• Time to Repeal Godwin’s Law


    You know what I’m tired of? Godwin’s Law. Who do I need to see about getting it repealed?

    In theory, of course, Godwin’s Law is merely descriptive. But in practice it’s an endlessly tiresome way of feigning moral indignation. Here’s how it usually works in real life:

    • Person A makes a comparison between something happening today and something the Nazis did.
    • Person B expresses outrage. How dare you?!?
    • Person A clarifies, and the clarification is always the same: I’m not saying that today’s bad thing is as bad as what the Nazis did. I’m just illustrating.
    • Person B will have none of it. All comparisons to Nazis are ipso facto outrageous.

    Glenn Greenwald and Joe Klein act out this kabuki to perfection today. You can put me on Glenn’s side here. Not on the substance of the argument (where I think both sides have a point), but simply on whether or not it’s OK to illustrate a point by reaching into the history of World War II for an analogy. I say: why not? WWII analogies are extremely useful because they’re familiar to almost everyone. In this case, Glenn is arguing that the invasion of Iraq wasn’t justified by the fact that the Kurds welcomed it, and he could have illustrated his point by saying that, likewise, Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia wasn’t justified because they were welcomed by some of the survivors of the killing fields. But you know what? Not many U.S. readers are familiar with that bit of history, so the analogy wouldn’t help much. If you’re looking for something that lots of people will understand quickly, Hitler and World War II are fertile fields.

    Yes, yes: historical analogies should be used carefully, and if you really are suggesting that [blank] is as bad as Hitler/Nazis/the Holocaust, then you’d better be damn sure you mean it. But if you’re just reaching for a point of comparison that will be widely understood, then why not? Contra Klein, this isn’t a “litigator’s trick.” It’s just a handy way of making an easily understood comparison. And if Godwin doesn’t like it, tough.

  • The Politics of Healthcare Reform


    So how’s healthcare reform doing among the unwashed masses? According to a new Kaiser poll:

    • 48% have a favorable view of the law.
    • 41% have an unfavorable view.
    • Of that 41%, only 27% want the law repealed. (The remainder think it ought to be given a chance for a while.)

    That doesn’t bode well for conservatives who think that wholesale repeal is the road to electoral victory in November — though admittedly that 27% number might be higher in certain specific right-leaning swing districts where Democrats are most vulnerable. Still, as Jon Cohn points out, overall approval of healthcare reform, as measured by Pollster’s poll averaging, is slowly but steadily increasing. It’s gone up from 40% to 44% since February and has now crossed the critical point where it’s viewed as a net favorable. If it keeps trending this way for the rest of the year, it’ll be at around 49% approval by November.

    The overall politics of repeal still differs dramatically in different congressional districts, of course, but numbers like this make it virtually impossible for the Republican leadership in Congress to seriously push for total repeal as a partywide platform. Like it or not, healthcare reform is here to stay.

  • Chart of the Day: Torture for Thee, But Not For Me


    Via Andrew Sullivan, a new study from the Joan Shorenstein Center finds that major U.S. newspapers routinely referred to waterboarding as torture until 2002, when they suddenly stopped. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. media’s attitude toward waterboarding depended almost entirely on who was doing it:

    News articles that considered other countries or individuals committing waterboarding were far more likely to classify waterboarding as torture than articles that dealt with the U.S. using waterboarding.

    In the NY Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the U.S. using waterboarding against an individual called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture. Yet when the U.S. was the perpetrator, only 7.69% (16 of 208) articles said or implied that waterboarding was torture. Just 0.8% of the articles (1 of 133) dealing with the War on Terror where the U.S. was the perpetrator said or implied that waterboarding was torture.

    The LA Times follows a similar pattern of avoiding the label of torture when the U.S. is responsible for using waterboarding. In articles that considered other countries using waterboarding, 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) called waterboarding torture or implied the practice was torture. When the U.S. was the violator, only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) used this classification.

    As always, where you stand depends on where you sit.

  • Is the CBO Playing Politics?


    When the CBO estimates future federal budget deficits, it uses two scenarios. The first is the “current law” baseline scenario, which is just what it sounds like: it assumes that everything unfolds as if current law stays in effect forever. Everyone understands that this is a fantasy.

    So they also have an “alternative scenario.” If, for example, Congress “fixes” the alternative minimum tax every year without fail, then CBO assumes it will continue doing this even if Congress never permanently changes the underlying law. Ditto for several other things that Congress tends to deal with on an ad hoc basis every year.

    But this year CBO has done something new: it has assumed that virtually none of the cost savings in the recently passed healthcare reform bill will take effect. Brad DeLong, assuming the guise of “Technocrat” in a debate in which he plays all sides, cries foul:

    The alternative baseline is now based on judgments about the strength of the doctors’ lobby and about the configuration of American rent-seeking politics rather than being merely an attempt to construct an honest baseline. It’s not clear to me that CBO has the expertise to make such judgments. It is clear to me that if it is going to make them, it needs to back them up much more comprehensively than it has done.

    The CBO does itself a disservice if it starts getting too heavily involved in political calculations like this. They’ve already made their best estimates about what effect healthcare reform will have on the federal budget, and if they want to change those estimates they should do so openly. But simply assuming that a future Congress will kill all cost savings measures with no special evidence to back that up? That’s just not their job. CBO is supposed to be an honest broker, not a Washington Post op-ed columnist.

  • The Conservative Alternate Universe


    Steve Everly responds to David Roberts’s call for a carbon tax to address global warming:

    The last time we imposed a tax regime of this scale was when the Progressives convinced us we needed an income tax. Four years after the 16th Amendment, Congress raised the top rate from 7 percent to 67 percent, partially to pay for cost overruns in administering the tax itself.

    This is what makes debating with conservatives such a pleasure. The federal income tax was introduced in 1913. Four years later was 1917. The legislation that raised the top rate to 67% was called the “War Revenue Act.” Anyone want to take a guess about just how big a factor “cost overruns in administering the tax itself” was to this measure?

    The rest of the conversation isn’t much more edifying. Better conservatives, please.

  • Fixing Social Security


    Megan McArdle responds today to the idea of balancing Social Security’s books in one fell swoop by removing the cap on earnings that are hit by the payroll tax. This cap changes with inflation each year and it’s currently set at a little over $100,000. If we removed the cap and taxed all income, Social Security’s financing would be in great shape:

    This is not actually surprising, since what this amounts to is hiking the marginal tax rates on high incomes by 15 percentage points–making the Federal Tax take on the highest incomes 55% in 2012, assuming that Obama/Congress follows through and allows the Bush tax cuts to expire in 2011.

    This is obviously a gigantic hike, and moreover, when Medicare and state/local taxes are added in, would push the tax burden on the highest incomes to over 2/3 in the hightest tax jurisdictions.

    Whatever you think of this plan, this is not an easy solution. It would be fought bitterly in Congress; it would cause high earners to put enormous effort into generating income in forms (capital gains) that are not subject to payroll tax; and at that level, you would start seeing serious avoidance activity, as well as possibly simply diminished effort.

    This is basically right — though I think the marginal increase would be 12.4%, not 15%. But that’s still a helluva lot. If we’re ever going to raise marginal rates on the rich by that amount, I’d want to use it for more than just balancing Social Security’s books.

    Really, though, you don’t need to go down this road. Contra Megan’s headline (“No Easy Way To Fix Social Security”), Social Security is a pretty easy problem to address, and the reason it’s easy is that you don’t have to limit yourself to a single big solution. In fact, Social Security reform practically cries out for a basket of small, almost imperceptible changes. You could, for example, partially uncap the payroll tax or change the tax rate slightly (or a combination of the two); gradually increase the retirement age to 68; and adjust the inflation calculation for annual benefits slightly. This would fix Social Security’s problems entirely and would be barely noticeable for most people. There are lots of other possibilities, and the more of them you put together the less painful they are. Chapter 4 of this report can help you put together your own plan.

    There are several nice things about Social Security. First, it’s a long-term problem. The trust fund doesn’t go out of balance for several decades, so we have plenty of time to phase in changes slowly. Second, its demographics are well known and flatten out after about 2035. Unlike Medicare, which will need constant vigilance over the next few decades, a proper Social Security fix probably only has to be done once. And third, Social Security’s funding problem is modest (less than 2% of GDP) and can be solved without very much pain.

    Of course, even given all that, we still haven’t solved it. Needless to say, this doesn’t bode well for our ability to fix genuinely hard problems like climate change and healthcare costs.

  • Do We Have Quotas of Dogmatism?


    Tyler Cowen, responding to a question about whether deeply religious people tend to be generally dogmatic, says this:

    I don’t know of any systematic evidence, but often I favor portfolio models of dogmatism….That is, most people have an internal psychological need to fulfill a “quota of dogmatism.” If you’re very dogmatic in one area, you may be less dogmatic in others. I’ve also met people — I won’t name names — who are extremely dogmatic on ethical issues but quite open-minded on empirics. The ethical dogmatism frees them up to follow the evidence on the empirics, as they don’t feel their overall beliefs are threatened by the empirical results.

    I am, of course, just guessing here, but this doesn’t feel right to me. If I had to extrapolate from my experience, I’d say that rigidity of thought is a general personality characteristic, and that people tend to be either rigid or open across the board. Religious fundamentalists, for example, often seem to be political fundamentalists, moral fundamentalists, and lifestyle fundamentalists as well. Curious people tend to be curious about lots of different things.

    But there’s one aspect of this where Tyler seems right: I often run into people who are generally rigid but have one particular area, usually a specialty, where they understand the level of complexity involved and therefore tend to be more open to alternatives. Likewise, I’ve run into people who are generally open but have one particular obsession where they’re absolutely unmovable.  Unfortunately, although Tyler agrees about this, I suspect his advice — “If you wish to be a more open-minded thinker, adhere to some extreme and perhaps unreasonable fandoms, the more firmly believed the better and the more obscure the area the better” — gets the causality backwards. Open-minded people may sometimes develop obsessions, but I doubt that obsessions help you stay open minded about the rest of your life. (Though if the obsession is strong enough, it might make you apathetic about the rest of your life. This is not quite the same thing, though.)

    Thoughts?

  • The Fat Lady Starts Warming Up On Financial Reform


    After three Republican senators threatened to vote against the financial reform bill unless its $18 billion bank fee was removed, Democrats briefly reopened conference committee proceedings today and voted to remove it:

    Conference negotiators voted to eliminate the proposed tax and, in its place adopted a new plan to pay the projected five-year, $20 billion cost of the legislation. The new plan would bring an early end to the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the mammoth financial system bailout effort enacted in 2008, and redirect about $11 billion toward heightened regulation of the financial industry. The conferees also voted to increase the reserve ratio of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation but specified that small depository institutions — those with less than $10 billion in consolidated assets — be exempt from paying any increase.

    If Maria Cantwell, who voted against the bill on its first go-around, agrees to support the final conference report, that will give Democrats 57 votes. If the removal of the bank tax buys the support of Republicans Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Scott Brown, that will give them 60 votes and the bill will pass. So cross your fingers and hope this does the trick.

    That is, cross your fingers if you think this bill is worth passing in the first place. And since I got into a Twitter argument with Marcy Wheeler last night about that very subject, here’s a brief rundown of what we’ll get out of it:

    • Companies selling mortage-backed securities will be required to retain a portion of the risk on their own books. The originate-to-distribute model, where dealers bundled up loans and immediately turned around and sold off the whole package, created a system where bundlers had no incentive to make sure the underlying loans were any good. This provision helps rein this in.
    • Commercial banks will face restrictions on the amount of proprietary trading they can do. This is the so-called Volcker Rule, and although it was watered down in conference (banks can still trade up to 3% of their capital for their own accounts) it’s still a pretty good safety valve for the banking industry.
    • A Consumer Finance Protection Agency will be set up within the Federal Reserve. I was initially opposed to housing the CFPA at the Fed, but I came around to the idea based on the argument that this will allow the CFPA to offer higher salaries and attract better talent. This is a significant win, and Elizabeth Warren says she’s pretty happy with it.
    • Derivatives trading will largely be forced onto public exchanges. Certain standard derivatives will still be offered over-the-counter, which is too bad, but more complex instruments like credit default swaps will be made considerably safer by this rule.
    • Dick Durbin’s interchange regulation for debit cards was adopted. This doesn’t affect the safety and soundness of the banking system, but it’s a good step forward for transparency and consumer protection.
    • Capital requirements for large banks will be increased. Together with the Basel III requirements currently under negotiation, this is a key step toward making the entire financial system safer and less leveraged.
    • Other changes that are good, though watered down from where they ought to be, include ratings agency reform, resolution authority, systemic risk regulation, and SEC authority over hedge funds.

    This doesn’t go as far as it should. There should be greater constraints on leverage. The prop trading and derivatives trading regs were weakened more than they should have been. Some critics think the big banks should have been forcibly broken up.

    Still, even in its weakened state, the bill is stronger than it was a few months ago and it will go a long way toward reducing the size and profitability of the banking sector — which is why the banking industry is fighting it tooth and nail. Here’s the Wall Street Journal:

    A weekend of number-crunching left no doubt that the changes would hurt the bottom line at thousands of banks, brokerage firms and other financial companies. “This is wrong, and we have one last chance to do something about it,” the American Bankers Association wrote in an email to its members, urging them to write opposition letters to members of Congress. Financial-industry lobbyists are aiming at Republicans who voted in favor of the Senate version, hoping to change their position when the final bill comes up for a vote. “You keep playing until the whistle blows,” says ABA spokesman Peter Garuccio.

    Inside most banks, the mood already has shifted to assessing how much revenue and earnings are likely to evaporate if the bill becomes law — and how to make up for the forgone money. Keith Horowitz, an analyst at Citigroup Inc., estimated the legislation would reduce annual earnings per share for big U.S. banks by 6%, down from his previous estimate of 11%.

    This is half a loaf, but at this point the only credible alternative is doing nothing. There’s not enough time to draft a new bill this year, and after November there’s no chance of passing anything at all. Given the alternatives, anyone who cares about financial reform should support this bill.

  • My Obama Schizophrenia

    <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/4232512150/">Pete Souza / Whitehouse Flickr Stream</a>


    This is weird. Bob Herbert writes today about his disappointment in Barack Obama:

    Mr. Obama and the Democrats have wasted the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity handed to them in the 2008 election. They did not focus on jobs, jobs, jobs as their primary mission, and they did not call on Americans to join in a bold national effort (which would have required a great deal of shared sacrifice) to solve a wide range of very serious problems, from our over-reliance on fossil fuels to the sorry state of public education to the need to rebuild the nation’s rotting infrastructure.

    All of that could have been pulled together under the umbrella of job creation — short-term and long-term. In the immediate aftermath of Mr. Obama’s historic victory, and with the trauma of the economic collapse still upon us, it would have been very difficult for Republicans on Capitol Hill to stand in the way of a rebuild-America campaign aimed at putting millions of men and women back to work.

    This is so far beyond wrong I hardly know what to call it. All of these things could have been pulled together under the umbrella of job creation? No, they couldn’t have. It would have been difficult for Republicans to stand in the way of putting millions of men and women back to work? In what alternate universe? Republicans almost unanimously filibustered Obama’s stimulus package four weeks after he took office. They’ve filibustered the extension of unemployment benefits every time it’s come up. They’ve filibustered jobs bills, public works bills, education bills, and just about every other bill you can name. There’s nothing Obama could have done to change that.

    But what’s weird about this is not that Herbert wrote a column I disagree with. What’s weird is that a column so utterly wrong provoked an admiring response so utterly right. Here is M.J. Rosenberg writing about his circle of friends:

    They all supported Obama in the primaries and all celebrated his election. They are all left-of-center.

    And they all feel let down by the administration right now. They are still Obama supporters but, unless something changes, he will soon move in to the territory both Clinton and Carter inhabited. He will have our support because he’s a Democratic President up against utterly unpatriotic and selfish lunatics, bigots, and troglodytes. It will be simply be the “consider the alternative” kind of support.

    We had hoped for much more. We wanted to feel what our grandparents and great-grandparents felt for FDR — that he was out there battling for working people, the unemployed, and, frankly, an America strikingly different than the one they were living in….I want FDR style politics and TR style rhetoric (“the bully pulpit”). Right now, I don’t see it. Neither does columnist Herbert. And, yes, I recognize the constraints. But Presidents have to transcend them, or at least be seen as fighting like hell. I don’t see that happening.

    Italics mine. Like Rosenberg, I’ve been feeling pretty schizophrenic about Obama for quite a while. My brain tells me that, given the realities and constraints of American politics, he’s done pretty well: a big stimulus package, the Lilly Ledbetter Act, healthcare reform, withdrawal from Iraq seemingly on schedule, a decent start on rationalizing Pentagon procurement, financial reform (maybe), and progress on DADT (hopefully). Even his Afghanistan policy, which I don’t agree with, was deeply considered and responsive to the obvious limitations of military action.

    There are, of course, things I don’t like about Obama’s record too. I wish he hadn’t reappointed Ben Bernanke. I wish he’d nominated Diane Wood to the Supreme Court instead of Elena Kagan. His record on civil liberties issues, with a few noticeable exceptions, has been generally lousy. I wish he’d listened to Joe Biden on Afghanistan. I’m not sure that bailing out Chrysler was worth the taxpayer’s money.

    But this isn’t why I’m schizophrenic about Obama. I never expected to like everything he did. The reason I’m schizophrenic is that it’s almost impossible to get a handle on what he really wants. Did he want a bigger stimulus bill but compromised down because $800 billion was all he could get? Or did he not really want more than that in the first place? Ditto for the public option. Ditto for DADT repeal, which he had to be pushed into supporting this year. And ditto again on financial reform, which is worth passing only because of numerous amendments to the original bill. On all of these issues and more, I don’t feel like I ever knew what Obama’s real position was. There’s a big difference between compromising because politics is what it is and you have no choice, and compromising because the more centrist position is the one you genuinely hold. But Obama never gives me a good sense of which it is with him.

    Now, it’s a bad idea to look at FDR through rose colored glasses. Plenty of New Deal legislation passed over his objection, and there was nobody better at playing his cards close to his vest. Still, there was seldom any question about where FDR stood on the big issues, and you either loved him or hated him for it. With Obama, I’m left unsure far too often for comfort. Thus my schizophrenia.

  • Boehner vs. Boehner


    Now that the Republican caucus has apparently decided to unanimously oppose any reform of our financial system, House GOP leader John Boehner explains his party’s objections to the final bill reported out of conference last week:

    This is killing an ant with a nuclear weapon.

    And here is Boehner’s spokesman “explaining” what he meant:

    It’s clear Boehner is not minimizing the crisis America faced — he is pointing out that Washington Democrats have produced a bill that will actually kill more jobs and make the situation worse.

    So here’s a question: do the standards of journalism require us to take this explanation at face value? I mean, it’s obvious to a fourth grader what Boehner meant: he thinks there were only minor problems with the financial system before the crash, and we just don’t need anything more than a few tweaks here and there to fix things up. He decidedly was minimizing the problems on Wall Street during the years that led up to the crisis.

    But do we now have to pretend that’s not what he meant simply because his press flack says that’s not what he meant? Or can we act like adults and interpret his remark in the obvious way? Stay tuned for media reaction later today to find out.

  • Still No Deficit Hawks in the GOP


    On the scale of the federal budget, $18 billion is a rounding error. Literally. It’s about one-half of one percent of the budget, which rounds down to zero. But a small group of moderate Republicans are threatening to vote no on financial reform because an $18 billion fee is included in the final bill.1 It’s not there to punish banks or to create a slush fund for new spending. It’s there solely to make the bill deficit neutral. Ryan Avent:

    And yet the most moderate Republicans in the Senate are balking at the charge. Not because they disagree in any real sense with the economics of the fee. They simply won’t vote for anything that looks like a tax.

    This is why it’s so difficult to imagine a solution to America’s long-run budget crisis. It’s a political impossibility to move to primary surplus on the back of spending cuts alone. Democrats are highly unlikely to win a Senate majority comfortably over 60 seats any time in the near future. And the most moderate Republicans won’t vote for tax increases, even when the increase in question is a relatively small, one-off charge on big banks.

    There’s no room for compromise on the deficit there. Zero. The Journal story is trouble for the fate of the financial reform bill, but it should worry deficit hawks even more.

    And I suppose it would worry them if there were any actual deficit hawks in the Republican Party. But there aren’t, are there? There are plenty of tax-on-rich-people-and-corporations hawks, but no deficit hawks. Let’s stop pretending otherwise, OK?

    1Actually, I got this wrong: it’s $18 billion over ten years, which works out to about .05% of the federal budget. In other words, it’s really a rounding error.

  • California’s Dim Idea


    On the off chance that you thought there was any intelligent life in California’s capital, here’s the latest from Sacramento:

    Motorists who already feel bombarded by digital billboards, freeway advertisements and vinyl-wrapped buses say a new proposal to put ads on license plates is a bad sign. State lawmakers’ flirtation with digital license plates moved another step forward Monday as the Assembly Transportation Committee voted 9-0 in favor of a feasibility study to determine if advertising revenue from millions of digital license placards would help close the state’s $19.1-billion deficit.

    This is surely one of the most moronic ideas in history. Just think: in the near future, California drivers could be distracted not just by digital billboards, digital phones, and digital nav systems, but by millions of blinking, flashing, scrolling digital license plates! And just to make the idea even better, there’s no chance that this would have more than the most minuscule effect on the state budget. It’s perfect! No wonder the feasibility study passed unanimously.

  • Quote of the Day: Ideology in Economics


    From Mike Konczal, on his first experience with PhD-level macroeconomics:

    Speaking as someone who has taken graduate coursework in “continental philosophy”, and been walked through the big hits of structural anthropology, Hegelian marxism and Freudian feminism, that graduate macroeconomics class was by far the most ideologically indoctrinating class I’ve ever seen. By a mile. There was like two weeks where the class just copied equations that said, if you speak math, “unemployment insurance makes people weak and slothful” over and over again. Hijacking poor Richard Bellman, the defining metaphor was the observation that if something is on an optimal path any subsection is also an optimal path, so government just needs to get out of the way as the macroeconomy is optimal absent absurdly defined shocks and our 9.6% unemployment is clearly optimal.

    Ideology is everywhere, and it’s often strongest in the very places that pretend the hardest that they don’t cater to it. Economics, unfortunately, is still an immature discipline, much more complex than something like chemistry or physics, and that means that if you pick your assumptions carefully you can prove almost anything you want. And economists do.

  • Avoiding Ireland’s Fate


    Liz Alderman of the New York Times reports on Ireland’s efforts to retain the confidence of international investors by cutting spending after the financial implosion of 2008:

    Rather than being rewarded for its actions [] Ireland is being penalized. Its downturn has certainly been sharper than if the government had spent more to keep people working. Lacking stimulus money, the Irish economy shrank 7.1 percent last year and remains in recession. Joblessness in this country of 4.5 million is above 13 percent, and the ranks of the long-term unemployed — those out of work for a year or more — have more than doubled, to 5.3 percent.

    ….Despite its strenuous efforts, Ireland has been thrust into the same ignominious category as Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. It now pays a hefty three percentage points more than Germany on its benchmark bonds, in part because investors fear that the austerity program, by retarding growth and so far failing to reduce borrowing, will make it harder for Dublin to pay its bills rather than easier.

    In the case of Ireland, it’s not clear if they had a lot of choice. They’re a eurozone country, so they couldn’t devalue their currency, and they’re running monster deficits even with the cutbacks they’ve made. Bigger deficits might simply not have been possible for a country their size.

    Still, the results are pretty obviously horrific, and any country that can avoid Ireland’s fate surely ought to. We certainly can, for example. So why do so many people want us to follow the Irish path instead?

  • Russ Feingold’s Bad Choice


    In the wake of a historic economic collapse caused largely by a financial industry allowed to run rampant, Sen. Russ Feingold (D–Wisc.) has decided to vote in favor of doing nothing at all to address this:

    As I have indicated for some time now, my test for the financial regulatory reform bill is whether it will prevent another crisis. The conference committee’s proposal fails that test and for that reason I will not vote to advance it. During debate on the bill, I supported several efforts to break up ‘too big to fail’ Wall Street banks and restore the proven safeguards established after the Great Depression separating Main Street banks from big Wall Street firms, among other issues. Unfortunately, these crucial reforms were rejected. While there are some positive provisions in the final measure, the lack of strong reforms is clear confirmation that Wall Street lobbyists and their allies in Washington continue to wield significant influence on the process.

    Can I vent for a minute? I know Feingold is proud of his inconoclastic reputation. I know this bill doesn’t do as much as he (or I) would like. I know the financial industry, as he says, continues to have way too much clout on Capitol Hill.

    But seriously: WTF? This is the final report of a conference committee. There’s no more negotiation. It’s an up-or-down vote and there isn’t going to be a second chance at this. You either vote for this bill, which has plenty of good provisions even if doesn’t break up all the big banks, or else you vote for the status quo. That’s it. That’s the choice. It’s not a game. It’s not a time for Feingold to worry about his reputation for independence. It’s a time to make a decision between actively supporting something good and actively supporting something bad. And Feingold has decided to actively support something bad.

    What’s more, his reasons for doing this don’t even make sense. This bill won’t prevent another crisis? No it won’t, but voting for the status quo does even less. It doesn’t break up the big banks? The status quo does even less. It suffers from too much lobbyist influence? Well, Wall Street lobbyists are far more enthusiastic about the status quo than they are about this bill. There are only two choices available here, and on virtually every level Feingold is voting in favor of the alternative that does less of what he says he wants.

    But who knows? Maybe this won’t make any difference. Maybe Harry Reid will be able to round up three or four Republicans to vote in favor of proceeding. But maybe not. With Robert Byrd’s death, Feingold’s vote could end up being the one that dooms financial reform for another decade. I sure wouldn’t want that to be my legacy.

  • One-Click Shopping Still Owned by Amazon


    Hidden among all the big-ticket Supreme Court decisions handed down today, Nick Baumann reports on one of the less momentous ones:

    On Monday, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that struck down Bernard Bilski and Rand Warsaw’s “business method” patent for hedging energy prices against the weather. Some observers had hoped that the court would issue a broad ruling rejecting many “business method” patents — such as Amazon.com’s “one-click” purchasing — entirely. (Critics of business method patents argue that you shouldn’t be able to get patent protection for something as supposedly “obvious” and vague as one-click ordering.) Instead, the court ruled narrowly….That leaves the door open for the Patent Office to continue granting recognition to things like Amazon’s one-click.

    Well, that’s a drag. I think that business method patents are harder to get now than they used to be, but Amazon’s ridiculous one-click patent was granted this year after they revised a few of their claims. It’s idiocy. I’d be delighted to see the Supreme Court or Congress do away with the whole business method patent cesspool entirely. The triviality of most business method claims has long since gotten way out of hand, and the whole world would be better off if we just put an end to them.

  • Preference Ordering Among the Wingers


    A few days ago Mark Kleiman noted that although cap-and-trade was originally a conservative idea, it almost instantly became a conservative bête noir when liberals began to embrace it. Matt Yglesias followed up with the Earned Income Tax Credit and Section 8 housing vouchers as similar conservative ideas that fell out of favor when liberals adopted them. Steve Benen fills in some additional detail:

    This is important. Cap-and-trade — any version of it — has been deemed wholly unacceptable by Republicans this year. But given the intense opposition to the idea, it’s easy to forget that Republicans used to consider cap-and-trade a reasonable, market-based mechanism that was far preferable to command-and-control directives that the right found offensive.

    And I’m not talking about the distant past — the official position of the McCain/Palin Republican presidential ticket, not even two years ago, was to support cap-and-trade. Not just in theory, either. The official campaign website in 2008 told Americans that John McCain and Sarah Palin “will establish … a cap-and-trade system that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” McCain/Palin’s official position added, “A cap-and-trade system harnesses human ingenuity in the pursuit of alternatives to carbon-based fuels.”

    Actually, I think conservatives have a pretty defensible position on these things. Take pollution regs. Their preferences go something like this:

    • Worst: Command and control
    • Better: Cap-and-trade
    • Best: No regs

    If they have the opportunity to support cap-and-trade when the alternative is almost certainly some kind of command-and-control mandate (as in the case of acid rain), then they’ll take cap-and-trade. Half a loaf is better than none. But their strongest preference is still to do nothing. So in the case of greenhouse gas emissions, where there’s still a credible chance of having no regs at all, they oppose cap-and-trade. There’s really nothing especially devious about this.

    But how about Sarah Palin, who specifically supported cap-and-trade for greenhouse gases just two years ago and now assails it as a job-killing monster? Well, that’s harder to justify, but still possible. After all, it’s hardly news that vice presidential candidates are routinely forced to officially support the policies of their running mate even if they disagree with them. In fact, it’s a longtime media sport to force them to somehow justify their change of position even though everyone knows exactly what’s going on. So Sarah Palin played along as a good soldier in 2008, but once the campaign was over she no longer had an obligation to her ticket and was able to revert to her true position. It’s not exactly a principled conversion, but it’s hardly the height of hypocrisy either.

    So fine. But how about John McCain himself? He didn’t owe any kind of fealty to anyone else. Cap-and-trade was his plan for reining in greenhouse gases, he fought for it, and he believed it. At least, he said he did. But then, as soon as he lost an election in which cap-and-trade seemed like an electoral winner and started up a campaign in which it seemed like an electoral loser, he dumped it. How about that?

    Here, I’m afraid I can’t help. There’s just no excuse for this. John McCain is a slick opportunist and always has been. There’s just no there there.

  • Bloggers are the New Columnists


    L’Affaire Weigel, which I followed only lightly since I was away when it unfolded, has apparently now morphed into a question of whether partisan bloggers are “real” reporters or, as several anonymous Washington Post workers put it, just embarrassments waiting to happen. Greg Sargent weighs in:

    The cowardly hiding behind anonymonity is pathetic enough. But let’s take on the substance of this. I submit that someone can be a “real” reporter if he or she is accurate on the facts and fairly represents the positions of subjects; if he or she has a decent sense of what’s newsworthy and important to readers; and if readers come away from his or her stuff feeling more informed than they were before.

    There’s simply no reason why caring what happens in politics — prefering one outcome to another — should inherently interfere with this mission. By publicly advertising a point of view, bloggers are simply being forthcoming about their filter: They are letting readers in on what guides their editorial choices. This allows readers to pick and choose communities where they can expect discussions about topics that interest them with other, generally like-minded readers.

    [Etc. etc.]

    Look: this is ridiculous. There’s just nothing new here. The Post, along with other newspapers, has long had opinionated reporters. They were and are called “columnists.” Robert Novak was a columnist with a conservative inclination. David Broder is a columnist with a centrist inclination.  E.J. Dionne is a columnist with a liberal inclination. All three are also good reporters, and no one at the Post has ever suggested they’re a disgrace to the good name of journalism.

    Whether Weigel was wise to make the comments he did about the people he covers is one thing — though I’ll bet there are few reporters alive who haven’t done the same. They just haven’t been outed by someone with an axe to grind. But broadly speaking, being a blogger is the same thing as being a columnist except in pixels instead of ink. It’s a long and well-accepted position. Why the hell do so many mainstream reporters still have a problem with this?

  • Deficit Hawks vs. Deficit Posers


    Should we spend more to stimulate the economy? Or spend less because runaway debt is threatening our fiscal health? Ezra Klein comments:

    Few economists, I think, would argue against the combination of short-term spending and longer-term deficit reduction if they believed the deficit reduction was certain. But the American political system has a lot of trouble making unpopular choices and some trouble sticking to those choices once they’re made.

    This is where you might expect a bloc of deficit hawks to step into the middle of the legislative debate with a proposal pairing spending in 2011 with savings beginning in 2014, but we’ve seen no such thing.

    I think I’d put this differently: there is no bloc of deficit hawks. End of story. There are a few individuals here and there who are sincere about cutting the deficit, but a bloc? Not even close. They’re almost all posers.

    But Kevin, you say, how can you know this? Can you read the minds of men and women three thousand miles away? Actually, no — though it would be pretty cool if I could. But in this case I can do something almost as good: I can look at the public evidence. And that evidence is crystal clear: there are lots of members of Congress who are willing to talk endlessly about deficits, but there are very, very few who are willing to publicly support specific cuts. There are fewer still who are willing to publicly support cuts that might affect any of their own constituents. And there are fewer still who have shown any inclination to actually vote for serious cuts when they’ve had the power to do so. So: no bloc of deficit hawks.

    Still not convinced? Well, Ezra is right that America’s political system (like every other democracy’s) has a lot of trouble making unpopular choices, but it’s not entirely impossible to stick to spending cuts and tax increases once they’ve been made. It’s true that anything one Congress does, another can undo. But the fact is that tax increases have been phased in over time in the past, and the phase-ins have taken effect. Likewise, entitlement cuts have been phased in over time, and those cuts have taken effect. Not always, but a lot of the time. If Congress actually had the will to legislate Medicare and Social Security cuts that phased in over ten years starting in, say, 2013, there’s a very strong likelihood that the cuts would happen. The 1983 Social Security compromise, for example, gradually raised the retirement age over a span of two decades starting in 2003, and that has taken place exactly on schedule.

    Really, the only serious issue is actually doing it, not having faith that the cuts will actually happen. Discretionary cuts are very difficult to promise credibly, but entitlements have always worked largely on autopilot once the rules are set. If there were genuinely a bloc of deficit hawks in Congress, they’d be willing to vote for both Medicare cuts and tax increases that phase in over a period of years. But almost none of the supposed deficit hawks are willing to do either of these things, let alone both. They’re posers.

  • Have We Won the War on Terror?


    After hearing Leon Panetta estimate al-Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan at about 60-100 members, Dan Drezner wonders if maybe it’s time to reassess our national security priorities:

    The fact is, Al Qaeda’s abilities to execute Grand Guignol-kind of attacks appears to be nil. There have been plenty of opportunities over the past five years for AQ to launch the kind of attack that would put fear into the heart of the West — the USA-England World Cup match, most recently — and there’s been nothing.

    ….Isn’t it time that some rational cost-benefit analysis was applied to counter-terrorism policies? In a world where “The [defense budget] gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time,” isn’t it time for political leaders to argue in favor of resource retrenchment, even if it increases the probability of a successful attack just a smidgen?

    Now, Panetta also said that “the main location of Al Qaida is in tribal areas of Pakistan,” and ABC’s Jake Tapper, for some reason, failed to follow up on that. Still, their overall numbers are probably pretty small even with Pakistan included, which suggests that we’ve basically won our war against al-Qaeda. So why not continue harrassing them in the various tribal areas with drones and special ops, but otherwise cut back substantially on counterterrorism and use the money on other things? Good answers welcome.