Kevin Drum

Nobody Left

| Fri Mar. 6, 2009 11:43 AM EST
Atrios responds to the latest government plan to restart the credit markets via partnerships with hedge funds and private-equity firms:

They made bad bets when they at least theoretically thought they could incur losses. Now the cunning plan is to hope they make good bets even though...no chance of losses!

This is all going to end really badly.

I have some longer thoughts on this subject that I haven't quite had the nerve to write and post yet, but the short version is this: everyone in the financial industry made bad bets over the past seven years.  So if you think the government shouldn't work with any of these guys, it means you think the government should refuse to work with the financial industry, full stop.  That's just not practical, though.  Even if you think they're all idiots, we have to work with someone, and the idiots are all we have.

Now, as it happens, I don't think they are all idiots.  But that's the post I haven't written yet.  Maybe later.

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Staffing Trouble

| Fri Mar. 6, 2009 3:02 AM EST
Three stories, one theme.  First, from the Wall Street Journal:

Two candidates for top jobs at the Treasury have withdrawn their names from consideration, complicating efforts by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to staff his department at a time of economic crisis, according to people familiar with the matter....People familiar with the matter said Ms. Nazareth and Ms. Atkinson withdrew in part because of the long vetting process, which had dragged on for weeks and included several rounds of intense questioning.

Second, Bloomberg:

President Barack Obama’s economic advisers are increasingly concerned about the U.S. Senate’s delay in confirming the nominations of Austan Goolsbee and Cecilia Rouse to the White House Council of Economic Advisers....Their stalled nominations serve as another reminder that Obama may find it difficult to live up to his campaign promise of changing the partisan culture in Washington. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada "was outrageous in abusing the Senate’s advise and consent powers," said Tony Fratto, a former Bush spokesman. "So no one should be surprised if Senate Republicans follow the precedent he set."

Finally, Ryan Grim at the Huffington Post:

Barack Obama made no secret of his feelings for "Washington lobbyists" during the campaign and vowed that they wouldn't be staffing his White House. The implementation of that rule, however, has led to a number of consequences that Obama could never have intended....Lobbyists who for years have fought for workers' rights, environmental protection, human rights, pay-equity for women, consumer protection and other items on the Obama agenda have found the doors to the White House HR department slammed shut.

So: endless vetting is spooking good candidates, Republicans are throwing temper tantrums, and anti-lobbyist goo-gooism is draining the progressive pool.  Meanwhile, Rome is burning.  This isn't very encouraging news.

"Sophisticated and Fact Based"

| Fri Mar. 6, 2009 2:31 AM EST
Earlier this week David Brooks penned a cri de coeur about the "revolutionary fervor" he found lurking beneath the covers of Barack Obama's budget proposal for next year.  The next day he started getting pushback from White House aides.  By the time he'd finished talking to them, Brooks says, he didn't find himself completely convinced:

Nonetheless, the White House made a case that was sophisticated and fact-based. These people know how to lead a discussion and set a tone of friendly cooperation. I’m more optimistic that if Senate moderates can get their act together and come up with their own proactive plan, they can help shape a budget that allays their anxieties while meeting the president’s goals.

Fact based is a big improvement over the past eight years, no?  All by itself, that demonstrates a certain pragmatism and moderation even if Obama does favor things like carbon pricing and universal healthcare.

On the other hand, Brooks also came away from his conversations convinced that the Obama administration is "plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security as well as health spending."  I wonder if he's going to get another set of phone calls about that on Friday morning?

Scaling Up

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 4:54 PM EST
True confession: as a blogger, I like articles that have a clear takeaway which I can excerpt and comment on.  If there isn't one, I sometimes put the piece aside and then never get back to it.  Bad blogger.

Paul Roberts has a piece like that in our current issue.  It's about food, and it's got way too many moving parts to summarize fairly.  So here's a sort of randomly chosen taste:

When most of us imagine what a sustainable food economy might look like, chances are we picture a variation on something that already exists — such as organic farming, or a network of local farms and farmers markets, or urban pea patches — only on a much larger scale....But that's not the reality. Many of the familiar models don't work well on the scale required to need billions of people.

....Consider what it would take to make our farm system entirely organic. The only reason industrial organic agriculture can get away with replenishing its soils with manure or by planting nitrogen-fixing cover crops is that the industry is so tiny — making up less than 3 percent of the US food supply (and just 5.3 percent even in gung-ho green cultures like Austria's). If we wanted to rid the world of synthetic fertilizer use — and assuming dietary habits remain constant—the extra land we'd need for cover crops or forage (to feed the animals to make the manure) would more than double, possibly triple, the current area of farmland, according to Vaclav Smil, an environmental scientist at the University of Manitoba. Such an expansion, Smil notes, "would require complete elimination of all tropical rainforests, conversion of a large part of tropical and subtropical grasslands to cropland, and the return of a substantial share of the labor force to field farming — making this clearly only a theoretical notion."

I'm something of a bug about scale problems, so this whole theme appeals to me.  But the rest of the article is really good too.  It's well worth a few minutes of your time.

Zombie Auto Companies

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 4:04 PM EST
Megan McArdle argues today that GM's annual report makes it pretty clear that they're doomed to Chapter 11.  Unfortunately, she makes a pretty good case.  And though she doesn't say it, there's probably an equally good case to be made that Chrysler can't even hope for that.  Liquidation may be all that's left for them.  This is bad.

Ban the Laptop!

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 2:39 PM EST
At the beginning of his Criminal Law class last semester, Eugene Volokh decided to ban laptops as an experiment.  So how did it go?  As the post-class survey summarized below shows, pretty well.  Unsurprisingly, the ban was a net negative for note taking, but it turned out to be a pretty strong net positive on every other scale.  This is mostly of interest to students and professors, but even outside academia it's an intriguing data point for anyone who thinks that the increasing device-driven ADD in modern America might deserve a little more pushback than it usually gets and would like some evidence to back up their instinct.

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Screwing the Poor

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 2:04 PM EST
Karen Tumulty writes in Time this week about her brother, Pat, who was diagnosed with kidney failure and then learned that the private insurance he'd been paying for for years wouldn't cover him.  That's bad enough, but then there's this:

A paradox of medical costs is that people who can least afford them — the uninsured — end up being charged the most. Insurance companies, with large numbers of customers, have the financial muscle to negotiate low rates from health-care providers; individuals do not. Whereas insured patients would have been charged about $900 by the hospital that performed Pat's biopsy (and pay only a small fraction of that out of their own pocket), Pat's bill was $7,756. For lab work — and there was a lot of it — he was being charged as much as six times the price an insurance company would pay.

There are lots of things to hate about our current medical system, and all of us have our own favorite things to hate.  This is mine: the fact that the system massively overcharges you if you're uninsured, and they do it just because they can.  If you're uninsured, you've got no leverage, no alternatives, no nothing.  So you get screwed.  It's like the shopkeepers who charge twenty bucks for a pair of flashlight batteries after hurricanes.  Maybe it's the free market at work, but if so, that's all the worse for the free market.  In the healthcare biz, it just doesn't work.

Quagmire

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 1:12 PM EST
Matt Yglesias reads Time magazine and writes:

Joe Klein’s article on the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan is informative, but doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence. It seems that military planners want the Obama administration to dispatch further additional troops to Afghanistan over and above the plus-up that’s already been announced. But nobody really knows what the mission of these troops would be.

.... Just about everyone seems to agree that the more serious problems are actually in Pakistan...and they’re ultimately political in nature — related to the willingness and capability of the Pakistani government to take on Taliban groups in border areas and, importantly, related to public opinion in Pakistan regarding priorities.

He's right.  Klein's article is here, and it's dismal reading.  I never really thought the Vietnam analogy was apt in the case of the Iraq war, but in the case of Afghanistan it seems to fit all too well: troop increases every year, diminishing success rates, no real strategy in place, and major problems with neighboring countries.  Unlike Iraq, destroying al-Qaeda's ability to wage war is obviously in our national interest.  But until someone produces a credible plan for accomplishing this, it's difficult to see what we're doing there.

French Toast

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 12:49 PM EST
Roger Cohen is scared that Barack Obama wants to turn American into France:

The $3.6 trillion Obama budget made me a little queasy. There is a touch of France in its "étatisme"....For everyone from the oil and gas industry to drug companies, the message was clear: Off with their heads!....I’d thought of Obama as less Robespierre than Talleyrand....The former French President François Mitterrand....manifold sensual, aesthetic and gastronomic pleasures offered by French savoir-vivre....High French unemployment ....French frontiers have not shifted much in centuries....careful to steer clear of his French temptation....The United States is in full post-Bush nemesis. In its core values, un-Gallicized, lies the long road to redemption.

Is there something about having a New York Times column that makes you lose your mind?  Obama wants to push taxes on the super wealthy back up to 2001 levels.  He wants to move in the direction of carbon pricing and universal healthcare, just like he promised repeatedly during the campaign.  He wants to increase defense spending, but increase it slightly less than the Pentagon would like.  Stimulus outlays aside, the budget as a whole is up only moderately compared to two years ago.

If you object to this, fine.  But Cohen doesn't. "After the excesses of Reagan-inspired deregulation and the disaster that unfettered markets have delivered, the pendulum had to swing."  But how much less could Obama swing it and still be making any noticeable difference at all?  What, exactly, has Cohen so worried?  He never says.  He just loses himself in a paroxysm of stammering cliches.  Has he been taking lessons from Maureen Dowd?

Pop Culture Watch

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 6:34 PM EST
I've been meaning to write posts about both 24 and Watchmen for a while, but haven't quite gotten around to it because I don't have anything really meaty to say.  So I'm just going to toss out a couple of offhand observations instead, mostly as an excuse to host an open thread on either or both of these fine Hollywood products.

First, 24.  It's turned into exactly the train wreck that I was afraid of when the season started.  Back when Jack Bauer merely tortured people as part of the script, that was one thing.  Your mileage might vary on whether you felt like watching it, but in the end it was just modern-day Dirty Harryism.  Nothing to get all that worked up about.  But this season Jack isn't just spontaneously beating up on bad guys who know where the ticking time bombs are buried.  No.  This season Jack is beating up on the bad guys as part of a premeditated strategy and then talking about it endlessly.  And so is everyone else.  The writers are no longer content to merely suggest that (in their fictional universe) a bit of extralegal torture might sometimes be justified because it gets results.  They're bound and determined to explicate it on screen every single time it happens and demand that we, the audience, actively approve of it. This is not only depraved, it's lousy storytelling too.  All the usual 24 preposterousness aside, it's made the show cringe-inducing this season.

Next, Watchmen.  Like many fans of the comic, I suppose, I've been waiting for it with a mixture of both anticipation and trepidation.  Anticipation, of course, because it's a seminal comic and I'm eager to see how it gets translated onto the screen.  Trepidation because I don't think it will translate well.  This isn't because I think it's "unfilmable," or because I think Zack Snyder will necessarily ruin it.  (I'm agnostic about that.  I thought 300 was fairly entertaining, so I don't hold that against him.)  No.  Oddly enough, it's because I think the story is simply too absurd to survive the transition to film.  I realize that proposition is a little hard to defend, but there's a sense in which a story that tries to treat costumed superheroes as real people is much harder to accept than one in which the essential burlesque of the superhero genre is simply taken for granted.  Once you start to interrogate the whole concept, it's much harder to successfully suspend disbelief.

Now, obviously that didn't hurt the comic.  (Not much, anyway.)  But I think it's harder to pull this off on the screen, which works by default in a realist mode, than it is in a comic book, which doesn't.  Or so it seems to me, anyway — though I cheerfully admit that the whole argument sounds kind of half-baked.  Feel free to mock me in comments.

This won't stop me from seeing Watchmen, of course.  Maybe I'll even see it on Friday if I can find anyone to go with me.  The question is: how many people who haven't read the comic a dozen times will do the same?