Kevin Drum - February 2009

Chart of the Day - 2.20.2009

| Fri Feb. 20, 2009 1:22 PM EST
John Pfaff had an article in Slate yesterday that takes on "five myths" about prison reform.  I don't have much to say about the article in general, but it did have one very interesting factlet about America's sky-high incarceration rate:

More strikingly, if we look back historically at the lockup rate for mental hospitals as well as prisons, we have only just now returned to the combined rates for both kinds of incarceration in the 1950s. In other words, we're not locking up a greater percentage of the population so much as locking people up in prisons rather than mental hospitals.

This comes from a paper written a couple of years ago by Bernard Harcourt, who says that it's only half true to say that American incarceration rates skyrocketed starting in the 70s.  What really happened, he says, is that we've had high incarceration rates for most of the 20th century, but it was originally split between a small number of people in prisons and a much larger number of people in mental institutions.  In the 60s we suddenly emptied the mental hospitals, crime soared, and then in the 70s we started putting more people in prison.  The end result is an inversion: the incarceration rate today is about the same as it was in the 50s, but we have a small number of people in mental hospitals and much larger number of people in prison.

Harcourt discussed these findings in a series of posts at the Volokh Conspiracy back in 2007, making the point that social science research that focuses strictly on the prison population might be missing the larger picture: "Since practically none of our studies on prisons, guns, abortion, education, unemployment, capital punishment, etc., controls for institutionalization writ large, most of what we claim to know about these effects may be on shaky ground."

If you're interested in this kind of thing, the whole discussion is worth reading.  I don't have the background to endorse Harcourt's findings one way or the other, but the raw data is pretty interesting.  It's worth a look.

UPDATE: Crime and punishment expert Mark Kleiman responds here.  He says there's much less to this than meets the eye, and adds, via email: "The explosion of drive-by shootings 1985-1994 simply can't be blamed on de-institutionalization.  More generally, adult homicide has been falling since the early 1970s; it's youth homicide that surged and receded."

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Taxing Drivers

| Fri Feb. 20, 2009 12:48 PM EST
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wants to tax the number of miles you drive, not the amount of gasoline you buy:

"We should look at the vehicular miles program where people are actually clocked on the number of miles that they traveled," the former Illinois Republican lawmaker said.

...."What I see this administration doing is this — thinking outside the box on how we fund our infrastructure in America," he said.

I'm with Atrios on this: it's a dumb idea.  There's a place for London-style congestion charges in crowded urban cores, but outside of that a gas tax and a VMT tax are practically the same thing.  The only real difference is that a VMT tax isn't remotely feasible, and won't be for years, while we could raise the gas tax right now if we wanted to.  So jabbering about a VMT tax is basically just a good way to avoid taking any serious action to reduce gasoline consumption.

What's more, in some ways a gasoline tax is better than a VMT tax anyway.  A VMT tax motivates you to drive less, which is great, but it doesn't motivate you to go out and buy a fuel-efficient car.  A gas tax does both.  It's true that as cars become more fuel efficient — and as electric cars displace gasoline cars — the revenue from a gas tax will go down, but there's an easy fix for that: raise the tax. That accomplishes the same revenue smoothing as a VMT tax, and does it with no muss and no fuss.

Eventually, electric cars will become widespread enough that we'll need to figure out how to make them pay for using the roads even though they don't pay any gas taxes.  Maybe the answer will be VMT, maybe it will be something else.  But that's years away.  So study away, but in the meantime if you're serious about changing driving habits, raising the gas tax is the only serious alternative.

NAFTA Posturing

| Fri Feb. 20, 2009 12:01 PM EST
My overall sense is that Barack Obama is better than most politicians at saying what he really believes and avoiding outright pandering to vote-rich interest groups.  But everyone has his limits, and I never for a second believed he was serious when he ripped into NAFTA before union audiences during the Ohio primary.  And he wasn't:

President Obama warned on Thursday against a "strong impulse" toward protectionism while the world suffers a global economic recession and said his election-year promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement on behalf of unions and environmentalists will have to wait.

....The president's message served as a reminder of last year's private assessment by Canadian officials that then-candidate Obama's frequent criticism of NAFTA was nothing more than campaign speeches aimed at chasing support among Rust Belt union workers.

"Much of the rhetoric that may be perceived to be protectionist is more reflective of political maneuvering than policy," the Canadians concluded in a memo after meeting with Austan Goolsbee, a senior campaign aide and now a member of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers.

Obama is fundamenally a liberal technocrat.  His biggest sin was never a lack of support for open trade, but simply the fact that faced with a close primary in a big state, he succumbed to demagogery — which just goes to show that even the king of "no drama" has his limits when the presidency of the United States is on the line.

Still, no harm, no foul.  The only person who was hurt by this was Hillary Clinton, who spent the Ohio primary bashing NAFTA just as loudly — and just as insincerely — as Obama.  If there's anyone out there who believes she meant what she said about NAFTA any more than Obama did, let me know.  I've got a bridge I'd like to sell you with some nice option ARM financing......

Nuclear Iran?

| Fri Feb. 20, 2009 3:40 AM EST
The bad news: inspectors have discovered that Iran has more enriched uranium at their facility in Natanz than they thought.  The good news: they haven't enriched it to weapons grade yet, and apparently don't have immediate plans to do so:

In a report issued in Vienna, the International Atomic Energy Agency said it had discovered an additional 460 pounds of low-enriched uranium, a third more than Iran had previously disclosed. The agency made the find during its annual physical inventory of nuclear materials at Iran’s sprawling desert enrichment plant at Natanz.

....“You have enough atoms” to make a nuclear bomb, a senior United Nations official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the topic’s diplomatic sensitivity, told reporters on Thursday. His remarks confirmed estimates that private nuclear analysts made late last year. But the official noted that the material would have to undergo further enrichment if it was to be used as fuel for a bomb and that atomic inspectors had found no signs that Iran was making such preparations.

....In Paris earlier this week, the head of the United Nations nuclear agency, Mohammad ElBaradei, said Iran appeared to have made “a political decision” to do less enrichment than it physically could.

David Albright's assessment is bleak: "They have reached a nuclear weapons breakout capability. You can dance about it, but they would have enough to make 20-25 kg of weapons-grade HEU."  And this: "If they break out they will do it at a clandestine facility, not at Natanz, so you can't use Natanz as a measure of how fast they could do it. The Iranians have stopped telling the IAEA about the production of centrifuges...so the agency doesn't know how many they are making."

The foreign policy challenges for the Obama administration just keep barrelling along, don't they?

Google Finds Drones in Pakistan

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 11:56 PM EST
A few days ago Dianne Feinstein got into a little bit of trouble for admitting in public that the U.S. drones used to attack terrorist bases in Pakistan are launched from within Pakistan itself.  Since the Pakistani government officially opposes the American attacks, they were none too happy about this — and Feinstein later backtracked, saying that she was just repeating something that had been previously reported in the Washington Post.

The News, an English-language newspaper in Pakistan, decided to dig up the truth, so they went to the best source they could find: Google Earth.

Two pictures of an unidentified flying strip in Balochistan — bearing the coordinates 27 degrees 51 minutes North, 65 degrees and 10 minutes East — prove that Pakistani ground was being used, at least until 2006.

Both the pictures are still available on Google Earth, which maps every corner of the world through a satellite and internet users can zoom in to see every detail, even cars parked in front of their drive ways....The first picture of the drones on the Pakistani soil, taken in 2006, has three drones, all Global Hawks.

Later, the London Times got into the act and identified the location as Shamsi airfield.  They also reported that the drones weren't Global Hawk reconnaissance craft at all.  Most likely they're Predators armed with laser-guided Hellfire missiles:

The Google Earth image now suggests that the US began launching Predators from Shamsi — built by Arab sheiks for falconry trips — at least three years ago

....Damian Kemp, an aviation editor with Jane's Defence Weekly, said that the three drones in the image appeared to have wingspans of 48-50ft. “The wingspan of an MQ1 Predator A model is 55ft. On this basis it is possible that these are Predator-As,” he said. “They are certainly not RQ-4A Global Hawks (which have a wingspan of 116ft 2in).”

As you can see, the drones were kept outdoors in 2006, but now appear to be stored inside the newly built hangar shown in the bottom right of the 2009 photo.  So that's that: it turns out that drones are being launched from Pakistan, just like Feinstein said.  And our deepest military secrets?  They're nothing compared to the power of Teh Google.  You have been warned.

Quote of the Day - 02.19.09

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 10:58 PM EST
From Hillary Clinton, commenting on the stroke suffered last year by North Korea's Kim Jong-il:

If there is a succession, even if it’s a peaceful succession, that creates more uncertainty, and it may also encourage behaviors that are even more provocative, as a way to consolidate power within the society.

This single sentence has spawned endless chatter about whether Clinton has committed a grave diplomatic gaffe by mentioning something that everyone in the world has been talking about for months.  Give me a break.  It's better to at least acknowledge it briefly in public than it is to keep pretending that nothing at all is even happening.

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Animal Spirits

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 6:55 PM EST
Conor Clarke has an interview today with George Akerlof, co-author (with Robert Shiller) of Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism. One of the things Akerlof says is this:

What are the implications of your theory for the sort of fiscal policy we should be pursuing?

Well, one of the things is that one of the roles of the government is to offset the animal spirits. So that when animal spirits are high — and people are too trusting and they engage in investment projects that they shouldn't engage in — one of the roles of the government is to offset them. More should have been done to curb the over-exuberance and excesses in the housing market. That's one.

Felix Salmon comments:

This is much bigger than the idea that it's the job of central bankers to identify bubbles and gently deflate them before they get too big. For one thing, it draws no clear distinction between fiscal policy and monetary policy; instead, it looks at the animal spirits of the country as a whole, and tries to keep them on a relatively even keel.

....On an individual level, it's really important to examine one's own biases as pitilessly as possible; on a national level, I see the job of entities such as Paul Volcker's Economic Recovery Advisory Board to be one of gauging the level of animal spirits across the country — something that all central bankers do by nature, which is one reason that Volcker is a good choice to head it.

I am totally on board with this.  In fact, I'm basically on board with nearly any idea that's based on taking away the punch bowl in boom times and spiking it in bad times.

Still, this is not as easy as it sounds, is it?  We would need some kind of Animal Spirits Index to make it work.  And as far as I know, even in retrospect, we don't have one.  Economic expansions always end eventually, but nobody has ever been able to consistently predict ahead of time when things have started to get out of hand.  So while I love the concept, it needs some serious meat on its bones before it can become an actual policy instrument.  Unfortunately, I'm not optimistic that anyone can do that.

Darrell and Arnie

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 6:19 PM EST
Steve Benen informs me that Rep. Darrell Issa (R–Lemmingstan) has suddenly become concerned over the proper retention of White House emails:

Issa, easily a #2 seed on my bracket for Most Ridiculous Member of Congress competition, also asked the White House to respond to a series of additional questions about the administration's email archiving. He said the answers are due in two weeks.

The irony, of course, is that Issa couldn't care less about an actual scandal regarding White House emailing archiving. Bushies lost untold thousands of emails, with no archive or backups. Indeed, the former president's team deliberately created a "primitive" email system that created a high risk that data would be lost — there was "no automatic system to ensure that e-mails were archived and preserved."

Hmmm.  Only a #2 seed?  I guess the competition is pretty tough in this category.  Here in California, though, I think we'd bump him up to #1.  After all, he was the bright boy who decided it would be cute to use his car alarm fortune to fund a recall of Gray Davis less than a year after he was elected, thereby making Arnold Schwarzenegger governor and turning a dismal economic mess into a complete catastrophe.  No Darrell, no Arnold.  That's his legacy to the Golden State.

Earmarks

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 4:00 PM EST
CQ reports on the latest earmark scandal:

More than 100 House members secured earmarks in a major spending bill for clients of a single lobbying firm — The PMA Group — known for its close ties to John P. Murtha , the congressman in charge of Pentagon appropriations.

....PMA’s offices have been raided, and the firm closed its political action committee last week amid reports that the FBI is investigating possibly illegal campaign contributions to Murtha and other lawmakers.

No matter what the outcome of the federal investigation, PMA’s earmark success illustrates how a well-connected lobbying firm operates on Capitol Hill. And earmark accountability rules imposed by the Democrats in 2007 make it possible to see how extensively PMA worked the Hill for its clients.

Now that's how the game is played: 100 congressmen, $300 million in spending, and $1 million in campaign contributions.  And it might even be illegal!  Or not.  But while we're waiting to find out, click here if you're curious to see if your congress critter was involved.

UPDATE: Stuart Staniford, who obviously has way too much time on his hands, sends along a scattergram of earmarks vs. campaign contributions that demonstrates the difference between Democratic and Republican corruption: "Republicans apparently do this stuff pretty much for a small flat fee (on average) but Democrats need to be paid about 1/2 cent on the dollar."  Coincidence?  Science says no!

Bipartisanship

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 3:49 PM EST
Mike Tomasky defends Barack Obama's efforts to reach out to Republicans:

The standard criticism of Obama's bipartisan outreach goes like this. He met with Republicans on Capitol Hill. They stiffed him. They showed that they're impossibly troglodytic. Why should he waste any more time on these people? Just crush them.

But here's the thing. This criticism, and this entire debate about the efficacy of his bipartisan overtures, presumes that Obama's audience for his bipartisan talk is the Republicans in Congress and the conservatives in Washington.

But that is not his intended audience. His audience is the country.

True, he went to see congressional Republicans in an attempt to fire up the peace pipe. Well, as Barry Goldwater famously said, you have to go to hunting where the ducks are. But I think that even those meetings were conducted only partially for the benefit of those Republicans. They were conducted for citizens, so they could see that he was trying something different.

This is a good point, but frankly, I'd go further.  I'd say those meetings were almost entirely about optics.  The fact is that Republican critics are right: Obama really didn't do much beyond symbolism to reach out to the GOP during the crafting of the stimulus package.

I know, I know: $300 billion in tax cuts, lots of yakking, family planning cuts, etc. etc.  But seriously.  Was any of that really the result of negotiating with Republicans?  The tax cuts were mostly in there for two reasons: (a) they were campaign promises, and (b) the Obama team couldn't come up with $800 billion in spending that would feed into the economy fast enough.  Tax cuts weren't there because Obama asked Republicans what they wanted in the bill, they were there because he didn't have much choice.

Beyond that, what did Republicans get?  Nothing much.  A few symbolic cuts in culture war outlays that are almost certain to be restored in the regular budget anyway.  Some meetings where Obama listened carefully, said some soothing words, and didn't change a thing.  And that's about it.  In the end the final package included some modest changes demanded by three centrist Republicans, but that was only because they held the whip hand and were able to force them on him.  Bipartisanship had nothing to do with it.

And you know what? I think this is fine.  The crackpot wing of the GOP was never going to come around anyway (they're going to need several more years in the wilderness before they start to regain their sanity), and in the meantime Obama gets to bask in warm national glow of having tried his best.  Eventually this will pay off as a few vulnerable Republicans figure out that endless obstructionism isn't doing them any good in the polls — and look over there, there's a midterm election coming up!  Then, suddenly, genuine bipartisanship will be back in style.  And Obama will end up the winner.