Kevin Drum - October 2010

FDR's Web

| Sun Oct. 31, 2010 11:45 PM EDT

Ross Douthat makes a few good points and a few not-so-good ones in his column today, but this paragraph just confuses me. He's talking about Barack Obama's agenda of the past two years:

Legislative maneuverings — the buy-offs and back-room deals, the inevitable coziness with lobbyists — exposed the weakness of modern liberal governance: it tends to be stymied and corrupted by the very welfare state that it’s seeking to expand. Many of Barack Obama’s supporters expected him to be another Franklin Roosevelt, energetically experimenting with one program after another. But Roosevelt didn’t have to cope with the web of interest groups that’s gradually woven itself around the government his New Deal helped build. And while Obama twisted in these webs, the public gradually decided that it liked bigger government more in theory than in practice.

Interest groups spawned by the New Deal? The healthcare bill had to cope with a bunch of business lobbies, including the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the AMA. The finance reform bill had to cope with Wall Street. Cap-and-trade had to cope with electric utilities and geographical rivalries. Immigration reform, which never even got off the ground, had to deal with xenophobia on one side and business interests that wanted a continued flow of cheap labor on the other. And on all of these issues, Obama had to deal with a monolithic Republican Party that filibustered his every move, refused to bargain in anything close to good faith, and voted nearly unanimously against everything he proposed.

I'm just not seeing the shadow of New Deal interest groups there. These seem like the same old interest groups that FDR and every other progressive have had to fight since forever. I think you could make a case that AARP fits Douthat's description, but that's about it. What am I missing here?

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Old Stuff

| Sun Oct. 31, 2010 5:18 PM EDT

After admiring an old Kalashnikov rifle that's still in active use, C.J. Chivers asks:

Can you think of tools that last this long, or that you expect to? Your pickup truck? Cell phone? Refrigerator? Television? Laptop? Do you own anything that was manufactured in the 1950s and still is in regular, active use in your life?

Yes! My beloved reading chair. Unfortunately, it's out being recovered right now, which means I don't have a reading chair at the moment. And this in turn means that I'm not reading as much as usual, because I really don't have any other place in the house that I find comfortable for extended loafing. Buying a new chair probably would have been cheaper than recovering the old one, and I thought about it, but then Marian reminded me that (a) I really like this chair and (b) I always hate new stuff because it's made like crap and doesn't last. She was right! Almost without exception, every time I buy something new, the workmanship of the new item is annoyingly shoddy (and she has to listen to me gripe about it). It doesn't really seem to matter how much I paid, either, which is why I don't bother buying expensive things. It's almost all junky, so why bother?

But this chair? Built like a rock and it has spring cushions. It'll probably collapse about the same time as the heat death of the universe.

Anything else that old? Not really. My grandfather's wristwatch still works, but I don't actually wear it on a regular basis. Maybe a few old tools that we inherited. Nothing else I can think of. How about you?

(Via Sullivan.)

War as a Hobby

| Sun Oct. 31, 2010 2:10 PM EDT

Here is David Broder proposing a way for Barack Obama to get the economy back on track in time for his 2012 election campaign:

Look back at FDR and the Great Depression. What finally resolved that economic crisis? World War II.

Here is where Obama is likely to prevail. With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve.

I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected. But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history.

There's one bizarre idea here and one....other idea. The bizarre one is the notion that a war with Iran would cause the economy to improve. It wouldn't. War with Iran would cost us — at most — about 1% of GDP, and this would have essentially no effect on economic growth. This isn't a multi-year, two-front, full-scale national mobilization we're talking about here. On the other hand, it would cause a massive spike in oil prices as Iran's oil went off line (or traders began to fear it would go off line), and that would almost certainly be really, really bad for the economy. So everyone should just give up on the idea that even if an economic boost isn't a primary reason to go to war with Iran, it's at least an argument in its favor. It isn't.

So then: what about the idea that "Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century"? A lot of people seem to agree with this, so it's not right to call it bizarre. It is, however, a sign of the times that a major, supposedly centrist newspaper columnist can treat such a statement so cavalierly. I mean, whatever else you can say about Charles Krauthammer, he'd at least write a few paragraphs about why Iran is so dire a threat that we should go to war with them. Broder just tosses it off casually. This does not bode well for the idea that our ruling class has learned any useful lessons from our adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Top Ten Lists

| Sun Oct. 31, 2010 12:05 PM EDT

Here's a Twitter conversation from last night:

@kdrum: @ebertchicago's "Why I Loathe Top 10 Film Lists" doesn't actually say a word about why he loathes Top Ten lists. http://ow.ly/323Z8

@RemoteClancy: re: @ebertchicago & Top 10 lists. Not a word, just 900 of them. Re-read his response to 'Best in Film' for clearest reason.

I guess you'll have to click the link and decide for yourself who's right. As near as I can tell, Roger Ebert told us why he doesn't like being asked to participate in creating Top Ten lists for free, but that's a whole different question than why he loathes Top Ten lists in general. I realize he didn't write the headline for the piece, but I still want to know: why does he loathe Top Ten lists? He does seem to, but there's really no explanation given. Even for a serious critic, it seems like it might be sort of a fun exercise.

Kowtowing and Coddling

| Sat Oct. 30, 2010 6:26 PM EDT

So here's a good question. Thursday was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s birthday, so Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Philip Crowley tweeted the message on the right. Shane Bauer, of course, has written for Mother Jones in the past, so we have a personal interest in this case and were happy to see Crowley keeping it front and center.

Sarah Palin, though, not so much. She replied: "Happy B'day Ahmadinejad wish sent by US Govt. Mind boggling foreign policy: kowtow & coddle enemies; snub allies." That's a pretty stunning reaction, and Steven Taylor wonders if this deliberate misreading of Crowley's tweet is going to spread:

The reason I think that it is noteworthy is that I suspect that the notion that the Obama administration is “kowtow[ing]” and “coddl[ing]” Iran via sincere birthday greetings will probably become a meme on Fox News and on talk radio — the further dissemination of false information. This is unfortunate. It is one thing to have a different perspective on how to deal with a problem, quite another to make things up.

So waddaya think? Is the conservative noise machine going to pick up on this meme? I think it's a stretch even for them, but I don't plan to turn on the TV or the radio to find out. And they've certainly surprised me in the past. So if they do, let us know in comments.

Ideology vs. Self Interest

| Sat Oct. 30, 2010 4:21 PM EDT

Bruce Bartlett thinks Republicans will have to start delivering the goods if they take over Congress next week. Matt Yglesias disagrees, citing research that voters always blame the president for whatever happens, not Congress. But:

Things look different in interest-group terms. CEOs do want their personal income taxes lower, do want the capital gains taxes they pay lower, and do want to be able to pollute and violate labor law with impunity. But they presumably don’t want to see the economy fall into a depression and Speaker Boehner may be “responsible” in their eyes.

You'd think so, wouldn't you? But the business community has long demonstrated a remarkable ability to value ideology over actual results. Think about it: if congressional Republicans had been in charge over the past couple of years, there would have been no TARP, no stimulus, and no auto rescue. In other words, the economy would be in truly harrowing shape and businesses would be failing left and right. What's more, simple self interest dictates that going forward the business community ought to be clamoring for monetary easing and more fiscal stimulus, something that Republicans are dead set against. But they aren't. In fact, they're planning to vote in massive numbers for Republicans. They're basically content with anemic economic growth.

I'm not quite sure what accounts for this. Opposing regulation I get. No one wants to be regulated. Ditto for higher taxes, even if they're pretty modest. But why do corporate chieftans oppose true national healthcare even though it would almost certainly make their lives easier and make them more globally competitive? Why do they oppose cap-and-trade even though its effects are modest and the alternative is more intrusive EPA regulations? Why do they oppose fiscal stimulus even though it would spur the economy and be good for business?

It's a mystery. I guess they truly don't believe that stimulus spending will help. Or, maybe they don't believe that anything the government does helps the economy. It's hard to say. But whatever happens, I'll bet they won't hold Speaker Boehner responsible for it. They'll blame it on stifling regulations or bad trade policy or too much government spending or bad currency management. Something that's Obama's fault. It'll always be Obama's fault.

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Friday Dog Blogging - 29 October 2010

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 2:06 PM EDT

Surprise! The cats get this week off as I showcase Rupert and Digby, who belong to my sister-in-law and her partner. Digby (on the left) is, I'm informed, a "Heinz-57 with a terrier personality." Rupert, on the right, is a poodle mix.

Enjoy this while you can, dog lovers. Inkblot and Domino will be back next week, demanding that Republicans pass the Two Cans of Food Every Night Act of 2011 just as soon as they take office. They're billing it as a deficit reduction measure because — well, why not? Isn't everything a deficit reduction measure these days?

The Risk of Default

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 1:40 PM EDT

Pretty much everyone agrees that Republicans won't do anything serious to reduce the deficit if they win control of the House next week. After all, they plainly don't care about deficits except as a useful partisan cudgel. Bruce Bartlett agrees, but has an even more exotic fear:

As I have previously warned, I am very fearful that it will be impossible to raise the debt limit, which would bring about a default and real, honest-to-God bankruptcy — something many Tea Party-types have openly called for in an insane belief that this will somehow or other impose fiscal discipline on out-of-control government spending without forcing them to vote either for spending cuts or tax increases.

....Republicans should savor the period from Election Day to the first day of the new Congress on January 3, 2011. That will be as good as it gets for them; afterwards, it’s all downhill once they have to act, take responsibility, and can no longer blame Democrats for everything bad that happens anywhere. That goes for their allies in the business community, who naively assume that every action of the last two years that they opposed will magically disappear. And it goes double for the Tea Partiers, who have never had to take responsibility for anything. It’s a whole new ballgame in January.

At this point, I'm not sure I'd put anything past them. One thing might stop this doomsday scenario, though. The Republican base — big business and the rich, not the tea party — have made it crystal clear that they'll fight to their last breath to keep from taking any responsibility for the mess they made over the past decade. However, that same base probably genuinely fears the possibility of a default. They're greedy and narcissistic, not insane. So they'll probably rein things in just short of that. A demonstration of who's boss is one thing, but actually putting the assets of the rich at risk is quite another.

Chart of the Day: Democratic Losses in 2010

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 12:36 PM EDT

So how should Democrats expect to do this year? Douglas Hibbs has one of the most famous equations for forecasting midterm elections, and it has four terms for predicting the partisan division in the House:

The in-party is expected to win a baseline constant of 62 seats, plus a number of seats equal to about 62% of the number won at the previous on-year election (the incumbency effect), minus around 1.4 seats for every percentage point of the sitting president'’s vote margin in the previous on-year election (the balance effect), plus almost 10 seats for every percentage point of growth in per capita real disposable personal income over the congressional term.

In other words, taking an educated guess that income growth in Q3 will be -3% and therefore income growth for the entire congressional term will clock in at 0.1%:

62 + .62*256 -1.4*7.4 + 0.1*9.7 = 211.33 Democratic seats

I have helpfully put this into chart format below, extending Hibbs's chart for 1950-2006 to include next week's election. Why does this matter? As Jon Chait says, it should anchor our expectations and provide a healthy dose of skepticism toward the various narratives that pundits will trot out after the election to explain things:

The point is not that structural factors determine everything, and that policies or communication or other tactical decisions have no impact. The point is to center the discussion around a realistic baseline.....It's worth keeping in mind beforehand a clear sense of what sort of result we would expect if the president's policies and political strategy made no difference at all. That's about a 45 seat loss....If you want to have the "what did Obama do wrong" argument, you first need to establish what "wrong" would look like.

Chait thinks that the Hibbs prediction of 45 seats is too low, but I'm willing to go ahead and accept it. Basically, it provides a reasonable baseline. If Democrats lose 50 seats, it's fair to say they did something tactically wrong. But that "something wrong" only cost them five seats. Aside from that, they blew it by not being more aggressive about stimulating the economy. Unfortunately, that mistake was mostly made during Obama's first year in office. By the time 2010 rolled around, there wasn't much left they could do about that.

Our Stagnant Pie

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 11:37 AM EDT

Doug Mataconis takes a look at today's awful GDP figures and concludes that we're headed for a long stretch of low growth and high unemployment. He's not happy about what this means for our political future:

There’s a reason that politics in the 1950s gave us men like Eisenhower and Stevenson, and there’s a reason that politics in 2010s are giving us Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Alan Grayson, and the 24/7/365 cable “news” culture, and I would submit that much of it is related to the fact that people are beginning to believe that they are going to have to fight over pieces of a pie that isn’t going to grow nearly fast enough to sustain the standard of living we’ve become used to.

On my good days I think this is simply the normal pessimism that takes over during a recession. (And yes, we're still in a recession in all but the most technical definition of the term.) On the other hand, household deleveraging still has a long ways to go, house prices probably still have a ways to drop, income stagnation is going to remain a fact of life as long as unemployment is high, and our political system is dominated by people who plainly have no intention of doing anything about any of this. So on my bad days I agree with Doug. There's no reason things have to be this way, but we sure seem to have lost the will to change them much.