us.

Liberals are mad at Obama for sending more troops to Afghanistan.  The gay community thinks they've been betrayed because he hasn't instantly repealing DADT.  M.J. Rosenberg is unhappy because Obama has turned out to be a "conciliator," not a fighter.  Conservatives are apoplectic because the guy who billed himself as a moderate is trying to push through healthcare reform and a climate change bill.

But this is all kind of crazy.  Obama said repeatedly that he planned to shift resources from Iraq to Afghanistan.  He made it as clear as any candidate could that he wanted to dial down the temperature on the culture wars and avoid big social issues early in his presidency.  He spent an entire primary campaign selling himself as a post-partisan reach-across-the-aisle guy in contrast to the brawling Hillary Clinton.  And healthcare reform and cap-and-trade were the main pillars of his presidential campaign.

Once you get elected, real life is messy, politics intrudes, and mistakes are made.  Sure. And Obama has disappointed me in a bunch of respects.  But nine times out of ten, when I actually think through the ways I'm disappointed, I find that things are actually going almost exactly the way I expected them too.  That disappoints me sometimes, but it's not because Obama has turned out to be a fraud or a fizzle.  It's because he hasn't.

Social Security Revisited

| Wed Nov. 25, 2009 12:23 PM EST

Atrios isn't impressed with my support of a plan to bring Social Security into long-term balance:

I really don't get why people think there's some grand deal to be cut on Social Security which would take it off the table. A couple of years after the deal is cut, new projects with slightly different facts/assumptions will show it "going broke" in "only" 65 years or something and then they'll be back to hack away at it again.

They don't want the programs to survive, they want to kill them.

I know this is a fashionable view among battle-hardened liberal bloggers, but I just don't think it's true.  The demographic basis of Social Security's finances is extremely steady and generally changes by only hundredths of a percentage point each year — and with the retirement of the baby boom generation now finally upon us and better understood than ever, this is even truer than before.  If Congress enacted a combination of small revenue increases and small benefit cuts (amounting to less than 1.5% of GDP, as shown in the chart on the right) that phased in slowly and brought the program into long-term balance, it's almost a certainty that the financial projections would continue to show long-term balance for another 20-30 years.  Granted, that's not forever, but it's as long as anything ever lasts in politics.

As for "slightly different facts/assumptions," even during the heyday of Social Security privatization in 2005, virtually everyone accepted the midpoint assumptions of the Social Security trustees report as gospel.  Obviously there will always be some fringe groups with their own doomsday scenarios who can't be satisfied no matter what, but the trustees report will satisfy virtually everyone who matters.  What's more, unlike most subjects, this is one where Democrats could almost certainly pick off enough Republican votes to get something passed.  It really would take Social Security largely off the table as a political football for a very long time.

And I'd rather take it off the table now, under some kind of reasonable terms, than have it taken off the table a decade from now when some shiny new Republican is back in power.  It's not something that's a high priority right now, but it wouldn't be a bad idea to make it a priority sometime in the near future.

Obama to Make Pit Stop in Copenhagen

| Wed Nov. 25, 2009 12:06 PM EST

Good news: Barack Obama will travel to Copenhagen for the beginning of the United Nations summit on climate change next month. He'll make an appearance at the meeting on December 9, according to an administration official—a brief stopover en route to pick up his Nobel Prize in Oslo the next day.

Really good news: Obama plans to put a solid target for US emissions cuts on the table when he gets there. Obama will promise delegates at the summit that US will cut emissions "in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020," according to a White House official.

Not so good news: He's not planning to return for the end of the summit, which runs through Dec. 18. That's when approximately 65 other heads of state and government are expected to attend.

What to make of this? Well, now that it's clear that there's not going to be a final treaty in Copenhagen, the presence of heads of state is not quite as important. The real work is still to be done by negotiators.

But Obama's early appearance will help set the tone for the event, showing high-level US engagement with the issue (and perhaps even a desire on Obama's part to earn that Nobel he'll receive the next day.) Appearing later—when it probably wouldn't influence the conversation one way or another—might only lead to a repeat of what happened with the Olympics in October. If Obama shows up to much fanfare and nothing happens, that will only create bad press.

The emissions cuts promise is the really major news here. Having a solid commitment from the US—one involving actual numbers—is expected to lubricate the climate talks significantly. Sure, the 17 percent figure is not nearly as high as the reductions called for by the European Union, Japan, many developing nations—OK, basically everyone else in the world. Yet the hope is that if the US shows its cards, other key players (like China and India) will also start talking in real figures. Obama showing up in person to present those numbers is a pretty big deal.

The White House also announced that a number of cabinet secretaries and other top officials will make an appearance in Copenhagen during the conference. Scheduled to attend and give speeches at the summit are Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley, and Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change Carol Browner. Their presentations, the White House said in a press release, will "underline the historic progress the Obama Administration has made to address climate change and create a new energy future."

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Tom Friedman and Obama's State Dinner

| Wed Nov. 25, 2009 9:02 AM EST

In a PoliticsDaily.com column, David Corn notes that reviewing the guest list for President Obama's first state dinner—held to honor Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—reminded him that he was miffed at one of the guests: New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. Friedman, Corn writes, recently earned extra media notice for an appearance on The Charlie Rose Show, in which he dissed the American political system, grousing that it cannot handle the big challenges at hand. Friedman said:

What worries me about America today, Charlie, is that we are producing sub-optimal solutions to all our big problems. Whether it's called health care, whether it's called financial regulation, whether it's called debt, whether it's called energy and climate . . . our system isn't working. We are paralyzed today. . . . The forces of paralysis are just weighing [Obama] down.

Friedman blamed this paralysis on money in politics and cable television that "empowers some of the loudest and most extreme voices." Riffing off this, Corn observes,

I don't disagree with this pessimistic view. Some of us have been decrying money in politics for years (or decades) before it became the ground zero of Friedman's hot, flat and crowded world. But this jeremiad about "sub-optimal solutions" seemed odd coming from a leading member of the commentariat who hailed the invasion of Iraq as a necessary demonstration of the United States' ability to invade Iraq.

During a May 2003 interview with Rose, Corn points out, Friedman defended the war and explained that Bush-Cheney administration had had no other choice in dealing with the terrorism that led to 9/11:

What we needed to do was to go over to that part of the world . . . and take out a very big stick. . . . And there was only one way to do it. . . . What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad and basically saying, 'Which part of this sentence don't you understand? You don't think, you know, we care about our open society? . . . Well, suck on this, okay?' That, Charlie is what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia [because it supported terrorists] . . . could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That's the real truth.

Corn writes:

Was this the sort of optimal decision-making that is lacking today? Friedman was essentially saying, We had to whack somebody to prove we could -- without serious regard for the actual target of the war? Reality check: Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

Over the years, Friedman has had a difficult time with his position on Iraq. A month before the invasion -- when the Bush -Cheney administration was beating the WMD drum -- he wrote, "The way you get . . . compliance out of a thug like Saddam is not by tripling the [WMD] inspectors, but by tripling the threat that if he does not comply he will be faced with a U.N.-approved war." But a year later -- when there were no WMDs to be found -- Friedman claimed, "The stated reason for the war was that Saddam Hussein had developed weapons of mass destruction that posed a long-term threat to America. I never bought this argument. . . . The WMD argument was hyped by George Bush and Tony Blair to try to turn a war of choice into a war of necessity." Then why had he depicted the war as a justifiable response to Saddam's dealings with WMD inspectors?

Okay, it's SOP for a pundit to reposition himself; hindsight is a columnist's friend. But for someone who was skeptical of Bush's war and who at the time called for a deliberative national discourse tethered to realistic assessments of what was known and what wasn't -- challenging columnists and cable-chatterers who were hurling hyperbolic claims to nudge the nation to war -- it's a bit galling to see a fellow who advocated a "suck-on-this" rationale now bitching about a political system that cannot maturely handle big problems and that is negatively influenced by extremist commentators.

Corn adds: "That said, I hope that Friedman had a lovely time at the dinner and that his perceptive analysis about the U.S political system was enjoyed by all his table-mates."

Carly Fiorina's Climate Flip-Flop

| Wed Nov. 25, 2009 9:00 AM EST

It's fine for Republicans to express concern about climate change—as long as they don't run for national office, it seems.

Take the case of Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard executive and adviser to the McCain '08 campaign who is now seeking to unseat Barbara Boxer from her California Senate seat next year. I talked to Fiorina last year when she was the "Victory Chair" of the Republican National Committee specifically about climate change. At the time, she was happy to talk about McCain's climate plan and the need to act on the issue. "I think there is growing consensus that the issues of climate change and energy independence are inextricably linked," said Fiorina.

Climate change, Fiorina said, "matters to a lot of people," particularly young people. She was eager to talk about the notion that climate policy could help stimulate innovation and create jobs, and that a well-executed cap-and-trade scheme could spur economic development. "I think it's important that when we think about taking on some of the great challenges now as opposed to leaving them to future generations, we have to talk not only about Social Security and medical care, but also about leaving our planet cleaner for the next generation than we found it," she said.

Flash forward to an interview with reporters in D.C. last week, in which Fiorina basically shied away from all of those prior statements. While she acknowledged that climate change is a "serious issue," she also suggested the science on warming is less than conclusive—and that the public needs leaders with the "courage" to question it.

From the Mercury News:

Fiorina faced several questions about climate change, an issue in which Boxer is deeply involved. The Republican said that global warming demands a serious response, but when asked whether she would back mandatory caps on carbon emissions, Fiorina said she would not comment on a bill she hasn't read. As for what course of action she believes the government should take, Fiorina suggested engaging in bilateral talks with China to curb greenhouse gases, and easing regulations for alternative energy companies to build manufacturing plants.

When a reporter followed up by asking whether she believes in global warming, Fiorina said, "I think we should have the courage to examine the science on an ongoing basis."

Glad that courage is being used up to question climate science, rather than to buck the GOP party line on climate policies.

The Louisiana Purchase?

| Wed Nov. 25, 2009 7:19 AM EST

On Saturday, Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, finally rounded up the 60 votes he needed to begin the Senate's debate on the health care bill. They didn't come cheap. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), killed a provision that would have stripped health insurers of their anti-trust exemptions. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) got hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicaid money for her home state. "Staffers on Capitol Hill were calling it the Louisiana Purchase," writes the Washington Post's Dana Milbank.

Landrieu is far from the first Senator to be accused of trading her vote for legislative concessions. But this incident is an interesting illustration of how Washington works. As Reid got closer to the votes he needed, each holdout's vote got more valuable. The majority leader needed to give Landrieu at least $100 million (closer to $300 million, she later claimed) in state handouts to earn her vote to begin debate on the health care bill. That's not all. A provision making anyone who has been in foster care for at least six months presumptively eligible for Medicaid until age 25 was added to the bill before it hit the floor. "The language was added at the Senator's urging," Landrieu's spokesman told Mother Jones in an email. That's not surprising: If Landrieu, who is married to an adoptee and has two adopted children, has a personal pet cause, it's foster care and adoption policies. "This is sort of a special issue for me," she told the Wall Street Journal earlier this month.

Edwin Park, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told me that it's hard to tell how much expanding Medicaid's coverage of former foster children might cost because the provision is included in the Congressional Budget Office's score of the cost of the larger expansion of Medicaid. Also, the measure doesn't kick in until 2019. But you can bet that when it does kick in, it'll cost something. None of this is to say that extra Medicaid money for Louisiana or expanded Medicaid coverage for former foster children is a bad idea. But the $100-million plus for Landrieu's priorities was just the cost of starting the debate on the bill. Reid will need 60 votes again before he can hold a vote on the final measure. What will those votes cost?

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 25, 2009

Wed Nov. 25, 2009 7:11 AM EST

US Army Staff Sgt. Matt Leahart washes his clothes in an ammunition can on Combat Outpost Munoz in Paktika province, Afghanistan, Nov. 13, 2009. Leahart is deployed with Company B, 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry. (US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Smith.)