Via Ryan Avent, here's a nice map from the BEA showing which states are recovering best from the recession. It's all 2009 data. I suppose I can take some cold comfort from the fact that California isn't actually at the very bottom of the list. In fact, we're about 20th from the bottom. That's a little surprising given the depth of the housing crash here and the parlous state of our finances. In less surprising news, Nevada has the worst performance, but longer term it's Michigan that's actually in the worst shape. Ryan has more at the link, including the Texas-California comparison that everyone is dying to see.

A few days ago I confessed that I was getting a little tired of all the TSA criticism. We already know what we don't like, after all: patdowns, scanners, liquid limits, shoe removals, etc. etc. Let's move on. What would a good airport security plan look like?

Luckily for me, MoJo doesn't just employ bloggers, it employs actual reporters who can ask people about this. So Nick Baumann talked to three airport security critics and asked them what we should do:

After speaking to them, I think Kevin is missing the point: the elimination of existing useless security procedures is the heart of the plan. It's not about doing something "instead" of the current system—it's about not doing things that are wasting money and time and not making us safer. It's quite possible that we're already as safe as we're going to get—and every subsequent airport security "improvement" is just reducing our freedom without improving security.

There's more than just that. Nick also produced a list of five positive suggestions from the critics: (1) Enhance baggage security, (2) Pay more attention to airport workers, (3) Randomize enhanced screenings, (4) Make security lines less vulnerable, and (5) Replicate parts of the Israeli model. To be honest, this doesn't sound super impressive. #1 is already in progress, #3 doesn't sound worthwhile, #4 might be a good idea but doesn't address airplane security, and #5 is also in progress. That leaves #2, which is also in progress but perhaps needs more attention.

Anyway, read the whole thing. To be honest, it leaves me with the impression that no one really has any big bright ideas about this. As Nick says, maybe we're already about as safe as we're going to get.

Bernanke vs. China

This is great:

Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, argued Friday that currency undervaluation by China and other emerging markets was at the root of “persistent imbalances” in trade that “represent a growing financial and economic risk.”

....For the last two weeks, the Fed has been criticized for its Nov. 3 decision to inject $600 billion into the banking system through next June, resuming an effort to lower long-term interest rates....By defending the Fed’s actions, calling for global rebalancing and hinting that more fiscal stimulus might be needed, Mr. Bernanke’s remarks amount to an endorsement of crucial elements of President Obama’s economic approach.

But that endorsement, in turn, could further stoke criticism by Congressional Republicans, who say the Fed is defying voters’ skepticism about large-scale government intervention in the economy and setting the stage for inflation later.

It's not great that Bernanke has to do this. But it's great that he's putting his cards on the table. I'm truly curious about just how far Republicans are willing to go to overtly take the side of China against monetary policy designed to help the American economy. I guess we'll soon find out.

Here is Atrios a few days ago on plans to shore up Social Security's finances:

The other fantasy is that if you pass some sort of plan which gets Social Security in surplus for the next 75 years according to the SSA then you get credit for "saving" Social Security and that the issue will be then off the table until the end of time. What will happen in practice is that the trustees will inevitably make minor and completely reasonable tweaks to the assumptions underlying their projections so they can once again have the trio of "nightmare," "middle ground," and "everything's awesome" scenarios, with the middle ground scenario showing problems at some point in the future. Then the pain caucus will be back to tell us just how much granny needs to starve and Wall Street will return to siphon up all the money into their gaping maws.

This is a pretty common sentiment in the progressive community, but I really don't think it's right. It's true that a certain contingent of conservatives will never give up on attacking Social Security. They'll release white papers, write periodic op-eds for the Wall Street Journal, broadcast Facebook rants about Ponzi schemes to the faithful, and agitate forever for privatization. This will never stop.

But it won't gain any traction if the official reports show that Social Security is solvent. The fact is that the middle scenario of the Social Security trustees hasn't changed dramatically over the years. In 1985, they projected that outlays would exceed revenue by 2.5 percent of taxable earnings in 2060. Last year, the forecast for 2060 showed an imbalance of about 3.5 percent of taxable earnings:

So yes: The trustees make tweaks, and those tweaks have caused the lines to move up and down over the years. But not by a huge amount. Put together a plan that closes the long-term gap on a pay-as-you-go basis—that is, without playing trust-fund games this time—and it will probably remain in pretty good shape for decades at a minimum.

That won't satisfy Cato or the Heritage Foundation, but they aren't the real opinion movers on this. The Beltway consensus is formed much more by the Washington Post editorial page and the Pete Peterson folks, and they've always been willing to accept the trustees' projections as meaningful. So once the trustees produce a chart showing Social Security in balance, all the oxygen gets taken out of the debate. The privatizers won't give up their crusade, but nobody will be listening anymore. Privatization is fundamentally unpopular, and it only edges its way into the public discourse if it can plausibly appeal to an oncoming crisis. Remove the crisis, and they've got nothing left.

This is why progressives should be more open to trying to cut a Social Security deal. It might not work, of course, but with deficit reduction in the air it's worth trying. Right now, we have multiple deficit reduction plans on the table that provide reasonable starting points for discussion; none of the plans involve privatization, and a bipartisan deal would put a stake through privatization for good; it would remove a distraction and allow us to devote our attention to more important things; and it would be good for the country and good for Social Security beneficiaries to shore up the program permanently and put the doom mongers out of business. Better now than when President Palin is in office.

Front page image courtesy of Flickr user Seth Anderson.

Stuxnet Update

Here's the latest on the Stuxnet worm:

The paternity of the worm is still in dispute, but in recent weeks officials from Israel have broken into wide smiles when asked whether Israel was behind the attack, or knew who was. American officials have suggested it originated abroad.

The new forensic work narrows the range of targets and deciphers the worm’s plan of attack. Computer analysts say Stuxnet does its damage by making quick changes in the rotational speed of motors, shifting them rapidly up and down.

....Those fluctuations, nuclear analysts said in response to the report, are a recipe for disaster among the thousands of centrifuges spinning in Iran to enrich uranium, which can fuel reactors or bombs. Rapid changes can cause them to blow apart. Reports issued by international inspectors reveal that Iran has experienced many problems keeping its centrifuges running, with hundreds removed from active service since summer 2009.

Pretty clever of the Israelis, no?

I'm not sure how seriously to take this, but Marcy Wheeler retweets this from petulantsage:

Every person I've talked to over the past 48 hours, who works for a 3 & 4-star agrees: it's open warfare. USMC and AF will kill repeal.

No surprise, I guess. The Marine Corps (too red-blooded for gays) and the Air Force (too evangelical Christian for gays) have always been the most opposed to repeal of DADT. We'll see who wins the war shortly.

Josh Marshall realized today that he didn't really know much about the New START treaty, so he made some phone calls to get up to speed. His report:

Have you heard this? Russia still has a massive strategic nuclear arsenal with pretty much the exclusive goal of being able to devastate the United States and kill pretty much all of us. For 15 years we had pretty robust right to inspect their arsenal many times a year, make sure they only had as many as they were allowed under our treaties and actually get up on the delivery missiles themselves and look at the payloads? Now we don't. In fact, we haven't since December 5th of last year.

At first that wasn't that big a deal. Not much can happen in a few weeks or few months. But now it's been almost a year. So all that trust but verify stuff Ronald Reagan was so into? Well, now we can't verify. And for as much as you're worried about some Muslim guy blowing up a plane and killing a few hundred people, these are weapons designed to kill hundreds of millions of people. Do you feel more secure knowing we're just taking everything on faith from the Russians? Or that our intelligence on their missile designs and practices is growing older by the day?

As it happens, yes, I have heard all this. But I think Josh is right: most people don't have a clue. And it does indeed seem like a massive messaging fail by the White House that they haven't been focused obsessively on pushing this message at every opportunity. Forget all the other aspects of the treaty. Forget the reduction in warheads, the reduction in ICBMs, or the reduction in heavy bombers. Forget about the quality of our relationship with Russia and its role in reining in Iran's nuke program. If there's anything that people ought to understand, it's that the treaty restores our ability to inspect and verify the Russian nuclear arsenal.

I've spent some time reading the technical objections that conservatives have to New START, and they're pretty inscrutable. Mostly they either strain the language of the treaty beyond recognition (to claim it obstructs missile defense, for example), criticize something the treaty doesn't even cover (tactical nukes, targeting strategies), object to provisions that both the military and the intelligence community say are fine (telemetry protocols, launch vehicle IDs), or simply rail against the whole idea of signing arms control treaties in the first place — as conservatives have done pretty much forever. There's practically nothing concrete to any of it.

But if we don't approve the treaty, we'll lose our ability to verify Russian nukes completely. That's about as concrete as you can get.

Stephen Spruiell thows a bit of cold water on GM's much ballyhooed IPO:

Regarding the triumphalism attending GM’s IPO, let this post serve as a friendly reminder that GM still owes the U.S. government $43 billion; that its financing arm still owes $14.6 billion; and that its sick friend Chrysler still owes $8.2 billion.

....Let’s also keep in mind that many conservatives did not object to the idea of government-backed debtor-in-possession financing for GM and Chrysler at the height of the credit crisis, arguing that bankruptcy was unavoidable but that it might be necessary for the government to play a limited role in keeping the lights on at GM. The counterargument at the time, which one encountered constantly when arguing with bailout proponents, was that GM could not survive a bankruptcy — even a government-financed one — because the damage to its brand would be too great. Like many of the scare stories the automakers were telling at the time, this turned out to be false. It eventually became necessary for both GM and Chrysler to declare bankruptcy, and this did not prove fatal to either company. However, instead of providing simple debtor-in-possession financing, the TARP-financed bailout of the auto companies gave the Obama administration more control over the process, which it used to allow its union supporters to jump the line ahead of senior creditors. That’s exactly the kind of thing conservatives feared, and why we called for the government to have a much more circumscribed role if it was to have any role at all.

Look, no one is rooting for GM to fail, or for thousands of autoworkers to be laid off, or for the taxpayers to lose their entire stake in the company. But it is just ridiculous to start popping champagne corks left and right over the fact that an industrial problem child like GM managed to put its pants on today without falling on its face.

I'm surprisingly sympathetic to much of this. I remember my main reaction to the GM/Chrysler question at the time being, "I'm sure glad I'm not president of the United States right now." I really detested the whole idea of bailing out GM, but at the same time it was hard to convince myself that if I were actually in charge I'd be willing to risk the loss of another million jobs during the depths of the biggest economic turndown since the Great Depression.

And now? Like Spruiell, I'm far from convinced that GM is truly out of the woods, but I'm not as downbeat as he is over how this all played out. He's right about GM eventually declaring bankruptcy and coming through it OK, but the argument against bankruptcy, as I recall it, was mostly an argument against an uncontrolled bankruptcy. The main virtue of the eventual government involvement was not just that the feds provided some money, but that they were able to create a credible restructuring plan and then run it through the courts as a quick prepackaged bankruptcy. It's impossible to say for sure how much difference that made, but given that the feds were going to be on the hook for a lot of money regardless, it's hard to argue that it was worth taking any more chances than we had to.

And what was the downside? In the end the Obama administration didn't exercise all that much control over the company. The union deal has always stuck in conservative craws, but it was pretty defensible on purely practical grounds, and in any case the UAW almost certainly didn't come out of the process much better than they would have in a standard bankruptcy. And in the post-bankruptcy stage, the administration has taken an almost obsessive hands-off attitude toward GM's operations, especially considering that they were a 61% shareholder.

The precedent the GM bailout set wasn't great. But in the end, I think even conservatives ought to acknowledge that it was handled quickly and competently, and that afterward the Obama administration showed very clearly that it had absolutely no interest in using the government's stake to exercise control over the company. I wouldn't get too triumphal about GM's IPO either, but I guess I also wouldn't be too churlish about acknowledging that, all things considered, it turned out pretty well.

Greg Sargent reports:

Steny Hoyer, the number two in the House Dem leadership, told Democrats at a caucus meeting this morning that they would get to vote this year on just extending the Bush tax cuts for the middle class, a senior Dem aide tells me, signaling support for a confrontational move towards the GOP that liberals have been pushing.

I don't believe this. It's too smart. Not like Democrats at all.

I'm not sure what to say about this one. Mike Konczal recently surveyed a random selection of conservative economists who had signed a Cato letter opposing the stimulus bill in early 2009 to find out what they were thinking these days. It was totally unscientific and he ended up getting 29 responses. But unscientific or not, it's enlightening. According to these economists, neither low consumer demand nor an overvalued dollar really has much to do with our economic woes. By far the biggest problem, in their view, was regulatory uncertainty, closely followed by concerns over the budget deficit and Barack Obama's hostility toward the business community. Seriously. That's what they think. The mind reels.