Kevin Drum - March 2011

Defending Mortgage Fraud

| Mon Mar. 14, 2011 12:16 AM EDT

Paul Krugman, after pointing out that bankers and their conservative allies are busily insisting that a proposed settlement over fraud charges in the mortgage servicing industry is a "shakedown," explains why the settlement would be good for the economy, not a threat to the health of the banking industry:

First, the proposed settlement only calls for loan modifications that would produce a greater “net present value” than foreclosure — that is, for offering deals that are in the interest of both homeowners and investors. The outrageous truth is that in many cases banks are blocking such mutually beneficial deals, so that they can continue to extract fees. How could ending this highway robbery be bad for the economy?

Second, the biggest obstacle to recovery isn’t the financial condition of major banks, which were bailed out once and are now profiting from the widespread perception that they’ll be bailed out again if anything goes wrong. It is, instead, the overhang of household debt combined with paralysis in the housing market. Getting banks to clear up mortgage debts — instead of stringing families along to extract a few more dollars — would help, not hurt, the economy.

Remarkable, no? The level of shady dealing in the mortgage industry during the great housing bubble of the aughts was legendary. But even a rather moderate settlement like this one is simply unacceptable to mainstream conservative opinion. It's almost as if they don't care about anything other than the interests of rich people and big corporations.

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Listen to Me!

| Sun Mar. 13, 2011 1:49 PM EDT

No, seriously, you can listen to me tonight at 9 pm Eastern on Virtually Speaking, hosted by Jay Ackroyd. Details here. We'll be talking a bit about the NPR fracas, followed by a conversation about my piece in MoJo this month on plutocracy and the death of the labor movement. It will also be available as a podcast if you can't listen in real time.

Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

| Sun Mar. 13, 2011 1:42 PM EDT

I get the fact that people in government aren't free agents and aren't supposed to criticize their own administration's policies. I also get that this probably goes double for press spokesmen. Still, this is contemptible:

P.J. Crowley is abruptly stepping down as State Department spokesman under pressure from the White House, according to senior officials familiar with the matter, because of controversial comments he made about the Bradley Manning case....Speaking to a small group at MIT last week, Crowley was asked about allegations that Manning is being tortured and kicked up a firestorm by answering that what is being done to Manning by Defense Department officials "is ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid."

Jesus Christ.

Friday Cat Blogging - 11 March 2011

| Fri Mar. 11, 2011 4:49 PM EST

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that the cats have lately become very lap-oriented right after dinner, and this has had a side effect: Marian has become quite attached to taking pictures of me buried under cats. So here's the latest. On the left, I'm slouched low in my reading chair so that Inkblot can settle comfortably on my stomach while I try to read. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can't. On the right, Domino is showing off her less intellectual side, rolling around in the sun on the back patio. One way or another, though, everyone's happy.

Blind Spots on Left and Right

| Fri Mar. 11, 2011 3:45 PM EST

Following up on Tyler Cowen's post about mistakes he thinks liberal and conservative economists make, David Leonhardt provides a matching pair of lists of economic blind spots among non-economists on left and right. You might agree with his lists or not, but he also has a broader point to make:

I think that liberal economists, by nature, tend to be less economically liberal than your average liberal. That’s not true — or at least it’s not nearly as true — about conservative economists and conservatives generally. As a result, some of the left’s biggest blind spots on economics arise much less often among left-leaning economists.

....The difference, I think, is that conservative economists’ blind spots overlap more with general conservative blind spots than is the case for liberal economists and liberal blind spots. That’s not a value judgment so much as an observation: liberal economists tend to be more economically conservative than average liberals.

Yep. Obviously there are some hardcore lefty economists out there, but for the most part liberal economists still tend to be fairly sober sorts who are wary of maximal arguments and generally in favor of market solutions in a wide variety of contexts. Conservative economists, by contrast, are largely willing — even eager — to trumpet a uniformly hardcore party line on things like regulation, taxes, unions, trade, and incentives in general. Maybe it's because they still feel like a beleaguered minority, maybe it's because the incentives work differently on the right. I'm not sure. But Leonhardt does seem to be right about this.

As a side note, I'll mention that I've seen a number of lefty bloggers engage with Tyler's original list of lefty mistakes, but I haven't seen anyone on the right engage with his list of righty mistakes. Maybe that's just because I haven't been reading the right blogs.  But I have a feeling that's not it. On the right, an awful lot of economic shibboleths have become almost religious totems, and that's just not something you're allowed to express any doubts about.

Quote of the Day: Pentagon Says Pentagon Treating Manning Just Fine

| Fri Mar. 11, 2011 2:17 PM EST

From Barack Obama, on the abusive treatment being meted out to Bradley Manning, the accused WikiLeaks leaker, in the Quantico brig:

Well, OK then! As long as the Pentagon says so, I guess 23-hour solitary confinement, forced nudity at night and during inspections, repeated awakening at night, and leg shackles during all visits is perfectly fine for a person who hasn't actually been convicted of anything yet. I'm so relieved.

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Can We Please Put Away the Smelling Salts?

| Fri Mar. 11, 2011 1:08 PM EST

Just in case I wasn't crystal clear this morning, I want to double down on my view that NPR shouldn't have fired Vivian Schiller over James O'Keefe's latest video sting operation. First, though, here's a quick summary reminder of what Ron Schiller (no relation) said:

The two actors clearly goad Schiller into making observations, most of which are made after Schiller explicitly takes off his "NPR hat" to give his personal opinion. For example, Schiller says there aren't enough "educated, so-called elite" Americans, adding that public opinion is driven by "this very large uneducated part of the population."

Of tea partyers, he adds: "I mean, basically they ... believe in sort of white, middle-America, gun-toting. I mean, it's scary. They're seriously racist, racist people."

Here's what I'd like to hear from more people: there was nothing wrong with Schiller saying this. Period. He's a fundraiser, not a reporter. He's allowed to have personal views. He's allowed to express those views, even if they're obnoxious or intemperate, and even if he's doing it across the table from a potential donor. He did nothing wrong, and neither did his boss. He deserved, at most, a mild talking-to over this.

I can't begin to tell you how tired I am of all the faux fainting couch nonsense we have to put up with these days from both left and right. People say stuff. They despise certain groups and certain people. They get passionate. If you cross a genuine line, that's one thing. But I'm really weary of fairly ordinary political invective being routinely turned into a firing offense. It's time for all of us to grow thicker skins and knock off this nonsense.

Arguing With the Right

| Fri Mar. 11, 2011 12:04 PM EST

Paul Krugman notes today that Mike Huckabee is opposed to comparative effectiveness reviews. This is old news, of course. CER wasn't the basis for the whole death panel flap back in 2009 (end-of-life planning was), but it became the poster child for it pretty quickly anyway. After all, CER is just a multi-syllabic way of saying that we should compare various disease treatments to see which ones are most effective. That sounds like exactly the kind of thing that a government should do if it's watching out for taxpayer money, but of course it means that some treatments will end up being found ineffective and thus not worth paying for. According to Huckabee, this plants "the seeds from which the poisonous tree of death panels will grow."

To follow up on my post from Wednesday, this is what makes it hard to figure out which conservatives are worth reading and engaging with. The intelligent right doesn't buy the "poisonous tree" argument, of course, and has a considerably more nuanced view of what a conservative healthcare system would look like. That nuanced view includes the obvious point that we should try to figure out what works and what doesn't. That view, however, is not shared at all by the mainstream right, which long since abandoned reason to take Huckabee's side that CER is a liberal plot to kill old people and babies. Thus the liberal problem: it's not really worth arguing with the mainstream right about this, since their view isn't amenable to reason, and it's not really worth arguing with the moderate right about this since their views have no support in the real world. So what's the answer?

The Age of the Political Sting

| Fri Mar. 11, 2011 4:44 AM EST

Vivian Schiller, the CEO of National Public Radio, resigned Wednesday after her chief fundraiser was caught making nasty comments about the tea party movement during a conversation with someone he thought might be a potential donor.

No, that's not a misprint. A development executive, in a private conversation, let loose about the tea party. That's it. He thinks the tea partiers are a bunch of racist goons, an opinion that might be wrong but is hardly beyond the pale, and for that a CEO lost her job.

We now officially live in the era of guerrilla activism. It started in the fall of 2009 with the infamous ACORN sting. Conservative activist James O'Keefe secretly recorded ACORN employees providing advice to a faux pimp who wanted to bring underage prostitutes into the country from El Salvador. The tapes were edited misleadingly, but there was genuine misconduct there too and ACORN was soon defunded and out of business.

On the Importance of Public Opinion

| Thu Mar. 10, 2011 6:40 PM EST

Matt Yglesias on mistakes that journalists and activists make:

I think there’s often a tendency to systematically underrate the extent to which it’s possible to change minds over time....None of that is to deny that there’s a place in the world for concessions to political reality and for practical-minded people. But I think that as a society we’re actually under-invested in discussions of impractical schemes and public efforts to remediate widespread intellectual errors.

The course of the future is very uncertain. Three years ago, I would have agreed with the consensus that a cap-and-trade bill with side-deals was much more likely than a carbon tax. Today that now looks wrong to me and carbon tax as part of a long-term deficit reduction bill seems like the most likely (albeit not very likely) path to meaningful carbon pricing. In retrospect, we can see that George Allen’s “macaca moment” led to a massive overhaul of American health care policy. Under the circumstances, the best thing for people knowledgeable about policy-relevant subject matter to do is to share what they know with as many people as possible and worry less about pre-trimming ideas to conform to guesstimates about what’s possible/relevant/effective.

I'm not so sure about the "impractical schemes" part of this, since discussions of impractical schemes really are just flights of fancy most of the time: fun, perhaps, but not really the path to a better world.

Still, I basically agree with this. But at its core, it's an argument that we should spend more time trying to change public opinion, and when I've talked about this in the past I've found that most people (including Matt, I think) aren't really very persuaded, preferring to argue that institutional or demographic or economic forces are really all that matter. And they do matter, of course. But in the end, long-term public opinion is pretty important too, and we liberals ought to pay more attention to it. We've done a good job over the past decades moving public opinion on social issues, but not so good a job on anything else. That really needs to change.