Kevin Drum

Death is Public, So Why Not Taxes?

| Sat Oct. 24, 2009 2:46 PM EDT

Via Alex Tabarrok, this AP dispatch on egalitarianism gone wild is pretty interesting:

In a move that would be unthinkable elsewhere, tax authorities in Norway have issued the "skatteliste," or "tax list," for 2008 to the media under a law designed to uphold the country's tradition of transparency.

....To non-Scandinavians, it would seem to be a gross violation of privacy.  The tax list stirs up a media frenzy, with splashy headlines revealing oil-rich Norway's wealthiest man, woman and celebrity couple.

....The information had been available to media until 2004, when a more conservative government banned the publication of tax records. Three years later, a new, more liberal government reversed the legislation and also made it possible for media to obtain tax information digitally and disseminate it online. Norway's 2007 law emphasized that ''first and foremost, it's the press that can contribute to a critical debate'' on wealth and the elaborate tax scheme that, along with the country's oil wealth, keeps Norway's extensive — and expensive — welfare system afloat.

Apparently the Norwegian data includes total wealth, not just income, which is a little surprising.  Does Norway have a wealth tax?

UPDATE: Turns out the United States tried this experiment for a couple of years back in the 1920s.  However, "popular discomfort with the 1924 experiment prompted lawmakers to repeal the publicity provision two years later."  Thanks to Philip Klinkner for the pointer.

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Fox Update

| Sat Oct. 24, 2009 11:43 AM EDT

Did the Treasury Department try to exclude Fox from conducting a pool interview with pay czar Kenneth Feinberg on Thursday?  That was yesterday's story, but today it's all being chalked up to a big misunderstanding:

Feinberg did a pen and pad with reporters to brief them on cutting executive compensation. TV correspondents, as they do with everything, asked to get the comments on camera. Treasury officials agreed and made a list of the networks who asked (Fox was not among them).

But logistically, all of the cameras could not get set up in time or with ease for the Feinberg interview, so they opted for a round robin where the networks use one pool camera. Treasury called the White House pool crew and gave them the list of the networks who'd asked for the interview.

The network pool crew noticed Fox wasn't on the list, was told that they hadn't asked and the crew said they needed to be included. Treasury called the White House and asked top Obama adviser Anita Dunn. Dunn said yes and Fox's Major Garrett was among the correspondents to interview Feinberg last night.

Hmmm.  This doesn't quite feel like it's the entire story, but for now I guess the ball is back in Fox's court.  Did they initially ask for an interview with Feinberg or not?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Today's Mystery Guest Cat: Deacon

| Sat Oct. 24, 2009 1:19 AM EDT

It's Laura, all Tamiflued up to bring you Kevin and David's Friday Week-in-Review podcast, the latest mystery guest cat pic, and a fun way to turn your cat into a world-saving MoJo cover model.

First, the podcast: Which health care reform gun is attached to the trigger option? Who's behind the new World-of-Warcraft-like Obama conspiracy online game? And what will Inkblot and Domino be doing for Saturday's International Day of Climate Action, other than posing naked on the cover of Mother Jones? Listen to the latest Week-In-Review here.

I can haz climate treaty? Check out Inkblot and Domino on the cover of MoJo's new Facebook app, then make your own family version and consider online holiday cards done this year.

Last, congrats to Guest Cat #4, appearing completely unruffled by Fox minions in Kevin's Drum Beat newsletter today and below. [For Kevin's newsletter-exclusive weekly bonus post and mystery cat news, sign up here.]

Reader Mynda McGuire: Deacon was a hungry stray who entered church services one Sunday every time the doors opened. Ushers took him out only to find him right back in. Hence his name.

Laura McClure hosts weekly podcasts and is a writer, editor, and sometime geek for Mother Jones. Read her recent investigative feature on lifehacking gurus here.

Friday Cat Blogging - 23 October 2009

| Fri Oct. 23, 2009 2:48 PM EDT

The house ad running over on the right says, "Put your kid (or yourself, or your cat) on our climate cover!"  I think we can all guess how that's going to play out around here, can't we?  So here they are: October's latest cover models, urging you to turn down the thermostat this winter and just curl up under the blankets with your staff humans if you get cold.

Want to create your own cover?  Just click here.  It's fun for the whole family, feline and otherwise.

Big Ag

| Fri Oct. 23, 2009 2:28 PM EDT

I still haven't gotten used to writing for a bimonthly magazine.  I've spent the past six weeks buried so deep in a story about the finance lobby that I'd almost forgotten that I wrote a short piece about the ag lobby before that.  But I did.  And now it's on newsstands everywhere.  Or you can just click the link and read it online.

It's all part of our special climate section in the current issue, which you can see here.  Or you can go to your local Barnes & Noble and buy a copy.  Or subscribe!  We're all about choices around here.

Fox and the White House

| Fri Oct. 23, 2009 12:59 PM EDT

Just a few minutes ago I emailed a friend that I thought it was probably a good idea for Obama's folks to take some shots at Fox News, but that "keeping it up would make him look whiny and unpresidential.  He's gotten the conversation kicked off, and that's all he can do.  He should now drop it and let everyone else keep it going."  Then I read this:

In a sign of discomfort with the White House stance, Fox’s television news competitors refused to go along with a Treasury Department effort on Tuesday to exclude Fox from a round of interviews with the executive-pay czar Kenneth R. Feinberg that was to be conducted with a “pool” camera crew shared by all the networks. That followed a pointed question at a White House briefing this week by Jake Tapper, an ABC News correspondent, about the administration’s treatment of “one of our sister organizations.”

This is really inexcusable.  If the White House wants to have a public feud with Fox News, that's fine.  It's a political decision, and they'll either win or lose on a political basis.  But excluding them from the press pool displays an appalling lack of judgment.  Someone in the press office needs to take a deep breath and rethink exactly how far it's appropriate to take this.

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NATO and Afghanistan

| Fri Oct. 23, 2009 12:30 PM EDT

NATO's defense establishment speaks up on Afghanistan:

NATO defense ministers gave their broad endorsement Friday to the counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan laid out by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, increasing pressure on the Obama administration and on their own governments to commit more military and civilian resources for the mission to succeed.

....Although the broad acceptance by NATO defense ministers of General McChrystal’s strategic review included no decision on new troops....

I guess my first, cynical reaction is: wake me up when anyone in Europe agrees to actually send more troops.  Until then, I'm not sure I care what their defense ministers think.

That's my second reaction too.  But my third reaction is a tiny bit of cautious optimism.  In the end, I don't think Obama can withstand Pentagon pressure to send more troops to Afghanistan, and if that's the case then additional NATO support increases the odds of success.  Even if it's mostly peacekeepers and civilians — hell, maybe especially if it's peacekeepers and civilians — it makes a difference both in terms of raw numbers and legitimacy.  So a bit of pressure from the the European defense establishment is helpful.

On the other hand, to return to my first and second reactions, the Times notes this at the end of the story: "At the same time, though, some allies with forces in Afghanistan are cautiously discussing how and when to end their deployments there."  Big surprise.  Overall, I'd say the odds of Europe having more troops in Afghanistan at the end of 2010 than they do now are pretty slim.

Public Option Finale

| Fri Oct. 23, 2009 11:40 AM EDT

Mike Allen reports on the latest prospects for a public option in the healthcare reform bill:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi counted votes Thursday night and determined she could not pass a “robust public option” — the most aggressive of the three forms of a public option House Democrats have been considering as part of a national overhaul of health care.

Pelosi's decision — coupled with a significant turn of events yesterday during a private White House meeting — points to an increasingly likely compromise for a “trigger” option for a government plan.

....This would clear the way for backers to sneak a limited public option through the Senate by attracting moderate Democrats and then to win President Barack Obama's signature.

Well, I guess that's that.  If Obama says he supports a trigger, and if even the House doesn't support something more robust, then a trigger is what we're going to get.  I think this is one of the worst of the public option compromises, but it's probably the one we're stuck with.

But.....what's this business about liberals "sneaking" a public option through the Senate?  Sneaking?  That's like saying that Eisenhower sneaked a bunch of troops into France on D-Day.  The public option and all its permutations have been the main topic of conversation on Capitol Hill for months now.  It's been yelled about in townhalls, debated on CNN, sliced and diced on blogs, and written about endlessly in the New York Times.  Ain't no "sneaking" about it.

Fixing the Banks

| Thu Oct. 22, 2009 7:15 PM EDT

Martin Wolf explains how he'd fix the banking system:

First, create a set of laws and institutions that make it possible to bankrupt any and all institutions, even in a crisis. Second, make financial institutions safer, with much higher capital requirements, against all activities. Third, prevent off-balance-sheet activities. Fourth, impose dynamic provisioning. Fifth, require huge cushions of contingent capital. Finally, cease to favour debt-finance, throughout the economy.

This is very sensible sounding: the first item is a backstop in case the others don't work, and four of the remaining five items are aimed at reducing leverage throughout the banking system.  (Dynamic provisioning is the exception.  It might be a good idea, but it's not directly related to reducing leverage.)  Now extend this to the rest of the financial system and make sure to write the rules with no wiggle room, and you're done.  Piece of cake, really.  Any other problems you'd like solved?

Third Time's the Charm?

| Thu Oct. 22, 2009 5:56 PM EDT

Back in 1998, Long Term Capital Management, the most famous hedge fund on the planet, blew up and nearly took all of Wall Street down with it.  It was pretty spectacular.  But what was even more spectacular was what happened next: less than a year after LTCM's collapse, its founder, John Meriwether, started up a new fund.  And people invested in it!

Well, fine.  It was a more innocent time, after all, and there were people who really believed that LTCM had just run into a once-in-a-century spell of bad luck.  Can't blame a guy for that.  But last year Meriwether's new fund went belly up too.  So that's twice.  He must really be a pariah now, right?  Right?

Hedge fund manager and arbitrageur, John Meriwether, is setting up his third fund, The Financial Times reported. The man behind Long-Term Capital Management is making the move just three months after he chose to close his second fund manager, JWM Partners.

I guess you saw that coming, didn't you?  But it's even worse than you think:

JWM Partners closed last year after losing 44% amidst the market turmoil of 2008. Hedge funds typically have "high water marks" which means that investors don't pay performance fees to the fund manager in subsequent years unless the fund surpasses its highest point. Thus, the solution for fund managers whenever they have a bad year is to liquidate, wait a bit, and form a new fund?!?! Anyone who was invested in the old fund and the new fund thus pays fees twice: you paid when JWM Partners reached its high water mark, and now you'll pay again if/when Meriweather Cubed (not the real name) manages to make money — the same money JWM Partners effectively lost after reaching its high water mark.

Damn.  Words fail.  Via Felix Salmon.