Kevin Drum

Oil Shocks

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 11:27 AM EDT

Ryan Avent points today to a paper by Jim Hamilton suggesting that the real cause of our current recession is the spike in oil prices between 2007-2008.  Here's Hamilton on the implications of a model he originally constructed in 2003:

I used [] historically estimated parameters to find the answer to the following conditional forecasting equation. Suppose you knew in 2007:Q3 what GDP had been doing up through that date and could know in advance what was about to happen to the price of oil. What path would you have then predicted the economy to follow for 2007:Q4 through 2008:Q4?

....Somewhat astonishingly, that model would have predicted the course of GDP over 2008 pretty accurately and would attribute a substantial fraction of the significant drop in 2008:Q4 real GDP to the oil price increases.  The implication that almost all of the downturn of 2008 could be attributed to the oil shock is a stronger conclusion than emerged from any of the other models surveyed in my Brookings paper, and is a conclusion that I don't fully believe myself.

Well, I don't fully believe it either.  But do I believe that the oil spike played a significant role?  You bet.  I don't have any kind of background in econometrics, but I can create simple-minded charts showing how the economy responds to sharp rises in oil prices, and four years ago I did just that.  My chart is on the right, and it shows that every time since 1973 that oil prices have risen by 50% or more in a short period, the American economy has tanked — and the bigger the spike, the bigger the tank.  The far end of my chart is labeled with question marks, but of course we can now fill in that data: the rise in oil prices that began in 2003, retreated a bit in 2006, and then spiked sharply starting in 2007 did indeed touch off a recession.  And as in previous episodes, the fact that it was a big rise meant that the result was a big recession.

Plus there was the whole subprime thing, a huge credit expansion, the rise of financial wizardry, the end of the housing bubble, and so forth.  A perfect storm.  But if you want to persuade me that oil prices played a role too, I'm all ears.  I'd be pretty surprised if it were otherwise.

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Paying to Play

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 10:43 AM EDT

Jonathan Turley tells me something I didn't know:

The King family has long been criticized for insisting on payment for the use of their father's name, image, speeches and virtually anything that they can claim for themselves or their foundation. The family reached a new low this week when it was revealed that they had been paid more than $800,000 by the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation for the use of King's image and words on the planned King memorial on Washington's Mall.

....In the latest monumental shakedown, the King family's Intellectual Properties Management Inc. was paid $761,160 by the nonprofit foundation raising money for the Washington memorial. This was on top of a "management" fee of $71,700 paid in 2003. The Kings have defended the payments by noting that donations to the foundation have been down because people were giving to the monument fund instead. The other possibility is that fewer people want to give to a foundation run by the King family.

A speech can be copyrighted, but I didn't realize that the image of a dead person — and an extremely public one at that — could be protected the same way.  Live and learn.

False Confessions

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 10:17 AM EDT

One of the common observations of the anti-torture crowd is that, historically, torture has been used primarily to extract false confessions, not genuine intelligence.  Which is really a very tedious thing to say.  After all, even if you don't like the guy, everyone knows that George Bush was trying to prevent future attacks by al-Qaeda, not extract false confessions.  Right?

The Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist.

...."There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used," the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

"The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there."

That's Jonathan Landay at McClatchy.  I'll leave the parallels with the Spanish Inquisition as an exercise for the reader.

A Wee Proposal

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 12:07 AM EDT

I propose a planet-wide ban — with prison sentences — on people who still think it's clever to write about Twitter using only 140-character sentences.  Who's with me?

They're Nuts

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 10:48 PM EDT

I often feel like I should have more to say about the state of modern American conservatism than "They're nuts."  We can do better than that, right?

But then I read something like this.  And what can you say other than, "They're nuts"?  What's more, it's getting worse.  David Frum is trying valiantly, but there really needs to be more adult intervention than just him.

Waiting Times

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 3:50 PM EDT

This has been a staple of the healthcare debate for a long time, so it's not as if we haven't been warned.  But today the Washington Post reports that in certain regions, waiting times to see a doctor in Canada are getting completely out of hand:

Just six months ago, the clinic delivered same-day care to most callers, the gold standard from a health perspective. But in October the delays crept to four days, then 19 in November and 25 in December. In January, HealthServe temporarily stopped accepting new patients, and almost immediately 380 people put their names on a waiting list for when the crunch eases.

Sorry.  Did I say Canada?  I meant North Carolina, of course, where more than a quarter of adults now have no health insurance:

A steep rise in unemployment has fueled a commensurate increase in the number of people who do not have health insurance, including many middle-income families.

"I used to be upper middle class," said Amy, who called HealthServe every morning for weeks before getting in to see Talbot.... "I haven't told anyone I'm coming here," she said, asking that her last name be withheld because she is embarrassed to be seeking discounted medical care.

Best healthcare in the world, baby!

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Prosecuting Torture

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 1:27 PM EDT

Barack Obama has said pretty clearly that he doesn't plan to prosecute the CIA agents who tortured prisoners during the Bush era.  But what about the policymakers?  Here's what he said at a press conference a few hours ago:

Q: You were clear about not wanting to prosecute those who carried out the instructions under [the OLC's] legal advice. Can you be that clear about those who devised the policy?

THE PRESIDENT: [...] With respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say that that is going to be more of a decision for the Attorney General within the parameters of various laws, and I don't want to prejudge that. I think that there are a host of very complicated issues involved there.

The way this question is worded, it sounds as though Obama's answer applies to the legal team that wrote the OLC memos.  But of course that's absurd.  There's no way you could prosecute the OLC lawyers without also prosecuting the guys who accepted their memos and ordered the torture carried out.  That means people like John Ashcroft, George Tenet, Dick Cheney, David Addington, and George W. Bush.

Would Eric Holder do that without Obama's approval?  It's hard to believe that he would.  Might he appoint a special prosecutor instead?  I doubt it.  That might delay things a bit, but the conclusion would still be foreordained: anyone with even a modest bit of integrity would conclude very quickly that President Bush and his staff did indeed authorize illegal torture of prisoners under U.S. control.

So what happens next?  I don't know for sure, but my guess is that after a suitable waiting period an internal DOJ report of some kind will conclude that successful prosecution is unlikely and no further action should be taken.  End of story.  We'll see.

Quote of the Day - 4.21.09

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 12:52 PM EDT

From Dan Drezner, after right-wing activist Ed Whelan described Harold Koh, Obama's nominee to be the State Department's top legal advisor, as "kooky":

We're enduring revelation after revelation about how much of the Bush administration's legal team gave a giant "f*** you" to treaties that had been signed and ratified by the United States, and Harold Koh is supposed to be the guy who's outside the mainstream because of arguments he made while out of power?  Am I missing something?

No, I think that's about it.  Harold Koh is a menace to the republic.  Jay Bybee and John Yoo, by contrast, are patriotic, hardworking Americans.  What's so hard to understand?

Fraud? On Wall Street?

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 12:03 PM EDT

When it comes to lobbying and campaign finance, the old saw is that the real scandal is what's legal.  That's pretty much the way I feel about Wall Street too these days.  Still, there's also the good old-fashioned illegal stuff:

In the first major disclosure of corruption in the $750-billion financial bailout program, federal investigators said Monday they have opened 20 criminal probes into possible securities fraud, tax violations, insider trading and other crimes.

....The report said little about who is under investigation and how the fraudulent schemes work, but investigators are already on alert for a long list of potential scams. Such schemes could include obtaining bailout money under false pretenses, bilking the government with phony mortgage modifications, and cheating on taxes with fraudulent filings.

Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general overseeing the bailout program, says fraud is likely to get even worse in the newest stage of the bailout since it allows investors to get in on the action with only a small bit of their own money at trisk.  The Treasury, in response to Barofsky's report, said his recommendations would be "considered."  How heartening.

Mutual Fund Madness

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 11:42 AM EDT

Ezra Klein points to the latest year-end report on mutual funds from Standard & Poors.  The highlight is pretty much the same as it is every year:

Over the five year market cycle from 2004 to 2008, S&P 500 outperformed 71.9% of actively managed large cap funds, S&P MidCap 400 outperformed 79.1% of mid cap funds and S&P SmallCap 600 outperformed 85.5% of small cap funds. These results are similar to that of the previous five year cycle from 1999 to 2003.

The belief that bear markets favor active management is a myth. A majority of active funds in eight of the nine domestic equity style boxes were outperformed by indices in the negative markets of 2008. The bear market of 2000 to 2002 showed similar outcomes.

And don't forget fees!  Not only do actively managed funds do worse than index funds, they charge you for the privilege of doing worse than index funds.

Hedge funds are no better, by the way.  Research is hazier here because hedge funds are more secretive, but as near as I can tell from the published data, their average return is no better than the broad market either.  The main difference is that instead of simply charging fees for helping you do worse than an index fund, they charge you gargantuan fees for helping you do worse than an index fund.

Isn't Wall Street grand?