Kevin Drum - January 2010

Catcher in the Rye

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 3:25 PM EST

Ezra Klein didn't like Catcher in the Rye:

Holden Caufield was a miserable punk. It might be an achievement to channel that brand of narcissistic alienation, but there's no joy to be found in its company. Similarly disappointing was the hushed promise that there was something rebellious and titillating in the book. I can't remember how that reputation was conveyed to me. Maybe my English teacher explained it explicitly, circling "banned" on the green chalkboard. But by the time I got to "The Catcher in the Rye," there was nothing rebellious about it. As Malcolm Jones writes, "any allure the book might have had as 'forbidden goods' was stripped away the day the first English teacher put it on a required-reading list."

I'm the last person who should be commenting on J.D. Salinger, but my first thought when I read this was that the problem wasn't so much with the book — or with its status as mandatory reading — but with the fact that Ezra read it around 1999. By then it had lost a lot of what made it original. Will makes this point better than I could:

My defense of Salinger is simple: I think The Catcher in the Rye is the first book that truly captures the vernacular of adolescence. In a media environment that is absolutely saturated with adolescent drama and humor, this may strike you as an unremarkable accomplishment. But The Catcher in the Rye was written just as youth culture was entering into the popular conscious, so Salinger deserves credit for anticipating a pretty significant cultural sea change.

I think that's right. In 1951, Catcher in the Rye really was rebellious and titillating. By 1974, when I read it, not so much. By 1999, it might as well have been distributed on folio leaves. It's become part of the high school canon because it's a book by a serious author that also seems genuinely appealing to teenage kids, and it's not as if high school English teachers have a huge selection of books like that to choose from. But frankly, it's probably not all that appealing anymore. By the time most kids get to their first American lit class these days, they've already spent half a decade reading stuff exactly like it. Time to revise the canon.

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Cell Phone Follies

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 2:59 PM EST

Michael O'Hare points today to a study that shows (a) cell phone driving is dangerous, (b) laws that ban it are effective, but (c) these laws don't reduce accident rates. Why?  Because the laws don't ban hands-free talking on cell phones, and that's just as dangerous as talking on a handset. But again: why? Why is talking on a cell phone more dangerous than listening to the radio or chatting with a passenger? Mike takes a swing at answering:

The party on the other end of the phone conversation is an adult to whom you psychologically owe attention, but unlike the adult passenger, has no idea of what you are seeing through the windshield.  A passenger will subconsciously stop talking if something untoward or just complicated is unfolding on the road ahead, and will expect you to suspend the conversation similarly, so she causes no important distraction at the critical moments when you need to be driving on all neurons, and you are aware of all this. In contrast, the person on the phone can’t do either of these things, and you are aware of that as well.  When you need to navigate a tricky bit of road, there’s no time to ask someone to be quiet, and telling a peer to shut up for a minute, in any terms, is so rude that it absolutely requires an excuse that makes it take even longer (“can you hold on for a minute? one of the kids is playing with my blunderbuss and I think it’s loaded”).

This strikes me as plausible. As another possibility, I'd add that (for reasons that escape me) people seem to be more excitable talking on the phone than in person. I'm not sure why, but maybe it has to with the nature of not having a face in front of you and not getting any nonverbal feedback. Any other ideas?

In the meantime, stop talking on your cell phone when you drive. And stop texting too. Just stop. Your signal breaks up a lot and it's hard to have a decent conversation anyway. So just stop.

Obama in Baltimore

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 1:56 PM EST

Obama is adressing the GOP retreat in Baltimore right now, and it's being televised live. It's remarkable that Republicans agreed to this. The guy at the mike always has an advantage in these kinds of forums, and in any case Obama is better than most at this kind of thing. For the most part, he's running rings around them. I don't know if this will have any long-term effect, but it's good for Obama and, regardless, a good show. Presidents should do this kind of thing more often.

Obama's Blind Spot

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 1:39 PM EST

Both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama finished their first year in office with the economy in trouble and their approval ratings in tatters. And yet, Obama's troubles seem much worse than Reagan's. Some of this, I think, is just hindsight bias: we all know that Reagan's presidency turned out OK in the end, so it's easy to view his problems as less severe than they were. But Bruce Bartlett argues, convincingly I think, that there's more to it: Reagan had a compelling and consistent narrative of liberal failure that got him through the bad times and set him up to take credit for eventual recovery. Obama doesn't:

I bring up this history because Obama inherited a great many problems from the George W. Bush administration similar to those Reagan inherited from Carter. But rather than draw a clear distinction between his policies and those of the past, as Reagan did, Obama has tended to continue those policies. And in those cases where his policies are sharply different, Obama has tended to downplay those differences.

Foreign policy is clearly the area where Obama had the most to gain by a break with the past. He could have easily argued that the whole Iran-Afghanistan conflict was ill-conceived, based on bad intelligence and a ridiculously Utopian idea that we could impose democracy by military force in countries that had no experience with it or any of the requisite institutions....On the economy, Obama has done a terrible job of explaining how much of the mess he is dealing with was caused by the Bush administration's policies....Obama could also have explained how the Federal Reserve's easy money policy created the housing bubble, the crash of which is at the heart of our current economic problems. Yet he reappointed Republican Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve rather than using the expiration of his term as an opportunity to break from the past and chart a new course by at least appointing a Democrat like San Francisco Fed President Janet Yellen.

....Finally, on health care, Obama never once blamed Bush and his party for ramming through a massive unfunded expansion of Medicare in 2003, which in part necessitated the Medicare cuts that were part of his health reform effort....In short, at every point Obama has failed to break sharply with the Bush administration. Indeed the Cato Institute has taken to calling Obama's administration Bush's third term.

There's a lot to this, though I'd add that Reagan also passed his signature domestic initiatives — big tax cuts and defense spending increases — and rallied his base by firing the air traffic controllers. Obama hasn't done any of that. But Bruce is right when he says that although Obama may be a liberal, "he is fundamentally a moderate — what we in Washington call a 'goo-goo,' a good government person, a pragmatist who deals with problems as they arise without seeing them as part of pattern of failure and without any preconceived idea of what should be done about them based on ideology or political philosophy." That's admirable in its way, but it doesn't get things done in a hyperpartisan political swamp, and it doesn't set up Obama to take credit for things when the economy gets better. Reagan worked hard to make sure that his tax cuts would be viewed as the driving force of recovery — though Paul Volcker's interest rate cuts surely deserve most of the credit — but will Obama credibly be able to say that his stimulus package and bank bailouts were responsible for recovery when it appears this time? I doubt it.

I'm a fan of Obama's, but this has always been his big blind spot. He came to office convinced — sincerely, it seems — that he could change the tone of Washington DC. That was always a fantasy. The way to get things done is to make a case for them, build public support for them, blast your enemies for opposing them, and just generally fight like hell for them. It can be done with a smile, but it has to be done. Obama seems to have a hard time getting that.

How They Do It

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 12:46 PM EST

Sen. Dick Durbin is upset that Republicans get to cast controversial votes without any real consequence. Steve Benen comments:

Durbin's right; they did. Every reckless, irresponsible, hypocritical, dangerous, and incoherent step Republicans take, they do so "with impunity."

They do so because they're pretty confident that Democrats won't effectively raise a fuss, the media won't care, and the public won't know. And they're right.

But take a step back: how are Democrats supposed to effectively raise a fuss? Republicans can do it easily: they just start bleating, and within a few hours their complaints are splashed across Drudge, repeated on a 24/7 loop on Fox News, the topic of email barrages from conservative interest groups, and the subject du jour of every talk radio show in the country. At that point the rest of the media picks up on the story because "people are talking about it." It's making waves. Which is true: it really is making waves because this kind of attention gets the conservative base genuinely outraged. And if something is getting lots of attention, then that by itself makes it a legitimate story regardless of its intrinsic merit.

But what megaphone do Democrats have? Virtually none. If they start complaining, some blogs will pick it up. Maybe Maddow and Olberman will talk about it. And that's it. There's no noise machine. And so there's nothing to force the rest of the media to bother with it unless they decide the underlying story itself is important.

I don't really want a liberal noise machine in America that's on the same level as the Drudge/Fox/Rush noise machine. It would make life almost unbearable. But without it, Democrats will never be able to compete in the outrage department. As it is, they can complain all they want and the media will mostly yawn. But when Republicans do it, it's a story. It's hard to see that changing anytime soon.

R.I.P. Healthcare Reform?

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 2:43 AM EST

OK, let's take one more crack at figuring out the likely fate of healthcare reform.  According to the Washington Post, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are still at loggerheads and "congressional Democrats remained in disarray Thursday about how to move forward, with at least some pointing at the White House as the cause of the legislative standstill gripping Capitol Hill." OK then. So what's the direction from the White House? Here's the New York Times:

With Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul stalled on Capitol Hill, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said in an interview that Democrats would try to act first on job creation, reducing the deficit and imposing tighter regulation on banks before returning to the health measure, the president’s top priority from last year.

....Mr. Emanuel, the chief of staff, said he hoped Congressional Democrats would take up the jobs bill next week. Then, in his view, Congress would move to the president’s plan to impose a fee on banks to help offset losses to the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the fund used to bail out banks and automakers.

Lawmakers would next deal with a financial regulatory overhaul, and then pick up where they left off on health care. “All these things start and lead to one place: J-O-B-S,” Mr. Emanuel said.

Given the normal pace of congressional action — including the usual Republican obstruction — this would mean no action on healthcare for at least a month or two. Maybe more like three or four. Or maybe never.

New pronouncements seem to come almost hourly on this stuff, so I'll wait for a few other folks to chime in before coming to any conclusions. But if healthcare is now domestic priority #4, it might as well be domestic priority #100. It might not quite be dead, but no matter what Obama said in his State of the Union address, the grim reaper is starting to hover uncomfortably close by.

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Financial Innovation Watch

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 8:29 PM EST

I got distracted by a couple of other books last week, but yesterday I picked up A Splendid Exchange again and ran into a fascinating description of 17th century Dutch financial innovation that should sound eerily familiar to most of my readers. Working for the Dutch East India Company during the spice trading era, it turns out, was so hideously dangerous that they had a desperate and continuous need for raw recruits to man their ships:

This grisly recruitment effort was run by a specialized corps, composed mostly of women, the zielverkoopers (literally, "soul sellers"). Their marks were the young foreign men, mainly from Germany, who swarmed into Dutch cities seeking their fortune. In return for a cut of their signing advance and future pay from the Company, the women advertised room, board, and the sort of entertainments usually sought by unattached young men, during the weeks and months until they sailed for Asia.

....Holland being Holland, this Faustian transaction yielded a financial instrument, in this case the transportbrief — a marketable security entitling the zielverkooper to a cut of the recruit's wages, paid by the Company as they were earned. Other investors then bought these securities at a discount that reflected the high death rate of VOC1 personnel and assembled them into profitable, diversified pools of human capital. These magnates were called, naturally enough, zielkoopersbuyers of souls. When, in the eighteenth century, the mortality among VOC's soldiers and sailors soared because of lax Company procedures, many zielkoopers went bankrupt.

I imagine there were people in 17th century Amsterdam who objected to this practice. I also imagine there were 17th century equivalents of Angelo Mozilo making millions from it, 17th century equivalents of Alan Greenspan explaining how it made capital allocation more efficient, 17th century equivalents of CNBC shilling for it, 17th century equivalents of the Gaussian copula to convince everyone that pooling these securities made them safe, and 17th century equivalents of Phil Gramm to make sure nobody stopped it. The names may change, but the product remains the same.

1That is, Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, the Dutch phrase for United East Indian Company.

He's Back!

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 7:19 PM EST

Ben Bernanke was confirmed for a second term as Fed chairman today by a vote of 70-30. Neil Irwin of the Washington Post answers the first question that popped into my mind:

Bernanke was confirmed by a narrower margin than any previous Fed chairman. The previous record for most "no" votes was Paul Volcker in 1983, when he was confirmed 84 to 16.

Bernanke has "more votes against him than any Fed chairman has ever had. And that's a signal," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), in an interview. "The Fed is controversial with the American people. Bailouts. Lack of supervision over [bank] holding companies."

I hope Shelby is right. But my guess is that this is mostly a manifestation of the fact that confirmations have become more contentious in recent years. Even during a bad recession I'll bet Bernanke would have been confirmed easily a few decades ago. After all, Sonia Sotomayor was no more liberal then Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but she was confirmed for the Supreme Court 68-31 compared to Ginsburg's 96-3.

Anyway, I certainly look forward to a chastened Ben Bernanke coming out strongly in favor of serious financial sector regulation. I'm not taking any bets on it, though.

More on the Healthcare Timeline

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 6:40 PM EST

Are House and Senate Democrats really planning to debate healthcare for several more months?  A knowledgable observer emails to say that it's unlikely because any deal involving reconciliation needs to happen fairly quickly:

The current continuing resolution expires February 23 (or 24). Unless Congress wants to keep doing continuing resolutions (and thus funding Bush budget priorities and not Obama’s), they'll need to get to get the 2010 budget done (via reconciliation). I would suspect that Feb 23 is the key date, not some spring or summer timeline.

Hmmm. I'm just tossing this out for comment since I don't independently know what all the procedural hurdles are here. But if this is right, then the timeline for passing healthcare reform is actually fairly short unless the House is willing to pass the Senate bill based on assurances of doing something to modify it in the next budget year. That doesn't seem very likely, though.

Further comments welcome from any congressional process nerds out there.

Healthcare: One Step Forward, One Step Back

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 5:41 PM EST

It may be irresponsible to blog this, but here's what Nick Baumann just tweeted:

Word on the Hill is that after leadership meeting, Baucus said #hcr by spring/summer, immediately regretted it. Hearsay tho.....

I'll refrain from going bananas until/unless this is confirmed. But Senate Dems can't seriously be thinking of spending another 3-6 months on healthcare reform, can they? [UPDATE: Probably not. More here.]

On the bright side, though, Nick also reports that Kent Conrad, who needs to be on board with any kind of reconciliation strategy since he chairs the Senate Budget Committee, is on board with a reconciliation strategy:

The Senate "was not designed to have everything require 60 votes," Conrad said. "It wasn't designed to prevent important action on the problems facing the country." If a supermajority is effectively necessary to pass any piece of legislation, he added, this "puts a great deal of pressure on going to more of a reconciliation process to deal with things."

Conrad argued that it's not possible to use reconciliation — which requires merely a straight majority vote — to win passage of an entire comprehensive health care bill, as some progressives have advocated. (There are assorted rules that prevent this.) But Conrad noted that he's open to using this legislative maneuver to make limited, though significant, changes to a measure the Senate has already passed — provided that certain procedural kinks could be ironed out....He said, "Frankly I think we have to reconsider the rules by which this body is governed," because the Senate "is in danger of becoming dysfunctional," and "there's going to be a building demand in the country to change the system."

Baby steps.