Kevin Drum

The White Man's Burden

| Fri May 29, 2009 12:34 PM EDT

Michelle Cottle is a racist, sexist hatemonger:

Not to state the obvious, but an upper-middle class white guy reared in the suburbs is shaped by his experiences, carries certain assumptions, and views the world through a particular prism as much as a working-glass Puerto Rican gal from Queens, or, for that matter, the half-black son of a single mom raised in Hawaii. The person belonging to the cultural/ethnic/religious/gender/racial demographic that has traditionally dominated a field (and thus whose perspective has long been the default) may not have given as much thought to his prism as a member of a non-dominant group. But that does not make his prism a neutral one. It simply allows him to more freely indulge his delusions of pure rationality and objectivity.

This is ridiculous.  It's just a coincidence that opposition to affirmative action comes almost exclusively from white men.  Nothing to do with background at all.  Right, Rush?

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| Fri May 29, 2009 11:55 AM EDT

Economist Gary Gorton has written a 20,000 word paper on the subject of "informationally-insensitive debt" — i.e., ultra-safe investments like federally insured bank deposits.  Ezra Klein boils this down to a thousand words.  I boldly push the boundaries even further:

The morons who inhabit Wall Street thought they had removed all risk from inherently risky investments.  They were wrong.

There!  Twenty words.  That's a compression ratio even greater than Ezra's.  Felix Salmon comments:

Gorton's solution to this problem is to involve the government in all manner of regulation — and insurance — of the securitization market, thereby making [asset back commerical paper] behave much like federally-insured bank deposits. I don't like this solution at all, since it would send the contingent liabilities of the government into the stratosphere, and more importantly would ratify the demand for informationally-insensitive assets by creating trillions of dollars of new ones.

In my view of the crisis, it's precisely the demand for informationally-insensitive assets which is the problem. And we need to get individuals, companies, and institutional investors out of the mindset that they can do an elegant little two-step around the inescapable fact that anybody with money to invest perforce must take a certain amount of risk. If you have a world where people are all looking for risk-free assets, you end up shunting all that risk into the tails. And the way to reduce tail risk is to get everybody to accept a small amount of risk on an everyday basis. We don't need more informationally-insensitive assets, we need less of them.

I agree.  There's a common view that investors in the period up until 2006 were practically drunk on risk, pricing it nearly at zero — but now, after the crash, they've become more risk averse than your grandmother.  They're almost completely unwilling to accept any risk at any price.

I think this view is fundamentally wrong.  What really happened is that in the early part of the decade investors became convinced that they could avoid risk entirely via financial engineering.  They were, in fact, immensely risk averse, but this wasn't obvious because they were buying up every security in sight.  The post-crash flight to quality, it turns out, wasn't really a flight at all.  Modern investors have been afraid of risk all along.

So Felix is right.  The last thing we need is for the government to perpetuate the delusion that financial markets are risk free.  For small retail bank depositors, that's fine.  For the big boys it's not.  They need to relearn the art of genuinely analyzing risk and taking it on knowingly, rather than pretending they can hedge it away under all circumstances.  After all, accurate analysis of risk is essential to the efficient allocation of capital, and efficient allocation of capital is one of the keys to economic growth.  It's time for Wall Street to get back to basics.

Quote of the Day

| Fri May 29, 2009 11:19 AM EDT

From Will Wilkinson, who'd like to see a libertarian nominated to the Supreme Court but knows perfectly well that Barack Obama is a liberal who will nominate liberals to the Supreme Court:

So I was hoping for a relatively centrist liberal who sees some merit in libertarian arguments, especially about the protection of economic rights. As far as I can tell, there is nothing especially worrying about Sotomayor. She’s obviously super-qualified. And from what I’ve read, she seems like a highly competent, fairly moderate liberal who sticks pretty close to the law (which nobody really likes when they don’t like the law!) and is perfectly willing to side with Republican-appointed judges when that seems to her the right thing to do. What are people going batshit crazy over? I don’t get it. And I really don’t get why many Republicans have taken this opportunity to reinforce the already widespread impression that they are morally odious morons. God, I hate politics.

I feel your pain, Will.  The craziness is coming so thick and fast that I can't even keep up with it.  It makes my brain hurt.

Europe and Guantanamo

| Fri May 29, 2009 10:29 AM EDT

Getting European countries to accept resettlement of Guantanamo prisoners was always going to be a hard sell, but the Washington Post reports that it's recently gotten even harder:

Rising opposition in the U.S. Congress to allowing Guantanamo prisoners on American soil has not gone over well in Europe. Officials from countries that previously indicated they were willing to accept inmates now say it may be politically impossible for them to do so if the United States does not reciprocate.

"If the U.S. refuses to take these people, why should we?" said Thomas Silberhorn, a member of the German Parliament from Bavaria, where the White House wants to relocate nine Chinese Uighur prisoners. "If all 50 states in America say, 'Sorry, we can't take them,' this is not very convincing."

....More trouble emerged when Washington stipulated that the Uighurs would be barred from traveling to the United States.

"If the U.S. says they should come here, but they cannot travel to the U.S., we would have to ask why not?" said a German Interior Ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. "Does that mean they are dangerous?"

Good question!  When the time came to actually accept Guantanamo detainees, European countries were always bound to run into more trouble with domestic politics than they anticipated.  But with the American talk radio contingent making it virtually impossible for the U.S. to accept even a small number of the safest detainees ourselves, it's now inevitable that Europeans are going to back off.  You'd have to be politically suicidal to resettle prisoners that the United States has all but tattooed "terrorist."

So now what happens to them? Stay tuned.

Regulating Derivatives

| Fri May 29, 2009 12:41 AM EDT

The Wall Street Journal reports that big banks aren't happy with the Obama administration's plans to make trading of credit derivatives more transparent by putting them on a public exchange:

Wall Street banks with large derivative-trading businesses have been outwardly supportive of greater regulatory oversight of the $684 trillion market. But behind the scenes, there has been hand-wringing over the details of certain proposals and discussions about how the industry can help shape the rules.

Potentially billions of dollars in revenue is at stake. An effort earlier this decade to improve transparency in the corporate-bond market ended up cutting bank fees by more than $1 billion in a year, according to some studies.

....For credit-default swaps, information about intraday trades and prices has long been controlled by a handful of large banks that handle most trades and earn bigger profits from every transaction they facilitate if prices aren't easily accessible.

For example, credit-default swaps tied to bonds of companies such as General Electric Capital and Goldman Sachs typically have a pricing gap of 0.1 percentage point between the bid and offer price. That translates into a $40,000 margin for every $10 million in debt insured for five years. Greater price transparency could narrow that gap, lowering costs for buyers and sellers but reducing fees for banks.

That's a sad story, isn't it?  When you make trades public, suddenly banks find that they can't rob their clients blind anymore.  Break out your violins, boys and girls.

Paying for College - Part 2

| Thu May 28, 2009 11:28 PM EDT

A few days ago I linked to a Robert Reich post in which he suggested that the skyrocketing cost of student loans was forcing too many grads to take high-paying private sector jobs instead of lower-paying but more socially beneficial positions.  As a solution, he recommended limiting loan repayments to 10% of income for ten years, and I sort of agreed.

Well, that hasn't happened yet, but this morning Mike Kruger of the House Committee on Education and Labor emailed to tell me about some of the provisions of the recently passed College Cost Reduction and Access Act:

The biggest thing is the Income-Based Repayment Program that will cap a monthly payments based on income.

Under the income-based repayment program, such borrowers will never have to spend more than 15% of their discretionary income — an amount based on federal poverty guidelines — on student loan payments. Those whose income falls below 150% of the poverty level won't be required to make any payments.

Here's how it could work: Suppose a student has the average $22,000 in student loans, and gets a job making $25,000/year. Assuming the loans have a fixed interest rate of 5.6%, the monthly payment under the income-based repayment program would be $110, vs. $240 under a standard 10-year repayment plan. Obviously, when the student’s income rises in the future, so will the payments.

For some students, the reduced payments won't cover the interest on their loans. For those with subsidized Stafford loans — which are provided to students who demonstrate economic hardship — the government will pay the interest for the first three years of the program.

For unsubsidized loans, the interest will be added to the balance, so a student could come out of the program with a larger loan balance. However, any amount owed after 25 years of qualifying payments will be forgiven. This is significant, because in the past, it was nearly impossible for borrowers to get out from under their student loan debts.

Now, this isn't what Reich was proposing.  You still have to pay back the full amount of the loan eventually (or make payments for 25 years, whichever comes first) regardless of your income.  But it's sort of a nudge in the right direction, so I thought I'd pass it along.

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Nice Try, Terry

| Thu May 28, 2009 5:39 PM EDT

From the Washington Post:

Consumer activist Ralph Nader accused Terry McAuliffe Thursday of orchestrating an effort to remove him from the presidential ballot in 2004 when McAuliffe was chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Nader said that McAuliffe offered him an unspecified amount of money to campaign in 31 states if Nader would agree to pull his campaign in 19 battleground states.

I sort of hope this is true.  I've never been a big McAuliffe fan before, but this would certainly raise my opinion of him.

More Tough Talk

| Thu May 28, 2009 2:29 PM EDT

It would be nice to see an English-language translation of the entire interview, but M.J. Rosenberg has some fairly eye-popping tough talk on Israel from former ambassador Martin Indyk over at TPMCafe.  It's worth checking out.

Spending and Taxes in California

| Thu May 28, 2009 2:15 PM EDT

Are California's budget woes due to skyrocketing spending?  Michael Hiltzik says this is a myth:

Analyzing the 2008-09 budget bill last year, the legislative analyst determined that since 1998-99, spending in the general fund and state special funds — the latter comes from special levies like gasoline and tobacco taxes — had risen to $128.8 billion from $72.6 billion, or 77%.

During this time frame, which embraced two booms (dot-com and housing) and two busts (ditto), the state's population grew about 30% to about 38 million, and inflation charged ahead by 50%. The budget's growth, the legislative analyst found, exceeded these factors by only an average of 0.2% a year.

There's a lot of truth to this, but I think it goes too far.  For starters, Hiltzik uses a special measure of inflation, not the usual CPI-U, and he doesn't include spending from bond measures.  The chart on the right, using budget data from the Department of Finance, shows per-capita spending including bond measures, adjusted for inflation using the standard CPI figures from the BLS.  There are two things that jump out at you.  First, even using a standard measure of inflation, Hiltzik is right: per capita spending in the decade between 1999 and 2009 has barely budged.  It's up about 6%.

At the same time, if you compare it to 1997 it's up 23%.  California went on a spending spree during the dotcom boom and we never returned to our old levels even after the bust.  What's more, spending in the years between 1999 and 2009 was up even more.  In the decade between 1997 and 2007, per capita spending increased an impressive 39%.  We've tightened our belt considerably in the past couple of years, but that's against the background of some pretty sizeable increases in the intervening years.

California has multiple problems.  Prop 13 reduced our tax base permanently and made it all but impossible to adjust other taxes to make up for it.  Citizens have approved bond measure after bond measure in the seeming belief that because they don't raise taxes, they also don't cost any money.  The governor and the legislature have relied on way too much smoke and mirrors.  But spending has also gone up.  There's just no way to understand the whole picture without acknowledging that.

UPDATE: California's population actually grew about 15% between 1998 and 2008, not 30%.  However, that was just an arithmetic error on Hiltzik's part.  The overall budget growth result that he quoted from the LAO is correct.

(I used population figures from the Census Department in my calculations.  So the per capita spending numbers in the chart should be correct.)

Economic Fascism

| Thu May 28, 2009 1:04 PM EDT

The latest firestorm in the conservosphere concerns Chrysler's shutdown of a quarter of its dealer network.  Capitalism at work, you say?  More like crony capitalism, my friends:

Is the Obama administration punishing Chrysler dealers for their politics? A preliminary analysis by Doug Ross suggests that could be the case.

....[Ross] started with the list of Chrysler and Dodge dealerships which will be closed as a result of the government-mandated Chrysler bankruptcy plan. Then he marked those dealers whose names appeared more than once in the list. Next, he checked which ones contributed to political campaigns. Every one of them had donated almost exclusively to Republican candidates. Ross found only one dealer on the closing list who had contributed to the Obama campaign, a $200 donor in Waco, Texas.

....Shades of the Nixon enemies list, we first saw signs that Obama wasn’t above playing hardball with his political opponents during the active campaign.

Nate Silver puts his high-powered statistical brain to work on his puzzler and concludes....wait for it....that there's no there there.  "It turns out," he says, "that all car dealers are, in fact, overwhelmingly more likely to donate to Republicans than to Democrats — not just those who are having their doors closed."  Big surprise.

So that's that.  But I want to defend Doug Ross and the RedState folks who publicized this anyway.  I'm serious.  Sure, it turned out that nothing was going on, but you know what?  If George Bush's administration had gone down this road, I'd want someone to watch them like a hawk too.  The crackpotty writing may be a source of amusement, and I have no doubt that these guys are, as usual, going to embarrass themselves in an Ahab-like quest to prove that Obama really did force Chrysler to target Republican donors — with the lapdog mainstream media covering up for him because, you know, that's what they do.  But even so, I say dig away.  Even blind squirrels find nuts occasionally, and if the government is going to be running car companies, then this is exactly the kind of thing people should be watching out for.  That's what opposition parties are for.

As Bob Somerby reminds us frequently, the real damage to Bill Clinton didn't come from the crackpots and their conspiracy theories.  It came from the mainstream media eagerly picking up on these theories even when there was nothing there.  As long as modern-day Jeff Gerths hold their fire unless there's some real smoke, we'll be OK.