Kevin Drum

ANWR Proposal Shows That Obama's Power to Set the Agenda Is Alive and Well

| Mon Jan. 26, 2015 11:59 AM EST

Here's the latest salvo in President Obama's flurry of executive activity following the 2014 election:

President Obama proposed designating 1.4 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as protected wilderness, drawing cheers from environmentalists but setting off a bitter new battle Sunday with the Republican-controlled Congress over oil and gas drilling in pristine areas of northern Alaska.

The plan would permanently bar drilling and other forms of development in the 19.8-million-acre refuge’s coastal plain, a narrow strip between the Brooks Range mountains and the Arctic Ocean where caribou give birth. The area, estimated to hold 10.3 billion barrels of oil, is home to more than 200 species, including polar bears, wolverines, musk oxen and thousands of migratory birds.

Now, technically this is meaningless. ANWR has been a battleground for years, as much symbolic as anything else. The amount of oil it could produce isn't really huge, but then again, the environmental damage that a pipeline would produce probably isn't that huge either.1 In any case, the Interior Department already bans drilling in ANWR, and there's no way that a Republican Congress is going to pass a bill to make a drilling ban permanent. So what's the point of Obama's proposal?

It's simple: once again he's using the agenda-setting power of the presidency. Basically, he's making ANWR something that everyone now has to take a stand on. Talking heads will fulminate on one side or the other, and Republicans will respond by introducing legislation to open up ANWR to drilling. This isn't something they were planning to spend time on, but now they probably will. Their base will demand it, as will the Republican caucus in the House and Senate. Nothing will come of it, of course, but it will eat up time that might otherwise have been spent on something else.

And that's why Obama is doing this. It also lays down a marker and lets everyone know that Democrats are the party of natural beauty while Republicans are the party of Big Oil. It can't hurt to make that clear. Still, that's not the main goal here. The main goal is to toss some sand in the gears of Republican plans for the 115th Congress. Obama is proving once again that even with the opposition in control of Congress, he still has the power to decide what people are going to talk about.

1Please address all hate mail regarding this assertion to my editors. Thanks.

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It's Time for Greece to Decide If It's Leaving the Euro

| Mon Jan. 26, 2015 11:17 AM EST

As expected, the Syriza party won power in Sunday's election in Greece. Their platform is pretty simple: the austerity forced on Greece after the 2008 financial collapse is no longer tolerable. The Greek economy is in shambles, growth is negative, and unemployment is above 25 percent. Europe needs to forgive its loans to Greece and allow the Greek economy to grow again. Here is Europe's response so far:

“The Greeks have the right to elect whoever they want; we have the right to no longer finance Greek debt,” Hans-Peter Friedrich, a senior member of [Angela] Merkel’s conservative bloc, told the daily newspaper Bild on Monday. “The Greeks must now pay the consequences and cannot saddle German taxpayers with them.”

In other words: Screw you. The loans need to be repaid no matter the cost. This has been the German position for some time1, and the German position is the de facto European position. So we have a standoff.

It's unclear what will happen next. There will be negotiations, of course, but the truth is that Syriza doesn't have much leverage. They can threaten to unilaterally default and leave the eurozone, but that's about it. A few years ago, that would have meant something because everyone was afraid that if Greece defaulted, perhaps Spain and Italy and Portugal and others would follow suit. This could well have destroyed the euro. Today things are exactly the opposite. Nobody is really afraid that other countries would follow Greece in leaving the euro, but they are afraid that if they make serious concessions then other countries will want their debt forgiven too. And that's simply not on the German agenda.

So is Syriza serious? Will they really default if they don't get what they want? Leaving the euro would be no easy task and would cause immense economic pain. The only question is whether the pain would be worth it in the long run. It might be, but it's hardly an easy call, and it would take real guts for Syriza to call Germany's bluff and leave the euro. The practical problems alone—how fast can you create new physical currency and coins to replace euros?—are nearly insurmountable. The economic problems of capital flight and being shut out of the international loan market would be colossal. Greeks would take an instant hit to their standard of living, perhaps as large as 50 percent.

But it still might be worth it. The Greeks may calculate that in the medium term, exiting the euro and adopting a devalued currency would allow their economy to become competitive and finally start growing again. Without that, they could be looking at a decade or more of pain and stagnation.

So there's the question: which road would leave Greece better off in 2025? Years more of stagnation followed by a slow, painful recovery? Or a huge hit now followed—maybe—by a robust recovery? It's not an easy question.

And of course, there's also the purely emotional aspect of all this. The Germans are tired of the whining Greeks. The Greeks are tired of living under the German jackboot. It may simply be time for a divorce, consequences be damned. The next few months will be a time of high tension for Europe.

1Ironically, this was the position of the allies toward German reparation debt following World War I, and we all know how that turned out. But no one is afraid of Greece starting a new world war, so no one cares about the irony.

Has Netanyahu Finally Gone Too Far With His Contempt for Obama?

| Sun Jan. 25, 2015 6:15 PM EST

I keep wondering if it's ever possible for Benjamin Netanyahu to go too far. He's treated President Obama with truly astonishing levels of contempt and disdain for nearly his entire tenure, and he's done it in the apparent belief that his political support in the US is so strong and so bipartisan that he'll never be held to account for it. And so far he hasn't been.

But what about his latest stunt? The fact that John Boehner invited him to address Congress is hardly surprising. Boehner needed to poke Obama in the eye to demonstrate his conservative bona fides, and this was a perfect opportunity since he knew Netanyahu would deliver plenty of trash talk about Obama's Iran policy. But the fact that Netanyahu kept the invitation a secret from the administration and failed to even notify them he was planning a visit—well, that's a whole different story. As former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk put it, "Netanyahu is using the Republican Congress for a photo-op for his election campaign....Unfortunately, the US relationship will take the hit. It would be far wiser for us to stay out of their politics and for them to stay out of ours."

And it turns out that even two Fox News hosts agree. Max Fisher relays the story:

Two prominent Fox News hosts, Chris Wallace and Shepherd Smith, harshly criticized Boehner and Netanyahu on Friday for secretly arranging a Netanyahu speech to Congress that is transparently aimed at undermining President Obama, and set up without the White House's knowledge.

...."I agree 100 percent," Wallace said when Smith read a quote from Indyk criticizing the Boehner-Netanyahu maneuver. Wallace went on:

And to make you get a sense of really how, forgive me, wicked, this whole thing is, the Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Israeli Ambassador to the United States for two hours on Tuesday, Ron Dermer. The ambassador, never mentioned the fact that Netanyahu was in negotiations and finally agreed to come to Washington, not to see the president, but to go to Capitol Hill, speak to a joint session of congress and criticize the president's policy. I have to say I'm shocked.

Smith said, "it seems like [Netanyahu's government] think[s] we don't pay attention and that we're just a bunch of complete morons, the United States citizens, as if we wouldn't pick up on what's happening here."

Shep Smith goes off the Fox reservation all the time, so perhaps his comments aren't too much of a surprise. But although Wallace is no Sean Hannity, he's fairly reliably conservative and even he was shocked.

So has Netanyahu finally gone over the line? So far I haven't heard much criticism from sitting US politicians, so I'd have to say not. Not yet, anyway. But it sure seems like the day is going to come. No matter how close an ally Israel is, there's only so much contempt their leaders can show for a sitting American president and his policies. Eventually the American public is going to lose patience, even the folks who aren't huge Obama fans themselves.

It hasn't happened yet. Maybe it never will. But it sure seems as if Benjamin Netanyahu is hellbent on pushing the line until he finally rings a bell he can't unring. The only question now is whether he stays in office long enough to make that final, fatal mistake.

Friday Cat Blogging - 23 January 2015

| Fri Jan. 23, 2015 2:17 PM EST

I wrote this morning's short post and then spent the rest of the morning napping. This is ridiculous, and I don't know what's going on. I'm a thousand percent better than I was Tuesday and Wednesday, but still dog tired. One possibility is that this is due to a change in my chemo schedule. Instead of getting all three meds on Friday, I got two of them on Friday and then the third as a standalone on Monday. The next day I was wiped out. Anyway, I hope that's the reason, since this was a one-time thing. I'll ask about it today, though I have little hope of getting any satisfactory answers.

In any case, it's finally Friday, so how about some catblogging? This week features a brand new addition to the extended family of Drum cats. My friend Professor Marc sends along this photo of Ivan Davidoff, his new Siberian. His report: "Seems to like being around people, but is not a cuddle-kitty. He likes being petted, will frequently come see if I’m still in the home office if I’m working there, sometimes jumps onto the desk to be next to me, but is not a lap cat. Maybe that will come as he gets more comfortable. Has woken us up in the middle of the night to get affection, but is not pushy about it." He is certainly a handsome critter, no?

John Boehner Faces a Revolt of the Moderates

| Fri Jan. 23, 2015 12:16 PM EST

Having awakened from my slumber, I see that John Boehner has a whole new problem on his hands. Apparently the rump moderate wing of the Republican Party is starting to feel itchy:

Female lawmakers pushed the party to drop Thursday's planned vote on legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, forcing leaders to abruptly switch course and pass a different antiabortion bill.

Last week, a surprisingly large group of 26 House Republicans refused to support an amendment that called for ending deportation deferrals of young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Those dissenters came within one vote of tanking the measure aimed at so-called Dreamers.

This comes from LA Times reporter Lisa Mascaro, who tells us these folks "bristle" at being called moderates. They prefer to be called pragmatists. Tomayto, tomahto, says me, though it's telling that "moderate" is still a dirty word in GOP land. It's also telling that all this fuss is over bills that everyone agrees are nothing more than the usual symbolic flotsam and jetsam that Republicans pass every year with no actual hope of any of them becoming law. This year, though, they're having trouble even doing that.

Why? Is it because the bills are slightly less symbolic than in the past? There is, after all, just a bare chance that some of them could get through the Senate if sponsors line up a few Democrats to join in. They'd still get vetoed, but they'd nonetheless be a little less symbolic in the public's mind. Or is it simply the fact that as Republican ranks grow, the party's victories increasingly come in more moderate districts? As Democrats lose ground in moderate districts and become more solidly liberal, perhaps it's inevitable that Republicans will become more like the Democrats of old.

In any case, John Boehner has his work cut out for him. He's got tea partiers on one side, moderates on the other, and a president who has been very effectively throwing sand in the gears of Republican priorities ever since November. Boehner's leadership skills, always a bit on the iffy side, are going to be sorely tested this year.

Yet More Housekeeping

| Thu Jan. 22, 2015 10:36 AM EST

I have returned to the land of the living. The last 36 hours have been pretty hellish, but the good news is that I think I know what happened, and it's not likely to happen again. I hope.

That said, I'm still pretty tired. We'll see how the rest of the day goes.

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Housekeeping Update

| Wed Jan. 21, 2015 11:43 AM EST

No blogging today. Sorry. Lots of stuff going on with my body right now. But I should recover eventually.

Obama's Small Ball Is Making Republicans Itch

| Tue Jan. 20, 2015 3:22 PM EST

Jordan Weissmann describes the modest nature of President Obama's new tax proposals:

Combined, Obama’s hikes would raise $320 billion over a decade, or $32 billion per year. That’s just a smidge more than 1 percent of last year’s federal tax revenue—more than a rounding error, but not much more. Obama isn’t looking to soak the rich at this point so much as lightly spritz them.

Quite so. But I'm sure we'll hear endless cries of class warfare anyway, especially over the proposal to end the step-up rule, which would effectively increase the estate tax on rich people. Can't have that.

This actually fits with everything Obama has been doing lately: neither his legislative proposals nor his executive actions have been world shaking. It's all small-ball stuff, designed as much to make a point as it is to actually make a difference. If you put them all together, Obama's actions are a way of showing that (a) Democrats are reasonable folks, (b) they're on the side of the middle class, and (c) Republicans continue to be the party of plutocrats, adamantly opposed to even modest proposals that would tax the rich ever so slightly more.

Is it working? Well, as Greg Sargent points out, most of Obama's proposals seem to be pretty popular, and his poll numbers have jumped up over the past month or so. Maybe this is just because everyone is happy about lower gasoline prices, but I'd guess that's only a part of it. Obama's steady stream of actions make him look good, and relentless opposition makes Republicans look bad. Seems like it's working to me.

Eric Holder Ends Horrible Civil Asset Forfeiture Program

| Mon Jan. 19, 2015 12:10 PM EST

I was getting better over the weekend, then yesterday I relapsed back into coughing fits. And today is a holiday anyway, so probably blogging will be light. But I hate to let this development from last Friday continue to go unremarked:

Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday announced sweeping changes to a federal civil asset forfeiture program that local law enforcement agencies have been able to use to seize property.

....Under new rules announced Friday, federal agencies will no longer be able to accept or "adopt" assets seized by local and state law enforcement agencies — unless the property includes firearms, ammunitions, explosives, child pornography or other materials concerning public safety. Holder described the new policy as the "first step in a comprehensive review."

This is a big deal. Civil asset forfeiture allows police departments to seize property—usually money and cars—from people they merely suspect of a crime. No conviction is necessary, and victims have no recourse unless they have the means to sue to recover their property. All by itself this has been a scandal for a long time, but the federal program Holder eliminated has been the biggest scandal of all. It's bad enough that civil asset forfeiture even exists as a legal doctrine, but it's beyond comprehension that the feds would actively encourage abuse of forfeiture laws by creating a program that allows police departments to keep most of the money they seize. This is practically an invitation to steal money from innocent people.

So good for Holder for ending this program. If cops are going to be allowed to seize property from people they merely suspect of crimes—or, in some cases, pretend to suspect of crimes, wink wink nudge nudge—they sure as hell shouldn't be allowed to keep the stuff and sell it in order to buy themselves a bunch of shiny new toys. The possibilities for abuse are obvious and have been well documented. We're well shut of this horrible program.

Did Market Monetarist Predictions Trounce Everyone Else During the Great Recession?

| Sun Jan. 18, 2015 11:57 AM EST

Via James Pethokoukis, Scott Sumner claims that Market Monetarists got things right during the aftermath of the Great Recession when others didn't:

It must be a major embarrassment to the profession that us lowly MMs turned out to be more correct during the crisis than any other major group (New Keynesians, New Classical, RBC-types, etc.) and indeed more accurate than other groups on the fringes (old Keynesians, old monetarists, Austrians, MMTers, etc.):

1. It’s now obvious that Fed, ECB, and BOJ policy was far too tight in late 2008 and early 2009, but MMs were just about the only people saying so at the time.

2. We correctly pointed out that fiscal austerity in 2013 would not slow growth in the US because of monetary offset, whereas in a poll of 50 elite economists by the University of Chicago, all but one gave answers implying it would slow growth.

3. We pointed out that massive QE would not lead to high inflation, while many other economists on the right said it would.

4. We correctly predicted that the BOJ and Swiss National Bank could depreciate their currency at the zero bound, while many on the left said monetary policy was pushing on a string at the zero bound.

5. We pointed out that the ECB’s tightening of policy in 2011 was a huge mistake, which now almost everyone recognizes.

I'm a little puzzled by this. Unless I'm misremembering badly, prominent lefty economists like Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong have been saying most of these things all along. And while I'm not really quite sure if these guys think of themselves as New Keynesians or Neo-Paleo Keynesians or modified Old Keynesians or what, they're basically Keynesians.

The only one of Sumner's five points where there's disagreement, I think, is #2, and I'd argue that this is a very difficult point to prove one way or the other. My own read of the evidence is that the modest austerity of 2013 might very well have had a modest effect on growth, but frankly, a single year of data is all but impossible to draw any firm conclusions from. However, it's certainly true that there were no huge changes in the trend growth rate.

As for the others, the Keynesian types argued strongly that (a) conventional Taylor Rule calculations called for much looser Fed policy in 2008-09, (b) QE would not lead to inflation in the face of a huge demand shortfall and continued deleveraging, (c) monetary policy in countries with their own currency still had traction, but fiscal policy had a powerful role too at the ZLB, and (d) the ECB's tight monetary policy in 2011 was nothing short of a cataclysmic disaster.

I'm sympathetic to the market monetarist advocacy of NGDP level targeting, but then again, so are folks like Krugman and DeLong. So in a way, it's sometimes unclear to me exactly how far they diverge in practice, even if they subscribe to different theoretical fundamentals. My own tentativeness about NGDPLT is mostly practical: it's not clear to me that central banks can even target inflation as powerfully as many people think, let alone NGDP levels. Part of the reason is that I simply have less faith in the expectations channel than many NGDPLT advocates. It seems like something that will work fine until markets test it to find out if the Fed really has the independent power to set NGDP levels anywhere it wants even in the face of investor panic, and then suddenly it won't work anymore and the Fed's aura of invincibility will be broken. And that will be that. But that may simply reflect a lack of understanding my part. Or perhaps just a lack of faith.