Kevin Drum

The Golden Rule

| Mon Nov. 10, 2008 2:34 PM EST

THE GOLDEN RULE....Ross Douthat is skeptical that things are (yet) really that bad in the Republican Party:

Oh, the pundits will fight, as they have been for a while, but for a serious circular firing squad you need the activist groups to turn on one another. You might think that a defeat like the one the GOP endured last week would prompt Grover Norquist to argue that the Republican Party needs to ditch its warmongers and its theocrats, or prompt Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council to argue that the GOP needs to ditch its flat-tax obsessives, or prompt the Federalist Society's Leonard Leo to complain about all those anti-intellectual hicks who loved Sarah Palin. But in practice the incentives probably cut the other way: Nobody wants to fire the first shot against their fellow movementarians, because then everybody else might just close ranks and train their fire in your direction. So the social-conservative activist groups will stand by the economic-conservative activist groups, and so on, lest they all hang separately.

He's probably right, but that's because the single-issue activist groups mostly don't have any beef with each other. They're pretty much on board with the entire movement conservative agenda, and are convinced that they just need to make their case to the American people and everything will be fine again.

The business community, however, is both more practical and more ruthless than the activist groups. Richer, too, and at some point they're going to conclude that Something Must Be Done. They don't want Dems writing new regulations and taking away their offshore tax shelters and making unions more powerful, and if the activist groups are in the way of getting Republicans back in power — well, they're just going to have to be dealt with. If that means backing more moderate Republicans with huge fistfuls of cash, then that's what they'll do. If it means more direct threats, that's fine too. And if James Dobson and Grover Norquist get caught in the crossfire, that's unfortunate, but you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. It's nothing personal, guys. Just business.

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First Things First

| Mon Nov. 10, 2008 1:53 PM EST

FIRST THINGS FIRST....The first thing any new president does is to reverse his predecessor's rules on support for international family planning groups that receive U.S. aid. As part of this tradition, Obama will be rescinding Bush's regulation, which itself was a change from Clinton's policy, which in turn was a repudiation of the original rule put in place by Ronald Reagan. Starting January 20th, the mere mention of the word "abortion" will no longer make you ineligible for American aid.

But that's not all. The Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal all ran stories over the weekend about the hundreds of other Bush-era executive orders Obama plans to overturn as soon as he's in office, and John Podesta was on TV Sunday morning saying the same thing, which means that this is pretty obviously something the Obama team is eager for the world to hear about.

So what's on tap? Changes to federal funding rules for stem cell research (which makes California's stem cell initiative from a couple of years ago redundant — thanks, initiative process!), some drilling decisions near national parks, and several other things. The most interesting one, however, is probably this:

The president-elect has said, for example, that he intends to quickly reverse the Bush administration's decision last December to deny California the authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles. "Effectively tackling global warming demands bold and innovative solutions, and given the failure of this administration to act, California should be allowed to pioneer," Obama said in January.

California had sought permission from the Environmental Protection Agency to require that greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles be cut by 30 percent between 2009 and 2016, effectively mandating that cars achieve a fuel economy standard of at least 36 miles per gallon within eight years. Seventeen other states had promised to adopt California's rules, representing in total 45 percent of the nation's automobile market. Environmentalists cheered the California initiative because it would stoke innovation that would potentially benefit the entire country.

....Before the election, Obama told others that he favors declaring that carbon dioxide emissions are endangering human welfare, following an EPA task force recommendation last December that Bush and his aides shunned in order to protect the utility and auto industries.

This, along with an EPA that decided to obey the law and classify carbon dioxide as a pollutant, could have extremely far-reaching effects. Pair them up with something close to the energy policy that Obama campaigned on and it would finally send a message to the world that the United States is no longer in denial about global warming.

And not a moment too soon. Julia Whitty explains why here.

Mahdi Army Update

| Mon Nov. 10, 2008 1:30 PM EST

MAHDI ARMY UPDATE....Ned Parker of the LA Times reports that Muqtada al-Sadr has fallen on hard times:

In a telling measure of the militia's power, the U.S. military credits Sadr's decision more than a year ago to call a cease-fire as one of the chief reasons for the sharp drop in violence in Iraq.

But Sadr's fortunes have also plummeted, and his followers now contemplate a world where they are on the run and their Shiite rivals have the upper hand.

....Sadr's troubles are rooted in the fighting between his militia and Iraqi security forces that erupted in March after Prime Minister Nouri Maliki ordered the army to clear the militia's strongholds in the southern city of Basra. The clashes there ended only when Sadr commanded his militia to stand down, and then did the same in Sadr City six weeks later.

....With his armed wing formally frozen, Sadr looked to repair his movement's image. He announced in June that his fighters should form a new social and religious education organization, named Mumahidoon, which aims to teach Iraqis about Islam.

...."To avoid having his organization continually targeted, he had to do something with them, so he followed the Islamic Brotherhood and Hezbollah model," a U.S. military intelligence officer said, referring to other Islamist movements that provide charitable services and enjoy popularity in the Arab world.

At the time, I was skeptical that the Basra operation was a big win for Maliki, but obviously I was pretty spectacularly wrong about that. It's still not clear to me exactly what happened in Basra — did Sadr get beaten? did he sincerely decide that the violence had gotten out of hand? did he take direction from Iran? — but there's not much question that the eventual result was an enormous drop in influence for Sadr and a victory for Maliki and his Badr Organization allies.

In any case, read the whole thing if you're interested in the current lay of the land in Sadr City. It's certainly possible that Sadr could someday Hezbollah-ize his operation and end up more influential than ever, but in the meantime the cease-fire looks like a pretty permanent decision.

Obama and FDR

| Mon Nov. 10, 2008 12:26 PM EST

OBAMA AND FDR....Paul Krugman writes today about the New Deal and the American economy:

Now, there's a whole intellectual industry, mainly operating out of right-wing think tanks, devoted to propagating the idea that F.D.R. actually made the Depression worse. So it's important to know that most of what you hear along those lines is based on deliberate misrepresentation of the facts. The New Deal brought real relief to most Americans.

That said, F.D.R. did not, in fact, manage to engineer a full economic recovery during his first two terms. This failure is often cited as evidence against Keynesian economics, which says that increased public spending can get a stalled economy moving. But the definitive study of fiscal policy in the '30s, by the M.I.T. economist E. Cary Brown, reached a very different conclusion: fiscal stimulus was unsuccessful "not because it does not work, but because it was not tried."

....F.D.R. wasn't just reluctant to pursue an all-out fiscal expansion — he was eager to return to conservative budget principles. That eagerness almost destroyed his legacy....What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy's needs.

I'm curious about something. I've read a number of conservatives recently taking liberals to task for thinking that the New Deal fixed the Great Depression. Some of them are the folks Krugman talks about, who like to pretend that the New Deal made things worse, but others are more moderate, insisting only that liberals stubbornly overestimate the macroeconomic impact of FDR's policies.

But here's the thing. I'm a liberal and I grew up (academically speaking) in the 70s and 80s. I wasn't an economics major or a history major, so everything I learned about FDR and the Great Depression came from a bog standard layman's viewpoint. And the conventional wisdom I learned (apparently based on Cary Brown's 1956 work, though I didn't know that at the time) was that although the New Deal was a fine thing that helped a lot of people etc. etc., it didn't get us out of the Great Depression because, in the end, FDR wasn't a Keynesian and the New Deal just didn't provide enough economic stimulus. What got us out of the Great Depression was World War II.

In other words, exactly what Krugman says. But if that's how I learned this stuff 30 years ago, it's not exactly a big secret, is it? Surely most liberals do, in fact, know this?

I'm also curious about why conservatives are so enamored with this argument in the first place. After all, the conclusion one draws from it is that the New Deal wasn't big enough. Hoover shouldn't have raised taxes, Roosevelt should have spent even more, and deficits should have been even bigger. I can see how they'd like the tax part, but do they really want to convince everyone that the New Deal was too timid? Doesn't that make the argument for an enormous stimulus to address our current mini-depression all the more forceful?

Section 382

| Mon Nov. 10, 2008 2:24 AM EST

SECTION 382....Today, Amit Paley of the Washington Post tells us the riveting story of Section 382 of the tax code, which the Treasury Department suddenly gutted (via a five-sentence notice) a few weeks ago while the rest of us were wrapped up in the drama of the bailout bill:

The change to Section 382 of the tax code — a provision that limited a kind of tax shelter arising in corporate mergers — came after a two-decade effort by conservative economists and Republican administration officials to eliminate or overhaul the law, which is so little-known that even influential tax experts sometimes draw a blank at its mention. Until the financial meltdown, its opponents thought it would be nearly impossible to revamp the section because this would look like a corporate giveaway, according to lobbyists.

The reason it looks like a corporate giveaway, apparently, is that it is a corporate giveaway — and it's going to cost the taxpayers something north of $100 billion. Plus, the notice was probably illegal. But no one wants to complain about it because it might put some big bank mergers in jeopardy:

"It was a shock to most of the tax law community. It was one of those things where it pops up on your screen and your jaw drops," said Candace A. Ridgway, a partner at Jones Day, a law firm that represents banks that could benefit from the notice. "I've been in tax law for 20 years, and I've never seen anything like this."

More than a dozen tax lawyers interviewed for this story — including several representing banks that stand to reap billions from the change — said the Treasury had no authority to issue the notice.

....Several [congressional] aides said they were still torn between their belief that the change is illegal and fear of further destabilizing the economy.

"None of us wants to be blamed for ruining these mergers and creating a new Great Depression," one said.

Some legal experts said these under-the-radar objections mirror the objections to the congressional resolution authorizing the war in Iraq.

"It's just like after September 11. Back then no one wanted to be seen as not patriotic, and now no one wants to be seen as not doing all they can to save the financial system," said Lee A. Sheppard, a tax attorney who is a contributing editor at the trade publication Tax Analysts. "We're left now with congressional Democrats that have spines like overcooked spaghetti. So who is going to stop the Treasury secretary from doing whatever he wants?"

I guess some things never change. On either side.

Ed Secretary Lotto

| Mon Nov. 10, 2008 1:52 AM EST

ED SECRETARY LOTTO....When most of us think about the Department of Education, we think of No Child Left Behind and its effect on K-12 schools. But Steven Teles says that much of DoE's responsibility is actually in higher education, and that means Barack Obama ought to pick a Secretary of Education who knows higher education issues intimately. He's got just the guy:

If the US is to maintain its status as a great power in this century, there is simply no question that we need to get more of our students into math, science and engineering. Despite programs throughout the federal government, fewer students today receive undergraduate degrees in math, science and engineering than they did forty years ago. The Secretary of Education needs to be familiar with the problem and have a high degree of sophistication about strategies for remedying it.

....There may be a number of people who fit these criteria, but at least one person I can think of is Freeman Hrabowski, the president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Hrabowski has been president of the university for fifteen years, in which he dramatically increased the quality and reputation of the school — and turned down offers to be the president of much more prestigious institutions. He's been especially successful in producing African-American students who go on to receive advanced degrees in the sciences, and he has published two books on the subject (separating out the issues by gender). He is a really effective communicator, and he has a great story to tell — he's a black man from Alabama who marched for civil rights as a small child, and got a PhD at the age of 24. His life embodies the slogan of educational reformers, which is that education is the civil rights issue of our time.

Sounds like a name the transition team ought to be thinking about. He wouldn't even have to move very far.

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Infrastructure and Carbon

| Mon Nov. 10, 2008 1:26 AM EST

INFRASTRUCTURE AND CARBON....Robert Reich says the best way to stimulate the economy is through massive spending on infrastructure:

So the crucial questions become (1) how much will the government have to spend to get the economy back on track? and (2) what sort of spending will have the biggest impact on jobs and incomes?

The answer to the first question is "a lot."....The answer to the second question is mostly "infrastructure" — repairing roads and bridges, levees and ports; investing in light rail, electrical grids, new sources of energy, more energy conservation. Even conservative economists like Harvard's Martin Feldstein are calling for government to stimulate the economy through infrastructure spending. Infrastructure projects like these pack a double-whammy: they create lots of jobs, and they make the economy work better in the future.

This is actually something that conservatives should be relatively happy with. Entitlement programs never go away once they're enacted, but infrastructure projects do. Spending a trillion dollars on bridges and electrical grids may be a lot of money, but it's a well-defined lot of money that isn't likely to continue indefinitely. What's more, conservatives aren't actually opposed to bridges and electrical grids on principle, so from their perspective the money is also being pretty well spent. (Or at least, not too badly spent.) All in all, it should get a fair amount of support.

Here's another way to make it even better. One of the problems with running a big deficit is that we want it to be temporary. Infrastructure helps with the spending side of that, since it's not likely to go on forever. But how about on the revenue side?

A pretty good answer might be found in Barack Obama's energy plan, which includes a cap-and-trade proposal to reduce carbon emissions. One of the details of his plan is that it includes full auction of carbon permits, with the revenue from the auction going to the federal government. But that money won't start rolling in immediately. If a cap-and-trade plan were passed in 2009, it would probably take effect in 2012 or so, and the revenue stream would start small the next year and then grow every year after that. That's perfect timing. We don't want to raise taxes right now, but a program that guaranteed a growing revenue stream starting a few years from now would help convince investors that the current budget deficit won't last forever.

That's not the main reason to pass a cap-and-trade bill, of course. The main reason is to start reducing carbon emissions. But an infrastructure program that makes the country more productive in the future but automatically winds down, combined with a revenue program that automatically winds up in the out years, is a pretty fiscally conservative plan. That doesn't mean conservatives will support it, of course, but they should.

The Maldives Swap

| Mon Nov. 10, 2008 12:59 AM EST

THE MALDIVES SWAP....The Maldives — average elevation: 150 cm above sea level — wants to buy some land in another country as an insurance policy against global warming:

[Newly elected president Mohamed Nasheed] said Sri Lanka and India were targets because they had similar cultures, cuisines and climates. Australia was also being considered because of the amount of unoccupied land available.

"We do not want to leave the Maldives, but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades," he said.

Instead of setting up a sovereign wealth fund to purchase the land, perhaps Nasheed should just buy a credit default swap that pays off if the Maldives are inundated. Since Republicans don't believe that global warming exists, they should be eager buyers for the other end of the swap.

The Gender Gap

| Sun Nov. 9, 2008 6:38 PM EST

THE GENDER GAP....Ruth Rosen writes today that women "sealed the deal" for Obama:

For the last two years, I've been writing and telling anyone who would listen that American women could elect the next president, if only they voted.

Well, this time they did, and there is no doubt that women were a decisive factor in the election of Barack Obama.

....Just take a serious look at the numbers. As the data in the Week in Review in the New York Times reveals, women constituted 53% of the electorate, while only 47% of men voted. Among those who voted for Obama, 56% were women and 43% were men. Among unmarried women, a whopping 70% voted for Obama.

Is this true? Remember, Obama's overall national swing was 9 percentage points compared to John Kerry in 2004. So women only made an outsize difference if they swung by substantially more than 9 points.

But they didn't. The swing among women was 10 points. That's actually smaller than the swing among men, who switched to Obama by 12 points. There's some slop in these numbers thanks to sampling error and so forth, but it's unlikely that women played an unusually large role in this election. The gender gap this year was pretty much the same as it was four years ago.

On the other hand, it is true that unmarried women swung hard for Obama. Kerry carried this group by 25 points in 2004, while Obama carried them by 41 points this year. That's a swing of 16 points, nearly double the national trend. I don't know exactly what it was about his character or his policies that did it, but there's certainly a story of some kind there.

The Problem with Sarah

| Sun Nov. 9, 2008 3:17 PM EST

THE PROBLEM WITH SARAH....James Joyner explains why he soured on Sarah Palin even if she probably does know that Africa is a continent:

Bill's right that it's inconceivable that she got elected and re-elected to so many offices over the years, culminating with a state governorship, by being an airhead....I saw little evidence, though, that she's very interested in foreign policy or most issues of American domestic policy. That doesn't make her a bad person — she's in the same boat as most Americans on that score — but it made her a bad choice for the vice presidency.

This is what Palinophiles — and, to be fair, some Palinophobes too — don't seem to get. Palin's problem isn't that she's a social conservative, or that she's an airhead, or that she's inexperienced. Her big problem is that prior to August 29, 2008, she quite plainly didn't have the slightest interest in national or international policy issues of any sort. And no matter how much prepping she gets over the next four years, no matter how much better she gets at dealing with the press, no matter how much she does or doesn't smooth off the rough edges of her social views, conservatives have to ask themselves this question: do we really want our standard bearer to be someone who didn't become seriously interested in either domestic policy or foreign affairs until the age of 44? What does that say about how seriously we ourselves take this stuff?

In the end, I don't imagine many of them will ask that question. But they should.

UPDATE: Well, Mark Lilla is asking, at least. In the Wall Street Journal this weekend he wonders how conservative intellectuals could "promote a candidate like Sarah Palin, whose ignorance, provinciality and populist demagoguery represent everything older conservative thinkers once stood against?" It all began in the 80s, he says, when the same conservative intellectuals who had powered the movement for three decades decided to throw in their lot with know-nothingism:

Over the next 25 years there grew up a new generation of conservative writers who cultivated none of their elders' intellectual virtues — indeed, who saw themselves as counter-intellectuals. Most are well-educated and many have attended Ivy League universities; in fact, one of the masterminds of the Palin nomination was once a Harvard professor. But their function within the conservative movement is no longer to educate and ennoble a populist political tendency, it is to defend that tendency against the supposedly monolithic and uniformly hostile educated classes. They mock the advice of Nobel Prize-winning economists and praise the financial acumen of plumbers and builders. They ridicule ambassadors and diplomats while promoting jingoistic journalists who have never lived abroad and speak no foreign languages. And with the rise of shock radio and television, they have found a large, popular audience that eagerly absorbs their contempt for intellectual elites. They hoped to shape that audience, but the truth is that their audience has now shaped them.

For a movement that decided long ago that slogans and shibboleths mattered while serious policy discourse was merely a distraction, a candidate who showed no interest in domestic policy before the age of 44 is the perfect public face. But is that really the face they want to adopt permanently?