Kevin Drum

Conservative Hysteria Watch

| Sun Dec. 7, 2008 3:59 PM EST

CONSERVATIVE HYSTERIA WATCH....Shorter George Will: If liberals were trying to do a bunch of things they aren't trying to do, they'd really suck. Next week: If Canadians launch an attack on North Dakota, they'd be real warmongers, wouldn't they?

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Late Boomers

| Sun Dec. 7, 2008 3:46 PM EST

LATE BOOMERS....In the Washington Post today, Neil Howe takes on one of my favorite hobbyhorses: The Kids These Days™. Are they really the dumbest generation ever? Howe says no: that honor belongs to my generation, those born between the late 50s and mid 60s:

On both the reading and the math tests, and at all three tested ages (9, 13 and 17), the lowest-ever scores in the history of the NAEP were recorded by children born between 1961 and 1965.

The same pattern shows up in SAT scores....It fell steeply for 17 straight years, hitting its all-time low in 1980, when it tested the 1963 cohort

....According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans born from 1958 to 1962 have the highest share that has never completed high school among all age brackets between 25 and 60. They also have the lowest share with a four-year college degree among all age brackets between 30 and 60.

....Once early Xers entered the labor force in the 1980s, the Bureau of Labor Statistics noticed something else: For the first time in decades, the share of young adults entering professions such as law, medicine and accounting began to drop.

This isn't exactly conclusive evidence, mind you, but I don't think Howe is far off the truth. If I were giving out awards for the least educated, least motivated, and least engaged recent generation, mine would certainly be a top contender.

Friday Cat Blogging - 5 December 2008

| Fri Dec. 5, 2008 3:31 PM EST

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Last week, you'll remember, I told you that I bought a cat-shaped pod for my mother's new kittens, but when I got it home both of my cats immediately claimed it. So here they are. As you can see, it's mostly Domino who curls up in their latest new toy, but occasionally Inkblot eyes it covetously (the tenth commandment doesn't apply to cats). No fights yet, though.

In other news, Alex Massie insists that chicken-blogging will be the new sensation of 2009. Perhaps in socialist hellholes with national health services that will be true. But here in the land of the free? Please.

More Mortgage Woes

| Fri Dec. 5, 2008 3:01 PM EST

MORE MORTGAGE WOES....Unemployment rose in November by the highest amount since the first Arab oil embargo, and that's making the housing situation even worse:

A record one in 10 American homeowners with a mortgage were either at least a month behind on their payments or in foreclosure at the end of September...up from 9.2 percent in the April-June quarter, and up from 7.3 percent a year earlier.

Distress in the home loan market started about two years ago as increasing numbers of adjustable-rate loans reset to higher interest rates. But the latest wave of delinquencies is coming from the surge in unemployment.

This is why allowing Detroit to collapse would be such bad news. But we still need a decent plan to turn them into going concerns.

Bailing Out Detroit

| Fri Dec. 5, 2008 2:04 PM EST

BAILING OUT DETROIT....John Judis, feeling in a rantish mood this morning, wants to know why we're dragging our feet on rescuing the auto industry. If it fails, he says, it won't be like the semiconductor industry in the 80s after the Reagan administration restricted imports and subsidized new research:

The upshot was that the U.S. did lose out to Asia on low-cost semiconductors, but it retained its lead in the most advanced computer technology....That's not going to happen with automobiles and trucks. With them, it is not going to be possible to abandon manufacturing while retaining the ability to engineer and administer. The industry will disappear the way the American television industry disappeared. American workers and engineers will lose their ability to compete in a major durable goods industry — and that's not a good thing.

Other countries seem to understand this. French President Nicholas Sarkozy announced a $33 billion bailout package yesterday. France is not in as bad shape as the United States, but Sarkozy is worried about the French auto industry and is promising to protect it in exchange for a commitment from it to produce cars in France rather than to outsource the production of them.

Speaking for myself, I guess part of my problem is arguments like this one. Will the demise of the Big Three really decimate our design and engineering abilities? Was the loss of the television industry really that big a deal? Do we really want to follow the French lead of bailing out their perpetually ailing national champions year after year?

I guess I want to see a different argument. I don't mind spending the money that much — what's $34 billion between friends? especially during a world historic economic collapse? — but I want to hear a reasonably plausible explanation of how Detroit is going to become viable again in the face of a massive global oversupply of auto manufacturing capacity. Someone's car production is going to have to fall pretty steeply over the next few years, after all, and I want to hear a plan for how it's going to be Germany's or Korea's, not ours.

Even a great plan would only be an absolute minimum requirement, but at least it's a minimum requirement. If we're going to bail these guys out, there needs to be at least, say, a 25% chance that the restructuring plan will produce healthy, going concerns five years from now. I'm not sure I've seen that plan yet, and if being 30 days away from running out of cash isn't enough incentive for GM to produce one, just exactly what is it going to take?

Watching the Sky Fall

| Fri Dec. 5, 2008 1:20 PM EST

WATCHING THE SKY FALL....Michael Shnayerson writes in Vanity Fair this month about the nouveau poore on Wall Street:

One former Lehman executive in her 40s stood in her vast clothes closet not long ago, talking to her personal stylist. On shelves around her were at least 10 designer handbags that had cost her anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000 each.

"I don't know what to do," she said. "I guess I'll have to get rid of the maid."

Why not sell a few of those bags?, the stylist thought, but didn't say so.

"Well," the executive said after a moment, "I guess I'll cut her from five days a week to four."

There's good entertainment value here if you're looking for a few minutes of escape and fully justified schadenfreude from today's grim news.

On another note, it appears that one piece of fallout from the Wall Street collapse is that there are loads of huge penthouse suites available now at fire sale prices. Sadly, I won't be moving into one of them. Aside from being a wee bit short of the circa $10 million fire sale prices, when I mentioned this to Marian the other day she told me that she wouldn't want to live 50 stories up in the air anyway. What a drag. I think it would be great. But even if I scrape together the scratch, it looks like it will never happen. Another dream shattered.

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When His Lips Are Moving

| Fri Dec. 5, 2008 1:03 PM EST

WHEN HIS LIPS ARE MOVING....In a mere few months, Henry Kissinger has gone from lying about Barack Obama to sucking up to him. Helluva guy. And that's not unreliable lefty blogger me saying that Kissinger was lying, it's sober, mainstream Time reporter Karen Tumulty saying it. So don't fall for it, Mr. President-Elect.

Quote of the Day - 12.05.08

| Fri Dec. 5, 2008 12:38 PM EST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Matt Yglesias, on the argument that the collapse of Wall Street was a systemic problem, not a personal one:

If nothing the CEOs and top fund managers are doing makes them worthy of taking the blame when the crash hits, then they also don't deserve nearly the share of the credit — and money — that they got while things were going up.

Quite so. Street crime might be a systemic problem caused by drugs or poverty or whatnot, and that means that it makes sense to attack those root causes. But we still put muggers in jail while we're working on the other stuff.

Parking Meter Hell

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 7:07 PM EST

PARKING METER HELL....One of the favorite topics of the urbanist bloc in the liberal blogosphere is the bane of cheap parking. Their complaint is that by underpricing the scarce resource of parking, we encourage the overuse of cars and discourage drivers from switching to mass transit. This could be (partially) addressed by charging market rates for parking, but how do we get cities to do this?

Answer: do what Chicago is doing and turn over your parking meters to the rapacious private sector:

At most meters, where a single quarter now buys 60 minutes, the charge will spike to $1 per hour. And by 2013, it will cost $2 an hour to park at those same spaces.

The most expensive spots downtown will increase from $3 an hour to $6.50 the next five years under a lease deal Mayor Richard Daley announced Tuesday.

Despite the rate hikes, Daley hailed the parking meter plan as an innovative approach to surviving the city's deepening budget woes. A private company has agreed to give City Hall an upfront payment of almost $1.2 billion to run Chicago's parking meter system for the next 75 years.

75 years seems a wee bit excessive to me, and will almost certainly bite Daley in the ass when Morgan Stanley, which put together the winning consortium, packages up the parking meter revenue, securitizes it, rolls it into an asset-backed CPMO (collateralized parking meter obligation), puts the super-senior tranche into an off-balance-sheet vehicle, hedges the rest via a CDS-backed synthetic CDO, and then resells the whole thing within 12 months to a sovereign wealth fund in Dubai for $5 billion.

(I'm joking. I think. But not about the 75-year part, which really is ridiculous. Chicago should do a shorter term deal for less money and then let it out for new bids in a decade or so. They're almost certainly paying a hefty discount to account for the fact that Morgan Stanley has no real idea what this revenue stream will be worth 75 years from now.)

This all comes via Barbara Kiviat, and the urbanist folks should also check out this dude, who is seriously pissed off at Daley's evident hatred for Chicago drivers and provides chapter and verse of Daley's malefactions. He may be incensed, but the urbanists will find plenty to like.

Cap and Trade

| Thu Dec. 4, 2008 6:07 PM EST

CAP AND TRADE....During the campaign, Barack Obama committed himself to supporting a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions. It'll be tough getting that through Congress, though, so how about just ordering the EPA to put together a program on its own under the aegis of the Clean Air Act and skipping legislation entirely? David Roberts runs down the pros and cons over at Gristmill, but I want to skip immediately down to his last point:

Real disadvantage: public deliberation

One doesn't want to be sentimental, but there is something to the argument that shift of this significance should be discussed in public and shaped by the public's elected representatives. It would be nice, in an ideal world, if reasoned debate and discussion and interest-balancing yielded the perfect program.

But in this world, we're perilously late getting underway and Obama must weigh America's procedural ideals against what a wise man once called the "fierce urgency of now." Whatever it's other merits, the Clean Air Act is now.

I think this is more than just sentimental. Cap-and-trade is a very, very big program, and it just flatly shouldn't be implemented via executive fiat. We liberals are already fuming over George Bush's relatively minor last-minute executive orders, after all, and this would be the granddaddy of all executive orders. It deserves public debate, it deserves the permanence of congressional legislation, it deserves to be a genuinely national program (not a kludgy jumble of state initiatives, which is how it would have to work under CAA), and it deserves the chance to get genuine public support in the process. I've long thought that liberals tend to pay too little attention to public opinion, and this is a serious mistake since big, longlasting change never really happens without it. This is no exception. If we really believe in carbon reduction via cap and trade, we need to persuade the American public that it's a good idea. A cap-and-trade bill should be the kind of landmark legislation that our kids talk about, not a furtive agency rule slipped in quietly via the back door.

On a more practical note, I wonder if it would really be any faster doing it via the CAA anyway. Thanks to Bush's stonewalling, the rulemaking process for carbon regulation hasn't really even started yet, and that process doesn't happen overnight. I wouldn't be surprised if congressional legislation could actually happen faster than an EPA initiative.