Kevin Drum - March 2010

So How's the Economy Doing?

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 1:33 PM EST

Email from a friend involved in the legal end of the commercial real estate market:

We just had yet another lender pull the plug on a commercial real estate deal that was set to go.  The stated reason was minor and technical.  The real reason we're guessing is that it has too many underwater loans on its books and simply doesn't have the resources.

So what is happening now?  Remember the doom and gloom scenario of mass foreclosures by banks to get the bad commercial real estate loans off their books?  Well, if my purely anecdotal experience with the first few months of 2010 are any indication, that scenario will not be happening any time soon — which is a bad thing.  It will not be a dramatic cascade but a slow tentative process with limited positive impact on the economy.

Instead, it appears that banks are continuing to grant very long deferments rather than take the loans down.  The logic here is bizarre, but understandable I guess.  They are punting on the issue until the economy improves, which they are betting is next year or so.  But if they don't get the bad loans off their books, they can't free up their resources to provide the necessary new financing to recharge the economy.  Then next year they'll punt again.  And the vicious circle continues. I'm not sure what the government can do here, but I sure hope there is some creative thinking going on in D.C.

It's just a single data point, but I'll bet there's a lot of similar stories out there. We may have saved the banking system last year, but it's still in pretty fragile shape.

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And Now, the Parliamentarian

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 1:13 PM EST

In a display of chutzpah extreme even by modern conservative standards, Sam Stein reports that Republicans have begun a campaign to "cast doubt" on the impartiality of Senate Parliamentarian Alan Frumin. Why is this so brazen? Because they're the ones who hired him in the first place:

Frumin was elevated to the post by Republican leadership in 2001, in part because he had a reputation for adhering to institutional mores rather than personal ideology. At the time, Majority Leader Trent Lott said he was confident Frumin could do the job, having known him for many years.

....In May 2001, Republican leadership fired Frumin's predecessor, Robert Dove, after he issued a series of rulings that complicated their efforts to pass aspects of the Bush tax cuts and budget proposals through reconciliation. Dove had decided it was inappropriate for money intended for natural disaster relief to be considered through budgetary rules — and he was summarily axed.

Nickel summary: Republicans hired Frumin in 2001 specifically because they thought he might issue friendlier rulings to Republicans. Now they're afraid he's turned on them.

This is like Bush v. Gore all over again: no matter what happens, cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process. And, of course, Republicans can do this safe in the knowledge that Beck and Drudge and Rush and Fox will always faithfully adopt their latest meme, no matter how inane, and crank up the outrage machine to fever pitch. Crank it up loud enough and the rest of the media will follow because "it's news." It's a nice little racket as long as you don't mind undermining public faith in virtually every institution of democracy. Which, apparently, they don't.

Sudden Acceleration

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 12:59 PM EST

Here's the latest on the Toyota "sudden acceleration" problem:

Momentum is building for a rule requiring automakers to install brake override systems so drivers can stop their cars during incidents of sudden acceleration, which has been blamed in the deaths of more than 50 people in accidents involving Toyota vehicles nationwide.

At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Toyota's sudden-acceleration problem Tuesday, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) said "strong legislative action," including mandates for brake overrides, is needed to protect motorists....The Department of Transportation is also considering a rule to mandate an override system. "We think it is a good safety device, and we're trying to figure out if we should be recommending that," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told members of the committee.

I'd like to see this happen if it's technically feasible. Here's why: Toyota obviously didn't take the reports it received of sudden acceleration problems seriously enough. My sense, though, it that there was probably a reason for that: drivers have been complaining about sudden acceleration in a wide variety of cars for decades, and their complaints almost always turn out to be bogus.1 Most of the time, what happened was that they panicked and actually had their foot on the throttle, not the brake. They're absolutely sure their foot was on the brake, but it wasn't.

This history doesn't defend Toyota's slow response, but it does make it understandable. They probably figured it was just more of the same. That's why the brake override would be a good idea. It's human nature to downplay a problem that you think you already know the answer to, and a brake override would eliminate that. If you got a report of sudden acceleration, you'd have to take it seriously. The old saw about the driver panicking wouldn't hold water. You'd know immediately that there had to be some other problem.

Plus, of course, it would also save lives when people do panic and jam their foot on the accelerator.2 Like everyone, I'll wait for the technical assessment of this, but it sure sounds like a good idea to me. How expensive can a simple mechanical linkage be, after all?

1If I'm off base about this, let me know in comments.

2Sorry, complete brain meltdown there. Obviously a brake override won't have any effect if your foot is on the throttle. Thanks to Omega Centauri in comments.

The Postpartisan Schtick

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 12:27 PM EST

Another Rahm Emanuel profile? How many of these things do we need? But Noam Scheiber's piece in the New Republic does contain this interesting backstory tidbit:

From the very beginning, Emanuel had a clean, elegant theory for how to guide a health care bill through Congress. He’d closely studied each previous failure from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton and concluded that time was their biggest enemy. Because remaking the health care system is such a complex task, it necessarily requires complex legislation. And there hasn’t been a 1,000-page–plus bill in history that didn’t start to stink after several months. It’s just too easy for opponents to cull a few smelly details.

So Emanuel placed a premium on speed. He nagged constantly, setting numerous deadlines....The corollary to this theory was that speed required momentum. If the hundreds of players in Congress and the health care industry believed reform would pass, then they would act so as to make that likely.

....For the first half of last year, this was almost all you needed to know about the administration’s strategy. Then, in July, the White House faced a key decision. Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, probably the most important of the five committees considering health care, had spent months negotiating with his Republican counterpart, Chuck Grassley, with little to show for it. Emanuel was getting antsy. He gathered his top aides and pressed for a way to hurry the process along. The Senate labor committee had produced its own health care bill. Perhaps, Emanuel wondered, Majority Leader Harry Reid could bypass Baucus and bring it to the floor. Or maybe Baucus could just stop bargaining with Grassley and let Reid move a more partisan version of his bill.

But, in the end, Obama himself favored letting Baucus negotiate until September....In fairness, even internal skeptics believed a bipartisan package might be attainable. The problem was that, overlaid on a strategy based on speed and momentum, the extra two months exacted a major cost.

Matt Yglesias says he's happy that Obama mostly pays attention to his policy shop, not his political shop. "The pacing of health care, however, was really just an argument about politics and would have been a smart time to listen to your savvy DC political hand."

True. But I'd tentatively take another conclusion away from this. One of the questions that's been in the front of my mind ever since the 2008 campaign is: Is Obama serious? Does he really believe in all that bipartisan booshwa? If Scheiber is right, this anecdote suggests that he really, really does. It's not just a political ploy, and it's not just a way of gaining public support. He really did think that if he negotiated long enough and treated Republicans with enough respect, a few of them would climb on board.

Now, Scheiber also reports that "even internal skeptics" favored the bipartisan approach. But I don't know if this makes things better or worse. Was the White House really packed full of people so pollyannish that they believed Chuck Grassley and John Kyl and a handful of other Republicans might eventually jump on board a policy that the Republican Party had feverishly opposed for decades? Further, that they might do so in a political environment that was growing more toxic with every passing day, fueled by the likes of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and the tea partiers? Seriously? What were they smoking over there?

From 3,000 miles away, I know this stuff can seem a lot simpler than it really is. But this really flabbergasts me. It just seems wildly divorced from political reality. What did they see that I didn't?

Can Climate Legislation Be Salvaged?

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 2:57 AM EST

Yesterday I posted briefly about a new climate change proposal floated last week by the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman team in the Senate. The problem they're trying to solve is a political one: since the cap-and-trade bill in the House (ACES) has become radioactive, they need to somehow implement carbon pricing without looking like they're just doing the same thing as the House bill. But how? Their answer is a change in policy: instead of a single, economy-wide cap on carbon, how about treating various sectors differently? Maybe a cap on coal, a tax on oil, and something else for industry.

But what was the problem with ACES in the first place? David Roberts figures there were three big ones. The first is that too many people just fundamentally misunderstood how it worked and who would benefit. Plus this:

Second, relative to Big Coal, Big Oil got the short end of the stick in ACES. Unlike the utilities, oil companies (or rather, their representatives in the House, who are mostly Republican) weren’t in the room during negotiations, so they didn’t get many favors. But while coal has a lot of power in the House, oil has enormous power in the Senate, particularly over the conservadems and Republicans needed to put the bill over the top. Big Oil’s choke hold on the Senate explains a great deal about the dynamics of climate legislation in that body.

And third, senators — particularly conservadems and Republicans — have an obsession with nuclear power that is nothing short of pathological. It would take a post, nay, a book to dig into all the reasons why, but suffice to say, to get any conservative votes in the Senate will require major sops to nuclear. Again, these particular senators, not being the sharpest pencils in the box, never understood that a cap on carbon would in and of itself provide a massive boost to nuclear. They want something special for nukes. Special and big. Something that will really piss off liberals. And they’ll get it.

So will the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman proposal fix these problems? The short answer is no: it will just piss off some brand new constituencies without really gaining the support of the folks who were opposed to ACES in the first place. For the long answer, click the link.

Filibuster Madness

| Tue Mar. 2, 2010 9:18 PM EST

Back in 2005 Democrats filibustered ten of George Bush's judicial nominees, ending with the famous "Gang of 14" compromise.1 Apparently Republicans have decided to get their revenge by filibustering every Barack Obama nominee, even ones that Republicans themselves unanimously approve of. Steve Benen has the capsule summary of Barbara Milano Keenan's meandering journey to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

So what's the strategy here? Take your pick: (a) It's just to piss off Democrats. (b) It's got nothing to do with judges, it's just to slow down the Senate so that it has less time for other business. (c) It's habit. (d) All of the above. Me? I guess I'll go with (d).

1By the way, whether or not the Democratic filibusters were defensible, they had pretty good reason for them. Everybody seems to have forgotten about this history, though, so here's the background.

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Latest Bunning News

| Tue Mar. 2, 2010 7:07 PM EST

Time's Jay Newton-Small on the latest Jim Bunning news:

Roll Call reports that Dems are lining up a series of senators who will attempt to move for a vote on the bill all night long, forcing Bunning to be present in the chamber to physically voice his objection to prevent a vote. It's unclear if the handful of Republicans who've spoken out on Bunning's behalf — Sam Brownback, Jon Kyl, Jim DeMint and John Cornyn — will help him sustain his block on the bill.

Later she tweets:

Bunning has placed a hold on all nominations, Reid's office tells me.

Is this guy God's gift to Democrats, or what? If he didn't exist, we'd have to invent him. It's like Dr. Strangelove except it's about Senate procedure instead of nuclear war.

Getting to Yes

| Tue Mar. 2, 2010 3:23 PM EST

Jonathan Cohn reports on a Democratic strategy memo that outlines a plan for passing healthcare reform:

The gist is pretty simple: The House takes up the Senate bill and passed it by March 19. A few days later it passes a reconciliation bill and sends it over to the Senate, which starts the voting process on March 26.

It's a "process" because, even though the reconciliation process limits debate to 20 hours, it doesn't limit amendments. And Republicans have warned they plan to introduce an amendment, forcing Democrats to take difficult votes, for as long as they can.

That's probably not a major issue. Sen. Kent Conrad explains:

Reconciliation is limited in time to 20 hours of consideration. At the end of that time, you can continue to offer amendments. You could offer 10,000. But if the parliamentarian judges someone as being dilatory, that can be stopped. If he says they’re just offering amendments to delay final action, he can rule to shut that down.

There are going to be lots of votes and lots of delaying tactics offered up by Republicans. But the whole point of the reconciliation process is to allow budget-related bills to pass in a reasonable timeframe on a majority vote. It might take more than 20 hours, but Republicans can't hold it up forever. If Democrats are serious about this, they can pass both the main bill and a package of amendments via reconciliation, and they can do it within weeks, not months. This is on them, not the GOP.

How Bad is the Recession?

| Tue Mar. 2, 2010 3:06 PM EST

A recession is typically defined primarily as a drop in GDP. But how is GDP calculated? Here is James Hamilton a couple of years ago:

It is possible to think of GDP in two different ways. One is as the dollar value of all final sales of goods and services produced by factors of production located within the United States. The second is as the dollar value of all the income generated by that production. The two measures are equal to each other by definition. But in practice, one can try to calculate GDP either using production data or using income data. If we obtain the production and income numbers from different sources, we're certain to end up with different numbers for what is supposed to be the nation's GDP. The difference between "gross domestic product" (GDP) and "gross domestic income" (GDI) is simply reported by the BEA as a "statistical discrepancy."

So what accounts for this discrepancy? A few years ago, Mark Thoma suggested the answer had something to do with the level of non-defense government consumption expenditures, but a better answer was apparently elusive. In any case, Justin Wolfers writes over at Freakonomics today that when it comes to the real economy, the "discrepancy" might actually be a problem with standard GDP calculations. Maybe GDI is the measurement that does a better job:

This alternative measure of output growth suggests that the recession may have been deeper, and longer-lasting than previously thought, although data for the fourth quarter aren’t yet available. While many economists believe the recession ended in the second quarter of 2009, this income-based measure of output kept shrinking in the third quarter, too.  And while the expenditure-based measure is back to its level from the third quarter of 2006, the income-based measure suggests that output is still 3.5 percent below that level.  That’s a pretty big hole to dig out of.

One way or another, our current recession really does appear to be deeper and longer-lasting than the usual GDP calculations suggest. Maybe that's an illusion, or maybe there really is a problem with the way we measure GDP. We aren't likely to get any firm answers on this front anytime soon, but at least the questions are worth asking.

Payday Loans Are Thriving

| Tue Mar. 2, 2010 2:13 PM EST

The LA Times reports that at least one sector of the economy is thriving during the recession:

The payday loan industry has found a new and lucrative source of business: the unemployed.

....No job? No problem. A typical unemployed Californian receiving $300 a week in benefits can walk into one of hundreds of storefront operations statewide and walk out with $255 well before that government check arrives — for a $45 fee. Annualized, that's an interest rate of 459%....APRs in other states are even higher: nearly 782% in Wyoming and 870% in Maine.

But hey — couldn't that proposed Consumer Finance Protection Agency tighten up regulation of these guys? Yes indeed. Which is why lobbying activities have reached a fever pitch over the past year. Here is Keith Epstein in the Huffington Post:

Last year, as the U.S. House drew up a financial reform bill, some lawmakers who were courted by the companies and received campaign contributions from them helped crush amendments seeking to restrict payday practices, a review by the Huffington Post Investigative Fund has found.

The failed amendments would have capped payday interest rates — which reach triple digits on an annualized basis — and would have limited the number of loans a lender could make to a customer. Working largely behind the scenes, the industry ended up dividing the Democratic majority on the 71-member House Financial Services Committee...."The payday lenders have done a lot of work," House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said in an interview. "They've been very good at cultivating Democrats and minorities."

....Steven Schlein, a spokesman for an industry trade group, the Community Financial Services Association, said the industry's victory in the House against the proposed amendments was hardly final. "We were worried," said Schlein. "But we worked it hard. We have lobbyists, and they made their point. The banks worked it hard, too. But we're still in the middle of what could be a big fight."

....The activity in Congress led the industry to spend $6.1 million lobbying Washington last year, more than twice what it spent a year earlier....Meanwhile, an analysis of federal elections records shows payday-linked political contributions are streaming into the campaigns of members of Congress. At the current rate — $1.3 million since the start of last year — the amount of money spent before the 2010 midterm elections could easily surpass the industry's spending during the 2007-2008 presidential campaign season.

You can make up your own mind whether you approve of payday lending or not. The libertarian argument says that poor people deserve to have control over their lives just as much as rich people. Who are we to tell them they can't voluntarily take out a high-interest loan if they're in dire straits?

There's a rough sort of merit to this, but for my taste it's a little too redolant of Anatole France's famously acerbic observation that "The law, in its majesty, prohibits the rich as well as the poor from sleeping under bridges." In fact, common sense not only allows us to make distinctions, it demands it. And common sense suggests that abusive practices that target the most desperate and vulnerable ought to be regulated in ways that similar practices might not be in other circumstances. I don't know that I'd outlaw payday lending entirely, but would I cap interest rates and limit both the number of loans a single customer could take out as well as the total cumulative payout from a single loan? You betcha. Too bad I don't have $1.3 million to contribute to congressional reelection campaigns.