Kevin Drum - August 2010

Real Housewives of the Oval Office

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 10:01 PM EDT

Michelle Obama's vacation in Spain is causing jaws to drop and tongues to wag:

A quiet holiday in a lavish Spanish villa for the first lady and her daughter has turned into a bit of a headache for a White House trying to battle bad economic news at home.

....The first lady is paying for her own room, food and transportation, and the friends she brought will pay for theirs as well. But the government picks up security costs, and the image of the president’s wife enjoying a fancy vacation at a luxury resort abroad while Americans lose their jobs back home struck some as ill-timed. European papers are having a field day tracking her entourage, a New York Daily News columnist called her “a modern-day Marie Antoinette” and the blogosphere has been buzzing.

Now see, that's why Americans preferred the down home common sense of the Bush family. Laura didn't go gallivanting off with her friends and a squad of Secret Service agents every year, she just joined George for quiet getaways clearing brush at the ranch in Crawf — oh, wait. What's that? She didn't?

Laura Bush took solo vacations without her husband each year of George W. Bush’s presidency, likewise traveling with her Secret Service detail on a government plane to meet friends for camping and hiking excursions to national parks. But it never generated the sort of furor Mrs. Obama trip’s is causing, at least in part because visiting national parks in the United States is not as politically sensitive.

Uh huh. That's it. Laura's vacations generated no furor because "visiting national parks in the United States is not as politically sensitive." I imagine that partisan cranks will try to gin up some other reason that no one made a fuss over her vacations, but you can't take these special pleaders seriously. Laura just had the good sense to visit places that weren't as politically-wink-wink-nudge-nudge-sensitive. Facts are facts.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 6 August 2010

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 2:05 PM EDT

Every week it's the same old thing: pictures of the cats' faces. But what about the rest of them? Well, here you go: some nice artsy photos of Inkblot and Domino from the back. The one on the left somehow reminds me of an Andrew Wyeth painting. Let's call it Domino's World. The one on the right is more like — I dunno. Some Ansel Adams photograph? Maybe Moonrise Over Inkblot. Except it's actually a sunset. But I bet you guys can come up with something a lot better.

Quote of the Day: Geese and Ganders in the Senate

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 1:50 PM EDT

From Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D–RI), who decided not to push through the nomination of a Rhode Island judge after Republican senators had all left town even though Republicans had declined to give him the usual home state deference on proceeding with a vote:

It is frustrating to be in this position of holding myself back out of respect for the traditions and courtesies of the Senate when I feel that at the moment I’m on the losing end of a violation of the courtesies and traditions of the Senate.

Ladies and gentlemen, the U.S. Senate, greatest deliberative body etc. etc.

Will Our Kids Be Better Off Than Us?

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 12:51 PM EDT

Peggy Noonan's weekly attempts at sounding both deeply wise and gravely troubled have about the same effect on me as nails on a chalkboard, so I don't usually read her columns. But I did today, and this passage struck me:

The country I was born into was a country that had existed steadily, for almost two centuries, as a nation in which everyone thought — wherever they were from, whatever their circumstances — that their children would have better lives than they did....Parents now fear something has stopped....They look around, follow the political stories and debates, and deep down they think their children will live in a more limited country, that jobs won't be made at a great enough pace, that taxes — too many people in the cart, not enough pulling it — will dishearten them, that the effects of 30 years of a low, sad culture will leave the whole country messed up.

The reason it struck me is that I agree but — unsurprisingly — for an entirely different reason than Noonan's. It's not high taxes (which are lower than any time in recent history) or social changes (which have been overwhelmingly positive) that bother me, it's the fact that we increasingly seem to be led by a social elite that's simply lost interest in the good of the country. They were wealthy 30 years ago, they've gotten incomparably more wealthy since then, and yet they seem to care about little except amassing ever more wealth and endlessly scheming to reduce their tax burdens further. Shipping off our kids on a growing succession of costly foreign adventures is OK, but funding healthcare or unemployment benefits or economic stimulus in the midst of a world-historical recession is beyond the pale.

So yeah: when Noonan says of our political leaders, "I think their detachment from how normal people think is more dangerous and disturbing than it has been in the past," I agree. But where she sees social breakdown and anomie, I see something more like the patrician thugocracy of Rome, dedicated to ever more sybaritic pleasures and blithely willing to suck the marrow out of the vast middle class in order to get it.

Apocalyptic? Yes! What's more, Scott Winship says our entire premise is wrong: polling suggests that parents still think their kids will have it better than they do. He's got a raft of polling results to back this up, and they roughly show that in good economic times parents are optimistic about their kids' future and in bad times they're pessimistic. Not exactly a startling result. And since we're in the middle of some very bad economic times, the Pew result above, showing that only 46% of parents think their kids will be better off than they are, is unsurprising.

But Scott's results only go back to the early 90s, and they bounce around a fair amount (the average seems to be around 55%). What I'm more curious about is what this looked like in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Was optimism about our kids' futures substantially higher then? Or has it bounced around at 55% during the entire postwar period? Any polling gurus out there know if there's an outfit that's been asking this question for a long time and has decade-long trends to show us?

UPDATE: I should probably be a little clearer here about what I myself think. Will our kids be better off than us? Almost certainly. Will they be a lot better off — as they should be given the likely economic growth of the next few decades? That I'm not so sure about.

The Future of the Supreme Court

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 11:20 AM EDT

Elena Kagan was only barely confirmed to the Supreme Court yesterday, continuing a recent trend of court picks becoming ever more partisan. Jon Chait comments:

Kagan’s meager tally is five fewer than Sonia Sotomayor last year, 15 fewer than John Roberts got in 2005 and pales in comparison to the 96-3 coronation of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1993. That trend has many legal observers lamenting a Supreme Court confirmation process on a steady trajectory toward complete polarization and a seemingly inevitable filibuster.

....And this has all taken place in a landscape where Obama has merely been replacing liberal justices with other, possibly less liberal, justices. Can you imagine what will happen if one of the five conservatives retires on Obama's watch? It's entirely possible that Senate Republicans will simply refuse to confirm any more justices, period.

So what happens if this becomes institutionalized? It means that no president with a Senate controlled by the opposite party will ever be able to place someone on the Supreme Court. So then what? Perhaps the new norm will become automatic recess appointments without even the pretense of a Senate hearing. And since recess appointments only last through the end of a president's term (assuming he continually reappoints his candidates at the beginning of each new Congress), this would place a premium on justices resigning only when a congenial president is in office (already a well accepted norm) and doing it early in his first term in order to give the new folks at least seven or eight years on the bench. Keep this up for a couple of decades, and you'd essentially end up with a system in which incoming presidents replaced virtually the entire court during their first year.

Needless to say, no one would like this system much. But it's the inexorable end game unless something changes. So perhaps some change is in order?

Senate Norms Take Yet Another Hit

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 10:48 AM EDT

Xinhua/zumapress.comXinhua/zumapress.comPeter Diamond, one of Barack Obama's nominees for an empty Fed seat, was "sent back" by the Senate yesterday. But what does that mean, anyway? BusinessWeek explains what happened after Diamond was approved last week by the Senate Banking Committee:

Under Senate rules, all nominations that aren’t completed before a lengthy recess go back to the White House and have to be resubmitted unless the Senate unanimously agrees to hold onto them and act later, Stewart said. Routinely, the Senate does agree to retain the nominations.

If a single senator objects, the name goes back to the president’s office. In Diamond’s case, at least one senator did that. Stewart said he didn’t know the identity of the lawmakers.

Italics mine. So yet another Senate norm gets tossed on the ash heap of history. Nice work, Republicans. As an aside, note that the "Stewart" in the passage above is Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, and the proposition that he doesn't know who held up Diamond's nomination is pretty unlikely. It was Richard Shelby, the increasingly cranky senator from Alabama who, as near as I can tell, is still nursing a farrago of grievances over the fact that Senate Democrats weren't willing to capitulate completely to his notions of how the financial reform bill should have looked. His reason for opposing the noted MIT economics professor? "I do not believe the current environment of uncertainty would benefit from monetary policy decisions made by board members who are learning on the job," Shelby said mysteriously, and it's true that Diamond isn't an expert on macroeconomics — though Wikipedia tells me that he is an expert on government debt and capital accumulation, capital markets and risk sharing, optimal taxation, search and matching in labor markets, and social insurance. In any case, last night I decided to go to bed rather than investigate this further, but today Matt Yglesias provides the requisite googling:

Governor Kevin Warsh, who George W Bush appointed in 2006 to no controversy, is 40 and has a JD but no advanced degree in economics or academic research in the field at all. Elizabeth Duke who Bush also nominated and who Shelby doesn’t seem to have a problem with has no advanced degree in any subject and has a bachelor’s degree in drama. Daniel Tarullo, who Barack Obama appointed and who was confirmed with no controversy, has a JD and a MA, but again no PhD. Sandra Pianalto, President of the Cleveland Fed, has an MBA and a MA but no PhD.

Not that there needs to be a rule that FOMC members should have PhDs in economics. But the point is that Diamond would clearly raise the level of macroeconomic expertise on a board that’s currently dominated by bankers and bank regulators.

So Shelby is, to use a technical term, just being a prick. Diamond is perfectly well qualified, but apparently has views (for example, that deflation is bad and Social Social Security taxes should go up) that Shelby doesn't like. So he's going to force Obama to renominate him just because he can. Ladies and gentlemen, the United States Senate. Greatest deliberative body in the world. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

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Is Google a Little Bit Evil?

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 4:00 AM EDT

"Net neutrality" is a principle that's guided internet development for decades. Put simply, it means that everyone has equal access to the net. If you send an email to Aunt Martha, it has the same priority as my Google search for Lady Gaga videos or Rupert Murdoch's latest multibillion dollar internet television startup. Data is data, and it all goes over the net equally quickly.

But net neutrality has been under attack from years. The battle lines shift, and sometimes get a little too complex to follow in detail, but the outline is pretty simple. Companies in the content business generally support net neutrality. They want their data delivered as fast as anyone else's without having to pay any special fees. Conversely, companies like Verizon or AT&T, who supply the pipes, want it to go away. They love the idea of being able to charge higher fees for better service.

During the Bush era, the FCC began to back off on net neutrality but still issued a set of "principles" that it expected service providers to adhere to. Then, last April, a court ruled that the FCC had no authority to regulate net neutrality at all. A month later, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski announced that he would try to reclassify internet providers in order to re-impose net neutrality rules on them, but this is a regulatory process that will take, at a minimum, months to complete.

In the meantime, net neutrality may be on the verge of unraveling completely. Google, once a fierce advocate of net neutrality and a company whose informal motto is "Don't be evil," has apparently decided that maybe just a little bit of evil is OK after all:

Google and Verizon, two leading players in Internet service and content, are nearing an agreement that could allow Verizon to speed some online content to Internet users more quickly if the content’s creators are willing to pay for the privilege.

....Such an agreement could overthrow a once-sacred tenet of Internet policy known as net neutrality, in which no form of content is favored over another. In its place, consumers could soon see a new, tiered system, which, like cable television, imposes higher costs for premium levels of service.

Any agreement between Verizon and Google could also upend the efforts of the Federal Communications Commission to assert its authority over broadband service, which was severely restricted by a federal appeals court decision in April.

The problem here is obvious: once Google does this, they set off an arms race. Can Yahoo or Microsoft really afford to be second class citizens? Or Disney or Fox? Not likely. Before long, pretty much every deep-pocketed content provider has signed a deal for special treatment and we officially have a two-tier internet. On one tier are the companies with money. On the other tier are all the rest of us. And make no mistake: if the major content providers get guarantees of better service, every other content provider will almost certainly end up with worse service than they have now.

I have a vested interest in this, of course, since Mother Jones isn't big enough or deep-pocketed enough to pay for top tier service, and that means that in two or three years delivery of this blog could end up pretty molasses-like. In a less parochial vein, I think the lesson of history is pretty clear: when common carriers are allowed to discriminate, the result is disastrous for everyone except the folks who currently dominate their market. If you have a startup search company that outperforms Google, but only if it's as fast as Google, well, what are the odds that Google won't pay to make sure that its service is always faster than yours? After all, ad revenue depends on getting eyeballs by hook or by crook, and it turns out they aren't quite as committed to not being evil as we once thought.

I'm not a net neutrality purist. I can see the case for offering tiered service for things like on-demand video streaming, which simply can't work commercially unless providers can guarantee reliable delivery. Beyond that, though, a free and open internet has worked pretty well and we abandon it at our peril. Time is running out on the FCC, and in any case, the FCC was never the right place for this anyway. Congress is. If we want to keep net neutrality in anything like its current form, Congress needs to get off its duff and set the rules of the road once and for all. Markey-Eshoo is a pretty good place to start.

Myths and Realities About the Tea Party

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 12:56 AM EDT

In his triumphant return to the Washington Post, Dave Weigel debunks five myths about the tea party:

  1. The tea party isn't a reaction to President Obama, it's a reaction to the bank bailouts.
  2. The tea party is racist.
  3. Sarah Palin is the leader of the tea party.
  4. The tea party is bad for Republicans.
  5. The tea party will transform American politics.

I think Dave is 90% correct. These are all myths, with the partial exception of #4. In the short term, he's right: "The tea party movement is giving Republicans a dream of an electorate, one in which surveys find more GOP-inclined voters enthusiastic about casting ballots than voters who lean Democratic. Democrats have done some damage to the tea party brand — its favorability has fallen in polls — but in general, the presence of a new political force that is not called Republican and is not tied to George W. Bush has given the GOP a glorious opportunity to remake its image, at a time when trust in the party is very low."

True. But in the longer term I think the tea party movement is more dangerous to Republicans than he lets on. There's a limit to how crazy a party can get and still win elections even occasionally, and the tea partiers are very rapidly taking the GOP to that point and beyond. It's probably a net benefit in 2010 — though even that's debatable — but beyond that I suspect it's almost pure millstone.

I'll have more on this in the next issue of the magazine. If I understand our production timetable properly, that shouldn't be too far off. But don't hold me to it. I might not have as good a handle on MoJo's print schedule as I think.

The Month in Review

| Thu Aug. 5, 2010 7:25 PM EDT

Here's a rough recap of the past month in news hysteria:

Week of July 12: New Black Panthers
Week of July 19: Shirley Sherrod, JournoList
Week of July 26: Ground Zero mosque
Week of August 2: Birthright citizenship
Upcoming Week of August 9: Gay marriage? Michelle's vacation in Spain? Take a guess!

Quite a summer we're having, no? Am I missing anything? What have liberals gotten hysterical about lately?

Quote of the Day: Minutemen in Utah

| Thu Aug. 5, 2010 5:19 PM EDT

From Economist reporter Andreas Kluth, after visiting a meeting of the Minutemen in Utah:

I had expected to be slightly scared. I was not. Instead, the atmosphere was somewhere between that of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and a geriatric home.

Better than the opposite, I suppose.