Kevin Drum

Chart of the Day - 2.23.2009

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 1:52 PM EST
The changes here are mostly pretty small, but Gallup reports that Barack Obama's approval rating has increased over the past month among Democrats and Independents, but dropped among Republicans.  The drop is especially big among conservative Republicans — which is hardly a surprise.  If I spent all day listening to Rush Limbaugh and watching Fox News, I'd probably think Obama was a herald of the end times too.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Gobbledegook From the Treasury

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 1:23 PM EST
Felix Salmon ran the latest missive from the Treasury through a readability calculator and says that it scored only 15 out of 100.  Funny.  Except that I ran the passage through the same calculator he used and it actually produced a score of 0.  Ka-ching!  As near as I can tell, that means it's unintelligible even if you have a PhD in finance.

Anyway, the Treasury's statement is all about further capital injections into banks, and Felix takes his best shot at deciphering it:

I'm not sure I understand this myself, but the government here seems to be coming up with ever-more-obscure forms of capital which it can inject into the banks. We're relatively familiar with preferred shares, common equity, and warrants to buy common equity; now we must add to that list this new animal: mandatory convertible preferred shares, which had a brief moment in the sun back when banks were raising private capital rather than having to go to the government for bailouts.

....What's weird is that the government starts off talking about capital being "in the form of mandatory convertible preferred shares", which implies that those shares are capital, before then going on to say they will "be converted into common equity shares only as needed over time to keep banks in a well-capitalized position" — which implies that they're not really capital unless and until they convert.

Clear as mud, right?  And even the financial press doesn't seem to agree on what message is being sent by all this gobbledegook.  The Wall Street Journal said the Treasury's statement was designed to "quell fears about the viability of major U.S. banks," while the New York Times called it an "unexpectedly assertive" statement that "amounted to a roadmap under which the federal government could, if it wants to, demand a major and possibly a controlling stake in systemically important banks like Citigroup and Bank of America."

So which is it?  My take is this: the Obama brain trust understands that they're almost certainly going to have to nationalize one or two big banks sometime in the next few months.  So they need to prepare the ground for that.  At the same time, fear of nationalization is bad for everyone, so they're also doing their best to publicly claim that it's the farthest thing from their minds and they remain fully dedicated to the idea of keeping the banking system in private hands.  That's a pretty tough tightrope to walk in plain English, so they really have no choice except to resort to Greenspanian gobbledegook.  We should probably expect more of this in the future.

The Sin City Express

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 12:33 PM EST
Is Senator Straight Talk still telling lies about all the rail money in the stimulus bill being earmarked for a train between LA and Las Vegas?  Yes he is.  Of course, you may recall that he was also happy to lie endlessly about Sarah Palin rejecting an earmark for the Bridge to Nowhere during last year's campaign, so I guess this is no big surprise.  Dogs don't change their spots.

Faking a Filibuster

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 12:12 PM EST
Over the past couple of years it's become a liberal rallying cry that if Republicans want to filibuster every bill, then Harry Reid ought to make them carry out a real filibuster, Jimmy Stewart style.  Make 'em talk.  Make 'em read from the phone book.  Put it all on CSPAN and let the American public see what GOP obstructionism is really all about.

But Ryan Grim, in an interesting piece over at the Huffington Post today, concludes that it's not going to happen.  Apparently Reid's office has studied the history of the filibuster and says that although at least one Republican senator can be forced to stay on the Senate floor to prevent a vote, he can't be forced to talk.  Bob Dove, who worked as a Senate parliamentarian from 1966 until 2001, agrees:

As both Reid's memo and Dove explain, only one Republican would need to monitor the Senate floor. If the majority party tried to move to a vote, he could simply say, "I suggest the absence of a quorum."

The presiding officer would then be required to call the roll. When that finished, the Senator could again notice the absence of a quorum and start the process all over. At no point would the obstructing Republican be required to defend his position, read from the phone book or any of the other things people associate with the Hollywood version of a filibuster.

....Since [Strom Thurmond in 1957], says Dove, the only time the majority tried to jam a bill through the Senate without having 60 votes ahead of time ended in failure.

Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, was majority leader in 1988, when Democrats controlled 54 seats and wanted to push through campaign finance reform. But Republican minority leader Alan Simpson of Wyoming was easily able to block it by sitting on the Senate floor and occasionally noting the absence of a quorum, thwarting a vote...."It was almost a farce," says Dove. "The bottom line is the bill never passed."

Back to square one, then: get rid of the filibuster entirely.  I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that to happen, though.

Chatting with Michael Pollan

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 11:31 AM EST
In our current issue, we interview Michael Pollan, the man of the moment in liberal food policy.  One way to get people to eat better, he says, is to team up with allies whose economic interests happen to line up with healthier eating:

MJ: Does WIC [the Women, Infants, and Children program] still specify that you buy dairy?

MP: Yes. We had a huge fight to get a little more produce in the WIC basket, which is heavy on cheese and milk because the dairy lobby is very powerful. So they fought and they fought and they fought, and they got a bunch of carrots in there. [Laughs.]

MJ: Specifically? Who knew: the carrot lobby?

MP: Specifically carrots. The next big lobby. But there is also money in this farm bill for fresh produce in school lunch. The price of getting the subsidies was getting the California delegation on board, and their price was $2 billon for what are called specialty crops — fresh fruit and produce grown largely in California.

Hooray for California!  But the reality is, this is how things get done.  Read the rest of the interview for more interesting food stuff.

Common Sense on Hedge Funds

| Mon Feb. 23, 2009 1:03 AM EST
Noam Scheiber points to some genuinely good news in today's New York Times piece about Barack Obama's upcoming budget outline.  From the Times:

The president will propose to tax the investment income of hedge fund and private equity partners at ordinary income tax rates, which are now as high as 35 percent and could return to 39.6 percent under his plans, instead of at the capital gains rate, which is 15 percent at most.

Senior Democrats in Congress joined with Republicans in 2007 to oppose that increase. But with Wall Street discredited and lucrative executive compensation a political target, the provision could prove more popular among lawmakers.

This refers to the "carried interest" loophole, which allows hedge fund management fees to be counted as capital gains on the theory that — well, there was never really much of a theory for it at all.  If you invest your own money and make a return, that's a capital gain.  But if you get a piece of the return for managing someone else's investment, that's a management fee.  It's ordinary income, and there's really no plausible theory under which it should be counted as capital gains.

Except, of course, under the theory that hedge fund managers would prefer to pay low capital gains taxes on their income, and since hedge fund managers contribute lots of money to political campaigns they usually get whatever they want.  It really was just about that crude, and Democrats displayed colossal cowardice when they refused to eliminate this loophole two years ago.  It's good to see that Obama is going to try to embarrass them into finally doing the right thing and making rich people pay the same rate on their income as everyone else.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Nate Silver Finally Gets One Wrong

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 8:49 PM EST
Penélope Cruz won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress?!?  But Nate Silver said it would be Taraji P. Henson.  Can we ever trust him again?

UPDATE: Ben Stiller's Joaquin Phoenix bit was pretty funny.

Mau Mauing Rahm Emanuel

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 6:13 PM EST
Matt Yglesias thinks Rahm Emanuel should stop whining about Paul Krugman's criticism of the stimulus bill.  In fact, he should thank him:

If you propose something, and every single progressive in all the land immediately lauds it as the greatest bill ever written, then your legislation is now an extreme left proposal and it’s doomed. If you’re going to make concessions to political reality then you need to weather a bit of criticism from your left — that’s what establishes the proposal as moderate and sensible. Things like “some liberal economists such as Paul Krugman say the proposal is too small” is a helpful piece of context-setting that prevents the proposal from appearing too radical.

This sounds right to me, but I wonder if it's really true?  Let's turn it around.  When Rush Limbaugh criticized George Bush's immigration plan, did that convince liberals that maybe Bush's position wasn't so bad after all?  Maybe it did!  But I'm not so sure about that.

(At least in the short term.  Constant kvetching can certainly change the center of gravity of public opinion over periods of years or decades.  But that's a different thing.)

Anyway, it seems like there ought to be some clever way to test this theory.  In general, does criticism from the extreme left or right help a bill's prospects with moderates?  How might we figure this out?  Any ideas?

DNA Testing

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 5:45 PM EST
Over the past few years hundreds of innocent people have been freed from prison thanks to DNA evidence.  So why isn't it more widely available? Answer: because prosecutors and state governments tend to fight DNA testing requests tooth and nail.  Defense attorney and civil libertarians are on the opposite side, of course, and shortly the Supreme Court will hear a case deciding whether they'll get their wish to make testing more widely available:

They are opposed by victims rights groups; the vast majority of states, which have a patchwork of laws granting DNA access; and the federal government. The governments say that creating a constitutional right to the testing would infringe on states' rights, overwhelm them with frivolous demands and create an endless right of appeal for those convicted of the most violent crimes.

Set aside the states' right argument for now.  I'm more interested in the question of whether constitutional protections for DNA testing would, in fact, result in lots of frivolous demands and endless appeals.

If there were, literally, no restrictions at all, maybe that's what would happen.  Maybe every con with time on his hands would demand test after test just for the hell of it.  Maybe.  But if the court required even a minimal showing of cause, wouldn't frivolous requests dry up?  What's the point, after all?  If you're guilty, then you know perfectly well that DNA isn't going to get you off the hook.  So why bother?

That's why I've never found this argument very persuasive.  Prisoners who know they're guilty have little incentive to demand DNA tests.  Conversely, though, prosecutors have loads of incentive to deny DNA tests, even — or maybe especially — in cases where it might well prove wrongful conviction.  This suggests that the court should adopt some kind of balancing test: not an absolute right to endless DNA testing, but at least a presumption in favor of it.  Make the hurdle just high enough to deter the genuinely frivolous, but low enough that nobody has to rot in prison for years just because they didn't have access to a simple test.  We are, after all, in favor of not imprisoning innocent people.  Right?

Rahm Emanuel

| Sun Feb. 22, 2009 2:17 PM EST
I sometimes get the feeling that it's impossible to write a bad profile of Barack Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.  Or at least, impossible to write a boring profile.  The guy's just too good a quote machine.  Here he is in Ryan Lizza's recent New Yorker piece complaining about critics who didn't like the way the stimulus bill turned out:

“They have never worked the legislative process,” Emanuel said of critics like the Times columnist Paul Krugman, who argued that Obama’s concessions to Senate Republicans — in particular, the tax cuts, which will do little to stimulate the economy — produced a package that wasn’t large enough to respond to the magnitude of the recession. “How many bills has he passed?”

....The stimulus bill was essentially held hostage to the whims of Collins, Snowe, and Specter, but if Al Franken, the apparent winner of the disputed Minnesota Senate race, had been seated in Washington, and if Ted Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer, had been regularly available to vote, the White House would have needed only one Republican to pass the measure. “No disrespect to Paul Krugman,” Emanuel went on, “but has he figured out how to seat the Minnesota senator?” (Franken’s victory is the subject of an ongoing court challenge by his opponent, Norm Coleman, which the national Republican Party has been happy to help finance.) “Write a fucking column on how to seat the son of a bitch. I would be fascinated with that column. O.K.?” Emanuel stood up theatrically and gestured toward his seat with open palms. “Anytime they want, they can have it,” he said of those who are critical of his legislative strategies. “I give them my chair.”

Read the rest, of course.  It doesn't really turn over any fresh ground, but it's still good stuff for political junkies.