Kevin Drum

Obama's Unpopularity

| Thu Sep. 2, 2010 8:59 PM EDT

Michael Scherer has a piece in Time today headlined "How Barack Obama Became Mr. Unpopular." Now, as it happens, Obama isn't actually any more unpopular than most presidents after 18 months in office, and in any case he's still more popular than practically anyone or anything else in Washington DC. But fine. His popularity is down. Mostly, of course, this is because the economy sucks, but that makes for boring journalism. So we get a bunch of other explanations:

"He's trying to Europeanize us, and the Europeans are going the other way," [says Fred Ferlic], a former Democratic campaign donor who plans to vote Republican this year. "The entire American spirit is being broken."

....[In 2008] trust in the federal government was at a historic low, dropping to around 25%, where it still remains. Yet Obama has offered government as the primary solution to most of the nation's woes....Meanwhile, the resulting spike in deficits, which has been greatly magnified by tax revenue lost to the economic downturn, has spooked a broad sweep of the country.

....This past June, Peter Brodnitz of the Benenson Strategy Group, a firm that also polls for the White House, asked voters which they preferred: "new government investments" or "cutting taxes for business" as the better approach to jump-start job creation. Even among those who voted for Obama, nearly 38% preferred tax cuts.

....For someone who so carefully read the political mood as a candidate, Obama has been unexpectedly passive at moments as President. Whereas other Democrats had hoped to spend the late summer talking about two things — jobs and the unpopularity of many Republican policies — the White House has been distracted by a string of unrelated issues, from immigration reform to a mishandled dismissal of a longtime USDA official to the furor over the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero.

This style of reporting bugs me. This is practically a press release version of Republican talking points, but without any actual mention of the Republicans who are behind them. You'd think that broad swathes of the country just spontaneously decided that Obama was trying to Europeanize the economy, that deficits were spooky, that tax cuts are the cure for what ails you, and that the Ground Zero mosque is a massive middle finger to American dignity. I don't think there's actually much evidence that any of this stuff has hurt Obama seriously, but if that's your thesis, shouldn't you at least mention the fact that this is exactly the story conservatives have been selling since the day Obama took office? Hell, you could even do it admiringly if you were minded to. But one way or the other, you shouldn't pretend that this just happened to happen. You should attach some names to it.

Really, though, the entire piece should have been spiked and replaced with one that blamed Obama's slide entirely on the bad economy. Scherer himself provides the evidence at the end of his story:

During his early, heady days in office, the President decided to make Elkhart a personal cause. A once thriving manufacturing center of 50,000 on the Michigan-Indiana border, famous for its musical instruments and recreational vehicles, the Elkhart region saw the steepest jump in unemployment of any metropolitan area in the nation during the economic crisis.

....Since then, he has been back twice more, once to speak at Notre Dame and once to herald a new electric-vehicle plant that would be built with federal support. In the southern end of the district, thousands of jobs at parts plants were saved when Obama decided to bail out the auto companies.

....Yet all of Obama's personal and financial appeals have been swamped by the depth of the recession and have had little visible effect. Donnelly, who flies home every weekend to work in his district, felt obliged to run against Obama to save his job. And his Republican opponent, Jackie Walorski, says she is often approached by Obama voters who want to vent. "This has burned people," she says.

How much clearer can things be? Elkhart got hundreds of new jobs from the electric vehicle plant, probably hundreds more from the stimulus bill, and saved additional thousands thanks to the auto bailout. There's not a lot more that one small region could ask for. But it hasn't made any difference. Everyone there feels betrayed because unemployment remains high anyway. It's the economy, stupid.

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The Neverending Sarah Saga

| Thu Sep. 2, 2010 5:02 PM EDT

I didn't link to yesterday's big Vanity Fair piece on Sarah Palin because — oh, I don't know. I guess I'm a little tired of Sarah. A little tired of adding to the unbelievable tsunami of publicity she gets for her every utterance. A little tired of being tired of Sarah.

But via Chris Bodenner, here's the author of the piece chatting with Joe Scarborough this morning:

"The worst stuff isn't even in there," Michael Joseph Gross said on "Morning Joe" Thursday. "I couldn't believe these stories either when I first heard them, and I started this story with a prejudice in her favor. I have a lot in common with this woman. I'm a small-town person, I'm a Christian, I think that a lot of her criticisms of the media actually have something to them. And I think she got a bum ride, but everybody close to her tells the same story."...."This is a person for whom there is no topic too small to lie about," he said. "She lies about everything."

...."I started this with every good intention toward her," he said. "I was just shocked and appalled at every step at what I found. And I wrote this story sort of against my will. It wasn't what I wanted to write, it wasn't what I wanted to find. It was what was forced on me by the facts."

Holy cats. I would really like to hear about this from people who know Gross. Was he really sympathetic to Palin going into this? Because if he was, this is the most unbelievable volte face I've ever read. I mean, he literally describes an entire town — hell, practically an entire state — that is absolutely scared to death to talk about Palin because they're afraid of the vengeance she'll wreak on them for doing it. He describes a woman with a paranoid streak a mile wide, a temper like a hellcat, and a casual meanness toward ordinary people that defies belief. There were so many examples of people saying they were afraid to talk to him that it almost seemed like it had to be a joke. ("The people of Wasilla, in the main, are reflexively generous and open....When I ask about Palin, though, a palpable unease creeps in. Some people clam up. Others whisper invitations to call later—but on this number, not that one, and not before this hour or after that one. So many people answer “Off the record?” to my initial questions that it almost seems the whole town has had media training."1)

So go ahead and read it, I guess. I don't know if it's the real deal or just more liberal porn. All I can say is that if it's even close to the truth, Palin's fall from grace, when it comes, is going to be spectacular indeed.

1In fairness, by this time probably every resident of Wasilla has been interviewed at least half a dozen times about Palin. They're probably pretty press savvy by now.

The Wit and Wisdom of Fred Thompson

| Thu Sep. 2, 2010 2:16 PM EDT

I'm not sure if anyone cares anymore what Fred Thompson says these days, but Sarah Palin thought this gem was worth retweeting:

Obama Econ Adviser: spend more stimulus money. Bet she repeatedly pushes the elevator button trying to make it come faster, too.

I guess that's that. The economy simply can't be stimulated, no how no way, and Christina Romer is just some birdbrain who doesn't understand how machinery works. Better get used to being unemployed, folks.

Of course, what Romer really wants to do is reopen one of the elevator banks that's been out of commission for a while and replace some of the broken magnets for the motors so they run a little closer to their normal speed, which would get more people to their destinations faster than before. Maybe she understands machinery a little better than Fred thinks?

The Kill List

| Thu Sep. 2, 2010 1:05 PM EDT

Conor Friedersdorf on the Obama administration's creation of a "kill list" of individuals whom the US can kill anywhere, anytime:

I wish the right would do less scoffing at the ACLU. It's often unjustified. But I'll live with scoffing if it's followed by the dawning realization that the Obama Adminstration has imprudently asserted for itself an extraordinary extra-constitutional power, the potential abuse of which ought to terrify any citizen who is half paying attention.

Once that realization has sunk in, I'd encourage this followup thought: whereas the ACLU is standing against this radical expansion of federal power — an executive branch death panel, if you will — conservative instituitions like The Heritage Foundation aren't merely silent, they're hiring a senior staffer who believes that the ability to draw up a list of American citizens to be killed is inherent in the power of the presidency.

I don't write about this often enough. But it really is extraordinary. Right now this list is confined (we think) to suspected terrorists in places like Yemen and Pakistan, and I think that distracts us from what's going on. Even if, in principle, it seems wrong, killing jihadist wannabes in Karachi or Mogadishu just doesn't get our alarm bells going. Our instinctive reaction is that these are third-world hellholes where life is cheap anyway, so why not?

But it's the still the principle that matters. If you can do it in Karachi, you can do it in Paris. And if you can do it to a New Mexico-born cleric who preaches vengeance against the U.S. from a mosque every Friday, you can do it to an expat from Oregon who runs a grimy little anti-American newspaper from a basement in Berlin. We might not be doing that right now, but what's to stop us? The good will of whoever happens to be president at the moment?

For what should be obvious reasons, the U.S. government should not be allowed to execute U.S. citizens without trial regardless of whether they happen to be on U.S. soil. It's a little hard to believe that this is even a debatable notion.

Ample Free Parking

| Thu Sep. 2, 2010 12:13 PM EDT

In Edge City, Joel Garreau offers up a semi-humorous glossary of developer terms. Here's one:

Ample Free Parking: The touchstone distinction between Edge City and the old downtown.

Of course, all that free parking isn't entirely a result of the free market. Much of it is the result of minimum parking regulations, which require both residential and commercial developers to provide a certain number of parking spaces for their buildings. Now, it's obvious why people with cars like these regulations (makes driving convenient, keeps overflow parking out of neighborhoods), but it's pretty clearly a government mandate and you'd think that a libertarian outfit like the Cato Institute would be opposed to them. But, as Matt Yglesias points out, apparently Cato's Randal O'Toole isn't:

The latest hot front in this can be found in Donald Shoup’s evisceration of O’Toole’s views on minimum parking regulations. I recommend that you read the whole thing. But a quick summary is that O’Toole seems to have somehow persuaded himself that regulatory parking mandates don’t lead to artificially cheap parking and that artificially cheap parking doesn’t lead to artificially high quantities of driving. And he’s supposed to be the libertarian in this argument!

I don't think there's much question that O'Toole is wrong here. You can argue about how big the problem is and what kind of impact it has, but there's not much question that minimum parking regulations make driving cheaper and therefore incentivize people to drive more than they otherwise would. The only part of this argument I'm a little fuzzy on, though, is why it's recently gotten so much attention. Sure, parking is part of the infrastructure that promotes the use of cars, but my first guess is that it's a smallish part. Maybe I'm wrong about that. But the scale of the infrastructure we've built over the last century to adapt to heavy use of automobiles is vast almost beyond comprehension, and parking at the margins seems like a small part of it. I guess every little bit helps, but aren't there way bigger ways we could encourage less driving than raising the price of parking meters in busy commercial districts or letting suburban malls build smaller parking lots? Why not focus more on those, instead of a modest reform that seems practically designed to be as conspicuously annoying to registered voters as possible?

UPDATE: Atrios responds: "I think the reason parking requirements and mandatory free parking are getting more attention now is because more and more people are understanding that this rather simple policy choice is what has led to pedestrian-friendly development being illegal in most of the country."

I think I get this, but this is actually a specifically urban issue, isn't it? And not even in all urban areas. If the argument is strictly about specific policies (curb cuts, street parking) that ruin potentially walkable urban areas, then I see the point. But that's different from minimum parking regulations more generally, isn't it?

Straight Talk on Mahogany Row

| Thu Sep. 2, 2010 11:42 AM EDT

One of Tyler Cowen's readers asks:

Why does the corporate world use language so inefficiently? Why turn a simple thing like "talking to a client about their needs" into a five-step process (distinguished, no doubt, by an acronym)? Do companies think that they create net value when they brand a common thing like human conversation as a one-of-a-kind, complex process — even after the costs of being opaque, jargonistic, and long-winded are taken into account?

Tyler's answer:

My speculation: People disagree in corporations, often virulently, or they would disagree if enough real debates were allowed to reach the surface. The use of broad generalities, in rhetoric, masks such potential disagreements and helps maintain corporate order and authority. Since it is hard to oppose fluffy generalities in any very specific way, a common strategy is to stack everyone's opinion or points into an incoherent whole. Disagreement is then less likely to become a focal point within the corporation and warring coalitions are less likely to form.

This is an unanswerable question, but I think I'd offer a different kind of speculation. For starters, all professions develop their own jargon. Some of it sounds ridiculous and some of it doesn't, but it seems to be practically a human universal. So I wouldn't try to draw any special conclusions strictly from the existence of jargon itself.

More generally, though, why does an entire class that thinks of itself as so practical and results-oriented buy into so many of the fads that produce all this jargon? I don't think it's to reduce conflict. I would be very surprised if you found any correlation at all between faddish jargon and the amount of internal backstabbing in corporations. Instead, my guess is this: most businessmen aren't really all that smart. When things go wrong they don't know what to do. And when you don't know what to do, anything is better than nothing. So you go searching for someone with an answer, and like all professions, the business world has plenty of people willing to offer them. Needless to say, though, those answers have to seem as if they offer something new and different, and that means flowcharts and five-point plans and a special lingo. It's a truism that the easiest person to sell to is another salesman, and likewise, the easiest person to sell a new business process fad to is another businessman.

And for what it's worth, I don't think this is entirely bad. I know a lot of this stuff sounds ridiculous, but if you dig beneath the jargon a lot of business advice is actually fairly reasonable. What's more, in a lot of cases it almost doesn't matter what it is. What matters is that you have some corporate managers who are at sea and don't know what to do, and they just need someone to provide them with some structure for changing things and moving forward. Not every structure will work, but I think you might be surprised by how many different ones do. What really matters is simply deciding on something and then getting a move on. A charismatic and self-confident CEO is supposed to provide this kind of leadership, but lacking that a little bit of witch doctory business process consulting can often help the process along.

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Three Strikes for White Collar Criminals

| Thu Sep. 2, 2010 10:58 AM EDT

The LA Times reports on California's first ever application of its three-strikes law for white-collar crime:

Timothy Barnett spent nearly five years in state prison for a 1990s foreclosure rescue scam in which he conned homeowners out of tens of thousands of dollars. Now, prosecutors say, he has been at it again, targeting residents in the same South Los Angeles neighborhood he fleeced before.

But this time, the state is unleashing one of its more powerful weapons against him. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office has charged Barnett under California's much-debated three-strikes law. Usually aimed at offenders with a history of violent crime, it is rarely used for white-collar offenses such as fraud.

....As in his first case, prosecutors said, Barnett targeted older African Americans, mostly in South Los Angeles. They said he used his Christian faith — praying with victims and passing out business cards that described him as a "visionary" — to win their trust. Barnett told victims that he learned about their financial troubles from public records.

Apparently these cases are technically burglary, because Barnett allegedly did his smooth talking inside people's homes. That's why three-strikes applies.

For my money, though, the fact that only a technicality like that allows three-strikes to apply just shows how dumb the law is in the first place. Why shouldn't a serial fraudster who preys on the elderly be locked up for life if he has a pattern of recidivism? I can't really think of any reasons that don't apply to garden variety burglary too. In fact, I'd say the case for applying it to fraud is actually better. Burglars and muggers usually wind down their crime careers as they get older. The case for keeping them in prison through their fifties and sixties is pretty shaky. But white collar fraudsters can keep going forever. So why shouldn't the law apply to them too?

Overall, I'm not a big fan of California's three-strikes law as it's currently implemented. It's expensive, sometimes arbitrary, and has a tenuous claim to reducing crime. Technically it allows the possibility of parole after 20 years, but that virtually never happens. Small-time thugs, even violent ones, don't deserve life in prison. Letting them out in their mid-40s probably wouldn't put the community in any noticeable danger.

But guys who sweet talk the elderly out of their homes? Well, if Barnett is found guilty, I wouldn't feel too badly about putting him behind bars for life. Ditto for plenty of other white collar offenders. Just because they wear nice clothes doesn't mean they aren't every bit as dangerous as a junkie stealing Blu-ray players to finance his next hit.

The Fate of the Tea Parties

| Wed Sep. 1, 2010 11:42 PM EDT

Steve Clemons on the tea party movement:

I hope that David Frum is right and that the Tea Party movement, which is growing in numbers and ferocity, will hit its limit, experience an Icarus moment, and plunge back into the fringe of American politics where pugnacious, jingoistic, narrow band nationalism has always lurked.

But there is no guarantee of this. A prominent mega-funder of the political left recently told me that he had miscalculated about a number of things in the last election. One of these was that he thought that electorally smashing the increasingly manic right wing that had hijacked the Republican Party and dislodged the more moderate, straight-talking John McCain in favor of the McCain that empowered and unleashed Sarah Palin would produce a more reasonable GOP.

He told me that "their political loss didn't teach the Republicans anything; they actually got much worse."

For what it's worth, I think Frum is right and the mega-funder just needs to have a bit more patience. Parties rarely move to the center immediately after a big defeat. Usually it takes two or three before they finally get the message, and on that metric Republicans aren't due for a move to the center until sometime after 2012.

As for the tea parties, they're nothing new. We've seen similar conservative movements flower like clockwork during previous Democratic administrations, and they always burn themselves out after a few years. The tea party movement has ascended faster than its ancestors, partly because of lousy economic conditions and partly because of the power of modern media, and my guess is that their fall will be equally swift when it comes. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin simply aren't the kind of people who wear well. Their fifteen minutes aren't up yet, but they will be within a year or two. More on this later.

Illegal Immigration Way Down

| Wed Sep. 1, 2010 1:44 PM EDT

A new Pew report says that illegal immigration into the United States is way down. From the LA Times summary:

Fewer illegal immigrants came to the U.S. every year between 2007 and 2009 than in the years in the first half of the decade, the study found. About 300,000 illegal immigrants entered the U.S. each year between 2007 and 2009, a drop from the 850,000 new unauthorized immigrants that entered each year between 2000 and 2005.

Is this because of stricter immigration enforcement or because of tough economic times? Probably both. But if 600,000 immigrants have entered the U.S. illegally in the past two years while the total population of illegal immigrants has fallen by 900,000, that means about 1.5 million of them have returned to their home countries. There's no way that enforcement has ramped up that much. This seems like it's almost certainly primarily a reflection of the bad economy.

Quote of the Day: Mum's the Word

| Wed Sep. 1, 2010 1:31 PM EDT

From Linda McMahon, the former World Wrestling Entertainment executive who's now running for the Senate in Connecticut:

I can certainly tell you I’m not adverse to talking in the right time or forum about what we need to do relative to our entitlements. I mean, Social Security is going to go bankrupt. Clearly, we have to strengthen that....I just don’t believe that the campaign trail is the right place to talk about that.

Quite right. After all, people might not vote for you if they knew what you actually thought.