2010 - %3, April

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 27, 2010

Tue Apr. 27, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

 

Strike Soldiers with Company D, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), plan out their operations before entering a replicated Afghan village during a tactical call out mission, on April 15. Photo via the US Army.

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Groupthink and the Markets

| Tue Apr. 27, 2010 1:46 AM EDT

David Brooks suggests that since the establishment herd mostly missed the housing bubble, financial reform ought to take power away from the establishment:

One might have thought that one of the lessons of this episode was that establishments are prone to groupthink, and that it would be smart to decentralize authority in order to head off future bubbles.

Both N. Gregory Mankiw of Harvard and Sebastian Mallaby of the Council on Foreign Relations have been promoting a way to do this: Force the big financial institutions to issue bonds that would be converted into equity when a regulator deems them to have insufficient capital. Thousands of traders would buy and sell these bonds as a way to measure and reinforce the stability of the firms.

....The premise of the current financial regulatory reform is that the establishment missed the last bubble and, therefore, more power should be vested in the establishment to foresee and prevent the next one....But the bill doesn’t solve the basic epistemic problem, which is that members of the establishment herd are always the last to know when something unexpected happens.

I don't have a firm opinion on the Mankiw/Mallaby idea. But I will say this: it wasn't just the "establishment" that missed the housing bubble. It was also the market, represented by those thousands of traders who buy and sell bonds. In fact, pretty much by definition, the market always misses bubbles.

Brooks has the causation backward here, I think. The establishment didn't miss the housing bubble because of generic groupthink. It missed the housing bubble because of a specific case of groupthink: the nearly unanimous belief that markets can't be wrong. Thus, if the market price of housing is going up, it had to be the case that housing prices should be going up. All that was left was to invent reasons to explain skyrocketing property prices, and the establishment did that in spades. But it was market delusion that drove establishment delusion, not the other way around.

Brooks is right that the market and the regulatory establishment and the political establishment all colluded to allow the bubble to get out of control. Merely giving regulators more authority probably isn't enough by itself to prevent a repeat. But relying on the market isn't either. That was the ur-delusion that brought the global banking system to its knees in the first place.

Chocolate and You

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 9:23 PM EDT

From the LA Times today:

Study links chocolate and depression 

Well duh. When there's no chocolate around I get kind of depressed. They needed a study for that? Apparently so:

Researchers at UC San Diego and UC Davis examined chocolate consumption and other dietary intake patterns among 931 men and women who were not using antidepressants. The participants were also given a depression screening test. Those who screened positive for possible depression consumed an average of 8.4 servings of chocolate — defined as one ounce of chocolate candy — per month. That compared with 5.4 servings per month among people who were not depressed.

Oh please. 8.4 ounces per month? As in, two ounces per week? I'd say that anyone who consumes that little chocolate ought to be checked for personality disorders. It's the rest of us who are normal.

Scenes From the Gay Marriage Battle

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 8:51 PM EDT

Here at Mother Jones, we're all about keeping pictorial tabs on the United States' ongoing wars. My contribution today is a photo essay about a different kind of fight, courtesy Geoffrey King and Sunny Angulo's Such a Bittersweet Day: Marriage Equality in the Wake of Prop 8.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera says that this collection of photos and oral histories about California's marriage equality movement "brilliantly capture[s] the humanity and passion of what is perhaps this generation's preeminent struggle for civil rights in America." And what a struggle it's been, even in just the last couple of years: The California Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, but then Prop 8, which bans gay marriage, passed thanks partly to meddling Mormons, so that now there's the discrimination within the discrimination that some same-sex couples—those who got in under the wire—can be legally married but others can't. And of course the battlefield exists way beyond California and beyond just the issue of marriage equality, with casualties like this and this and this every day.

Click on the photos below for captions.



Gibbs: Climate and Immigration Not a Question of "Either-or"

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 8:27 PM EDT

It sure doesn't look like the White House intends to wade into the spat over whether climate or immigration legislation should be next on the Senate's list of priorities. "Whichever bill has the support it needs to be passed, that’s what will move first," said press secretary Robert Gibbs at today's briefing.

The disagreement between Democratic leadership and Sen. Lindsey Graham—the lone Republican actively working with Democrats on both issues—threatens to derail negotiations on the administration's two top priorities, following the anticipated passage of financial reform. But Gibbs declined to state a preference on which should go first Monday afternoon.

"I think we can make progress on more than just one issue," Gibbs continued. "You all see this as an either-or, but this administration does not."

Graham: "I Don't Want to Play Politics"

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 7:48 PM EDT

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) indicated on Monday that he doesn't want immigration coming up at all this year, even if it comes after climate and energy. Bringing up another contentious issue like immigration, he said, would threaten the fragile balance he has worked to strike on an energy bill. "I'm not going to roll anything out on climate and energy in an environment where it's dead before it starts," Graham told reporters.

Moving immigration reform now would be premature and would divide both Congress and the country, Graham said. "If you bring up immigration this year ... you have really done damage to immigration reform prospects in the future," Graham told reporters Monday evening, following a meeting with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). "Not only have you hurt immigration, you've destroyed any chance of energy and climate having a snow ball's chance in hell."

Graham, Kerry and Lieberman met to try to calm the storm that kicked up around their legislation over the weekend after Graham threatened to ditch work on climate and energy if Democrats decided to move immigration first. Graham accused Democratic leadership of making a "cynical political ploy" by pushing immigration ahead in the queue. The move caused Kerry to call off the scheduled introduction of their bill today to make time to allay Graham's outrage. But following the meeting, it didn't seem like the South Carolina Republican intended to change his mind any time soon.

"Energy and climate is tough. Under the best of circumstances it would be tough, right?" said Graham. "I've got a heavy lift here. So do John and Joe ... I enjoy doing difficult things with serious people that have a chance. But at the end of the day, I don't want to play politics with issues that really do mean a lot to me."

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Senate GOP Blocks Finance Vote

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 6:58 PM EDT

Senate Republicans this evening successfully prevented an open debate on a bill that would overhaul how Wall Street and financial markets do business. With a 57-41 vote, the GOP delayed the vote for at least another day; the vote broke down along party lines except for Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a centrist Democrat who surprised some by voting against the measure to begin the debate. Here on Capitol Hill, Democrats are expected to schedule another cloture vote soon, even as early as tomorrow, to try to start full debate on financial reform.

In the meantime, talks behind closed doors will continue between Democrats and Republicans in an effort to shape the finance bill in a way that wins over a few Republicans. How far Democrats and Republicans have to go to reach an agreement is unclear. On the one hand, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters earlier today that he felt the bipartisan talks had reached a "tipping point," suggesting that an agreement was near. After the vote, however, Shelby said he still wants to "reach agreement on three big sections," a substantial hurdle for both parties this late in the game given that the Senate has been working on financial reform for almost a year.

Ben Nelson Opposes Finance Debate

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 5:31 PM EDT

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a centrist Democrat who'd been wavering on financial reform, just cast a "No" on the Senate's cloture vote to start debating a bill that would rewrite the rules of our financial markets. Nelson's vote is likely to kill Senate Democrats' attempts to immediately begin haggling over the bill, largely crafted by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) in the banking committee. The Democrats, who lack a supermajority, needed at least one of 41 Senate Republicans to vote "Yes" in order to begin discussions on the Senate floor. Dodd alluded to some disagreement among Senate Democrats last week, as did Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) today in remarks with reporters. Mother Jones previously reported that Nelson could be among the Democratic hold-outs, given his centrist stance and the fact that he was on a shortlist of lawmakers visited by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner last week, who has recently met personally with lawmakers on the fence on financial reform.

Nelson's opposition is sure to give Democrats headaches. This winter, the Nebraska senator made headlines for holding up health care reform talks and for trying to secure a provision in the bill benefiting his home state. On financial reform, Nelson had lately backed a provision in the finance bill that exempted companies who've previously traded derivatives from retroactively posting collateral on their existing derivatives trades, the Wall Street Journal reported. The exemption was supported by Warren Buffett, the billionaire Nebraska business guru who feared that without it, his company, Berkshire Hathaway, would lose a substantial amount of money. However, the exemption was killed earlier today, the Journal reported, signaling a major setback for Nelson and Buffett. The removal of that small provision could have prompted Nelson to vote against cloture this evening.

The votes are still being tallied on the Senate floor for the cloture vote, but without agreement on the Democratic side, the effort is likely to fail.

Obama White House: Reluctant Populists

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 5:21 PM EDT

Last week, President Barack Obama gave a speech in New York and decried Republican lawmakers for making false accusations about the Wall Street reform pending in the Senate and denounced the "battalions of financial industry lobbyists descending on Capitol Hill" to weaken or kill the bill. But, as I noted, Obama "named no names. He did what too many politicians often do when they describe how special interests game Washington; he stayed vague." In pushing back against Republicans and Wall Streeters, Obama doesn't make it personal. He doesn't call out any particular foe of reform. Such reticence limits whatever populist energy he might be able to generate by fighting for financial regulation reform. And on Monday afternoon, when I gave White House press secretary Robert Gibbs an opportunity to take a populist stab at the Republicans, he declined.

As negotiations regarding the reform bill were underway on the Hill and the Senate was preparing to hold a vote to avoid a filibuster, Gibbs was fielding questions from White House reporters. He fiercely championed the bill and repeatedly noted that if the Senate Republicans blocked it, they would be voting for preserving the status quo. Defending this point about the GOPers, Gibbs got into a sharp exchange with CBS News' Chip Reid, who argued that Gibbs was mischaracterizing the Republican position, claiming that the Republicans wanted a "compromise," not no reform at all. Gibbs, though, would not yield.

When it was my turn to ask a question, I took the opposite tack of Chip Reid. Noting that Obama last week had railed against scheming Wall Street lobbyists and truth-mugging Republicans, I asked if it is the White House view that the Republicans are in league with Wall Street to block reform. Kind of a softball, eh? But I was wondering whether Gibbs would be prepared to say the obvious.

He did not swing at the pitch. Instead, he stuck to press-sec-speak: "I think you know where the president stands on moving forward with this legislation." If anyone is blocking the measure, he added, "the president believes you're not acting in the public's interest."

There was no tough rhetoric about the Republicans being the handmaidens of Wall Street and working with Big Finance titans to screw American families. Gibbs kept it cool. Was this a sign that the White House believes it's close to winning the tussle over the bill—by picking up a few Republicans—and does not want to antagonize its possible partners on the other side of the aisle with fiery words? Perhaps. But if the bill does stall because of Republican obstructionism, will the White House remain so polite?

UPDATE: After all Republican senators and Democrat Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska voted on Monday afternoon to prevent a vote on the reform bill, Obama issued this statement:

I am deeply disappointed that Senate Republicans voted in a block against allowing a public debate on Wall Street reform to begin.  Some of these Senators may believe that this obstruction is a good political strategy, and others may see delay as an opportunity to take this debate behind closed doors, where financial industry lobbyists can water down reform or kill it altogether. But the American people can’t afford that. A lack of consumer protections and a lack of accountability on Wall Street nearly brought our economy to its knees, and helped cause the pain that has left millions of Americans without jobs and without homes. The reform that both parties have been working on for a year would prevent a crisis like this from happening again, and I urge the Senate to get back to work and put the interests of the country ahead of party.

A populist thunderclap? Harry Truman might have turned up the heat a bit more.

Will Boobs Cause Armaggedon?

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 4:42 PM EDT

Last week, Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi claimed that scantily-clad women were responsible for earthquakes: "Many women who do not dress modestly...lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes." Sluts! They never rest. Especially not Jennifer McCreight, who is fighting this claim with an immodest proposal. And she's not alone. Introducing Boobquake, an international call-to-arms for women to dress provocatively to prove Sedighi wrong. Boobquake has taken the Internet by storm (pun unintended), flooding (sorry!) Twitter with pictures of cleavage, trending under the hashtag #boobquake with over 56,000 Facebook fans...and numerous news outlets and blogs reporting on the breastivities.

McCreight's mission for Boobquake is as follows:

On Monday, April 26, I will wear the most cleavage-showing shirt I own...I encourage other female skeptics to join me and embrace the supposed supernatural power of their breasts. Or short shorts, if that's your preferred form of immodesty...With the power of our scandalous bodies combined, we should surely produce an earthquake. If not, I'm sure [Sadeghi] can come up with a rational explanation for why the ground didn't rumble.

But then, an earthquake hit Taiwan, which didn't bode well for Boobquake participants. McCreight followed up with a blog post, saying, "No, the Taiwan earthquake is not statistically significant—yet. If we get many of a similar magnitude in the next 24 hours, then we might start worshipping the power of immodesty."

You might ask, how is flooding the internet with pictures of boobs different than any other day on the Internet? You would, of course, be correct, but today’s boob pictures are for science!