Kevin Drum - January 2011

How Progressive is Gene Sperling?

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 12:08 PM PST

Is Gene Sperling a good candidate to replace Larry Summers as Obama's head of the NEC? David Corn writes a long defense of Sperling today, playing up his progressive credentials. But what about all that Goldman Sachs dough he lined his pockets with after he left the Clinton administration?

According to a source familiar with the episode, Goldman Sachs approached Sperling for advice on globalization. He took this opportunity to pitch the company an idea in sync with his nonprofit work: the firm ought to invest in social capital in poorer nations. He suggested it focus on business education in developing countries. Goldman Sachs asked for a proposal. He worked one up: devoting $100 million for business training for 10,000 women in these nations. Goldman Sachs, via a foundation it operates, went for the idea and eventually asked Sperling to implement it. On the advice of friends, he requested that he be paid what the investment firm might pay a top lawyer or dealmaker: $70,000 a month. And that's what he earned for a year or so. He did no commercial work for the investment bank.

....Dean Baker, of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, chimes in: "I don't think it's a question of outright corruption. It's a question of orientation. Most people hear you got almost a million dollars for a part-time job, and they think there's a problem there. But people on Wall Street say, a million bucks is chicken feed."

The whole piece is worth reading, but the passage above is really the takeaway. In the world of Wall Street banking, getting paid a million dollars in a year simply isn't anything to fuss about. As Baker says, it's chicken feed. And if that kind of money is available, what kind of person would turn it down, especially if it's being offered for doing such obviously worthy work? Would you?

I don't know anything about Sperling myself aside from his basic biography. My guess, though, is that I doubt we're likely to get anyone to replace Summers with less connection to Wall Street than Sperling. The worlds of Wall Street and the West Wing are so intertwined these days that pretty much everyone with any serious experience at all with economic policymaking is hopelessly marinated in high finance. Given the immense pools of money at stake, the finance industry is simply the highest bidder by far for their services. Like it or not, I don't think the revolving door will ever come close to shutting down until Wall Street becomes a lot less profitable than it is now. Which, needless to say, it shows absolutely no signs of doing.

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Quote of the Day: Bufferbloat

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 11:39 AM PST

From Robert X. Cringely, on the evolution of the internet:

In terms of latency, the Internet was faster 20 years ago than it is today — in many cases vastly faster. And it is getting slower every day. Unchecked, bufferbloat will eventually make the Internet unusable for some data-intensive activities.

Shazbot! I didn't know that. Or, rather, I kind of suspected it but figured it was just because my cable company sucks or something. But apparently not. Read the whole thing to learn what bufferbloat is and why OS X and Windows 7 are making it worse.

The Future of WikiLeaks

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 10:38 AM PST

Sarah Ellison has a fascinating piece in Vanity Fair this month about the collaboration between WikiLeaks and the Guardian that resulted in the publication of all those diplomatic cables. After reading it, Henry Farrell draws two conclusions:

First — that Wikileaks-type organizations need strong connections with more traditional media if they are to succeed....Wikileaks is like the blogosphere before it became partially integrated with traditional media. There was a lot of interesting — and newsworthy — material that used to float about on blogs, but unless it was picked up by traditional media, it had little or no political impact.

....Second — that Wikileaks type operations need some kind of organizational infrastructure to work properly. The article discusses at several points Wikileaks’ perpetual need for money, and difficulty in doing what it wanted to do with its material because of lack of money and organizational resources. Taken together, these suggest that Wikileaks-type phenomena are nowhere near as invulnerable to concerted state action as some of the more glib commentators have suggested.

I don't know if this is already common knowledge and I just haven't been following the story closely enough, but it turns out that Julian Assange kept very tight control over what could be released and what couldn't. But shortly before publication started, the Guardian got hold of a second copy of the database of diplomatic cables ("package three") from, ironically, a leaker within WikiLeaks:

In October, while The Guardian was preparing to publish the Iraq War Logs and working on package three, Heather Brooke, a British freelance journalist who had written a book on freedom of information, had a copy of the package-three database leaked to her by a former WikiLeaks volunteer. [Guardian investigations editor David] Leigh shrewdly invited Brooke to join the Guardian team. He did not want her taking the story to another paper. Furthermore, by securing the same database from a source other than Assange, The Guardian might then be free of its promise to wait for Assange’s green light to publish. Leigh got the documents from Brooke, and the paper distributed them to Der Spiegel and The New York Times. The three news organizations were poised to publish the material on November 8.

Assange didn't take this well and threatened to sue. Eventually, an agreement was reached to begin releasing the material on November 29.

In any case, the entire piece is worth a read, as are Henry's observations. My own guess is that he's overestimating the difficulty of running a WikiLeaks-style organization: after the success of the current document release, I suspect that other organizations with access to big databases of leaked material will have little trouble finding media partners to help them publicize it. In time, it might even become a pretty standard way of doing business. And while funding will remain an issue, I imagine that organizations dedicated to leaking will, over time, develop both an infrastructure and a way of doing business that works pretty well. WikiLeaks may be in trouble right now, but others will learn from their mistakes.

The Hole in State Budgets

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 9:40 AM PST

The Census Bureau reports on state finances:

The recession blew a huge hole in the already shaky finances of state governments, causing them to lose nearly one-third of their revenue in 2009, according to a Census Bureau report released Wednesday....Overall, total state government revenue dropped 30.8 percent, to $1.1 trillion, between fiscal 2008 and 2009, according to the report.

Is it any wonder that pension funds look bad when revenue drops 30% in a single year? States have a problem, but contra conservative rhetoric, it's a tax problem, not a spending problem.

The Great MMR Vaccine Fraud

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 11:00 PM PST

The belief that vaccines cause autism got its start in 1998 with a paper in the Lancet authored by Andrew Wakefield. We've known for a long time that it was a piece of crap: it used a nonrandom sample of 12 children, it depended largely on observations by parents, it was marred by egregious conflicts of interest, and in 2004 it was renounced by 10 of its co-authors and later retracted by the magazine. That's all bad enough. But it turns out that it was even worse: the paper was an outright fraud from start to finish. Aaron Carroll summarizes:

How bad was the deception?

First of all, in order for this all to make sense, the children had to have what is known as “regressive autism”. In other words, they had to have been fine — normal, in fact — and then get much worse after the MMR shot, developing autism. Children who obviously weren’t right from the start would have had something wrong already, and not have autism caused by the MMR vaccine. In Wakefield’s paper, he described 9 of the 12 children as having regressive autism. Mr. Deer’s investigation found that three of the 9 children he reported as regressive autism were not. Moreover, an additional 5 of the remaining 6 could not be proven to have regressive autism. So — at best — only 6 of the 12 children in the study had regressive autism; more likely, only one did.

Next, Wakefield’s paper alleged that a colitis brought on by the vaccine is what led the shot to become so damaging. In his paper, he reported that 11 of 12 of the children had a nonspecific colitis. What did the records show? That only 3 of the 12 had nonspecific colitis. The other 6 cases were falsified.

And, of course, the final piece of the puzzle was that symptoms needed to start not long after the vaccine was given. In Wakefield’s paper, 8 of the 12 patients reported symptoms days after the MMR. Mr. Deer’s investigation confirmed that for 10 of the 12 children, this was false. For the other two it was unknown. So — at best — 2 of the 12 children showed symptoms near the vaccine. At worst, none did.

And Lancet's editors added this: "Is it possible that he was wrong, but not dishonest: that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project, or to report even one of the 12 children’s cases accurately? No. A great deal of thought and effort must have gone into drafting the paper to achieve the results he wanted." The punchline, of course, is that parents panicked over Wakefield's results and lots of them decided not to get their kids vaccinated. As a result:

Measles has surged since Wakefield's paper was published and there are sporadic outbreaks in Europe and the U.S. In 2008, measles was deemed endemic in England and Wales.

The vaccine-autism quackery that Jenny McCarthy and her ilk continue to promote isn't just harmless fun and games. It's damaged untold children and might well have killed a few. It's long past time for it to stop.

Quotes of the Day: Pitchforks and Plutocrats

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 6:45 PM PST

From Matt Steinglass, commenting on Chrystia Freeland's "global elites":

Back in mid-2009, Barack Obama told the assembled plutocrats of Wall Street that they ought to be more grateful to him; he was "the only thing standing between you and the pitchforks." The plutocrats smiled, and departed by helicopter. To the extent any pitchforks have been seen, they were applied to the Democrats' behinds last November. Perhaps, rather than attempting to stand between Wall Street and any hypothetical pitchforks, Mr Obama should have gotten out of the way.

And Ryan Avent on the same theme:

It's striking how little inchoate public rage has actually boiled to the surface in the rich world....In America, the language of the angriest is very similar to that of the plutocrats themselves. Indeed, the complaint that today's elite lack the noblesse oblige of the aristocrats of old, and are therefore risking public anger, seems to badly misread American public opinion. The middle class doesn't want hand-outs from condescending rich people. They want moralistic language and complaints about deficits.

Amazing, isn't it? After nearly destroying the world, the plutocrats just dipped into their petty cash accounts, funded a tea party movement dedicated to promoting their interests, and won the next election. Problem solved! Now, where should we have dinner tonight? Paris or Rome?

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Does Crime Pay?

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 3:32 PM PST

Mike Konczal writes today about our skyrocketing prison population. He attributes this partly to a 70s-era school of thought known as Incapacitation Theory, which basically says the only way to protect ourselves from bad people is to lock them up so they can't do bad things. It sounds pretty obvious, but where did it come from?

I’ve been reading a lot of 1970s conservative criminology lately, and I believe it actually grows out of a critique of the rational choice mode of crime. In the law and economics approach of the Chicago School of Becker, Posner, Coase, etc. it is hard to balance the idea that crime is committed by an estimate of costs and benefits. Risking 30 years in prison to rob a store for $80 can’t really be rationally possible.

What the Incapacitation School argued is that it can’t, unless you consider that criminals have a cognitive makeup where they are impulsive and “present-orientated.”

I wouldn't be surprised if criminals tend toward an impulsive cognitive makeup, but I don't think you have to abandon rationality to explain a lot of criminal action — and I'm not sure critics like Becker and Posner did so. In real life, you have to look at the likely payoff from, say, a burglary, compared to (a) the probability of getting caught and (b) the likely length of the sentence. Mark Kleiman provides the numbers in When Brute Force Fails:

In 1974, at the low point for punishment-to-offense ratios, there were about 6 million burglaries....On average, [] each burglary resulted in about 1 percent of a year — about four days — behind bars....The combination of rising crime rates and shrinking prison capacity over the decade 1964-74 meant that the "price" of a crime — in the form of punishment — had been falling in the teeth of a crime wave.

....In that context, there seemed to be a reasonable case for building more prisons....Indeed, in the intervening three decades we have built prisons, and built prisons, and then built still more prisons, until some of us who supported expanding prison capacity from its low 1970s level have started to feel like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, vainly looking for the "off" switch on a mechanism gone completely out of control.

....The punitiveness index, which fell by 68 percent from 1962 to 1974, quintupled from 1974 to 2007. The punishment-price of a burglary, which fell from fourteen days in 1963 to four days in 1974, reached sixteen days in 2007. But the political, ideological, legal, and administrative impetus behind the prison-building boom, which developed when crime was frighteningly high and rising, has not noticeably dissipated now that crime has decreased.

I had dinner with Mark a couple of months ago, and his shorthand opinion is that in 1974 it made sense to build more prisons, and by the mid-80s or so we'd built about the right number. But then we kept right on building and now we have way more prisons than we need. We've made the cost of crime far higher — both to us and to the criminals we're trying to deter — than we need to.

This is actually just the starting point of the book, which is largely about ways we can reduce crime, and especially crime committed on probation, without putting ever more people in prison. If you haven't read it, you should. Here's a review from Forbes to get you started.

Depending on the Rich

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 1:42 PM PST

In Chrystia Freeland's Atlantic piece about the new "global elite," she defined them like this: "Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly." That reminded me of one of my favorite passages from Matt Bai's The Argument. This is from Chapter 5, which tells the story of Rob Stein's attempt, following the 2004 election, to create a group of super-rich liberal donors called the Democracy Alliance:

Although he had now spent the better part of two years bonding with liberal millionaires and acting as their political therapist, Rob was still a peculiarly Washington figure, a mere interloper in the world of hedge funds and Lear jets. And this, in the short term, would be his undoing.

....Steven Gluckstern and his wife, Judy, lived in a 7,500-square-foot open loft on Spring Street in Soho, with a spacious garden on the roof and mgnificent views of the Empire State Building to the North....He made his fortune in the reinsurance industry, working first for the billionaire Warren Buffet and then with a partner, and had recently retired from the $4 billion investment fund he had helped start. I heard grumbling from some of the other, richer partners that Steven wasn't really that good at making money, but if that was true, then it was clearly relative. He was certainly better at it than anyone I knew in Washington.

....Like most of the partners I met, Steven applied the mystical language of business to his work with the Alliance....He talked about doing "due diligence" on these groups, about "capitalizing" them, so they could be "brought to scale." He talked about finding "customers" for the Democratic "product." It was clear, spending time with Gluckstern and other partners, that they felt they had identified with some precision the cause of these recurrent Democratic failures: the problem was that the party was being run by a bunch of political experts, when, in fact, it needed to be run like a business....The way the partners saw it, people who were really smart made tons of money, and if you didn't make tons of money, then you couldn't be very smart.

....From the beginning, Rob Stein had been highly attuned to this worldview....And yet, much as he seemed to speak the language, he could not escape what he represented in the minds of many donors. In Steven's view, Rob had spent too much of his career in Washington. And, as if to confirm his suspicions, Rob's most recent job had been to manage a private investment fund—and still Rob hadn't gotten rich....What did it say about a man when he started a fund and somehow didn't walk away with millions of dollars? As far as Steven was concerned, that in itself probably disqualified Rob from making the big decisions.

Emphasis mine. Now compare this to a passage from An American Melodrama, written 40 years ago by a trio of London Times reporters about the 1968 election:

There is one very good reason why [] the exploitation of mass media should actually be negatively correlated with radicalism. The new political technology is very expensive. It depends on computers, public opinion surveys, film, videotape, and other expensive toys. It also depends on the services of clever, highly educated and trained people to use these techniques....In general, it is naive to suppose that techniques which can be used only by those with access to enormous financial resources will often be available for any really damaging assault on the status quo.

Emphasis mine again. I will leave the obvious conclusion as an exercise for the reader.

Filibuster Mini-Reforms Unveiled

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 12:48 PM PST

Greg Sargent has posted a summary of the filibuster reforms that Democrats plan to introduce later today, and it's a fairly modest effort. Here are the bullet points:

  1. Eliminates Secret Holds
  2. Right to Amend: Guarantees Consideration of Amendments for both Majority and Minority
  3. Clear Path to Debate: Eliminate the Filibuster on Motions to Proceed
  4. Expedite Nominations: Reduce Post-Cloture Time
  5. Talking Filibuster: Ensures Real Debate

Eliminating secret holds and giving the minority a right to amend legislation are both good ideas, but neither really does anything to rein in filibusters. Of the other three items, #3 and #4 basically reduce the amount of floor time that filibusters eat up. You still need 60 votes to proceed, but you can only filibuster the main motion, not both the main motion and the motion to proceed, and post-cloture debate on nominations is reduced to two hours instead of the current 30. (Legislation still gets 30 hours of post-cloture debate.)

Finally, there's #5: require honest to goodness Jimmy-Stewart-talk-til-you-drop debate if you want to filibuster a bill. It's not clear just how this would work technically, but in any case it's not really much of an impediment to filibusters. If you have 40 senators willing to join in, each one just reads the phone book for an hour or two and then yields. That's about one hour of phone book reading per week per senator, which is hardly onerous. In fact, it's so obviously non-onerous that I imagine it changes nothing in practice. Once the minority starts up and demonstrates that it's willing to engage in a talkathon, the majority will give up and move to other business. Before long, this will morph into the same convention we have now: simply announce that you're willing to talk and the majority takes you at your word.

Overall, then, this is a pretty weak reform package. Items #3 and #4 are worthwhile, but the others are mostly window dressing. The Senate will remain a 60-vote body, but if you can scrounge up those 60 votes then things will move along a bit faster than before. That's about it.

A Few Words About the Republican Party

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 10:45 AM PST

Just a quick note for the DC press corps: Republicans don't care about the deficit. They care about cutting taxes on the rich and shifting spending from the poor to more deserving corporate recipients. Understanding this will collectively save you thousands of hours of time writing chin-scratching op-eds and analysis pieces that try to explain why Republicans are doing what they're doing.

If you have any questions about this, please feel free to contact me.