Kevin Drum - February 2010

The Power of Palin

| Sun Feb. 7, 2010 12:50 AM EST

Andrew Sullivan watched Sarah Palin's speech to the tea party convention tonight and came away scared:

Above all, she is capable of generating a personality cult — much, much more so than Obama, because she can harness Christianism to her divine destiny. The power of this kind of appeal — of a charismatic, beautiful woman, an icon of the pro-life cause, persecuted by the evil elites, demonized by libruls, and commanding the biggest military on earth — should not in my view be under-estimated.

I totally get this. On the other hand, here's the New York Times:

The convention had gathered here to try to turn the activism of the Tea Party rallies over the last year into actual political power. Her speech was the keynote event of the convention, and the big draw for many of the 600 people who had paid $549 to attend — another 500, organizers said, paid $349 just to see for her speech alone.

Granted, that's a fair chunk of change for the average tea partier. Still, only about a thousand people were willing to pay it, and a thousand people is really not a huge number. Palin obviously has an impressive gut feel for the politics of resentment, but over time I think her Fox News gig is going to have the same effect that running for vice president did: it's going to make her less popular. As she makes the inevitable transition from fascinating pop icon to dreary regular commentator with nothing original to say, her star is going to wane.

Plus there's the apparent fact that she writes notes on her hand to remind her of things to say. Or so it seems. You be the judge about 45 seconds into this clip. (Alternative explanation: There was nothing on her hand. Looking down was a deliberate stunt designed to start lefty tongues wagging, thus providing her with yet another example of how liberal elites are so threatened by her that they have to invent ridiculous sneers every time she so much as moves her head a few inches. But does she have the animal cunning to plan something like that? Your call.)

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Our Dysfunctional Left

| Sat Feb. 6, 2010 2:59 PM EST

Jon Cohn thinks Barack Obama should be working harder to broker a healthcare deal, but at the end of a long review of the current state of play he adds that nothing is likely to happen unless progressives start pushing for it too. Armando comments:

Progressives have been marginalized and insulted throughout the process. Many, if not most, do not care for the Senate health bill. And now one of the people who did the marginalizing and insulting (one of the big proponents of the bill killing excise tax), insists progressives have to fight for the Senate health bill? Amazing.

More importantly, it is not going to happen. Unless someone is offering up a public option (which is not on the table of course), forget about progressives whipping for the passage of the Senate health bill. The Senate health bill is Jon Gruber's and Max Baucus' and Barack Obama's and the Villagers' baby. It is on them. You can't spend a year ridiculing, ignoring, and insulting progressives and then expect them to rally to YOUR cause.

This is both absolutely true1 and utterly pathetic at the same time. It's true because....well, it's true. Obama has always kept his distance from both the netroots and the broader lefty base, and the congressional leadership largely did the same during healthcare negotiations. And it's not just that they ended up with a policy choice that progressives were unenthusiastic about. It's that they never even pretended to take progressives seriously. This is a mistake that George Bush and Karl Rove never made. The conservative base frequently didn't get what it wanted from them, but they always felt like they had a friend in the White House whose heart was in the right place. Progressive groups, conversely, have mostly felt like they got the back of the hand from the White House on healthcare. So it's understandable that they've either given up or, in a few cases, actively turned against the whole process.

But this is also utterly pathetic because....well, it just is. So Max Baucus didn't listen to us. Big deal. So we didn't get invitations to White House tea parties. Who cares? It may be understandable that progressives feel dissed, but are we really all such delicate flowers that we're going to give up on a cause we've spent a century on because the current bill isn't quite what we'd like and Rahm Emanuel is mean to us? Jesus.

In 20 years this bill will be entirely forgotten except as the first step toward broad national healthcare. The excise tax, the public option, the subsidy levels, the exchange — all forgotten because they will have been steadily replaced by an entirely different infrastructure. It's true that some of that infrastructure will be path dependent on the details of the current bill, but most will simply evolve as a result of technology and public demand. By 2030 arguments over the public option will seem as antiquated as rants against the tin trust.

But that's 20 years from now, and we won't get there unless we take the first step. So the White House needs to start listening seriously to progressive ideas and progressives need to suck it up and understand that they're going to lose most of the battles. That's just the nature of consensus politics. But speaking for me, that's OK as long as we win the war. And the only way to do that is to pass the damn bill. So let's pass it.

1Absolutely true in general, that is. To the best of my knowledge, though, Jon Cohn has done absolutely no "marginalizing and insulting" of progressives during the past year. I really don't know why Armando insists on saying stuff like this.

Friday Cat Blogging - 5 February 2010

| Fri Feb. 5, 2010 4:04 PM EST

As I said in the previous post, I got home just in time to produce Friday catblogging. Which means that all I had time to do was pull out the camera and take a picture of what the cats were doing right at the moment. So here it is. On the left, Domino is staring out the door at the rain wondering if she should go out. She decided not to. On the right, Inkblot is engaged in his second favorite activity: eating. I left loads of food for the furballs while I was gone, but when I got back their food bowls were empty. I can't believe they ate it all. But not only did they eat it all, they were begging for more. So, softy that I am, I gave them some. Starting tonight, though, Daddy's back in town and we're back to the usual measured portions.

Up is Still Up, Down is Still Down

| Fri Feb. 5, 2010 3:50 PM EST

I'm back! It was (mostly) dry in San Francisco, but it's raining here in Southern California. This is not the way the world is supposed to work. However, just to prove that the world hasn't been turned completely unpside down, it turns out that Republicans are still Republicans:

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) has put an extraordinary "blanket hold" on at least 70 nominations President Obama has sent to the Senate, according to multiple reports this evening. The hold means no nominations can move forward unless Senate Democrats can secure a 60-member cloture vote to break it, or until Shelby lifts the hold.

....According to the report, Shelby is holding Obama's nominees hostage until a pair of lucrative programs that would send billions in taxpayer dollars to his home state get back on track. The two programs Shelby wants to move forward or else.

And this:

The senator who is shepherding the Obama administration’s package of Wall Street reforms through Congress said on Friday morning that talks with his Republican counterpart had broken down.

The senator, Christopher J. Dodd, indicated that Democrats would forge ahead with their own bill, after months of talks that had been aimed at reaching a bipartisan consensus.

I am shocked, I tell you, shocked. A leading member of the party that's the scourge of earmarks is blocking all nominees for everything1 unless his earmarks are hustled back onto the fast track, and months of negotiations with the party that insists it's willing to negotiate with Democrats in good faith have broken down because, in fact, they aren't. They aren't, as most of us with three-digit IQs already knew, willing to agree to any financial regulation that has even the slightest chance of actually regulating the behavior that caused the 2008 meltdown.

(And "slightest chance" is all we're talking about here. It's not as if the Democratic version of financial regulation was likely to put much of a dent in Wall Street in the first place.)

But I'll take my good news where can I get it. And here it is: I got home late enough that I really don't have much time to blog this latest bout of GOP hypocrisy and kowtowing. So I won't. Catblogging is coming up next!

1No, that's not a typo. All nominees. For everything.

Tax Cut Fail

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 5:00 PM EST

Flickr/Ben Ward (Creative Commons).Flickr/Ben Ward (Creative Commons).Democrats' inability to inform the public that the stimulus plan cut taxes in a big way should go down as one of their biggest political screw-ups in recent years. Barack Obama felt it necessary, during the State of the Union address, to spend a big chunk of time hammering home the fact that his party cut taxes. And PolitiFact recently decided it had to to check David Axelrod's claim that the Democrats passed 25 tax cuts last year without the help of Republicans. (PolitiFact has a list of all the tax cuts—they rated the claim "true.") Both of these events are signs that the fact that the Democrats cut taxes has not sunk in to Americans' psyches. It's not common knowlege. If it were, would the Tea Partiers be talking about how they're "Taxed Enough Already?" Well, probably. But they'd at least be challenged on that. 

The second part of Axelrod's claim is basically true, too. Only three Republicans (including Arlen Specter, who is now a Democrat) voted for a stimulus bill that included hundreds of billions of dollars of tax cuts. And yet the Dems are still hoping that the GOP is going to lend them a helping hand on their jobs bill. Good luck with that.

Kevin is traveling today.

The Market for Economics

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 4:31 PM EST

Ian Crosby offers up some interesting questions:

Paul Krugman maintains that Austrian business cycle theory is "as worthy of serious study as the phlogiston theory of fire." Milton Friedman claimed, less colorfully but no less categorically: "The Hayek-Mises explanation of the business cycle is contradicted by the evidence. It is, I believe, false."

Am I right to interpret this concurrence of opinion by two Nobelists from opposite ends of the political spectrum as a strong evidence that the Austrian critique is misguided?  Are latter-day Austrians the economic equivalent of creation scientists and climate-change deniers?  Or are there mainstream economists who take them seriously?  And if they do, what does it say about macro as science that there should be basic disagreements about a fundamental object of study in the discipline?

After talking to a few working economists, he concludes:

The real lack of consensus in macro, it seems, is not how to respond to a downturn in the business cycle, but what causes the business cycle in the first place.  And if mainstream macroeconomists agree that the Austrian explanation of this phenomenon is demonstrably lacking, it is not because they have a well-supported alternative or viable research program of their own.

Today’s Austrians may be a small and dubious minority.  But they have hardly opposed themselves to the edifice of a successful science.

Does that conclusion seem right to you guys?

And why is Austrianism appealing, anyway? Krugman argues that Austrianism appeals to people because it offers easy, clear-cut rules about cause and effect, and because it appeals to individuals' moral sense.*

But I think part of the reason people are attracted to the Austrian school is that more mainstream economists don't seem as interested in gaining public (i.e., nonacademic) acceptance of their ideas as the Austrians are. Whether or not they're "serious," the Austrians are definitely serious about promoting their theories. The Austrians have the Mises Institute, dedicated to spreading their ideas. They have the legions of Ron Paul supporters, most of whom lean towards Austrianism and are eager to tell you about it. And various Austrians and Austrian-leaning folks are responsible for clever things like the Keynes vs. Hayek rap video and Peter Schiff's series of YouTube videos. Russ Roberts, a professor at George Mason University who is behind the rap video, has written about the peculiarity of GMU's "Austrian-flavored" economics department:

We don’t just speak to the academy. We blog. We write novels. We write letters to the editor. Op-ed columns. We write books for a general audience. This isn’t an aberration. It isn’t just tolerated. It’s honored.

The point is that while it's easy to find someone ready to convert you to Austrianism, you just don't see "mainstream" economists out there trying to explain the basics of their theories to the masses. The closest you get to a public evangelist for Keynesian economics, for example, is Krugman, who generally focuses his New York Times column on the political and policy implications of economics—not the underlying theory. And yet when he has tried to explain the counterintuitive parts of Keynesianism, Krugman's actually been fairly effective. Witness this Slate article from 1998, in which Krugman talks about a microeconomy in order to explain his theories about the larger economy. More of that, please! 

Kevin is traveling today.

*I edited several sentences in the middle of this post for clarity.

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Do Elections Have Consequences?

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 3:19 PM EST

John Cole uses this video of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to highlight some unfortunate behavior on the part of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.):

You see, McCain put a hold on Craig Becker, a nominee for the National Labor Relations Board, back in October, but never submitted any questions for Becker in all that time. The point of Franken's questions, which get at the fact that Becker is a former labor lawyer, is to point out that nominees for something like the NLRB are very likely to be from one side or the other—in this case, either management or labor.

Republicans, who generally take management's side, are going to oppose the labor-type nominees. And Democrats are going to oppose the management-type nominees. And because the minority's opposition to someone is often enough to block that person's confirmation (because of holds and the filibuster), you have a real problem. Elections are supposed to determine who runs the country. But the way the system works currently is that winning a presidential election gives you the right to determine foreign policy and assassinate Americans but gives you very little power over domestic governance. Winning a presidential election should at least give you the power to hire people to help you run the country. It should also probably give you a better shot at actually implementing your agenda. Right now, both those things are impossible.

Kevin is traveling today.

The Power to Assassinate American Citizens

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 3:01 PM EST

Today, via the Washington Post's Ellen Nakashima, we get more confirmation that the Obama administration believes it has the power to unilaterally order the assassination of Americans who it suspects are terrorists:

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair acknowledged Wednesday that government agencies may kill U.S. citizens abroad who are involved in terrorist activities if they are "taking action that threatens Americans."

There don't seem to be any non-executive branch checks on this power. But Barack Obama is a good and wise man. What could possibly go wrong?

As usual, Glenn Greenwald is the person to go to on this:

Although Blair emphasized that it requires "special permission" before an American citizen can be placed on the assassination list, consider from whom that "permission" is obtained:  the President, or someone else under his authority within the Executive Branch.  There are no outside checks or limits at all on how these "factors" are weighed.  In last week's post, I wrote about all the reasons why it's so dangerous—as well as both legally and Consitutionally dubious—to allow the President to kill American citizens not on an active battlefield during combat, but while they are sleeping, sitting with their families in their home, walking on the street, etc.  That's basically giving the President the power to impose death sentences on his own citizens without any charges or trial.  Who could possibly support that?

[...]

It would be perverse in the extreme, but wouldn't it be preferable to at least require the President to demonstrate to a court that probable cause exists to warrant the assassination of an American citizen before the President should be allowed to order it?  That would basically mean that courts would issue "assassination warrants" or "murder warrants"—a repugnant idea given that they're tantamount to imposing the death sentence without a trial—but isn't that minimal safeguard preferable to allowing the President unchecked authority to do it on his own, the very power he has now claimed for himself?  And if the Fifth Amendment's explicit guarantee—that one shall not be deprived of life without due process—does not prohibit the U.S. Government from assassinating you without any process, what exactly does it prohibit?

That, at least, I have a bit of an answer for: the government can take your life, but it can never take your steel plants.

Kevin is traveling today.

Did Bush Almost Bomb Georgia?

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 2:31 PM EST

Politico reports breathlessly that George W. Bush's administration "considered—and rejected—a military response to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia." Andrew Sullivan draws the conclusion that the Bush team "came close" to bombing Georgia to stop Russian troops from pouring into the tiny country through a critical tunnel. But that's not really what the article says.

The key quote, in the sixth paragraph of the story, explains that "No principal advocated the use of force." It's both appropriate and unsurprising that Bush and Cheney's national security aides—or the national security aides to any president—would lay out all the potential responses to a crisis like the invasion of Georgia. And it's only responsible for the pricipals—actual decisionmakers like Bush, Cheney, and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley—to discuss all the options. But if none of the actual decisionmakers ever pushed to use military force, it's hard to argue that it was seriously considered. This really seems like a non-story.

Kevin is traveling today.

The Democrats' Jobs "Plan"

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 1:44 PM EST

Scott Brown is set to be sworn in as the newest member of the United States Senate later today. That means Democrats will need at least one Republican to switch sides if they hope to beat a Republican filibuster of their jobs bill. An initial vote on the package is set for Monday. Brian Beutler has the latest on how the Dems' plan to do that:

"You need two to tango. And you need Republicans for bipartisanship," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (I-IL). "Hope is prospective...we don't have bipartisanship at this moment. I hope we'll have it in a matter of minutes, hours, days."

Hope may be prospective. But it's not a plan.

Maybe the Dems really do have a GOPer on board, and they just don't want to say yet. But more likely, they're expecting the bill to fail and plan on blaming the Republicans for it. That might be good politics, but it doesn't actually help anyone get a job.

Kevin is traveling today.