Kevin Drum - October 2008

McCain Meltdown Watch

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 3:22 PM PDT

McCAIN MELTDOWN WATCH....John McCain spokesman Michael Goldfarb is one of the creepiest of the creepy gang of attack dogs that inhabit McCain's dysfunctional communications shop. The guy seems to have about the maturity level of a sixth grader and the social skills of your average Unix programmer. Every time McCain lands in hot water over something or another, Goldfarb is always there to vomit up a statement even nastier and more boorish than whatever he said on his last outing. He's a real piece of work.

Which means, long story short, that I was happy to see this bit of comeuppance. What a jackass.

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Academic Conversation of the Day

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 12:53 PM PDT

ACADEMIC CONVERSATION OF THE DAY....When did the liberal expansion of the state that began in the early sixties end? When Reagan was elected? Paul Pierson says that's not quite right:

When does it stop? It doesn't stop in 1981. Roughly, it stops in 1978. The defeat of key domestic initiatives like industrial relations reform and health care reform; the passage of a completely different kind of tax bill, much more oriented towards business and the affluent than the tax bills that had come previously, but a tax bill that would look very familiar to more recent discussions in American politics. You see also the beginnings of a deregulatory push that would eventually remake government and the connection between government and the economy. And all this comes after the huge Democratic electoral victory of 1974, and the recapture of the White House in 1976.

I think Paul is exactly right. The 30-year-old (and counting) tax revolt started with Proposition 13 in California in 1978, and it was Jimmy Carter who very clearly initiated a lot of the political themes that are now associated with the 80s (deregulation, tax cutting, military buildups, human rights attacks on the Soviets, covert operations in Afghanistan, etc.). Henry Farrell draws a conclusion for today:

This makes it quite clear that a Democratic victory on its own, doesn't mean much, unless there is a consequent or simultaneous shift in basic assumptions about government and the role of policy....If Obama wins, as seems very likely, do we [] face a substantial increase in the role of the state, and in the willingness of politicians to use political power to redress economic and social inequalities? Or should we expect a more cautious managerialism? The kinds of factors that Paul highlights suggest that the answer will depend both on the willingness of external groups to push for serious ideological changes, and on the willingness (or lack of same) of Obama and the people around him to use the current crisis as a way to remake basic understandings about the role of government in American society.

You will be tested on this material on Tuesday. It will be an open book test. Blue books will be provided for you.

Welfare!

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 12:29 PM PDT

WELFARE!....So now Obama's tax plan is just a big fat welfare giveaway? Taking money from "seniors" and "hardworking families" and giving it to....? Whom? Do I even need to tell you? I guess the welfare queen isn't dead yet after all.

A Media Fable

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 12:11 PM PDT

A MEDIA FABLE....Want to hear a story about the power of the media to shape public narratives? I know, I know, they're a dime a dozen. But this one from Britain is so spectacular that it's worth hearing about.

Here's what happened. Two weeks ago, an "edgy" comedian on BBC Radio 2 named Russell Brand decided to play a phone prank. Brand had once had a relationship with Georgina Baillie, the 23-year-old granddaughter of Andrew Sachs, the actor who played Manuel in Fawlty Towers, so he and his partner Jonathan Ross decided to give Sachs a call. They got Sachs' answering machine, and started off with this:

Brand: Look Andrew Sachs I have got respect for you and your lineage and your progeny, never let that be questioned.

Ross: Don't hint ...

Brand: I weren't hinting! Why did that come across as a hint?

Ross: Because you know what you did ...

Brand: That wasn't a hint ...

Ross: He fucked your granddaughter!

[laughter in the studio]

Brand: That's his answerphone!

Ross: I'm sorry ... I apologise Andrew, I apologise, I can't help it, you were talking about it and it was in my head, I apologise.

Half a million people were listening to this. The reaction was....nothing. Literally. Apparently there were a grand total of two complaints after the show aired.

In other words, the public had spoken, and they couldn't have cared less. So what happened next? Answer: a Mail on Sunday reporter alerted Sachs' agent, who asked for an apology from Brand and got it a week after the initial broadcast. Still, no one cared. The next day, though, the Mail splashed Brand all over its front page and has been giving him front page treatment ever since. It's sort of like the Fox News 24/7 loop whenever they get their hands on something useful to rile up the rubes.

So: left to their own opinions, no one cared about this. It's not as if it was a secret only brought to light after deep investigative reporting, after all. Even Sachs doesn't seem to have cared much to begin with (he apparently "reluctantly" approved broadcasting the tape before it aired). But after the Mail got its claws into the story, it became a national crisis. Brand has since been forced to quit the show, Ross is under fire to leave too, and the BBC is said to be near collapse over the episode. Earlier this week reporters descended on Italy to find the BBC's director-general, who was on vacation, and on Tuesday both the prime minister Gordon Brown and conservative leader David Cameron weighed in. The director-general quickly cut his vacation short and as I write this is apparently holding emergency meetings of the kind last seen in Churchill's bunker during World War II.

That's the power of the media for you. On October 18th two people complained. For a week after that nobody said a word. Today, one week and five front pages later, the entire country is in the middle of a firestorm. Remarkable, no?

UPDATE: Ezra has another good one here. It's more of a garden variety media fuckup, but still worth a quick read.

China and the IMF

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 11:10 AM PDT

CHINA AND THE IMF....The IMF, and western governments in general, have been remarkably eager to extend financial help to emerging economies as the global financial crisis has unfolded. Brad Setser suggests that this might be because they feared that China would step in and make them obsolete:

I wonder if the possibility that institutions like the IMF could be bypassed if they didn't respond more quickly and creatively than in the past didn't help to spur the recent set of policy changes. Those in the IMF's Executive Board who normally would object to unconditional lending didn't block the new short-term lending facility — perhaps at least in part because of recognition that the IMF potentially isn't the only game in town (or in the world).

This comes via Dan Drezner, who suggests a flip side: despite their vast reserves of dollar holdings, Russia and China aren't really stepping up to the plate:

For all their aspirations to great power status, both countries lack the policy expertise necessary to take on greater leadership roles. This leads to profound risk aversion, which leads to inaction. On the flip side, the U.S. is accustomed to talking to the countries in crisis, which both provides it with more information and allows Washington to act more quickly.

As long as we're taking guesses here, here's one of my own. Normally, IMF help tends to be a little slow in coming because they insist on onerous terms that are political death for the leaders of the target countries. The IMF usually doesn't budge much, however, because it feels like it needs to incentivize good behavior. If its terms were lax, countries would all feel free to follow profligate economic policies and then head over to Uncle IMF whenever they got a little behind. They want their terms to be onerous, and the upshot is that it takes a while before a country is in bad enough shape to agree to an IMF rescue.

But two things are different this time. First, the crisis has hit very, very fast. It's not taking a year or two for countries to figure out that bankruptcy is unavoidable, it's taking a month or two. Second, this isn't a case of a single country that made some bad choices. It's plainly a global conflagration, and furthermore, one that was primarily stoked by the United States, not by emerging economies doing stupid things. Everyone was doing stupid things, and the entire world is heading down the toilet, which means that the IMF's usual onerous terms just aren't necessary. The moral hazard issue isn't a big one.

So: given the global nature of the crisis, the IMF is willing to offer more generous terms than usual for its aid. And given the speed and depth of the crisis, failing countries are facing reality faster than usual. Result: more and faster IMF/western aid than usual.

And yes, Russia has its own problems and China has never played this game before. They'll probably dip their toes in the water eventually this time, and then next time feel a little more confident in taking a more active role. In the meantime, whatever the reason, it's heartening that the IMF is facing reality and changing their policies this time around. This crisis really is different.

R.I.P. Tax Revolt?

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 10:41 AM PDT

R.I.P. TAX REVOLT?....It's been increasingly chic in liberal circles over the past year or so to declare the death of the tax revolt. Born in California in 1978, raised to adulthood by Ronald Reagan, given a second wind by George Bush, and now, finally, ready to retire from public life. For example, here was Mark Schmitt early last year:

The truth is that we are heading down a path toward fiscal crisis that will inevitably require a major increase in revenues. In case that sounds like a euphemism, I'll say it plainly: Taxes must go up. If Democrats try to avoid that fact, they'll become mired in trench warfare with Republicans over small-bore increases that will cost them political support and won't really address the problem. But if Democrats seize the opportunity to define a new era of the politics of taxes, as Republicans did 30 years ago, they can shape the debate in a way that may actually help them to achieve some of their most-cherished policy goals.

So how's that going? At the time I remember thinking that Mark's piece was fairly persuasive, but the 2008 campaign sure doesn't seem to bear it out. Barack Obama, the progressive candidate, has certainly not campaigned on tax increases. In fact, he has loudly and consistently based his campaign almost entirely on a promise to cut taxes for 95% of Americans. He could probably fund the national debt for the price of the ads touting his tax cutting credentials. Amidst all that, the only teensy weensy concession he's made to higher taxes is an increase — all the way to 1990s levels! — for the highest earning 5%.

This is, of course, about as moderate a tax policy as you could possibly hope for. But even so, he's only barely gotten away with it. The response from the McCain campaign to that teensy weensy increase has been to go completely ballistic, accusing Obama of everything from socialism to Marxism to wanting to firebomb Joe the Plumber's cozy little Ohio cottage. In the end, it looks like this barrage of inanity won't work, but conservatives are sticking to it and they really do seem to be getting at least some traction with it. If Obama had nodded even slightly further in the direction of tax hikes, there's a good chance McCain would be making serious inroads on him right about now.

There's not much question that, eventually, taxes are going to have to go up. George Bush has ensured that. But it looks like we've been a little premature in declaring the end of the tax revolt. Apparently it still has few last gasps left in it.

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Economy Watch - 10.30.2008

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 10:08 AM PDT

ECONOMY WATCH....I guess it's now official that the economy sucks:

The U.S. economy shrank by .3 percent in the third quarter, government data released this morning shows, confirming an economic slowdown that was already showing itself through steady job losss and declining consumer sales.

....The drop in personal consumption was a particular drag on growth. Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity, and it dropped at a 3.1 percent annualized rate between July and September — the biggest quarterly decline in more than 20 years.

....It was in large part a jump in government spending — at the federal, state and local levels, with a more than 18 percent annualized increase in defense spending — that held off an even steeper decline. Overall government spending added 1.15 percent to GDP.

With his usual impeccable timing and sense for the public mood, John McCain naturally took this moment to....stop talking about the economy and instead try to suddenly "steer the presidential-campaign conversation to national security." Nice work, Senator.

As for the economy itself, I think everyone now agrees that we're in a recession. But did it start in the third quarter, or did it start last December? It almost feels like we need a new word here. High schools now call their advanced algebra classes "precalculus," and the first half of this year feels like it was a "prerecession." There really didn't seem much doubt about where we were headed, but technically we weren't quite there. Now we are.

The Obama Infomercial

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 9:35 AM PDT

THE OBAMA INFOMERCIAL....The Nielsen people just emailed to tell me that Barack Obama's infomercial last night was viewed by 21.7% of all households watching TV. That compares to 38.3% for the final Obama-McCain debate.

Is that good? Bad? I'm not sure, really. But with the kind of money the Obama campaign has, I guess it doesn't matter much.

What did everyone think of it? I thought it was (duh) really well done and did a good job of presenting Obama as both a serious candidate and a normal human being. On the other hand, the tales of woe struck me as a little heavy handed. I think it might have been better if it had been a little less gloomy.

A World Series We Can Believe In?

| Wed Oct. 29, 2008 10:48 PM PDT

A WORLD SERIES WE CAN BELIEVE IN?....A friend points out that the last time the Phillies won the Series was October 1980, ushering in the election of Ronald Reagan and a long era of conservative ascendency. Tonight the Phillies won again. Another sign of a new era in politics? Maybe!

Homeowner Bailout Update

| Wed Oct. 29, 2008 4:47 PM PDT

HOMEOWNER BAILOUT UPDATE....The Washington Post reports that the White House is getting ready to announce a plan that would help up to 3 million homeowners avoid default:

Under the program being discussed, the lender would agree to reduce borrowers' monthly payments based on their ability to pay. The reductions could be achieved by lowering the interest rate, slashing the amount owed or extending the repayment period.

....In exchange, financial institutions that agree to participate in the program would receive a government guarantee for a portion of any losses occurring if borrowers default on the reconfigured loan.

For what it's worth, a Treasury spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that media reports about the program are "simply inaccurate," so take this with a grain of salt. Still, I'll bet it's not too far off the mark, and it sounds like a decent plan. It would be nice to see a chunk of that $700 billion being put to use helping someone other than a bunch of bankers.