Kevin Drum - March 2013

News Coverage of Local Politics Is Fading Away

| Mon Mar. 18, 2013 4:22 PM EDT

Paul Waldman diverts my attention today to the 2013 edition of Pew's "State of the Media" report. Pew says that local news is becoming ever more saturated by sports, weather, traffic and "bizarre events." But the news isn't all bad:

Crime stories have traditionally been among the largest component of local newscast, but in the two periods studied, there was a marked reduction. In 2005, crime accounted for a full 29% of the newshole. Five years later, that number had fallen to 17%.

As regular readers will immediately figure out, part of the reason for this is that there's just less crime to report these days. What's more, as overall crime rates drop, the TV viewing audience is less obsessed with it and less interested in the latest scary stories. So this is all good. But there's also this:

The same basic trend was seen in coverage of politics and government. In 2005, those topics accounted for 7% of the airtime studied. By 2012/2013, that coverage had been more than halved—to 3% of the airtime. For some time, television consultants have been advising local television stations that viewers aren’t interested in politics and government, and it appears that advice is being taken.

Paul sort of half-heartedly looks for a silver lining here: "I suppose one could argue that what we have here is a salutary specialization. If you want to hear what's going on in politics, you can turn to cable news, where you'll get plenty of it, and you can turn to local news for traffic, sports, and weather."

This would be okay if local newscasts were reducing their coverage of national politics. Cable news can indeed pick up the slack there. But they're reducing their coverage of local politics, and increasingly so is everyone else. The Boston Phoenix closed up shop last week, part of a trend of community alt-weeklies shutting down. Local radio is mostly just chattering gasbags and syndicated blowhards. Metro dailies have all but abandoned local political coverage of the towns and suburbs that surround their urban core. Here in my neck of the woods, we discovered in 2010 that the city of Bell was enmeshed in a widespread corruption scandal, but since there were literally almost no reporters covering Bell, it went unnoticed for more than a decade.

Now, it's not as if local TV news ever did a great job of covering local politics. But they did cover it, and so did a lot of other outlets. As all of them slowly but surely abandon it, local leaders remain under the scrutiny of a few activists and news junkies, but not much of anyone else. I don't think anyone knows what to do about this, but it's a problem.

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Yes, Of Course the Iraq War Was (Partly) About Oil

| Mon Mar. 18, 2013 12:58 PM EDT

Glenn Greenwald points today to a column by former Bush speechwriter David Frum, in which Frum discusses what he saw inside the White House during the runup to the Iraq war:

I was less impressed by [Ahmed] Chalabi than were some others in the Bush administration. However, since one of those 'others' was Vice President Cheney, it didn't matter what I thought. In 2002, Chalabi joined the annual summer retreat of the American Enterprise Institute near Vail, Colorado. He and Cheney spent long hours together, contemplating the possibilities of a Western-oriented Iraq: an additional source of oil, an alternative to US dependency on an unstable-looking Saudi Arabia.

I'm trying to remember if this is even a revelation anymore. Certainly anyone who argued at the time that oil was one of the motivations for the Iraq War was ridiculed mercilessly, but since then it's been all but obvious, right? There was the fact that the only building American troops protected during the post-invasion rioting was the Oil Ministry. There were all those lovely maps of Iraqi oil fields that we learned had been part of Dick Cheney's energy task force since long before 9/11. There was the urgency over restoring Iraq's oil production that seemed to take precedence over almost everything else. Hell, no less than Alan Greenspan conceded after the fact that the war was "largely about oil."

Besides, in a broader sense, even lots of war supporters acknowledged that, in general, American interest in the Middle East is driven strongly by our interest in the stability of Middle East oil supplies. That's not exactly a news flash, and if it's true in general then it must also have been at least part of the specific motivation for getting rid of Saddam Hussein. After all, until we did that, the oil sanctions against Iraq would stay in place.

Still, it's good to hear this from the horse's mouth. The Iraq war wasn't all about oil, but there's not much question that it was in the forefront of a lot of people's minds.

John Boehner Not Thrilled About Possible Budget Bargain

| Mon Mar. 18, 2013 11:57 AM EDT

Here is Sen. Bob Corker (R–Tenn.) on the prospects of a compromise budget deal with Democrats:

I think Republicans, if they saw true entitlement reform, would be glad to look at tax reform that generates additional revenues. And that doesn't mean increasing rates, that means closing loopholes. It also means arranging our tax system so that we have economic growth.

Corker's final sentence is an obvious escape hatch, but ignore that for the moment. He says Republicans will seriously consider closing loopholes in return for cutting entitlements. That sounds like progress! Let's check in with the Speaker of the House to see if he agrees. This conversation is a little hard to follow, but I think it's pretty clear in the end:

MARTHA RADDATZ: Is there any ratio of entitlement cuts to new revenues that you would--

SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: The president got his--

MARTHA RADDATZ: --say that the is three to one, four to one--

SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: --tax hikes. The president--

MARTHA RADDATZ: --nothing?

SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: --got his tax hikes on January the 1st.

MARTHA RADDATZ: So, the answer to--

SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: He r-- he--

MARTHA RADDATZ: --that is no?

Maybe Boehner is just talking tough. But he sure sounds like the entire rest of the House GOP caucus, doesn't he? Nor does he seem willing to talk about any actual entitlement cuts he'd like to see. There's been vague hand waving about Paul Ryan's budget, which is a pretty obvious nonstarter, but not much more.

So I guess the question is whether you believe that House Republicans talk differently in private than they do in public. Do you?

Marketing Campaigns and Immigration Reform

| Mon Mar. 18, 2013 10:53 AM EDT

Republicans have released a report explaining why they lost in 2012 and what they need to do about it. Are you ready?

Among the report’s 219 prescriptions: a $10 million marketing campaign, aimed in particular at women, minorities and gays; a shorter primary season and earlier national convention; and creation of an open data platform and analytics institute to provide research for Republican candidates.

Hmmm. I guess a $10 million marketing campaign might work, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it. Everything else aside, that's a pretty puny budget for a national campaign aimed at boosting sales of consumer packaged goods—and what are political parties if not packaged goods?

So how about some actual changes in policy to go along with that? Slapping "New Formula!" on the box only gets you just so far, after all. But according to the Washington Post, the report included only one "major foray into policy": immigration reform. And sure enough, Senate Republicans are making progress on a bipartisan plan:

The nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants would have to wait a full decade for a green card but could earn citizenship just three years after that, under a provision being finalized by a bipartisan group of eight senators working to devise an overhaul of immigration law, several people with knowledge of the negotiations said.

Taken together, the two waiting periods would provide the nation’s illegal immigrants with a path to United States citizenship in 13 years, matching the draft of a plan by President Obama to offer full participation in American democracy to millions who are living in fear of deportation.

The arrangement would shrink the amount of time it takes to become a naturalized citizen, to three years from five years. But in an appeal to Republicans, it would also extend to 10 years, from 8, the amount of time that illegal immigrants must wait before receiving permission to work in the United States permanently.

That's some compromise. The only question now is whether they can sell it to their CPAC-ified colleagues in the House. The packaged bads, you might call them. Wait and see.

Chart of the Day: Still Plenty of Love for the Iraq War

| Mon Mar. 18, 2013 10:08 AM EDT

It looks like perhaps age brings wisdom after all. According to a Gallup poll released today, nearly 60 percent of those age 50 and older agree that it was a mistake to invade Iraq. Among those younger than 50, only 50 percent think it was a mistake.

That's small potatoes, though, compared to the overall result. How is it, ten years after the fact and with the benefit of hindsight, that 42 percent of the country still believes that invading Iraq wasn't a mistake? What would it take to convince these people? World War I on the Tigris? This bodes ill for the prospect that we might be a wee bit more skeptical the next time our government tries to scare us all into a war.

A Look Behind the Curtain at Wall Street's 24/7 Effort to Gut Finance Reform

| Mon Mar. 18, 2013 8:45 AM EDT

In the current issue of the Washington Monthly, Haley Sweetland Edwards has a long article about the torturous process of taking the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill and turning it into the actual detailed regulations that banks have to follow. This sort of thing sounds a lot less interesting than the fight over the bill itself, but in real life it might be more important. Why? Because until the rules are written, laws like Dodd-Frank have no power:

They are, in the words of one CFTC official, “nothing but words on paper” until they’re broken down into effective rules, implemented, and enforced by an agency. Rules are where the rubber of our legislation hits the road of real life. To put that another way, if a rule emerges from a regulatory agency weak or riddled with loopholes, or if it’s killed entirely—like the CFTC’s rule on position limits—it is, in effect, almost as if that part of the law had not passed to begin with.

Edwards outlines why it's so hard to create effective rules, and as you'd expect, a big part of the reason is that the financial industry is spending billions of dollars gaming the system to slow down, maim, or just outright nullify the intent of the law. They have an army of lobbyists. They meet relentlessly with rulemaking officials. They propose crafty wording changes. They refuse to provide regulators with the data they need. In short, they just plain outgun everyone else, especially since the media's spotlight turns elsewhere almost immediately after a law is passed.

But there's more to it than that: Wall Street is also extremely good at using the courts to get their way. One of the first new regulations to be established in the wake of Dodd-Frank was the "proxy access" rule, which makes it easier for shareholders to elect their own candiates to corporate boards. In 2011, the DC Circuit Court struck down the rule, sending shockwaves through the regulatory community:

Almost immediately after the final rule was published, the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sued the SEC on the grounds that the agency’s cost-benefit analysis was inadequate. The judges agreed, marking the first time that the court had overturned a rule explicitly authorized by Dodd-Frank. But that’s not the part that sent shockwaves through the regulatory apparatus. The D.C. Circuit has overturned dozens of regulations over the years, including six SEC rules in the previous seven years, for lots of reasons, including inadequate cost-benefit analyses.

What sent the shockwaves was that this case didn’t seem to have anything to do with cost-benefit analysis at all. In the vitriolic decision, the panel of judges, all of whom were appointed by Republican presidents, lamented that due to “unutterably mindless” reasoning, the SEC had “failed once again” in its cost-benefit analysis. But the court never cited how exactly the agency’s twenty-three-page economic impact report could have done better. It simply appeared to disagree with the agency’s policy choice—and that, apparently, was grounds enough to overturn the rule.

....Questionable judicial behavior aside, the Business Roundtable decision marked “the culmination of a trend empowering regulated entities to strike down regulations almost at will,” wrote Bruce Kraus, a former counsel at the SEC, in a subsequent report. For one, it established an inherent bias—reformers cannot, after all, challenge a rule in court to make it stronger. For another, it opened up the floodgates for future suits. If two of the industry’s most powerful organizations could sue the SEC and overturn a rule on such grounds, it was suddenly feasible for industry groups to sue any agency and overturn any new Dodd-Frank rule using the same arguments.

....The Business Roundtable decision had the immediate effect of adding a whole new lethal section to the regulatory gauntlet, this time complete with flypaper and trapdoors. In the months following, the SEC’s progress through the Dodd-Frank rule making is estimated to have slowed by half as they struggled to “bulletproof” their rules from future lawsuits.

As you may recall, Senate Republicans have steadfastly refused to confirm any of President Obama's nominees to the DC Circuit. This is why. The DC Circuit is the court that decides the fate of agency regulations, and both Wall Street and the Republican Party are eager to make sure that it remains stacked with right-wing judges who will reliably do their bidding. They know perfectly well that laws like Dodd-Frank are "nothing but words on paper" until a court approves the rules that implement them, and they have no intention of giving up the whip hand they currently hold on this. Welcome to hell.

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A Fifth Reason to Care About Economic History

| Sun Mar. 17, 2013 10:50 PM EDT

Why should you care about economic history? Brad DeLong offers a few reasons:

First of all, it makes a very good story....Second, you never know what parts of history may turn out to be useful and very important....Third, you should focus on economic history not just because it is the key axis of the twentieth century in particular but because economic history is the real history....And, fourth, we do need to search for and keep searching for the “lessons” of the past for the present.

Brad is talking about 20th century history in particular, but taken more broadly I'd offer a fifth reason to be interested in economic history: it's one of the best ways to understand economics.

This came up in my Reddit AMA a couple of days ago, when someone asked if I could recommend a book that provides a good basic understanding of the modern economy. I didn't really have a satisfying answer, partly because my background in economics is fairly weak, and partly because it's accreted over the years from a very wide variety of books, magazine pieces, blog posts, miscellaneous journal articles, and daily news. There's really not any single book that's played a key role for me.

But I ended up recommending John Kenneth Galbraith's A History of Economics anyway. It's not necessarily the best history of economic thought out there, and in any case it's a poor recommendation because I think it's out of print. But it has several virtues to make up for that: it's brief, engagingly written, wide ranging, and I happen to have read it many years ago and have a dim memory of thinking it was very good.

More generally, if you don't know much about economics, then reading about the history of economics is one of the best ways to get started. If you try to dive straight into a book about modern economics, even one that's well written, you're probably going to have a tough time. But if you come at it chronologically, starting with older, simpler concepts that give way gradually to more modern ideas, the modern ideas will make a lot more sense. You'll have a context to put them in and a reason to believe that they really are improvements. When you reach the final chapter, modern economics will seem less like a baffling collection of arbitrary rules and more like the final step in a series of steady progressions that were genuinely motivated by new problems that couldn't be adequately addressed by what came before. At that point, you'll be able to pick up an introduction to modern economics and probably be able to make sense of it.

Plus, as a bonus, you'll learn some history! It's a no-lose proposition.

With that said, I'll open the floor to other recommendations. Preferably ones that are in print and easily available. What we're looking for is an engaging, concise, and reliable introductory history of economic thought. Any nominees?

UPDATE: Several commenters have pointed out that Brad is talking about economic history and I'm talking about the history of economics. That's....absolutely true. And they aren't the same thing. I wasn't thinking hard enough about that when Brad's post struck me as a good springboard to talk about something related.

So: economic history is important! But if you want to learn about economics itself, your best introduction is probably a good history of economics.

Question of the Day: Is Cyprus Unique?

| Sun Mar. 17, 2013 6:52 PM EDT

From Megan McArdle, on the supposedly unique nature of yesterday's bailout of Cyprus's banking system:

The problem is, Europe seems to be chock full of unique, one time problems with its banking system.

Roger that. Cyprus was basically an offshore banking haven for Russian plutocrats, so it grew to gargantuan proportions compared to the size of the country. If it had failed, the entire country would have imploded. That's bad. On the other hand, no one really felt like spending a trainload of EU taxpayer money to prop up a bunch of Russian oligarchs. That would be bad too. So the EU's politicos wanted to make the oligarchs pay a price for being rescued.

How about, say, a one-time tax of 10 percent of their deposits? Sold! But then the EU went further, imposing a one-time tax of 6.75 percent even on small accounts. Small insured accounts. This means that having an insured bank account no longer means bupkis in the EU.

So now the question becomes: Is Cyprus unique? Or, more precisely, can ordinary depositors and big investors be persuaded that Cyprus is unique? Because if they can't, then they're going to start pulling their money out of Spanish and Greek and Italian and Portuguese banks. And that would be very, very bad. It would turn the slow-motion bank runs of the past few years into the honest-to-God, high-speed, economy-ruining kind of bank runs.

And it all depends on whether everyone can be hypnotized into thinking that Cyprus really is unique. Tune in tomorrow to find out.

How Irish Are You?

| Sun Mar. 17, 2013 12:37 PM EDT

Sarah Kliff on St. Patrick's Day:

St. Patrick's Day is, perhaps, the only holiday replete with false claims of national ancestry. Everyone is Irish, if just for a day.

Well, just for the record, I am seven-sixteenths Irish. Canters and Gunsons from Tipperary, Morans from Galway, Moodys from Derry, Lows from Armagh, and Dacys from....somewhere. How about you?

Liberals Are Annoying

| Sat Mar. 16, 2013 11:31 PM EDT

Jared Bernstein was on Bill Maher's show yesterday, trying to convince him that a tax on soda was a good idea. After all, he says, soda contributes to obesity, and obesity contributes to chronic diseases that cost all of us a lot of money:

But Bill’s point, which I ultimately found pretty convincing (he kept hitting me with it after the show!), is that there’s tons of stuff like that—behaviors that people engage in with potential negative externalities. To suggest taxing them all is what give liberals a bad name, he asserted in terms rarely heard in policy seminars.

Maher is right. Liberals are annoying almost by definition. We are constantly hectoring people to stop doing stuff they're comfortable with and to instead do brand new stuff that they find awkward, difficult, embarrassing,and wearisome. There's no help for that—it's part of the essence of liberalism—but the key to success is to pick our battles carefully. The game needs to be worth the candle.

Unfortunately, we do have a wee tendency to overdo things, which creates lots of resentment for no appreciable gain. It may seem unfair that overdoing things modestly hurts us more than genuinely nutbag stuff—like, say, the video on the right—seems to hurt conservatives, but that's life. Extremism in the defense of the status quo just isn't as scary as the opposite. This has been true approximately forever, I think.