Kevin Drum

Chart of the Day

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 10:24 PM EDT

I haven't had a chart of the day here for weeks.  What the hell is going on around this place?

Well, here's today's: day trips to Canada are down.  Way down.  It's not clear why, either.  The accompanying story blames it mostly on new passport rules, along with "other factors, including the recession and the higher Canadian dollar."  But that doesn't really hold water.  The downward spike from May to June might be due to new passport rules, but the chart makes clear that travel has been steadily decreasing ever since it recovered from 9/11 in early 2002.  Obviously passport rules have nothing to do with this 7-year trend, and neither does the recession or the strength of the Canadian dollar.

So what is it?  Take your guesses in comments.

UPDATE: Actually, maybe the exchange rate explains it after all.

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What Gay Marriage Means

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 4:05 PM EDT

When Steve Chapman asked same-sex marriage opponent Maggie Gallagher to offer a few "simple, concrete predictions" about what would happen if SSM were legalized, she "politely declined."  However, now that Chapman has gotten the ball rolling, she's taken to The Corner to offer a few "preliminary predictions about the short-term effects of SSM":

  1. In gay-marriage states, a large minority people committed to traditional notions of marriage will feel afraid to speak up for their views, lest they be punished in some way.
  2. Public schools will teach about gay marriage.
  3. Parents in public schools who object to gay marriage being taught to their children will be told with increasing public firmness that they don't belong in public schools and their views will not be accomodated in any way. 
  4. Religous institutions will face new legal threats (especially soft litigation threats) that will cause some to close, or modify their missions, to avoid clashing with the government's official views of marriage (which will include the view that opponents are akin to racists for failing to see same-sex couples as married).
  5. Support for the idea "the ideal for a child is a married mother and father" will decline.

Of these, #4 strikes me as almost certainly mistaken.  Interracial marriage bans were struck down more than 40 years ago, but so far as I know, churches are still legally free to marry whomever they wish without interference from the government.  I expect the same will be true as same-sex marriage bans are overturned.

Gallagher's other objections are more plausible, but what's striking about them is how self-referential they are.  The balance of her list all boils down to about the same thing: if social attitudes become more tolerant toward SSM, then.....social attitudes will become more tolerant toward SSM.  Which is hard to argue with.  I don't think anyone will be "punished" for opposing SSM, but it's almost certainly true that as SSM becomes more widely accepted, people who remain unreconciled will feel somewhat socially marginalized — something that happens anytime there's social change of any sort.

Widespread acceptance of gay marriage, then, will result in widespread acceptance of gay marriage.  Aside from that, though, Gallagher doesn't really predict any concrete harm to society.  So what's the problem?

Bullet Point of the Day

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 1:37 PM EDT

From a press release announcing some of the dirty laundry that former DHS secretary Tom Ridge will air in his upcoming memoir:

• How Ridge effectively thwarted a plan to raise the national security alert just before the 2004 Election.

Paul Bedard of US News adds that this was "something he saw as politically motivated and worth resigning over."  Juicy!  The book will be released September 1st.

Nihilists and Hypocrites

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 1:16 PM EDT

Joe Klein says the Republican Party has been taken over by "nihilists and hypocrites":

An argument can be made that this is nothing new....There was McCarthyism in the 1950s, the John Birch Society in the 1960s. But there was a difference in those times: the crazies were a faction — often a powerful faction — of the Republican Party, but they didn't run it. The neofascist Father Coughlin had a huge radio audience in the 1930s, but he didn't have the power to control and silence the elected leaders of the party that Limbaugh — who, if not the party's leader, is certainly the most powerful Republican extant — does now. Until recently, the Republican Party contained a strong moderate wing. It was a Republican, the lawyer Joseph Welch, who delivered the coup de grâce to Senator McCarthy when he said, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" Where is the Republican who would dare say that to Rush Limbaugh, who has compared the President of the United States to Adolf Hitler?

Yep.  Both parties have their extreme wings, but the GOP's is not only way deeper into crazy land ("death panels" for them vs a public option for the most liberal Dems), but it's virtually all they have left.  Michele Bachman is pretty much the modal Republican now, not just a fringe nutball.  Conversely, Dennis Kucinich, who's far to the left but perfectly sane and coherent, barely gets the time of day from the mainstream core of the Democratic Party.

I don't actually mind if most or all Republicans vote against healthcare reform.  They're Republicans!  They're opposed to expanded government programs and private sector regulation and new entitlements.  But the death panels and the home nursing inanity and the "healthcare racism" and the town hall screeching and all the rest are the mark of a party that's gone completely off the rails.  They're doomed until they figure out a way to extricate themselves from the Beck/Limbaugh/Fox News axis of hysteria.

Fixing the World

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 12:29 PM EDT

Bloomberg reports on the upcoming central banker pow-wow:

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and fellow central bankers gathering in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, are showing scant signs of reprising the coordinated stance they took fighting the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression as they deal with its aftermath.

....Bernanke, 55, and other policy makers, who meet on Aug. 20-22, are already staking out differing positions as they gain traction in their battle against a crisis that has cost financial companies worldwide about $1.6 trillion in writedowns and losses.....“What you would hope to happen is much better coordination internationally,” [Mohamed] El-Erian said. “What’s likely to happen, however, is that national interests are going to dominate.”

Well, so much for Ben Bernanke being greeted as a conquering hero.  Either that or else conquering hero-hood just isn't what it used to be.

Credible Threats

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 12:11 PM EDT

Via ActBlue, Blue America has raised nearly $200,000 for members of Congress who have pledged to vote against any bill that doesn't contain a public option.  Pretty impressive.  If push comes to shove, and the choice is no bill vs. a bill without a public option, I sort of hope these guys all break their word and vote for it anyway.  (Or at least enough of them, anyway.)  But my preferences aside, this is a pretty good way of solving a big problem for the public option supporters: how do you make a threat to vote No credible when everyone knows liberals are champing at the bit to pass healthcare reform?  Well, this is one way.  It's a lot harder to make a U-turn and vote Yes after taking a very public stand against it and then accepting a bunch of activist money based on giving your word to stand firm.1

1Which isn't to say they won't do it anyway.  These are politicians, after all, and thus capable of just about anything.  But it's definitely harder.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein says my email explanation of the point I was making was much clearer than my actual post.  So here it is:

The Blue America money helps make the promise to vote against any bill without a public option more credible.  Right now, no one believes it.  Everybody thinks that, in the end, liberals will cave and vote for it regardless.  But with this money in place, which is going to people on condition that they vote against any bill without a public option, it makes it genuinely hard for them to turn around and vote Yes after all.  It helps turn a meaningless threat into a credible one.

CORRECTION: This money was raised by Blue America.  ActBlue is just the conduit.  The text has been corrected to reflect this.

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Ensign: IOKIYAR

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 11:55 AM EDT

Senator John Ensign says his sleazy recent affair wasn't nearly as bad as Bill Clinton's blow jobs in the Oval Office:

"I haven't done anything legally wrong," the Nevada Republican told the Associated Press in an interview. "President Clinton stood right before the American people and he lied to the American people," Ensign said. "You remember that famous day he lied to the American people, plus the fact I thought he committed perjury. That's why I voted for the articles of impeachment."

There you have it.  Ensign may have carried on with with a friend's wife for months, leaving their family in shambles, and he may have then bribed them to stay quiet in small chunks deliberately designed to evade IRS rules, but by God he didn't lie to the American people.  So that's OK.

Healthcare Maneuvering

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 11:25 AM EDT

The latest trial balloon from the Democratic leadership is that they might split healthcare reform into two bills.  The first would have all the controversial provisions and would go through the reconciliation process, where it needs only 50 votes.  The second would go through the normal process and therefore need 60 votes, but since it includes the stuff that's widely popular it would pass anyway.  But Ezra Klein is puzzled: if you piss off Republicans by using reconciliation for Bill #1, what are the odds you can then sweet talk them into supporting Bill #2?

The one potential answer is that reconciliation isn't about bypassing the GOP at all. It's about bypassing a handful of centrist Democrats. Angry Republicans won't support a consensus-oriented second bill after being cut out of the important work of the first. But Democrats like Kent Conrad might, as reconciliation won't specifically have hurt them, even as its real point was to take the process out of their hands and put it back in the hand of the Democratic Senate Leadership.

It's hard to say if this chatter is really serious, but if it is the point is probably to protect centrist Democrats.  They can vote against Bill #1 and for Bill #2, and then go home and tell their constituents that they voted against a gummint takeover of healthcare (public option, strong subsidies) but in favor of sticking it to the evil insurance industry.

At least, that's the usual thinking behind this kind of thing.  Harry Reid probably isn't under the delusion that he can get more then one or two Republican votes no matter what, but he does care about protecting the flanks of his own caucus.  This is one way to do it.

Letting Go of Bernanke

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 2:08 AM EDT

Edmund Andrews writes in the New York Times about Ben Bernanke:

As central bankers and economists from around the world gather on Thursday for the Fed’s annual retreat in Jackson Hole, Wyo., most are likely to welcome Mr. Bernanke as a conquering hero....Fellow economists [...] are heaping praise on Mr. Bernanke for his bold actions and steady hand in pulling the economy out of its worst crisis since the 1930s. Tossing out the Fed’s standard playbook, Mr. Bernanke orchestrated a long list of colossal rescue programs: Wall Street bailouts, shotgun weddings, emergency loan programs, vast amounts of newly printed money and the lowest interest rates in American history.

I really don't have it in for Bernanke or anything (honest!), but this level of adulation puzzles me.  Yes, the blizzard of term facilities and liquidity programs he engineered during 2007 and 2008 was impressive, but is everyone really so sure that no other Fed chairman would have acted similarly?  And beyond that, there's pretty broad agreement that Bernanke (a) badly mishandled the runup to the crisis, (b) inherited and then perpetuated weak regulation of consumer loan products, something that aggravated the housing bubble, and (c) was complicit in allowing Lehman Brothers to collapse.  These are all serious black marks, especially the Lehman fiasco, which is widely believed to have been the trigger for the most acute phase of the crisis during the fall of last year.

Reappointing Bernanke would hardly be a disaster.  But his judgment has been questionable on several fronts, his dedication to better consumer regulation is doubtful, and we'd all be better off if we stopped pretending that Wall Street has to be endlessly coddled by reappointing whatever Fed chairman they've gotten used to over the past few years.  Hero worship of the Fed is a vice that's worth stamping out, and now's a good time to start.  Let's give someone else a chance.

Quote of the Day

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 9:49 PM EDT

From Michael Scherer, after pointing out that Sarah Palin's latest Facebook post is wrong:

Maybe Palin will post a follow up on Facebook clarifying.

Um, sure.  That would certainly be in character, wouldn't it?