• Ban Government Shutdowns? Maybe We Actually Need More of Them.

    Over the weekend, the White House released this widely-mocked picture of Donald Trump "working to resolve the budget impasse." The fact that it's so obviously a joke is a sign of how seriously modern Washington takes budget issues these days.Joyce N. Boghosian/White House

    Ramesh Ponnuru wants to get rid of government shutdowns:

    The U.S. has had four partial shutdowns of the federal government in the last 25 years. Each time we have one, we debate who’s responsible: which party is the formal cause of it, which is being less reasonable in budget negotiations. Maybe it’s time instead to debate doing away with the possibility of shutdowns.

    There’s no law of nature that requires the federal government to run at partial capacity when Congress and the president can’t agree on a budget bill. Long ago Congress could have passed, and a president could have signed, a law stipulating how the government would operate in case of such a disagreement.

    This sounds appealing, and I’d certainly be in favor of eliminating debt ceiling standoffs, which truly are pointless and dangerous. But getting rid of budget-driven government shutdowns would be sort of like banning strikes by labor unions. Sure, strikes are annoying for everyone, but without them there’s no leverage to force a deal to be made. Human nature being what it is, both sides sometimes need the spur of looming catastrophe to force them toward an agreement.

    If the government were put on automatic autopilot in the absence of a budget agreement, the incentive to pass a budget would shrivel even further than it already has. Sometimes this might favor Democrats and sometimes Republicans, so there’s no real partisan valence here. But I’d be very careful about “recognizing reality” and doing something like this. Half a century ago Mike Mansfield recognized the reality of filibusters and decided to change the Senate rules so that no one actually had to talk and the Senate could go about its business while simply acknowledging that a filibuster was taking place. Later the rules were changed so that nobody even had to be present in the Senate to keep a filibuster going. But guess what? When the price of a filibuster went down to nearly zero, the number of filibusters skyrocketed and we ended up with the 60-vote Senate we have today. That’s not something Mansfield or anyone else ever expected.

    So what happens when the price of a budget deadlock goes down nearly to zero? My guess is that we’d have a lot more budget deadlocks. Contra Ponnuru, then, I might propose something 180 degrees different: pass a law that bans continuing resolutions and shuts down the government on October 1 if there’s no budget. Passing a budget is the prime purpose of Congress, but in recent years both Democrats and Republicans have all but abdicated this responsibility. Maybe they need some incentive to start considering the budget their top priority, not a bit of trivia to be ignored while they fight base-pleasing battles over ideological hot buttons.

  • Will Chico Ever Get Commercial Air Service Again?

    Military planes still fly out of Chico, like this M. C. 130 P Combat Shadow that helps with firefighting. But there's no commercial air service.Sacramento Bee/ZUMAPRESS

    Six days ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that airlines are abandoning small towns:

    Chico, with a population of 92,000, is one of 20 small communities in the U.S. to lose regular commercial air service in the last four years….At 91 other small airports nationwide, the number of departures has been cut by at least half in that same period, including Yuma International Airport in Arizona, Barnstable Municipal Airport in Hyannis, Mass., and Branson Airport in Missouri.

    ….“As airports lose frequency and destinations, communities experience diminished connectivity, which weakens their link to the global economy,” said Faye Malarkey Black, president of the Regional Airline Assn. The closures grew out of lessons learned by the airline industry during tough financial years capped by the last recession.

    But wait! Today the Wall Street Journal says that airlines are flocking back:

    Airlines are returning to midsize U.S. cities. American Airlines Group Inc. plans to launch 49 new nonstop domestic flights in 2018, the carrier said last week, mirroring similar expansion over the past year by United Continental Holdings Inc. that is taking carriers back to places such as Fort Wayne, Ind.

    The shifts reflect big changes in airline economics, including lower fuel prices, a desire by carriers to attract more passengers to their fortress hubs such as Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, and competition on major routes from low-cost carriers that have driven down fares and taken market share….“There are markets that we’re coming back to,” said Vasu Raja, American’s vice president for network and schedule planning.

    So when does Chico get its air service back?

  • Whose “Fault” Is the Government Shutdown?

    Miguel Juarez Lugo via ZUMA

    “Why aren’t you writing anything about the shutdown?” The masses demand to know what’s up. Well, I’ve been busy with some other stuff this weekend, and anyway, I’m not even sure what to say.

    Let’s start with an obvious point: any government shutdown is the result of disagreements between Democrats and Republicans. In that sense, it’s not really anyone’s “fault.” Either side could cave at anytime if they really wanted the government to start running again.

    That said, the question of who bears most of the fault for the current shutdown depends on who’s making the more outrageous demands. I can’t pretend to be neutral about this, but let’s roll the tape.

    Republicans control Congress, but this year they never even came close to passing a budget because they were too busy failing to repeal Obamacare and enacting big tax cuts for corporations. Democrats, for reasons best left unexamined, gave Republicans the headroom to do this by agreeing to multiple continuing resolutions that would keep the government running in the meantime. All along, however, Democrats had one demand: that the eventual budget include language that restored DACA, the “mini-DREAM” act that Donald Trump killed. Eventually, they said, they’d stop voting for more CRs that didn’t include DACA. And so they did. Republicans have known this for months.

    Now, Republicans are allegedly in favor of restoring DACA too, so the easy solution would have been to include it in the latest CR, perhaps along with some kind of concession from Democrats on military spending. All done, and then everyone can get down to the serious work of writing real appropriations bills. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

    I’ll confess up front that I don’t know precisely what DACA demands Democrats are making, but I don’t think they’ve moved the goalposts on this noticeably. They just want DACA. So do Republicans. So does the vast majority of America.

    So what are Republicans demanding in return? Unfortunately, it’s all but impossible to figure that out. At first it was a few restrictions on chain migration and some money for border security. Democrats were willing to work with this, and Donald Trump said he’d sign anything Congress sent him, even if he didn’t like it that much.

    But then Trump changed his mind and decided the bill should contain an almost complete wishlist of Republican demands from past immigration negotiations. This was faintly ridiculous, since Democrats would certainly want more in return for all that than merely DACA. Nonetheless, Dems were willing to compromise and accept much of this. Once again Trump seemed amenable. And once again he changed his mind after Stephen Miller and Tom Cotton got to him. Mitch McConnell threw up his hands, saying he couldn’t really do anything until he knew what Trump wanted, and Paul Ryan maintained a studious silence. And then the government shut down.

    From a PR standpoint, Democrats have a positive message: we just want protection for Dreamers. That’s very popular. But Republicans have one too: Democrats are willing to shut down the government over illegal aliens. That also polls well. I don’t know how that will play out.

    However, in terms of demands, it’s hard to see how anyone would think Democrats are being the outrageous ones. They want something that’s simple and reasonable (and popular); they’ve been consistent about what they want; and they’ve generally been open to compromise to get it done. Republicans, by contrast, have demanded concessions for something they supposedly support themselves; their demands have become ever more onerous over the past few weeks; the president keeps changing his mind about what he wants; and at this point literally no one knows what it would take to close a deal with Republicans. Democrats couldn’t cave in even if they wanted to.

    Republicans even refused to pass a routine measure to keep paying the military during the shutdown, something that would have passed easily on a bipartisan basis. Why? So that when they go on TV to argue that Democrats are responsible for the shutdown, they can also blame Democrats for service members not getting paychecks.

    Am I missing anything important here? Have Democrats raised the stakes in ways I’m not aware of? Have Republicans been more consistent in their demands than I’m giving them credit for? Why is this whole question even remotely debatable?

  • A Decade After the Great Recession, We’re Outsourcing Home Appraisals to India

    Manuel Romano/NurPhoto via ZUMA

    The Wall Street Journal reports that banks are getting tired of performing actual appraisals for high-volume home loans—the kind that get packaged into mortgage-based securities—and are turning instead to less rigorous broker price opinions:

    Now these perfunctory valuations abound, underpinning tens of billions of dollars of home deals. Sometimes the process is outsourced to India, where companies charge real-estate agents a few dollars to come up with U.S. home values by consulting Google Earth and real-estate websites. BPOs have been used to value collateral in the more than $20 billion of bonds sold by institutional landlords, such as Blackstone’s Invitation Homes Inc., and in the fast-growing business of lending to individual house flippers.

    What could go wrong? “Their popularity,” says the Journal, “shows how Wall Street is finding ways to adapt to government efforts to crack down on some of the excesses that contributed to the housing crisis.”

    It’s remarkable how fast we’ve decided to ignore the lessons of the great housing bubble and the subsequent crash. Republicans, of course, never wanted to learn any lessons from the very start, but Wall Street stayed cautious for at least a few years. Now even that’s receding into the rear view mirror, a mere decade after the second-worst recession of the past century. Republicans are naturally happy to help this process along, because the market is always right, even when the market is wrong. Plus the finance industry is generous to politicians who let them do whatever they want.

    It took upwards of 50 years to unlearn the lessons of the Great Depression. The Great Recession took only ten. I wonder how long we’ll pretend to have learned anything from the next one?

  • How Exactly Is Blockchain Supposed to Change the World?

    Rowan Walrath wrote yesterday about bitcoin. She talked to Pai-Ling Yin, a professor at USC:

    While cryptocurrency investment has a “bubble element,” she says, that doesn’t mean blockchain has no value. To put it simply, blockchain is an anonymized, decentralized system for managing data and keeping accounts, and while it’s most commonly associated with cryptocurrencies, it has potentially far-reaching implications for the future direction of the internet….Does this mean investors are right to value bitcoin at $20,000? Not necessarily, Yin says. “It’s high for now. Let’s put it that way,” she says. “There could be a time where the valuation we see now does correspond to the value of what the technology is.”

    I should admit up front that I obviously don’t “get” bitcoin, but I really don’t get Yin’s comment. In what way should bitcoin reflect the value of the technology behind it? Owning bitcoin doesn’t give me a patent on blockchain technology, after all. There’s tremendous amounts of technology that go into making a penny too, but it’s still only worth one cent.

    Anyway, blockchain. It’s an interesting technology. As Walrath says, it’s decentralized. That means it’s a way of conducting reliable transactions without having anyone in the middle to verify them. This has some potentially interesting uses, but only if you care deeply about not having anyone in the middle. The Visa network, for example, can process billions of transactions quickly and accurately, as all of us know since we use our credit and debit cards every day with no hassle. Transaction processing per se is not a problem that needs solving. However, all the transactions are managed by Visa. If you don’t want Visa to know what you’re doing, this is a problem.

    It’s not clear to me just how widespread this desire is. Drug dealers and money launderers, obviously, like to keep a low profile. Ditto for organizations that are banned from using the banking system. And of course, anyone who’s just generally paranoid. But how big a market is that? It doesn’t seem all that big to me. But then again, I don’t get it, do I?

    Plus there’s the issue of just how blockchain manages this reliable, decentralized verification of transactions. The answer in the case of bitcoin is that thousands of computers around the world are engaged in bitcoin mining, in the hopes of getting rich. In the course of that mining, they maintain the blockchain. That’s all fine, but how does blockchain work when there aren’t thousands of people around the globe with a profit motive to maintain the blockchain? Beats me.

    I dunno. Blockchain is an interesting technology, but I continue to have a hard time seeing it as revolutionary. I guess we’ll just have to wait to see.

  • Men and Women View the Seriousness of Sexual Assault About the Same

    After a massive set of complex calculations, I now have the results of the sexual assault survey broken down by gender. And it’s genuinely interesting! Here’s the chart:

    Of the 2,019 responses, about 80 percent were men and 20 percent were women. In general women ranked everyone a consistent half point higher than men. So there’s a difference here, but not really a large one. The two exceptions were Harvey Weinstein—who doesn’t count since he was pretty much maxed out already—and Al Franken. I’m not sure why men and women agreed only on Franken. Feel free to take guesses in comments.

    But that’s not the interesting part. What’s interesting is that men and women rank-ordered these nine cases exactly the same. Although the actual scores are a little different, both men and women agree, for example, that Matt Lauer is worse than Charlie Rose and Garrison Keillor is worse than Al Franken.

    I don’t want to pop off too much on this before I’ve had a chance to mull it over, but these results suggest a couple of obvious things:

    • The scores ranged from 2 to 10. Obviously we are all—both men and women—perfectly capable of distinguishing the seriousness of different kinds of sexual assault and harassment.
    • The fact that men and women agreed on the rank-ordering¹ suggests that, no, women are not trying to ban flirtation or romance or anything of the sort. The cases that didn’t bother men all that much also didn’t bother the women all that much. The moral here is not to pay too much attention to the screeching outliers on Twitter or elsewhere.² There are always screechers around. Instead, try to pay attention to the actual bulk of mainstream opinion.

    One way or another, these results imply that we all have a pretty good sense of how serious various kinds of sexual assault are. I’m not sure we have the vocabulary to talk about it properly right now, but the fact that our instincts are all in the same place means that eventually a common vocabulary should be possible. It’s something to work on.

    If you feel like playing around with the data yourself, a spreadsheet of all 2,019 responses is here. If you just want to see charts for each person, a screen cap of the Google summary is here.

    ¹I want to stress yet again that my readership is mostly a liberal, highly-educated, politically-minded audience. These results might apply more generally to other people like us, but they certainly don’t apply any more generally than that.

    ²Of course, that’s my advice for everything, so….

  • Friday Cat Blogging – 19 January 2018

    Every morning, when I open the door to the backyard, Hopper gallops out as if her tail is on fire. She just has to see if anything has changed in the previous 12 hours. Hilbert, on the other hand, is considerably more cautious about the whole thing. He sits in the doorway and peers out for a while, trying to make up his mind if it’s safe. It helps if I go out first and fail to be eaten by a dinosaur or something. Eventually he takes a few steps outside, but the red-in-tooth-and-claw danger of the great outdoors (dogs walking by, gardeners making noise, etc.) has made him wary. Here he is this morning while he was still in making-up-his-mind mode.

  • #MeToo Poll Results

    I got about 2,000 responses to my survey about sexual assault last night. This is probably obvious to everyone, but please note that this is a self-selected online poll of a specific readership. It’s not scientific and it doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of the broader population. With that said, here’s how you all ranked the seriousness of various cases of sexual assault and harassment:

    Unsurprisingly, Harvey Weinstein scored highest and Aziz Ansari scored lowest. There’s a big jump between the bottom three and the rest of the field.

    For each person, I also calculated the discrete variance, which is a measure of how much everyone agreed on the scores. Here’s the same chart ranked by variance:

    Garrison Keillor generated a huge variance in opinion, especially for a guy whose mean score was so low. At the other end, there was strong agreement about the scores for Ansari and Weinstein.

    For now, I don’t have anything special to say about this. Maybe later. Maybe not. However, I do have all the raw data, which I’ll use to generate scores separately for men and women. That takes a little more work, but I’ll get to it later today.

  • Does Donald Trump Even Want a DACA Deal Anymore?

    Jeff Malet/Newscom via ZUMA

    Does President Trump even want a deal on DACA? He says he does, but after he was embarrassed at his own immigration meeting for not understanding anything about it, he’s suddenly decided to take the advice of immigration hardliners like Stephen Miller and Tom Cotton, who simply don’t want DACA restored. Jonathan Swan got a copy of a memo from the hawks in the White House explaining the few wee complaints they had with the Durbin/Graham proposal. Here is his summary along with my comments:

    As near as I can tell, they know that Trump won’t understand a word they say, so they can say anything they want. Plus there’s a tiny kernel of truth in each one of these points, so they have their butts covered in case someone calls them out.

    Bottom line: if Trump is outsourcing his negotiation to the Tom Cottons of the world, it means he doesn’t want a deal at all. Folks like that will never agree to anything.

  • Conservatives Upset About FISA Surveillance Abuse

    Boutin Dominique/TASS via ZUMA

    Apparently the US government runs a widespread surveillance program, and Republicans are upset about it. This may seem odd, since they’re usually pretty gung-ho about this kind of stuff, but I’m sure they have their reasons. Fox News reports:

    A four-page memo circulating in Congress that reveals alleged United States government surveillance abuses is being described by lawmakers as “shocking,” “troubling” and “alarming,” with one congressman likening the details to KGB activity in Russia. “It is so alarming the American people have to see this,” Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan said. “It’s troubling. It is shocking,” North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows said.

    Yikes! What is this all about?

    Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz said he believed people could lose their jobs after the memo is released. “I believe the consequence of its release will be major changes in people currently working at the FBI and the Department of Justice,” he said, referencing DOJ officials Rod Rosenstein and Bruce Ohr.

    ….A source close to the matter said the memo details the Intelligence Committee’s oversight work for the FBI and Justice, including the controversy over unmasking and FISA surveillance.

    Oh. Susan Rice and unmasking again. They just can’t get enough of Susan Rice, can they? And naturally this demands the firing of Rod Rosenstein, who has treacherously allowed Robert Mueller to continue his investigation of President Trump. I’m sure it will turn out to be a fascinating memo.