Kevin Drum

California Propositions

| Sun Oct. 26, 2008 1:02 PM EDT

CALIFORNIA PROPOSITIONS....This is a special post for California readers. The rest of you may safely go about your Sunday business normally.

This year we have 12 initiatives on the California ballot. As longtime readers know, my default position is to very strongly oppose all initiatives. My reasons are here, but the nickel version is that (a) most initiatives these days are funded by corporate interests, not the grassroots, and corporate interests don't really need yet another avenue to work their will on the public, (b) generally speaking, laws should be laws, not constitutional amendments or initiative statutes, where they're essentially etched in stone forever, and (c) ballot box budgeting is a curse.

At the request of my wife, I'll add one other thing: I've routinely voted against not just initiatives, but also against virtually all bond measures for the past couple of decades. Here's why. In the distant past, bond measures were used for capital projects that needed a big dollop of funding right away even though their useful life was decades long. But that's barely ever the case anymore. Rather, they've become little more than ways to evade the normal budgeting process. Most of the time they fund projects that will take a long time to build and could just as easily (and more cheaply) be funded out of general revenues. What's more, the standard mantra that they "require no tax increase" is baloney: they allocate money and that money (plus interest) has to be paid back out of the general fund. This money comes from taxes, just like every other expenditure.

Obviously you might not share my generic distaste for both the initiative process and the abuse of bond funding. So take that into account as you read the rest of this post. And a note for my non-California readers, since I always get a few questions about this. Several of the initiatives on the ballot this year (4, 8, 9, and 11) are constitutional amendments, and yes, a simple majority vote is all it takes to amend the state constitution here. I know it seems weird, but that's the way it is.

  1. High-speed rail bond. NO. As I said above, I generally oppose bond measures. But high speed rail is a worthy long-term endeavor, so I should probably explain my opposition to this particular bond issue in some detail. Here it is: We. Don't. Have. Any. Money.

    I continue to be flabbergasted at the unwillingness of Californians to understand just how bad our fiscal situation is. It's mind boggling. We've been running huge deficits for the past six years even though the economy was booming. The coming recession is only going to make it worse. We just flatly can't afford this right now.

    On its merits, I'll confess to some skepticism too. Both the cost projections and the ridership projections for the planned 220 mph train from LA to San Francisco strike me as typically optimistic for these things (as does the 220 mph goal, frankly), and I really have to wonder if we don't have better ways to spend a billion or two a year on transit projects. But those are side issues that would only be worth discussing if we had the money to support this in the first place. We don't.

  2. Farm Animal Confinement. YES. This initiative requires that farm animals be penned in cages that allow them to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs, and turn around freely. In practice, it would affect only the egg industry, and it moves California very moderately in the direction of more humane treatment of farm animals. The factory farming industry is running the usual campaign claiming that it would put California farmers out of business entirely, but that dog just won't hunt anymore. That's what they always say. In reality, it will probably increase the cost of eggs a few pennies per dozen and nothing more.

    This initiative passes most of my smell tests too. It's a genuine grassroots initiative that would have a hard time getting past the legislature thanks to corporate agribusiness lobbying. It's a moderately written law that allows us to experiment a bit without going off a cliff. And it's not ballot box budgeting.

  3. Children's hospital bond act. NO. We. Don't. Have. Any. Money. Even for good causes, I'm afraid. This is an issue for the legislature, not for ballot box budgeting.

  4. Parental notification for teenage abortions. NO. I think we all know what this is about.

  5. Nonviolent drug offenses. NO. This is a followup to Prop 36, which was passed in 2000 and mandates treatment for many drug offenses instead of jail time. Unfortunately, as with many initiatives, Prop 5 is mostly well intentioned but poorly drafted. Thanks to fuzzy wording, it might allow violent criminals to evade jail time merely by claiming that their crimes were in the service of a drug habit, and it might cripple some of the state's most successful rehabilitation programs. These are risks that might be worth taking if this were merely a normal law, which could be modified if it didn't work out, but as an initiative statute it would be set in stone virtually forever no matter how well it worked. That's a bad deal.

  6. Police and law enforcement funding. NO. This is yet another "tough on crime" initiative, something that California is already overburdened with. It's also an egregious example of ballot box budgeting, in which law enforcement tries to mandate more funding for itself. Forget it.

  7. Renewable energy generation. NO. As near as I can tell, Prop 7 is genuinely well meaning. But as with Prop 5, it's badly drafted and would actually hurt many suppliers of alternative energy, which is why virtually every environmental organization opposes it.

  8. Bans same-sex marriage. NO. I think gay marriage is perfectly fine. If you do too, vote No on 8. Nuff said.

  9. "Marsy's law." NO. This is yet another pet project from a local zillionaire with a bee up his bonnet. But Prop 9 is mostly unnecessary, and to the extent it offers anything new it's just another generic "get tough" initiative that will cost a bucket of money, keep our prisons even more overcrowded, and prevent defense attorneys from doing legitimate parts of their job. What's more, even if you approve of this kind of thing, it certainly doesn't deserve to be engraved in stone and put in the constitution.

  10. T. Boone Pickens alternative energy bond. NO. This is basically just a stealth initiative to funnel some government cash into the hands of T. Boone Pickens. See here for more. Also: We. Don't. Have. Any. Money.

  11. Redistricting reform. YES. On the downside, this initiative is a little bit squirrelly, setting up an oddball "citizen commission" to perform redistricting every ten years. It's also not clear that it would have a huge impact. I used to be a big foe of gerrymandering, but I've read enough research over the past couple of years to convince me that its impact on the electoral process is actually fairly modest.

    Still, "modest" isn't zero. And while the citizen commission is a little odd, it's not outlandish and not obviously biased against either party. What's more, Prop 11 is a limited effort that affects only state districts, not congressional districts. Bottom line: Whether the effect is modest or not, allowing partisan legislatures to draw their own lines is crazy. We've missed a lot of chances to reform this in the past, and overall Prop 11 strikes me as a decent start on a difficult task.

  12. Cal-Vet bonds. YES. Huh? I'm recommending Yes on a bond? Yep. We've been issuing Cal-Vet home loan bonds for decades, they genuinely don't cost the taxpayers anything (the bonds are paid back by the vets who get the loans), and it's for a good cause.

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Palin-McCain: The Skirmishing Begins

| Sat Oct. 25, 2008 1:32 PM EDT

PALIN-McCAIN: THE SKIRMISHING BEGINS....Yesterday I mentioned that I was looking forward to the (anonymous! on background!) war that was sure to erupt after the election between Sarah Palin and John McCain. Palin, after all, is not exactly famous for standing by her mentors in their hour of need. But guess what? I don't have to wait until after the election after all! Ben Smith reports:

Palin supporters, inside the campaign and out, said Palin blames her handlers for a botched rollout and a tarnished public image — even as others in McCain's camp blame the pick of the relatively inexperienced Alaska governor, and her public performance, for McCain's decline.

"She's lost confidence in most of the people on the plane," said a senior Republican who speaks to Palin, referring to her campaign jet. He said Palin had begun to "go rogue" in some of her public pronouncements and decisions. "I think she'd like to go more rogue," he said.

...."The campaign as a whole bought completely into what the Washington media said — that she's completely inexperienced," said a close Palin ally outside the campaign who speaks regularly to the candidate.

"Her strategy was to be trustworthy and a team player during the convention and thereafter, but she felt completely mismanaged and mishandled and ill advised," the person said. "Recently, she's gone from relying on McCain advisers who were assigned to her to relying on her own instincts."

Etc. etc.

Read the whole thing, which I take as just the barest teaser of the bloodshed that's gong to erupt between McCain and Palin loyalists after the election. My prediction: they're both going to come out of it with their careers in ruins. The only difference is that Palin probably won't realize it for a while.

UPDATE: More exciting skirmishing here! "She is a diva. She takes no advice from anyone," says a McCain adviser. "She does not have any relationships of trust with any of us, her family or anyone else. Also, she is playing for her own future and sees herself as the next leader of the party. Remember: Divas trust only unto themselves, as they see themselves as the beginning and end of all wisdom."

Financial Meltdown Watch

| Sat Oct. 25, 2008 1:12 PM EDT

FINANCIAL MELTDOWN WATCH....A while back I was wondering who was left to bail out, now that we'd announced plans to take care of big banks, little banks, investment banks, and Fannie and Freddie. Insurance companies? Hedge funds? Today we learn the answer:

The Treasury Department is dramatically expanding the scope of its bailout of the financial system with a plan to take ownership stakes in the nation's insurance companies, signaling new concerns about a sector of the economy whose troubles until now have been overshadowed by the banking industry, government and industry sources said.

Anybody else?

The availability of U.S. government cash in the middle of a global credit squeeze is drawing requests from insurance firms, auto makers, state governments and transit agencies. While Treasury intended for the program to apply broadly, the growing requests could put a strain on the $700 billion, a sum that only last month stunned lawmakers.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of the world catching a cold when America sneezes, emerging markets, which had almost nothing to do with causing the financial crisis, are going to pay an even steeper price than us:

In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng fell 8.3 percent to 12,618. Markets in India, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines were also down sharply as investors bailed from emerging markets around the world to cut their exposure to risky assets and meet redemption needs at home. On Thursday, key indices in Russia, Brazil and Mexico also fell.

"Funds are pouring out of emerging markets," said Linus Yip, a strategist at First Shanghai Securities in Hong Kong. "A lot of money that flowed into the region during the last five years from the U.S. and Europe is being cashed out. The global crisis has come to Asia."

It's sort of like global warming: we cause the problem, but poor countries suffer the brunt of the consequences.

Friday Cat Blogging - 24 October 2008

| Fri Oct. 24, 2008 2:45 PM EDT

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....I had something new and exciting planned for today, but a combination of technical problems and feline noncooperation scotched my best efforts. Maybe next week.

But things turned out OK anyway. Domino is taking the week off because I ended up snapping this picture of Inkblot at the last minute (i.e., about an hour ago) and I thought it deserved more prominent treatment than usual. Magnificent, isn't he? Mother Jones is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which means I'm not allowed to endorse candidates for office, but my reading of the law suggests that this applies only to human candidates. So consider this Inkblot's official campaign portrait. That's a face you can trust to get tough with Wall Street, get tough with Ahmadinewhoever, and get especially tough on our nation's growing problem of barking suburban dogs. Inkblot '08!

By the way, if you're in the Orange County area, I'll be on a panel today at UC Irvine that features "conversations among important contemporary bloggers." Unfortunately, Ezra Klein had to cancel, so they got me instead. My session is at 3:45. Details here and here if you want to drop by.

Like a Swiss Watch

| Fri Oct. 24, 2008 2:42 PM EDT

LIKE A SWISS WATCH....Let's summarize the past couple of days: (a) Politico reports that La Palin has spent $150,000 on campaign outfits, (b) John McCain's brother calls 911 to complain about a traffic jam and then curses at the operator for telling him to get off the line, (c) the New York Times reports that Palin also spent $30,000 or so on hair and makeup over a period of two weeks, and (d) a white woman who claimed she was attacked by a black Obama supporter admits that the whole thing was a hoax.

But I guess this is no big deal because the McCain campaign was running so smoothly it could afford a few minor glitches like this, right?

Let the Defenestrations Begin

| Fri Oct. 24, 2008 1:18 PM EDT

LET THE DEFENESTRATIONS BEGIN....Politico reports on what's going on behind the scenes in Republican circles:

With despair rising even among many of John McCain's own advisers, influential Republicans inside and outside his campaign are engaged in an intense round of blame-casting and rear-covering — much of it virtually conceding that an Election Day rout is likely.

...."If you really want to see what 'going negative' is in politics, just watch the back-stabbing and blame game that we're starting to see," said Mark McKinnon, the ad man who left the campaign after McCain wrapped up the GOP primary. "And there's one common theme: Everyone who wasn't part of the campaign could have done better."

"The cake is baked," agreed a former McCain strategist. "We're entering the finger-pointing and positioning-for-history part of the campaign. It's every man for himself now."

I am so looking forward to this. Is this schadenfreude? Or does that require at least a veneer of pretending that you're not really taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others? I'm not sure. But I'm looking forward to it anyway.

And you know the part I'm really looking forward to? Sarah Palin's role in all this. I expect her to rip McCain absolutely to shreds. On background, of course, but it will be no less vicious for that. Her future, such as it is, lies with the wingnut rump of the party, and she knows what her audience wants: John McCain's blood. And lots of it. They never liked him in the first place, and I expect them to be howling for his head on a platter starting at about 8:01 pm EST on November 4th.

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You Are What You Drive

| Fri Oct. 24, 2008 12:59 PM EDT

YOU ARE WHAT YOU DRIVE....That latest news from the Kelley Blue Book people:

McCain receives the highest support from full-size truck (66 percent), full-size SUV (61 percent) and luxury SUV (61 percent) owners. Obama leads McCain among luxury station wagon (59 percent), station wagon and sport wagon (55 percent), hatchback (52 percent) and luxury crossover vehicle (52 percent) owners. Among owners of hybrid vehicles, Obama leads with 48 percent of the preferences, nine points more than McCain.

Among brands, McCain is popular with owners of GMC trucks and Chevrolets, clearly part of real America. Obama is popular with owners of Minis, Subarus, and Saabs, obviously denizens of latte-sipping faux America.

Subway Madness

| Fri Oct. 24, 2008 12:40 PM EDT

SUBWAY MADNESS....Apparently AIG, over the years, has guaranteed several elaborate tax avoidance schemes that allowed local transit authorities to make some extra money via sale-leaseback agreements with banks. Now that AIG is kaput, the schemes are falling apart and the transit agencies may suddenly get billed for tens of millions of dollars. Transit fan Matt Yglesias is pissed:

WTF is happening here? Can't we, in exchange for all the money we're giving AIG, force the company to keep guaranteeing deals that are vital to keeping our public services running? Something about the implementation of this bailout is very troubling and it doesn't inspire a ton of confidence in the future of TARP.

Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the issue. AIG is still guaranteeing the deals. The problem is that the contracts with the banks terminate automatically if AIG doesn't maintain a high credit rating. Which, needless to say, they haven't. So now the banks are demanding payment.

Which just goes to show how all this stuff trickles down not just to Main Street, but to the subways underneath Main Street too. However, a Treasury Department spokesman says, "Treasury is aware of this situation." That should make us all feel better, right?

Campaign Trail Update

| Fri Oct. 24, 2008 12:14 PM EDT

CAMPAIGN TRAIL UPDATE....Barack Obama and John McCain have finally found something they agree on: George Bush sucks. That's called "reaching across the aisle," boys and girls.

Housing Update

| Fri Oct. 24, 2008 11:49 AM EDT

HOUSING UPDATE....The latest news on the housing market:

Although prices continued to fall, existing-home sales climbed more than expected during September, marking the highest level of home sales activity in more than a year.

Home resales rose to a 5.18 million annual rate, a 5.5% increase from August's unrevised 4.91 million annual pace, the National Association of Realtors said Friday.

....The home sales increase represents "a nice jump," said NAR economist Lawrence Yun. "Hopefully, this trend can continue."

OK, I admit it. I'm just trying to cheer you up. That "nice jump" appears to be about the only good news around today amidst an ocean of gloom. Here in California, the latest news is that home foreclosures, after jumping about a million percent over the last year, are now down. But only because of a new law that makes banks delay proceedings until 30 days after contacting the borrower. Woo hoo!