Kevin Drum - November 2010

What the Tea Partiers Want

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 3:29 PM EDT

Eugene Robinson is skeptical that tea partiers are really concerned about the stuff they say they're concerned about:

Underlying all the Tea Party's issues and complaints, it appears to me, is the entirely legitimate issue of the relationship between the individual and the federal government. But why would this concern about oppressive, intrusive government become so acute now? Why didn't, say, government surveillance of domestic phone calls and e-mails get the constitutional fundamentalists all worked up?

This is just a mindless talking point. And not even a very good one. Liberals and conservatives have always had a different view about what's oppressive and what's not. And the conservative view has always been that strong police power isn't oppressive. They believe that keeping firm order is a core part of government's job — a necessary precondition for true liberty — and so they've always been in favor of things like widespread surveillance, weak Fourth Amendment rights, active and intrusive antiterrorist policies, and giving police a pass when they get a wee bit rougher with suspects than the law might technically allow. Obviously we liberals have a different point of view, but to pretend that it's hard to square conservative support of Bush-era policies they've always supported with conservative opposition to Obama-era policies they've always opposed is pretty disingenuous.

As for Robinson's broader point — "I can't help believing that the Tea Party's rise was partly due to circumstances beyond his control — that he's different from other presidents, and that the difference is his race" — it's fine as long as there's a pretty strong emphasis on "partly." I don't think there's much question that racial animus has played a role in the tea party movement, but if Obama weren't black it would just be something else. It's not as if we haven't seen this show before, after all.

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Fannie/Freddie Give Stern the Boot

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 2:38 PM EDT

I feel like I should let Andy Kroll have first crack at this story, but all's fair in love and blogging. In any case, it looks like Fannie and Freddie have finally decided to give the boot to David J. Stern's infamous foreclosure mill down in Florida:

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have terminated their relationships with a top Florida foreclosure law firm and began taking possession of loan files on Monday afternoon from the firm, which processes evictions on behalf of the mortgage-finance giants.

....Freddie Mac took the rare step of removing loan files after an internal review raised "concerns about some of the practices at the Stern firm," a Freddie spokeswoman said. "We have begun taking possessions of all files on Freddie Mac mortgages simply to protect our interest in those loans as well as those of the borrowers," the Freddie spokeswoman said. A Fannie spokeswoman declined to elaborate.

And not a moment too soon. For more on Stern's business practices, Andy's original story is here. I'm sure he'll have more later.

Conservatives and Their Memes

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 2:15 PM EDT

Jon Chait notes that even David Brooks has bought into the idea that Democrats have screwed up the economy by introducing "uncertainty" into its every nook and cranny:

This may be the single most vapid Republican talking point of the last two years. And yet it's been endorsed by moderate conservatives like Brooks and even elite outposts of the conventional wisdom.

[Some sentences making the obvious point that Republicans are probably introducing more uncertainty into the regulatory environment than Democrats.]

You would expect the center-right to buy into the most convincing GOP talking points, and to scoff at the least convincing ones. But here the center-right is parroting talking points that are absurd on their very face. Why? I can't say. My guess is....

OK, that's enough. Click the link if you want to see Jon's guess. But since this is my blog, let's go straight to my guess: Frank Luntz.

Not literally, mind you. I have no idea whether Luntz came up with the uncertainty meme or whether he's been advising Republicans to push it. But just in general, I've long been impressed — genuinely impressed — with the conservative ability to come up with talking points that would never occur to me in a million years. Calling healthcare reform "socialist"? No problem. I expected that. But death panels? Where did that come from? Arguing that financial reform will hamper credit? Sure. But charging that a bill designed to end bailouts is a bailout? Damn! That's clever. Claiming that huge deficits are hurting the economy? Bog normal conservative rhetoric. But "uncertainty" is hurting the economy? Who came up with that?

Seriously: who comes up with this stuff? These are things that would never occur to me, and judging by the unimaginative nature of liberal opposition to conservative ideas, they're the kinds of things that never occur to liberals either. But they take hold anyway, and not just among the Fox News set. If Democrats were pushing some liberal version of the uncertainty meme, there would be whole piles of mushy liberals like me who'd write earnest blog posts about how this isn't really such a great argument and we should instead focus on X, Y, and Z. We'd just be too embarrassed to buy into obvious nonsense like this. But on the right, this stuff ends up filtering down to everyone. The uncertainty meme has, almost literally, no evidence at all to back it up, but that doesn't matter. It sounds good, so why not?

Refinancing After 50

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 1:05 PM EDT

Catey Hill of the Wall Street Journal advises against refinancing your mortgage if you're over 50, since "carrying a mortgage into retirement has traditionally been considered a bad idea." But if you do, get a 15-year mortgage instead of a traditional 30-year mortgage:

For starters, a 15-year term leaves more money in your pocket — you'll pay much less in interest over the life of the loan. If you refinance a mortgage (assume a 5% rate) balance of $100,000 for a 30-year term, you will pay more than double what you'd pay had you opted for a 15-year term (about $93,000 in interest vs. about $42,000). Plus, you can get a historically low rate on a 15-year loan now, too.

I'd go further than this. Say you're 55 and you have ten years left on your current mortgage. If you refinance the outstanding balance at a lower rate on a 15-year note, you don't have to pay it off in 15 years. You can pay it off faster by making the same monthly payments as you did with your old mortgage. If you do this, you'll end up paying off the new loan in, say, seven years with the same payments as before.

Obviously this depends on the exact terms of the loan, and it also depends on your ability to stick to your old payment schedule. If you know you're short on self discipline, this might not be a good idea. But if you're the kind of person who will keep making the payments religiously even though you could get away with paying less, it's a complete win.

UPDATE: As several commenters point out, you have to look at actual numbers to know if this makes sense. It depends a lot on how good a rate you get, what your old rate is, how many years are left on your current loan, etc. But in a lot of cases, I suspect that if you run the numbers you'll find that you can keep making the same monthly payments but pay off your outstanding balance faster. It's worth checking out.

Washington, Unchanging

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 12:42 PM EDT

First Read tells us how we got to where we are today:

Same as it ever was? Our final how-we-got-here point is the Democrats’ inability to change Washington, at least in the minds of the electorate. Yes, the Obama White House has been more transparent than its predecessors and has implemented rules to discourage the revolving door between public service and lobbying. And, yes, the Democratic-controlled Congress implemented unprecedented rules to police ethical violations. But the partisanship — as well as all the deals Democrats cut to pass legislation over the last two years — has made the public believe that Washington hasn’t changed under Democratic rule. In our August NBC/WSJ poll, 65% said that Obama had fallen short of their expectations to change Washington.

Maybe — though my guess is that this is a lot like "negative advertising": something that everybody says they hate even though they actually respond quite positively to it. I honestly doubt that there's more than one or two people in a hundred who care much about the deals that Democrats cut to pass the healthcare bill, for example. They either like the bill or they don't, and the ones who don't just toss the dealmaking stuff onto their laundry list of why it was such a terrible idea. The longer the list the better, right?

Of course, to the extent this is true, it just goes to show how badly incentives have evolved in Washington. There's always been a reluctance to allow an opposing president to claim a big legislative victory shortly before an election year, but that's slowly morphed into an active desire to prevent anything from happening at any time because the opposition knows the president will get all the blame for Washington's toxic atmosphere no matter who's doing the obstructing. My guess is that this doesn't work quite as well as everyone thinks — a lot of its "success" this cycle is in reality just a reaction to the bad economy — but it almost doesn't matter. Once it becomes conventional wisdom, we're stuck. Both parties will do it forever. Blecch.

Our Anti-Dentite Press

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 12:13 PM EDT

Yesterday the Daily Caller noted that Sarah Palin had "mocked her media detractors — Politico, specifically — as 'puppy-kicking, chain-smoking porn producers,' " but luckily I checked the full quote before I posted something snarky about it. Here it is:

“The ‘reporters’ who continue to cite ‘unnamed GOP-insiders’ as hard news sources are deemed impotent by the American public as we rise up and say, ‘The state of journalism today stinks. Let’s clean it up and expect some accountability’,” Palin wrote in an email to The Daily Caller.

Palin also mocked Politico’s use of anonymous sources, saying, “I suppose I could play their immature, unprofessional, waste-of-time game, too, by claiming these reporters and politicos are homophobe, child molesting, tax evading, anti-dentite, puppy-kicking, chain smoking porn producers…really, they are... I’ve seen it myself...but I’ll only give you the information off-the-record, on deep, deep background; attribute these ‘facts’ to an ‘anonymous source’ and I’ll give you more.”

Eh. In the blogosphere we say stuff like that about overreliance on anonymous sources all the time. It's hard to get too bothered by this. But "anti-dentite"? That is pretty weird. Welcome to election day!

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Vote!

| Tue Nov. 2, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

Here's the pre-election scene at Drum Central last night: Marian studying the tsunami of mailers we've received over the past few weeks — nearly all of them for local Irvine races — while the two cats snooze nearby. As you can see, we all plan to do our civic duties: Marian and I will vote, while Inkblot and Domino supervise.

You too, OK? Go vote!

Who's Afraid of the Climate Community?

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 9:39 PM EDT

Jonah Goldberg recommends a Scientific American piece this month about "climate heretic" Judith Curry, so I eagerly clicked the link to see what it was all about. Here's what it says:

It is important to emphasize that nothing she encountered led her to question the science; she still has no doubt that the planet is warming, that human-generated greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, are in large part to blame, or that the plausible worst-case scenario could be catastrophic. She does not believe that the Climategate e-mails are evidence of fraud or that the IPCC is some kind of grand international conspiracy. What she does believe is that the mainstream climate science community has moved beyond the ivory tower into a type of fortress mentality, in which insiders can do no wrong and outsiders are forbidden entry.

Curry, for those who don't know, is head of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology. And her primary critique has almost nothing to do with the reality of climate change. Her critique is that (a) climate scientists don't acknowledge the uncertainty of their models enough, and (b) years of dealing with yahoos and corporate shills have convinced climate scientists that every skeptic is a yahoo or a corporate shill. Because of this, they unfairly dismiss all criticism, retreat into groupthink, and demonize their opponents instead of making public arguments that are actually persuasive.

My own take is that (a) seems a bit of a stretch. Popular descriptions of science are always simplistic compared to the journal articles they're based on, but even at that I'd say that virtually all the popular portrayals of climate science I've seen state things as a range. Warming will be between 2°C and 5°C over the next century. Sea level will rise between 33 and 100 centimeters. Drought will worsen by 23% to 65%. That kind of thing. This sort of description seems to me to be almost universal.

Her second critique seems much fairer. I sympathize with the fortress mentality described in the article, since its genesis is pretty clear: a constant stream of largely corporate and/or idiotic amateur criticisms that seem to be simply unending no matter how many times you debunk them. At some point, after you've put up with this long enough, it's entirely natural to tune it all out and begin refusing to even engage with critics at all. Still, sympathetic as I may be, Curry is right that you can't do this. Critics need to be given access to data even if it's a pain in the ass, the best of the critics need to be engaged with, and the public needs to be treated fairly. If there's any positive fallout from the Climategate controversy, it's a growing recognition of this.

That said, this is primarily a critique of the social nature of climate science. It's basically a charge that some climate scientists have been overly churlish and need to clean up their act. And that's fine. But the science itself? Error bars and all, it's in good shape. The earth is warming, humans are a big cause of it, and we're1 most likely headed for disaster if we don't do something about it. Nothing about this hinges on whether or not climate scientists have been pricks.

1And always keep in mind who "we" really is. For the most part, a whole lot of poor countries are going to be affected a lot more by climate change than Americans will be. This is why you should remain very, very skeptical of arguments that it's cheaper to just let warming happen and then pay the price when it does. The likelihood that Americans fifty years from now will be willing to pay the trillion-dollar price to save a bunch of people in Africa and Asia is somewhere between nil and nada.

UPDATE: A dissenting view!

You should have done your homework here. Judith Curry is on her way to becoming the Ann Althouse of climate science. She's staking out an ever-increasingly false faux centrist position on the science, and she appears to adore the attention. You will find her deliberately misreading her critics and ignoring any substance all the while inching closer and closer to the entirely discredited skeptics. She is not even close to how you perceive her.

More here.

The One-Wing Party

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 7:10 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias:

Ever since I read it, I’ve been fascinated by the line in National Review’s endorsement of Mitt Romney which said “Our guiding principle has always been to select the most conservative viable candidate.”

I wouldn’t deny that progressives are prone to a certain amount of tribalism in our internal deliberations, but that kind of explicit ideological maximalism closes off debates on the merits in a weird kind of way. And not only do you see much more ideological maximalism in conservative media, but conservative media is a much more influential force than progressive media. This makes it extremely difficult for arguments on the merits to get off the ground which, in turn, makes it hard to mount persuasive arguments against candidates who you think may be wrong on the merits.

That's true. Liberals have both a strong progressive wing and a more centrist neoliberal/third-way wing. And these two wings fight a lot because they don't really like each other very much. But in the end, they're both genuinely influential. They really do act as countervailing forces to each other within the halls of the Democratic Party.

But Republicans? There's the tea party wing and that's about it. Sure, you've still got a few Bruce Bartletts, Ross Douthats, and David Frums roaming around, but they've basically been excommunicated from the party. For the moment anyway, they have no influence at all. Ditto for the old guard from the George H.W. Bush era, who mostly just keep quiet these days.

Anyway, there's nothing original here. But it's still worth repeating once in a while. The Republican Party and the Tea Party are pretty much one and the same now.

Liberal Overreach

The backlash is overrated.

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 2:52 PM EDT

The expected Republican victory tomorrow, according to Jeb Bush, isn't so much an endorsement of the Republican Party as it is a "repudiation of the massive overreach" engineered by Barack Obama over the past two years. Is he right?

There's something to this, but I think you have to take a step back to understand it properly. I don't know enough about world history to say if this is broadly true, but in America at least, liberal progress over the past century has come in a series of very short bursts. The Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Sixties all produced the bulk of their reforms over the space of about half a dozen years, after which an exhausted public largely called a stop. The Progressive Era ended with World War I and the 19th Amendment and was followed by the business-centric "normalcy" of the Harding-Coolidge years. The New Deal came to a close with the start of World War II, and it was followed first by Harry Truman's inability to move the chains much on further domestic reform and then the Cold War conservatism of the Eisenhower era. Likewise, the famously massive changes of the Sixties were followed by the equally famous backlash of the 70s and the election of Ronald Reagan.

So repudiation of liberal reform is entirely normal. The big question is: why did Obama only get two years? Especially considering that his reforms, compared to previous eras of liberal activism, were so modest?

Let's take a few guesses. (1) Obama's goals themselves were comparatively modest, and that set expectations. Burnout among the electorate may be as much relative to expectations as it is a reaction to absolute measures of change. (2) The internet and the 24/7 media environment have speeded things up. What goes up must come down, but attention spans are so short these days that things come down a lot faster than they used to. (3) On a related note, the congressional environment is more poisonous than in the past, and voters may be reacting to that as much as they're reacting to Obama's actual legislative agenda. (4) The economy sucks. People get frustrated with change a lot faster in bad times than in good.

But there's also one other thing: the backlash against Obama probably isn't all that strong to begin with. As I mentioned on Friday, basic structural factors suggest a Democratic loss of 45 seats in the House this year. If Democrats instead lose 55, that's evidence of a backlash, but not actually a very big one. It means that we're still fundamentally the 50-50 nation we all talked about so much after the 2000 election, and a small shift among a small number of voters makes a big difference. It's true that voters are frustrated and tired, but I think it's a mistake to allow TV shoutfests to exaggerate just how frustrated and tired they really are.