Kevin Drum

Quote of the Day - 03.06.09

| Fri Mar. 6, 2009 9:21 AM PST
From Fox News chief Roger Ailes, talking about Barack Obama's efforts to turn America into a socialist hellhole:

"I see this as the Alamo.  If I just had somebody who was willing to sit on the other side of the camera until the last shot is fired, we'd be fine."

Last night I was channel surfing and happened to land on Sean Hannity's show for a few minutes.  Marian walked in and wondered why I was watching it.  "Doesn't he just increase your blood pressure?" she asked.

I'd never really thought about it, but I realized right then that he doesn't.  Lou Dobbs increases my blood pressure.  Chris Matthews increases my blood pressure.  Maureen Dowd increases my blood pressure.  But Hannity?  Rush Limbaugh?  Glenn Beck?  Nah.  They seem so frankly clownish, and so completely insulated in their little cocoon of viewers who already agree with them anyway, that they just don't bother me much.  That's probably a little too lackadaisical on my part — they can still drive cards and letters into congressional offices, after all — but the fact is that they've lost their ability to push my buttons.  Their particular brand of freak-showism just doesn't seem so scary these days.

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Nobody Left

| Fri Mar. 6, 2009 8:43 AM PST
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.

Staffing Trouble

| Fri Mar. 6, 2009 12:02 AM PST
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Two candidates for top jobs at the Treasury have withdrawn their names from consideration, complicating efforts by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to staff his department at a time of economic crisis, according to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"

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 11:31 PM PST
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 1:54 PM PST
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 1:04 PM PST
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.

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Ban the Laptop!

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 11:39 AM PST
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.

Screwing the Poor

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 11:04 AM PST
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 10:12 AM PST
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 9:49 AM PST
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?