2009 - %3, March

The Mortgage Rescue

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 9:04 PM EST
This isn't the most pressing issue in the world, but a few days ago I suggested that some seemingly contradictory poll numbers on Obama's mortgage rescue plan might actually be perfectly compatible.  Even though it's counterintuitive, it's possible that a majority of people approve of his plan and that a majority of people think it's unfair because it helps out homeowners who were irresponsible.

Today's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll confirms this.  They asked questions about both support and fairness in the same poll and the results are below.  The most likely interpretation is that about 20% of the country thinks the mortgage rescue rewards irresponsible borrowers but supports the plan anyway.  This shouldn't come as a big surprise, either.  Lots of us have had to swallow hard over the past few months and support interventions of one kind or another solely because, even though we don't like them, they seem to be necessary to save the economy.  This is just one more.

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Quote of the Day - 03.03.09

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 6:26 PM EST
From Andrew Exum, commenting on Andrew Bacevich's review of David Kilcullen's book on counterinsurgency in Iraq:

No one who really understands COIN wants to do it.

Amen.  (Via James Joyner.)

New Music: The Prodigy - Invaders Must Die

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 5:57 PM EST
Today witnesses the long-awaited return of an alternative-radio behemoth who sold millions of albums, a band that was once hailed as the"next big thing" but kind of went away, and now is releasing a new album, hoping to recapture a little of the original mojo. If you somehow missed the headline, you might have thought I was talking about Irish egoistes U2 (whose HRC-saluting No Line on the Horizon comes out today), but no, I'm speaking of The Prodigy, the UK combo that, along with The Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk, broke through the grunge-rock hegemony with a crowd-pleasing brand of arena-techno in the mid-to-late '90s. However, among their "Electronica" comrades, The Prodigy is a unique concept: a one-man band with roots deep in the UK underground rave scene that became, depending on your perspective, cynical sellouts, a fun show to see in between Foo Fighters and Oasis concerts, or a brilliantly successful KLF-style theatrical art-prank. Their new album, the charmingly titled Invaders Must Die, bugs me, but I'm not sure it's terrible, and the wild mix of reviews confirms the band's slippery meaning.

On the one hand, to even the most patient fan of hardcore electronic noise (hi there!), Invaders is cartoonishly brutal. There are song titles like "Warrior's Dance" and "Run With the Wolves"—is Robert Bly a co-writer? Rolling Stone correctly identifies the album's sound as "pummeling, vacuous rave noise," and ascribes the ridiculously thumpy title track to the same empty posturing that brought us 1997's controversial "Smack My Bitch Up." They give the album 1 1/2 out of 5 stars. On the other end of the spectrum, Spin looks kindly on the band's "anthemic breakbeat spazz," acknowledging that it's "retro" but giving props to founder/producer/everything-but-dancer-and-screamer Liam Howlett's programming skills and awareness of musical history, offering 4/5 stars. Pitchfork comes right down the middle with a 5.8/10 review, calling the more sonically extreme sections of the album "lunkheaded," but hearing echoes of the band's first album, 1992's ravey, silly, and wildly enjoyable Experience.

A Bouncing Rush Limbaugh

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 5:41 PM EST

Have you ever wanted to see Rush Limbaugh bounce? If so, Americans United for Change has made your dream come true. Trying to exploit the recent news story about GOP chairman Michael Steele apologizing to the radio host after calling his broadcasts "ugly" and "incendiary," this progressive advocacy group has put out another ad targeting the conservative kingpin of the airwaves, who has said he would like to see President Obama fail. And in this spot, Limbaugh jiggles at the end.

By the way, the White House seems delighted by the Rush-Steele dust-up. At the very end of Tuesday's press briefing, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs quipped, "I was a little surprised [at] the speed with which Mr. Steele, the head of the RNC, apologized to the head of the Republican Party." Meow.

Obama Restores Scientific Review to Endangered Species Act

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 5:38 PM EST

President Obama issued a memorandum Tuesday requesting the heads of all federal agencies consult with scientists and other experts to determine if their actions could harm threatened and endangered species.

Consulting with experts at either the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was required by law under the Endangered Species Act until December, when the Bush Administration issued a midnight ruling allowing agencies to skip scientific review.

Free Riding

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 3:49 PM EST
Felix Salmon thinks the rest of the world is shirking:

Justin Fox has an interesting breakdown of global stimulus packages by country: the US, China, and Spain have big ones, while the rest of the world just doesn't seem to be trying so hard....He's right, and no amount of "buy American" provisions in the bill will prevent money from leaking overseas in a globalized economy. Liquidity, you might say, always finds its level. At the margin, it does seem that countries such as the UK are freeloading on the US bailout — both in terms of the stimulus package and in terms of the bank bailout.

I don't know about Spain, but the U.S. was able to pass a big stimulus bill because we had a shiny new left-wing president with lots of political capital to spend, and China was able to do it because they're an autocracy. Conversely, most European governments range from the not-very-shiny (Germany, say) to the downright superannuated (Britain).  They don't have a yearlong campaign of hope and change to draw from.  What's more, as Matt Yglesias and Megan McArdle point out, there are also institutional and cultural issues holding Europe back.  The Germans are still scared of a resurgence of the Weimar Republic, and the European Central Bank humors them by keeping monetary policy absurdly tight.  The EU's stability and growth pact probably doesn't help things either.  The upshot is that Europe isn't doing much to fight the meltdown, and that's especially true of Germany, which ought to be leading the charge since it runs a big current account surplus and could afford to spend much, much more.  Instead, it's one of the chief obstacles to recovery.

I don't have any brilliant suggestions for getting Europe to become a little more proactive on the let's-avoid-another-great-depression front.  Just one more job for the Obama economic team to work on, I suppose.  Maybe someday Treasury will actually hire someone besides Tim Geithner and we can start pushing on this a little harder than we are now.

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Bush Executive Powers: The More You Learn, the More Horrifying It Gets

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 2:54 PM EST

Michael Isikoff of Newsweek breaks down the recently released Bush Administration legal memos and finds that the Bush Administration essentially gave itself the powers of a dictatorship.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Justice Department secretly gave the green light for the U.S. military to attack apartment buildings and office complexes inside the United States, deploy high-tech surveillance against U.S. citizens and potentially suspend First Amendment freedom-of-the-press rights in order to combat the terror threat, according to a memo released Monday....

In perhaps the most surprising assertion, the Oct. 23, 2001, memo suggested the president could even suspend press freedoms if he concluded it was necessary to wage the war on terror. "First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully," Yoo wrote in the memo entitled "Authority for Use of Military Force to Combat Terrorist Activity Within the United States."

This claim was viewed as so extreme that it was essentially (and secretly) revoked—but not until October of last year, seven years after the memo was written and with barely three and a half months left in the Bush administration...

The newly disclosed Oct. 23, 2001, memo was in response to a request from Gonzales, at the time President Bush's top lawyer, and Haynes, who was chief counsel at the Pentagon, to determine if there were any restrictions on the use of the U.S. military inside the country in targeting terror suspects. The Yoo memo essentially concluded there were none. The country, he argued, was in a "state of armed conflict." The scale of violence, he argued, was unprecedented and "legal and constitutional rules" governing law enforcement—such as the Fourth Amendment prohibition on "unreasonable" searches and seizures—did not apply.

More on this from Kevin Drum.

Trepidation Abounds About Obama's CTO

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 2:42 PM EST

We just put up a piece about Barack Obama's still-missing Chief Technology Officer, and how transparency and technology activists are growing pessimistic about a position they once had very high hopes for. Here's a taste:

While Obama has already given the CTO homework—he or she is tasked with writing recommendations for an Open Government Directive that will implement Obama's transparency agenda—the position remains unfilled, long after many activists thought it ever would. (As it stands, Obama and his staff are struggling with the White House's outdated technology.) Last weekend, attendees of the Sunlight Foundation's Transparency Camp, a gathering of top members of the open government and technology communities, were genuinely befuddled. None in this tight-knit community could identify the frontrunners for the position, and few had explanations for the delay. Multiple in-the-know sources griped that the CTO will likely be a neutered position, lacking budgetary powers or a direct line to the president, and that the Obama team does not appear to have resolved basic questions, including where the CTO will reside on its organizational chart. (One report suggests the CTO is currently being slated for the president's Domestic Policy Council.) The general attitude was pessimistic—no one believed that the CTO would be a high-level position capable of improving the use of technology across executive branch departments or of convincing hidebound bureaucracies to use technology to make their operations and decisions more accessible to the public.

Read the whole thing here.

Healthcare for the Middle Class

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 2:10 PM EST
David Corn just got back from a breakfast meeting hosted by Nancy Pelosi, who outlined the Democratic messaging strategy on healthcare reform:

The "appeal" of this push, she said, will not be that 48 million people don't have health care insurance. "What is important to the bigger population," she explained, "is their own health care."

....The bottom line: the battle cry will not be, "Health care for all!" Instead, it will be "Better health care for you — and also the rest of us." Given how the Hillary Clinton-led crusade for health care reform flamed out terribly in the 1990s, this sort of tactical shift may be warranted. It may even be wise.

I'd go further than that.  Even as far back as 1993, Bill Clinton understood that fear of change among the already insured was the key issue in building public support for national healthcare.  Unfortunately, even though he got this, he still didn't emphasize it enough, and that's one of the reasons his plan failed.

Since then, however, this has become conventional wisdom.  Like it or not, universal healthcare will never get passed on the grounds that it will help the 48 million Americans who are currently uninsured.  It will only pass if the other 250 million Americans are assured over and over and over again that the new plan will be at least as good for them as what they have now.  The tactical shift Pelosi is talking about isn't just wise, it's absolutely indispensable.

More importantly, however, both David and Ezra Klein report that Pelosi's real priority this year isn't healthcare at all.  It's energy policy — specifically, getting a cap-and-trade bill passed.  My sense from Obama's non-SOTU last week was that this was his priority as well, so it wouldn't surprise me at all if serious healthcare reform ended up getting pushed off until next year.

Moron of the Day

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 1:14 PM EST
The competition for dumbest news story of day/week/month is way too competitive to ever declare a definitive winner.  But Jon Chait sure has a contender today, a piece by ABC's Emily Friedman that's based on the idea that the tax rate on your entire income will jump under Obama's proposed tax reform if your income exceeds $250,000.  Supposedly this makes it worthwhile to get your income a few pennies under the limit, and supposedly lots of people are working on this.  Needless to say, though, the tax code doesn't work this way.  Only the income above $250,000 will be taxed at the higher rate:

The article [] quotes a financial advisor who explains the way that tax brackets rates work, but then quotes a right-wing business professor and the subjects of her article fulminating about class warfare. Pretty clearly the reporter started off on her mistaken premise, found some subjects who shared her ignorance, and then came across a financial advisor who gently corrected her. But, instead of nixing the collosally uninformed article, or writing a different kind of article ("Rich Morons Decreasing Own Income Due To Lack of Tax Code Knowledge") she instead plowed ahead with her initial premise.

Friedman's piece is a train wreck.  What happened to ABC News' editors on this one?