Obama's Mortgage Plan

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 5:38 PM EST
Is Barack Obama's plan to help out distressed homeowners unpopular?  Rasmussen asked the following question to find out:

Some people say that having the government subsidize mortgage payments for financially troubled homeowners puts the government in the position of rewarding bad behavior. Is the government rewarding bad behavior when it provides subsidies to those who are most at risk of losing their homes?

55% said yes and only 32% said no.  But it's a leading question!  When the Washington Post and New York Times asked a more straightforward version of the question (Post: "Would you support or oppose the federal government using 75 billion dollars to provide refinancing assistance to homeowners to help them avoid foreclosure on their mortgages?") the results were reversed.  Over 60% supported the plan.  Matt Yglesias converted these results into handy chart form, which I've stolen and displayed over on the right.

The basic meme in the leftosphere is that Rasmussen deliberately chose conservative wording here and the results aren't to be trusted.  But I want to push back on that a bit.  There are two points to make here.

First, these poll results aren't necessarily contradictory.  It could well be that some people think Obama's plan is likely to reward bad behavior in some cases but they support the plan anyway.

Second, there's something to be learned here if we don't dismiss Rasmussen's results out of hand.  Here's the problem: liberals often suffer from poll literalism, a disease in which we look at simple poll questions and think they show that everyone supports us.  60% support national healthcare! 70% support more spending on education!  Hooray!

But those numbers are largely meaningless. The real question is, How many people still support national healthcare after conservatives have spent months scaring everyone into thinking it means they'll never be allowed to see their old family doctor again?  Probably not as many.  Likewise, how many people will support Obama's mortgage plan after they've heard all the conservative talking points against it?  Probably less than the Post and the Times say.

Now, my guess is that once everyone's had their say, Obama's plan will still garner considerable support.  But it might not, and understanding how Republican talking points affect public opinion is valuable.  That's what Rasmussen has told us here, and it's worth paying attention to.

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DC Will Soon Have Voting Rights; Is Statehood Next?

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 5:14 PM EST
The District of Columbia is poised to finally obtain voting representation in Congress. Is statehood next? Little known fact: Obama supports it.

Dear Everyone, Please Care Less About the Dow

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 4:53 PM EST

Ned Hodgman at the very underrated Understanding Government blog has had it with the media's unrelenting need to put the stock market at the center of the American economic recovery.

Today's Wall Street Journal front page headline, scanned this morning over coffee by the Journal's 1.7 million subscribers, is "Stocks Drop to 50% of Peak." I’d say we're better off with 50% of the nonsense we had when the Dow Jones Industrial Average was the default indicator of the country’s economic health.

It’s not just the numbing predictability of the news every day — again with the Nikkei average, again with the S&P 500, and now every morning we're supposed to care about the stock futures too.

That's force of habit (and a lack of imagination) from the nation's news outlets. The real problem is that the Dow Jones Industrial Average is only one measure of prosperity in this country, and certainly not the most reliable. Let's look back a year or so and see if the Dow's "peak" was a reliable indicator of anything except the coming crash.

Ned has some suggestions on what might make better indicators of the recovery. Might I suggest Bhutan's Gross National Happiness?

Books: Fact-check, Mate

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 4:37 PM EST

Joel Best's Stat-Spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data, belongs on the nightstand of anyone who regularly encounters statistics—which is to say, everyone. In my line of work as a fact-checker, the book's case studies are even more of a must-read.

Take, for example, this health statistic, repeated on a number of websites: Each year, 20,000 people die from taking aspirin.

Habeas at Bagram

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 3:42 PM EST
Should prisoners held at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan have the right to file habeas corpus suits challenging their imprisonment?  Both the Bush and Obama administrations say no.  Hilzoy has a good post exploring the issues:

On the one hand, had anyone asked me in, say, 1991 whether Iraqi prisoners whom we were holding in Kuwait were entitled to file habeas petitions in US court, I would have said: of course not. They are entitled to lots of things, many of them detailed in the Geneva Conventions. But it would have seemed bizarre to me to suggest that they were entitled to habeas rights.

I still feel this way about those detainees at Bagram who were captured on or near an actual battlefield. To say that I do not think they are entitled to habeas rights is not to say that I do not think they are entitled to anything. Afghanistan is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions. Its soldiers are entitled to the rights of prisoners of war. Any civilians we capture are likewise entitled to those rights until "a competent tribunal" determines that they are not prisoners of war.

The problem is that not all the prisoners at Bagram were captured on a battlefield.  Some, like Amin Al Bakri, were abducted in Thailand and then flown to Bagram, and this makes it impossible to simply assume that everyone there is a POW:

It was neither me nor the federal courts that muddied the distinction between the jurisdictions of the federal and military courts, thereby making it impossible for the federal courts to simply defer to the military in these matters. It was the Bush administration. They were the ones who sent CIA agents all over the world kidnapping people, flew those people from places like Thailand into a war zone, and then turned around and said: heavens, you cannot scrutinize what we did — you'd be interfering with the conduct of the military in wartime!

Read the whole thing for a pretty good, nuanced discussion of the issues at hand.  This is a tough one to unwind.

New (Leaked) Music: Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 3:33 PM EST
It's BlitzHas everybody in America thrown out their guitars? When do we get to call this a trend? Okay, sure, a quick look at the iTunes Top 100 shows All-American Rejects and Jason Mraz still wielding the axes in the Top 20. But there's something New Wave-y in the air when even rapper Flo Rida hits #1 with a Dead or Alive cover and bisexual robo-pixie Lady Gaga is America's sweetheart. Into this synthtastic moment strut the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and while Nick Zinner's noisy, careening guitar work has always defined the band's sound, they're also respectably New Wave, with an appreciation for accessible, dramatic pop melodies, not to mention Karen O's colorful outfits. Over the last few years, they've even started offering up their hits for remixes, and Zinner himself has tried reworking the band's songs for the dance floor. It feels completely natural that they'd turn to drum machines and keyboards on It's Blitz!, and they still wring an organic, rich noise out of their gadgets.

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The Mandate Returns

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 2:52 PM EST
During the primary campaign, one of the big disagreements between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was about healthcare mandates.  Should a national healthcare plan require that everyone be covered one way or another, or should coverage be optional?  Clinton favored a mandate and Obama didn't, but Ezra Klein has been talking to some of the Obama folks involved in formulating the upcoming budget and says that things have changed:

The budget — and I was cautioned that the wording "is changing hourly" — will direct Congress to "aim for universality." That is a bolder goal than simple affordability, which can be achieved, at least in theory, through subsidies. Universality means everyone has coverage, not just the ability to access it. And that requires a mechanism to ensure that they have it.

Administration officials have been very clear on what the inclusion of "universality" is meant to communicate to Congress. As one senior member of the health team said to me, "it will cover everybody. And I don't see how you cover everybody without an individual mandate." That language almost precisely echoes what Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus told me in an interview last summer. "I don’t see how you can get meaningful universal coverage without a mandate," he said. That judgment was further emphasized last fall, when he released the first draft of his health care plan and built in an individual mandate.

This strikes me as a concession to reality on Obama's part — both political reality and policy reality.  It's also good news.  Regardless of the details, I think it's important to commit to the principle of universality in a concrete way, and an individual mandate is one way to do that.  It's not the way I'd do it, but at least once the principle is in place it makes it a lot easier to argue productively over the details.  So two cheers for the mandate.  It's a pragmatic and welcome shift.

Cui Bono?

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 2:24 PM EST
Bond king Bill Gross thinks it would be a bad idea to nationalize banks and force bond owners to take a haircut.  This would "create an instability policymakers should not want to risk," he says, and might undermine other financial sectors such as insurance companies and credit unions.  Megan McArdle is unimpressed:

The problem is that seeing as he's a gigantic manager of bond funds, this is also the policy that will make Bill Gross best off.

This is, writ large, the problem faced by Geithner and Bernanke:  the people who know the most are those with the most to lose or gain by their actions.  If they do not talk to the experts, they will do something incredibly stupid through not having thought through the possible consequences.  If they do talk to the experts, their ears will be filled with advice that is both plausible and self-serving.

....I am concerned about the sudden consensus about nationalization — I haven't yet seen a good reason to believe that a tiny bank in a tiny nation like Sweden presents a good model for tackling the problems of the largest financial services company in the world.  But the fact that Bill Gross is worried about bondholders taking a loss makes me more inclined to favor the notion.  It's perverse, I know.

Nationalization should be a last resort.  And there's no question that nationalizing a multinational giant like Citigroup is a far more complex undertaking than nationalizing Nordbanken.  On the other hand, there's just no way that taxpayers can be expected to continue shoveling capital into big banks in return for tiny minority shares.  In the case of Citigroup, for example, the government has so far handed over $45 billion to a company that could be purchased lock, stock and barrel for only $10 billion.  There's just no way that taxpayers are going to keep putting up with that, and they shouldn't.

In any case, it's also possible to overstate the difficulty of nationalizing a big money center bank, I think.  It's not as if we'd fire the entire staff, after all.  What would happen in reality is that the board of directors would be dissolved, some of the senior staff would be replaced, shareholders and bondholders would take a hit, and the bank would continue running as normal except with a stronger capital base and government guarantees behind it.  Then, in a few years, it would be refloated and put back in private hands.

It would be nice if it doesn't come to that.  But there's a pretty good chance that it will.  Not because anyone wants it to, but because, eventually, it will probably be the least bad option left for the weakest of the banks.

Take It Or Leave It

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 1:59 PM EST
Chuck Schumer says that grandstanding governors who hope to score political points by turning down some minuscule proportion of the stimulus money earmarked for their state have another thing coming:

No language in this provision [] permits the governor to selectively adopt some components of the bill while rejecting others. To allow such picking and choosing would, in effect, empower the governors with a line-item veto authority that President Obama himself did not possess at the time he signed the legislation.

Take that, Bobby Jindal!  Or, rather, thanks, Chuck Schumer!  After all, if Schumer is right, it means that guys like Jindal are off the hook.  "I tried to be fiscally responsible, folks, I really did, but the Democrats didn't give me any choice."  Long sigh.  "So I guess I'll have to take all their money after all."  Even longer sigh.

But I guess that's OK.  A bit of Republican theatrics won't hurt us, and at least this means that Louisianans will get the unemployment benefits that Jindal tried to deny them.  Which is not only good for them, but good for the economy too, as even commie pinko Fed chairman Ben Bernanke recognizes:

BERNANKE: If unemployment benefits are not distributed to the unemployed, then they won't spend them and it won't have that particular element of stimulus.

SEN. JACK REED (D-RI): So if this was done on a wide basis, it would be counterproductive, not productive?

BERNANKE: It would reduce the stimulus effect of the package, yes.

If you have some principled objection to the idea that fiscal stimulus works, then fine.  But if you don't, there's no reason to object to extended unemployment benefits.  In terms of bang for the buck, it's probably one of the best uses of stimulus funds in the entire package.

Growing Your Own

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 1:32 PM EST
Mark Kleiman repeats his longtime favorite proposal for decriminalizing pot:

Substantively, I'm not a big fan of legalization on the alcohol model; a legal pot industry, like the legal booze and gambling industries, would depend for the bulk of its sales on excessive use, which would provide a strong incentive for the marketing effort to aim at creating and maintaining addiction....So I continue to favor a "grow your own" policy, under which it would be legal to grow, possess, and use cannabis and to give it away, but illegal to sell it. Of course there would be sales, and law enforcement agencies would properly mostly ignore those sales. But there wouldn't be billboards.

I get his point: decriminalizing marijuana is one thing, but do we really want the Philip Morris marketing machine working overtime to produce endless PR campaigns allegedly aimed at adults but in reality doing nothing of the kind?  Probably not.

But I wonder if there's some middle ground here?  I'm always dubious of proposals that rely on law enforcement to "mostly ignore" technical violations of a law, since that's an open invitation for them to abuse their discretion.  So I'd prefer to legalize commercial operations. But practically speaking, is there some way to open up commercial cannabis sales but limit their operations to a fairly small size?  It seems like there ought to be, and it would certainly be a boon to those of us without green thumbs.  Ideas?

UPDATE: Another objection here.