Kevin Drum - June 2009

Hypocrisy Watch

| Wed Jun. 10, 2009 2:10 PM EDT

From USA Today:

Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett voted against the $787 billion economic stimulus package in February, declaring the day it passed that "the only thing this bill will stimulate is the national debt."

Two days earlier, however, Bennett had written to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agriculture Department seeking stimulus money for Utah, according to copies of the letters released under the Freedom of Information Act. Using 16 identical cover letters, Bennett passed along stimulus funding requests from 14 Utah cities and counties totaling $182.5 million.

....USA Today's review of congressional correspondence with 10 federal departments or agencies found 13 Republicans who voted against the bill and sought funding for their states or districts.

This is presented as sort of a vague act of hypocrisy, but that's unfair.  If money is being doled out (or about to be doled out) despite your opposition, that doesn't mean your state shouldn't get its share.  Likewise, even if I oppose, say, the mortgage interest deduction, there's nothing wrong with me continuing to take advantage of it as long as it's still around.  There are ways in which stuff like this might rise to the level of mockable hypocrisy, but this really isn't one of them.

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Who Speaks for the GOP?

| Wed Jun. 10, 2009 1:42 PM EDT

Conor Friedersdorf takes a look at a recent USA Today/Gallup poll and comes away discouraged:

Like it or not, Americans regard Rush Limbaugh as the face of the Republican Party, he is able to drive the agenda of the conservative movement, and a lot of people on the right don’t find that problematic....Should this be the last time that a talk radio host breaks the 10 percent barrier in a poll like this, the GOP and the conservative movement will be a lot better off, and so will our country.

Obviously I agree, but in a way this news isn't quite as grim for conservatives as Conor suggests.  The full poll results are below, and among Republicans themselves Limbaugh is basically tied with Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich.  But even that's not the biggest takeaway.  What the poll really shows is simply that Republicans have no leaders at all.  This is probably fairly normal for a party that's suffered the kinds of setbacks the GOP has lately, but the good news is that even given the obviously enormous vacuum on the right, Limbaugh still can't break 10% among self-identified Republicans as the voice of the GOP.

Granted, this is grasping at straws at bit.  Still, it's better to have a vacuum from which a new leader can emerge, with folks like Limbaugh, Cheney, and Gingrich yipping around in the mud, than to have one of those guys already a clear top dog.  Plus there's this: Sarah Palin didn't make the list at all.  That shows a disturbing amount of common sense from the loyal opposition.

A Clean Break?

| Wed Jun. 10, 2009 1:07 PM EDT

Apparently one of the ministers in Binyamin Netanyahu's government is tired of pussyfooting around with the United States.  If we insist on a halt to settlements in the West Bank, he says, Israel should fight back.  Eric Martin passes along the following report from the Jerusalem Post:

The minister suggests reconsidering military and civilian purchases from the US, selling sensitive equipment that the Washington opposes distributing internationally, and allowing other countries that compete with the US to get involved with the peace process and be given a foothold for their military forces and intelligence agencies.

[Yossi] Peled said that shifting military acquisition to America's competition would make Israel less dependent on the US. For instance, he suggested buying planes from the France-based Airbus firm instead of the American Boeing.

Italics mine. This ought to go over real well. If relations between Obama and Netanyahu were a little chilly before, this ought to send them into clearly polar territory.

Whose Deficit?

| Wed Jun. 10, 2009 12:49 PM EDT

Who's really responsible for the massive budget deficits we're currently running?  David Leonhardt crunches the numbers and produces a nice chart that tells the story: IWPBS.

That is: It Was President Bush, Stupid.  That's just a thumbnail on the right, but you can click on it to see the full-size version.  Here's Leonhardt on how an $800 billion surplus turned into a $1.2 trillion deficit over the past eight years:

You can think of that roughly $2 trillion swing as coming from four broad categories: the business cycle, President George W. Bush’s policies, policies from the Bush years that are scheduled to expire but that Mr. Obama has chosen to extend, and new policies proposed by Mr. Obama.

The first category — the business cycle — accounts for 37 percent of the $2 trillion swing. It’s a reflection of the fact that both the 2001 recession and the current one reduced tax revenue, required more spending on safety-net programs and changed economists’ assumptions about how much in taxes the government would collect in future years.

About 33 percent of the swing stems from new legislation signed by Mr. Bush. That legislation, like his tax cuts and the Medicare prescription drug benefit, not only continue to cost the government but have also increased interest payments on the national debt.

Mr. Obama’s main contribution to the deficit is his extension of several Bush policies, like the Iraq war and tax cuts for households making less than $250,000. Such policies — together with the Wall Street bailout, which was signed by Mr. Bush and supported by Mr. Obama — account for 20 percent of the swing.

About 7 percent comes from the stimulus bill that Mr. Obama signed in February. And only 3 percent comes from Mr. Obama’s agenda on health care, education, energy and other areas.

Everybody except the blowhards on TV seem to understand this already.  It's pretty simple stuff.

Now, Leonhardt also points out that inherited or not, Obama hasn't yet provided any credible plan for reducing federal deficits in the long term.  This is true, and eventually he's going to have to.  But since the inescapable answer includes higher taxes, he first has to turn around at least a few of the diehard tax jihadists in both the Republican Party and the conservative precincts of his own party.  That might take a while.

Balancing the Imbalances

| Wed Jun. 10, 2009 12:21 PM EDT

Via Dan Drezner, here is Martin Wolf summarizing a recently released research report from Goldman Sachs:

The paper points to four salient features of the world economy during this decade: a huge increase in global current account imbalances (with, in particular, the emergence of huge surpluses in emerging economies); a global decline in nominal and real yields on all forms of debt; an increase in global returns on physical capital; and an increase in the “equity risk premium” — the gap between the earnings yield on equities and the real yield on bonds. I would add to this list the strong downward pressure on the dollar prices of many manufactured goods.

The paper argues that the standard “global savings glut” hypothesis helps explain the first two facts. Indeed, it notes that a popular alternative — a too loose monetary policy — fails to explain persistently low long-term real rates. But, it adds, this fails to explain the third and fourth (or my fifth) features.

The paper argues that a massive increase in the effective global labour supply and the extreme risk aversion of the emerging world’s new creditors explains the third and fourth feature....The authors conclude that the low bond yields caused by newly emerging savings gluts drove the crazy lending whose results we now see. With better regulation, the mess would have been smaller, as the International Monetary Fund rightly argues in its recent World Economic Outlook. But someone had to borrow this money. If it had not been households, who would have done so — governments, so running larger fiscal deficits, or corporations already flush with profits? This is as much a macroeconomic story as one of folly, greed and mis-regulation.

I just finished reading Barry Ritholtz's Bailout Nation, and it was great.  It's a polemic, mainly about domestic policy and regulatory idiocy, but it's a good polemic.  Well worth reading.

But there was a big part missing from it: as Wolf says, better regulation would have reduced the size of the credit bubble and the ensuing crash, but in the end, all the cheap money generated by our persistent trade deficit had to go somewhere.  You can't hold back the tide forever, after all.

I guess I've been haunted for months by John Hempton's simple formulation: banks intermediate the trade deficit.  If China is sending us huge bales of cash every month, it's going to end up in the banking system and the banking system is going to end up lending it out.  Sure, Alan Greenspan made things worse, George Bush made things worse, and the giddy free market ideology of the Republican Party made things worse.  Bill Clinton, Robert Rubin, and the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party made things worse too.  But the underlying cause is, and always has been, our persistent trade imbalances.  That was as much a weapon of financial mass destruction as the rocket science derivatives that Warren Buffett so famously criticized.

Things have improved on this score recently.  Our trade deficit is half what it was at its peak.  The problem is that this isn't nearly enough: eventually, we need to pay down all these loans.  That means we need to start running a trade surplus, not merely a smaller deficit.  And we have to do this even though oil prices are almost certain to rise in the long term and our dependence on foreign oil is going to continue to grow.  I still haven't figured out how this is going to happen, and as near as I can tell, neither has anyone else.  All the options seem pretty grim, though.

From the Annals of Corporate Idiocy

| Wed Jun. 10, 2009 11:48 AM EDT

I love stories like this:

[Mark] Elliot's cellphone nightmare began last week when he received a notice from Bank of America saying a payment had bounced on his online bill-pay service. He looked into it and discovered that Verizon was trying to charge him $9,993.88 for his April bill.

....According to the bill, Elliot used his cellphone to upload, download or otherwise access more than 44,000 megabytes worth of data in a single month.  That's the equivalent of downloading about 11,000 songs from iTunes or 60 full-length movies.

[Blah blah....some idiocy from Verizon about how this was all perfectly normal....blah blah]

Elliot woke up Tuesday morning to another notice from BofA saying something was amiss with his account. Turns out Verizon had once again billed his account for the entire $9,993.88 — and this time BofA paid the bill.  This resulted in Elliot losing the $781 he had in his checking account and then owing more than $9,200 to the bank.

So I contacted BofA. Tara Burke, a bank spokeswoman, said the way the online bill-pay system works is that if insufficient funds exist in an account, the first two attempts by a business to withdraw funds will be rejected.  But if the business tries a third time, the transaction will be processed.

Verizon and BofA eventually fixed this stuff, but only after learning that it was going to be publicized in the LA Times.  Without that, this might have gone on forever.  And who knows if it's really over anyway?  I wonder if Elliot has checked his credit report yet to see if anyone has put a big fat black mark on it that will take the next five years to clear up?

Anyway, this is why I don't use electronic bill pay.  You have been warned.

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Uighurs Headed to Different Island

| Wed Jun. 10, 2009 1:20 AM EDT

The Uighurs have apparently finally found a home:

The United States has won an agreement to transfer up to 17 Chinese Muslims from the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Palau, a sparsely populated archipelago in the North Pacific, according to a statement released by Palau to The Associated Press on Wednesday.

....The agreement opens the door to the largest single transfer of Guantánamo prisoners and is the first major deal on detainees since President Obama pledged upon taking office in January to close the prison within a year.

It also gives Mr. Obama some relief on an issue that has become a political hot button among Congressional Republicans and even some Democrats, who have noisily protested against releasing what they call potentially dangerous extremists on American soil or transferring them to prisons in the United States.

According to Palau's UN representative, "Palau is paradise."  Better than Cuba, anyway.

Quote of the Day

| Tue Jun. 9, 2009 5:18 PM EDT

From Sarah Palin, responding to a question from Fox News' Sean Hannity:

Hannity: Tim Geithner got laughed at in China last week.  Is this even more than you thought was going to be in terms of where the president would take the economy?

Palin: What's more than I thought would be is, we're hearing a lot of good rhetoric.  A lot of this is wrapped in good rhetoric, but we're not seeing those actions, and this many months into the new administration, quite disappointed, quite frustrated with not seeing those actions to rein in spending, slow down the growth of government. Instead, China's Sean it's the complete opposite. It's expanding at such a large degree that if Americans aren't paying attention, unfortunately, our country could evolve into something that we do not even recognize, certainly that is so far from what the founders of our country had in mind for us.

Damn, I love Sarah Palin.  This doesn't even begin to make any sense.  I very sincerely hope that she stays on the public stage as a face of the Republican Party for a very, very long time.

UPDATE: My bad.  I transcribed this wrong — and without the China reference it does make sense.  A little garbled, but still comprehensible.  My apologies.

Late Term Abortion

| Tue Jun. 9, 2009 1:45 PM EDT

Ross Douthat points out today that late-term abortions are vanishingly rare, but says that's part of the problem:

If anything, by enshrining a near-absolute right to abortion in the Constitution, the pro-choice side has ensured that the hard cases are more controversial than they otherwise would be. One reason there’s so much fierce argument about the latest of late-term abortions — Should there be a health exemption? A fetal deformity exemption? How broad should those exemptions be? — is that Americans aren’t permitted to debate anything else. Under current law, if you want to restrict abortion, post-viability procedures are the only kind you’re allowed to even regulate.

If abortion were returned to the democratic process, this landscape would change dramatically. Arguments about whether and how to restrict abortions in the second trimester — as many advanced democracies already do – would replace protests over the scope of third-trimester medical exemptions.

The result would be laws with more respect for human life, a culture less inflamed by a small number of tragic cases — and a political debate, God willing, unmarred by crimes like George Tiller’s murder.

There are a whole bunch of missing steps here.  Regardless of the merits of overturning Roe v. Wade, why does Ross believe that protests over second-term abortions would be any less inflamed than protests over late-term abortions?  Does he really think that if we adopted a European-style regime that banned abortion at, say, 18 weeks instead of 26, this would reduce the culture war heat that abortion breeds?  I'm really not seeing the logic here.

Identity Politics on the Right

| Tue Jun. 9, 2009 12:59 PM EDT

Despite the fact that we now know pretty thoroughly that Sonia Sotomayor has been judicious and evenhanded on the bench, Jonah Goldberg remains worried:

If an Irish judge gave a speech to the Ancient Order of Hibernians and dabbled in a bit of excessive Irish pride, it might be inappropriate but it wouldn't be disqualifying. But if there was evidence that he gave preference to Irish plaintiffs out of "empathy," I would like to think that would get him in serious trouble....Would judge Sotomayor be your first pick in a lawsuit against a Puerto Rican organization if your livelihood was on the line? It may be entirely unfair to her, but I think reasonable people might think long and hard on that question.

Does Goldberg seriously want us to believe that he might ever have criticized as "inappropriate" a speech from a white guy displaying "a bit of excessive Irish pride"?  Give me a break.

Conservative response to Sotomayor has been astonishing.  It hasn't really, of course.  It's been drearily predictable.  But you know what I mean.  Sotomayor is a liberal judge nominated by a liberal president, and she has a long track record of speeches, prosecutions, and court opinions to her name.  Conservatives surely have at least a dozen good avenues to attack her.  But right out of the gate, seemingly as an exercise in pure reflex, they attacked her on racial grounds.  All based on one sentence from a speech eight years ago and one case in which she narrowly ruled against some white plaintiffs.  But no mind.  They zeroed in on race instantly and relentlessly anyway.  I guess they know their audience pretty well.