Quote of the Day - 3.19.09

From Matt Yglesias, commenting on the fantastic amount of money we spend on the Pentagon:

It seems to me that if you told the man on the street that you had a plan to spend double on defense what China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran spend combined that said man would assume you were proposing to spend a healthy amount of funds on national defense. Such a standard would, however, imply very large cuts.

If you want to project power over thousands of miles, it costs a lot of money.  Most countries don't really want to do this.  We, on the other hand, are pretty seriously addicted to it.

Robbing the Old to Give to the Young (and the Rich)

Advocates for the preservation of so-called old-age entitlements have been warning for some time that Social Security and Medicare may be offered up as a sacrifice to offset the cost of the bailout and stimulus.  This would suit conservatives, who for years have been looking for ways to undermine the popular programs. Leading that charge are the the “granny bashers” hunkered around the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. With an endowment of $1 billion, the Foundation pursues an agenda that consists mainly of bitching and moaning that greedy geezers are taking money away from poor young things with their unconscionable demands for basic health care and income support. With increasing support from the media, the punditry, and some members of Congress, they warn that aging boomers will soon bankrupt the country and destroy the lives of future generations.

It’s particularly absurd that this argument emanates from the likes of Peterson, himself now an octagenarian, who was Nixon’s Secretary of Commerce and and more recently chair of the Council on Foreign Relations. Peterson, who is worth $2.8 billion, was also head of the now-defunct Lehman Brothers, and is probably best known as senior chairman of Blackstone Group, a finance company currently enjoying harsh criticism from the Chinese for having lost that country $80 billion in lousy business. While attacking the programs that support poor elderly people, Peterson seems to have no objection to government bailouts for his old comrades on Wall Street. Bill Greider recently wrote a comprehensive piece in The Nation on the machinations of Peterson and his anti-entitlement cohort. 

Helicopter Ben

Ben Bernanke has long said that even with interest rates near zero, the Fed still has plenty of monetary ammunition left to stimulate the economy.  Today he put his money where his mouth is and announced that the Fed would be buying up a trillion bucks worth of treasury bills and mortgage securities.  This is known as quantitative easing, aka printing money.  The Wall Street Journal rounds up some reaction:

Guy LeBas of Janney Montgomery Scott provides the basics: "Even today’s announcement that the Federal Reserve plans on purchasing everything in America that isn’t nailed down raised relatively few eyebrows on our end....Effectively, the Fed is monetizing the Treasury’s debt, a strategy that appears in the encyclopedia under the heading 'how to trigger inflation.' "

David Greenlaw of Morgan Stanley says the purchase of mortgage securities is designed to drive down interest rates: "In 2008, the average mortgage rate on the outstanding stock of loans was about 6.50%. So, if the Fed brings 30-yr fixed rate mortgages down to 4.50% and all homeowners are able refi, the aggregate permanent cash flow savings would be on the order of $200 billion per year."

Paul Dales of Capital Economics isn't sure that $300 billion of Treasury purchases is enough: "This could just be the opening salvo....Overall, no one knows whether these measures will work. Much depends on whether banks loan out the cash they raise from selling Treasuries and whether households and businesses spend, rather than save, any extra borrowing....At the least, no one can say that the Fed isn’t trying."

So there you have it.  $300 billion in new money, another $200 billion over time from lower mortgage rates, and a clear message that the threat of deflation is being taken seriously.

That's what the adults were up to, anyway.  Back in make believe land, meanwhile, it was AIG bonus time 24/7.  Gotta keep Congress busy with something, I guess.

"Tiniest of Baby Booms" A Monster

You can't miss it in today's news: US births break record, 40 percent out-of-wedlock. Frankly, my dear, who gives a shit about the wedding bands. Though that's pretty much what all the moralizing is about.

No, what's stupefying is the fact that nowhere in this much-travelled article does anyone ever talk about the real impact of more babies being born in the US in 2007 than any other year in the nation's history.

So let's talk about it. And let's start with a really interesting study just published in the journal Global Environmental Change. A couple of statisticians at Oregon State U disengaged their mechanical pencils from their pocket protectors, clicked some fresh lead onto recycled paper (we hope) and came up with this bold analysis into that sacristy of human reproduction—to have or not to have:

  • A mother and father are each responsible for one half of the emissions of their offspring and 1/4 the emissions of their grandchildren and so on forever or thereabouts
  • Therefore, under current US conditions, each child adds 9,441 metric tons of CO2 to the carbon legacy of the average female
  • That's 5.7 times her lifetime emissions
  • Translation: one child costs nearly 6 times your own CO2 emissions
  • In the pessimistic scenario, each American child adds 12,730 metric tons to your carbon legacy
  • In comparison, under current Bangladeshi conditions, each child adds 56 metric tons of CO2 to the carbon legacy of the average female

The bottom line is that absolutely nothing else you can do—driving a more fuel efficient car, driving less, installing energy-efficient windows, replacing lightbulbs, replacing refrigerators, recycling—comes even close to simply not having that child. All those good things still add up to less than 500 metric tons of CO2 savings. Not having the kid saves between 10,000 and 13,000 metric tons of CO2.

So why are we still giving tax breaks for having kids? Why are we pretending that because they're cute they're harmless? Little monsters.

We Rock! Three "Magazine Oscar" Nominations for MoJo

Who-hoo! Mother Jones has just been nominated for three National Magazine Awards. The NMAs are often described as the magazine world's Academy Awards (without the awful musical medleys). Picking up three Ellie nods is a real honor, and all the more so since we won a General Excellence Award last year. This time, we've been nominated in the General Excellence categories for both print and online (our print submission consisted of three special issues on torture, energy, and the new "ECOnomy"). We're also up in the Public Interest category. As always, we're pitted against a diverse group of formidable competitors—Foreign Policy, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, and Paste, to name a few. We're practicing balancing Ellie statues on our noses, just in case. But it's not too soon to thank you, the key ingredient in our reader-supported journalism, for keeping us on our toes and pushing us to keep going. Winners will be announced April 30—we'll keep you updated. The official press release is after the jump.

New Music: Phoenix

Okay, this song has been available on the French band Phoenix's web site for a couple weeks now, but it's taken a few listens for it to become my favorite tune of the moment. "1901" kicks off with a bit of Bloc Party-style dramatics, big synth-y bass notes and echo-y radar blips acting all spooky and stuff. But it gets more complicated, the dark underpinnings supporting a song that quickly becomes joyful, ecstatic even. The lyrics don't give anything away—the chorus' repeated line, "Falling, falling," seems to contain both senses of the word, "head-over-heels" and "from a great height." This mixed up combination of emotions doesn't really have a name in English, I don't think, but it's all too common: a tossed salad of ecstasy and agony, nostalgia and contentment that a lot of great pop-dance-rock music seems to inhabit, like LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends," Silversun Pickups' "Lazy Eye," Arcade Fire's "Rebellion (Lies)." Phoenix's "1901" may be too much plain old fun to enter that pantheon of greatness, but right now its three glorious minutes feel like the first sign of spring. Listen and download a high-quality (hooray!) 256 kbps mp3 of "1901" as well as the multitrack files at the band's web site, or listen to a YouTube stream below. The band's new album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, will be out May 25. Phoenix - "1901"

Healthcare This Year?

Jon Cohn's tick-tock in the New Republic about Obama's healthcare plan is mostly fairly ordinary stuff: some of Obama's advisors wanted to go slow, others wanted to seize the moment, meetings were held, etc. etc.  But through it all, Obama was Obama:

Health care, in the end, might have gotten pushed aside — except that one very senior official in the administration kept insisting that it stay on the agenda. That official was Obama himself. Repeatedly, the president made clear that he was not abandoning health care reform.

....By the end, the debate had coalesced around three options: investing around $1 trillion over ten years, offset by new revenue and some substantial reductions in Medicare and Medicaid spending; investing a slightly lower amount, in the neighborhood of $600 billion, which could be offset by more modest revenue increases and reductions in Medicare and Medicaid; or putting aside just $300 billion, offset mostly by changes to Medicare and Medicaid. A final decision wasn't made until Friday, February 13, as a deadline for setting the budget loomed. Rejecting the $1 trillion proposal, because the offsets it required seemed too severe, Obama went with the $600 billion option — $634 billion, to be precise.

This seems to be typical Obama: he really does know what he wants, and he really does insist on getting it.  At the same time, as long as things are moving in the right direction, he seems profoundly willing to compromise about how fast he gets there.  I haven't quite figured out yet whether I think this is good or bad, but it's what we've got.  We may have a liberal in the White House, but we don't have one who's temperamentally likely to knock heads and try to make history.

The Presidential Bracket

Jeez.  Not much love for the Pac Ten from our hoops loving president.  A first round win for Washington is all he's got for us in his NCAA bracket.  Somebody needs to take this up with him when he shows up here in Orange County later today.

Essay Mills

Alan Jacobs proposes a novel theory for the success of essay mills in cranking out low-cost papers for slothful college students:

It seems to me that the most noteworthy fact here is this: essay mills of this kind can succeed only because college professors all over the Western world assign precisely the same kinds of papers. No wonder some of the writers can turn out dozens of the damned things in a week — “I can knock out 10 pages in an hour,” one of them says. “Ten pages is nothing.” The assignments we professors give are so woodenly predictable that they positively invite woodenly predictable essays in response.

I can feel a contest coming on: Propose a topic that's truly essay-mill-resistant.  Better yet, propose a general algorithm that makes any topic harder to fake from a distance.  Remember: extra credit for originality!

Wilkerson on Guantanamo

Over at Washington Note, Larry Wilkerson writes about several dimensions of the debate over Guantanamo Bay that he thinks haven't gotten enough attention:

The first of these is the utter incompetence of the battlefield vetting in Afghanistan during the early stages of the U.S. operations there....The second dimension that is largely unreported is that several in the U.S. leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released.

....The fourth unknown is the ad hoc intelligence philosophy that was developed to justify keeping many of these people, called the mosaic philosophy. Simply stated, this philosophy held that it did not matter if a detainee were innocent....All that was necessary was to extract everything possible from him and others like him, assemble it all in a computer program, and then look for cross-connections and serendipitous incidentals.

....Thus, as many people as possible had to be kept in detention for as long as possible to allow this philosophy of intelligence gathering to work. The detainees' innocence was inconsequential. After all, they were ignorant peasants for the most part and mostly Muslim to boot.

Read the whole thing.  He presents some compelling evidence that although shutting down Guantanamo might be politically difficult thanks to Dick Cheney's "recent strident and almost unparalleled remarks about the dangers of pampering terrorists," it's almost certainly not much of an operational challenge at all.