Kevin Drum - August 2008

Obama's Speech

| Thu Aug. 28, 2008 9:31 PM EDT

OBAMA'S SPEECH....Barack Obama's staff has released excerpts from his speech tonight. Here's a piece:

We are the party of Roosevelt. We are the party of Kennedy. So don't tell me that Democrats won't defend this country. Don't tell me that Democrats won't keep us safe. The Bush-McCain foreign policy has squandered the legacy that generations of Americans — Democrats and Republicans — have built, and we are to restore that legacy.

....I will end this war in Iraq responsibly, and finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. I will rebuild our military to meet future conflicts. But I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide; climate change and disease. And I will restore our moral standing so that America is once more the last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future.

The rest is here. Some of it looks good, some looks a little too much like boilerplate to me — but it's obviously silly to try to judge before I hear the whole thing. More later.

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Core Inflation

| Thu Aug. 28, 2008 6:43 PM EDT

CORE INFLATION....Why does the Fed rely on a "core" inflation rate — one that excludes food and energy costs — when it sets monetary policy? Are they trying to pretend that food and energy, items that are more important to the middle class than to the rich, don't matter? Mark Thoma explains:

If the question is "what is today's inflation rate," the total inflation rate is the best measure. It's intended to measure the cost of living and there's no reason at all to strip anything out. It's only when we ask different questions that different measures are used.

Core inflation, it turns out, (a) does a better job of forecasting future inflation, (b) does a better job of estimating whether inflation is currently rising or falling, and (c) is the inflation target that best stabilizes the economy.

The core inflation rate you see in the news, the one that strips out food and energy, should be though of as a short-hand, quick measure of all three of these concepts. But in each case the Fed uses measures (formally or informally) designed to best satisfy these three functions. For example, when it forecasts future inflation, it uses a different concept of core inflation than it uses in setting policy.

In other words: no, the Fed isn't trying to pretend that food and energy inflation aren't important. They focus on core inflation because it's a better input to the technical models they use to guide monetary policy. Read the whole thing for the full explanation.

Veep Rumors

| Thu Aug. 28, 2008 6:11 PM EDT

VEEP RUMORS....Will John McCain announce (or "leak") his choice for vice president tonight during Barack Obama's acceptance speech? Obama communications chief Dan Pfeiffer is willing to bet he won't: "If they do it," he told Politico, "I will pay all of McCain's mortgages next month."

Yeah, sure he will. This is just more cheap talk from liberals. Everyone knows Cindy paid cash for all their homes.

The World Is Not Enough

| Thu Aug. 28, 2008 4:07 PM EDT

THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH....If Walter Cronkite could manage to talk semi-intelligently for hours on end during an Apollo countdown in which, literally, absolutely nothing was happening, why can't today's talking heads find something semi-intelligent to say while they cover political conventions for hours on end? It is a mystery.

However, despite the amusing personnel meltdowns taking place on air over at MSNBC, Fox's Megyn Kelly surely deserves the idiot award of the week for this comment on Michelle Obama's speech:

Do you think that, you know, her saying that she loves America, that she loves this country, is going to do it for those who questioned her patriotism? Because she said something — what she said was, and I wrote it down, was, "The world as it is just won't do." If you replace "world" with "country," you're back to the same debate, arguably, that you have been having about Michelle Obama's feelings about this country.

Why yes! And if you replace "world" with, say, "broccoli," then Michelle is dissing the vegetable industry! We could play this game for hours, couldn't we?

Carbon Taxes

| Thu Aug. 28, 2008 3:13 PM EDT

CARBON TAXES....Will Wilkinson argues that, environmentally speaking, eating food produced in faraway lands isn't really that big a deal:

According to a recent study out of Carnegie Mellon University, the distance traveled by the average American's dinner rose about 25 percent from 1997 to 2004, due to increasing global trade. But carbon emissions from food transport saw only a 5 percent bump, thanks to the efficiencies of vast cargo container ships.

A tomato raised in a heated greenhouse next door can be more carbon-intensive than one shipped halfway across the globe. And cows spew a lot more greenhouse gas than hens, or kumquats, so eating just a bit less beef can do more carbon-wise than going completely local. It's complicated.

There's a lot to be said for this, and one of those things is that it's a good argument for a carbon tax (or a cap-and-trade program, which amounts to much the same thing). Trying to figure out the carbon footprint for everything you do is just too damn hard. In fact, nearly impossible, as Will's example demonstrates. A better solution is to put a tax on carbon, let prices adjust to new levels, and then let the market sort things out. Carbon-intensive products will go up in price and we'll all end up buying fewer of them. Carbon-friendly products will go down in price (relatively speaking), and we'll buy more of them. No muss, no fuss.

There's another side benefit too: guilt reduction. After all, none of us will ever live pristine lifestyles even if we'd like to: maybe you like your SUV and I like my sirloin steak and we really, really don't want to give them up. What to do? Answer: pay the carbon tax and relax. Maybe you'll keep your SUV and eat more tofu, while I'll keep eating meat but buy a Prius. We'll both cut down our carbon use, but we'll each get to do it in our own way. And that way is whatever causes us the least grief. The Prius doesn't bug me much and the tofu doesn't bug you much, so we've both cut our carbon consumption, done it with only modest sacrifice, and held on to the things that we really care about. But despite the collective modest sacrifice, we've cut our carbon consumption.

The biggest problem with all this — and the most powerful argument the climate change skeptics have — is that a carbon tax won't truly be effective unless it's worldwide. Fruit shipped from Chile won't be affected at all, for example, as long as the freighters fuel up somewhere outside the U.S. Ditto for toys made in China and textiles in India, since neither China nor India appears likely to join us in taxing carbon emissions anytime soon.

But this wouldn't be the first time that the United States took a lead in the global sphere and had to wait for others to catch up. It seems worth doing to me anyway, especially since, in the meantime, even a U.S.-only initiative would spur development of green technologies and act as sort of a proof of concept for the whole idea. If not us, who? If not now, when?

Voila

| Thu Aug. 28, 2008 1:47 PM EDT

VOILA....John Goodman, a think tank president, evangelist for Health Savings Accounts, and advisor to John McCain, offers us his solution to the crisis of the uninsured:

Mr. Goodman, who helped craft Sen. John McCain's health care policy, said anyone with access to an emergency room effectively has insurance, albeit the government acts as the payer of last resort...."So I have a solution. And it will cost not one thin dime," Mr. Goodman said. "The next president of the United States should sign an executive order requiring the Census Bureau to cease and desist from describing any American — even illegal aliens — as uninsured. Instead, the bureau should categorize people according to the likely source of payment should they need care. "So, there you have it. Voila! Problem solved."

This is, obviously, idiotic — though in an almost charming, movement conservative Tourette's sort of way — but one wonders who Goodman thinks is going to be the payer of last resort for non-emergency care? Santa Claus?

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Stem Cell Hell

| Thu Aug. 28, 2008 1:18 PM EDT

STEM CELL HELL....It's not clear to me how much anyone really cares about party platforms these days, but according to Stephen Spruiell the GOP platform now calls for a complete ban on all embryonic stem cell research. Publicly funded, privately funded, new lines, pre-existing lines, whatever. If it's an embryo, you can't use it for research.

This is the kind of thing that, over and over, seems like it ought to be a big deal to me. And yet, at the federal level, it never really seems to generate more than yawns. I guess everyone is used to conservative hardliners insisting on ideological purity, being humored in one way or another, and then, in the end, ignored. So no one takes it seriously.

Which, in a sense, is almost fair. Still, just for the record: the Republican Party now officially opposes all embryonic stem cell research no matter what. In case anyone ever asks you.

The Manchurian McCain

| Thu Aug. 28, 2008 12:46 PM EDT

THE MANCHURIAN McCAIN....Wow. McCain really does sound like the Manchurian candidate here:

Q: What do you want voters to know coming out of the Republican Convention — about you, about your candidacy?

A: I'm prepared to be President of the United States, and I'll put my country first.

It goes downhill — way downhill — from there. He's really, really terrified of going off message these days.

The Good Soldier

| Thu Aug. 28, 2008 2:13 AM EDT

THE GOOD SOLDIER....Jon Chait on Biden's speech:

What continues to be missing is a frame to explain why John McCain believes all these wrongheaded things he talks about. But it's very simple. McCain used to stand against the ideologues and moneyed interests of the GOP, but he decided that if he wanted to win the GOP nomination, he had to make himself their ally. I suspect Democrats will regret this when Republicans tear Barack Obama's character apart next week.

Amy Sullivan expands on this a bit:

A number of speakers have made reference to their personal friendship with John McCain, carefully noting how much they admire him, before going on to criticize him. And that's effective to a point — "more in sorrow than in anger" plays differently than straight-on attacks.

But Democrats might find it would be more effective if they explained why they're so disappointed with their friend John McCain. How did this great guy they admire so much became a candidate whose positions appall them? It wasn't a fluke, it wasn't like he had a personality transplant. And the answer would seem to fit perfectly into a powerful Democratic narrative. John McCain changed because that's what he had to do to win the Republican nomination. That's what the reigning conservative ideology and interests demanded of him.

Right. It's what Biden was getting at when he said, "These times require more than a good soldier, they require a wise leader." It's a good line, but too subtle. The expanded version is that McCain has had to prostrate himself to the neocons, the theocons, and the moneycons because that's what it takes to win the Republican nomination these days: you have to be a good soldier. And one way or another that's a story that the Democrats need to tell. A laundry list of flip-flops doesn't make an impression unless you explain what's behind it.

It's also why I liked the passage from Bill Clinton's speech that I highlighted yesterday. He didn't just tie McCain to George Bush, he tied him directly to the full range of contemporary right-wing dogma. That's what Obama needs to do too. In some simple way, he needs to make people understand that all the stuff they don't like about the past eight years isn't just the fault of one guy's idiosyncrasies, it's the fault of an entire worldview. And if you elect McCain, you're electing that worldview too.

The Convention Picks Up Steam

| Thu Aug. 28, 2008 12:43 AM EDT

THE CONVENTION PICKS UP STEAM....Was Chuck Todd even watching the same speech as me? Yeah, Biden flubbed a couple of lines in a minor way, but jeez. Even seen through the lens of my political speech autism (hereafter PSA) I thought it was a pretty moving performance. And Marian thought he was great, which counts as my "woman in the street" opinion since she's not a political junkie like everyone else I know.

And then Brokaw followed up by saying that the convention sagged today compared to Monday and Tuesday? Did I hear that right? He must have been watching a different bunch of speeches too. Between Bill Clinton, John Kerry, and Joe Biden, I thought this was by far the best night so far.