Kevin Drum

Cheney Speaks

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 9:28 PM EST

CHENEY SPEAKS....Via Jonathan Stein, it looks like Dick Cheney has wasted no time in turning on his former boss:

Asked for his reaction to Bush's decision Cheney said: "Scooter Libby is one of the most capable and honorable men I've ever known. He's been an outstanding public servant throughout his career. He was the victim of a serious miscarriage of justice, and I strongly believe that he deserved a presidential pardon. Obviously, I disagree with President Bush's decision."

Bush's decision not to pardon Libby has angered many of the president's strongest defenders. One Libby sympathizer, a longtime defender of Bush, told friends she was "disgusted" by the president. Another described Bush as "dishonorable" and a third suggested that refusing to pardon Libby was akin to leaving a soldier on the battlefield.

Ah, I love the smell of napalm in the morning. How about you?

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Obama and the Media

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 9:07 PM EST

OBAMA AND THE MEDIA....Via Mark Schmitt, John McQuaid offers this take on Barack Obama's view of the media:

Like Bush, Obama appears to view the media agenda in fundamental conflict with his own. But now, the perceived difference isn't ideological. It's programmatic. Obama (correctly, I think) sees the press representing two things that are clear obstacles to his ambitious plans: official Washington and a trivia-obsessed media culture.

First, the official Washington view [....]

Second, the media culture: The cable maw must be fed with transient panics. Feeding frenzies and micro-scandals dominate. They fuel the chat shows, opinion columns and blogs. These faux crises and dramas, which usually pass with little consequence, can knock a presidential agenda off-stride or even destroy it.

The official Washington view McQuaid talks about is the Broderesque centrism that dominates A-list punditry. This gets a ton of attention in the blogosphere, but I elided that passage because it strikes me as the less important of the two things McQuaid talks about. After all, there always has been and always will be a mainstream pull in any political culture, and I frankly doubt that Obama sees this as something worth banging his head against. It's like fighting the tide.

The trivia-obsessed culture of the contemporary media, however, is a different story. This is the kind of thing that Bob Somerby spends most of his time railing against, and it strikes me as much the more important of the two — partly because it's more corrosive and partly because it's not as inevitable. Gossip and chatter have always been part of politics, of course, but over the past decade or two, at the same time that gossip has practically taken over political journalism, it's gotten so inane that it's hard to tell where Access Hollywood ends and Hardball begins. It's nearly impossible to turn on a talk show on any of the cable nets these days and hear anything that's even remotely enlightening.

And I'll bet McQuaid is right: it probably bugs the hell out of a guy like Obama who takes politics and policy seriously. When he said in his inaugural address that "the time has come to set aside childish things," I wouldn't be surprised if he was addressing the media directly.

So how does he work to change things? McQuaid warns that tightly controlling media access the way George Bush did isn't the answer, and I agree. Instead, I'd say that he should send a consistent message about the value of serious journalism by providing the best access to the most serious journalists. Not the ones who are the most famous, or have the biggest audiences, or who agree with him the most often, but the ones who have written or aired the sharpest, liveliest, most substantive, most penetrating critiques of what he and his administration are doing. He should spar with them, he should engage with them, he should take their ideas seriously. Eventually, others will start to get the message: if you want to get presidential attention, you need to say something smart. It's too late to for this to have any effect on media buffoons like Maureen Dowd or Chris Matthews, but you never know. It might encourage a few of the others to grow up. It's worth a try, anyway.

Frozen River

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 3:48 PM EST

FROZEN RIVER....Atrios links to a Country Fair post today that takes Courtney Hazlett to task for whining about Frozen River receiving a couple of Oscar nominations. Here's Hazlett:

In the state that Hollywood is in, I would hope that the Academy says, maybe for once we should just kind of look at what the buzz is here and what people really like, and honor filmmaking that doesn't just attract the affections of a small, elite, effete audience, and really look at what do people like to go and see.

Eh. Hazlett is an idiot. It's not as if Hollywood routinely ignores popular taste, after all, and Frozen River was only nominated in two categories (Best Original Screenplay and Best Actess).

Plus there's this: as you all know, my taste in movies is pretty thoroughly middlebrow. But Frozen River's screenplay was excellent and Melissa Leo's performance was outstanding — one of the best I've seen recently. I haven't seen all the nominated actresses, but at a minimum, Leo was better than Meryl Streep (in Doubt) and Angelina Jolie (in Changeling). She was really, really good. So go rent Frozen River when it comes out on DVD in a couple of weeks. You'll enjoy it, and you'll annoy Courtney Hazlett at the same time. It's a twofer!

Carona Walks (Sort Of)

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 3:15 PM EST

CARONA WALKS (SORT OF)...."America's Sheriff" Michael Carona says it's "an absolute miracle" that he was acquitted of five out of six corruption charges on Friday. But it turns out that the criminal code has more to do with it than the redemptive power of God:

In interviews after the trial, jurors said that they believed Carona had illegally accepted cash and gifts but that they were stymied by a statute of limitations that allowed them to consider only acts committed after late October 2002. The government had failed to prove that the conspiracy it alleged among Carona and his associates had involved any overt act after that, the jurors said.

"His hand was in the cookie jar. He was just quick enough to wipe the crumbs off his hands," said juror Jerome Bell, 42, a truck driver from Anaheim.

Sometimes good timing is better than good luck. Anyway, here in The OC we prefer to look forward, not back.

Civil Liberties Watch

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 3:02 PM EST

CIVIL LIBERTIES WATCH....Glenn Greenwald summarizes the initial 48 hours of the new administration:Barack Obama will have spent his first several days in office issuing a series of executive orders which, some quibbling and important caveats aside, meet or actually exceed even the most optimistic expectations of civil libertarians — everything from ordering the closing of Guantanamo to suspending military commissions to compelling CIA interrogators to adhere to the Army Field Manual to banning CIA "black sites" and, perhaps most encouragingly (in my view): severely restricting his own power and the power of former Presidents to withhold documents on the basis of secrecy, which has been the prime corrosive agent of the Bush era. As a result, establishment and right-wing figures who have been assuring everyone that Obama would scorn "the Left" (meaning: those who believe in Constitutional safeguards) and would continue most of Bush's "counter-Terrorism" policies are growing increasingly nervous about this flurry of unexpected activity.Well, look: if Glenn is happy, then I'm happy. He's a tough customer on this stuff. I hope Obama's followup is as good as his initial flurry of executive orders.

Spending During a Recession

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 2:04 PM EST

SPENDING DURING A RECESSION....Does government spending during a recession produce more than one dollar of growth for every dollar spent? Conventional Keynesian economics says yes: in a virtuous circle, that dollar will flow through to workers, who will spend it on other things, which will in turn stimulate further growth and further spending. Most of the liberal economists who write about Barack Obama's stimulus plan think that the spending portion will have a short-term multiplier of about 1.4 or so.

But apparently Robert Barro disagrees:

I have estimated that World War II raised U.S. defense expenditures by $540 billion (1996 dollars) per year at the peak in 1943-44, amounting to 44% of real GDP. I also estimated that the war raised real GDP by $430 billion per year in 1943-44. Thus, the multiplier was 0.8....Wartime production siphoned off resources from other economic uses — there was a dampener, rather than a multiplier.

I'm no economist, but this sounds mighty suspicious. The whole point of stimulus spending is to temporarily raise employment during a recession. But once unemployment has been reduced below 5% or thereabouts — I think it eventually got to around 2% during World War II — then that's all she wrote. All additional government spending can do is suck resources away from private consumption, which might very well produce a net multiplier less than one. The same is true, though in less extreme form, for other wartime spending that happens when unemployment is already low.

But during a recession, when monetary policy is wrung out and there are millions of workers who aren't being utilized in the private sector? That's a different story, no? And it's pretty fundamental to the whole theory. The fact that Barro doesn't even mention this, let alone address it, gives me little confidence in the rest of his op-ed.

Via Tyler Cowen.

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A Poverty Program That Works

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 1:22 PM EST

A POVERTY PROGRAM THAT WORKS....Have you heard of the Harlem Children's Zone? I first read about it only a year or two ago, and it's a pretty fascinating anti-poverty project headed by a guy named Geoffrey Canada — one that might well be the template for Barack Obama's approach to inner-city poverty. In the current issue of MoJo, Paul Tough describes how it works:

Canada believes that many poor parents aren't doing enough to prepare their kids for school — not because they don't care, but because they simply don't know the importance of early childhood stimulation. So the Zone starts with Baby College, nine weeks of parenting classes that focus on discipline and brain development. It continues with language-intensive prekindergarten, which feeds into a rigorous K-12 charter school with an extended day and an extended year. That academic "conveyor belt," as Canada calls it, is supplemented by social programs: family counseling, a free health clinic, after-school tutoring, and a drop-in arts center for teenagers.

Canada's early childhood programs are in many ways a response to research showing that the vocabularies of poor children usually lag significantly behind those of middle-class children. At the Harlem Gems prekindergarten, I watched as the four-year-olds were bombarded with books, stories, and flash cards—including some in French. The parents were enlisted, too; one morning, I went with a few families on a field trip to a local supermarket organized by the Harlem Children's Zone. The point wasn't to learn about nutrition, but rather about language—how to fill an everyday shopping trip with the kind of nonstop chatter that has become second nature to most upper-middle-class parents, full of questions about numbers and colors and letters and names. That chatter, social scientists have shown, has a huge effect on vocabulary and reading ability. And as we walked through the aisles, those conversations were going on everywhere: Is the carrot bumpy or smooth? What color is that apple? How many should we buy?

So far, Canada's vision has yielded impressive results. Last year, the first conveyor-belt students reached the third grade and took their first statewide standardized tests. In reading, they scored above the New York City average, and in math they scored well above the state average.

Canada has gotten plenty of press already from the likes of Oprah and 60 Minutes, but our new president might be the biggest name convert of them all: Obama has proposed replicating the Harlem Children's Zone in 20 cities across the country, an investment that he thinks will cost a "few billion" dollars. For comparison, this is less than 1% of what it will take to bail out the gazillionaires of Wall Street. Read the whole piece for more.

Are We Broke Yet?

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 12:55 PM EST

ARE WE BROKE YET?....Yesterday, Nouriel Roubini estimated that U.S. banking losses related to the financial meltdown will eventually come to about $1.8 trillion. Of this $1.1 trillion comes from loan writedowns and $700 billion comes from losses on securities. Since current total bank capitalization also amounts to about $1.8 trillion, this "leaves the U.S. banking system borderline insolvent if our loss estimates materialize."

Oddly enough, I almost find this comforting. First, since this is Roubini talking, this is probably a worst-case scenario. At least we're only borderline insolvent! Second, U.S. banks are still operationally profitable, which means that by the time all these losses are recognized the system will probably once again have a net capital position of half a trillion dollars or more. Third.....

Well, there is no third — a banking system can't survive on only a few hundred billion dollars in capitalization. This is pretty sucky news, and obviously it's suckier for some banks than for other. If Roubini is right it means the mother of all deleveragings still has a long ways to go, and if the Fed and the Treasury agree with his estimates, Citigroup and Bank of America might not have long to live.

Public Cool on Warming

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 12:16 PM EST

PUBLIC COOL ON WARMING....Via Andrew Revkin, the latest Pew poll on priorities contains grim news for those of us who think we're rapidly destroying out planet: the public couldn't care less. Global warming, once again, ranks as the lowest priority from a list of 20, and the more general category of "protecting the environment" fell 15 percentage points from last year.

And as if that's not bad enough, Revkin also points to a new Rasmussen poll, which finds that 44% of U.S. voters don't believe humans are the cause of global warming, compared to only 41% who do. That's even worse than last year's results.

It's not surprising that public concern with the economy has risen recently, but over the past two years, as scientists and politicians have both been running around with their hair on fire, the public at large has become less concerned with global warming. Two years ago 38% thought it was an important domestic priority; today only 30% think so.

More later on the implications. But we really have some PR work to do here. Whatever it is we're doing now, it isn't working.

Memorable Lines

| Wed Jan. 21, 2009 6:28 PM EST

MEMORABLE LINES....Steve Benen on Obama's inauguration speech:

I was talking to someone last night about Barack Obama's inaugural address, with my friend criticizing it while I defended it. He challenged me to recite, from memory, one sentence — a full sentence — from the speech, just eight hours after it had been delivered. I couldn't....

Hmmm. I can: the promise to overseas thugs and dictators that "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." Granted, that's not a whole sentence, but neither was "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" or "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." There were some other nice lines in Obama's speech too, but that was the one that struck me as the most memorable phrase in real time, and it's still the one I remember today.

Will I still remember it in six months? No telling. I have a lousy memory. But it's still a pretty good line.