Kevin Drum

Up is Still Up, Down is Still Down

| Fri Feb. 5, 2010 2:50 PM EST

I'm back! It was (mostly) dry in San Francisco, but it's raining here in Southern California. This is not the way the world is supposed to work. However, just to prove that the world hasn't been turned completely unpside down, it turns out that Republicans are still Republicans:

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) has put an extraordinary "blanket hold" on at least 70 nominations President Obama has sent to the Senate, according to multiple reports this evening. The hold means no nominations can move forward unless Senate Democrats can secure a 60-member cloture vote to break it, or until Shelby lifts the hold.

....According to the report, Shelby is holding Obama's nominees hostage until a pair of lucrative programs that would send billions in taxpayer dollars to his home state get back on track. The two programs Shelby wants to move forward or else.

And this:

The senator who is shepherding the Obama administration’s package of Wall Street reforms through Congress said on Friday morning that talks with his Republican counterpart had broken down.

The senator, Christopher J. Dodd, indicated that Democrats would forge ahead with their own bill, after months of talks that had been aimed at reaching a bipartisan consensus.

I am shocked, I tell you, shocked. A leading member of the party that's the scourge of earmarks is blocking all nominees for everything1 unless his earmarks are hustled back onto the fast track, and months of negotiations with the party that insists it's willing to negotiate with Democrats in good faith have broken down because, in fact, they aren't. They aren't, as most of us with three-digit IQs already knew, willing to agree to any financial regulation that has even the slightest chance of actually regulating the behavior that caused the 2008 meltdown.

(And "slightest chance" is all we're talking about here. It's not as if the Democratic version of financial regulation was likely to put much of a dent in Wall Street in the first place.)

But I'll take my good news where can I get it. And here it is: I got home late enough that I really don't have much time to blog this latest bout of GOP hypocrisy and kowtowing. So I won't. Catblogging is coming up next!

1No, that's not a typo. All nominees. For everything.

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Tax Cut Fail

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 4:00 PM EST

Flickr/Ben Ward (Creative Commons).Flickr/Ben Ward (Creative Commons).Democrats' inability to inform the public that the stimulus plan cut taxes in a big way should go down as one of their biggest political screw-ups in recent years. Barack Obama felt it necessary, during the State of the Union address, to spend a big chunk of time hammering home the fact that his party cut taxes. And PolitiFact recently decided it had to to check David Axelrod's claim that the Democrats passed 25 tax cuts last year without the help of Republicans. (PolitiFact has a list of all the tax cuts—they rated the claim "true.") Both of these events are signs that the fact that the Democrats cut taxes has not sunk in to Americans' psyches. It's not common knowlege. If it were, would the Tea Partiers be talking about how they're "Taxed Enough Already?" Well, probably. But they'd at least be challenged on that. 

The second part of Axelrod's claim is basically true, too. Only three Republicans (including Arlen Specter, who is now a Democrat) voted for a stimulus bill that included hundreds of billions of dollars of tax cuts. And yet the Dems are still hoping that the GOP is going to lend them a helping hand on their jobs bill. Good luck with that.

Kevin is traveling today.

The Market for Economics

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 3:31 PM EST

Ian Crosby offers up some interesting questions:

Paul Krugman maintains that Austrian business cycle theory is "as worthy of serious study as the phlogiston theory of fire." Milton Friedman claimed, less colorfully but no less categorically: "The Hayek-Mises explanation of the business cycle is contradicted by the evidence. It is, I believe, false."

Am I right to interpret this concurrence of opinion by two Nobelists from opposite ends of the political spectrum as a strong evidence that the Austrian critique is misguided?  Are latter-day Austrians the economic equivalent of creation scientists and climate-change deniers?  Or are there mainstream economists who take them seriously?  And if they do, what does it say about macro as science that there should be basic disagreements about a fundamental object of study in the discipline?

After talking to a few working economists, he concludes:

The real lack of consensus in macro, it seems, is not how to respond to a downturn in the business cycle, but what causes the business cycle in the first place.  And if mainstream macroeconomists agree that the Austrian explanation of this phenomenon is demonstrably lacking, it is not because they have a well-supported alternative or viable research program of their own.

Today’s Austrians may be a small and dubious minority.  But they have hardly opposed themselves to the edifice of a successful science.

Does that conclusion seem right to you guys?

And why is Austrianism appealing, anyway? Krugman argues that Austrianism appeals to people because it offers easy, clear-cut rules about cause and effect, and because it appeals to individuals' moral sense.*

But I think part of the reason people are attracted to the Austrian school is that more mainstream economists don't seem as interested in gaining public (i.e., nonacademic) acceptance of their ideas as the Austrians are. Whether or not they're "serious," the Austrians are definitely serious about promoting their theories. The Austrians have the Mises Institute, dedicated to spreading their ideas. They have the legions of Ron Paul supporters, most of whom lean towards Austrianism and are eager to tell you about it. And various Austrians and Austrian-leaning folks are responsible for clever things like the Keynes vs. Hayek rap video and Peter Schiff's series of YouTube videos. Russ Roberts, a professor at George Mason University who is behind the rap video, has written about the peculiarity of GMU's "Austrian-flavored" economics department:

We don’t just speak to the academy. We blog. We write novels. We write letters to the editor. Op-ed columns. We write books for a general audience. This isn’t an aberration. It isn’t just tolerated. It’s honored.

The point is that while it's easy to find someone ready to convert you to Austrianism, you just don't see "mainstream" economists out there trying to explain the basics of their theories to the masses. The closest you get to a public evangelist for Keynesian economics, for example, is Krugman, who generally focuses his New York Times column on the political and policy implications of economics—not the underlying theory. And yet when he has tried to explain the counterintuitive parts of Keynesianism, Krugman's actually been fairly effective. Witness this Slate article from 1998, in which Krugman talks about a microeconomy in order to explain his theories about the larger economy. More of that, please! 

Kevin is traveling today.

*I edited several sentences in the middle of this post for clarity.

Do Elections Have Consequences?

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 2:19 PM EST

John Cole uses this video of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to highlight some unfortunate behavior on the part of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.):

You see, McCain put a hold on Craig Becker, a nominee for the National Labor Relations Board, back in October, but never submitted any questions for Becker in all that time. The point of Franken's questions, which get at the fact that Becker is a former labor lawyer, is to point out that nominees for something like the NLRB are very likely to be from one side or the other—in this case, either management or labor.

Republicans, who generally take management's side, are going to oppose the labor-type nominees. And Democrats are going to oppose the management-type nominees. And because the minority's opposition to someone is often enough to block that person's confirmation (because of holds and the filibuster), you have a real problem. Elections are supposed to determine who runs the country. But the way the system works currently is that winning a presidential election gives you the right to determine foreign policy and assassinate Americans but gives you very little power over domestic governance. Winning a presidential election should at least give you the power to hire people to help you run the country. It should also probably give you a better shot at actually implementing your agenda. Right now, both those things are impossible.

Kevin is traveling today.

The Power to Assassinate American Citizens

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 2:01 PM EST

Today, via the Washington Post's Ellen Nakashima, we get more confirmation that the Obama administration believes it has the power to unilaterally order the assassination of Americans who it suspects are terrorists:

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair acknowledged Wednesday that government agencies may kill U.S. citizens abroad who are involved in terrorist activities if they are "taking action that threatens Americans."

There don't seem to be any non-executive branch checks on this power. But Barack Obama is a good and wise man. What could possibly go wrong?

As usual, Glenn Greenwald is the person to go to on this:

Although Blair emphasized that it requires "special permission" before an American citizen can be placed on the assassination list, consider from whom that "permission" is obtained:  the President, or someone else under his authority within the Executive Branch.  There are no outside checks or limits at all on how these "factors" are weighed.  In last week's post, I wrote about all the reasons why it's so dangerous—as well as both legally and Consitutionally dubious—to allow the President to kill American citizens not on an active battlefield during combat, but while they are sleeping, sitting with their families in their home, walking on the street, etc.  That's basically giving the President the power to impose death sentences on his own citizens without any charges or trial.  Who could possibly support that?

[...]

It would be perverse in the extreme, but wouldn't it be preferable to at least require the President to demonstrate to a court that probable cause exists to warrant the assassination of an American citizen before the President should be allowed to order it?  That would basically mean that courts would issue "assassination warrants" or "murder warrants"—a repugnant idea given that they're tantamount to imposing the death sentence without a trial—but isn't that minimal safeguard preferable to allowing the President unchecked authority to do it on his own, the very power he has now claimed for himself?  And if the Fifth Amendment's explicit guarantee—that one shall not be deprived of life without due process—does not prohibit the U.S. Government from assassinating you without any process, what exactly does it prohibit?

That, at least, I have a bit of an answer for: the government can take your life, but it can never take your steel plants.

Kevin is traveling today.

Did Bush Almost Bomb Georgia?

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 1:31 PM EST

Politico reports breathlessly that George W. Bush's administration "considered—and rejected—a military response to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia." Andrew Sullivan draws the conclusion that the Bush team "came close" to bombing Georgia to stop Russian troops from pouring into the tiny country through a critical tunnel. But that's not really what the article says.

The key quote, in the sixth paragraph of the story, explains that "No principal advocated the use of force." It's both appropriate and unsurprising that Bush and Cheney's national security aides—or the national security aides to any president—would lay out all the potential responses to a crisis like the invasion of Georgia. And it's only responsible for the pricipals—actual decisionmakers like Bush, Cheney, and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley—to discuss all the options. But if none of the actual decisionmakers ever pushed to use military force, it's hard to argue that it was seriously considered. This really seems like a non-story.

Kevin is traveling today.

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The Democrats' Jobs "Plan"

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 12:44 PM EST

Scott Brown is set to be sworn in as the newest member of the United States Senate later today. That means Democrats will need at least one Republican to switch sides if they hope to beat a Republican filibuster of their jobs bill. An initial vote on the package is set for Monday. Brian Beutler has the latest on how the Dems' plan to do that:

"You need two to tango. And you need Republicans for bipartisanship," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (I-IL). "Hope is prospective...we don't have bipartisanship at this moment. I hope we'll have it in a matter of minutes, hours, days."

Hope may be prospective. But it's not a plan.

Maybe the Dems really do have a GOPer on board, and they just don't want to say yet. But more likely, they're expecting the bill to fail and plan on blaming the Republicans for it. That might be good politics, but it doesn't actually help anyone get a job.

Kevin is traveling today.

Paul Ryan's Budget

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 12:06 PM EST

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has received a lot of attention in recent days for his plan to slash the deficit. (If you haven't yet, read Ezra Klein's interview with Ryan.) Mostly that's because he actually has something resembling a plan. The bulk of the "savings" from the plan come from converting Medicare to a voucher program and limiting the value of the vouchers. In other words, Ryan would change Medicare from what is essentially a single-payer plan for the elderly into a coupon program, with coupons that wouldn't cover the full cost of your medical care. (Ryan would also essentially privatize Social Security, but he doesn't get much in the way of savings from that.) And it's true—if you eliminate the whole "social insurance" bit about Medicare, it gets a lot cheaper. 

Now, Kevin says the plan is all "smoke and mirrors" because Ryan doesn't say "how his spending limits will be met." But using vouchers is actually a great way to set spending limits, if that's what you want to do. The real problem with Ryan's plan is that it's the kind of plan you propose when you don't actually have to pass a plan. Ross Douthat writes that "even if there were a politically-feasible path toward the kind of overhaul Ryan has in mind, it’s not clear how many Republican politicians would want to take it." Even Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who appeared with Ryan at a press conference on Tuesday to discuss the plan, hasn't embraced its proposals. The Atlantic's Derek Thompson has it right: "It's a shocking budget, and the kind of thing that no party in power would ever have the cojones to propose." It's the "gradual extermination" of Medicare, Thompson says. 

The biggest problem with Ryan's plan is that it doesn't actually control health care costs. It simply shifts the burden of paying for them from the public sector to individuals. Instead of the government going bankrupt trying to pay for medical care, it'll be individuals. That's all well and good for the rich, who might be able to pay for their own health care. But people who would have relied on Medicare are going to be out of luck. Medical costs wil rise much faster than the value of the voucher will. Ryan's plan seems to pretend that the problem isn't medical costs—it's just that the government is trying to pay for them. James Kwak is good on this:

The implicit premise [of Ryan's plan] is that we have to screw ordinary people–or at least make them bear a high degree of risk–in order to save the government budget. But what is the government budget? It’s a pile of money that we contribute and that our representatives are supposed to spend on things we can’t buy for ourselves individually. I know that those representatives make mistakes, are borderline corrupt, etc. But Medicare is exactly the kind of program that we want government to provide–a program that shifts risk from individuals to the government, and thereby the country as a whole–and that’s why it’s so popular.

Other countries manage to keep their citizens healthy at a much lower cost than we do. They don't have to dismantle their social insurance programs to do it. Why should we?

Kevin is traveling today.

More Question Time?

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 5:21 PM EST

Last week, President Barack Obama and the House Republican caucus held a riveting, televised question-and-answer session at the GOP's retreat. Now a bunch of lefty and righty bloggers, academics, and media figures (including Mother Jones' David Corn, who drafted the petition) have formed a coalition to demand more events along the same lines. Alex Balk thinks this is a bad idea:

It's a good idea unless you've seen how Question Times actually work in parliamentary democracies, where members of the governing parties ask self-serving softballs (e.g., "Do you agree with me that the American worker is the hardest worker in the world?") designed to run out the clock, while the opposition party tosses up as many cheap shots as it can in hopes that something will stick. And even were the process to be modified so that it was simply the President and Republicans, what does it benefit the President to reward the opposition with a continuing platform from which they can repeatedly voice their disagreements without offering credible, concrete alternatives? I mean, doesn't he already do that enough with the Senate's Democratic caucus? Nobody wants to watch that.

David actually addresses this concern fairly well in his piece announcing the coalition:

None of us are naive and believe that implementing Question Time will cure what ails our country and our political process. We do realize that if QT does become a Washington routine, politicians and their aides will do what they can to game it to their advantage.... There may well be attempts to institutionalize Question Time in a fashion that renders it nothing more than a canned replay of pre-existing spin. But even though there are problems with the presidential debates—which have been taken over by the political parties and a corporate-sponsored commission—those events still have value.

At Wednesday's White House press conference, when David asked Bill Burton whether the administration would commit to more Question Time-type events, Burton essentially said no, arguing that last week's event worked because of its "spontaneity." Burton and Balk have a point. Even if Question Time happens again, it probably won't be as good as it was last week. But I think David actually comes out on top here. No one thinks that a few question-and-answer sessions will fix America's problems. But QT could make things a little bit better. How can that be bad?

(FWIW Kevin thinks last week marked the "first and last" Question Time. Despite all this, he could very well be right.)

Kevin is traveling today and tomorrow.

Interrogating Abdulmutallab

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 3:47 PM EST

Flickr/Mike Licht (Creative Commons).Flickr/Mike Licht (Creative Commons).On Tuesday, Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.) joined Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and a bunch of Republicans to slam the Obama administration's plan to try the alleged 9/11 co-conspirators in federal court. Graham announced that he planned to introduce a bill—with Lincoln and Webb's support—to prohibit funding for civilian trials for Khalid Sheikh Mohamed and the other accused planners of the 9/11 attacks. The Senate rejected a similar bill, 55-45, back in November, but Graham and many of his allies pointed to the failed Christmas attack allegedly carried out by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as evidence that the Obama adminstration's strategy for fighting terrorism isn't working.

Many of the critics of the Obama administration's response seem to be claiming that Abdulmutallab should not have been arrested or read his Miranda rights. They seem to believe he should have been turned over to military custody so he could face the same military tribunals that they want KSM et. al. to face. (TPM's Justin Elliott has a good piece on why tribunals might not be the most effective way to try and convict terrorists.) And some of the critics are suggesting that Abdulmutallab should have faced "harsher" interrogation—an argument-by-euphemism for using techniques that have been banned as torture.

On Tuesday night, the Obama adminstration fought back at the criticism with a barrage of leaks to the press. Abdulmutallab is cooperating with investigators, sources told the New York Times. Gaining his trust by involving his family was supposedly key to getting him to provide information on Al Qaeda. So the Obama administration is defending its way of dealing with terrorist suspects by claiming that its way works. (The Obama administration's way is also the way it was almost always done before 9/11, and sometimes after—shoe-bomber Richard Reid was Mirandized, too, and no one raised a fuss.)

But in some ways, using the "it works" defense is too weak. Attorney General Eric Holder has a better idea: defend the Obama administration because, when it comes to Abdulmutallab, it's following precedent, the Constitution, and the law. In a letter to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader, Holder writes:

The practice of the U.S. government, followed by prior and current Administrations without a single exception, has been to arrest and detain under federal criminal law all terrorist suspects who are apprehended inside the United States... Some have argued that had Abdulmutallab been declared an enemy combatant, the government could have held him indefinitely without providing him access to an attorney. But the government's legal authority to do so is far from clear. In fact, when the Bush administration attempted to deny Jose Padilla access to an attorney, a federal judge in New York rejected that position, ruling that Padilla must be allowed to meet with his lawyer. Notably, the judge in that case was Michael Mukasey, my predecessor as Attorney General. In fact, there is no court-approved system currently in place in which suspected terrorists captured inside the United States can be detained and held without access to an attorney; nor is there any known mechanism to persuade an uncooperative individual to talk to the government that has been proven more effective than the criminal justice system.

Adam Serwer, who first wrote about the Holder letter, has a good list of the ways in which Abdulmutallab's successful interrogation "explodes" key torture myths. But I also especially enjoyed the take of "M.S." at The Economist (although I know Kevin hates their semi-anonymous blogs):

THERE are apparently a significant number of people in America who don't think that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should have been arrested, read his rights, and interrogated by FBI officers, with a view to ultimate prosecution in a court of law for the crime of attempted murder. I don't really understand what it is that these people do think.... Eventually, one assumes, such people want Mr Abdulmutallab tried by some other parallel system of justice, a military tribunal perhaps, so that he gets less of an opportunity to defend himself than he would have in the normal criminal-justice system. As Scott Brown says, "In dealing with terrorists, our tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop them, not lawyers to defend them." I have no idea what Mr Brown is afraid might happen to Mr Abdulmutallab in court: that, with a clever lawyer, he might beat the rap? The man's underpants burst into flame in full view of an airplane full of passengers.

This is a really important point. The criminal justice system is how America has traditionally dealt with terrorists. It has so far proven more effective at actually convicting them than military tribunals have. The burden of proof should fall on those who advocate using a different system.

Kevin is traveling today and tomorrow.