Mark Sanford and the Media

The State has some emails of right-wing media types sucking up to Mark Sanford's office. Josh Marshall calls this "Hacks on Parade." Steve Benen admits that "media professionals may try to curry favor with a source (or potential source) in the hopes of landing a bigger story or interview," but goes on to parse this story far too finely:

[T]his Sanford story seems different, to the extent that conservative news outlets communicated to aides for a conservative governor that they're on his side.

But it's not what the conservative outlets tell Sanford that's the issue. It's what they do. Take Stephen Colbert's email to Sanford's office, for example:

As you may know, I declared myself Governor of South Carolina last night. I went power mad for abut 40 seconds before learning that Gov. Sanford was returning today.

If the governor is looking for a friendly place to make light of what I think is a small story that got blown out of scale I would be happy to have him on. In person here, on the phone, or in South Carolina.

Stay strong, Stephen

Colbert's message highlights what's actually going on here. Colbert may or may not believe that the Sanford thing was "a small story that got blown out of scale." But he's clearly sucking up to get access: he's going to play it for laughs on the show. He certainly won't help keep it from being "blown out of scale," if that's what he really believes happened. Does anyone really think that it's only places like the WSJ and the Washington Times that do this sort of thing? How many journalists have told a source, "we want to get your side of the story out" when the story is already pretty clear from more reliable sources?

It's a hard truth, but Janet Malcolm was right about the journalist:

He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and "the public's right to know"; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

Bottom line: it is neither surprising nor unusual that media figures were trying to flatter Mark Sanford while he was the biggest story in America.

Sotomayor and the Right

In the New York Times this weekend, Emily Bazelon interviewed Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  In the LA Times this morning, Jonah Goldberg read the interview, chopped off a Ginsburg quote about Roe v. Wade halfway through, and then asked this:

Unlike Bazelon, I for one would like to know whether Ginsburg believes there were — or are — some populations in need of shrinking through abortion and whether she thinks such considerations have any place at the Supreme Court.

And while we're at it, it would be interesting to know what Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor thinks about such things.

Yes indeed.  Goldberg is seriously suggesting that maybe Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg believes we should try to shrink a few of our less desirable ethnic populations by providing them with increased access to abortion.  And then, just for the hell of it, he thinks we ought to find out whether Sonia Sotomayor thinks the same thing.

Needless to say, Ginsburg believes nothing of the sort.  You only have to read the sentence right after the one Goldberg quoted to see that.  And Sotomayor, of course, has absolutely no connection to this at all.  Isaac Chotiner has the details here.

The almost manic eagerness of the right to inject race into the Sotomayor nomination at every opportunity is enough to make you ill.  It started within minutes of her nomination being announced, and it's continued ever since.  Sen. Jeff Sessions took up the reins today.

There's never been any reason for it, of course.  It was ostensibly based on one sentence in a speech and one court decision out of hundreds she's made.  In reality, it's just because she's a Hispanic liberal and conservatives figure that a race-based attack is the one most likely to resonate with their base.  And I suppose they're right, aren't they?

Congress is fed up with the Treasury Department's lack of bailout transparency and, more specifically, its refusal to account for how rescued financial institutions have used their billions in taxpayer funds. And rightly so. It's only fair that, in bailing out struggling financial institutions, Geithner and Co. track how those taxpayer dollars have actually been used. Specifically, whether they've been used for their intended purpose (boosting lending to small businesses and consumers), or simply to shore up their balance sheets—as appears to be closer to the truth. Since Geithner failed to respond to a May letter from 20 House and Senate Democrats on this subject, Congress is taking matters into its own hands. It has inserted into the FY 2010 Financial Services and Government Appropriations bill language to legally mandate that Geithner either increase oversight and transparency over the use of bailout funds, or show up before Congress and explain why not.

The Treasury's rationale for not tracking these funds, an excuse they've been peddling for months now, is that it's essentially impossible to track the flow of bailout funds once they're in the banks' coffers. But that's BS. The Special Inspector General for TARP, or SIGTARP, said in its April quarterly report to Congress (PDF) that it had gathered this very information by surveying 364 banks that had received funds before January 31. All SIGTARP did was send letters to the banks and ask nicely. As the 20 lawmakers wrote in May:

Although the results of the [SIGTARP] survey still need to be analyzed, one thing is clear: Treasury's arguments that such an accounting was impractical, impossible, or a waste of time because of the inherent fungibility of money were unfounded. Banks generally provided a reasonable level of detail regarding their use of TARP funds, and, while the response quality was not uniform, some banks were able to provide detailed, at times even granular, descriptions of how they used taxpayer money.

The Financial Services and Government Appropriations bill mandating that Geithner explain himself should come up for a vote before the full House later this week. After countless reports and statements from individuals like SIGTARP point man Neil Barofsky, Congressional Oversight Panel chairwoman Elizabeth Warren, lawmakers, and others calling for far greater transparency over the bailout, perhaps Congress' latest effort will shine a light on how taxpayers’ billions have actually been used—hardly an unreasonable proposition.

Sen. Franken Flops at Sotomayor Hearings

Ok, maybe flop is a bit of an overstatement, but in Al Franken's much awaited debut on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the no-longer-funny comedian gave one of the worst performances of his life yesterday. Looking nervous, Franken delivered opening remarks at the confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor, tripping over his lines in a way he never seemed to on his other live performances. He did manage to pay tribute to the good citizens of Duluth, a sign that he's got the important parts of this senatorial job down. You can judge his performance for yourself here:

Addicted to Debt

The world has become addicted to debt.  Wall Street loves it because you can play far more interesting games with debt than you can with equities.  Consumers love it because it makes up for stagnant wages.  Investors love it because it gooses their returns.

As a result, there's way too much of it.  So how do we cut it down to size?  Felix Salmon suggests that although massive regulatory interventions are probably doomed to failure, we could, at a minimum, stop subsidizing debt by getting rid of its tax advantages:

At the moment, companies pay tax not on earnings before interest but earnings after interest — that gives them an incentive to lever up as much as possible. Last year, Steve Waldman had a great post entitled “Eliminate the business interest tax deduction“; it's well worth (re)reading in light of what has happened since.

In general the multi-trillion-dollar edifice of debt financing is predicated on all manner of artificial tax advantages which are given both to borrowers and to fixed-income investors; tax-free municipal bonds and mortgage-interest tax relief are just two of the most egregious examples here.

Forcibly converting mortgages into some kind of shared-equity arrangement where banks get direct exposure to the house price is fraught with difficulty; abolishing mortgage-interest tax relief, however, is easy. And it raises much-needed money for the government as well.

I wouldn't exactly agree that eliminating the mortgage interest tax deduction is easy, but point taken.  It's at least within the realm of imagination.

In the past, debt has received preferential tax treatment because it was thought to be good for the economy: it lowered hurdle rates for businesses and encouraged capital-intensive expansions; it gave a boost to the housing industry and encouraged home ownership; and it increased purchasing power and encouraged consumer spending. But that was back in the dark ages, when debt was relatively more expensive than it is now.  The financial world has changed a lot in the past 50 years, and debt is now far cheaper, far more easily available, far more efficiently hedged, and far more broadly (and deeply) traded than it was in the immediate postwar era.  Its tax advantage might have been justifiable in the past, but it isn't anymore.  We should get rid of it.

(We won't, of course, any more than we'll get rid of agricultural payments or road-building subsidies.  If you scratch most free market capitalists you'll find a socialist just below the surface.  But we can still dream.)

Will the Feds Save CIT Group?

Sub-prime lender CIT Group is in trouble and asking the Feds for help. Former chief economist for the IMF and current Baseline Scenario blogger Simon Johnson predicts that, on balance, a bailout is probably unlikely. Why?

CIT’s bailout possibilities are now in the realm of political choice... [T]he lack of strong connections between CIT’s CEO and senior Treasury officials looks like a weakness.  CIT seems to sit at the edge of the charmed circle, with regard to meetings, shared social engagements, and intellectual entanglements.  This is a close call, but I think it is just on the outside of the circle – in the sense that with the overall financial market situation more stable, the GM bankruptcy well-managed relative to expectations, and other credit support programs still in place, the balance of official opinion will tilt against CIT.

So then it all comes down to political donations.  At least in terms of what is in the public record, Mr. Peek has not been overly generous, but he did give money to John McCain – and not to any Democrats.  If this is in fact the limit of his recent contributions, I think you know the outcome.

So that's how they make these decisions. I thought it was something like this:

Spending Like Cats and Dogs

Here's an interesting healthcare tidbit.  AEI's Andrew Biggs presents us with this chart showing increased costs of human healthcare compared to increased costs of veterinary healthcare:

The point here is supposed to be that even in an area of healthcare where there's no insurance and we have to pay everything out of pocket, costs are still skyrocketing.  So maybe having "skin in the game" doesn't really have much effect after all.

Which is interesting — except for one thing: it might not be true.  As John Schwenkler points out, a big part of the increase is accounted for by a large increases in the number of pets.  We aren't necessarily spending a lot more per pet, we just have more pets.  In fact, he points to some market research that suggests cats have actually gotten cheaper over the years: we spent $85 per cat in 2001 but only $81 in 2007.  (Dogs, conversely have gotten a little more expensive, but only by 11%, not the 30-40% the chart suggests.)

So which data is correct?  Beats me.  But considering the high-pressure sales job vets have adopted in recent years, I have a hard time believing that cat expenditures have gone down.  After all, we didn't use to get their teeth cleaned or spend a couple hundred bucks a year on fancy flea/heartworm/hookworm/etc. goop.  Now we do.  Caveat emptor.

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, July 14

Tuesday news of the Blue Marble variety, from around our site:

Trip down memory lane: Or lack thereof. Check out our drug-war timeline.

Is there a computer in the house? Sure, digitizing medical records will make doctors' jobs a lot easier. But is the Obama administration doing it all wrong?

Cheese, please: Domino's Pizza's new sidewalk ad campaign: Green or grotesque?

Boringest babysitter ever: GOP House reps say never mind a bill that would support new parents, why not just park the kids in front of a Baby Einstein DVD?

Doha drag: Likelihood of progress on agricultural issues in trade talks, given the reluctance of rich countries to reduce subsidies on farmed products? Not great, says Kevin Drum.

 

Death Spiral Watch

A friend emails:

Um, did Sarah Palin just write a whole editorial about cap and trade and not mention global warming once?

Yes!  Yes she did!  And the Washington Post printed it!  The Republican death spiral, the Washington Post death spiral, and the Sarah Palin death spiral continue apace.

Taibbi's Bubble Machine

A few days ago I described Matt Taibbi's recent Rolling Stone piece about Goldman Sachs as "terrible."  And it was!  He made one outrageous assertion after another without bothering to back any of them up.  He flitted from idea to idea without developing any of them.  The whole piece was disjointed and embarrassing.

Except — it turns out there was a reason for that: the morons at Rolling Stone hadn't actually posted Taibbi's article.  They had only posted a short series of excerpts.  I would have known that if I'd read the introductory material very carefully, but who the hell does that?  I didn't.  I just read what they posted, came away shaking my head, and panned it.

Well, I've now the read the entire piece, and I apologize.  (To Taibbi, that is, not the morons at Rolling Stone, who should have either posted the whole thing or done nothing at all.)  It's a very good takedown of the modern financial industry and well worth reading.  There are some bits here and there that I'm not sure Taibbi gets quite right, and I do think that he made a mistake in casting Goldman Sachs as the "engineer" of every bubble in the past century rather than merely an unusually big and enthusiastic member of a predatory gang that's been ripping us off for a long time.  This gives the piece a conspiratorial air that allows Goldman to laugh it off instead of being forced to engage with it, and that's too bad.  They — and everyone else on Wall Street — should be forced to engage with it.

Beyond that, there are undoubtedly some mistakes in the piece, as well as places where Taibbi goes unnecessarily over the top.  I'm still not sold on carbon permits being the next big bubble, for example.  But those are quibbles.  Overall it's a striking portait of an industry — not just a single company — of almost unbounded greed and recklessness.  Worth reading.