Kevin Drum - December 2008

November Sales

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 4:16 PM EST

NOVEMBER SALES....Actual retail sales figures for November are in:

Major retailers such as Macy's, Abercrombie & Fitch and GAP reported sales declines of more than 10% in November....Shops hoped that Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year, would jump-start consumer outlay but industry experts were downbeat.

....ShopperTrak, a retail monitoring firm, said total sales at US retailers rose 1% during the Black Friday weekend but analysts believe much of that gain will have been stoked by deep discounts and will hit profits....The International Council of Shopping Centers, which represents stores including GAP and JCPenney, said sales at 37 major retailers fell 2.7% over November — the worst start to the holiday season in 35 years.

Given this, does anyone even remotely believe the National Retail Federation's annual Black Friday estimate, which suggests that retail sales over the Thanksgiving weekend were up 20% this year? Media outlets, as usual, reported the NRF's numbers as gospel, but I'd suggest that in the future they should simply toss them in the waste bin. As near as I can tell, they have no basis in reality at all.

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Yet More News From Canada

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 3:13 PM EST

YET MORE NEWS FROM CANADA....Unions support card check legislation because they think it will make it easier to organize new industries. Business leaders dislike card check for the same reason. But what they say is that card check is bad because it allows union organizers to intimidate workers into signing cards. Now, business leaders are well-known for their tender sensibilities toward worker rights, but Jonathan Zasloff decided to check up on the intimidation story anyway:

For 50 years, from the 40's to the 90's. the province of Ontario had a card-check organizing system....So what was the record there?

I used advanced research techniques unknown to many reporters, and called up Harry Arthurs of York University, Canada's pre-eminent labour law scholar. Arthurs literally wrote the book on this stuff. And I asked him: what does the evidence show?

Arthurs answered that in all of his research about labour law complaints under card check, he could not find a single case where the employer complained of a union intimidating workers to unionize when they didn't want to.

That's right: zero. Zilch. Nada. Efes. Rien.

....This isn't some obscure jurisdiction. It's Ontario, the largest and richest province in the country. 50 years. A half a century. Zero.

Look: unions aren't perfect. Nothing is perfect. The financial industry, just to pick an example out of my hat, is obviously wildly imperfect, but that doesn't mean we should get rid of the private financial industry. It just means we should regulate it to avoid some of its worst pathologies.

Ditto for unions. If anyone has a better mechanism for giving workers more bargaining clout and therefore higher wages, I'm all ears. Anyone who thinks collective bargaining is a good idea but believes we ought to reform the Wagner Act, I'll listen to them too. But the evidence of the past 30 years makes it pretty clear that productivity growth and improved education aren't nearly enough on their own to keep median wages growing. Neither is unionization, for that matter. But at least it pushes in the right direction. If card check helps that along, I'm all for it.

On Hold in Canada

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 2:21 PM EST

ON HOLD IN CANADA....The "Canadian coup" has been put on hold. After the three minority parties in the Canadian parliament banded together to challenge the ruling Conservative Party, one of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's options was to ask the governor general for a suspension, or prorogue, of parliament. Michael Stickings reports:

Well, he did so this morning, and she granted his request — meaning that there will be no no-confidence vote until, at the earliest, Parliament resumes sitting late next month. The government may then lose a no-confidence vote on the Throne Speech or the budget, but, in the meantime, both sides (and the Conservatives even more so because they have more money) will campaign aggressively to woo public opinion.

More here.

Piracy Update

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 2:06 PM EST

PIRACY UPDATE....Following a failed pirate attack on a cruise liner in the Gulf of Aden a few days ago, there were reports yesterday of yet another pirate attack on a cruise ship, the MV Athena en route to the Seychelles. But apparently not:

Grant Hunter, Australian managing director of Classic International Cruises, which operates the ship, today told ABC radio that no pirates had tried to board.

Mr Hunter acknowledged that as the Athena pulled up to the southern end of the Gulf of Aden, several tuna fishing skiffs loomed "some half a kilometre to three kilometres away" as the ship queued to enter a secure port area.

...."Under normal international security regulations, all the ships in that particular grouping put their fire hoses on board (and) activated those," Mr Hunter said.

"The crew were spraying water off the side of the ship but at no stage did any of the skiffs attempt to get near the vessel, board the vessel. "They weren't aggressive to the vessel."

....He said that it was difficult to understand how the reports emanated, because passengers had been eyeing the tuna boats from afar with binoculars — and vice versa.

Tuna boats, eh?

The GM Bailout

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 1:24 PM EST

THE GM BAILOUT....Jim Manzi comments on the restructuring plan that GM is submitting to Congress today:

I guess somebody who's never read a real business plan might mistake this document for one, but it's a joke. It's basically a list of assertions of amazing improvements, entirely discontinuous with actual performance to date, that they will achieve. What's missing is any real indication of how they will go about accomplishing this.

Hmmm. Sounds pretty normal for a business plan to me. List of assertions? Check. Unrelated to past performance? Check. Lots of handwaving about how goals will be accomplished? Check. Back in 1999 some venture fund on Sand Hill Road would have funded it in a minute.

Kidding aside, though, Manzi is probably right: this is meant as a political document, not a real business plan. And after GM blows through the $18 billion they're asking for by next spring, they'll be back asking for more. And who will have the guts to turn them down after already investing so much taxpayer dough in the first place?

I'm just very skeptical of this. Bailing out the financial industry is one thing because the financial industry is different. When it goes down, we all go down. But there really is a slippery slope problem here: once we go beyond the financial industry to the auto industry, what stops us from bailing out farmers and house builders and shipbuilders too? There just has to be a better way of handling this than forking over giant wads of cash with very few strings attached. GM doesn't need surgery, it needs to be rebuilt. That won't happen if they get an $18 billion bailout from Uncle Sam.

Bonuses

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 12:48 PM EST

BONUSES....Robert Rubin has apparently told the Citigroup board that all of them should forego their bonuses this year. Ezra Klein asks, what bonuses?

Am I missing the point of bonuses? I always understood them to be tied to performance, either that of the individuals or that of the company. But the company almost went bankrupt this year and the executives demonstrated themselves almost cosmically hapless. If they were going to get bonuses, then what could the term possibly mean? Bonus for what? A working cardiovascular system?

Silly boy. You expect these titans of risk to take an actual risk with their own pay? That's not how it works in corporate America. When the stock market is skyrocketing, everyone gets stock options. When it's tanking, suddenly everyone gets religion and takes their comp in cash and perks. As for bonuses, the range of payout is almost never the theoretical 0-100%. In reality, it's more like 70-95% for the range of reasonably conceivable outcomes. If your company goes completely bankrupt, that might go down to 60%. Welcome to Wall Street.

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No More Science

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 12:22 PM EST

NO MORE SCIENCE....From CJR:CNN, the Cable News Network, announced yesterday that it will cut its entire science, technology, and environment news staff, including Miles O'Brien, its chief technology and environment correspondent, as well as six executive producers. Mediabistro's TVNewser broke the story.

"We want to integrate environmental, science and technology reporting into the general editorial structure rather than have a stand alone unit," said CNN spokesperson Barbara Levin. "Now that the bulk of our environmental coverage is being offered through the Planet in Peril franchise, which is produced by the Anderson Cooper 360 program, there is no need for a separate unit."I can't say that I'm shocked by this or anything, but it's unfortunate. Environmental reporting, whether produced by Anderson Cooper or not, could use more reporters, not fewer, and science reporting in general is likely to become more important now that we have a president waiting in the wings who doesn't think of it as just another obstacle to be overcome on his way to dismantling the regulation of the moment. Disappointing news.

How Long Will the Recession Last?

| Wed Dec. 3, 2008 10:33 PM EST

HOW LONG WILL THE RECESSION LAST?....I don't know. But I was noodling about this and thinking that since the housing bubble is at the core of all our problems, it's unlikely the economy will turn up before the housing market hits bottom. So when will that be?

Based on historical price-to-income ratios, Calculated Risk suggested a few days ago that it would bottom out by Q3 of next year, or maybe a little later. But extending CR's chart and assuming the market bottoms gradually, rather than sharply, it looks to me like we might have to wait until the middle of 2010.

Like I said, this is just noodling. The housing market might bottom sooner than I think, and the economy might start to recover even while the housing market still has a little more slumping to do. But probably not much before. I don't think I'd be surprised if we're still in recession this time next year.

Pure Libertarianism

| Wed Dec. 3, 2008 9:17 PM EST

PURE LIBERTARIANISM....Should the U.S. government bail out the auto industry? Arnold Kling comments:

This is an example where pure libertarianism gets you quickly to the right answer. Lose the "we," and instead ask, would I undertake this policy myself? That is, would I lend money to the auto makers? If the answer is that I wouldn't, then the implication is that "we" shouldn't.

The same reasoning applies to giving money to financial firms. I wouldn't, therefore we shouldn't.

Picture everyone in Congress who voted for TARP standing on a street corner in a Santa suit, ringing a bell, and asking for donations to pay for the rescues of AIG, Citigroup, and so forth. In a libertarian society, that is what they would have to do in order to fund the bailouts.

If that image doesn't move you in a libertarian direction, then nothing will.

Well, then, I guess nothing will. Because this sure doesn't do anything to persuade me.

As it happens, I'm not entirely convinced that Detroit ought to be bailed out. At the moment, I'm probably more in the "prepackaged bankruptcy" camp. Still, the whole point of government is that it does things for us collectively that we can't (or wouldn't) do individually. After all, if congressmen stood on corners begging for donations to the Pentagon they probably wouldn't raise enough to fund a single F-22, but that doesn't mean Congress shouldn't fund the Pentagon. Ditto for roads, courts, police, Social Security, unemployment insurance, foreign embassies, and national parks. The arch-angelic among us excepted, none of us would contribute much money to these causes unless we knew that everyone else who benefited from them was contributing too.

TARP is no different. We aren't rescuing banks because we feel sorry for bankers (though I'll concede that sometimes I kind of wonder about that), we're rescuing them because we think their failure would bring the economy down around our ears and we'd just as soon avoid that. A bit of collective action on this front will help keep all of us out of a repeat of the 1930s.

Now, that might be wrong. Go ahead and make the case for inaction on its merits if that's how you feel. But a generic claim that federal intervention is a bad idea because none of us would intervene as individuals just doesn't hold water for anyone who isn't already a hardcore libertarian. This is the kind of argument that hurts their cause, not the kind that helps it.

The Trade Deficit

| Wed Dec. 3, 2008 4:20 PM EST

THE TRADE DEFICIT....Conventional wisdom says we need to run a big federal deficit in order to stimulate our way out of the current recession. Fine. But if we stimulate demand, that means we're going to be buying ever more stuff from overseas, which in turn means that our trade deficit will continue to remain large and growing, financed by the willingness of China and other trade surplus nations to stockpile U.S. treasury bills in return for shipping their stuff to us. Martin Wolf isn't impressed:

This is not a durable solution to the challenge of sustaining global demand. Sooner or later — sooner in the case of the UK, later in the case of the US — willingness to absorb government paper and the liabilities of central banks will reach a limit. At that point crisis will come. To avoid that dire outcome the private sector of these economies must be able and willing to borrow; or the economy must be rebalanced, with stronger external balances as the counterpart of smaller domestic deficits. Given the overhang of private debt, the first outcome looks not so much unlikely as lethal. So it must be the latter.

....In short, if the world economy is to get through this crisis in reasonable shape, creditworthy surplus countries [i.e., countries like China –ed] must expand domestic demand relative to potential output. How they achieve this outcome is up to them. But only in this way can the deficit countries realistically hope to avoid spending themselves into bankruptcy.

Some argue that an attempt by countries with external deficits [i.e., countries like the United States –ed] to promote export-led growth, via exchange-rate depreciation, is a beggar-my-neighbour policy. This is the reverse of the truth. It is a policy aimed at returning to balance. The beggar-my-neighbour policy is for countries with huge external surpluses to allow a collapse in domestic demand.

I don't know what the answer to this is. U.S. consumption of goods and services is about 5% higher than U.S. production, and this can't keep up forever. Eventually our consumption has to go down and China's has to go up.

But not yet. Because we're in the middle of a financial panic and we need to keep domestic consumption high in order to keep from collapsing. And this isn't hard to do, because in one of the great ironies of a crisis that was brought on by the United States, nervous investors worldwide now believe that U.S. treasuries are the safest place to park their money in a troubled world. So for the time being, there are lots of buyers for treasuries, yields are nearly zero, and we're having no trouble at all financing a big federal deficit.

This won't last forever, of course. Panic will subside soon enough, the treasury bubble will burst, and foreign investors are going to start demanding higher returns. The dollar will have to depreciate, America will have to produce more and consume less, and the domestic economy will trundle along dismally for years until we manage to rebalance things.

Economists have been warning about this for years, of course. But over time, as nothing bad ever came of it, their warnings began to sound like crankery. After all, plenty of them warned us about the housing bubble for years too, and for the most part we didn't listen to them. In a few years, though, when the trade deficit bubble finally goes pear shaped, we're going to be asking once again why no one saw it coming. Even though lots of people did.

Like I said, I don't know what to do about it. The trade deficit bubble helped finance the housing bubble, and now that the housing bubble has burst it's the worst possible time to think about bursting another bubble as well. Eventually, though, the rest of the world will do it for us. Expect a bumpy ride.