At a Loss for Words

| Tue Dec. 30, 2008 6:32 PM EST

AT A LOSS FOR WORDS....In case you're wondering what I think about Rod Blagojevich having the balls to appoint a replacement to Barack Obama's Senate seat, I don't really have the words for it. I mean, what can you say about something like this? Blagojevich is obviously living in his own personal looking-glass land these days.

Still, the silver lining here is that maybe this will give the Illinois legislature the kick in the butt it needs to get cracking on impeachment. Maybe.

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Housing Market Continues to Suck

| Tue Dec. 30, 2008 5:51 PM EST

HOUSING MARKET CONTINUES TO SUCK....Housing prices are still plunging:

Home values in 20 large metropolitan areas across the country dropped at a record pace in October as the fallout from the financial collapse reverberated through the housing market, according to data released Tuesday.

...."October was clearly the free-fall month," said David M. Blitzer, chairman of the index committee at Standard & Poor's. "Everything was going against us in October, without exception."....Prices are falling at the fastest pace on record, a sign that the housing market is a long way from recovery.

The housing market is obviously in terrible shape, but for what it's worth, I think the idea that October was uniquely bad is slightly miscast. As you can see in the Case-Shiller index at right, housing prices began plunging at a rate of 2-3% per month in October 2007, moderated a bit starting in May 2008, and then resumed their 2-3% monthly decline in September. It's not so much that we're suddenly seeing record declines, as it is that the record declines that started last year got interrupted for a few months this summer and are now back in business. But this is no surprise: the Case-Shiller index is still only down to 158, and we've always known that it's not going to stop much before it gets into the 100-120 range. What's more, rapid declines aren't entirely bad news. We're probably better off getting to 100 sooner rather than later, since economic recovery almost certainly can't start until housing prices bottom out.

In the meantime, of course — and I say this as someone currently trying to sell a house — the news is grim every direction you look. Even at 2-3% per month, we've got at least another year before the housing market starts to reach its natural level. Until then, we're screwed.

Gangsta Rap != Street Violence

| Tue Dec. 30, 2008 3:48 PM EST

Ta-Nehisi Coates, blogging his way through the holidays just like us, finds that statistics support his suspicion of a long-prevailing cultural myth. Says Coates: "Anyone who knows hip-hop knows that when the music was most conscious—late 80s, early 90s—the streets were insane. And when the streets were most sane—mid to late 90s—any fool who could gun-talk was going platinum."

So don't blame gangsta rap for the dramatic rise in murders among young black men that has been getting ink lately. Gangsta rap sales have declined as murder among young black men has risen. The numbers, courtesy of


In fact, from the looks of this chart, we need to bring back gangsta rap. Apparently, nothing drives down street violence like Ice T records. That said, here's a caveat: record sales are tanking across genres as Internet downloading makes those plastic coaster things that used to play music more and more obsolete. Gantsa rap's relation to street violence may not be an inverse one, but instead merely nonexistent.

It Would Probably Be Cheaper Just to Take Cabs, Charlie Rangel

| Tue Dec. 30, 2008 2:10 PM EST

What's more bizarre, the fact that the ethically challenged Congressman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) paid for parking tickets using campaign donations as Dan notes below, or the fact that he somehow earned himself $1,540 in said tickets in just two years?

Couple other points on top of Dan's: (1) This sort of entitlement, bred over years of being in power, makes a solid argument for term limits. (2) Rangel is the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. If he is this irresponsible with his own money, how does he expect to have any credibility when spending taxpayers' money? (3) What on earth will it take for Charlie Rangel to finally get the boot? Does he have to murder a guy and then pay for the cover-up using campaign contributions from nuns?

*The Stimulus Bill

| Tue Dec. 30, 2008 1:37 PM EST

THE STIMULUS BILL....Tim Fernholz points to this Bloomberg piece about Mitch McConnell's reaction to a massive stimulus bill:

"A trillion-dollar spending bill would be the largest spending bill in the history of our country at a time when our national debt is already the largest in history," McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said in a statement. "As a result, it will require tough scrutiny and oversight. Taxpayers, already stretched to the limit, deserve nothing less."

McConnell called for giving lawmakers and the public at least one week to review the legislation once it has been written. He also said he wanted Senate committee hearings on the measure, rather than immediate floor consideration.

Italics mine. Obviously McConnell is just trying to rustle up opposition to the bill, and his tired invocation of "fraud and waste" harkens back to equally tired Republican opposition to the WPA in FDR's day. It's pretty weak tea. Still, I'll give him a pass on this. If the public stance of the Democratic leadership during a Republican presidency was a request for one week of hearings and review on a $700 billion measure, that would seem pretty reasonable to me. Coming from a Republican during a Democratic presidency, it seems pretty reasonable too. I'll bet McConnell gets that and more. Hopefully, the days of thousand-page bills coming out of conference and getting sent to the floor within 24 hours died when....

....Mitch McConnell's party lost control of the Senate. I say, let it stay dead.

A Very Rangel Holiday Scandal

| Tue Dec. 30, 2008 12:54 PM EST

If you're Charlie Rangel, your New Year's resolution has got to be to dust off that congressional ethics handbook and brush up on the dos and don'ts of elected office. Lately, when the New York congressman's name has surfaced in the press, it has often been in connection with allegations of conduct unbefitting a member of the US Congress. Today's report by CQ Politics that Rangel has, in the past two years, used more than $1500 in campaign funds to pay DC parking tickets rates relatively low on the outrage meter, particularly considering that he also stands accused of trading a legislative favor for a sizable contribution to the center for public service at the City College of New York that was named in his honor. But parking ticket-gate caps off a horrendous year PR-wise for the Rangeler, who also faces charges of failing to disclose rental income from his villa in the Dominican Republic; renting four below-market-rate apartments in a building owned by the family of a campaign contributor; using a congressional parking garage—in violation of congressional rules—as long-term storage for his undrivable 1972 Mercedes-Benz; and receiving a tax break on his DC home that he was not entitled to.

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Get a Real FEC, Not One that Protects Special Interests

| Tue Dec. 30, 2008 12:09 PM EST

When do-gooders waste precious blogosphere space to do boring things like beg for a FEC that actually plays an active role in regulating America's elections (i.e. does its damn job), this is why. Bloomberg:

The Federal Election Commission, in a party-line vote, has overruled a recommendation by its counsel to fine a U.S. Chamber of Commerce group accused of illegal spending practices in attacking the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004.
The Republican members of the FEC opposed the penalty against the chamber's November Fund, creating a 3-3 deadlock that rejected the counsel's recommendation.
The November Fund was accused of violating federal campaign spending limits by using $3 million it received from the chamber to attack Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards, a former trial lawyer, in 2004. The FEC deadlock in the November Fund case was announced last week.
"The FEC has transformed itself from a merely dysfunctional agency to one that now openly thumbs its nose at the law," said Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center.

The facts of the case seem to suggest this should have been an open-and-shut deal. The Republicans who are declining to fine the Chamber are refusing to justify their decision to the press. But don't think this is a partisan problem. The three Republican commissioners on the FEC protect the GOP and its most valuable allies (in this instance, that mean the Chamber of Commerce) and the three Democratic commissioners on the FEC protect the Democratic Party and its most valuable allies. If the group in question was the SEIU and not the Chamber, you'd have similar gridlock.

The FEC's incompetence and unwillingness to take aggressive action is borne out of the same conflict of interest created when the Bush-era EPA decided to let corporations self-police their emissions. The regulated do the regulating. As long as the politicians that fall under the FEC's purview are allowed to appoint the FEC's commissioners (and currently, congressional lawmakers basically tell the president who to install), you will have a body that prioritizes the powers that be over the public interest.

And one final point. Why on earth is the FEC still adjudicating cases from the 2004 election? (Part of the answer here.) Any major special interest — like the Chamber of Commerce, for example — that knows it can influence an important election and then tie up the relevant regulatory body for four years is going to take advantage of that option. Who would blame it? Just another reason why the FEC badly needs reform.

Quote of the Day - 12.30.08

| Tue Dec. 30, 2008 11:37 AM EST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, looking back on his handling of the economic crisis:

I easily could imagine and expected there to be financial turmoil. But the extent of it, O.K., I was naïve in terms of — I knew a lot about regulation but not nearly as much as I needed to know, and I knew very little about regulatory powers and authorities. I just had not gone into it in that kind of detail.

This is from the same Vanity Fair piece that I linked to a few minutes ago. Hat tip to Dan Drezner, whose only comment is an apt one: "Sweet Jesus."

Bush and Katrina

| Tue Dec. 30, 2008 11:26 AM EST

BUSH AND KATRINA....In Vanity Fair this month, both Dan Bartlett and Matthew Dowd say that Hurricane Katrina was the event that finally, irrevocably, killed the Bush presidency. Here's Dowd:

Katrina to me was the tipping point. The president broke his bond with the public. Once that bond was broken, he no longer had the capacity to talk to the American public. State of the Union addresses? It didn't matter. Legislative initiatives? It didn't matter. P.R.? It didn't matter. Travel? It didn't matter. I knew when Katrina — I was like, man, you know, this is it, man. We're done.

I think this is only half right. I've long believed that what really killed Bush was the contrast between his handling of Katrina and his handling of the Terri Schiavo case, which had come only a few months earlier. It was just too stark. What the American public saw was that when the religious right was up in arms, the president and the Republican Party acted. Bill Frist performed his famous long-distance diagnosis; Tom DeLay fulminated on the floor of the House; Republicans tried to subpoena both Terri and Michael Schiavo; and President Bush interrupted his vacation and made his famous midnight flight to Washington DC to sign a bill transferring the case to federal court. It was both a whirlwind and a political circus.

And it showed that Bush could be moved to action if the right constituency was at risk. It wasn't just that Bush was mostly MIA during the early stages of Katrina, but that he was plainly capable of being engaged in an emergency if it was the right kind of emergency. But apparently New Orleans wasn't it. And that was the final nail in the coffin of his presidency.

Pickens Plan Quietly Falters

| Tue Dec. 30, 2008 11:23 AM EST

So much for the vaunted Pickens Plan. Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens' massively publicized scheme to build a $10 billion wind farm in West Texas has discreetly been put on hold. Pickens cites the difficulty securing financing during the credit crisis, but has also told reporters that energy prices would have to rise again before the project becomes economically viable. This underscores the myth about Pickens' supposedly altruistic motives. The media has often portrayed him as an aging robber baron (and former Swift Boater) reborn as an idealistic green crusader--what use does an octogenarian have for greed, the thinking goes (He's even a finalist now for Dallas Morning News' "Person of the Year"). But I've argued that Pickens' real motive--getting even richer--is exposed by his plays for water rights in West Texas and public subsidies for natural gas in California--two moves adamantly opposed by environmentalists. Perhaps most telling, Pickens recently slashed $10 million from the media campaign he started to promote wind and natural gas. If Pickens himself isn't going to peddle wind right away, it seems there's less incentive for him to get everybody else on the wagon.