Blogs

Press Conference

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 5:40 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Tue Feb. 10, 2009 1:19 PM EST
PRESS CONFERENCE....Longtime reporter Walter Shapiro was decidedly unimpressed with President Obama's press conference last night:

Through most of his inaugural primetime press conference, Barack Obama seemed like he was channeling a particularly loquacious combination of Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, and the ghost of Hubert Humphrey. The president's response to the first question from the Associated Press about the risks of sounding too apocalyptic about the economy ran (or, to be more accurate, crawled) for nearly 1,200 words.

....What Obama was decidedly not Monday night was Kennedy-esque. When JFK unveiled the live presidential primetime press conference 48 years ago, he answered 37 questions in the space of 40 minutes; Obama only half-responded to 13 questions in the space of an hour....As a result, the reporters and their questions were little more than potted palms as President Obama declaimed from the East Room.

I confess that this was my initial reaction too: Obama seemed to ramble and hesitate endlessly last night. But I wonder if that's a reaction unique to someone who pays a lot of attention to politics and has heard all this stuff before? In the same way that Beltway types never liked Bill Clinton's longwinded State of the Union addresses, but ordinary voters did, I wonder if ordinary voters appreciated Obama's long, serious answers more than guys like Shapiro and me? I can't say for sure, but it wouldn't surprise me.

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Earnings

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 5:27 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Tue Feb. 10, 2009 12:50 PM EST

EARNINGS....Via Ezra, Rick Hertzberg asks a question:

Why is that a manual worker gets paid wages and a middle manager or cop or teacher earns a salary, but a corporate boss condescends to accept “compensation”?

This really isn't so hard. "Wages" refers to hourly earnings. "Salary" is typically a fixed yearly amount for exempt employees. "Compensation" is used for corporate honchos because you need a word that encompasses the fact that a big part of their earnings are in stock, deferred salary, capital gains, pension payments, and various perks. There's really nothing very sinister about all this.

Eleven States Enter New Abortion Debate

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 5:24 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Mon Feb. 9, 2009 5:34 PM EST

President Obama thinks that "legislation to expand access to contraception [and] health information...[will] help reduce unintended pregnancies." But this month pro-life legislators have taken a more underhanded approach.

Eleven states are currently considering bills that would require women to undergo an ultrasound before having an abortion. Sixteen states already have laws that require doctors to offer women the option to have an ultrasound. Oklahoma's proposed law goes even farther, and would force women to view ultrasounds and require doctors to verbally describe the images. Many legislators say the efforts are not political, but rather about providing "information to a mother who is in a desperate situation," says Senator Tony Fulton (R-NE), "information about what she's about to choose; information about the reality inside her womb..."

Bailout 2.0

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 5:22 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Tue Feb. 10, 2009 12:31 PM EST

BAILOUT 2.0....I've been avoiding comment on Tim Geithner's new bank bailout program because the rumors of what's in it have been changing on practically an hourly basis. So why not just wait and see what he announces? Today he did, and here's the New York Times summary of his four point program:

  • A new program, jointly run by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve, with financing from private investors, to buy up hard-to-sell assets that have bogged down banks and financial institutions for the past year. The program, often described as a “bad bank,” is expected to spend $250 billion to $500 billion.
  • Direct capital injections into banks, which would come out of the remaining $350 billion in the Treasury’s rescue program.
  • A vast expansion of lending program that the Treasury and Federal Reserve had already announced, which is aimed at financing consumer loans. The two agencies had originally announced their intention to finance as much as $200 billion in loans for student loans, car loans and credit card debt. Instead the program will be expanded to as much as $1 trillion.
  • A separate $50 billion initiative to enable millions of homeowners facing imminent foreclosure to renegotiate the terms of their mortgages is to be announced next week.

I'm not sure the "bad bank" is really a bad bank, but I guess that depends on the details of how it's going to work. More later.

State Secrets

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 5:19 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Tue Feb. 10, 2009 2:30 AM EST

STATE SECRETS....In the pre-Bush era — from 1953 to 2000, including the entire period of the Cold War — the government invoked the state secrets privilege about once a year. Since that time, its use has been massively increased, with the government invoking it more than six times per year in the post-9/11 era.

By itself, this is bad enough. But it's not the worst part of the Bush administration's use of the privilege. Before 2001, the state secrets privilege was mostly used to object to specific pieces of evidence being introduced in court, something that nearly everyone agrees is at least occasionally necessary. But the Bush administration changed all that. In their typical expansive way, they decided to apply the privilege not just to individual pieces of evidence, but to get entire cases thrown out of court. What's more, they did this not merely when a state secret was incidental to some unrelated complaint, but when the government itself was the target of the suit.

Now Barack Obama is president, and unfortunately he's decided to continue the Bush administration's expansive reading of the privilege. The case involved the rendition and torture of Binyam Mohamed and four other detainees:

In a closely watched case involving rendition and torture, a lawyer for the Obama administration seemed to surprise a panel of federal appeals judges on Monday by pressing ahead with an argument for preserving state secrets originally developed by the Bush administration.

....A government lawyer, Douglas N. Letter, made the same state-secrets argument on Monday, startling several judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

“Is there anything material that has happened” that might have caused the Justice Department to shift its views, asked Judge Mary M. Schroeder, an appointee of President Jimmy Carter, coyly referring to the recent election.

“No, your honor,” Mr. Letter replied.

Judge Schroeder asked, “The change in administration has no bearing?”

Once more, he said, “No, Your Honor.” The position he was taking in court on behalf of the government had been “thoroughly vetted with the appropriate officials within the new administration,” and “these are the authorized positions,” he said.

So Obama is adopting the same expansive interpretation of the privilege as the Bush/Cheney administration, and using it in order to cover up American involvement in torture and rendition programs that have been in the public record already for years and can hardly even be said to be secrets, let alone state secrets that are vital to U.S. national security. This is decidedly not change we can believe in. Greenwald has more.

Geithner Introduces Bailout 2.0 With Convincing Words, But Few Details

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 5:16 PM EST

It takes a helluva crisis to get national leaders to talk straight.

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Asia

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 3:24 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Mon Feb. 9, 2009 9:38 PM EST

ASIA....You think our economy is in trouble? Things look even worse in Asia.

The Size of the Stimulus

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 3:22 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Mon Feb. 9, 2009 7:51 PM EST

THE SIZE OF THE STIMULUS....This is apropos of nothing in particular, but all the sound and fury surrounding the Nelson/Collins $100 billion cut in the stimulus bill makes me think that maybe it ought to be put into perspective. So here's some perspective.

The original bill totaled about $800 billion, and according to CBO estimates the amount of stimulus (spending + tax cuts) provided by the bill over the next two-and-a-half fiscal years would have been about $700 billion. This, we're told, would help create about 3 million jobs. The bigger Senate bill would have added $100 billion to that, and the current Nelson/Collins bill gets us roughly back to the original amount.

But stimulus isn't restricted to bills labeled "stimulus." Any deficit spending counts, and there's a ton of that already in the budget. Not counting TARP and bailout money (since it doesn't necessarily stimulate consumption), CBO estimates that the federal deficit this year will come to about $800 billion. If we assume the same next year and maybe half as much the year after, that's a total deficit-driven stimulus of about $2 trillion. Presumably this creates jobs at the same rate as spending in the stimulus bill, so that amounts to something in the neighborhood of 9 million jobs.

So: With the cut, total fiscal stimulus over the three years starting last October comes to $2.7 trillion and 12 million jobs. If we had kept spending at its higher level, it would have come to $2.8 trillion and perhaps 12.5 million jobs. That's a difference of about 3%.

Now, the nature of that 3% is hardly defensible. State aid and school construction are way better uses of the money than a lot of stuff that was left in the bill. Still, the fact remains that the total amount of stimulus over three years is $2.7 trillion, not the $800 billion number that dominates the discussion. That's a helluva lot of stimulus, and if it doesn't do the job it's doubtful that $2.8 trillion will do it either.

Chart of the Day - 2.09.2009

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 3:12 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Mon Feb. 9, 2009 2:33 PM EST

CHART OF THE DAY....Justin Fox presents this chart showing the pace of unemployment during the past six recessions. Unlike a similar chart that's been making the rounds, which showed only the 1991 and 2001 recessions, this one shows employment decline in percentage terms, not as raw job losses. This is a better way of doing it since the population of the U.S. has grown substantially since 1974.

But it still looks plenty bad. Right now we can say that this is the worst recession since 1981, but by summer it's almost certain that we'll be saying it's the worst recession since World War II.

Misremembering John Dingell

| Tue Feb. 10, 2009 3:04 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Tue Feb. 10, 2009 3:04 PM EST
John Dingell becomes the longest-serving House member in history on Wednesday, and to honor the Democrat from Detroit Speaker Nancy Pelosi is hosting a reception at the Capitol today. Bill Clinton and Carl Levin are scheduled to speak. During his 55-year run in the House, Dingell has maintained a pro-environment voting record, repeatedly proposed health care reform legislation, and even joined fellow Democrat John Conyers when Conyers sued (PDF) then-President Bush in 2006 for violating the Constitution (the case was thrown out).

But the elephant in the room will be Dingell's close relationship with the auto industry, a connection seen as one major reason for Detroit's foot-dragging on raising fuel economy and cutting carbon emissions during Dingell's 17-year tenure as chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, a position he lost in November when Californian Henry Waxman organized an intra-party coup to oust Dingell. Waxman's rise to the chairmanship of the Energy Committee represented not only an geographic and ideological change (from Detroit to Beverly Hills), but a generational one as well (Dingell had been in the House for 20 years when Waxman arrived as a freshman).