Kevin Drum

Focusing the Fed

| Sun Nov. 15, 2009 1:41 PM EST

David Ignatius is worried about Chris Dodd's proposal to reduce the Fed's regulatory authority over the banking system.  Fine.  It's an arguable proposition.  After all, the British have a separate agency to regulate banks and it didn't seem to do them any good last year.  So maybe it won't help us either.

But he also seems to have bought into the idea that Dodd wants to politicize the Fed's core mission of conducting monetary policy:

The political challenge to the central bank's authority comes at an especially delicate moment — as the economy begins to rebound and the Fed considers future tightening of monetary policy. It will need public support to combat inflation. But as the New York Times noted in a front-page article last week, the Fed is "under more intense attack than at any time in decades," from both left and right.

Wall Street so far appears unfazed by the criticism of the Fed, perhaps because investors assume that the protests are just political posturing. But this could change. "If Congress even appears to be politicizing the Fed's monetary policy function, rest assured that two market developments are inevitable — a collapsing dollar and higher long-term interest rates," warns David Smick, a Washington financial consultant.

 So what exactly is Dodd proposing?  Let's break it down:

  • Interest rates are set by the Fed's Federal Open Market Committee, which has 12 members.
  • Five of the FOMC's twelve members come from the ranks of the presidents of the Federal Reserve regional banks.
  • These presidents are appointed by the boards of directors of the regional banks, subject to approval of the Fed Board of Governors.
  • Two-thirds of the regional board members are elected by member banks — i.e., ordinary private commercial banks
  • Dodd's bill would give the Fed Board of Governors the power to appoint the entire membership of the boards of the regional banks.

In what way does this politicize monetary policy?  What it does is reduce the power of commercial banks and increase the power of the Fed.  The only way to spin this as politicization is to point out that the Fed Board of Governors is approved by the Senate, which means that under Dodd's plan the regional board presidents would be appointed by people who are appointed by people who are in turn approved by the Senate.

This is pretty tenuous stuff.  If you want to argue that private commercial banks should retain the power to elect two-thirds of the boards that appoint five-twelfths of the FOMC, go ahead.  But they're losing that power to the Fed itself.  That only increases politicization of monetary policy if you think that the current Fed Board of Governors is too politicized in the first place.  But that's a tough argument to make: all modern central banks have boards that are appointed by political authorities.  That's democracy for you.  Their independence is guaranteed by staggered terms, guaranteed tenure, and statutory authority, just like the Fed.

Dodd's stated intention is to keep the Fed focused primarily on monetary policy and leave bank regulation to a separate super-agency.  As near as I can tell, that's exactly what he's done.  Commercial banks might not like losing some of their influence in the process, but it's the Fed that's gaining at their expense, not Congress.

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Friday Super Cat Blogging - 13 November 2009

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 3:36 PM EST

Today is cat overload day.  For starters, we have exclusive rare footage of Domino playing with a shoe.  I've cleverly titled it "Domino and the Shoe."  And not just any shoe, either.  This one is a nice smelly shoe freshly tossed off a human foot at the end of a long workday.  I don't know what it is about human foot smell that drives cats crazy, but smelly shoes are like catnip to them.  Weird.  In any case, be sure to watch the whole thing so you don't miss Domino's grand finale at the end.

But that's not all!  Two weeks ago, we asked you to vote for your favorite Mother Jones climate cat covers — and to add your own to the meow mix. The results were overwhelming — a cascade of cat covers. Four of the original contestants tied for first place, and I've chosen another eleven for our final cat-off.  A flickr gallery of all the entrants is below, and you can see — and vote for — the final 15 contenders here.

So click here and vote! May the best cat win.

The Way Forward in Afghanistan

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 2:46 PM EST

Fred Kaplan tries to read the tea leaves in Afghanistan today.  Why is President Obama taking so long to decide on a strategy, and what is that strategy likely to be?

Counterinsurgency involves protecting the local population from insurgency groups, so that the national government is better able to provide basic services, thus winning popular support and undermining the insurgents' appeal. If the government is particularly corrupt or incompetent, it won't be able to build on the security wrought by a good counterinsurgency campaign, thus nullifying our success and sacrifice.

....Some advocates of the strategy have cautioned that counterinsurgency campaigns take years, even decades, to bear fruit....In the meantime, Obama told [Jake] Tapper that he and his advisers "are identifying not just a national government in Kabul but provincial government actors that have legitimacy in the right now."

This suggests that Obama is seeking ways to go around the central government — striking separate deals with provincial leaders or providing more or less intensive levels of support — if Karzai proves to be a feeble partner in our counterinsurgency campaign. Or it might suggest one way to exert leverage over Karzai — to make clear that we will empower regional players, and thus weaken his own standing, if he doesn't clean up his act, thus making his regime more legitimate in the eyes of his people and therefore better able to beat the Taliban in the competition for hearts and minds.

That's....plausible.  Obama likes the counterinsurgency approach, but without a credible government to back it up, it won't work.  Solution: find another government to work with. Make deals with tribal and provincial leaders instead of Hamid Karzai.  So he's asking his team to figure out if there's any chance of making that work.

It's an interesting thought.  Especially for a president trying to convince the country that his policy in Afghanistan is still reality based.

Abortion Politics

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 2:05 PM EST

Roughly speaking, the Stupak amendment is simple: it says that anyone receiving a federal subsidy can't buy healthcare insurance that includes abortion coverage.  There's a bit more, but that's the piece that's causing most of the backlash from pro-choice forces.

But as bad as that is, there's a fear that it might be even worse than it sounds.  Anyone who gets a federal subsidy to buy private healthcare insurance is required to buy a policy through the "exchange," but not everyone who buys through the exchange gets a federal subsidy.  So what if insurance companies decide it's too much trouble to offer multiple options, and simply remove abortion coverage from every policy offered through the exchange, regardless of how it's paid for?  Ezra Klein:

If health-care reform began with huge exchanges, in which only a small portion of the participants were on subsidies and the Stupak amendment only applied to a fraction of the market, insurers would probably offer mostly policies that included abortion coverage. In reality, almost 90 percent of the population on the exchanges will be subsidized, so there is no real market for insurers to present a policy that covers abortion. That presents a much bigger problem.

The exchanges are not likely to stay small. They will gradually add larger and larger employers....Over time, that could mean that the norm becomes an insurance market that doesn't cover abortion as opposed to an insurance market that does....If it sets the standards for the exchanges and the exchanges eventually become the standard for the whole insurance market, then the Stupak amendment could transform coverage for not just poor women, but all women.

But here's my question: how much trouble is it, really, for insurance companies to offer two different policies that are identical except for their abortion coverage?  Not much, I'd guess.  As one data point, the Republican National Committee was embarrassed recently when reporters found out that their group health policy included abortion coverage.  Here's Politico on the RNC's response:

According to several Cigna employees, the insurer offers its customers the opportunity to opt out of abortion coverage — and the RNC did not choose to opt out.

....“We were not aware of this, obviously, and this will, of course, be fixed,” said James Bopp Jr., a Republican National Committeeman from Indiana. “I think Chairman Steele will see to it that that’s the case.”

So with Cigna, anyway, they already have separate insurance policies because that's what the market wants.  I'll bet other insurance carriers do the same, and that means that offering multiple options on the exchange is no trouble at all.  They already have them, there's no reason not to offer both, and even a modest amount of public pressure will almost certainly be enough to make sure of it.

I'd be happiest if the Stupak amendment were removed entirely in conference, but failing that, it wouldn't be much trouble to add language requiring insurers to offer both kinds of policy on the exchange.  Ditto for language ensuring that the amendment isn't interpreted to mean that small businesses getting federal subsidies are prohibited from opting to include abortion coverage if they want to.  If it's really true that the Stupak bloc in the House merely wants to replicate current restrictions on federal funding of abortions, they shouldn't have a problem with this.

And on a slightly different topic, I'll add this: I sure wish that overall subsidy levels in the current healthcare bills produced the same kind of uproar as abortion and the public option.  In terms of real-world effect on real-world people, subsidies are the biggest issue by a mile.  But not a very sexy issue, apparently.  That's too bad.

Security Theater

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 1:16 PM EST

Bruce Schneier on security theater vs. real security in an age of terrorism:

Security theater refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security. An example: the photo ID checks that have sprung up in office buildings. No-one has ever explained why verifying that someone has a photo ID provides any actual security, but it looks like security to have a uniformed guard-for-hire looking at ID cards.

....Security is both a feeling and a reality. The propensity for security theater comes from the interplay between the public and its leaders. When people are scared, they need something done that will make them feel safe, even if it doesn't truly make them safer. Politicians naturally want to do something in response to crisis, even if that something doesn't make any sense.

....Unfortunately for politicians, the security measures that work are largely invisible. Such measures include enhancing the intelligence-gathering abilities of the secret services, hiring cultural experts and Arabic translators, building bridges with Islamic communities both nationally and internationally, funding police capabilities — both investigative arms to prevent terrorist attacks, and emergency communications systems for after attacks occur — and arresting terrorist plotters without media fanfare. They do not include expansive new police or spying laws. Our police don't need any new laws to deal with terrorism; rather, they need apolitical funding. These security measures don't make good television, and they don't help, come re-election time. But they work, addressing the reality of security instead of the feeling.

The arrest of the "liquid bombers" in London is an example: they were caught through old-fashioned intelligence and police work. Their choice of target (airplanes) and tactic (liquid explosives) didn't matter; they would have been arrested regardless.

The whole thing is worth a read, and I'm glad Bruce included the last two paragraphs in the excerpt above.  A common problem with essays and articles about security is that they spend mountains of time criticizing pretty much everything the government has done in the years since 9/11, but precious little time explaining what should be done.  Even in this essay, Bruce only spends a few sentences on concrete suggestions.  But we really need more of that.  Like it or not, the public is always going to demand a response to terrorist events, and politicians being what they are, they're going to provide one.  It's up to security experts to figure out a way to make effective responses compelling enough that they become serious alternatives to security theater.

In fact, I'd like to see an entire long essay on exactly that point.  Bruce has made a pretty good start with this one.

Must See TV

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 12:50 PM EST

The Onion's AV Club rates the 30 best TV series of the decade here.  Looking through it, what struck me is that I've seen almost none of them.  Three, to be exact: Lost, The Office (UK version), and Firefly — the latter two solely on DVD.

I blame blogging.  Seriously.  I've never watched a ton of TV, but ever since I took up blogging I've watched even less.  The problem is that blogging requires at least a couple of hours at the computer every evening.  I don't multitask well enough to blog and watch TV at the same time, so that means I can't afford to watch more than one show per night at most.  The solution, obviously, is a DVR, but I'm still holding out on that front.  If Cox allowed multiple DVRs in the house for one low price, I think they would have snagged my business last month when I upgraded our service, but they don't, and they didn't.  Maybe someday.

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The Debit Card Hustle

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 12:25 PM EST

While I was out yesterday, there was big news on debit card fees.  Here's how the LA Times headlined it:

Fed Reserve bans most bank overdraft fees

This caused some editorial gnashing of teeth at MoJo world headquarters, since a big chunk of my upcoming piece on the finance lobby is built around the failure of authorities to do anything about overdraft fees.  In the end though, it turned out we didn't have to do very much aside from changing "the Fed has never done anything" to — well, I don't want to give anything away just yet.  Let's just say the change wasn't a big one.

You see, the Fed didn't ban most overdraft fees, regardless of what the Times copy desk might think.  All they did was tell banks that they have to give customers the option of whether they want overdraft protection in the first place.  If they don't, they'll be allowed to opt out and purchases that run your account down past zero will simply be rejected.

This is, without question, a good thing.  The fact that banks not only made billions of dollars by charging outrageous overdraft fees, but insisted that customers had to accept overdraft protection even if they didn't want it (a policy put in place a few years ago as a deliberate way to make more money from their most vulnerable customers), made it almost a poster child for abusive practices.  So three cheers that it's gone.

But look: most people want overdraft protection.  Banks are right about that.  Unlike checkbooks of old, debit cards are marketed as routine payment devices, and since debit cards don't have built-in check registers that warn you when your account is getting low, it's all too easy to inadvertantly run up big overdraft charges.  But the new Fed regulations do nothing about that.  Under industry pressure, they ruled in 2004 that overdraft fees weren't loans, and they still aren't.  So a $35 fee on a $17 overdraft that's paid off in five days —and yes, this is the industry average — amounts to an APR of over 10,000%.  Except it's not an APR because it's not a loan.  It's a "fee."

Hogwash.  It's a small, short-term loan, just like a credit card charge.  The APR should be somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-30%, like a credit card, with perhaps a small processing fee added to that.  And since we live in an electronic era, that processing fee is small: maybe 50 cents or so.  A dollar max.

But the Fed did nothing about that.  Or about the number of fees banks can charge per day.  Or about re-ordering of fees to run up total charges.  Overdraft protection really is a convenience in a world where banks are doing everything they can to encourage their use even for tiny transactions, and consumers shouldn't be required to accept usurious loan rates and sleazy hidden hustles in order to get it.  Wake me up when the Fed gets around to that.

Obama and the Deficit

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 11:39 AM EST

Politico reports that the White House plans to change direction next year:

President Barack Obama plans to announce in next year's State of the Union address that he wants to focus extensively on cutting the federal deficit in 2010 — and will downplay other new domestic spending beyond jobs programs, according to top aides involved in the planning.

....“Democrats have to reassure voters we are not being reckless,” said a Democratic official involved in the planning. “The White House knows this and that's why we'll be hearing a lot about reducing the deficit early next year. Democrats owned this issue for the past four years and cannot afford to cede it to Republicans now."

I think I'm more sympathetic toward this approach than most liberals.  Part of the reason is practical: although it would probably be wise to focus more on job creation right now than we are, that's just not in the cards.  There aren't the votes for it, and there's not much point in endlessly tilting at windmills.

But on a policy basis I think this might be a good idea too.  It's unlikely that Obama will try to do anything to cut spending in 2010 itself (or 2011 for that matter), but some initiatives that credibly promise to reduce the deficit in 2012 and beyond would be smart both politically and economically.  Politically because a guy who's approved a trillion dollar stimulus package, a trillion dollar healthcare bill, a trillion dollar energy bill, and (possibly) a substantial increase in Afghanistan spending, needs some credibility on the spending front.  It's also smart politically because it puts Republicans in a tough spot: they've been screaming for months about fiscal rectitude, and this forces them to put their money where their mouths are.  That has the potential to hurt them at the polls whether they go along or not.

But it's smart economically too, because we really do have a long-term deficit problem.  I'm not the biggest deficit hawk in the world or anything, but if it starts to look like we can't ever get our deficits under control, we run the risk of blowing up another bubble, getting further in hock to the Chinese, losing the trust of the international financial community, and more.  Obama was smart to try and accomplish as much as he could as soon as he took office, but he'd also be smart to make some serious gestures toward long-term stability once he's passed all his big bills.  More here from CBPP if you want a smart, reliably progressive take on the issue.

HSR Tradeoffs

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 12:17 AM EST

The latest rail news from California:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger quietly spiked an effort last month to win $1.1 billion in federal high-speed rail stimulus funds for 29 projects to improve the safety, speed and capacity of heavily traveled commuter corridors through Southern California. Instead, he ordered state officials to seek money for only one project — the proposed bullet train between San Francisco and San Diego.

....The action has sparked debate among rail advocates about whether too high a priority is being placed on the high-speed train project at the expense of the second-busiest rail corridor in the nation, where budget-strapped commuter services have been trying to improve safety, add track and cut travel times from San Diego to Santa Barbara.

Not to beat a dead horse, but this is the kind of thing I was afraid of when we approved the LA-SF high-speed line last year.  There's a limited amount of money available for transit projects statewide, so as we spend more on HSR, there's less available for other projects.  It's not a firm 1:1 tradeoff, and certainly politicians have the option to try and increase the total size of the transit pie, but in general there's a pretty strong tendency for budget decisions to work like this.

My doubts aside, hopefully the LA-SF line will be great when it's finally up and running.  But there's definitely a cost involved to other transit projects in the meantime.

Housekeeping Note

| Thu Nov. 12, 2009 12:01 PM EST

I'm a little under the weather this morning.  Blogging will probably be pretty light today.  Back this afternoon or tomorrow, I hope.