Kevin Drum

Employment

| Thu Jan. 29, 2009 1:15 PM EST

EMPLOYMENT....The latest on the employment front:

The total number of U.S. workers filing claims for jobless benefits lasting more than one week has soared to a record high, a government report showed, a sign of the severe toll the deepening recession is taking on the unemployed.

....The U.S. has lost jobs in each of the last 12 months, and employers slashed payrolls at a rate of about half a million per month in the final four months of 2008. This month's claims figures point to another drop of that magnitude when January data are released next week.

Indeed, the hemorrhaging of jobs shows no sign of abating.

The stimulus bill making its way through Congress right now obviously isn't perfect. What is? But all the evidence suggests that employment levels are going to remain anemic for another couple of years at least, which means that spending stimulus will remain effective through FY2011 at a minimum. And since virtually all of the spending in the current bill gets disbursed before then, this means it's all reasonably well targeted.

Still, isn't the bill just a hodgepodge of unrelated spending? Sure. What else could it be? There's no way to spend $800 billion on infrastructure over the next two years, so most of the money has to be spent on other stuff. But so what? Employing clerks or crossing guards or home care workers counts every bit as much as employing backhoe operators or engineers. Spending money on contraceptives does as much for the economy as spending money on rebar. An unemployment check gets spent on food the same way a paycheck does.

In an ideal world there's stuff about this bill that all of us would change. Overall, though, what we have isn't bad, and the real world being what it is, I'd give it a B or a B+. So it deserves to pass, and quickly. But once that's done, it's going to be time to start talking seriously about what happens after that. Our economy is way out of kilter, and has been for a while, and President Obama needs to let us know what he thinks needs to be done about that. Pass the bill, then let's talk.

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Withdrawing From Iraq

| Thu Jan. 29, 2009 11:46 AM EST

WITHDRAWING FROM IRAQ....General Ray Odierno, the top field commander in Iraq, thinks we can reduce forces there by no more than two brigades over the next six months. Then we need to wait until 2010 before making any further decisions: "I believe that if we can get through the next year peacefully, with incidents about what they are today or better, I think we're getting close to enduring stability, which enables us to really reduce," he said. Marc Lynch isn't impressed:

The politics of this aside, I think that Odierno's intention of keeping troops in Iraq through the national elections is dangerously wrong. The CFR/Brookings/Odierno "go slow" approach ignores the reality of the new Status of Forces Agreement and the impending referendum this summer — which may well fail if there is no sign of departing American troops.

....This strategy is also a recipe for endless delay....Senior Iraqi officials have suggested that the national elections, which Odierno suggests as the point when drawdowns might begin, may well not be held until March 2010. I don't think that 16 months is a sacred number. But what Odierno is proposing is no significant drawdowns for 14 months, followed by another period of wrangling. This could ironically make the "rush for the exits" that everyone wants to avoid more rather than less likely — whether or not it leads to the failure of the SOFA referendum.

There's always something a year down the road that we should wait for before pulling troops out. Provincial elections. Stability. SOFA. National elections. You name it. But at some point we need to demonstrate to the Iraqis that we're really pulling out and they need to take the transition seriously. It's well past time for that.

Obama also has a lot of credibility at stake over this. He said during the campaign that he wanted to withdraw within 16 months, and while there's a lot of room to fudge there, he still needs to show that he's serious about that. It may end up being 24 months instead of 16, and the residual force he leaves behind may end up comprising tens of thousands of troops, but he still needs to start. He needs to show the world that his word is good.

Diplomatic Pouch

| Thu Jan. 29, 2009 1:38 AM EST

DIPLOMATIC POUCH....The Guardian reports that the Obama administration plans to send a letter to the Iranian leadership:

The US state department has been working on drafts of the letter since Obama was elected on 4 November last year. It is in reply to a lengthy letter of congratulations sent by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on 6 November.

Diplomats said Obama's letter would be a symbolic gesture to mark a change in tone from the hostile one adopted by the Bush administration, which portrayed Iran as part of an "axis of evil".

....State department officials have composed at least three drafts of the letter, which gives assurances that Washington does not want to overthrow the Islamic regime, but merely seeks a change in its behaviour. The letter would be addressed to the Iranian people and sent directly to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or released as an open letter.

An accompanying story suggests that the letter "represents a determined break from past US policy," but then strikes a less hopeful tone: "There is one thing everyone agrees on — it is impossible to do any kind of business with the current Iranian president. Ahmadinejad's speech in Kermanshah yesterday, demanding complete US withdrawal from all overseas deployments, clearly illustrated that." Stay tuned.

Nyet!

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 9:04 PM EST

NYET!....The Obama administration wants to extend the February 17 deadline for TV stations to switch from analog to digital transmissions. I don't have a strong opinion about the merits of this delay, but check out the results of the roll call vote in Congress:

[Joe] Barton led the push to scuttle the bill, which passed the Senate unanimously on Monday night after lawmakers in that chamber struck a bipartisan compromise....But those concessions did not placate most Republicans in the House. Only 22 Republicans voted for the bill, while 155 voted against it.

So here we have a relatively nonideological issue. It went through a modest amount of give-and-take and a compromise was struck. And the result? 100% of Senate Republicans voted in favor but 90% of House Republicans voted against. Shazam!

Apparently the House GOP caucus really has decided to blindly stonewall everything Obama wants, no matter what. This is even more of a wakeup call than the vote on the stimulus bill.

The Sweet Song of Bipartisanship

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 6:57 PM EST

THE SWEET SONG OF BIPARTISANSHIP....Welcome to Washington, President Obama:

[Today] the House approved an $819 billion stimulus plan that will serve as the cornerstone of President Obama's efforts to resuscitate the economy, an early victory for the new president but still a disappointment because of the lack of Republican votes.

The measure passed 244 to 188, with 11 Democrats and 177 Republicans voting against it.

There are 178 Republicans in the House and 177 of them voted today. Every single one of them voted against the bill. In case there were still any doubters, I think it's now safe to say that the GOP caucus has decided to pick up where it left off last year, in full-on obstruction mode.

Atheists

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 6:44 PM EST

ATHEISTS....One of Andrew Sullivan's readers is annoyed with us atheists:

Telling me what you don't believe tells me very little....But you can no more avoid making a positive choice about the source of meaning in your life and the universe than you can avoid living in some country. You can talk about which country is best to live in, but the atheist pretends you can live in no country at all.

You gotta live somewhere, and you gotta believe in something, because your beliefs are being expressed every day in how you live your life. Atheists should be forced to articulate their positive position (say, secular humanism) as price of admission to the conversation.

This is a very odd complaint. I suppose the answer varies with the atheist (some people with a vague belief in "spirituality," for example, might describe themselves as atheists), but surely the bulk of us simply believe in a physical universe governed by physical laws. If you asked me, my rough answer would be, I believe in quantum mechanics, with the right to revise and extend if evidence for something better comes along.

Or, sure, secular humanism. Whatever. But although it's probably true that most conversations of this sort revolve around conventional religions and whether or not we believe in them, surely the flip side of that is fairly obvious even if it's not always directly articulated. Isn't it?

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Clawback

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 2:58 PM EST

CLAWBACK....Instead of nationalizing wobbly financial institutions, the Obama administration may be planning to set up a "bad bank" to buy up the toxic waste that's currently clogging up bank balance sheets. The problem, as usual, is valuation: buying up bad assets doesn't do any good unless you pay more than the current market price for them. After all, if $150 billion in junk is currently valued by the market at $15 billion, then the bank has a $135 billion loss on its books. Ouch. But if the feds buy it up at its market price, nothing has changed. The bank still has to book a $135 billion loss, and that loss makes it borderline insolvent and unable to loan out money.

Now, the argument the bank will give you is that the market has gone nuts: sure, mortgage defaults are up and that means mortgage-based assets have taken big losses. But "big" means maybe 30%, not 90%. Wait a few years for the panic to pass and heads to clear, and that junk will be worth $100 billion, not $15 million. That's its real value.

So if the feds are going to buy up this stuff, this story goes, they should do it at the higher price. That helps keep banks solvent, and taxpayers will get their money back down the road.

It's a nice theory. But Dean Baker says that if we're going to do this, taxpayers need more than a wink and a promise that they'll get back their investment. They need something with claws:

While the more obvious way to deal with the problem is to simply take over the bankrupt banks, and then put their junk in a bad bank, like with we did with the bankrupt thrifts in the 80s, there is a relatively easy way to limit the extent to which the bad bank is simply bank welfare.

We can just attach a clawback provision, under which the bank will be forced to make up any money that the bad bank loses on their junk, plus a penalty. For example, if Citibank sells $100 billion in junk, and the bad bank ends up selling it for $70 billion, then Citibank has to cover this $30 billion loss, plus a 20 percent penalty ($6 billion). This structure will both ensure that Citibank doesn't run off with our money and also discourage banks from trying to mislead the bad bank about the true value of their junk.

This is not as clean as nationalization, and technically speaking, I don't know how the clawback provision would show up on the bank's books. Expert opinion welcomed on this point. But if the Obama economics team wants to avoid nationalization — and I don't blame them for treating this as a last resort — this seems like the cleanest way to handle the asset side of the ledger.

Chart of the Day - 1.28.2009

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 1:52 PM EST

CHART OF THE DAY....Via Taegan Goddard, Gallup reports on tracking poll data from 2008. They conclude that there are only five solid Republican states — representing a grand total of 2% of the population — left in the entire country. Full report here. Heckuva job, GOP! Congratulations to Utah for topping the list.

*Overwhelming

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 1:25 PM EST

OVERWHELMING....Byron York reports from the trenches:

Just talked to a very clued-in Republican on the Hill. This person wouldn't predict a unanimous Republican vote against the Democratic stimulus package, but said there would be "minimal" GOP support of the bill. "I don't know if it will be unanimous, but Democrats are not going to have the kind of bipartisan support the president was trying to get," he told me. An "overwhelming" number of Republicans will vote no, he predicted.

That's pretty much what I expect too. And hey — I don't blame them, either. The job of the opposition is to oppose, and if this were some big Republican tax cut fest following a GOP victory I'd expect Democrats to oppose that overwhelmingly too.

I really don't think the opposition party owes the president any votes just because he won the election. They owe him votes if he convinces them that, on balance, one of his initiatives is a good thing for the country, or if they get some concession they want, or if they think it's political suicide to oppose him. In other words, the usual political reasons. Contrary to what our talking heads mindlessly recite after every election, honeymoons are for newlyweds, not presidents, and stuff needs to get done for four years out of four, not just for the first hundred days. It's long past time for the media to get over its preoccupation with both of these romantic notions.

Infrastructure Blues

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 12:49 PM EST

INFRASTRUCTURE BLUES....Some criticism of the stimulus bill from the left:

In testimony before the House Budget Committee yesterday, Alice M. Rivlin, who was President Bill Clinton's budget director, suggested splitting the plan, implementing its immediate stimulus components now and taking more time to plan the longer-term transformative spending to make sure it is done right.

"Such a long-term investment program should not be put together hastily and lumped in with the anti-recession package. The elements of the investment program must be carefully planned and will not create many jobs right away," said Rivlin, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. The risk, she said, is that "money will be wasted because the investment elements were not carefully crafted."

Ryan Avent echoes a similar concern:

Our infrastructure and energy policies need to be drastically overhauled. This is going to require careful forethought — and time. New initiatives in the stimulus might well complicate or undermine later attempts at reform. The simplest example is the highway versus transit debate; it's difficult to make headway on goals to reduce emissions and vehicle miles traveled while funding lots of new lane miles. Better to set up new guidelines for local, state, and regional planners, along with new funding streams and standards. But that can't be done in a month.

Actually, though, the spending on energy and infrastructure in the stimulus bill is fairly modest. This has earned it some criticism from various left-leaning quarters, but I guess my hope is that the reason there's so little infrastructure spending in the bill is precisely because Obama doesn't want to blindly fund a big range of "shovel ready" status quo building projects, but instead wants to think this stuff through and produce something better later in the year. We'll see.