Kevin Drum

The Power of Lobbying

| Mon Apr. 13, 2009 12:19 PM EDT

The Washington Post reports on a new study about the fantastic efficiency of K Street lobbying:

In a remarkable illustration of the power of lobbying in Washington, a study released last week found that a single tax break in 2004 earned companies $220 for every dollar they spent on the issue — a 22,000 percent rate of return on their investment.

The study by researchers at the University of Kansas underscores the central reason that lobbying has become a $3 billion-a-year industry in Washington: It pays. The $787 billion stimulus act and major spending proposals have ratcheted up the lobbying frenzy further this year, even as President Obama and public-interest groups press for sharper restrictions on the practice.

The paper by three Kansas professors examined the impact of a one-time tax break approved by Congress in 2004 that allowed multinational corporations to "repatriate" profits earned overseas....The researchers calculated an average rate of return of 22,000 percent for those companies that helped lobby for the tax break. Eli Lilly, for example, reported in disclosure documents that it spent $8.5 million in 2003 and 2004 to lobby for the provision — and eventually gained tax savings of more than $2 billion.

Not bad!  But Eli Lilly is a piker.  Pfizer saved a cool $11 billion.  Here's the Top Ten:

Honesty compels me to to point out that this research overstates the value of lobbying by choosing only a single, particularly lucrative tax break to examine.  The overall return on lobbying investment for business interests is probably no more than, oh, three or four thousand percent.  Hardly worth getting in a lather about, really.  Please go about your business, citizens.

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Millionaire Journalists

| Mon Apr. 13, 2009 11:47 AM EDT

Bob Somerby has an assignment for some enterprising reporter:

Yesterday, Parade magazine offered a regular feature: “What People Earn: Our Annual Report.” Out on the cover and inside the magazine, Parade let us see how much people earn in all the various occupations.

Well — in all the various occupations but one. By our count, Parade offered head shots, with annual earnings, for 71 different people. There was a teacher, a pilot, a CEO and a realtor — two singers, a rapper and a big famous film star. But one occupation was oddly missing. No journalist could be found in the mix!

How much are major journalists paid? Major journalists rarely discuss that.

....Next year, could this feature include the earnings of some big major journalists? How much is Maureen Dowd paid, for example? Why can’t she and Rich grace Parade’s famous cover? We have literally never seen an estimate of Dowd’s yearly swag. We’re also curious how much she paid for JFK’s pad — how she managed to land such a pad even before she became a big columnist. Big journalists ask questions like that about everyone — except about other big journalists.

Well, maybe there were no big journalists, but in the online version they did include sports blogger Josh Bacott, who makes $10,700.  And TV news reporter John Dougherty, who makes $25,500.  So they're trying!  But sadly, no Dowd.  Maybe next year.

Big Banks

| Mon Apr. 13, 2009 10:55 AM EDT

Ezra Klein writes that big banks are bad for small depositors:

They're about the pros rather than the amateurs. Which may be why they're so cavalier about exacting fees and penalties on individual depositors at levels they'd never consider applying to professional markets. Indeed, pretty good research suggests that as banks get bigger — which tends to mean more competitive on the global financial market — they begin charging consumers more.

This seems to be true.  Take a look at the chart on the right from today's Wall Street Journal.  It shows that banks receiving bailout funds have increased fees at a far higher rate than banks that haven't.

Does this show that banks receiving federal assistance are more likely to raise their fees and penalties?  Of course not.  This trend is nine years old.  However, it's big banks that have received most of the TARP money, so you can pretty much replace "Banks receiving TARP funds" with "Big banks."  So what the chart shows is that big banks have increased their fee and penalty structure far more than small banks.

Why?  Because they can.  And in the past they've wielded enough political power to prevent Congress from doing anything about it.  If there's any justice — and needless to say, that's still an open question — those days are finally gone.

Obama and the Pirates

| Mon Apr. 13, 2009 10:16 AM EDT

The Washington Post reports on the rescue of the captain of the Maersk Alabama from Somali pirates:

The result — a dramatic and successful rescue operation by U.S. Special Operations forces — left Obama with an early victory that could help build confidence in his ability to direct military actions abroad.

....The operation pales in scope and complexity to the wars underway in Iraq and Afghanistan....Nonetheless, it may help to quell criticism leveled at Obama that he came to office as a Democratic antiwar candidate who could prove unwilling or unable to harness military might when necessary.

You know, normally I'd say this was kind of ridiculous.  The Navy Seals who led the operation deserve tons of credit, but it really doesn't say very much about the president.

But I'll make an exception this time.  The right-wing criticism of Obama during the incident got so over-the-top that at times you'd have thought Obama was ready to invite the Somali pirates over for tea.  That was ridiculous.  So if this shuts them up for a few moments, it will be a well-deserved few moments of silence for Obama.

Friday Cat Blogging - 10 April 2009

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 2:02 PM EDT

Today we have rare footage of Inkblot and Domino sleeping.  Together, that is.  Look: their feet are almost touching!  Isn't that exciting?

Well, it passes for excitement around here, anyway.  May your weekend be equally exciting.

Boring is Good

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 1:43 PM EDT

Paul Krugman wants banking and finance to become boring again:

The banking industry that emerged [in the 1930s] was tightly regulated, far less colorful than it had been before the Depression, and far less lucrative for those who ran it. Banking became boring, partly because bankers were so conservative about lending: Household debt, which had fallen sharply as a percentage of G.D.P. during the Depression and World War II, stayed far below pre-1930s levels.

Strange to say, this era of boring banking was also an era of spectacular economic progress for most Americans. After 1980, however, as the political winds shifted, many of the regulations on banks were lifted — and banking became exciting again....And the meltdown came.

....But my sense is that policy makers are still thinking mainly about rearranging the boxes on the bank supervisory organization chart. They’re not at all ready to do what needs to be done — which is to make banking boring again.

Part of the problem is that boring banking would mean poorer bankers, and the financial industry still has a lot of friends in high places. But it’s also a matter of ideology: Despite everything that has happened, most people in positions of power still associate fancy finance with economic progress.

This is right on target.  High finance is always going to be more exciting than, say, running a regulated electric utility, but it shouldn't be a lot more exciting.

I've had the same thought on a narrower scale too.  There's a real sense in which credit derivatives and structured finance — things like credit default swaps and CDOs — are genuinely useful.  They shouldn't be outlawed.  But if they're done properly, the spreads on these instruments ought to be pretty thin.  Selling CDS ought to be about as exciting as selling property insurance and selling CDOs ought to be about as exciting as running a mutual fund.  But when you get to a point where merely packaging a bunch of securities and then rearranging them makes them suddenly far more lucrative — a blatant violation of the Law of One Price — you should know immediately that something is badly wrong.  These things should be reliable money spinners, but not much more.

So what's the best way of shrinking the financial industry and making it more boring?  This is plainly the key to any future regulatory reform.  Trying to cap pay, or even trying to reform how pay is established, is a hopeless task as long as the industry itself is huge and swimming in money.  But if you shrink the industry, pay takes care of itself.

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Taxing the Dead

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 12:52 PM EDT

Michael Kinsley has a stemwinder today in the Post about the idiocy of Democrats holding out against their own president on reform of the estate tax.  Obama wants to keep the basic rate at 45% and the exclusion at $7 million per couple.  The holdouts want 35% and $10 million.  Ramesh Ponnuru comments:

Kinsley glancingly refers later to the possibility that the prospect of leaving an estate might motivate people to work harder. But he completely ignores what seems likely to be a bigger effect: that it would motivate wealthy people to spend less. You can agree or disagree with the case that the estate tax impedes capital formation. Ignoring the debate seems like a poor way of winning it.

I'll confess that I've pretty much ignored this debate myself.  I mean, you name the tax, and conservatives always have some white paper or another making an arcane argument for why raising it would wreck the economy and end up producing less tax revenue out of the ensuing rubble.  The linked analysis is typical of the genre, full of vague handwaving and precisely zero actual evidence.

Frankly, the prospect of higher estate taxes inducing wealthy people to buy platinum-plated bathroom fixtures instead of gold-plated ones doesn't strike me as a very serious objection here.  Ponnuru thinks this "seems likely" to happen if the estate tax is kept at 45%, but I guess I'd like to see some evidence of this before I waste any time trying to refute it.  This is generally good advice in any tax argument, of course, but it's particularly good advice in estate tax debates, which are so rife with outright lies from conservatives — farmers! small businesses! socialism! — that it's usually an offense against the English language to call them debates in the first place.  If we're going to spend any serious time on this topic, I'd rather spend it on finding ways to keep the super-rich from loopholing their way out of paying any estate tax at all, not pretending that our nation's brave farming families will be devastated by a mere $7 million exemption.

In the meantime, I'll just make an obvious point: no tax lives in isolation.  The question isn't whether a tax is good or bad, it's whether it's better or worse than other taxes.  After all, money has to come from somewhere, and whenever I ask myself whether it's better for that money to come out of the pockets of dead people or live people — well, I always come up with the same answer.  Selfish of me, I suppose.

The Decline of the West

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 11:23 AM EDT

George Packer has a chat with his roofer about why he's so irritable these days.  It's not the recession, it turns out:

It turned out that cell phones had become a major headache in his work. Customers called him all the time, expecting him to hear every little complaint even while he was wrestling with a roof hatch. Meanwhile, they were more and more unreliable, not answering their phones, missing scheduled appointments.

....“It’s the technology,” the roofer said. “They don’t know how to deal with a human being. They stand there with that text shrug” — he hunched his shoulders, bent his head down, moved from side to side, looking anywhere but at me — “and they go, ‘Ah, ah, um, um,’ and they just mumble. They can’t talk any more.” This inadequacy with physical space and direct interaction was an affliction of the educated, he said — “the more educated, the worse.”

....This was a completely new phenomenon in the roofer’s world: a mass upper class that was so immersed in symbolic and digital cerebration that it had become incapable of carrying out the most ordinary functions — had become, in effect, like small children with Asperger’s symptoms. It was a ruling class that, out of sheer over-civilization, was quickly losing the ability to hold onto its power.

WTF?  These folks call constantly on their cell phones, so it's not that they've lost the ability to carry on a verbal conversation.  It's just that they can't do it face-to-face.  Do I have that right?

Is anyone else skeptical about this?  Obviously I have zero experience with 20-something metrosexuals in New York City, but, seriously?  Is this happening?  More anecdotes, please.

Chart of the Day - 4.10.2009

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 11:01 AM EDT

Via Felix Salmon, this chart shows how much overdraft charges cost you.  The bar on the left (labeled POS) is from point-of-sale debit card overdrafts.  Here are the numbers: the average overdraft is $17, it's paid back in an average of five days, and the average charge is $35.  Result: you're paying $1.94 for every dollar "borrowed."  You'd probably need scientific notation to figure out the APR.

But here's the kicker:

When debit cards first came into common use, they promised the convenience of a credit card without the cost, because debit card users were required to have the funds in their account to cover their purchase or withdraw cash. As recently as 2004, 80 percent of banks still declined ATM and debit card transactions without charging a fee when account holders did not have sufficient funds in their account. But banks now routinely authorize payments or cash withdrawals when customers do not have enough money in their account to cover the transaction, so debit cards end up being very costly for many account holders.

Italics mine.  This is just so you understand how deliberate this strategy is.  The banks could easily decline NSF transactions.  They used to.  But they don't anymore because the fees from inadvertant overdrafts are so lucrative.  Alternatively, they could charge reasonable fees, since the actual administrative cost of overdrafts is minuscule these days.  But they don't.

And who pays these fees?  Small account holders with modest incomes, of course.  That's the modern banking industry for you.

The Decline of Fearmongering

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 10:11 AM EDT

In 1950 Joe McCarthy had in his hands a list of 205 communists.  In 2009 Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) has in his hands a list of 17 socialists.  Conservatives really have lowered their sights over the past half century, haven't they?  It's kind of sad.