• My Blogosphere Whines For 2009


    MY BLOGOSPHERE WHINES FOR 2009….Today is New Year’s Eve, so here are my top ten whiny, blog-related pet peeves. They are in no particular order:

    1. Blogs without comment sections. Or, blogs with comment sections that require you to go through some kind of painful registration process just to leave a one-sentence note.
    2. Bloggers who don’t put their email addresses somewhere on the blog. I don’t mind looking around for it a bit (keeps the mind sharp, you know), but put it somewhere, OK?
    3. Blogs that provide only partial RSS feeds. See also point #5, which actually bugs me a lot more.
    4. Bloggers who are too damn lazy to check their links after they post something. Come on, people.
    5. “Teaser” blogs that put only the first paragraph or two on the main page and force you to click “continue” if you want to read the whole thing. This is both annoying and pointless. It only takes a second or two to scroll past a blog post you don’t want to read, after all. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Felix Salmon.)
    6. People who say “blog” when they really mean “blog post.”
    7. Blogs with lousy (or nonexistent) search capability. Mine, for example.
    8. Top ten lists that are plainly larded with filler because the listmaker couldn’t actually think of ten things to write about.
    9. Bloggers who can’t count.

    I fully expect these problems to be completely resolved starting tomorrow — or, at the very least, on January 20th. If they aren’t, a blue ribbon commission will be appointed to deal with them. You have been warned.

  • Fun With Rebates


    FUN WITH REBATES….Felix Salmon thinks the Obama economic team is showing its behavioral economics roots. Why? Because their proposed tax rebate will come a little bit at a time by reducing tax withholding in paychecks:

    The point of a stimulus package, of course, is to boost spending. And hiding a tax rebate in slightly higher take-home paychecks seems like a good way of doing that: even people who save a certain amount of money every month still tend to spend the rest.

    I guess that’s true. Send me a $1,000 check, and there’s a good chance I’ll use it to pay down my credit card. Reduce my withholding by $20 a week for 50 weeks, though, and I’ll probably just blow it on beer and fritos. And that’s consumption, my friends!

  • Crystal Ball Hell


    CRYSTAL BALL HELL….Tom Petruno surveys the year’s “most infamous pronouncements” as the economy melted down around our ears. It probably could have been a longer piece, but his editors wouldn’t let him take over the entire business section for the day.

  • Welcome to California


    WELCOME TO CALIFORNIA….I see in my morning paper that California cities are engaging in ever more sleight of hand to fund local improvements. Here’s a typical arrangement, concocted by John Kim, an advisor with a Los Angeles investment bank. Be sure to read closely:

    Oxnard is one of Kim’s clients. In 2007, the city wanted to issue bonds to finance part of its $150-million street repaving project, using its share of state gas tax revenue to repay the debt. But the state Constitution says local governments can’t issue debt against that revenue.

    That’s where Kim came in. His plan: The Oxnard City Council would sell the streets to the Oxnard Finance Authority, which consists of the council and mayor. The Finance Authority would issue bonds to raise money for the improvements and repay the bondholders by selling the streets back to the city.

    Where would the city get the money to buy the streets? From its gas tax revenue.

    So: the left hand isn’t allowed to issue a bond, so it sells the streets to its right hand. The right hand issues a bond, then pays off the bond by selling the streets back to its left hand. Everyone’s happy!

    Needless to say, this costs more than just issuing a standard bond in the first place, but California cities do it because they know voters won’t approve a normal bond issue. Welcome to fantasyland, aka the Golden State, in which voters over the years have convinced themselves that it’s possible to have lots of services, great roads, and wonderful schools without paying taxes. And to make it even worse, the taxes we’ve cut back most heavily on (property taxes and vehicle license fees) are the ones that are the steadiest sources of revenue in varying economic climates — unlike things like capital gains taxes and income taxes, which are highly sensitive to economic conditions. As a result, state revenues bounce around wildly when the economy goes up and down, and every few years we find ourselves in yet another crisis, each one worse than before.

    This year’s, of course, is the mother of all crises, and we’re just about out of smoke and mirrors. 2009 promises to be a very, very un-fun year here.

  • Chart of the Day – 12.31.2008


    CHART OF THE DAY….The latest Pew poll shows that this year, for the first time, more people say they get “most” of their national and international news from the internet than from newspapers. Obviously this is slightly misleading, since internet largely means newspaper web sites, but it’s still sort of a bellwether statistic.

    My question: what happened this year? For the past three years the number of people who got their news mostly from the internet stayed (surprisingly) pretty level at a little over 20%. Then, suddenly, this year, it skyrocketed to 40%. Is this solely because of the presidential election, which became an internet phenomenon? Maybe, although the election came in at a weak #4 in the top news stories of 2008, so that doesn’t seem like enough to account for it. In any case, the bulk of the switch appears to been among the young:

    For young people [] the internet now rivals television as a main source of national and international news. Nearly six-in-ten Americans younger than 30 (59%) say they get most of their national and international news online; an identical percentage cites television. In September 2007, twice as many young people said they relied mostly on television for news than mentioned the internet (68% vs. 34%).

    The percentage of people younger than 30 citing television as a main news source has declined from 68% in September 2007 to 59% currently.

    So among young people, TV has gone from a 68-34 winner in 2007 to a 59-59 tie in 2008. That’s a huge change in only 12 months.

  • Yet More Cap and Tax


    YET MORE CAP AND TAX….A couple of days ago I mentioned that a generic carbon tax would raise the price of gasoline by only a little bit, and since gasoline use is pretty inelastic this means it wouldn’t reduce consumption much. Because of this, we probably need more than just a carbon tax if we seriously want to cut gasoline use. David Roberts comments:

    Kevin Drum grasps this basic problem, but for some reason the separate policy he favors is … a higher gas tax.

    But if a price signal is blunted by low elasticity, is the best solution simply to jack up the price?….If we are so hell-bent on getting people out of inefficient vehicles — and we certainly should be — why don’t we take a more direct route? Why don’t we try to directly increase elasticity of demand by creating more low-carbon alternatives? Build the crap out of public transit. Buy gas guzzlers off the road through junker programs. Issue a new ruling that the government will only buy plug-in hybrid or electric vehicles. Raise CAFE standards to 60 mpg and pay the Big Three off with stimulus money (they’re probably going to get it anyway).

    Just for the record, I pretty much agree. Price signals are important as a backbone policy (you can think of them as sort of like a tailwind that helps everything else along), and since gasoline use responds slowly to price hikes I think a mixed carbon trading/gas tax policy that raises the price of gasoline heavily is a good idea. Still, it’s absolutely true that you often need more than just a tailwind. If you want better gas mileage, you can get it way faster by increasing CAFE standards than you can by jacking up the price of gasoline. Getting rid of gas guzzlers is another good idea, and I’m also a fan of a revenue neutral feebate that’s based on gas mileage (you get a rebate when you buy a car with exceptionally good mileage and pay a fee on cars with exceptionally bad mileage). There are probably plenty of other good ideas out there too, many of which I haven’t even heard of.

    Still, generally speaking, taxes and carbon trading are more efficient regulatory mechanisms than command and control, so the more you can rely on them the better. For that and other reasons, I remain in favor of trying to increase carbon prices fairly heavily, and gasoline prices even more heavily. It’s true that you have to do this carefully to avoid making the price hikes into a de facto regressive tax, but there are pretty good policy mechanisms available for achieving fairness. It’s time to get started.

  • At a Loss for Words


    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.

  • Housing Market Continues to Suck


    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.

  • *The Stimulus Bill


    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.

  • Quote of the Day – 12.30.08


    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


    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.

  • More Unions


    MORE UNIONS….Yesterday I said that unionization, especially in the service sector, was pretty much the only serious idea on the table for increasing low-end wage growth. Mickey Kaus responds:

    The only idea on the table? How about restoring economic growth and creating a tight labor market, giving all workers (not just the unionized) greater bargaining leverage? That’s the traditional Clintonite formula, no?

    This is a point Mickey has made repeatedly to me, both in print and in person. Unfortunately, he’s never explained just how we’re going to get to this paradise of perpetual high economic growth and tight labor markets — even though there’s a Nobel prize waiting for him if he does. The dotcom bubble managed to accomplish it for three or four years out of the last 30, but that’s about it. So until I hear the plan, I’ll stick with my support for unions, flawed though they may be.

  • Don’t Let the Door Hit You Etc.


    DON’T LET THE DOOR HIT YOU ETC….What’s the right going away present for a guy who’s a serious contender for worst president in history? I can think of a few, but alas, they’re beyond my meager powers to provide. So instead, how about sending us an entry in our “Goodbye, George W. Bush” video contest? Just put your 30-second (or so), PG-13 video on YouTube labeled “Mother Jones Goodbye Bush Video” and send us the link at:

    mojobushvideo@gmail.com

    All styles of entries are welcome, from simply talking at the camera to fancier stuff. There will be prizes, of course. So rip, riff, and rant away. And tell your friends! The more entries the merrier.

  • *Quote of the Day – 12.29.08


    QUOTE OF THE DAY….From Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine:

    It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines.

    That is her conclusion in a review essay published in The New York Review of Books. Click the link to learn what it’s based on.

  • Unions


    UNIONS….Ezra Klein on unions:

    The last great leap forward for unions was during World War II, and the last great expansion of the American middle class followed in its aftermath. In contrast, the most recent expansions — which have largely occurred in the absence of unions — have benefited America’s rich.

    Yep. And if there’s one thing you definitely can’t blame our current economic crisis on, it’s spiraling middle class wages. In fact, there’s a pretty good case to be made that stronger middle class wage growth would have reduced the motivation to borrow so heavily, which is a big contributing factor to the depth of the recesson we’re facing now. (It also might have kept a little more money out of the hands of idiot Wall Street bankers, which would have been no bad thing either.)

    Unions are hardly a panacea for middle class wage growth, but they can help. I’m pretty open to the idea that Mickey Kaus has been writing about lately, namely that mushrooming work rules are a specific problem for American-style unionization, and I’d be happy to see good-faith efforts to address reform in that area. Unfortunately, good faith is in very short supply in the anti-union camp. Conservatives flatly oppose anything that gives labor any additional bargaining power, full stop, and that doesn’t leave much room for compromise. So unions it is. Especially in the service sector, they’re pretty much the only idea on the table for seriously addressing low-end wage growth, and that means I’m for ’em.

  • Gaza


    GAZA….Richard Boudreaux of the LA Times writes that Israel’s goals in the Gaza Strip are vanishingly limited:

    Instead of boasting that they would “destroy” the enemy, as they did in the case of Lebanon, Israeli leaders set the more modest aim of “improving the security” of terrorized Israeli communities.

    ….”The army doesn’t even have the pretense of neutralizing Hamas’ ability to launch rockets. We have tried that before and failed,” said Alon Ben-David, military correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10 television.

    “This operation,” he explained, “is directed at Hamas’ motivation to fire rockets at Israel rather than its actual ability to do so.”

    ….And it remains to be seen whether Israeli leaders have prepared adequately for the complications that may lie ahead if their army launches a ground campaign against Hamas’ 15,000-man paramilitary force, which has drawn its own lessons from Hezbollah’s success in the Lebanon war.

    If the point of the Gaza offensive is truly just to hit Hamas hard enough that they basically give up, then it strikes me as possibly even more poorly thought out than the Lebanon war. But on the larger issue of what the U.S. response should be, I’m keenly aware of Jonathan Zasloff’s point in this post:

    All those who insist that the United States should “solve” the problem should explain how. And if they can’t do that, then maybe they should take some quiet time.

    I doubt very much that the Israeli offensive will do them any good in the long term. But it’s also not clear to me exactly what the way forward is at this point. So, for the most part, I’ll stay quiet. Needless to say, plenty of other people won’t, so I’m sure my voice won’t be missed.

  • Paging Meg Ryan


    PAGING MEG RYAN….Something I’ve long suspected has finally been Proven By Science: romantic comedies are bad for you:

    According to a few enterprising social scientists at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, romantic comedies can raise unrealistic romantic expectations among fans and may therefore set them up for personal failure and a lifetime of disappointment.

    ….After sifting through 200 of the top-grossing romantic comedies to come out of the Big Six Hollywood studios between 1995 and 2005, [Bjarne] Holmes and his colleagues found some interesting common denominators: In the movies, new relationships are portrayed both as exciting, as most tend to be, and offering the intimacy that usually takes years to develop in real life. Past transgressions are easily forgiven. (You cheated on me with the mailman? Big deal! I still love you; let’s live happily ever after!) And finally, older, more committed relationships are frequently portrayed in a negative light, with couples bickering and backbiting. More often than not, married couples are depicted as long-suffering.

    Sounds right, though I’ll confess that Holmes’s research methodology strikes me as absurdly thin, even by the usual standards of these things. In academic-speak, he says:

    Using 294 undergraduate students, an exploratory study found an association between preference for/like of romance-oriented media and two relationship-as-destiny-oriented beliefs, belief in predestined soul mates (β = .27, p

    In English, this means that people who liked romantic comedies also tended to idealize romance. Shocking, isn’t it? Still, here’s the good news: Holmes and his colleagues at the Family and Personal Relationships Lab have a continuing online project dedicated to this subject and you can participate! Just click here.

  • Asleep at the Switch


    ASLEEP AT THE SWITCH….The Washington Post reports today that during the Bush administration, OSHA pretty much shut itself down and new workplace safety regulations ground to a halt. I don’t think this will come as a shock to anyone. But my favorite part of the story is this anecdote about Edwin Foulke, who took over OSHA in 2006:

    Foulke quickly acquired a reputation inside the Labor Department as a man who literally fell asleep on the job: Eyewitnesses said they saw him suddenly doze off at staff meetings, during teleconferences, in one-on-one briefings, at retreats involving senior deputies, on the dais at a conference in Europe, at an award ceremony for a corporation and during an interview with a candidate for deputy regional administrator.

    His top aides said they rustled papers, wore attention-getting garb, pounded the table for emphasis or gently kicked his leg, all to keep him awake. But, if these tactics failed, sometimes they just continued talking as if he were awake. “We’ll be sitting there and things will fall out of his hands; people will go on talking like nothing ever happened,” said a career official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to a reporter.

    In an interview, Foulke denied falling asleep at work, although he said he was often tired and sometimes listened with his eyes closed.

    I think “Listening With His Eyes Closed” is a great metaphor for the entire Bush era. Somebody should write a book with that title.

  • Wingnuttia Update


    WINGNUTTIA UPDATE….Ed Yong posts this weekend on some research about what happens when people feel they have less control over their lives. The nickel version is that they tend to see patterns that don’t exist, they get more superstitious, and they become ever more captivated by conspiracy theories. You can read Ed’s measured, sober writeup here, or you can just take in Tim F.’s more pungent summary instead:

    Anyhow, about peak wingnut theory. Republicans (and Republican bloggers) will spend at least the next two years with about as much political control as a bug in a jar. You can make your own conclusions.

    Oh yes. We can. It’s gonna be an entertaining era as long as this remains confined to wingnuttia. If it breaks into the mainstream media, as it did in the 90s, not so much.

  • Cap and Tax


    CAP AND TAX….Matt Yglesias suggests that although a gasoline tax would have been a good idea 20 years ago, today it’s obsolete:

    Given what we’ve learned about the risks of catastrophic climate change, it [] seems like a concept that’s been somewhat overtaken by events. A carbon tax, or a cap on greenhouse gas emissions with auctioned permits, would constitute a tax on gasoline among other things. And there’s no particular reason that burning fuel in a car should be disfavored versus other carbon-intensive activities.

    This is true, but it’s worth noting that for technical reasons there’s an argument to be made that cap-and-trade is a good solution for stationary carbon souces (primarily coal and gas fired power generating stations) while a tax is a better solution for mobile sources. A lot of this revolves around whether your favored cap-and-trade plan applies directly to fuel sources (“upstream” cap-and-trade) or to the actual emission of carbon (“downstream” cap-and-trade). Downstream is essentially impossible with cars and trucks since it’s impractical to monitor hundreds of millions of carbon sources, so if that’s the version of cap-and-trade you prefer, then you need to apply a different solution to the transportation sector.

    In addition, it’s also possible that driving should, in fact, be disfavored even compared to other sources. The elasticity of gasoline demand is very low (it’s higher in the long term than in the short term, but still low in either case), which means you have to price gasoline at a very, very high level if you want to get meaningful reductions in use. In Europe, for example, gasoline is taxed at around $2-3 per gallon, which is equivalent to a carbon tax of about $1000/ton, and even the most aggressive cap-and-trade plan won’t produce carbon charges remotely near this level anytime in the foreseeable future. It’s arguable (though, admittedly, far from obvious) that a gasoline tax might be able to get to that range faster than a cap-and-trade plan.

    I don’t have any special dog in this fight. My tentative preference right now is for gasoline taxes combined with cap-and-trade for stationary sources or, possibly, for gasoline taxes in addition to a broader-based cap-and-trade plan. If we really want to reduce driving, encourage use of urban/suburban transit alternatives, and produce a revenue stream big enough to fund it, that might be what we need.