Kevin Drum

We Are All Spending Hypocrites

| Sat Oct. 9, 2010 8:30 AM EDT

Bruce Bartlett calls out the neocons for being hypocrites on spending:

Establishment conservatives love to talk about the need to cut government spending, but they always seem to find an excuse whenever there is a serious effort to actually do it. Last year, for example, they opposed cutting Medicare as part of health care reform. Now they are banding together to stop cuts in defense spending, which is a fifth of the federal budget, even as they also insist that the deficit is our most critical problem.

This hypocrisy was on full display on Oct. 4, as American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks, Heritage Foundation president Ed Feulner, and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol penned a joint op-ed for the right-wing Wall Street Journal editorial page on why the defense budget should be totally off limits to budget cutters.

Sure they're hypocrites. But so is everyone else. All of us want to cut spending, after all — except for the stuff we care about. That always needs to be off limits. The 65+ crowd in the tea parties wants to cut spending. Except for Social Security and Medicare. Heartland farmers want to cut spending. Except on agricultural subsidies and ethanol allowances. Rock-ribbed businessmen want to cut spending. Except for all the tax expenditures that virtually every sector enjoys. Doctors and nurses want to cut spending. Except on healthcare. Teachers want to cut spending. Except on schools.

Look. The truth is that no one wants to cut spending. What we all want to do is cut spending on stuff we don't happen to care about. Kristol & Co. are a little more barefaced about it than most, but otherwise they're just part of a great American tradition.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 8 October 2010

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 1:54 PM EDT

Marian went to Crate & Barrel the other day and got something for everyone. For us, new soup bowls. For Domino, a fabulous new hidey hole. The next day, however, it was back upstairs to snooze in the sunny spot by the bedroom window. Unfortunately, Inkblot decided to join her, and eventually his roving paw got the best of him. This all turned out badly a few seconds after I snapped this picture, but Inkblot seemed pretty pleased with himself. After all, when Domino fled he was able to take over the entire sunny patch for himself. And he did.

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112th Congress Preview, Part 2

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 1:21 PM EDT

With the tea partiers snapping at their heels, Republicans will have to get serious about deficit cutting if they take over Congress in November. Right? No more smoke and mirrors anymore. The ravenous horde won't stand for it.

Maybe. But Jonathan Bernstein suggests three ways the GOP may try to placate the mob:

(1) Hire someone at CBO who will score tax cuts as massive revenue sources. Hey, look, the deficit is falling!

(2) Gotta have a gimmick — introduce some sort of auto-cut procedure, similar to the old Gramm-Rudman structure; make sure that it won't actually kick in until some point in the future (or with a divided Congress, let the Senate kill it). Talk a lot about the Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment. Hold lots of votes on the Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment. Repeat that deficits keep going up because the Democrats are blocking the Amendment, or the new absolutely necessary budget procedures.

(3) Eliminate earmarks. Talk a whole lot about eliminating earmarks. Claim that you're slashing spending — we eliminated earmarks! Never use the word "deficit" again. Hope no one notices.

I was pondering this the other day and #2 and #3 both crossed my mind in slightly different form. I missed #1, which I suppose is a possibility if Republicans take over both the House and the Senate. It might be a little too raw, though, even for them.

Beyond that, I guess I ended up with a different take: I don't think tea partiers really care about deficits. It's just the most useful cudgel at hand right now. So sure, Republicans will come up with a gimmick or two, but mainly this will boil down to a few high-profile fights over a few specific expenditures. There's no telling what they'll be, except that they'll almost certainly be (a) trivial, (b) aimed at programs Democrats hold dear, and (c) simple enough to turn into a shouting match easily. But trivial or not, it will likely end up in a dramatic, TV-worthy government shutdown. This will show that GOP hearts are in the right place, and if it doesn't actually have any serious effect on the deficit no one will really care. At least we're fighting to take our country back!

In fact, I'm willing to predict right now that sometime next year Fox News will decide with whiplash-inducing speed that deficits aren't really very newsworthy anymore. Why? Because it will simply be impossible to pretend that the issues at stake are anywhere near big enough to make a real difference in the deficit, and in any case, they're going to be far more interested in promoting tax cuts for the rich. So instead of scary deficit charts, it's going to be 24/7 yammering about how we need to motivate our Wall Street billionaires hardworking entrepreneurs to work harder by cutting their taxes. Should be loads of fun.

Ben Bernanke, Missing In Action

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 12:38 PM EDT

Brad DeLong is perplexed:

One of the puzzles of the Obama administration that I have absolutely no read on is the reappointment of Ben Bernanke. When Obama reappointed Ben Bernanke I was sure — and I had reason to be sure — that the Ben Bernanke they were reappointing was the academic I knew well, "Helicopter Ben," the intellectual advocate of much more aggressive policy responses to the collapse of the real-estate bubble in Japan in the 1990s.

Obama would, after all, have to be a complete idiot to appoint somebody who did not view the world the way Ben-Bernanke-the-academic had viewed it in the late 1990s, and who had not assured him that he did still view the world the way he had viewed it in the 1990s.

So huh?! What happened?

Perhaps this is the result of too many trips to Jackson Hole, where private conversations with the great and good can too easily convince you that the great and good all agree with you in their heart of hearts. But in August 2009, if you were someone who had never met Ben Bernanke, who had never been to Jackson Hole, who had never spoken privately with anyone of consequence in the economic community — in short, if all you had to go on was Ben Bernanke's public actions and public statements — I think you would conclude that he thought the economy was on the mend and had no intention of lighting his hair on fire over minor things like sky-high unemployment and trillion dollar output gaps. You would also, I think, conclude that he was still the same laissez faire Republican economist he has always been and had no real desire to seriously re-regulate the financial sector even after the biggest financial meltdown since 1929.

And guess what? You would have been right. I'd say that about 90% of the time, public actions and public statements are more reliable guides to reality than all the private conversations in the world. Unfortunately, the other 10% of the time they aren't, and that 10% tends to be fairly dramatic. So, like a gambler who gets a big payoff just often enough to keep him at the table, we continue to be suckered by what we think is inside knowledge. Just human nature, I suppose. Maybe I should add it to my list.

Why They Win

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 12:03 PM EDT

Andrew Sullivan, who argues endlessly against the politics of outrage, emotion, and resentment, demonstrates today why the politics of outrage, emotion, and resentment work so well. Sharron Angle, he admits, is a "nutcase." But if he lived in Nevada, he still couldn't vote for Harry Reid, even if that was the only way of keeping Angle out of the U.S. Senate:

He is everything I hate about Democrats: incapable of making an argument, a face so weak it changes depending on the way the wind is blowing, a voice so sad you think he's a funeral director, a man whose appareance on television has never evinced any reaction from me but "where's the remote?" I just couldn't pull the lever for the guy. Sorry. So I won't be surprised if the nutjob wins. And a tiny part of me will feel a pulse of intense pleasure to see him go down.

Harry Reid is an inside player, not a Sarah Palinesque bomb thrower. He's no good on TV. But guess what? Against monumental odds, he played the inside game pretty decently this term, shepherding a stimulus bill, a healthcare reform bill, and a financial reform bill through the Senate. And to do it, he needed to figure out how to deal with prima donnas like Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, Scott Brown, and Olympia Snowe without losing his sanity. These are some of the most infuriating, self-regarding people on the planet. Could you do it? I know I couldn't. Hell, I probably would have taken a swing at Lieberman on the Senate floor around September of last year.

And then we would have lost his vote and healthcare reform wouldn't have passed. But I'd look tough! Cable news would love me! Andrew would be thrilled! Dems are showing some backbone!

And all at the minor cost of passing nothing. But at least we'd have someone telegenic running the Senate, and God knows that's what's really important.

Honeybee Collapse (Partly) Solved!

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 11:36 AM EDT

And now for some genuinely good news. It appears that we've finally figured out whether it's a virus or a fungus that's reponsible for the collapse of honeybee colonies over the past few years. Answer: it's both.

Researchers on both sides say that colony collapse may be the first time that the defense machinery of the post-Sept. 11 Homeland Security Department and academia have teamed up to address a problem that both sides say they might never have solved on their own.

....Human nature and bee nature were interconnected in how the puzzle pieces came together. Two brothers helped foster communication across disciplines. A chance meeting and a saved business card proved pivotal. Even learning how to mash dead bees for analysis — a skill not taught at West Point — became a factor.

....Research at the University of California, San Francisco, had already identified the fungus as part of the problem. And several RNA-based viruses had been detected as well. But the Army/Montana team, using a new software system developed by the military for analyzing proteins, uncovered a new DNA-based virus, and established a linkage to the fungus, called N. ceranae....The Army software system — an advance itself in the growing field of protein research, or proteomics — is designed to test and identify biological agents in circumstances where commanders might have no idea what sort of threat they face....The power of that idea in military or bee defense is immense, researchers say, in that it allows them to use what they already know to find something they did not even know they were looking for.

So there you have it. Academic researchers teamed up with Army software designed to identify biological agents on the battlefield to figure out what was going on. Now all that's left is to figure out just how this virus/fungus combo works and whether there's any way to fight it.

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Today's Grim Employment Report

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 11:00 AM EDT

Do I have to do a post about today's employment report? I do? Fine: it sucks. Private sector job growth was anemic, just as it has been since falling off a cliff in May, and shows no signs of picking up. Public sector job growth, thanks to state and local layoffs, was negative, just as it has been since falling off a cliff in June. As a result, total job growth was tiny, far too small even to keep up with population growth. At the rate things are going right now, unemployment is going to stay near double digits for a very, very long time.

Too negative, you say? You want some good news, you say? Here it is:

While job creation remains scarce, there could be a silver lining. Expectations are growing that the Federal Reserve will try to stimulate the economy by stepping up its purchases of government bonds. The gloomy jobs report could give the Fed more incentive to act.

Jason Pride, director of investment strategy at wealth management firm Glenmede, said "by not being stronger, (the jobs report) gives them the window of opportunity to take action."

Any other good news? Well, the stock market broke 11000 and the teen apparel sector posted strong growth as part of "brisk" back-to-school sales. So buck up, folks. Prosperity is right around the corner.

The Ghost of Congress Future

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 10:39 AM EDT

"GoolsbeeGate" is a look at things to come if Republicans take over the House in November. I can't wait. It sounds like a worthy successor to the Clinton Christmas card investigation. 

How the Taliban Does It

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 9:07 PM EDT

Dion Nissenbaum of McClatchy reports that although the Pakistanis have blocked U.S. military convoys passing through Torkham to Afghanistan, they're letting everyone else through, including Taliban fighters:

"Every day, 40,000 to 70,000 people pass through the border, we can't handle it," said Gen. Mohammed Zaman Mamozai, the commander of the Afghan Border Police stationed at Torkham gate. "For us it's very difficult, and it's not possible to ask every single person where they are going and if they have a passport."

....For nearly a decade, the U.S. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to cut off the remote, high altitude mountain trails Taliban forces use to smuggle weapons and fighters into Afghanistan. Now, the U.S. military is turning its attention to the border crossing.

"More and more we've realized that they are not coming through the passes, they're just coming through the . . . gate," said one U.S. government official in Afghanistan who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could candidly discuss the unfolding plan to focus on the border crossing.

Wait a second. After ten years, we're only now realizing that the Taliban might be coming in and out of Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass? That can't possibly be right, can it?

The Real McCain

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 3:45 PM EDT

Todd Purdum in Vanity Fair:

The prevailing question about John McCain this year is: What happened? What happened to that other John McCain, the refreshingly unpredictable figure who stood apart from his colleagues and seemed to promise something better than politics as usual? The question may miss the point....It’s possible to see McCain’s entire career as the story of a man who has lived in the moment, who has never stood for any overriding philosophy in any consistent way, and who has been willing to do all that it takes to get whatever it is he wants. He himself said, in the thick of his battle with Hayworth, “I’ve always done whatever’s necessary to win.” Maybe the rest of us just misunderstood.

I'm hardly the best judge of character in the world, but I confess that the McCain phenomenon has always baffled me. Even back in the glory days of the Straight Talk Express he seemed like a consummate phony to me, sucking up to reporters not because he was being unusually candid, but because it seemed like a good strategy to beat a well-financed guy who was running ahead of him. He's always been nasty, he's always been hot tempered, he's always looked out for number one, and he's always been willing to take whatever position was convenient at the time. All politicians shade their messages now and again, but on that score McCain has always been a politician's politician.

Or so it seemed to me. I've never understood how he managed to convince so many people otherwise for so long.