Kevin Drum - December 2010

Friday Cat Blogging - 3 December 2010

| Fri Dec. 3, 2010 3:59 PM EST

I had the bright idea today of doing an Andrew Sullivan-esque "View From Your Window," except it would be a view of my cats through my windows. This worked fine for Inkblot, but unfortunately Domino is a little under the weather today and basically just wanted to curl up in her new favorite chair and sleep. So I let her sleep. On the plus side, her picture gives everyone a nice view of our new carpet, which is this year's major Drum family contribution to stimulating consumer demand. So far the cats seem to approve.

SATURDAY MORNING UPDATE: Domino seems to be back to her old self today. Probably just ate something that didn't agree with her.

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We Are Doomed

| Fri Dec. 3, 2010 2:32 PM EST

Former decent person Douglas Holtz-Eakin responds to today's grim unemployment report:

But mostly this is an alarm bell for the lame-duck Congress. No more games — extend all the tax cuts for two years, patch the AMT, and turn to cutting spending and tax reform.

Going forward, Congress has lost the luxury of extended debate on boutique social issues. All focus should be on growth. Every policy should be evaluated for its impact on growth. Wake up.

Ah yes, those "boutique" social issues. Nice phrase there. Well, Doug — I can call you Doug, can't I? — there wouldn't be any extended debate on these social issues if the nitwits in your party would just let them go. So why not tell them to let it go? Likewise, 80% of the Bush tax cuts would have been extended long ago if not for the nitwits in your party. (And, in fairness, a small number of nitwits in my party too.) So why not tell them to take the 80% and move on? Cat got your tongue or something?

But that's nothing compared to your call for spending cuts. Seriously? Spending cuts? That's the policy you think is vitally necessary for economic growth? Spending cuts? Because — what? Unemployment is too low for your taste? God save us.

Replaying Their Worst Moments

| Fri Dec. 3, 2010 1:44 PM EST

Non-insane conservative Dan Drezner points out that even if repeal of DADT has some modest and temporary negative effects on things like unit cohesion and combat readiness, the status quo is having way bigger negative effects:

I therefore really and truly don't give a s**t why John McCain's position has shifted. I just want to know why the ranking minority member of the Senate Armed Services committee is throwing national security, civilian control of the military, and the hierarchical chain of command under the f***ing bus. John McCain is weakening the institution he claims to love the most. I don't care why he's doing it — I just care that he's doing it.

This is really not going to be a shining moment in the history of the conservative movement. You'd think they might have learned their lesson on basic civil rights questions back in the 60s, but no. They're hellbent on replaying their worst moments.

Time to Ditch the Mortgage Interest Deduction

| Fri Dec. 3, 2010 1:01 PM EST

Adam Ozimek glosses a recent study on the effects of the mortgage interest deduction in suburban areas (which are lightly regulated) vs. urban areas (heavily regulated):

Using national data from 1984 to 2007 they found that the MID did not increase overall homeownership. In areas with light land use regulation they found that homeownership among higher income families was increased, and in tightly regulated housing markets homeownership was decreased for all income groups except the lowest....We spend around $100 billion a year on this subsidy, and to the extent that its defenders are correct and homeownership does have positive externalities, it is actually making urban areas worse off.

There you go. This shouldn't come as any big surprise, since the mortgage interest deduction was always aimed at spurring new homebuilding in the suburbs. But whether or not you think that's a worthy goal, it apparently comes at the expense of homeownership in cities. It's a policy that passed its sell-by date long ago. Get rid of it.

(But replace it with what? Middle class homeowners will feel hard done by if one of their cherished subsidies goes away while millionaires get huge tax cuts and hedge fund managers continue to benefit from things like the carried interest rule. And rightly so! But surely there's some kind of bennie we could give them that wouldn't be quite so destructive in its overall impact?)

The Future of Secrecy

| Fri Dec. 3, 2010 12:47 PM EST

Julian Assange thinks that dumping U.S. secrets on the internet is worthwhile because it will cause the U.S. government to become more secretive and paranoid, which in turn will make it more sclerotic, which he thinks would be a good thing. But just how good would that really be?

It's certainly true that closed, secretive networks become less effective — but that doesn't mean they become less effective at the things we dislike them doing. Stalin remained exceptionally good at purges and liquidations all through World War II, and that didn't stop him from helping to win the war, and dominating half of Europe. It's just that it took more dead Russian boys to do it, because being secretive and purge-oriented kind of hampered the efficiency of the economy, leaving them a little short of key items like guns. But since Stalin was running a super-secretive, centrally controlled regime, that insight didn't really matter.

Similarly, forcing the US military and the state department to become more secretive might well hamper their effectiveness. But it seems most likely to hamper their effectiveness at things like nation-building and community outreach, where you need a broad, decentralized effort. I don't see why they'd be much less effective at launching drone attacks. To be sure, the drone attacks might kill a lot more innocent civilians. But no doubt Assange thinks this is all to the good because it heightens the contradictions or something.

Discuss. I suggested a few days ago that an occasional "informational enema" might have a salutary effect even if I didn't really want to see stuff like this happening routinely. I still think I feel that way. But what's to keep it from becoming routine? And will the effort to stop it from becoming routine eventually have a positive or negative impact on the world as a whole? Especially as technology makes it easier for leaks to happen and the counterattacks have to get more and more furious.

I'm not sure. And maybe keeping megaleaks like this from happening routinely won't be as hard as we think. But it's still worth thinking about.

Hardball

| Fri Dec. 3, 2010 12:17 PM EST

From First Read:

Democrats don’t play political hardball as well as Republicans do: Want another example of how Republicans play political hardball better than Democrats do? Just look what happened after yesterday’s House vote extending only middle-class tax cuts. We noticed only a few Democratic press releases accusing Republicans of voting against tax cuts for 98% of Americans (and thus accusing them of raising these folks’ taxes). If the shoe had been on the other foot, however, Republicans would have mercilessly pounded Democrats for weeks — if not months. The recent Charlie Rangel and John Ensign stories are instructive here, too. Republicans were relentless that the news of Rangel’s wrongdoings never got dropped. On the other hand, Democrats essentially gave up on Ensign’s woes. And lo and behold, it now looks like Ensign is no longer a Justice Department target. And Rangel's been censured on the House floor. Republicans just play the political message game better than Democrats do.

Maybe a reluctance to play hardball is the issue here. But there are at least two other things involved. The first is simply that Republicans believe their own PR more than Democrats do. When Republicans get hysterical about something, it's genuine. They really believe, way down in their self-righteous little hearts, that they're speaking God's own truth, no matter how ridiculous it is. And it shows.

The other, though, is the media itself: Democrats have long since learned that the media just flatly won't pay attention to ridiculous stuff from them, but they will from Republicans. Republican fervor is contagious, and conservative media has an agenda setting power that liberals just can't match. So why bother?

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Is It Finally Time to Reform the Filibuster?

| Fri Dec. 3, 2010 7:00 AM EST

The state of Oregon does a helluva job electing senators. We should all be so lucky to have the likes of Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley representing us.

Today I want to highlight Merkley and his proposal to end abuse of the filibuster. Unlike his retiring Connecticut colleague Chris Dodd, who inexplicably decided to use his farewell address this week to produce a defense of the filibuster that could only come from a DC lifer almost comically out of tune with the events of the past few years, Merkley has given the subject some real thought and recently produced some genuinely sharp thinking about it.

For starters, Merkley understands the reality of the modern Republican Party: they don't use the filibuster occasionally to obstruct legislation they feel especially strongly about, they use it "on nearly a daily basis, paralyzing the Senate." What's more, the filibuster isn't just a way of requiring 60 votes to pass legislation. Rather, "the filibuster can be thought of as the power of a single senator to object to the regular order of Senate deliberations, thereby invoking a special order that requires a supermajority and a week delay for a vote."

This is a key point to understand. The modern filibuster requires only one person to invoke it, doesn't require that person to do anything other than announce his intent, and automatically eats up a week or more of time on the Senate calendar even on legislation that's widely popular. Last year, for example, it took the Senate five weeks to approve an extension of unemployment benefits that eventually passed 98-0.

But what to do? There's some question about whether Senate rules can be changed in the middle of a session, but none about whether they can be changed at the beginning of a session. They can be. So in January, if Democrats can muster 51 votes and Vice President Biden is willing to support them by issuing friendly rulings as presiding officer, the filibuster rules can be changed. So what would it take to persuade 51 Democrats to go along?

Merkley's proposal revolves around a single principle: the Senate should always allow debate. So the filibuster should be banned entirely on motions to proceed and on amendments because both are things that promote debate and engagement. Filibusters would still be allowed on a bill's final vote, but it would take more than one senator to launch a filibuster (Merkley suggests a minimum of ten) and senators would have to actually hold the floor and talk. No longer would a single person be able to obstruct all business just by dropping a note to his party leader.

And in return? The minority party would have one of its major grievances addressed: the ability to offer amendments to legislation. Merkley proposes that unless a different agreement is reached prior to a bill coming to the floor, each side would be allowed to introduce five amendments of their own choosing. No longer could the majority leader "fill the amendment tree" or otherwise prohibit the minority party from trying to amend legislation. This fits with his broad principle that debate and engagement with legislation is a good thing. The minority party might choose to offer mischevious or blatantly political amendments, but that's their choice. They also have the choice of genuinely trying to improve legislation and getting a majority of their colleagues to pass it.

Merkley has a few other proposals as well, but this is the gist of it. It's a pretty good plan, and a pretty sensible one. It doesn't eliminate the filibuster, it just eliminates filibuster abuse. And in return, the minority party gets an expanded ability to engage in a positive way with any legislation on the floor. In January, the Democratic leadership, the rank-and-file of the party, and the White House ought to give serious thought to starting the 112th Congress with the long-overdue reforms that Merkley proposes.

The Latest From Glenn B.

| Fri Dec. 3, 2010 12:23 AM EST

Email of the day, from a regular correspondent:

Glenn Beck was in rare form last night....For all practical purposes, he claimed that the fall of the Roman Republic — and the roots of the Roman Empire and its version of National Socialism — was precipitated by redistribution of wealth, by land-grab from the rich that was then given to the poor. This is so preposterously stupid, I believe the only reason that we don't hear of mass suicides of historians during Beck's broadcasts is because historians simply don't watch the show.

....If you have a chance to get hold of the recording, this one is really worth watching. Needless to say, you will learn something you never knew — and probably should never know, if it were not so much fun... I've had a two month break from the daily barrage as I had no TV while away from home, but, judging from what I've seen earlier in the year, I would nominate this one the Episode of the Year. If you recall the BBC show Connections, it was exactly like that — except that the script and the plans were prepared by those proverbial monkeys typing Shakespeare.

Well, two months away from Glenn Beck is like two decades away from any normal person. To me, this sounds like a pretty standard episode. Still, it's good to see that Beck is working his way backward through history. The Victorian stuff was getting tedious. Soon we should be able to get his take on whether the invention of agriculture was a great leap forward for capitalism or the beginning of the end of human history. It could go either way depending on which pamphlet catches his eye next.

Afghanistan Shocker: Corruption is Rampant

| Thu Dec. 2, 2010 7:04 PM EST

According to the New York Times, embassy cables from Afghanistan describe it as a "looking-glass land where bribery, extortion and embezzlement are the norm and the honest man is a distinct outlier." But hey — at least there are occasional victories. Remember the mayor of Kabul, who got tossed in jail for stealing government funds a while ago?

In a seeming victory against corruption, Abdul Ahad Sahibi, the mayor of Kabul, received a four-year prison sentence last year for “massive embezzlement.” But a cable from the embassy told a very different story: Mr. Sahibi was a victim of “kangaroo court justice,” it said, in what appeared to be retribution for his attempt to halt a corrupt land-distribution scheme.

....The case of the Kabul mayor, Mr. Sahibi, shows how complicated it can be to sort out corruption charges. A Jan. 7 cable [...] said the charges against him were based on a decision to lease a piece of city property to shopkeepers. Three months after the lease was signed, another bidder offered $16,000 more. The “loss” of the potential additional revenue became the “massive embezzlement” described by prosecutors, the cable said.

....As for the motive behind his prosecution, Mr. Sahibi said that in less than two years as mayor “he had found files for approximately 32,000 applicants who paid for nonexistent plots of land in Kabul city.” He said he halted the land program and “invalidated the illegal claims of some important people,” who took their revenge through the bogus criminal case. The embassy cable largely supported Mr. Sahibi’s version of events, saying that the mayor’s “official decision may have antagonized powerful people who then sought the power of the state to discredit him.”

And remember: your tax dollars and the lives of your fellow citizens are going to defend all this. Gives you a warm glow all over, doesn't it?

Who Gets Blamed for Higher Taxes?

| Thu Dec. 2, 2010 3:36 PM EST

Jon Chait responds today to a David Leonhardt column suggesting the Democrats will inevitably get blamed if the Bush tax cuts expire and everyone's taxes go up:

The idea here is that, if taxes go up, Democrats will get stuck with the blame because everybody knows Republicans hate taxes. It's not that Democrats wimped out, it's that any party has to tread carefully on an issue where the other party holds a historic advantage. I think that's the wrong analysis for a couple reasons.

....The fact is, blame for failing to extend the popular elements of the Bush tax cuts should be placed on Republicans. They're the ones who won't extend a bill like that without getting something (unpopular) in exchange. Instead, Democrats have simply assumed that they'll get stuck with the blame and there's nothing they can do about it.

Jon provides some specific reasons for thinking Dems won't get the blame here, but we actually have a test case we can look at to see if he's right: repeal of the 1099 reporting requirement. Democrats offered up a clean amendment a few days ago that would have ended the 1099 requirement and nothing more. No tricks, no gimmicks, just straight repeal. Most Democrats voted for it, but the amendment failed because nearly the entire Republican caucus voted against it.

So: who gets the blame for the fact that the reporting requirement is still around? It ought to be Republicans, who had a chance to vote for repeal and decided not to. But I haven't noticed any backlash. If I had to guess, it's because everyone knows Republicans are opposed to business regulation, so Democrats get the blame for this regardless of whether they really are to blame.

This is just a tiny little data point. And I agree with Jon's larger argument that, in the case of taxes at least, Democrats could have won the battle easily if they'd shown a little discipline and been willing to bargain with the same toughness that Republicans do. Still, in its own tiny way, the 1099 example does suggest that Republicans aren't likely to shoulder any of the blame for higher taxes regardless of what position they take over the next couple of weeks.