Kevin Drum - July 2009

Robin Hood

| Wed Jul. 15, 2009 10:18 AM EDT

Ezra Klein spots a trend:

My colleague Binyamin Appelbaum noticed something interesting yesterday: Robin Hood movies are tied to recessions. We're talking here about the adult Robin Hood movies. So set aside "Men in Tights" and the Disney cartoon. Instead, look at first major Robin Hood film, "The Adventures of Robin Hood". Release date? 1938. Similarly, "Prince of Thieves" came out in 1991, another recessionary year. And I ran a quick Google search: Sure enough, there's another Robin Hood movie slated for May of 2010.

1938 marked the first major Robin Hood film?  Please.  I claim a point of personal privilege.  My father's name was Dale Douglas Drum.  His first name was based on the character Allan-a-Dale and his middle name was taken from the actor Douglas Fairbanks.  Why?  Because shortly before he was born my grandparents had seen the 1922 version of Robin Hood starring Fairbanks and the names were fresh in their heads.  It was quite famous in its day.  But was there a recession in 1922?

Decide for yourself.  NBER says there was an 18-month recession from January 1920 to July 1921 and a 14-month recession from May 1923 to July 1924.  So it was a generally contractionary period.  But 1922 itself?  Recession free!  I claim a foul.

In related news, my father was born in 1926, which just goes to show how long it took movies to make their way into smaller cities back then.  The good citizens of Portland get better treatment from Hollywood these days.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The End of CDS?

| Wed Jul. 15, 2009 10:02 AM EDT

Do you think the country would be better off if credit default swaps were banned?  Apparently so does someone in the House, who inserted language into the Waxman-Markey climate bill that would outlaw them.  The intent of the language, apparently, is to ban "naked swaps"; that is, to allow people to buy CDS insurance only on credit instruments that they themselves own.  But the actual language goes further.  Zach Carter reports:

Today, if a bank is worried that a debtor might default on a loan, it can still go to a CDS issuer like American International Group Inc. and buy insurance on that debt. But completely unrelated firms with no interest in the underlying loan can also go to AIG and bet that the debt will not be repaid. This kind of bet is known as a "naked swap" and, by 2007, the market for naked swaps was completely out of control. The notional value of the CDS market had exploded to over $62 trillion, according to the Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation, well in excess of the entire global economic output for a full year.

"Let's say there's $1 trillion worth of obligations in the economy. You can use CDS to create $5 trillion worth of additional obligations," said Joseph Pastore III, a managing partner with the Fox Rothschild LLP law firm who works with CDS. "When you melt it all down, and there's only $1 trillion worth of cash and $5 trillion worth of obligations, it causes absolute economic devastation."

Here's the key passage from Waxman-Markey, buried on page 1,070 of the 1,428-page bill introduced in the Senate on July 6:

[Blah blah blah....]

"Clearly, the intent was to limit the multiplier effect of CDS by requiring only those parties with a risk to be able to insure the risk," Pastore told SNL.

But the restrictions apply to "any person" who would "enter into" a CDS contract, not merely to any company that would purchase one. That means banks are allowed to hedge risks by purchasing CDS, but CDS issuers like AIG are actually forbidden from selling them. When AIG offers insurance protection, AIG is not hedging anything; it's just making a speculative bet that a certain debt will not be repaid. In practice, then, Waxman-Markey would ban any credit default swap whatsoever, hedge or bet.

"A literal reading of it would prevent anyone from entering into a CDS contract, because the party that owns the underlying instrument needs to find somebody else to enter into the swap agreement with," Pastore told SNL.

I assume this language will get cleaned up, and even if it doesn't the courts will likely rule that "enter into" merely means "buy."  But maybe not!  Maybe Waxman-Markey will obliterate the CDS market entirely.  Stay tuned.

Progressives

| Tue Jul. 14, 2009 8:09 PM EDT

I've finally given up on progressives.

Lenses, that is.  I tried 'em for over a month and just couldn't adjust.  Distance vision was fuzzy everywhere except dead center, and the reading portion didn't work at all.  So I took them back and in a few days I'll have a pair of genuine old-man bifocals.  Just like my hero, Benjamin Franklin.

Innovation in Healthcare Arguments

| Tue Jul. 14, 2009 3:59 PM EDT

Conor Friedersdorf has three reasons he doesn't think he'll be able to support any of the progressive healthcare reforms currently on tap.  Here's #2:

It shouldn't be too difficult to imagine another Dick Cheney or Richard Nixon in the White House. Are we really comfortable assuming that the state will never use its role in health care to pressure political opponents, or collect frightening kinds of data, or politicize medical decisions more than is now the case? Isn't there any size and scope of government that progressives deem to be too big on prudential grounds? Why doesn't this put us there?

Points for originality here: I don't think I've ever heard this objection before.  And around here we like new and different.  Still, while I bow to no man in my contempt for either the Trickster or the Dickster, even I can't really see either one of them scheming to deny Ralph Nader a liver transplant or something.  But then again, maybe my imagination isn't active enough.

On the more conventional front, here's reason #3:

I keep seeing the argument that America is the leading health care innovator, and that if our system looks more like what Europe has, there won't be anyone left making strides in research and development. I haven't seen a convincing rebuttal, though there may well be one. Links?

This is actually the only objection to national healthcare that I find sort of interesting.  But here's the problem: the reason it's hard to find a convincing rebuttal is because the argument itself is purely speculative in the first place.  Sure, it's possible that the only thing keeping medical innovation alive is the (approximately) one-fourth of global healthcare spending accounted for by the quasi-private portion of the American market.  But that's all it is: possible.  There's no real empirical argument at work here, and given the current state of the global healthcare market, there probably can't be.  That makes it pretty hard to construct an empirical rebuttal.

So I guess I'd reframe this.  Instead of simply suggesting that innovation will die if America adopts national healthcare, how about breaking that down into three or four very specific arguments about what kind of innovations we're talking about and why they'd be destroyed if the feds funded 80% of American healthcare instead of the current 45%?  Let's hear some details and some proposed mechanisms.  Then maybe we can take a crack at having a discussion about it.

Selling Healthcare Reform

| Tue Jul. 14, 2009 2:28 PM EDT

The so-called "Tri-Committee" healthcare plan has just been released, and it's so called because it's a joint effort from the House committees on Education and Labor, Ways and Means, and Energy and Commerce.  It looks pretty good at first glance, but honestly, I haven't read through it in any detail yet.  So more on that front later.

For now, though, let's take a look at the PR effort.  Here are the talking points from the "What's In It For You?" handout:

Comments?  I'd spruce up the "national pool" point, since I imagine most people don't really know what that means.  And I'd change "insurance companies" to "insurance company bureaucrats" — or maybe even "greedy, blood-sucking insurance company bureaucrats."  But I suppose that would be a little coarse for members of the United States Congress, no?

Overall, though, pretty good.  An average voter reading this really would come away with the idea that there's something in it for them.  It's a good start.

Sotomayor and the Right

| Tue Jul. 14, 2009 1:54 PM EDT

In the New York Times this weekend, Emily Bazelon interviewed Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  In the LA Times this morning, Jonah Goldberg read the interview, chopped off a Ginsburg quote about Roe v. Wade halfway through, and then asked this:

Unlike Bazelon, I for one would like to know whether Ginsburg believes there were — or are — some populations in need of shrinking through abortion and whether she thinks such considerations have any place at the Supreme Court.

And while we're at it, it would be interesting to know what Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor thinks about such things.

Yes indeed.  Goldberg is seriously suggesting that maybe Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg believes we should try to shrink a few of our less desirable ethnic populations by providing them with increased access to abortion.  And then, just for the hell of it, he thinks we ought to find out whether Sonia Sotomayor thinks the same thing.

Needless to say, Ginsburg believes nothing of the sort.  You only have to read the sentence right after the one Goldberg quoted to see that.  And Sotomayor, of course, has absolutely no connection to this at all.  Isaac Chotiner has the details here.

The almost manic eagerness of the right to inject race into the Sotomayor nomination at every opportunity is enough to make you ill.  It started within minutes of her nomination being announced, and it's continued ever since.  Sen. Jeff Sessions took up the reins today.

There's never been any reason for it, of course.  It was ostensibly based on one sentence in a speech and one court decision out of hundreds she's made.  In reality, it's just because she's a Hispanic liberal and conservatives figure that a race-based attack is the one most likely to resonate with their base.  And I suppose they're right, aren't they?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Addicted to Debt

| Tue Jul. 14, 2009 12:19 PM EDT

The world has become addicted to debt.  Wall Street loves it because you can play far more interesting games with debt than you can with equities.  Consumers love it because it makes up for stagnant wages.  Investors love it because it gooses their returns.

As a result, there's way too much of it.  So how do we cut it down to size?  Felix Salmon suggests that although massive regulatory interventions are probably doomed to failure, we could, at a minimum, stop subsidizing debt by getting rid of its tax advantages:

At the moment, companies pay tax not on earnings before interest but earnings after interest — that gives them an incentive to lever up as much as possible. Last year, Steve Waldman had a great post entitled “Eliminate the business interest tax deduction“; it's well worth (re)reading in light of what has happened since.

In general the multi-trillion-dollar edifice of debt financing is predicated on all manner of artificial tax advantages which are given both to borrowers and to fixed-income investors; tax-free municipal bonds and mortgage-interest tax relief are just two of the most egregious examples here.

Forcibly converting mortgages into some kind of shared-equity arrangement where banks get direct exposure to the house price is fraught with difficulty; abolishing mortgage-interest tax relief, however, is easy. And it raises much-needed money for the government as well.

I wouldn't exactly agree that eliminating the mortgage interest tax deduction is easy, but point taken.  It's at least within the realm of imagination.

In the past, debt has received preferential tax treatment because it was thought to be good for the economy: it lowered hurdle rates for businesses and encouraged capital-intensive expansions; it gave a boost to the housing industry and encouraged home ownership; and it increased purchasing power and encouraged consumer spending. But that was back in the dark ages, when debt was relatively more expensive than it is now.  The financial world has changed a lot in the past 50 years, and debt is now far cheaper, far more easily available, far more efficiently hedged, and far more broadly (and deeply) traded than it was in the immediate postwar era.  Its tax advantage might have been justifiable in the past, but it isn't anymore.  We should get rid of it.

(We won't, of course, any more than we'll get rid of agricultural payments or road-building subsidies.  If you scratch most free market capitalists you'll find a socialist just below the surface.  But we can still dream.)

Spending Like Cats and Dogs

| Tue Jul. 14, 2009 10:37 AM EDT

Here's an interesting healthcare tidbit.  AEI's Andrew Biggs presents us with this chart showing increased costs of human healthcare compared to increased costs of veterinary healthcare:

The point here is supposed to be that even in an area of healthcare where there's no insurance and we have to pay everything out of pocket, costs are still skyrocketing.  So maybe having "skin in the game" doesn't really have much effect after all.

Which is interesting — except for one thing: it might not be true.  As John Schwenkler points out, a big part of the increase is accounted for by a large increases in the number of pets.  We aren't necessarily spending a lot more per pet, we just have more pets.  In fact, he points to some market research that suggests cats have actually gotten cheaper over the years: we spent $85 per cat in 2001 but only $81 in 2007.  (Dogs, conversely have gotten a little more expensive, but only by 11%, not the 30-40% the chart suggests.)

So which data is correct?  Beats me.  But considering the high-pressure sales job vets have adopted in recent years, I have a hard time believing that cat expenditures have gone down.  After all, we didn't use to get their teeth cleaned or spend a couple hundred bucks a year on fancy flea/heartworm/hookworm/etc. goop.  Now we do.  Caveat emptor.

Death Spiral Watch

| Tue Jul. 14, 2009 12:09 AM EDT

A friend emails:

Um, did Sarah Palin just write a whole editorial about cap and trade and not mention global warming once?

Yes!  Yes she did!  And the Washington Post printed it!  The Republican death spiral, the Washington Post death spiral, and the Sarah Palin death spiral continue apace.

Taibbi's Bubble Machine

| Mon Jul. 13, 2009 7:40 PM EDT

A few days ago I described Matt Taibbi's recent Rolling Stone piece about Goldman Sachs as "terrible."  And it was!  He made one outrageous assertion after another without bothering to back any of them up.  He flitted from idea to idea without developing any of them.  The whole piece was disjointed and embarrassing.

Except — it turns out there was a reason for that: the morons at Rolling Stone hadn't actually posted Taibbi's article.  They had only posted a short series of excerpts.  I would have known that if I'd read the introductory material very carefully, but who the hell does that?  I didn't.  I just read what they posted, came away shaking my head, and panned it.

Well, I've now the read the entire piece, and I apologize.  (To Taibbi, that is, not the morons at Rolling Stone, who should have either posted the whole thing or done nothing at all.)  It's a very good takedown of the modern financial industry and well worth reading.  There are some bits here and there that I'm not sure Taibbi gets quite right, and I do think that he made a mistake in casting Goldman Sachs as the "engineer" of every bubble in the past century rather than merely an unusually big and enthusiastic member of a predatory gang that's been ripping us off for a long time.  This gives the piece a conspiratorial air that allows Goldman to laugh it off instead of being forced to engage with it, and that's too bad.  They — and everyone else on Wall Street — should be forced to engage with it.

Beyond that, there are undoubtedly some mistakes in the piece, as well as places where Taibbi goes unnecessarily over the top.  I'm still not sold on carbon permits being the next big bubble, for example.  But those are quibbles.  Overall it's a striking portait of an industry — not just a single company — of almost unbounded greed and recklessness.  Worth reading.