Kevin Drum

Paying the Piper

| Fri Oct. 10, 2008 12:36 PM EDT

PAYING THE PIPER....Matt Yglesias says, sure, people were using their homes as ATM machines during the housing bubble, but it's not as if our political leaders were raising any red flags about it at the time. In fact, just the opposite:

Meanwhile, the broad conservative movement spent a lot of time trying to shout down anyone who worried about rising inequality or stagnant wages by pointing out that the trends looked better if you only examined consumption. In other words, if you ignored the fact that people were maintaining consumption growth by piling on more debt, things looked great! And yet, now somehow things don't look so great....

Obviously, the mere fact that conservative politicians, hacks, and operatives were egging this trend on didn't force anyone to accumulate enormous debts. Plenty of people didn't do so. But the underlying ill here is economic policies that sought to substitute an asset price bubble and innovative credit products for real, broadly-based prosperity.

This deserves a much longer treatment, which I'm not going to attempt right now either. But someone ought to. We usually argue about rising income inequality in moral terms, but there's a practical side to it too: when all the economic growth a country produces goes to a very small class of rich people, stupid things happen. The rich can't possibly consume enough to spend all this money, so they start casting around for something, anything, to do with all the cash they have sloshing around. And since, in an ever more unequal economy that nonetheless preaches ever rising living standards, the poor need payday loans to keep up and the stagnating middle class needs HELOCs, that's where their money goes. It still gets spent, eventually, on things like cars and food and new furniture, because that's what middle class people mostly spend their money on, but instead of being spent directly by people who are earning it, it gets funneled downward to them via increased debt and financial legerdemain that extracts more and more money upward from poor to rich with each cycle.

That's not sustainable. Median income growth produces not just growth, but stable growth for everyone, the rich included. Top end growth, almost by definition, produces unstable, unsustainable growth. Modern economies are driven by consumer spending, and if you want consumer spending to increase consistently you have to increase consumer income. All the financial wizardry in the world will never change that.

Social justice aside, that's why the single most important financial statistic for any modern economy is real median income growth. If you have it, you're in pretty good shape no matter what else is going on. If you don't, you're a banana republic. Guess which one we've become?

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Joe Sixpack

| Fri Oct. 10, 2008 11:38 AM EDT

JOE SIXPACK....David Brooks has a good column today:

Over the past few decades, the Republican Party has driven away people who live in cities, in highly educated regions and on the coasts. This expulsion has had many causes. But the big one is this: Republican political tacticians decided to mobilize their coalition with a form of social class warfare....What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole.

....[Sarah] Palin is smart, politically skilled, courageous and likable. Her convention and debate performances were impressive. But no American politician plays the class-warfare card as constantly as Palin. Nobody so relentlessly divides the world between the "normal Joe Sixpack American" and the coastal elite.

Sure, it would have been nice if Brooks had noticed this a little earlier. And it's not the hardest hitting column on the subject of culture war politics we've ever seen. Still, this stuff isn't easy to write about your own side. It's a pretty decent piece.

Yet More Troopergate

| Fri Oct. 10, 2008 1:52 AM EDT

YET MORE TROOPERGATE....While we're waiting for the Alaska legislature's official report on Troopergate, the New York Times offers the results of its own investigation:

In all, the [public safety] commissioner and his aides were contacted about Trooper Wooten three dozen times over 19 months by the governor, her husband and seven administration officials, interviews and documents show.

.... On Jan. 4, 2007, a month into the Palin administration and his tenure as public safety commissioner, Mr. Monegan went to the governor's Anchorage office to talk with Todd Palin, who had requested the meeting. Mr. Palin was seated at a conference table with three stacks of personnel files. That, Mr. Monegan recalled, was the first time he heard the name Mike Wooten.

"He conveyed to me," Mr. Monegan said, "that he and Sarah did not think the investigation into Wooten had been done well enough and that they were not happy with the punishment. Todd was clearly frustrated."

....Several evenings later, Mr. Monegan's cellphone rang. "Walt, it's Sarah," the governor said before echoing much of what her husband had said. Trooper Wooten, he recalls being told, was "not the kind of person we should want as a trooper." He told the governor, too, that there was no new evidence to pursue.

Soon after that, Mr. Palin and several aides began pressing the public safety agency to investigate another matter: whether Trooper Wooten was fraudulently collecting workers' compensation for a back injury he said he had suffered while helping carry a body bag.

Mr. Palin's evidence: He told Ms. Peterson, the commissioner's assistant, that he had seen the trooper riding a snowmobile while on medical leave and that he had photographs to prove it.

The Palin family really had the bug, didn't they? Definitely not people you want to get on the wrong side of.

Financial Crisis Update

| Fri Oct. 10, 2008 1:39 AM EDT

FINANCIAL CRISIS UPDATE....The latest on the financial crisis:

The U.S. is weighing two dramatic steps to repair ailing financial markets: guaranteeing billions of dollars in bank debt and temporarily insuring all U.S. bank deposits.

....Under the U.K.'s recently announced plan, which it is now pitching to the G-7 members, the British government would guarantee up to £250 billion ($432 billion) in bank debt maturing up to 36 months. The British concept to expand its proposal to other countries has a lot of support from Wall Street and is being pored over by U.S. officials, according to people familiar with the matter.

....The move to back all U.S. bank deposits, which is only in the discussion stage, would be aimed at preventing a further exodus of cash from financial institutions, including small and regional banks, some of which are buckling under the strain of nervous customers. In recent weeks, customers have pulled money out of some healthy community banks under the assumption that the government will only insure all the depositors of larger banks in the event of a failure.

Directly recapitalizing troubled banks is yet another idea under consideration, of course. Greg Mankiw comments:

That raises several questions. First, which firms? The government does not want to put taxpayer money into "zombie" firms that are in fact deeply insolvent but have not yet recognized it. Second, at what price should the government buy in? Third, isn't this, kind of, like socialism? That is, do we really want the government to start playing a large, continuing role running Wall Street and allocating capital resources? I certainly don't.

Here is an idea that might deal with these problems: The government can stand ready to be a silent partner to future Warren Buffetts.

It could work as follows. Whenever any financial institution attracts new private capital in an arms-length transaction, it can access an equal amount of public capital. The taxpayer would get the same terms as the private investor. The only difference is that government's shares would be nonvoting until the government sold the shares at a later date.

This plan would solve the three problems. The private sector rather than the government would weed out the zombie firms. The private sector rather than the government would set the price. And the private sector rather than the government would exercise corporate control.

Nouriel Roubini offers similar advice here, along with several other ideas.

Mindgames

| Thu Oct. 9, 2008 6:59 PM EDT

MINDGAMES....John McCain and Sarah Palin (with the help of the entire cast of characters at Fox News and NRO) have been trying over the past few days to talk up Barack Obama's ties to former 60s radical Bill Ayers. But McCain didn't bring it up directly in Tuesday's debate, and apparently the Obama campaign has now decided to start taunting him over it. Today's taunts:

Barack Obama: "Well I am surprised that — you know, we've been seeing some pretty over the top attacks coming out of the McCain campaign over the last several days — that he wasn't willing to say it to my face."

Tom Vilsack: "If John McCain were so concerned about things like Mr. Ayers, why didn't he just simply turn to Barack Obama and directly confront him?"

Joe Biden: "In my neighborhood, when you've got something to say to a guy, you look him in the eye and you say it to him."

I guess the Obama folks figure there are three things that could happen. First, McCain does nothing and ends up looking like a coward. Second, their taunts get under McCain's skin so badly that he goes over the edge and does something really stupid. Third, McCain takes the bait and decides to bring up Ayers at the next debate.

The first two possibilities are obviously good for Obama. And the third? I guess they must be really sure they have a dynamite response ready in case McCain decides to unload next Wednesday. Either that or they're trying to fake McCain into thinking they have a dynamite response, thus scaring him into not bringing it up. Or else, by being so obvious about it, they're actually trying to sell McCain on the fakeout theory — and then when he falls into the trap and brings up Ayers, they're going to crush him. Or....um.....you get the idea. Basically, they're just playing mindgames with the old guy. I wonder if it'll work?

Pillow Talk

| Thu Oct. 9, 2008 3:59 PM EDT

PILLOW TALK....Does the NSA intercept telephone calls between Americans? Of course not! That's against the law. Unless, of course, you happen to be an American in one of the NSA's "areas of intercept" when you call home. ABC News talks today to a couple of NSA whistleblowers who say that eavesdropping on Americans was commonplace:

"These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones," said Adrienne Kinne, a 31-year old US Army Reserves Arab linguist assigned to a special military program at the NSA's Back Hall at Fort Gordon from November 2001 to 2003.

...."We knew they were working for these aid organizations," Kinne told ABC News. "They were identified in our systems as 'belongs to the International Red Cross' and all these other organizations. And yet, instead of blocking these phone numbers we continued to collect on them," she told ABC News.

And there's this from a former Navy Arab linguist named David Murfee Faulk:

"Calling home to the United States, talking to their spouses, sometimes their girlfriends, sometimes one phone call following another," said Faulk.

....Faulk says he and others in his section of the NSA facility at Fort Gordon routinely shared salacious or tantalizing phone calls that had been intercepted, alerting office mates to certain time codes of "cuts" that were available on each operator's computer.

"Hey, check this out," Faulk says he would be told, "there's good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny, go check it out. It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, 'Wow, this was crazy'," Faulk told ABC News.

The official NSA response is to stay mum. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) promises to investigate. Stay tuned.

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Slicing and Dicing

| Thu Oct. 9, 2008 3:03 PM EDT

SLICING AND DICING....The Washington Post editorializes today against John McCain's mortgage rescue plan, and among its bill of particulars it tosses in this:

At least as Mr. Holtz-Eakin described it, it lacks a clear mechanism for reassembling and extricating whole mortgages from the welter of securities "tranches" into which Wall Street slices and dices them.

As I understand things — and I might not — this is a serious problem with any plan to force noteholders to write down their losses and restructure their mortgages to help out distressed homeowners. The problem is that there's no banker to negotiate with. It's not just that mortgages today are bundled up and securitized, it's that the resulting securities are then chopped up and sold into various CDOs. These CDOs are hedged with hundreds of pages of legal covenants, and the end result is that you can't force the mortgages to be restructured unless all of the bondholders agree. And since every CDO has hundreds of bondholders, that's basically impossible.

Obviously this doesn't apply to all subprime mortgages, but I wonder how many it does apply to? And legally and administratively, what's the answer? I really haven't been able to find a coherent explanation of this stuff, but it seems like it's a pretty big deal. Anyone have any reading recommendations?

Sarah's Airplane

| Thu Oct. 9, 2008 12:57 PM EDT

SARAH'S AIRPLANE....Alaska's First Dude has finally been forced to give testimony in the Troopergate scandal, and apparently getting ex-brother-in-law Mike Wooten fired from his job as a state trooper became a serious Ahab-like obsession with him:

Todd Palin talked with over a dozen state officials, many of them repeatedly, in his crusade to get a state trooper fired whom he considered to be a bad cop, a dishonest person and a threat to the Palin family, according to his sworn statement given Wednesday to a legislative investigator....Todd Palin's efforts started before his wife became governor and accelerated during the first 19 months of her administration.

...."I had hundreds of conversations and communications about Trooper Wooten over the last several years with my family, with friends, with colleagues, and with just about everyone I could — including government officials," Palin said.

Hundreds! But that's actually not the most interesting part of the story. Todd Palin continues to insist that his anti-Wooten jihad had nothing to do with Sarah Palin's eventual firing of public safety commissioner Walt Monegan, which he says was motivated by an entirely different kind of bad blood: her difficulty getting Monegan to provide her with a plane for official trips:

On the trooper airplane, "It seemed that whenever Sarah needed this plane, it was unavailable," Todd Palin said. "We were concerned that the Department of Public Safety was retaliating against Sarah for selling the Murkowski jet that Department of Public Safety officials enjoyed using." In 2007, the governor sold a jet her predecessor, Frank Murkowski, bought in a controversial defiance of the Legislature.

Please, please, can we hear more about this tussle over airplane use? Apparently Todd Palin thinks that's an entirely proper reason for firing Monegan, and I'm eager to hear Sarah's take on that. Please?

Sarah Palin's Foreign Policy Cred

| Thu Oct. 9, 2008 12:16 PM EDT

SARAH PALIN'S FOREIGN POLICY CRED....Interested in learning about Sarah Palin's real foreign policy experience? David Corn has her official calendar for 2007-08 and spills the beans. Bottom line: she's spent an average of 37 minutes per month on foreign-ish activity during her tenure as governor. There were no meetings with Russian officials of any kind, but her schedule did include 30 minutes at a reception held by the Italian embassy, a meeting with foreign exchange students, and a speech at the Eighth Conference of Arctic Parliamentarians. Plus several miscellaneous meetings with Canadians. Exciting stuff!

McCain's Rescue Plan

| Thu Oct. 9, 2008 11:56 AM EDT

McCAIN'S RESCUE PLAN....It's now clear that John McCain's $300 billion homeowner rescue plan really does envision paying mortgage lenders full face value for their subprime loans, even though they've all cratered badly during the housing bust. How do we know? Because his website originally said that mortgage lenders would be required to write down their loans, but that language was removed on Wednesday. It was "a simple mistake," the campaign said.

But here's what I don't get: why? This was plainly a middle class pander, and not one that McCain would have been obligated to follow through on. This kind of stuff changes at the detail level all the time. So why include such a blatant giveaway for Wall Street? Even if you have some technical reason for thinking it's a good idea, it doesn't make any political sense at all. What's going on?