Kevin Drum - September 2010

Friday Cat Blogging - 24 September 2010

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 12:07 PM PDT

I spaced this week and forgot to take any new cat pictures. Bad blogger. So instead you get Catblogging Classic™! Hopefully these pictures are old enough that no one remembers seeing them before. (In fact, the tree on the right doesn't even exist anymore.) Anyway, these are from 2007, and they've been fully digitally restored and look better than they did when I first posted them thanks to the magic of Photoshop's sharpening filter. Bask in the nostalgia!

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Inside the Blue Dog Mind

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 11:18 AM PDT

Are the Blue Dogs congenital morons? Wait. Don't answer that. First read this passage about their support for extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy:

"People are very imprecise with the way they are talking about it and reporting it," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md) said in an interview last week. "The Blue Dogs have not proposed a permanent tax increase for the wealthy, just a temporary plan....They are working to identify offsets in the event that they are doing a one- or two-year extension [for the wealthy], which is totally different from the Republican plan."

In an interview with the Huffington Post on Thursday, Rep. James Cyburn (D-S.C) the House Majority Whip, confirmed that Blue Dogs are working on a plan to identify specific cuts in government spending as a means of paying for a temporary extension for tax cuts for the wealthy.

Let me get this straight. It's not just that the Blue Dogs are in favor of extending tax cuts for the rich, which is an unpopular policy. They're also in favor of cutting programs over the next two years to pay for it. This is not only a dumb idea economically, but would almost certainly make the tax cuts even more unpopular. What's going to be their next idea? Tax cuts for the rich, funded by spending cuts for everyone else, and while we're at it let's outlaw barbecuing on the 4th of July. Then people will really hate us! Jeebus.

Help for the Chesapeake?

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 10:04 AM PDT

This post is outsourced to regular reader rph3 from the great state of Virginia:

I know you're all left coast and all that, but here we have long had one of the most open festering environmental sores in existence — the Chesapeake Bay and the cleanup efforts that have failed miserably for over 30 years. This is a classic case where Republican declarations that "states should work constructively with the fed to achieve our goals and not have the fed ram down our throats" have predictably resulted in states ignoring the fed and not working at all together. And that has resulted in extreme degradation of the Bay.

Anyway, it's just in EPA blowhard stage, full of threats to maybe get angry and do something — but it's more than anyone has done in 30+ years.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/24/AR2010092402864.html

I'm sure progressives will loudly promote this bold (and it is bold) action by the Obama administration and give credit where it is due.

But this also has the classic risks of progressive policy — environmental improvement will likely result in increased taxes and will cause a significant backlash. And while I'd like to think people would understand the tradeoff, I .... uh. Yeah right.

Anyway this is change. And it could be dramatic. And it could financially hurt.

Jobs and Divorce

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 9:41 AM PDT

On the list of jobs with the highest divorce rates, physicians and surgeons clock in at 7th from the top. Optometrists rank #505, or 6th from the bottom. Explain.

POSTSCRIPT: Bloggers don't make the list, but "writers and authors" come in at #213. So I guess I'm pretty safe. Certainly much better than the #34 I used to be as a technical writer, but about the same as back when I was a retail manager (#276) or a marketing manager (#204).

Dumb Arguments

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 9:17 AM PDT

Via Megan McArdle, Derek Lowe blogs today about an entire field of pharmaceutical research revolving around PPAR ligands that pretty much went nowhere and cost drug companies a bundle:

Allow me to rant for a bit, because I saw yet another argument the other day that the big drug companies don't do any research, no, it's all done at universities with public funds, at which point Big Pharma just swoops in and makes off with the swag. You know the stuff. Well, I would absolutely love to have the people who hold that view explain the PPAR story to me. I really would. The drug industry poured a huge amount of time and money into both basic and applied research in that area, and they did it for years. No one has to take my word for it — ask any of the academic leaders in the field if GSK or Merck, to name just two companies, managed to make any contributions.

....Honestly, I don't understand where these they-don't-do-any-research folks get off. Look at the patent filings. Look at the open literature. Where on earth do you think all those molecules come from, all those research programs to fill up all those servers? There are whole scientific journals that wouldn't exist if it weren't for a steady stream of failed research projects. Where's it all coming from?

I don't doubt that Derek saw this argument somewhere, and to be honest, I don't even begrudge him the rant. We're all sensitive to dumb arguments in our own areas of expertise, especially if we're really tired of hearing them.

But I'm genuinely curious: is there anyone of any stature who's made this argument? I've never seen it. There are plenty of arguments about the relative size of the contributions of academic and commercial pharmaceutical research, and plenty of arguments about whether, for example, the current patent regime is the best way of incentivizing commercial research. But the basic story seems to be pretty broadly accepted: universities and the government do a lot of basic research and corporations then take that research and do the work necessary to produce actual commercial drugs that attack actual illnesses. It doesn't always work that way (private companies do some basic research too), but I've never seen a serious argument that commercial pharma companies do nothing at all.

Anyway, just curious. I'm not really picking on Derek here, I guess I've just spent too much time lately being annoyed by the amount of time we all spend responding to the dumbest, most extreme forms of arguments, and then this one happened to pop up. But who knows? Maybe I'm wrong and JAMA and the New England Journal of Medicine are chock full of editorials telling us that commercial researchers don't actually do anything. If so, I'll stand corrected.

POSTSCRIPT: Of course, in the political world lots of influential people really do make dumb, extreme arguments on a regular basis. And since they're influential, they have to be responded to. But I still wonder if maybe we respond to them too much. Or maybe in the wrong way. Or something.

Prop 19 and the Feds

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 8:17 AM PDT

The LA Times came out editorially today against Proposition 19, an initiative on the California ballot in November that would legalize marijuana cultivation and use. They don't like the "chaos" that would ensue from every city having the ability to set its own regulations, and suggest that some kind of statewide framework should have been included. But even if it did, they say, Prop 19 would still have a fatal flaw:

Californians cannot legalize marijuana. Regardless of how the vote goes on Nov. 2, under federal law marijuana will remain a Schedule I drug, whose use for any reason is proscribed by Congress. Sure, California could go it alone, but that would set up an inevitable conflict with the federal government that might not end well for the state. That experiment has been tried with medical marijuana, and the outcome has not inspired confidence. Up and down the state, an untold number of residents have faced federal prosecution for actions that were allowed under California law.

This is (one of) Mark Kleiman's beefs with Prop 19 too, but oddly enough, I find this to be one of the strongest reasons to vote for Prop 19. Frankly, I think a showdown with the federal government might be long overdue, and contra the Times, I'd say our experiment with medical marijuana, on balance, has been a good thing. (It hasn't worked out very well in Los Angeles, which might be influencing the Times here, but that's largely because LA politicians are morons who refused to draft regulations years ago when they should have.) But even if there have been abuses of the medical cannabis industry, California's deregulation has paved the way for other states to do the same; it's raised awareness (and probably tolerance for) marijuana use nationwide; and it's proven that deregulation can work if local authorities handle it properly. Think Oakland, not LA. On the whole, I think it's been a net positive.

Anyway, a showdown with the feds might not turn out well, but then again, it might produce some useful fireworks. Sometimes that's what it takes to make progress.

(So am I going to vote for Prop 19? I'm tempted. But my presumption for voting No on all propositions is pretty strong, and Prop 19 really does have some drawbacks that are probably not suitable for enshinement for all time in the state constitution. So probably not.)

UPDATE: Oops, sorry. It's not a constitutional amendment, it's an initiative statute. That means it could be overturned as unconstitutional by a court, which is unlikely, but in terms of how easily it can be modified there's not much difference between the two.

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The Senate Gold Mine

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 7:32 AM PDT

A trio of researchers at CEP have done a fascinating little study of lobbyist revenue. Their conclusion:

Our main finding is that lobbyists connected to US Senators suffer an average 24% drop in generated revenue when their previous employer leaves the Senate. The decrease in revenue is out of line with pre-existing trends, it is discontinuous around the period in which the connected Senator exits Congress and it persists in the long-term....Measured in terms of median revenues per ex-staffer turned lobbyist, this estimate indicates that the exit of a Senator leads to approximately a $177,000 per year fall in revenues for each affiliated lobbyist.

So: starting around 2000, the value of ex-congressional staffers started to rise much more quickly than non-connected lobbyists. And when the connected lobbyists' patrons left Congress, either because they retired or lost reelection? Boom. Their revenue drops like a rock. This isn't really surprising, I suppose, but it's interesting to see a number put to it.

And by the way, this is only true for senators.  For lobbyists connected to House members leaving office, the loss is "a weakly statistically significant 10% of generated revenue." Moral of the story: if you want to cash in, work for a senator.
 

Citizens United After Eight Months

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

Last January, in the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations were free to spend unlimited sums to support or oppose candidates for office. Eight months later, how's that working out? Michael Luo and Stephanie Strom report in the New York Times:

Interviews with a half-dozen campaign finance lawyers yielded an anecdotal portrait of corporate political spending since the Citizens United decision. They agreed that most prominent, publicly traded companies are staying on the sidelines.

But other companies, mostly privately held, and often small to medium size, are jumping in, mainly on the Republican side. Almost all of them are doing so through 501(c) organizations, as opposed to directly sponsoring advertisements themselves, the lawyers said.

"I can tell you from personal experience, the money’s flowing," said Michael E. Toner, a former Republican FEC commissioner, now in private practice at the firm Bryan Cave.

The reason the Times' paints only an "anecdotal portrait" and Toner relies on his "personal experience" is that this new corporate money is increasingly being funneled through 501(c)(4) groups that aren't required to disclose who their donors are. You can see the results at the Washington Post's running tally of campaign spending by interest groups: seven of the top ten spenders are Republican organizations, and they're outspending Democrats by nearly two to one, much of it on ads specifically targeted against Democratic House and Senate candidates.

You think that's not fueled by an increase in corporate donations? Then I've got a bridge to sell you. Take number 7 on the list, a group called the 60 Plus Association. Its spending has skyrocketed to nearly $6 million so far this year, and when Dave Weigel asked them where this tidal wave of new cash was coming from, they declined to say. But that kind of money doesn't come from five-dollar donations from tea partiers. It comes from deep pockets — including, as Suzy Khimm reports, $400,000 from American Financial Group to Karl Rove's new campaign spending group, American Crossroads, a contribution that wouldn't have been possible before the Citizens United decision.

And all that money is showing up on the airwaves. Jonathan Martin of Politico reports that an internal Democratic spreadsheet has tallied up the spending so far, and the story is grim: as of this week, pro-Republican organizations had paid for a total of $23.6 million worth of ads compared to $4.8 million for Democratic-aligned groups. And it's only going to get worse: Over the next four weeks, GOP groups have $9.4 million worth of TV ads reserved across 40 districts compared to $1.3 million in five districts for Democratic groups.

And what about liberal groups? Even in the best of times they have a hard time competing with corporate PAC money, but this year is even tougher. At the same time that Citizens United has opened the spigot even wider for Republicans, it's run dry for Democrats. While Karl Rove and his buddies are hoovering up over $50 million for American Crossroads, liberal fundraisers are struggling with a base that's dispirited and unhappy over failures on climate change and DADT and shortcomings on healthcare reform. Jim Jordan, who has started up a new group called Commonsense Ten that's airing ads in Senate races, explains things crisply: "The progressive donor base has stopped writing checks," he says.

And the future? Probably worse. Big publicly traded companies may still be staying on the sidelines this year to see how things shake out, but that's not likely to last. As it becomes clear that corporate spending is here to stay, and efforts to force disclosure of corporate donations fail — such as the DISCLOSE Act currently before Congress — they'll start jumping in too.

Which means that liberals had better get out of their funk and start supporting liberal causes and liberal candidates. Because it's a sure bet that all those corporations newly empowered by Citizens United won't be.

Harry and Nancy and the Tax Cuts

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 8:03 PM PDT

Are Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid a couple of fainthearted cowards for refusing to hold a vote on middle-class tax cuts today? That's the blogo-conventional wisdom at the moment, but pushback comes from the last guy I'd expect it from: Jonathan Zasloff. He explains here.

The Blue Dogs, on the other hand, are muttonheads regardless.

(Speaking of which, can anyone explain the Blue Dogs to me? They didn't want to be put in the position of voting for some tax cuts and against others, even tax cuts for the rich. Obviously these guys know their districts better than I do, and I get that in certain places this might be the smart move. Still, it's hard to believe that any district even remotely willing to elect a Democrat in the first place would punish you for not cutting taxes on the rich. What am I missing here?)

Unemployment Forever

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 5:52 PM PDT

Is our high unemployment problem mostly structural — lots of people have been laid off in a few specific industries and can't be rehired until they've been trained for others — or mostly cyclical — people just aren't buying stuff so companies everywhere aren't hiring new workers? A bit of both, probably, but the evidence suggests pretty strongly that it's mostly cyclical. If it were structural, some industries would have high unemployment and others would have low unemployment, but in fact unemployment is spread pretty evenly around the whole economy. People are cutting back on everything and every sector is suffering.

This is good news, in a sense, since cyclical unemployment is easier to deal with. Unfortunately, we're not dealing with it, and Brad DeLong sounds the alarm:

The overwhelmingly likely possibility is that at the moment little of our unemployment is "structural," but that if demand is not boosted to reduce cyclical unemployment that it will turn into structural unemployment and then be with us for a decade or more. The fact that cyclical unemployment turns into structural unemployment is a possibility that adds immense urgency and power to the case for more demand stimulus right now.

That's obviously not going to happen, since rich people don't really object much to high unemployment (it helps keep wages down, after all) and rich people hold the whip hand over Congress. So that leaves the Fed. Unfortunately, rich people hold the whip hand over them too, so they're not doing anything either. Basically, all of us non-rich folks are screwed. But I'll bet the tea party's billionaire funders are all pretty happy.