Elizabeth Wurtzel writes about recruiting at the top drawer law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore:

The class of associates that just joined Cravath was asked to defer their arrival for a year in exchange for a sweet deal: They would receive $80,000 to not work, plus they would get benefits and student-loan payments. This offer was optional.

....I've been told that none of the graduates of Yale Law School who were headed for Cravath accepted their offer of $80,000 to surf and sunbathe, or go forth and save the world. Since no one at either institution is willing to discuss this — and I don't blame them, because I would be embarrassed too — I don't know this for certain. But here's what I'm sure of: Not everybody took Cravath up on this peachy keen opportunity to do anything for a year with pay and benefits. And that by itself is disturbing enough.

Felix Salmon says this piece has been gnawing at him all day.  "What on earth would possess a law student fresh out of Yale Law to decline this offer?" he wonders.  My guess is that Wurtzel answers the question here:

Those who will be joining the firm next year are slightly, but only by a smidge, less lucky: They get $65,000 to put off employment for a year, with the same perquisites, and acceptance is mandatory.

Law students who get offers to join Cravath tend to be super ambitious Type A folks, and that's a big part of why they want to get their careers started right away.  But surely fear is the biggest reason for turning down this offer, isn't it?  Fear #1: this is just a test.  Anyone who takes them up on it will be tagged forever as a slacker.  Who wants that?  Fear #2: if the economy is still bad a year from now — and apparently Cravath has already decided that it will be — will Cravath keep paying me not to work?  Along with yet another class they want to keep on the hook?  And after two or three years of this, what then?  My skills are rusty, my classmates have two or three years of valuable experience and professional networking, and Cravath will toss me aside.  What happens after that?  Will some other top firm take a flyer on someone who's spent the past few years watching reruns of The Wire or lying on the beach?

I'm not nearly the workaholic that a top Yale law student is, but I wouldn't touch this offer with a bargepole.  I'd get my suits pressed, shine my shoes, and show up to work.  When times are tough, who wouldn't?

Conservatives spend a lot of time whining these days about how Barack Obama is always blaming them for all the problems he faces.  Personally, though, I'd say Obama has been remarkably restrained about the whole thing, especially when it comes to our disastrous fiscal situation.  In a mere eight years, George Bush and the Republican Party managed to take a thriving economy and a federal surplus and turn it into a hair's breadth escape from Great Depression II and an endless fiscal sinkhole.  Rome may not have been built in a day, but it didn't take much longer than that for the modern Republican Party to bankrupt America.

Anyway, here's a nice chart from the wonks at the CBPP to illustrate this.  I think they take the right tone here:

While President Obama inherited a bad fiscal legacy, that does not diminish his responsibility to propose policies to address our fiscal imbalance and put the weight of his office behind them. Although policymakers should not tighten fiscal policy in the near term while the economy remains fragile, they and the nation at large must come to grips with the nation’s deficit problem. But we should all recognize how we got where we are today.

All clear now?

Starting at 1.15pm EST, Nation essayist Naomi Klein, New York Times environmental reporter Andrew Revkin, British columnist George Monbiot, and the Huffington Post's Katherine Goldstein will be discussing the climate talks at Copenhagen. You can watch the panel via a live feed from the UpTake, a member of the Copenhagen News Collaborative, a cooperative project of several independent news organizations. Check out our constantly updated feed here and Mother Jones' comprehensive Copenhagen coverage here.

Obama and the Bankers

Matt Yglesias echoes a thought that's been bouncing around in my head lately too: sometimes you need to pick a fight even though you know you can't win.  Big ticket items like healthcare and climate change are bad candidates for that kind of thing, since a public fight with Congress might sink the whole thing.  But:

Financial regulation, it seems to me, would be that issue. In broad terms, the idea of regulating big banks is popular. And substantively speaking, a weak bill that’s full of loopholes would genuinely do very little good. We’re not in imminent danger of a bubble/crash replay but if we do something called “financial regulatory reform” we’re unlikely to do it again until there is a new panic. So there’s a strong case for coming out swinging against denouncing a too-weak bill as a sham and drawing some bright lines. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll do some Taibbi-style denunciations of Geithner & Rahm.

I agree, but I'd spin it a little differently.  Healthcare is an example of a standard issue major bill: it has lots of moving parts that all interlock, and the whole thing is a delicate balance designed to hold together just long enough to get 60 votes.  Screw with one piece and the whole edifice might come crashing to the ground.

But I think financial reform is different.  You can do it in lots of little pieces if you want, and taking a populist stand on one piece doesn't necessarily endanger everything else.  So why not do it?  Why not pick a signature issue or two and really hammer away?  Make a few fire-breathing speeches about how you agree with Alistair Darling about taxing banks that hand out huge bonuses and will be sending legislation to Congress to make that happen.  It'll probably fail, but at least it moves the conversation forward and gets the public engaged.  The fact that you fought the good fight won't really hurt you (the nation's bankers obviously don't think much of you already), and far from sinking the whole reform effort, it might actually help keep the rest of the bill(s) from getting watered down even more.  A couple million postcards has that effect sometimes.

Of course, this all depends on what Obama really thinks of financial reform in the first place, and that's a bit of mystery.  It would be nice to get a bit of a hint, though.

A concerned reader writes:

After Stengel announced on Morning Joe that Time's Man of the Year was Bernanke, I heard a pop.  So, I just wanted to make sure that wasn't your head exploding.

First of all, it's Person of the Year, you sexist dolt. But anyway, I'm fine, thanks very much, and happy to see that the Obama administration now has a second Time award to go along with its single (so far) Nobel Peace Prize.  But what I really want to know is: what did Bernanke do this year?  It's true that I didn't want him reappointed, but I freely acknowledge that, a few mistakes aside, he did a helluva job last year.  So what's the deal?  Was 2009 really so boring that Time's editors decided they had to reach back a year to find someone worth putting on their cover?

Two Security Forces members of Provincial Reconstruction Team Ghazni secure the landing zone while Polish medics arrive to provide medical care to a third team member during training, Ghazni Province, Afghanistan, Dec. 7, 2009. Polish medics and Special Forces along with US Army personnel conducted 9-line medevac rescue procedures and secure the area on the side of a mountain inside Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. (US Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Sarah Webb.)

Predictably, the GOP has capitalized on the recent uproar over revised mammogram recommendations as proof that the federal government is trying to ration your health care. And while the US Preventive Services Task Force (the panel doing the recommending) consists of 16 doctors who review the research and conduct risk-benefit analysis—the GOP is more or less correct. The government is trying to ration health care. And it should, according to Princeton University bioethicist Peter Singer.

I’m with Singer. In seeking the status quo, do these pols really imagine that health care isn’t now rationed by private insurers? Of course not. They’re just grandstanding. Fact is, no medical rationing is more extreme than kicking someone out of your health plan. Costs do need to be controlled, for sure, but the costs are just a symptom of bad decisions and perverse incentives that have made America's health care system No. 37 in the world—even though we're No. 1 in per-capita spending. A lot of those bad decisions involve unnecessary testing, followed by treatment for conditions that are not, in the end, life-threatening. I’m not talking about withholding a lifesaving treatment from your 75-year-old mother here, but rather about approaching health—and mortality—with rational medicine rather than emotional politics.

Need To Read: December 16, 2009

Today's must reads:

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 Is the latest Gallup poll good news for negotiators at the Copenhagen climate summit? It found that 55 percent of Americans support signing a binding treaty that would commit the United States to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions significantly. Thirty-eight percent give it a thumb's down. The 17-point difference is a decent-sized margin, though not a slam-dunk. But the poll does give politicians reason to think twice before backing binding cuts. 

Almost two-thirds of Americans do not believe that laws designed to reduce global warming will help the economy, and 42 percent think such laws will harm the US economy. And when it comes to priorities, Americans want a focus on jobs. Asked which should be a higher priority for President Barack Obama—improving the economy or reducing emissions—85 percent predictably picked the economy. Advocates of climate change action maintain that emissions cuts can boost the economy. But that message may not yet have been absorbed by the American public.

Gallup concludes:

President Obama has a fine line to walk in Copenhagen—living up to his long-standing commitment to be a global leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions while staying mindful of the pitchforks that could be raised at home if he is perceived to be spending too much time on the issue, or selling the U.S. economy down the nearby Gulf Stream.

The climate change summit is hanging from that tight wire.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

In the American Prospect today, Dalton Conley argues that income inequality doesn't really matter much.  What matters is increased government spending on the poor so they have the same opportunities as everyone else.  Bruce Bartlett comments:

At the risk of getting Conley's membership in the liberal club revoked, I think he is right. I have never understood how I am worse off if the top 1% of households increase their share of national wealth or income as long as the absolute level of wealth and income of the other 99% is unchanged. It may be aesthetically displeasing, but it doesn't impose any actual costs on anyone as long as the pie is not fixed. Of course, were that the case it would be different. Gains by the wealthy would necessarily come at the expense of everyone else.

Implicitly, liberals tend to believe the pie is fixed. But, generally speaking, it isn't. A rising tide does tend to lift all boats even if those at the top get lifted a lot more. But Conley is also right to ridicule the view, common among many conservatives, that enriching the wealthy somehow automatically benefits the poor. That's obviously nonsense....For this reason, I have always been more sympathetic to programs that aid the poor than other conservatives.

I agree that inequality per se is probably overemphasized by liberals.  But I think that both Conley and Bartlett miss something essential.  A strong safety net and a commitment to equal opportunity for everyone is certainly important, and this can be funded to some extent by progressive taxes that end up redistributing income downward.  But something else is crucial too: a robust, thriving middle class.  Not a middle class that receives an ever increasing stream of government bennies to make up for its stagnant wages, but a middle class that's growing organically, one that sees its own future as brighter than its present and its children's as brighter yet.  If you lose that, all the government programs in the world won't make up for it.

Rising inequality, then, is just a symptom of the real problem: sluggish middle class wages in a country that's been growing energetically for decades.  That's the core problem.  Get median wages growing at the same rate as the country itself and inequality will take care of itself because there will automatically be less money left over for the rich.

I don't pretend to know all the reasons why middle income wages have risen so slowly for the past three decades — globalization probably plays a role, as do declining union density and the rising importance of cognitive labor — but I can certainly point a finger at a symptom: the widespread idea that workers don't really deserve to share in national productivity gains because it's management that's really responsible for them.  This is one of those conceits that the rich use to rationalize their enormous income growth, but it's plainly specious.  Ask an economist what's responsible for increased productivity, and the most likely answer you'll get is: new technology.  So if we really wanted to reward the people who are responsible for productivity growth, we'd shower riches on engineers and scientists.  But we don't.  We shower riches on the CEOs who buy their products and make use of them.

But buying a new inventory control system is hardly a sign of managerial brilliance.  It's just something that every company eventually does once a better one is invented, and the CEO who signs the purchase order to buy it is no more responsible for productivity growth than the workers who use it.  They're both piggybacking off of someone else's invention, and there's no special reason why either one should be thought more deserving of sharing in the rewards.  They both should.

Long story short, workers in thriving economies should thrive too.  When they don't, countries almost inevitably decline, and bread and circuses can never make up for it.  I think the key insight here is one that FDR knew well: people want to earn money, not have it given to them, and that's what we should focus on: getting middle class earnings growing again.  A whole lot of other problem will take care of themselves if we do.