2012 - %3, February

Obama's Choice: Good Policy or Good Politics

| Tue Feb. 7, 2012 10:52 AM EST

Jonathan Chait takes note today of the progress President Obama has made in his campaign to highlight Republican obstructionism and work around them with executive orders that he can implement on his own:

I was skeptical last October that Obama’s initiative would help his approval ratings, but it looks like I was wrong. Obama’s poll numbers have climbed over the last several months, with his net job-approval rating, which had bottomed out at minus ten percentage points, approaching parity.

....Republicans are beginning to grasp their own inadvertent complicity in Obama’s comeback. Some, of course, believe that their failure lies in having compromised too much. But political realism is advancing. Representative Tom Cole bluntly asserts that his party simply needs to disappear from the national debate: “The big thing for us is to not be part of the conversation instead of trying to inject ourselves into it.” It’s sound advice. If Republicans weren’t charging around threatening to overturn decades of American social policy and possibly plunge the world into economic crisis if Obama refuses to accede to their goals, Obama would have a harder time defining himself in opposition to them.

The payroll tax fight offers the first test of whether or not the new breeze of tactical realism will prevail, or be overwhelmed by countercurrents of militant obstruction.

This also means that we'll soon get a test of Team Obama's view of the importance of politics vs. policy in an election year. If Obama's campaign is working, then it's actually in his interest to (subtly! quietly!) pick a fight with Republicans so that they'll look obstructionist yet again over the payroll tax holiday. But if it's policy that he really cares about, then he'll just take the win if Republicans offer to cave in. We should find out soon which it is.

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Obama to Bankrollers: Go Supe Up My Super-PAC

| Tue Feb. 7, 2012 10:28 AM EST
Barack Obama.

President Obama has never liked super-PACs, the new breed of political outfit spawned in part by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. He'd probably wipe them off the map with a penstroke if he could. Yet on Monday night, Obama squared up to the reality that his re-election bid will need the heavy artillery of a super-PAC, if only to better fight the shadowy conservative groups lining up behind Mitt Romney, the likely GOP nominee.

Obama, the New York Times reports, has indicated to donors that he wants them to give to the pro-Obama super-PAC Priorities USA Action, which is run by former Obama White House aides Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney. Priorities has struggled since its launch last year, raking in just $4.4 million in 2011. By contrast, pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future raised $30.2 million in 2011, and Rove's American Crossroads raised $18.4 million.

Here's more from the Times:

Aides said the president had signed off on a plan to dispatch cabinet officials, senior advisers at the White House and top campaign staff members to deliver speeches on behalf of Mr. Obama at fund-raising events for Priorities USA Action, the leading Democratic “super PAC,” whose fund-raising has been dwarfed by Republican groups. The new policy was presented to the campaign’s National Finance Committee in a call Monday evening and announced in an e-mail to supporters.

"We’re not going to fight this fight with one hand tied behind our back," Jim Messina, the manager of Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign, said in an interview. "With so much at stake, we can't allow for two sets of rules. Democrats can't be unilaterally disarmed."

Neither the president, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., nor their wives will attend fund-raising events or solicit donations for the Democratic group. A handful of officials from the administration and the campaign will appear on behalf of Mr. Obama, aides said, but will not directly ask for money.

Left- and right-wing groups bashed Obama for this decision. But there's some crucial context needed here. For starters, this clearly isn't a call Obama made lightly. In his 2010 State of the Union, he blasted the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that helped usher in super-PACs, saying it would "open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections." And more recently, an Obama campaign staffer said the president was "flat-out opposed" to the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action super-PAC.

What's more, Obama and Congressional Democrats support reforms to eviscerate super-PACs and limit the ability of corporations and unions to spend general treasury money on elections. Those reforms included the DISCLOSE Act, a piece of legislation intended to counteract the effects of Citizens United which was killed by Senate Republicans in 2010. And as Obama campaign manager Jim Messina pointed out, the president continues to back not only new legislation casting more light on money in politics, but also a constitutional amendment to boost regulation of all that money sloshing around our elections.

Obama's no fan of super-PACs. But he and his lieutenants aren't going to "unilaterally disarm," as Messina and plenty other Democrats like to say. They're going to fight fire with fire.

The Army's Gold-Plated Guns: $200 Million-Plus

| Tue Feb. 7, 2012 6:14 AM EST

Your tax dollars at work: US ArmyYour tax dollars at work: US Army photoMark Thompson of Time's Battleland blog flagged a funny-looking item Monday from the Pentagon's daily contracting announcements—click to embiggen:

As Thompson points out, a $77.4 million contract for 900 machine guns would come out to $86,000 a pop. That's a deal even Blackwater and KBR would envy!

But not so fast: After calling up the Army's public affairs folks, Thompson learned that the multi-million-dollar pricetag is the cost ceiling for several years' worth of orders on the guns; once future shipments are factored in, the max cost of each weapon should be closer to $8,600—which still is quite a bit more than that Colt .45 your dad takes to his tea party rallies. (Of course, you get a lot more firepower at the higher price point, which is why you should talk your dad out of joining the Oathkeepers and going Rambo on the government anytime soon.)

Three lessons from this affair:

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 7, 2012

Tue Feb. 7, 2012 5:57 AM EST

A US Army CH-47 Chinook heavy lift helicopter takes off on February 4, 2012 from Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. The primary missions for Chinooks are troop movement, artillery emplacement, and combat resupply. US Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht.

Math Alert: "Dozens" of Earmarks Might Not Be All That Many

| Tue Feb. 7, 2012 1:07 AM EST

From the Washington Post today:

Thirty-three members of Congress have directed more than $300 million in earmarks and other spending provisions to dozens of public projects that are next to or within about two miles of the lawmakers’ own property, according to a Washington Post investigation.

Under the ethics rules Congress has written for itself, this is both legal and undisclosed.

The Post analyzed public records on the holdings of all 535 members and compared them with earmarks members had sought for pet projects, most of them since 2008. The process uncovered appropriations for work in close proximity to commercial and residential real estate owned by the lawmakers or their family members. The review also found 16 lawmakers who sent tax dollars to companies, colleges or community programs where their spouses, children or parents work as salaried employees or serve on boards.

The Post story includes descriptions of a bunch of these earmarks, and some of them sound pretty self-serving, others not so much. But I have to admit that the first thought that crossed my mind when I read this was: "Really? Dozens? That's a lot less than I would have expected."

Here's the thing. Congress approves about 10,000 earmarks a year. So that means something on the order of 40,000 earmarks since 2008. At a guess, if 40,000 earmarks were distributed by throwing darts at a map, more than a few dozen would come up near members' homes. In other words, if anything, members seem to be actively trying to keep earmarks away from their homes.

I hope the Post uncovers some funny business here. That would be fun. I'm also aware that I'm more geekish about this stuff than most people. Still, I wish that when stories like this got published, the reporters would do at least a little bit of statistical due diligence. Is "dozens" a lot or a little? I know that math is boring, but a little context would go a long way here.

The Oregon Bill That Would Criminalize Twitter

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 8:54 PM EST

UPDATE: The Oregonian reports that the bill died in committee today.

Under a bill debated today in Oregon, that tweet could be illegal.

The bill, SB 1534, would make it a felony to use "electronic communication to solicit two or more persons to commit [a] specific crime at [a] specific time and location." The punishment could include up to 5 years in prison and a $125,000 fine.

Critics worry that the bill is so broadly construed that it could outlaw everything from tweets about student sit-ins to Facebook posts calling for the occupation of Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. In Oregon, it might become a tool to crack down on Occupy Portland, which is calling for the nonviolent shutdown of corporations such as Bank of America and ExxonMobil later this month.

Earlier today, activists posted contact information for the bill's 11 co-sponsors and urged allies to call to voice their opposition. None of the lawmakers could be reached for comment this afternoon. In many cases, their phones were busy.

The author of the bill, Oregon Senator Doug Whitsett, defended it during a public hearing today. He wrote it to prevent people from saying: "'We are all going to arrive at Joe's Jewelry Store at 4:55 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon and we're going to rob him blind,'" he said. "This has been happening. At least 8 percent of the retailers in the United States have experienced that type of situation."

Still, speakers at the hearing overwhelmingly opposed the bill. "The law would inhibit somebody like Dr. Martin Luther King," said Eric Coker, an Oregon State PHD student. "It would have prevented something as simple as the Selma Bridge protest. All those people, if they had heard about it through electronic communication, they would all have been subject to a Class C felony."

Dan Meek, an attorney representing the Oregon Progressive Party, added: "I have to say, this is the kind of law that I would expect to see in Myanmar, Turkmenistan, North Korea or Zimbabwe, but not in Oregon."

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Is the Housing Market Finally Ready to Rebound?

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 6:17 PM EST

As you may recall, Smithianism1 is an economic forecasting model that suggests the economy will turn up this year because (a) So many cars have worn out over the past three years that sales pretty much have to go up at this point, and (b) So many people have been living in their parents' basement for so long that sheer desperation is going to drive them into the home and rental market. This, in turn, will get the economy back on track.

Okay, that's a little oversimplified. But basically true. As regular readers know, I've been striving to believe in Smithianism for the past six or nine months, and it's been hard. I've tried, but I end up backsliding a lot too. Today, though, Calculated Risk provides a strong endorsement:

The Housing Bottom is Here

There are two bottoms for housing. The first is for new home sales, housing starts and residential investment. The second bottom is for prices. Sometimes these bottoms can happen years apart…For new home sales and housing starts, it appears the bottom is in, and I expect an increase in both starts and sales in 2012.

…And it now appears we can look for the bottom in prices. My guess is that nominal house prices, using the national repeat sales indexes and not seasonally adjusted, will bottom in March 2012…There are several reasons I think that house prices are close to a bottom. First prices are close to normal looking at the price-to-rent ratio and real prices (especially if prices fall another 4% to 5% NSA between the November Case-Shiller report and the March report). Second the large decline in listed inventory means less downward pressure on house prices, and third, I think that several policy initiatives will lessen the pressure from distressed sales (the probable mortgage settlement, the HARP refinance program, and more).

If this is true—and the evidence in favor seems pretty strong to me—then the housing market will indeed recover in earnest this year and the economy will recover along with it. And cars? Well, yesterday Clint Eastwood told us it was halftime in America and Detroit is leading the way to recovery if we can all just pull together and quit sniping at each other for a little while. Works for me!

I think I'm about an 80 percent Smithian these days. Basically optimistic, but still wondering just how strong the recovery is going to be, and still worried that Europe or China or Wall Street 2.0 might still derail things. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

1Smithianism (smith-ee-uhn-iz-uhm) n. [Fr. Smith + ISM < Karl Smith, American professor of Public Economics and Government at the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill] economic doctrine that places considerable emphasis on rising pressure in the housing and automobile markets to drive an economic recovery.

Farewell Mike deGruy

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 3:29 PM EST

I was saddened to learn of the death of cinematographer Mike deGruy in a helicopter crash off Australia Saturday. He worked wonders with underwater film and video on nature documentaries for Nat Geo, the BBC, James Cameron, and many others.

Now and then I'd run into Mike at great wild places around the world... places where manatees overwintered or whales migrated or corals spawned. We were always part of different film crews. Yet he was unfailingly generous in sharing what he knew of the place or of his latest cool equipment. He was a fun storyteller too. You can watch his TED talk on octopus here.

I admired his adventurousness in trying novel ways to get out his message about the ocean world he loved. Here's a great clip from a little known 1992 BBC series using an unsual documentary approach back then: underwater talking heads. Mike's the guy in the bubble suit.

  

 

In this TEDx talk you can hear Mike talk about his heartbreak over the 2010 BP oil debacle. He was from Mobile, Alabama, and felt the assault on the Gulf's people and wildlife keenly. (BTW, the scars on his arm visible in this clip are from an epic attack by a gray reef shark in the Marshall Islands in 1978.)

The ocean was helped immeasurably by Mike deGruy's work and life... Fair winds and following seas, Mike.

Let's Bomb Iran!

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 2:27 PM EST

Are Americans really tired of war? I've had my doubts about that in the past, and Doug Mataconis draws my attention today to a survey that redoubles those doubts:

Nearly half of likely voters think the United States should be willing to use military force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, according to this week’s The Hill Poll. Forty-nine percent said military force should be used, while 31 percent said it should not and 20 percent were not sure.

So there you go. We've basically got a majority for military action against Iran already, and at this point the war drums have only barely begun to beat. Another few months of well-timed leaks and scary op-eds and we'll have two-thirds in favor easy. Even after ten years of Iraq and Afghanistan — not to mention Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and the endless drone strikes in Pakistan — it's still not very hard to get the American public lathered up into a good old-fashioned war frenzy.

Chart of the Day: As Incomes Decline, So Does Marriage

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 12:53 PM EST

Marriage rates are down in America, and they're down far more among the poor and working class than among those who are better off. That's old news. But why are marriage rates down? I don't know, and I gather that Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of the Hamilton Project don't really know either. However, they suspect that there's a fairly straightforward relationship between income and marriage: as incomes go down, so do marriage rates.

Maybe. The income numbers in the chart below don't look very familiar to me (Median male earnings have declined 40% since 1970? Earnings in the top 5% have increased only 20%?), but if you take them at face value the relationship between earnings and marriage rates is indeed remarkably striking. The question is whether the correlation here is also causal, and if it is, which direction it runs. Have declining earnings provoked lower marriage rates, or have lower marriage rates affected men's earnings? This issue is much more a hobbyhorse among certain precincts on the right than on the left, but I think it's worth paying more attention to regardless of where you sit on the left-right axis. Family stability and community stability are important no matter what the causes of their decline may be, and figuring out those causes is worth some skull sweat.

(Via Economix.)

UPDATE: On the other hand, some skull sweat isn't very worthwhile at all. Here is David Frum taking on Charles Murray's latest attempt to handwave away the fact that declining earnings among working-class men may have had a wee effect on their attachment to the labor market, the marriage market, and to various other social norms of the 50s.