Kevin Drum - May 2009

Retail Sales

| Wed May. 13, 2009 9:11 AM PDT

The economy continues to suck:

Retail sales decreased by 0.4% compared to the prior month, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. Economists expected an increase of 0.1%.

Sales in March were revised down, decreasing 1.3% instead of 1.2% as previously reported. Sales rose in January and February, after sliding six straight months.

So how long is this going to last? My rough guess is this: one way or another, the U.S. savings rate has to increase enough that we not only get rid of our trade deficit, but start to reverse it.  That's going to require a drop in domestic consumption on the order of 10% or so over the medium term. This can be masked somewhat by tax cuts and government stimulus and fluctuations in the exchange rate, but eventually consumption has to come down.

And it has!  The chart on the right, from Calculated Risk, tells the story: retail sales have dropped something like 12% in the past year or so.  That doesn't mean our trade deficit has reversed or anything — that's not likely to happen for quite a while — but it does mean that personal consumption might be getting close to sustainable levels now.  Maybe.  I wouldn't bet the ranch on it, but if you're looking for some slightly less grim news than usual, this is it.

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The End of Universal Default?

| Tue May. 12, 2009 8:43 PM PDT

I forgot to blog about this earlier, but here's the latest news on Chris Dodd's bill to bring a little common sense to the credit card industry:

Dodd's original bill had sought to ban all interest rate increases on existing balances.

Under the compromise measure, agreed to over the weekend by Dodd and Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), card issuers would be allowed to retroactively bump up rates for any borrower at least 60 days behind on payments. However, if the borrower subsequently paid on time for six months, the card issuer would have to restore the original rate.

The bill also would prohibit card issuers from increasing rates during the first year a credit card account was opened and would require them to get a customer's permission to process transactions that would push the account balance over the credit limit. Another provision would require card issuers to post credit card agreements online.

It's good to see that the credit card industry still has a friend in Richard Shelby.  We certainly wouldn't want to pass a law that completely prevents a company from retroactively raising the interest rate on a loan it's already made, would we?

Eh.  At least it's something.  Presumably this means that credit card companies can no longer retroactively increase your rates just because you were a few days late paying your water bill, either.  Though I think I'd want to read the fine print before I was sure of that.

In any case, now it's time to see if any Republicans will vote for this bill.  They might!  Constituents are pissed at credit card companies, after all.  In the past Republicans could prevent bills like this from even coming to a vote, but now that they're going to be forced to take a public position they just might decide that discretion is the better part of valor.  Cozying up to your finance industry pals is one thing, but losing your seat over it is quite another.

Rove on Torture

| Tue May. 12, 2009 2:02 PM PDT

On Fox News last night, Karl Rove suggested that President Obama's decision to treat captives decently will become an incentive for terrorists to join al-Qaeda:

It has served, frankly, I think, as a recruiting tool. They can now take these memoranda and go to prospective, you know, recruits and say, This is the worst that the enemy, the United States, would ever do to you....It’s given them a tool to make it more attractive to recruit people, and you know, this kind of thing is harmful to us over the long haul.

Even by the normal standards of torture apologetics, this is batshit crazy.  "The Americans are so civilized they treat their prisoners decently!  We must destroy these infidels!"

That's quite a sales pitch, isn't it? Once again, Rove is demonstrating the tin ear for human nature that led him to destroy the fortunes of the Republican Party in a mere eight years.

The Tragedy of the Cod

| Tue May. 12, 2009 1:28 PM PDT

Guess what?  Cap-and trade isn't just for limiting carbon emissions.  Here's Jonathan Adler on the destruction of our fisheries:

Protecting fishery resources requires keeping fish catches to sustainable levels. The most effective way to do this is through so-called "catch-share" policies, a property-based conservation regime often called "IFQs" or (as some now say) "cap-and-trade for fish," which allocate tradeable shares of the catch among fishery participants.

....Greenwire reports that the Administration's budget request for NOAA includes a dramatic increase in funding for catch-share management. According to Greenwire, the request "indicates a major push from the administration" to push the adoption of catch-share systems in the nation's fisheries. If so, this will be very good news for fish, and a significant step toward sustainable management of marine resources.

But remember the lesson of Iceland!  Bored, rich fishermen can eventually become a problem:

[In the early 70s] the Icelandic government took radical action: they privatized the fish. Each fisherman was assigned a quota, based roughly on his historical catches. If you were a big-time Icelandic fisherman you got this piece of paper that entitled you to, say, 1 percent of the total catch allowed to be pulled from Iceland’s waters that season.....Your percentage of the annual haul was fixed, and this piece of paper entitled you to it in perpetuity.

....It was horribly unfair: a public resource — all the fish in the Icelandic sea — was simply turned over to a handful of lucky Icelanders. Overnight, Iceland had its first billionaires, and they were all fishermen. But as social policy it was ingenious: in a single stroke the fish became a source of real, sustainable wealth rather than shaky sustenance....Since its fishing policy transformed Iceland, the place has become, in effect, a machine for turning cod into Ph.D.’s.

But this, of course, creates a new problem: people with Ph.D.’s don’t want to fish for a living. They need something else to do.

Unfortunately for Iceland, "something else" turned out to include lots of insane investment schemes.  Perhaps periodic auctions of long-term leases would be a better idea than outright privatization.

Up the Academy

| Tue May. 12, 2009 11:31 AM PDT

In the wake of Gen. David McKiernan's firing yesterday, Tom Ricks points out an interesting trend: the top military guys in the war on terror are now all West Point graduates.  Conversely, the guys who have taken the bulk of the heat for failures are nearly all non-grads.  I'm not sure what, if anything, to make of that, but it's a curious coincidence.

Skin in the Game

| Tue May. 12, 2009 10:49 AM PDT

What if we got rid of healthcare insurance and made people pay for medical services out of their own pocket?  Put more skin in the game, as it were?  Would it keep costs down and improve the quality of service?  Tyler Cowen takes a look at autism treatment and comes away skeptical.

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The Internet and You

| Tue May. 12, 2009 10:23 AM PDT

Peter Suderman thinks the web isn't making us dumber, it's just making us different:

Reading on the web is almost certainly affecting the way we process information, but it’s not making us stupid. Instead, it’s changing the way we’re smart. Rather than storehouses of in-depth information, the web is turning our brains into indexes. These days, it’s not what you know — it’s what you know you can access, and cross reference.

In other words, books taught us to think like they do — as tools for storing extensive knowledge. Now the web teaches us to think like it does — as a tool for recall and connection. We won’t be so good at memorizing everything there is to know about a particular small-bore topic, but we’ll be a lot better at knowing what there is to be known about the broader category the topic fits into, and what other information might provide insight and context.

I find this an enormously appealing argument.  Unfortunately, I can't think of any evidence at all to suggest it's true.  Understanding "broader categories" — the context into which individual pieces of knowledge fit — requires you to read books.  Full stop.  Maybe someday it won't, but it does now. 

As longtime readers know, I'm generally a scourge of cranky elders who spend a lot of time kvetching about how ill educated kids are today compared to the golden age they used to live in.  Spare me.  But that doesn't mean the opposite is true either.  Kids who grow up on the internet may be great at looking up odd bits of information quickly, but my experience is that they often suck at figuring out what that information means and what conclusions it's reasonable to draw from it.  That's because they don't know the context.  They don't know the rest of the story.  And that's because they don't read enough books.

I'd love to be wrong about this.  But I'm not.  If you want to understand the world, not just collect endless factlets, you still need to read books.  If you do, the internet makes you smarter.  If you don't, it makes you dumber.

Quote of the Day - 5.12.09

| Tue May. 12, 2009 9:56 AM PDT

From Rush Limbaugh, commenting on the deteriorating economy:

In the Oval Office of the White House none of this is a problem. This is the objective. The objective is unemployment. The objective is more food stamp benefits. The objective is more unemployment benefits. The objective is an expanding welfare state. And the objective is to take the nation’s wealth and return to it to the nation’s quote, “rightful owners.” Think reparations. Think forced reparations here if you want to understand what actually is going on.

The tendency of liberals to shout "racism" a little too often is not one of my side's most attractive qualities.  But it's a damn sight less disturbing than the tendency of conservatives to ignore racism when it comes crawling out from under rocks on their side.  Limbaugh's message could hardly have been more obvious if he'd donned blackface and performed a soft-shoe in his studio.

Sugar, Sugar

| Tue May. 12, 2009 9:37 AM PDT

Is Congress really considering a tax on sugary sodas as part of the funding mechanism for national healthcare?  Ezra Klein says yes!  The Wall Street Journal, however, which has a big piece about soda taxes in today's paper, doesn't muster up a ton of evidence.  Here it is:

Senior staff members for some Democratic senators at the center of the effort to craft health-care legislation are weighing the idea behind closed doors, Senate aides said.

That's it?  Color me unimpressed so far.

In any case, this whole thing is ridiculous.  The issue here is highly caloric sweeteners, not soda per se.  In other words, high fructose corn syrup, which is what virtually everyone uses to sweeten their drinks these days.  So why on earth would we tax Pepsi at a penny an ounce at the same time that we massively subsidize HFCS?  And even if we got rid of the subsidies, which would be a fine idea in any case, why tax soda?  If this is the direction we want to go, why not just tax sugar and HFCS directly, regardless of what it goes into?

Saberi Released

| Tue May. 12, 2009 9:10 AM PDT

The LA Times reports on the conviction and subsequent release of freelance reporter Roxana Saberi from an Iranian prison:

A copy of a classified Iranian government report about the U.S. war in Iraq in the possession of journalist Roxana Saberi was a key piece of evidence that led to her conviction on espionage charges, one of the Iranian American journalist's lawyers disclosed Monday.

But a letter from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for a careful review of the case helped secure her swift release Monday, another of her lawyers said, in an appellate court ruling that surprised Iran watchers and removed a stumbling block in the effort to improve U.S.-Iranian relations.

Iranian intelligence and security officials had argued fiercely for her imprisonment up to the last moment of her lengthy appeals court hearing Sunday, the second attorney said.

Iranian politics is opaque enough that it's probably hopeless to figure out for sure what happened here.  Wheels within wheels.  Still, Ahmadinejad must have had some reason for intervening.  Was it related in some convoluted way to the political jockeying in preparation for next month's election?  It's hard to see how.  Was it meant as a modest olive branch for Barack Obama?  Maybe.  Was it just because Ahmadinejad likes the spotlight and likes to present himself to the world as a compassionate man?  Did it, in fact, have nothing at all to do with Ahmadinejad?  More than likely, your guess is as good as anybody's.