Kevin Drum

Quote of the Day: No Solutions Please, We're Republicans

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 10:12 AM EDT

From John Boehner, responding to Chris Wallace's complaint that the Republican Pledge to America doesn't contain any proposals to cut entitlement programs:

When you start down that path, you just invite all kind of problems. I know. I’ve been there....Let’s not get to the potential solutions. Let’s make sure Americans understand how big the problem is. Then we can talk about possible solutions and then work ourselves into those solutions that are doable.

Boehner is being a smart pol. Actually telling the American public what the Republican Party wants to do after it's in office would indeed invite all kinds of problems. Namely that Americans would all hate it and start voting against Republicans. So I think we can safely predict that they'll continue to be resolute in their unwillingness to fess up to the "potential solutions" they have in mind. They want to leave that as a surprise.

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Wiretapping the Internet

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 12:16 AM EDT

The New York Times reports today that the Obama adminstration plans to propose "sweeping new regulations for the Internet" that will help them wiretap communications by criminal and terrorism suspects. In particular, they want anyone who provides encrypted communications services to have the ability to monitor, decrypt, and make messages available to the feds when they ask for them:

Susan Landau, a Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study fellow and former Sun Microsystems engineer, argued that the proposal would raise costly impediments to innovation by small startups. “Every engineer who is developing the wiretap system is an engineer who is not building in greater security, more features, or getting the product out faster,” she said.

I look forward to conservatives at Fox News and the Heritage Foundation expressing outrage over a proposal that will heighten uncertainty and burden our small businesses with yet another set of bureaucratic rules. After all, we know how important small businesses are to these guys. So they'll surely object. Right?

The Liberal Future

| Sun Sep. 26, 2010 6:42 PM EDT

Apparently Matt Yglesias has been getting some questions about the neoliberalish direction of his blog lately, so he explains where he's coming from:

There’s a couple of reasons. One is simply product differentiation — I don’t think just writing the same posts as Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein and Jon Chait is what the world needs from me, but we obviously all have similar political opinions. The other is the point I’ve made before, namely that with the passage of the Affordable Care Act the long struggle to expand the scope of the welfare state is largely over.

[Chart showing federal spending rising rapidly thanks to spiraling cost of Medicare.]

Realistically, does anyone think we’re going to increase the overall size of the government faster than that? I sure don’t. And yet there are actually some areas in which I’d like to see the government doing more — specifically nutrion, early childhood education, infrastructure, and probably K-12 education writ large....So the future of American politics is necessarily going to be about things like making the tax code more efficient, finding areas of government spending to cut relative to projection, and thinking of policy measures that will help people that don’t involve spending more money.

Sadly, this is not going to do the trick when it comes to product differentiation since it pretty much mirrors my own views. When it comes to domestic politics, my version of the narrative goes something like this:

  • Liberals have gotten a lot done in the past 80 years. There are plenty of things still left on our plate, but among big ticket legislative programs the only thing left is national healthcare. Link.
  • We now have a good start on that. What's left is constant evolution and improvement.
  • This, along with modest fixes to Social Security, will eventually put total state/local/federal spending somewhere around 40-45% of GDP. That's as high as I'm comfortable with. Link.
  • So we can't spend huge sums on much of anything else, and to spend even modest sums we're going to have to cut some existing programs and figure out ways to make others more efficient. Link.

To make things even worse on the product differentiation front, I even agree that of the medium scale programs liberals should focus on, education in general and, more specifically, early and intense interventions in high-poverty areas should probably be one of our highest priorities. I'd also add climate change legislation to the top of this list, but that's likely to be a long, grinding fight for small advances, not one or two big ticket items. For the time being, then, the main way to tell us apart is that Matt is the one preoccupied with basketball and parking regulations while I'm the one preoccupied with cats and the growth of income inequality. Maybe someday we'll figure out something else to gin up a fight over.

Jerry Brown's Stage of Life

| Sun Sep. 26, 2010 3:33 PM EDT

I'm curious. Jerry Brown has been running the ad on the right for the past week or so here in California. It ends with this line:

We've got to pull together not as Republicans or as Democrats, but as Californians first. At this stage in my life, I'm prepared to do exactly that.

Question: is this an effective way to blunt criticism that he's old and kind of tired looking? Would you buy the idea that Brown is now sort of an elder statesman who no longer has a career to worry about and only wants to do what's best for the state? It actually seems sort of clever and possibly effective to me, but what do I know? Comments?

Is Diet Coke Dangerous?

| Sun Sep. 26, 2010 12:04 PM EDT

Adam Ozimek is perplexed that so many of his friends think that diet soda is dangerous or causes cancer. After reviewing the considerable evidence that they're all perfectly safe, he says:

You can’t really be suspicious of artificial sweeteners without taking a paranoid stance towards leading health and scientific organizations in this country, and towards science itself. Most educated people who hold suspicions about artificial flavorings nevertheless trust the conclusions of science and scientific institutions on other issues, like global warming and evolution. So how do these people decide when to trust scientific consensus and when not to? If you’re going to be a scientific nihilist, then you should do so consistently.

Generally speaking, I agree that laymen ought to have some kind of consistent attitude toward consensus in the scientific community. However, I think there's one reasonable way that people might hold what seem like inconsistent views on scientific matters like this: they don't trust results in which powerful private interests clearly have a lot of lobbying power. So you might believe that global warming is real because there's a scientific consensus in favor of it even though lots of money from the business community is fighting it. Conversely, you might be suspicious of aspartame for fear that the scientific results are skewed by tidal waves of money from the food industry sponsoring studies designed to find it safe. After all, it's happened before with cigarettes and asbestos and PCBs and lead and benzene and chromium 6 and beryllium and Vioxx and a million other things.

There are limits here, and people who cross them risk sliding into conspiracy theory territory. But you don't have to be anywhere near that territory to be (a) suspicious of results hawked by self-interested private corporations and (b) equally suspicious that these private interests have a lot of influence over government regulators. So it might make perfect sense to believe that cigarettes are dangerous and global warming is real but remain skeptical that aspartame is safe or that GM foods have been thoroughly tested.

(For the record: I believe that cigarettes are dangerous, global warming is real, aspartame is safe, and GM foods should be subjected to considerable scrutiny.)

Previewing the 112th Congress

| Sat Sep. 25, 2010 10:36 PM EDT

As you may be aware, a couple of years ago two members of the New Black Panther Party stood outside a polling place in Philadelphia dressed in dark jackets and berets and doing their best to look vaguely menacing. One of them carried a nightstick. They chose to do this in a majority-black precinct that always votes overwhelmingly Democratic, which doesn't seem like especially fertile ground for intimidation of white voters, but they were charged with intimidation anyway. In due course their case came up, they didn't bother defending themselves, judgment was rendered, the Department of Justice got an injunction against the nightstick guy, and then the Obama administration dropped further action. Conservatives went nuts and have since given the NBPP almost endless amounts of publicity, which, as it always is with the NBPP, is what they were after in the first place.

The free publicity continues to this day, with various folks testifying that DOJ dropped the case because Barack Obama refuses to prosecute cases of civil rights violations against white people. In other words, blah blah Kenya blah blah reparations blah blah etc. etc. The usual.

But wait! Today Andrew Breitbart raises the bar even higher for lunatic conservative conspiracy theorizing. The National Chairman of the NBPP is one Malik Shabazz, and in July 2009, just as the NBPP case was reaching a — well, reaching nothing actually. Some Republicans were "demanding answers" at the time, but that's about it. But still, just as these Republicans were demanding answers, "a man named Malik Shabazz visited the exclusive, private residence in the White House"! Breitbart wants an explanation:

The White House has assured the American people that the Malik Shabazz that visited the White House at that time is not the same Malik Shabazz at the center of the New Black Panther story. But, the White House has not provided any information to verify its contention or who this “other” Malik Shabazz is.

We call on the White House to act in the spirit of their transparency policy and provide further information, sufficient to independently verify the identity of the person named Malik Shabazz who visited the White House private residence in July of 2009.

Now, as Breitbart might or might not know, Malcolm X was also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. So it's not as odd as it might seem for there to be more than one African American in the country by that name. And the guy in the White House logs is Malik H. Shabazz, not Malik Zulu Shabazz, the nutcase who heads up the NBPP. And he was there as part of a group tour of the White House along with 310 other people.

But no matter. We want answers! Maybe the middle initial is a feint. Maybe Shabazz broke off from the group and surreptitiously headed over to the Oval Office for a secret meeting. Maybe he and Obama cut a deal to.....do something. That part isn't clear, since the case had already been dropped by then. But something! Maybe plans for a vast wave of white voter intimidation in the midterm elections that Obama promised would get winked at by the authorities. Or a promise that a billion dollars worth of stimulus money would somehow find its way to the party's coffers. Something!

This is what we have to look forward to if Republicans win control of the House in November. I'm sure Darrell Issa has an investigation of the NBPP already teed up and raring to go. Doesn't that sound like fun? Sure it does! If you're not sure, be sure to check out the comments to the Breitbart post.

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Quote of the Day #2: Obama's Hit List

| Sat Sep. 25, 2010 6:52 PM EDT

From Glenn Greenwald, upon hearing that even a guy who makes David Addington look dovish is having second thoughts about President Obama's unilateral declaration of authority in the war on terror:

Having debated him before, I genuinely didn't think it was possible for any President to concoct an assertion of executive power and secrecy that would be excessive and alarming to David Rivkin, but Barack Obama managed to do that, too.

The subject is the administration's claim that it not only has the power to assassinate American citizens without due process, but that its list of targets is a state secret unreviewable by any court. More here.

Prosopagnosia in Literature

| Sat Sep. 25, 2010 11:37 AM EDT

Via Andrew Sullivan, Jessa Crispin complains about the inescapable pressure to read certain books every year:

Once you get done with the Musts — the Franzens, Mitchells, Vollmanns, Roths, Shteyngarts — and then get through the Booker long list, and the same half-dozen memoirs everyone else is reading this year (crack addiction and face blindness seem incredibly important this year), you have time for maybe two quirky choices, if you are a hardcore reader.

Wait a second. Back up. Face blindness is big in novels this year? Seriously? Are any of them any good? I have a hell of a time recognizing faces, a problem that makes movie viewing a real pain the ass. I spent the entire first half hour of The Prestige, for example, getting Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale mixed up. A different hair color makes someone a new person to me. Photograph the same person from two different angles and I have to stare hard to convince myself that it's not two different people.

(On the other hand, I had a boss once who had supervised one of my coworkers for two years. She came in one day with a different hairstyle and he passed her in the hallway without recognizing her. I don't think I'm quite that bad off.)

Anyway, combine this with my lousy memory for names1 and it makes social occasions pretty onerous affairs. But it might be fun to read a novel where this plays a key part, as long as it's not just an excuse for an extended whining session. Any recommendations?

1And voices. For God's sake, if you ever call me on the phone, identify yourself. I won't recognize your voice if you don't.

Who Will Speak for the Rich?

| Sat Sep. 25, 2010 10:58 AM EDT

Paul Krugman on the recent outbreak of arguments that America's unemployment problem is structural and can't be fixed anytime soon:

Claims that there has been a huge jump in structural unemployment — that is, unemployment that can’t be cured by increasing aggregate demand — are playing a large role in the argument that we should basically do nothing in the face of a terrible economy. No need for the Fed to do more; no need for more fiscal stimulus — hey, it’s all about defective labor markets, and we should work on structural reform, one of these days. And don’t expect improvement for years to come. Structural unemployment is invoked by Fed presidents who want to raise rates, not cut them, by economists who want austerity now now now, and in general by almost everyone in the pain caucus.

....I really don’t think there’s any way to make sense of the fuss about structural unemployment unless you posit that a lot of influential people are looking for reasons not to act. Based on everything we know, this just shouldn’t be an issue. What the economy needs is more demand; provide that, and you’ll be amazed at how many willing, productive workers there are, currently sitting idle.

Italics mine. And yes, of course lots of influential people are looking for reasons not to act. Our economic discourse of the past 30 years has been almost exclusively defined by an endless succession of shiny new arguments from conservatives that provide an intellectual superstructure for policies that favor business interests and the rich. Arguments on trade, arguments on taxes, arguments on unions, arguments on the minimum wage, arguments on financial deregulation, arguments on income inequality, and arguments on environmental rules. Lately, it's mostly been arguments on deficits and unemployment. And always couched in technical terms of capital formation, liquidity, credit allocation, globalization, comparative advantage, crowding out, multipliers, solar forcing levels, Gaussian copulas, labor market rigidities, alternative measures of inflation, deadweight losses, default premia, and hedonic adjustments.

That's for the chattering classes, of course. For the rubes it's socialism and arrogant elites and death panels.

After all, except on rare occasions when their tongues slip, they can hardly come right out and say that what they really care about is making sure that rich people continue to grab an ever bigger share of the economic pie, can they? And the fact that all of their arguments just happen to promote exactly that? Just a coincidence, my friends, just a coincidence.

Quote of the Day: John Boehner is Orange

| Sat Sep. 25, 2010 10:16 AM EDT

From James Joyner, responding to complaints that photos in the Republican "Pledge To America" pamphlet are exclusively of white people:

This isn’t strictly true. First off, John Boehner is prominently featured. He’s orange.

Plus it turns out that if you look closely there's a black woman in one of the photos. Diversity!