Kevin Drum

Infrastructure

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 1:20 PM EST

INFRASTRUCTURE....Conservative wunderkind pollster Frank Luntz says he's amazed: Americans really, really want more spending on infrastructure, even if it means higher taxes:

Last month, I conducted a national survey of 800 registered voters on their attitudes toward infrastructure investment....The survey's findings were unlike any other issue I have polled in more than a decade.

....Fully 84% of the public wants more money spent by the federal government — and 83% wants more spent by state governments — to improve America's infrastructure. And here's the kicker: 81% of Americans are personally prepared to pay 1% more in taxes for the cause. It's not uncommon for people to say they'd pay more to get more, but when you ask them to respond to a specific amount, support evaporates.

....And Americans understand that infrastructure is not just roads, bridges and rails. In fact, they rated fixing energy facilities as their highest priority. Roads and highways scored second, and clean-water treatment facilities third.

And what impresses Luntz the most about all this? That even 74% of Republicans are willing to pay higher taxes to improve infrastructure.

The lesson here is one that won't be new to blog readers: economic stimulus is all well and good, but infrastructure is mainly a long-term commitment. It's fine to get it kick started in the current legislation — even at the risk of bits of it being a "muddled mixture" — but Obama should make it clear that this is something that will be properly planned, properly funded, and properly prioritized in the out years. That means fewer roads, but more transit, more electrical grids, and more wind farms. Right?

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Stimulating China

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 12:36 PM EST

STIMULATING CHINA....Ezra Klein explains why the Chinese government is setting up a universal healthcare plan:

The Chinese have a high savings rate — indeed, an absurdly high savings rate, between 30 percent and 40 percent of income — and one of the reasons is fear of medical expenses. China lacks a safety net, and so people spend less because they need to plan for catastrophe. And if catastrophe doesn't befall, then they've simply spent less. Which is a problem when you're facing down a potentially long recession. And so China is trying to make it safe for its citizens to spend, which means making future expenses more predictable, which means offering health care coverage.

That's certainly a unique reason for backing national healthcare, isn't it? But that's indeed what the linked NYT article says. I wonder if it will work?

Ledbetter Act Passes

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 3:09 AM EST

LEDBETTER ACT PASSES....Good news on the pay discrimination front:

The Senate approved landmark worker rights legislation on Thursday that will make it easier for those who think they've endured pay discrimination to seek legal help. The vote was 61-36.

....The legislation overrides a May 2007 Supreme Court ruling that [Lilly] Ledbetter, a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company employee in Gadsden, Ala., couldn't sue her employer for pay discrimination because she didn't file suit within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act.

McClatchy, naturally, doesn't bother to tell its readers the party breakdown of the vote, but it's actually an interesting one: all 56 voting Democrats supported the bill, and five Republicans joined in. Which ones? Arlen Specter plus all four of the women in the GOP caucus. Imagine that.

A Day at the Office

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 10:44 PM EST

A DAY AT THE OFFICE....When I read that Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain had spent $1.2 million redecorating his office, my first thought wasn't, "What a moron." (That was second.) It was, "How can you spend that much on one room? Solid gold wall sconces? Ashtrays carved out of moon rocks? What?" Luckily for me, Charlie Gasparino has the answer:

The biggest piece of the spending spree: $800,000 to hire famed celebrity designer Michael Smith, who is currently redesigning the White House for the Obama family for just $100,000.

The other big ticket items Thain purchased include: $87,000 for an area rug in Thain's conference room and another area rug for $44,000; a "mahogany pedestal table" for $25,000; a "19th Century Credenza" in Thain's office for $68,000; a sofa for $15,000; four pairs of curtains for $28,000; a pair of guest chairs for $87,000; a "George IV Desk" for $18,000; six wall sconces for $2,700; six chairs in his private dining room for $37,000; a mirror in his private dining room for $5,000; a chandelier in the private dining room for $13,000; fabric for a "Roman Shade" for $11,000; a "custom coffee table" for $16,000; something called a "commode on legs" for $35,000; a "Regency Chairs" for $24,000; "40 yards of fabric for wall panels," for $5,000 and a "parchment waste can" for $1,400.

Impressive! But it doesn't add up to $1.2 million. It adds up to $1.3 million just for these 19 items alone, and there were probably plenty of smaller ticket nicknacks too. Plus labor — unless that's included in Smith's fee. Probably not, I suppose, which means this monument to American capitalism must have run at least a couple million bucks. The Sun King would have been proud.

And my third question? That's easy: "Who leaked this?" Most probable answer: BofA chief Ken Lewis, the guy who fired Thain, in an effort to keep attention focused on his scapegoat of the hour. Good luck with that, Ken.

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?

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.

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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.