Kevin Drum - January 2010

Quote of the Day: Time for CEOs to Say "Enough!"

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 2:44 PM EST

From Sen. Jim DeMint (R–Wingnuttia), praising the Citizens United decision that allows big corporations to directly contribute to political campaigns:

I think people should be able to come together in associations and organizations and spend money to get their message out.  I think that's going to promote the democratic process, instead of really what we've got now, is where you essentially give the labor unions carte blanche over our system, grassroots as well as spending.

Um, yeah. We really need to do something about the skyrocketing power of labor unions in American life. Especially after that economic meltdown they caused in 2008. You'd think people would learn.

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Everything New is Old Again

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 2:10 PM EST

Ross Douthat, Bill Kristol's replacement as one of the New York Times' resident conservative columnists, is probably tired of the word "wunderkind" and phrases like "youngest op-ed columnist the paper had ever hired."1  But he gets 'em both anyway in a profile by Mark Oppenheimer in the latest issue of Mother Jones. I guess it comes with the territory. In any case, here he takes a crack at explaining how he feels about abortion:

He began with the boilerplate position: "It would probably be a blanket ban on abortion with exceptions for rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother." He went on, however, to say such a ban would require "radical experimentation with the welfare state" and likely "a lot of new welfare agencies of one kind or another," plus orphanages and an expanded "network of crisis pregnancy centers." Nobody involved would go to jail, he said, as "it is possible to believe that abortion is murder and also believe it is a completely unique form of murder. Abortion would be, you know, if you have first-degree murder, second and third degree...it's like seventh-degree murder or something."

"But," he quickly noted, "those things aren't on the table."

Actually, that's not bad for a guy who's pretty close to an abortion absolutist. "Seventh-degree murder" is about as good an excuse for not jailing abortionists as I've heard. I still don't get the rape and incest exception, though. If it's murder, why is it OK to murder children born of rape or incest?

Anyway, Ross has led an interesting life and Oppenheimer's piece is a good read. Check it out.

1OK, I don't actually know if he is. But if it were me, I would be.

The End of Anonymity (Sort Of)

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 1:27 PM EST

The Economist's blogs have officially entered the 20th century:

Today we are changing the way we write our bylines [i.e., they are actually using bylines for the first time ever. –ed] in order to make it clearer that different correspondents are writing different posts. We hope this will facilitate discussion between our bloggers and with other blogs, and clear up any confusion about multiple correspondents in the same city.

Some readers will wonder why we do not move to full bylines, as opposed to signing only our initials. We still consider this blog a collective effort, where what is written is more important than who writes it. This is how we have run The Economist in print since 1843, and the newspaper will remain without initials. We hope this anonymity liberates correspondents to write what they think and not worry about how it makes them look to the world. Even as we sign our initials on this blog, we hope the focus remains on the substance of our posts, not on us.

That particular post was written by "R.M." Next step: force the Economist kicking and screaming into the 21st century by figuring out who the names are behind all the initials and posting them somewhere for easy reference. This is clearly a job for crowdsourcing, so let's get cracking, people.

In the meantime, I guess this means I can suspend my semi-boycott of Economist blogs. Progress!

UPDATE 1: A start: R.A. = Ryan Avent, G.I. = Greg Ip. Keep 'em coming!

UPDATE 2: R.M. = Roger McShane.

UPDATE 3: M.S. = Matt Steinglass.

UPDATE 4: E.G. = Erica Grieder.

UPDATE 5: A motherlode of names! R.L.G. = Robert Lane Greene, J.F. = Jon Fasman, J.S. = Julian Sanchez, P.D. = Peter David, A.S. = Allison Schrager.

UPDATE 6: N.M. = Noah Millman, W.W. = Will Wilkinson.

Polarization and Presidents

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 12:34 PM EST

Ezra Klein points to some recent research showing that there's been a trend over the past few decades for Congress to spend ever more time on presidential initiatives. It's up from about 15% of Senate votes in the early 80s to 25% today:

If you're wondering why this matters, the answer is simple: polarization. When the president takes a position on an issue, that issue polarizes instantly. To test this, Lee looked at "nonideological" issues — that is to say, issues where the two sides didn't have clear positions. In the Senate, only 39 percent of those issues ended in party-line votes. But if the president took a position on the issue, that jumped to 56 percent. In other words, if the president proposed the "More Puppies Act," the minority is likely to suddenly discover it holds fervently pro-cat beliefs.

So: more presidential initiatives, more polarization. Or is it the other way around? Has increased polarization forced presidents to be more proactive setting the legislative agenda — or, at the very least, forced presidents to take a public stand on more issues? Seems to me that could play a pretty big role in this dynamic.

Getting to Yes

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 12:23 AM EST

The top line takeaway of this short piece in Newsweek is that a senior Democratic aide says Nancy Pelosi is "way short" of the votes needed to pass the Senate healthcare bill. But reading further, the news is more positive:

The big hang-up is about the Cadillac tax passed by the Senate, which would pay for the full reform package by taxing people with top-shelf health-care plans (as opposed to just taxing the wealthiest Americans, which the House approved in its bill). House Democrats are also uneasy about the Nebraska “Cornhusker Kickback” compromise that initially won over Sen. Ben Nelson....This aide says that unless Senate Democrats will commit to repealing it through reconciliation, Pelosi can’t get to 218.

....For now, senior lawmakers are working the phones furiously to talk up the idea of the Senate promising to retroactively unravel several distasteful components. If House Democrats make the good-faith deal, Pelosi is arguing that the Senate promise would be easy to keep. Reconciliation votes require only a 51-vote majority. Or even 50, in which case Vice President Biden could break the tie.

This aide says that leadership considers reconciliation, with the House conditioning its support on promised fixes in the Senate, as the much more strategic route than breaking the package into parts, which isn’t ideal because all of the parts are interlocking. Asked what the timetable would be for that, this aide says weeks, not months.

Italics mine. This is good news: both that passing the Senate bill along with an agreement to fix specific pieces later via reconciliation is the preferred strategy, as well as the fact that the Democratic leadership is apparently "working the phones furiously" to make it happen. After all, it shouldn't be too hard: a deal on the Cadillac tax was cut over a week ago, and Ben Nelson has already agreed to give up his special deal for Nebraska. If those are the biggest roadblocks, there's really nothing in the way of reaching an agreement to proceed.

Next step: how about actually talking about this stuff in public and making it clear that this is what everyone is working toward? Assuming it actually is, of course.

Posting Bail

| Sun Jan. 24, 2010 8:23 PM EST

The county jail in Lubbock, Texas, is bursting at the seams. But it's not because crime is up dramatically. Nor because convictions are up dramatically. It's largely because the Lubbock jail has a lot of inmates who are sitting around waiting for trial because they can't afford to post bail:

Twenty years ago nationally and in Lubbock, most defendants were released on their own recognizance. In other words, they were trusted to show up again. Now most defendants are given bail — and most have to pay a bail bondsman to afford it.

Considering that the vast majority of nonviolent offenders released on their own recognizance have historically shown up for their trials, releasing more inmates on their own recognizance seems like an easy solution for Lubbock. But that is not the solution Lubbock has chosen.

County officials have instead decided to build a brand new megajail, costing nearly $110 million. And Lubbock is not alone. At least 10 counties every year consider building new jails to ease a near-epidemic of jail overcrowding nationwide, according to industry experts.

That's from NPR's Laura Sullivan. So why the change over the past couple of decades? Mostly, Sullivan says, "to protect the interests of a powerful bail bonding industry." Gruesome details in this accompanying piece. Both are well worth a read.

(Via Jim Fallows.)

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Gates in Pakistan

| Sun Jan. 24, 2010 3:12 PM EST

Juan Cole says that this week's visit to Pakistan by Defense Secretary Robert Gates "has in many ways been public relations disaster":

In one of a series of gaffes, he seemed to admit in a television interview that the private security firm, Blackwater, was active in Pakistan.

....Dawn, a relatively pro-Western English daily, quoted the exchange, saying Gates was asked by the interviewer on a private television station, “And I want to talk, of course, about another issue that has come up again and again about the private security companies that have been operating in Iraq, in Afghanistan and now in Pakistan. . . Xe International, formerly known as Blackwater and Dyncorp. Under what rules are they operating here in Pakistan?”

Gates replied, “Well, they’re operating as individual companies here in Pakistan, in Afghanistan and in Iraq because there are theatres of war involving the United States.”

....Gates went to Pakistan to emphasize to Islamabad that the US was not again going to abandon it and Afghanistan, as it had in the past. Pakistan, he wanted to say, is now a very long-term ally of Washington. He hoped for cooperation against the Haqqani, Taliban and Hizb-i Islami guerrillas. He wanted to allay conspiracy theories about US mercenary armies crawling over Pakistan, occasionally blowing things up (and then blaming the explosions on Pakistanis) in order to destabilize the country and manipulate its policies.

The message his mission inadvertently sent was that the US is now increasingly tilting to India and wants to put it in charge of Afghanistan security; that Pakistan is isolated; that he is pressuring Pakistan to take on further counter-insurgency operations against Taliban in the Northwest, which the country flatly lacks the resources to do; and that Pakistani conspiracy theories about Blackwater were perfectly correct and he had admitted it.

More at the link.

Cross Over Crosswords

| Sun Jan. 24, 2010 2:54 PM EST

I admit that this story sounds an awful lot like an urban legend, but if it is, at least it's an amusing one. It's from Simon Bucks about a complaint to a British newspaper:

The paper's crossword had a clue which invited the solver to name the current beau of a young actress....Not long after it appeared, a letter was delivered to the paper's managing editor from one of London's top libel lawyers. It said they represented a young man, also an actor. They complained that the number of letters in the answer to the clue was the same as the numbers of letters in the surname of their client! Since he was adamant that he was NOT stepping out with the young woman in question, he had been potentially libelled, so would the paper a) promise not to do it again, b) pay his costs and c) pay damages.

According to Bucks, the paper's crossword editor "is planning to leave a gap when he publishes the puzzle's answers, with a note blaming the omission on legal considerations." I guess when that happens we'll know for sure that the story is true. Hopefully some British reader can give me a heads up if they run across this. (Via Felix Salmon.)

Confirming Ben

| Sun Jan. 24, 2010 2:25 PM EST

Yesterday I dithered a bit about Citizens United. Today I'm going to dither a bit about Ben Bernanke.

Since I was opposed to Bernanke's renomination from the start, you'd think I'd be pretty happy about the growing opposition in the Senate to confirming him for a second term as Fed chairman. But for a couple of reasons, I'm not sure I am.

First, I really do believe as a matter of principle that the president's picks for executive branch positions deserve a fair amount of deference.1 Not infinite deference, but a lot. Any other rule will turn appointments into even more of a circus than they are now, with rump minorities routinely refusing to allow presidents to appoint policymakers who will carry out their agendas. So we're at a different point now than we were five months ago: like it or not, Bernanke is Obama's choice, and he deserves a fair amount of deference in that. Bernanke isn't unfit for office, he's plainly well qualified, and he isn't wildly outside the mainstream of economic/monetary opinion (quite the contrary, unfortunately). That should be enough.

I imagine, though, that most of you don't find this very persuasive. So here's a second, related reason: If Bernanke goes down, who would Obama nominate in his stead? Here's the problem: the opposition to Bernanke isn't principled, it's a toxic partnership of left and right that would almost certainly force Obama to choose someone even worse. The reason to oppose Bernanke, after all, is that even if he did a good job steering the Fed through the 2008 financial crisis (and I think he did), that's not what we need now. What we need is someone who can unwind the Fed's balance sheet (a technical job that's largely up to the Fed staff) and who will be a champion for a smart and reinvigorated regulation of the financial sector.2 Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold, two of the Democrats who are opposing Bernanke, are surely on board with that, but what are the odds that Richard Shelby and Jim DeMint, the Republican leaders of the opposition, would support someone with genuinely progressive views on bank regulation? About zero. If Bernanke goes down and we've implicitly approved of the notion that high-profile nominees can be filibustered, Republicans and "centrist" Democrats will almost certainly band together to take down a more liberal alternative to Bernanke too.

I'm not excited about Bernanke's reappointment, but teaming up with wingnuts to filibuster him would do far more long-term damage to the progressive agenda than giving him another term. Once that's done, we become hostages to them. I think Obama was wrong to renominate Bernanke, but he's the president, not me. He should be allowed his choice.

POSTSCRIPT: But while we're on the subject, I'll also say this. If I had to choose between Brad DeLong's belief that Bernanke privately has sound views and Matt Yglesias's view that Bernanke can be far more easily understood as simply a conventional conservative Republican, I think Matt wins in a walk. The evidence that Bernanke is, both privately and publicly, a smart but conventionally conservative economist, is overwhelming. It should hardly be a mystery that he acts like one.

1Judicial appointments are a different story. For practical reasons, I think presidents still deserve a fair amount of deference here, but less than when they're dealing with their own branch of government.

2There are, of course, lots of other arguments both for and against Bernanke's nomination. Some are good (he's made too many mistakes to deserve reappointment, voting him down would damage Obama when he can least afford it) and some are bad (voting against him would roil the markets! we're mad at him for spending lots of money!). I'll leave those for another day.

Google's Back Door

| Sat Jan. 23, 2010 10:43 PM EST

Bruce Schneier tells me something I didn't know about how those Chinese hackers managed to break into Google's email system:

In order to comply with government search warrants on user data, Google created a backdoor access system into Gmail accounts. This feature is what the Chinese hackers exploited to gain access.

....Official misuses are bad enough, but it's the unofficial uses that worry me more....China's hackers subverted the access system Google put in place to comply with U.S. intercept orders. Why does anyone think criminals won't be able to use the same system to steal bank account and credit card information, use it to launch other attacks or turn it into a massive spam-sending network? Why does anyone think that only authorized law enforcement can mine collected Internet data or eavesdrop on phone and IM conversations?

....In the aftermath of Google's announcement, some members of Congress are reviving a bill banning U.S. tech companies from working with governments that digitally spy on their citizens. Presumably, those legislators don't understand that their own government is on the list.

If you hide a spare key under a rock outside your house, you'd better make sure that no one else can find it. But what are the odds if that "someone" is a thousand smart, obsessed, Chinese hackers? Probably not as good as you'd like no matter how clever you think your hiding place is.

Oh, and this problem isn't limited to Google. Read the whole piece for more.