Kevin Drum

Zero-Based Budgeting

| Fri Mar. 27, 2009 2:17 PM EDT
I didn't post about this when it happened, but yesterday the Republican brain trust in the House decided to show their seriousness about cutting the deficit by publishing a "budget" that contained no actual numbers.  The press mostly thought it was pretty comical, and today Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan tried to pretend that they had nothing to do with this project and were only bullied into supporting it.  Matt Yglesias isn't buying:

Reps Ryan and Cantor saw that the press was reacting poorly to the Boehner/Pence flim-flam “budget” and decided to throw their colleagues under the bus. And, frankly, I’m not surprised that Ryan and Cantor were surprised. I was surprised, too. I’ve never really seen political reporters get outraged before about the fact that a policy document makes no sense in the past. It was a curious outbreak of substance among the press corps that I don’t think was particularly foreseeable.

I guess that's a fair point: it is a little unusual for the press to call BS for what it is.  At the same time, it's also worth noting just how invisible this whole exercise was.  It got lots of mockery in the blogosphere, and it also showed up on political shows like Maddow and Olbermann, but aside from that it wasn't so much ridiculed as ignored.  If you get your news from the New York Times or NPR or Katie Couric, you'd barely even know this had happened, let alone that everyone thought it was ridiculous.

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Global Capital Flows

| Fri Mar. 27, 2009 1:21 PM EDT
That's an exciting headline, isn't it?  But it's important.  One of the key bits of financial deregulation over the past three decades has been the dismantling of capital controls, allowing vast tidal waves of money to flow between borders without hindrance.  In general, this has been a plus: nobody in Britain wants to go back to the days of sleeping on continental friends' couches because they weren't allowed to take more than 50 pounds out of the country. On the other hand, the Asian currency crises of the late 90s were largely due to unsustainable amounts of unregulated foreign capital suddenly flowing into the region (and then just as suddenly stopping), and the current banking crisis in the U.S. is at least partly due to an overreaction to the Asian crisis.  For the past decade all that Asian money has been flowing into the U.S. instead, and a tsunami of cheap money was one of the factors that caused the credit and housing bubble of the past few years.  Megan McArdle examines her free trade beliefs on this score:

[This suggests] that global capital flows may be way more problematic than I have historically been willing to credit.  I don't want to blame all bubbles on foreign money.  But foreign money has two unpleasant characteristics:  there is so much of it that it can relatively easily swamp a nation's productive capacity, and it is relatively uninformed about the local market.

I'm not sure where that leaves me.  The capital controls of the mid-twentieth century were even worse, especially for emerging markets, where they became both focal points for, and sources of, massive corruption.  And one of the reasons America today is such a massively successful economy is that foreign money funded our industrialization.  Bubbles may simply be an inescapable side effect.  But perhaps it's time to rethink a commitment to global capital liberalization.

I'm not sure where it leaves me, either, especially since this has been an active subject of conversation for a decade already and hasn't produced anything even close to a consensus.  But this does seem like the kind of topic that lends itself to my "sand in the gears" theory: we don't need to reinstate capital controls, we just need to slow down the flow of global capital ever so slightly.  Even a tiny tax on foreign capital flows could have a significant impact.  Ideas welcome on this score.

Benchmarks, Again

| Fri Mar. 27, 2009 12:34 PM EDT
The New York Times reports on Obama's plan to get serious in Afghanistan:

President Obama plans to further bolster American forces in Afghanistan and for the first time set benchmarks for progress in fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban there and in Pakistan, officials said Thursday.

....Although the administration is still developing the specific benchmarks for Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials said they would be the most explicit demands ever presented to the governments in Kabul and Islamabad....American officials have repeatedly said that Afghanistan has to make more progress in fighting corruption, curbing the drug trade and sharing power with the regions, while they have insisted that Pakistan do more to cut ties between parts of its government and the Taliban. Mr. Obama telephoned President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan on Thursday to share the main elements of the strategic review.

I was a big proponent of setting benchmarks and milestones in Iraq, so I can hardly complain about this without grossly contradicting my past instincts.  But I guess you can just call me Walt Whitman this morning, because at a gut level something about this whole plan makes my blood run cold.  It's so McNamara-ish I can practically see him making the announcement in my mind's eye.

On a less purely emotional level, the key thing here is how Obama plans to make these benchmarks credible.  The problem with benchmarks in a war like this has always been the unlikelihood that an American president will withdraw troops without at least pretending to have achieved victory.  I mean, how do you do it?  Withdrawing support piecemeal because specific benchmarks in specific regions haven't been met makes no sense tactically, but stepping up to the press room podium one day and announcing, "We're losing, so we're pulling out" is political suicide, and everyone knows it.

In related Afghanistan news, David Brooks becomes about the millionth person to kinda sorta change his mind about one of our overseas quagmires after visiting in person and getting six days of full-court press treatment from the folks on the ground.  The arc of his column was so predictable I practically could have written it myself.

For something different, check out Sarah Chayes, an aid worker in Kandahar province.  She admits that things are going badly, but guess what?  That's a reason to double down too.  "The answer is not to lower the bar but to raise it. What is needed is some of that patented Obama 'Yes, we can!' energy."  Sigh.

OK, fine: I'm in a sour mood this morning.  Just consider this a vent.  But I can't say that anything I've read or heard makes me more optimistic about Afghanistan today than I was yesterday.  I sure as hell hope that Obama knows what he's doing.

Insert Headline Here

| Fri Mar. 27, 2009 12:00 PM EDT
Speaking of the LA Times, check this out.  Jeebus.  You kinda hate to kick someone when they're down, but they still have a few editors left on the copy desk, don't they?

Fuel Inefficiency

| Fri Mar. 27, 2009 11:47 AM EDT
Here's an interesting AP dispatch on page A18 of my morning LA Times:

The Obama administration plans to raise fuel efficiency standards by two miles per gallon to a 27.3 average mpg for new cars and trucks in the 2011 model year, marking the first increase in passenger car standards in more than two decades.

Under the changes, which are slightly less stringent than those proposed by the George W. Bush administration, new passenger cars will need to meet 30.2 mpg for the 2011 model year; and pickup trucks, SUVs and minivans will need to reach 24.1 mpg....The Bush administration had proposed regulations last year that would have raised the standards to a combined 27.8 mpg in 2011, requiring passenger cars to meet 31.2 mpg and light trucks to hit 25 mpg that year.

I know that 2011 is only a couple of years away, so nobody expects anything dramatic by then on the auto mileage scene.  But did we really all vote for Obama so that he could set efficiency standards less stringent than George Bush's?

Big Banks, Big Banking Industry

| Fri Mar. 27, 2009 1:49 AM EDT
Simon Johnson writes that he's seen a lot of bank crises during his years at the IMF, and eventually problems with the banking sector always roll downhill onto the rest of the economy.  Unsurprisingly, the same thing has happened here:

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests — financiers, in the case of the U.S. — played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

Top investment bankers and government officials like to lay the blame for the current crisis on the lowering of U.S. interest rates after the dotcom bust or, even better — in a “buck stops somewhere else” sort of way — on the flow of savings out of China. Some on the right like to complain about Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or even about longer-standing efforts to promote broader homeownership. And, of course, it is axiomatic to everyone that the regulators responsible for “safety and soundness” were fast asleep at the wheel.

But these various policies — lightweight regulation, cheap money, the unwritten Chinese-American economic alliance, the promotion of homeownership — had something in common. Even though some are traditionally associated with Democrats and some with Republicans, they all benefited the financial sector. Policy changes that might have forestalled the crisis but would have limited the financial sector’s profits — such as Brooksley Born’s now-famous attempts to regulate credit-default swaps at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, in 1998 — were ignored or swept aside.

Johnson's solution is twofold: nationalize the bad banks and then carve them up into a bunch of small banks so they can never harm us again.  I have my doubts.  Not about nationalization, which I suspect is inevitable, but about the size of individual banks being at the root of our problem.  As Johnson himself suggests, banks would have to get pretty damn small — smaller than Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns were — before their failure could be tolerated, and I'm just not sure we live in a world where that's practical.

After World War II we eventually rejected the Morgenthau plan to deindustrialize Germany, deciding (wisely, I think) that industrialization per se wasn't the cause of the conflict.  Likewise, I think crude bank size is a red herring for our current financial collapse.  Small banks can become overleveraged just as easily as big ones, hedge funds pay higher salaries than Wall Street behemoths, the interconnectedness of the global financial sector is a bigger cause of systemic worries than size alone, and credit expansions spiral out of control largely due to lack of political will, not because Citigroup is large and clumsy.  Those are the things we should be focused on.

Now, Johnson makes the fair point that the kind of systemic regulation I prefer is impossible to put in place because big banks have so much lobbying power that they can prevent it.  But again, I don't think it's big banks that produce this kind of power, it's a big banking industry.  If we can somehow shrink the overall size and profitability of the industry, their lobbying power will shrink too.  And if we limit their leverage, limit systemic credit expansion, and force more sunlight into Wall Street's trading activity, there's a pretty good chance we can do that.

It won't be easy, of course.  As Johnson says, the finance industry still has enormous sway in Washington and will fight tooth and nail to keep their toys from being taken away.  But hell — if we can't do it now, of all times, then what chance do we have of permanently slashing the size of big banks either?  Not much.  So since it's going to be a fight either way, why not attack the roots instead of the branches?

POSTSCRIPT: Just in case it's not clear, Johnson's article is terrific reading, well worth a few minutes of your time.  I happen to disagree with his technical approach to reducing the size and power of the finance sector, but his description of the problem is top notch.

Plus, of course, he might be right and I might be wrong.  So go read it.

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Electric Cars

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 3:24 PM EDT
For a long time my favorite electric car has been the Aptera, a teardrop-shaped three-wheeled affair that looks like it came straight out of the Jetsons.  Unfortunately, Marian would probably never set foot in one.  Plus it's expensive.  So I'll probably never get one.

But here's an interesting thing: one of the bonuses of the Aptera's design is that since it has three wheels, it counts as a motorcycle, which means you can use it in carpool lanes.  Hooray!  Unfortunately for the Aptera folks, since their car has three wheels it counts as a motorcycle, which means they don't qualify for federal loans for ultra-efficient vehicles.  Boo!  Over on our main site, Steve Aquino and Nick Baumann "investigate."  Video is included.

Listening to the Talking Heads

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 2:17 PM EDT
Today Nick Kristof hauls out the columnist's favorite evergreen subject for a slow day: Philip Tetlock, the Berkeley professor who famously found that expert predictions weren't much better than throwing darts.

Indeed, the only consistent predictor was fame — and it was an inverse relationship. [The worst performance came from] experts who provided strong, coherent points of view, who saw things in blacks and whites. People who shouted

....Mr. Tetlock called experts such as these the “hedgehogs,” after a famous distinction by the late Sir Isaiah Berlin (my favorite philosopher) between hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning, strong convictions; foxes are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance. And it turns out that while foxes don’t give great sound-bites, they are far more likely to get things right.

This was the distinction that mattered most among the forecasters, not whether they had expertise. Over all, the foxes did significantly better, both in areas they knew well and in areas they didn’t.

I don't have any actual data to back this up — which, ironically, might make this a hedgehog-ish thing to say — but my experience suggests that a key difference between the two types is respect for history and broad trends.  That is, Tetlock's foxes understand that if you want to know what's going to happen in the future, you should pay attention to what's happened before.  If simpleminded data says there's a housing bubble, there's probably a housing bubble.  If foreign occupations usually turn into guerrilla wars, then your occupation is probably going to turn into a guerrilla war.  If tax cuts usually reduce government revenues, then your tax cut will probably reduce government revenues.

The problem is that most people don't find this kind of thinking at all persuasive.  If somebody gets on TV back in 2005 and explains in detail why this time it's different and high housing prices are completely sustainable, it all sounds vaguely plausible.  The skeptics don't believe it, but they don't have fancy arguments.  They just point to a chart and say that the numbers look really high by historical standards, and whenever that's happened in the past there's been a crash.  So there's probably going to be a crash this time too.  And they're duly ignored.

Details are important for operational planning, but they mostly just blur things at a broader level.  Even in my own areas of expertise, I've usually found that to be true: if the broad trends point in a particular direction, odds are that's what's going to happen.

"This time it's different" is probably the most dangerous phrase in the world.  It's especially dangerous because every once in a while it's true.  But not often.

As for Tetlock, I've read so many columns about him that I guess I really ought to read his book.  Too bad it's not available for the Kindle.  Princeton University Press needs to get on the stick.

Chart of the Day - 2.26.2009

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 1:32 PM EDT
From Brad Setser, who notes that "much of the expansion of global trade over the last decade...rested on a weak foundation."  In particular, countries like China and Japan and Germany exported too much and countries like the United States and Great Britain consumed too much.  Since this needs to change in the long term, you'd like to see the surplus countries running bigger stimulus programs than the deficit countries, but that's not what's happening:

Big external deficit countries like the US and the UK are going to run fiscal deficits of between 8 and 10% of their GDPs, while the deficit in surplus countries like China and Germany remains between 3 and 4% of their GDPs.

....All in all, fiscal policy clearly is being used to support global growth, as it should be. The fall in exports globally in February leaves no doubt that there is an enormous shortfall of demand, relative to the world’s capacity to produce. But the global decomposition of the stimulus doesn’t suggest that it will do much to support “rebalancing.” The surplus counties generally aren’t leading the stimulus league tables.

Something more for Obama and Geithner to talk about at the upcoming G20 meeting.

The Geithner Put

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 12:55 PM EDT
Tim Geithner's toxic waste plan allows investors who want to bid on distressed assets to use Treasury matching funds plus FDIC non-recourse loans to lever up their investments.  The combined leverage is about 12:1, so a hedge fund that wants to buy $100 worth of toxic assets would end up investing about $7 of its own money.  What's more, since the FDIC loan is non-recourse, it means that if the investment goes bad the hedge fund doesn't have to pay back the loan.  It only loses its original $7.

For investors, this is a great deal.  If the investment does well, they make lots of money.  If it tanks, they can only lose $7.  The upshot is that they can afford to bid more than they normally would since their losses are capped.  But how much more?

Estimate 1 comes from Paul Krugman, who suggests they'll overvalue the assets by about 30%. Estimate 2 comes from Nemo, who suggests it could be as high as 68%.  Estimate 3 comes from Rortybomb, who figures something on the order of 20% or so.  Estimate 4 comes from Wagster, who thinks that in real life the assets will be overvalued by less than 10%.

So who's right?  Beats me.  To be honest, I don't even completely understand the four posts I just linked to.  But it's a pretty important question that some financial engineering types should spend some more time on.  If, in the end, the toxic waste gets overvalued by 10% or less, that's not too big a deal.  If it's overvalued by 50%, it's a disaster.  Not only will taxpayers likely lose a lot of money, but no one outside the auction will have any faith in the prices.  And since price discovery is one of the goals of Geithner's plan, lack of faith would be disturbing indeed.

Anyway, I just thought I'd toss this out to stimulate discussion.  I can't really participate since I don't have the financial engineering background to have an opinion, but plenty of other people do.  Let's hear from them.