Kevin Drum

Feeding at the Federal Trough

| Thu Feb. 26, 2009 3:56 PM EST
Gail Collins on Bobby Jindal's response to Obama's speech on Tuesday:

Louisiana has gotten $130 billion in post-Katrina aid. How is it that the stars of the Republican austerity movement come from the states that suck up the most federal money? Taxpayers in New York send way more to Washington than they get back so more can go to places like Alaska and Louisiana. Which is fine, as long as we don’t have to hear their governors bragging about how the folks who elected them want to keep their tax money to themselves. Of course they do! That’s because they’re living off ours.

They are indeed.  Wonky details here.

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A Global Meltdown

| Thu Feb. 26, 2009 3:26 PM EST
I wrote a little post yesterday rounding up some of the bad economic news from around the world (exports plummeting in Japan, Italy rescuing its banks, Eastern Europe turning into a basket case, Russian GDP down 8%, etc. etc.), but then my browser crashed and I didn't feel like reconstructing it after I was back up and running.  But the bottom line was simple: there's a world of economic pain out there, and economic pain frequently turns into political and national security pain too.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the White House is worried about the same thing, and has asked the CIA to begin preparing a daily report on the global economic crisis:

The CIA's role in producing the report underscores the level of anxiety within the administration over how rapidly the economic downturn is spreading, as well as its potential to hobble foreign governments and trigger instability overseas.

The report, called the Economic Intelligence Brief, was launched at the request of the White House and delivered for the first time Wednesday.

[CIA Director Leon] Panetta said the document would survey major economic developments internationally and focus on how plunging markets and credit pressures are driving the decisions in nations including Russia and China.

The report covers "economic, political, leadership developments" in other countries as well as "the implications of those developments in terms of the U.S. economy," Panetta said.

We're not going to see pitchforks and torches in the United States, but we might in a few other countries before this is all over.  This is a smart move by Obama.

UPDATE: Along these lines, Cernig directs our attention to the recent armed mutiny among the 42,000 members of the Bangladesh Border Guards over lack of pay.  Global warming is implicated too.

Michael Klare has a much more detailed piece on this general subject over at Salon:

If you want to be grimly impressed, hang a world map on your wall and start inserting red pins where violent episodes have already occurred. Athens (Greece), Longnan (China), Port-au-Prince (Haiti), Riga (Latvia), Santa Cruz (Bolivia), Sofia (Bulgaria), Vilnius (Lithuania) and Vladivostok (Russia) would be a start. Many other cities from Reykjavik, Paris, Rome and Zaragoza to Moscow and Dublin have witnessed huge protests over rising unemployment and falling wages that remained orderly thanks in part to the presence of vast numbers of riot police. If you inserted orange pins at these locations — none as yet in the United States — your map would already look aflame with activity.

Obama's new briefing is going to be a busy one.

Federal Pay

| Thu Feb. 26, 2009 2:58 PM EST
Federal employees are sharing the pain in Obama's FY2010 budget:

Civilian employees of the federal government will be limited to a 2 percent pay increase in 2010 under the proposed budget released this morning by the Obama administration.

...."It's a modest increase, but it certainly is prudent," said Jacque Simon, public policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees...."While it's certainly a modest pay increase, federal employees recognize the severity of the economic situation, and we're viewing it from that context."

Over the past 12 months the Consumer Price Index has gone up 0.4%, so a 2 percent raise isn't exactly iron-fisted.  No wonder the union guy is taking this so serenely.

Chart of the Day - 2.26.2009

| Thu Feb. 26, 2009 1:51 PM EST
Henry Farrell says today that self-reported ideology is pretty unreliable when it comes to blog readers:

Netroots blog readers may identify themselves as being a mixed bag of ideologies....But self-identification here is misleading, as we can see if we look at a scale measuring blogreaders’ attitudes to a number of hot-button political issues such as abortion and the Iraq war, where left and right disagreed strongly at the time the data was gathered.

....Here, we don’t see anything like an even spread between those who are strongly liberal (i.e. inclined to take the ‘liberal’ position on all of these issues), and those who are moderate liberals or centrists. Instead, left blog readers tend to clump heavily at the strongly liberal end of the spectrum, with pretty well no centrists worth talking about.

The same thing is true for conservative blog readers.  I don't find this surprising, but I think a caveat is in order.  The issue scale is apparently based on a survey of only five questions (“partial-birth” abortions, funding for stem cell research, withdrawing troops from Iraq, raising the minimum wage, and extending capital gains tax cuts), and this doesn't allow for much nuance.  For example, there's not much question that I'm further toward the center than, say, Glenn Greenwald or Jane Hamsher, but on this scale we'd all come out identically as raging communists with perfect 5-0 liberal scores.  I think you'd need to dig quite a bit deeper than this to get decent read on the real views of the blogreading public.

Free the Memos

| Thu Feb. 26, 2009 1:02 PM EST
In the LA Times today, the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer argues that Barack Obama should release all the confidential memos churned out over the years by George Bush's Office of Legal Counsel:

Lawyers for the office — including John Yoo, Steven Bradbury and Jay Bybee — churned out dozens of memos on torture, rendition, detention without charge and wiretapping without warrants.

....Some of the memos were plainly intended to insulate Bush administration officials from criminal liability....And, according to the Washington Post and other sources, a yet-to-be-released ethics report by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility confirms that lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel intentionally misrepresented or distorted the law to support the Bush administration's policy goals.

....Limited redactions maybe be necessary in extraordinary cases, but national security should not be used as a pretext for the wholesale suppression of the memos. And there are good reasons to release the memos now. By releasing them, the Obama administration would signal that it truly intends to end an era in which the Justice Department became shamefully complicit in the most egregious crimes. Equally important, it would allow the public to better understand the policies that defined the Bush administration and shaped history, and to understand the role that the Office of Legal Counsel played in developing, justifying and advocating those policies.

Read the whole thing.  I suspect this is an area where Obama might need to feel some significant pressure from the left to make him do the right thing.

Haves vs. Have Nots

| Thu Feb. 26, 2009 12:24 PM EST
Ezra Klein talks about the healthcare principles outlined in Obama's budget:

The salient fact about health insurance in the United States is not that 15 percent don't have it. It's that 85 percent do....That's why the first three health care principles in Obama's budget speak to the concerns of the insured: Choice, affordability, security. But In his latest column at the Kaiser Family Foundation, Drew Altman suggests a metric we should we be watching to see if they're successful. Polls, he notes, generally ask whether you think health reform will make your family better off. Kaiser recently ran one such survey and the results were moderately encouraging.

At a guess, it's the group in the center that's critical.  Supporters provide the shock troops and the opposition provides, um, the opposition.  But that big middle group that mostly thinks national healthcare is probably good for the country but isn't sure if it's good for them?  They're the ones most easily swayed by conservative scare talk.  Altman notes that these poll numbers are better than the ones Bill Clinton enjoyed in 1993, which is good, but 43% is still a huge number.  That's the battleground.

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Carbon Financing

| Thu Feb. 26, 2009 3:00 AM EST
The Washington Post reports on Barack Obama's plan for the revenue from his climate change plan:

As for cap-and-trade, the official said the administration believes it will generate enough money to fund a variety of priorities, including investments in renewable energy and rebates for vulnerable consumers who may struggle to pay higher energy bills if utilities pass along the cost to consumers. Obama also wants to use the money to cover the cost of extending his signature Making Work Pay tax credit, worth up to $800 a year for working families. That credit, which will cost $66 billion next year, was enacted in the stimulus package, but is set to expire at the end of 2010.

Hmmm.  That sounds like roughly $100 billion per year.  Is that reasonable?  The United States produces about 7 billion tons of CO2 equivalent a year right now, which means that Obama expects his cap-and-trade plan to generate a price of about $14 per ton in its first year — assuming it covers every single molecule of carbon emitted in the U.S.  If only half of all emissions are covered at first, it means a price closer to $28 per ton.

For comparison, the European ETS cap-and-trade plan currently prices CO2 at about 10 euros per ton.  That's roughly $13.  And that price has dropped considerably over the past few months thanks to the recession.  By 2012 it's likely to be back up in the range of $20 or more.

So at a glance, it looks like Obama's estimates are defensible.  My guess is that they're on the high side, since the initial cap will probably be fairly generous and will therefore generate a relatively low carbon price.  But as the cap goes down, the permit price should go up fairly quickly.  These numbers are at least in the right ballpark.

Generics in the Budget

| Thu Feb. 26, 2009 2:20 AM EST
This seems like good news:

Makers of generic drugs hailed a proposal in President Barack Obama's budget to set up a faster pathway for generic versions of biologic drugs, the fastest-growing segment of the pharmaceutical industry.

The budget included other steps friendly to generics makers. The administration said it wants to end "evergreening," in which brand-name makers reformulate existing products and extend the life of their market exclusivity.

The proposals on generic drugs are part of a series of spending curbs that the president is proposing, all aimed at helping to reduce costs in the health care system overall and to pay for his effort to expand coverage to all Americans.

This is a small-bore initiative.  But put enough small-bore initiatives together, and eventually you can have something pretty big.

Teh Google

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 7:33 PM EST
In his column today, Michael Gerson tells us that at a recent meeting of conservative activists, Bobby Jindal didn't talk much about personal history or social hot button issues:

Instead, he uncorked a fluent, substantive rush of policy proposals and achievements, covering workforce development, biodiesel refineries, quality assurance centers, digital media, Medicare parts C and D, and state waivers to the CMS (whatever that is).

Italics mine.  Brad DeLong snarks, "At the very least, a columnist for the Post should hide his ignorance rather than be proud of it."

But what Gerson is actually doing here is using the time honored rhetorical trope of feigned ignorance to suggest to his audience that Jindal must be some kind of rocket scientist.  This is something that I used to do occasionally too, but it's really not possible anymore and Gerson should know that.  Why?  Because the web makes research too easy.  If you Google "CMS" the very first hit is Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.  It takes five seconds.  Outside of things like live panels, it's a very 20th century affectation to showily pretend not to know this kind of stuff anymore.

Core Principles

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 3:54 PM EST
AP reports on Barack Obama's plans for financial regulation:

In remarks prepared for delivery Wednesday afternoon, the president offers no specific regulatory framework, but calls for "core principles." Among them are consumer protections, accountability for executives and a regulatory plan that covers a broad series of financial transactions that have escaped regulation in the past.

Atrios says Obama is "making the right noises" here, but I'm not quite so sure.  Consumer protections are fine, but frankly, not really central to what caused the financial meltdown.  "Accountability" for executives is mush.  They're already accountable in most meaningful senses of the word.

That leaves a "regulatory plan that covers a broad series of financial transactions that have escaped regulation in the past" — which is fine but could mean pretty much anything.  What's the core principle here?

I know everyone is probably tired of hearing me say this, but I wish Obama would talk more about a real core principle: regulating leverage more effectively, and doing it everywhere and for all types of securities.  This isn't easy, especially when you need to get practically the entire world on board, but more than any other single change it would force financial institutions to be more responsible; it would make future asset bubbles less destructive; and it would fundamentally put a stop to the casino atmosphere and outlandish paydays that have permeated Wall Street over the past decade.  If we really wanted to get ambitious, we might even try to set up a countercyclical regime that increased capital requirements in good times and lowered them during bad times.  But regardless of how the details turn out, if our new regs are driven by a core concern for regulating leverage, they'll do some good.  If not, it's likely to be a repeat of Sarbanes-Oxley: lots of good intentions, but not much bang for the buck.