Kevin Drum - December 2009

The Public and the Climate

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 12:18 PM EST

Here's the last year's worth of answers to a Washington Post poll question about whether or not the government should regulate greenhouse gases even if it costs you an extra 25 bucks a month.  As you can see, in the most recent survey support for regulation jumped from 39% to 55%.

Over at NRO, Kathryn Jean Lopez takes this as evidence of trickery on the Post's part.  In previous polls they asked how you'd feel if your electric bill went up $25, but in the latest poll they asked how you'd feel if your energy bill went up by $25.  "And so 55 percent wanted to feel good," she says, "and could do so with the less direct question."

I think I'd take a wee bit different lesson from this: polls like this are lousy indicators of true public opinion.  Asking about "energy costs" isn't nefarious, it's just more accurate since cap-and-trade affects all energy, not just electricity.  Still, the change in public opinion is surprisingly strong anyway, which mostly goes to show that there are a lot of people who simply don't have very strong opinions on this topic.  And that in turn means there's a pretty wide scope for public opinion to be influenced.  How are we doing on that?

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Bad Friday

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 11:12 AM EST

David Corn on the last day of the Copenhagen talks:

No deal. Not even a fig leaf. That seemed to be the implication of President Barack Obama's much-anticipated speech at the Copenhagen climate summit.

....His eight-minutes of remarks signaled a global train wreck. Not hiding his anger and frustration, he said, "I think our ability to take collective action is in doubt."....Obama played it simple and hard. He maintained the United States was calling for three basic principles: mitigation, transparency, and financing....Obama essentially accused other leaders of preferring "posturing to action." He explained, "I'm sure many consider this an imperfect framework...No country will get everything it wants."....Obama was clearly venting: "We know the fault lines because we’ve been imprisoned by them for years."....This was not a speech of persuasion; it was one of positioning. After the morning meeting, Obama and his aides had obviously calculated that a deal was far off—perhaps not even possible—and that there was not much Obama could say in this speech to grease the way to a meaningful agreement.

Bloomberg on the state of the healthcare bill:

Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson threw a Christmas deadline for passage of health-care legislation into further doubt, rejecting a compromise on abortion and saying he doesn’t see how fellow Democrats can resolve all his objections.

“I can’t tell you that they couldn’t come up with something that would be satisfactory on abortion between now and then and solve all the other issues that I’ve raised to them, but I don’t see how,” Nelson said in an interview with KLIN radio in Lincoln, Nebraska.

....Nelson told reporters that he has a “laundry list of concerns” besides abortion. And while he doesn’t want to start over on the legislation, an incremental approach might be better to first focus on health-care costs, he told KLIN.

Top 'o the morning to you too!  I think I'll just go back to bed now.

Bernanke Then and Now

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 4:44 PM EST

Courtesy of Sen. David Vitter (R–La.), Brad DeLong gets the chance to ask Ben Bernanke why he's not willing increase the Fed's inflation target from 2% to 3%:

The Federal Reserve has not followed the suggestion of some that it pursue a monetary policy strategy aimed at pushing up longer-run inflation expectations. In theory, such an approach could reduce real interest rates and so stimulate spending and output. However, that theoretical argument ignores the risk that such a policy could cause the public to lose confidence in the central bank’s willingness to resist further upward shifts in inflation, and so undermine the effectiveness of monetary policy going forward. The anchoring of inflation expectations is a hard-won success that has been achieved over the course of three decades, and this stability cannot be taken for granted.

I think this demonstrates pretty well why it's entirely possible to say both (a) Bernanke's background made him extremely well suited to play a crisis management role in 2007-08 and he did a good job at it, but (b) he's not the right guy to lead the Fed going forward.  What we're likely to need over the next few years isn't a crisis manager, but someone who unwinds the Fed's position gradually and takes its role in boosting employment more seriously.  But Bernanke is a mainstream conservative, and mainstream conservatives have always been more concerned with inflation than with unemployment.  This was entirely predictable, and it's why, even though he did a creditable job in his first term, he shouldn't have gotten a second.

Friedman's War

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 3:10 PM EST

Matt Yglesias reads Tom Friedman so you don't have to:

I think I lack the words to adequately express how morally outrageous Tom Friedman’s call for a Muslim civil war is. But we can at least focus a bit on how factually inaccurate it is.

I was all ready to be outraged, but it turns out Friedman probably isn't asking for the military kind of civil war at all:

We don’t need more NATO allies to kill more Taliban and Al Qaeda. We need more Arab and Muslim allies to kill their extremist ideas....Only Arabs and Muslims can fight the war of ideas within Islam....What is really scary is that this violent, jihadist minority seems to enjoy the most “legitimacy” in the Muslim world today. Few political and religious leaders dare to speak out against them in public....How many fatwas — religious edicts — have been issued by the leading bodies of Islam against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda? Very few....Etc.

I say Friedman "probably" isn't asking for a military conflict because, unfortunately, he also includes a paragraph about the "ferocity" of the American civil war and says, "Islam needs the same civil war."  But it's still couched as a war against bad ideas, and I imagine that's what he's really focused on.  Still, Friedman could stand to clear this up for us.  Just what kind of war does he want in the Muslim world?

Bond Mania

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 1:07 PM EST

I have an idea.  Instead of complaining about all this "war bond" nonsense, why don't we jump on the bandwagon?  It could be great!  We could sell "healthcare bonds" to pay for premium subsidies.  We could sell "unemployment bonds" to pay for unemployment insurance.  We could sell "carbon bonds" to pay for cap-and-trade.  The possibilities are endless.  And since financing things via bonds apparently makes them free, the entire liberal dream could be paid for totally painlessly.  Who's with me?

Divide and Conquer?

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 12:17 PM EST

Kate Sheppard reports from Copenhagen that the solidarity of the G77 bloc of developing nations is starting to crumble:

Late on Tuesday, the governments of Ethiopia and France announced that Ethiopia, "representing Africa," had agreed to adopt an "ambitious agreement" that would call for limiting the average global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. Previously, the African bloc, along with the G77 coalition of poor countries and the Alliance of Small Island States, had firmly insisted that a 1.5 degree limit was imperative to prevent dire consequences in their regions.

....The major powers welcomed Ethiopia's defection from the 1.5-degree target. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has endorsed the side deal with France, and on Tuesday, White House officials confirmed to reporters that Obama had placed a call to Zenawi earlier in the day. The US president, they said, had "expressed his appreciation for the leadership role the Prime Minister was playing in work with African countries on climate change."....But developing nations — which appear to have been caught somewhat off guard by the announcement — aren’t applauding. They fear that major powers are trying to pick off key players from the developing bloc via secret pacts. The fact that the agreement was made and announced in Paris — not at the official United Nations negotiations in Copenhagen — has fueled such suspicions.

Hmmm.  "Trying to pick off key players" mostly seems like standard issue negotiating to me, not some nefarious plan to sow discord.  But read the whole thing and decide for yourself.  It's dealmaking time in Copenhagen with only two days of the conference left.

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Dreamland

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 12:02 PM EST

A few weeks ago I began taking a blood pressure med, and yesterday my doctor asked if I'd noticed any side effects.  I told her I had a bit of dry mouth at night and that my dreams were a little more vivid than usual.  However, since I normally don't remember my dreams at all, "a little more vivid" didn't really mean much.

But last night was a deluge.  Four dreams that I remember!  Holy cow.  Here they are: (1) I reached an agreement with a contractor to add an innovative new kind of room addition to my house that was half above ground and half underground.  There were allegedly environmental benefits of some kind to this.  (2) I recorded a radio program explaining the differences between a 401(k) and a defined benefit pension.  I kept getting interrupted, and at one point I got distracted and made up a cockamamie explanation for what "401" stood for.  Then I remembered it referred to a section of the tax code and tried to pass off my previous explanation as a joke. (3) I was in the oceanside apartment of a pair of blogger friends.  They were pointing out the window to a dock, showing me where the press boat was going tie up so that I knew the sightlines for taking pictures. (4) I was part of a group that had just caught some terrible virus and was being herded into a van for transportation to an army quarantine center.  Sirens were blaring and lights were flashing when I suddenly woke up.

WTF?  I normally remember maybe one dream a month, and even then only momentarily.  And now four in one night?  Because I'm taking a diuretic to lower my blood pressure?  And one of them is about 401(k)s?  Come on.

Kennedy and Healthcare Reform

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 10:59 AM EST

Matt Yglesias misses Ted Kennedy's presence in the healthcare reform debate:

I’m confident that were he still alive, he’d be saying what Sherrod Brown and Jay Rockefeller are saying — namely that when a deal like this is on the table, you say yes, pretend to like Joe Lieberman, get the thing done, do some good for the American people, and move on to other priorities. But he’s not alive. And I can’t prove that’s what he’d say. So we’re left instead with other folks like Brown and Rockefeller or just don’t have the same high profile or credibility needed to help sell people on this arrangement.

One of Kennedy's great regrets in life was not figuring out a way to cut a deal with Richard Nixon over his proposal to provide universal healthcare in 1971.  He changed his mind in 1973 and came close to reaching agreement with Nixon, but by then AMA opposition combined with the distraction of Watergate took it off the table, not to return for another two decades.  Steven Pearlstein provides a capsule summary here.

So you really hardly have to guess here.  Kennedy had vivid personal memories of rejecting a healthcare deal because it wasn't good enough, and then watching the moment pass and having reform die utterly. If he were alive today, there's no question that he'd be fighting to pass the current bill, warts and all.

UPDATE: Greg Sargent provides a different take from Kennedy historian Adam Clymer:

Rather, Clymer says, Kennedy’s regret was that the differences between both parties were unbridgeable, making agreement impossible and losing a historic opportunity — not that his side had failed to give up enough to get that agreement.

“Kennedy was sorry that they didn’t reach an agreement” and that both sides “never reached closure,” Clymer told our reporter, Amanda Erickson. He dismissed the idea that Kennedy regretted not giving up enough: “That’s not the same thing at all.”

Duly noted, though this is actually a fairly nuanced difference of interpretation.  In any case, the differences Kennedy had with Nixon were far greater than the gaps we're trying to bridge today.  I don't think there's any doubt he would have supported the current deal.

Holiday Fundraising

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 1:06 AM EST

Hey, it's fundraising time again!  Can you feel the excitement?

I'll keep it short: running a magazine, a website, and four separate blogs is expensive.  Real journalism always is.  But the recession is affecting us the same as everyone else, and we're running a few dollars short this year.  So we're trying to raise $50,000 before we kick off 2010, and twenty or thirty bucks from a few hundred of my readers can get us a good part of the way there.

So that's the pitch: if you like the blog, if you like the magazine, if you like our brand of journalism, help us out if you can.  Don't starve the cats to do it, but if you can afford 10 or 25 or 50 dollars to keep us going, click here to contribute.  Or go here to contribute via PayPal.  It's quick, secure, and tax deductible.  Thanks!

Congressional Kabuki

| Thu Dec. 17, 2009 12:49 AM EST

McClatchy reports that Obama is on his own when it comes to selling his caucus on expansion of the war in Afghanistan:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that it's up to President Barack Obama to persuade reluctant Democrats to fund his Afghanistan troop buildup — his most important foreign policy initiative — because she has no plans to do so herself.

....That, coupled with lukewarm public support — in the latest Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey, only 51 percent of the respondents said they support the surge — suggests that support for the administration's Afghan policy is brittle, at best.

Needless to say, this is just kabuki.  Republicans will all vote for the expansion, which means that Obama only needs a few dozen Democratic votes, which he'll get easily.  Pelosi knows perfectly well that this is a cost-free protest on her part, and so does Obama.