Kevin Drum - March 2009

Gordon and Barack

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 2:10 PM EST
It now seems to be nearly universally agreed that Barack Obama snubbed British PM Gordon Brown pretty hard yesterday, holding no formal press conference and taking only a few questions.  But why?  Alex Massie speculates that Obama just didn't want to deal with foreign reporters:

Obama has been briefed about the British press corps and sees no reason to humour them. This would not be wholly unsurprising: Fleet Street's finest are viewed as scatalogically-obsessed, bottle-throwing, teenage yobs far too fond of relieving themselves behind the bushes in the Rose Garden, or worse, in the East Room's pot plants.

Joshua Keating figures Obama's reasons are more prosaic:

I think his motives are actually a bit colder. Obama's most powerful diplomatic weapon right now is his own international popularity, and he seems to be making it clear that he won't share it with just anybody. 

Obama giving the cold shoulder to Brown probably doesn't mean he has any less respect for the special relationship with Britain than any of his predecessors. More likely, and bluntly, he probably just thinks of Gordon Brown as a bit of a loser. Why roll out the red carpet for guys like Brown and Taro Aso who will likely be out of office soon anyway? Something tells me that when Dmitry Medvedev or Hu Jintao visit the White House, the Obamas will break out the good china.

Poor Gordon.  He's the Herbert Hoover of British prime ministers: a guy who took over at precisely the wrong moment and hasn't been able to figure out since how to deal with the hand he's been dealt.  He probably never had a chance.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Quote of the Day - 03.04.09

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 1:22 PM EST
From Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R–Ca.), speaking to one of her aides after a visiting reporter suggested that the stimulus bill didn't actually contain a provision for a maglev train from Los Angeles to Las Vegas:

"Get him the bill, it's right there, show him."

You will be unsurprised to learn that no such provision turned out to be in the bill.  Mack's reaction went sadly unrecorded.  (Via Steve Benen.)

Cuba Lunacy

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 12:35 PM EST
Barack Obama supports a provision in the spending bill before Congress that would allow Cuban-Americans to visit relatives on the island once a year and end limits on the sale of American food and medicines in Cuba. New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez (D–Lunaticville) is so outraged by this that he's threatening to oppose the entire bill.  And he's holding up two of Obama's science nominations (John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco).  And he's threatening to hold his breath until his face turns blue.

Jeebus.  What is it about Cuba that drives people into decades-long fits of insanity?  Even JFK, the guy who instituted the Cuba embargo in the first place, thought we were all kind of crazy on the subject.  But 50 years later?  Crazy doesn't begin to describe it.

What's more, it's a different kind of crazy from most exile communities.  What accounts for it?  A Cuban-American congressional candidate told me last year that the difference was simple: most Cuban exiles, when they fled the island after Castro's takeover, left with their entire families.  So for a lot of them, there's literally nothing remaining there that they care about.  You could drop a nuke on Havana and they'd be OK with that.  This promotes a different brand of insanity than in most exile communities, which might hate the current regime in their home country but still have deep personal ties to it.

I don't know if that's really the explanation or not.  Comments welcome on this score.  But there's got to be something that explains this.  It's just nuts, and Menendez should be ashamed of himself.  It's time to grow up.

Is the Kindle Too Smart For Its Own Good?

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 10:09 PM EST
Yesterday I decided to buy a Kindle.  As a patriot, I even paid for next day delivery, since surely UPS deserves to be stimulated every bit as much as Amazon.  Right?  Today it came, I charged it up, and then dove into its guts to buy a book and try it out.  Charles Stross's Halting State seemed like a nice choice.

So I clicked on "Kindle Store," and before I could even type in the name of the book Amazon offered up four recommendations.  One of them was Halting State.

I dunno.  That's kind of scary.  I'm pretty sure I've never bought a Stross book via Amazon, so how did they know?  Does the Kindle read my mind?  Brrr.

The book itself was easy to buy.  Too easy, really: click "Buy" and you're done.  The Kindle magically comes preprogrammed with your Amazon account information, and I guess they just assume that anyone impatient enough to buy ebooks online also wants one-click shopping.  A couple of minutes later the book was downloaded and ready to go.  (They say it only takes a minute, but I appear to live in something of a Sprint dead zone, so it took a little longer.)

I shall report back after I've tried it out for a while.  In the meantime, it's pictured above, along with some suitable background material to show scale.

The Mortgage Rescue

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 9:04 PM EST
This isn't the most pressing issue in the world, but a few days ago I suggested that some seemingly contradictory poll numbers on Obama's mortgage rescue plan might actually be perfectly compatible.  Even though it's counterintuitive, it's possible that a majority of people approve of his plan and that a majority of people think it's unfair because it helps out homeowners who were irresponsible.

Today's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll confirms this.  They asked questions about both support and fairness in the same poll and the results are below.  The most likely interpretation is that about 20% of the country thinks the mortgage rescue rewards irresponsible borrowers but supports the plan anyway.  This shouldn't come as a big surprise, either.  Lots of us have had to swallow hard over the past few months and support interventions of one kind or another solely because, even though we don't like them, they seem to be necessary to save the economy.  This is just one more.

Quote of the Day - 03.03.09

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 6:26 PM EST
From Andrew Exum, commenting on Andrew Bacevich's review of David Kilcullen's book on counterinsurgency in Iraq:

No one who really understands COIN wants to do it.

Amen.  (Via James Joyner.)

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Free Riding

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 3:49 PM EST
Felix Salmon thinks the rest of the world is shirking:

Justin Fox has an interesting breakdown of global stimulus packages by country: the US, China, and Spain have big ones, while the rest of the world just doesn't seem to be trying so hard....He's right, and no amount of "buy American" provisions in the bill will prevent money from leaking overseas in a globalized economy. Liquidity, you might say, always finds its level. At the margin, it does seem that countries such as the UK are freeloading on the US bailout — both in terms of the stimulus package and in terms of the bank bailout.

I don't know about Spain, but the U.S. was able to pass a big stimulus bill because we had a shiny new left-wing president with lots of political capital to spend, and China was able to do it because they're an autocracy. Conversely, most European governments range from the not-very-shiny (Germany, say) to the downright superannuated (Britain).  They don't have a yearlong campaign of hope and change to draw from.  What's more, as Matt Yglesias and Megan McArdle point out, there are also institutional and cultural issues holding Europe back.  The Germans are still scared of a resurgence of the Weimar Republic, and the European Central Bank humors them by keeping monetary policy absurdly tight.  The EU's stability and growth pact probably doesn't help things either.  The upshot is that Europe isn't doing much to fight the meltdown, and that's especially true of Germany, which ought to be leading the charge since it runs a big current account surplus and could afford to spend much, much more.  Instead, it's one of the chief obstacles to recovery.

I don't have any brilliant suggestions for getting Europe to become a little more proactive on the let's-avoid-another-great-depression front.  Just one more job for the Obama economic team to work on, I suppose.  Maybe someday Treasury will actually hire someone besides Tim Geithner and we can start pushing on this a little harder than we are now.

Healthcare for the Middle Class

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 2:10 PM EST
David Corn just got back from a breakfast meeting hosted by Nancy Pelosi, who outlined the Democratic messaging strategy on healthcare reform:

The "appeal" of this push, she said, will not be that 48 million people don't have health care insurance. "What is important to the bigger population," she explained, "is their own health care."

....The bottom line: the battle cry will not be, "Health care for all!" Instead, it will be "Better health care for you — and also the rest of us." Given how the Hillary Clinton-led crusade for health care reform flamed out terribly in the 1990s, this sort of tactical shift may be warranted. It may even be wise.

I'd go further than that.  Even as far back as 1993, Bill Clinton understood that fear of change among the already insured was the key issue in building public support for national healthcare.  Unfortunately, even though he got this, he still didn't emphasize it enough, and that's one of the reasons his plan failed.

Since then, however, this has become conventional wisdom.  Like it or not, universal healthcare will never get passed on the grounds that it will help the 48 million Americans who are currently uninsured.  It will only pass if the other 250 million Americans are assured over and over and over again that the new plan will be at least as good for them as what they have now.  The tactical shift Pelosi is talking about isn't just wise, it's absolutely indispensable.

More importantly, however, both David and Ezra Klein report that Pelosi's real priority this year isn't healthcare at all.  It's energy policy — specifically, getting a cap-and-trade bill passed.  My sense from Obama's non-SOTU last week was that this was his priority as well, so it wouldn't surprise me at all if serious healthcare reform ended up getting pushed off until next year.

Moron of the Day

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 1:14 PM EST
The competition for dumbest news story of day/week/month is way too competitive to ever declare a definitive winner.  But Jon Chait sure has a contender today, a piece by ABC's Emily Friedman that's based on the idea that the tax rate on your entire income will jump under Obama's proposed tax reform if your income exceeds $250,000.  Supposedly this makes it worthwhile to get your income a few pennies under the limit, and supposedly lots of people are working on this.  Needless to say, though, the tax code doesn't work this way.  Only the income above $250,000 will be taxed at the higher rate:

The article [] quotes a financial advisor who explains the way that tax brackets rates work, but then quotes a right-wing business professor and the subjects of her article fulminating about class warfare. Pretty clearly the reporter started off on her mistaken premise, found some subjects who shared her ignorance, and then came across a financial advisor who gently corrected her. But, instead of nixing the collosally uninformed article, or writing a different kind of article ("Rich Morons Decreasing Own Income Due To Lack of Tax Code Knowledge") she instead plowed ahead with her initial premise.

Friedman's piece is a train wreck.  What happened to ABC News' editors on this one?

Earmarks

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 12:57 PM EST
As it happens, I think all the hyperventilating over earmarks is kind of silly.  Getting rid of them wouldn't reduce the federal budget by a dime (the earmarked money would just go elsewhere), and in any case I don't have a huge issue with senators having some say in where money is spent in their states.

Still, there's plenty of hyperventilation on the subject, and you can certainly make a good case that it's gotten out of hand.  So as a public service, Taxpayers for Common Sense has itemized all the earmarks in the current budget and tallied them up by senator.  The full spreadsheet is here.  The top ten earmarkers are below — six Republicans and four Democrats.  Keep their names (and party affiliations!) in mind the next time the hyperventilating starts to reach fever pitch on your TV.