Kevin Drum

Quote of the Day: Financial Engineering

| Sun Dec. 13, 2009 6:52 PM EST

From Paul Volcker, during a Q&A at the Future of Finance Initiative:

A few years ago I happened to be at a conference of business people, not financial people [...] and I found myself sitting next to one of the inventors of financial engineering. I didn't know him, but I knew who he was and that he had won a Nobel Prize, and I nudged him and asked what all the financial engineering does for the economy and what it does for productivity.

Much to my surprise, he leaned over and whispered in my ear that it does nothing — and this was from a leader in the world of financial engineering. I asked him what it did do, and he said that it moves around the rents in the financial system — and besides, it's a lot of intellectual fun.

It's funny, but for all the talk that this subject has received, I've really heard no one seriously contest this point.1  The inventors of modern financial engineering, far from defending their handiwork, instead seem to be intent on keeping their heads down and hoping that, in the end, Congress loses the desire to do anything serious to stop them.  It's probably a pretty good strategy.

1Of course, I might have missed something.  Has anyone made a serious, thorough defense of modern financial engineering anywhere?

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Taibbi vs. Obama

| Sat Dec. 12, 2009 10:23 PM EST

Matt Taibbi's long polemic about Barack Obama's economic team in the current issue of Rolling Stone has attracted its share of both support and derision in the blogosphere over the past couple of days.  Big surprise, eh?  Digby rounds up some of the reaction here.

Well, after reading the piece this afternoon you can basically count me among the supporters.  Is it over the top?  Of course it is.  Are there some matters of interpretation that I think Taibbi gets a bit wrong?  Sure.  For example: the conceit of the piece is that Obama chose to build his economic team around people who were acolytes of Bob Rubin, and this strikes me as misguided.  Basically, Obama chose to build his economic team around mainstream Democratic economists with previous government experience, and virtually all of these guys have ties to each other and therefore to Rubin.  That's every bit as bad — maybe worse, in fact — but it changes the problem from one of personal influence to one of systemic influence.  There's a real difference there.  What else?  Taibbi spends a lot of time on Rubin pal Michael Froman, who led Obama's search for an economic team during the transition, and this leads him to say that Tim Geithner was "hired to head the U.S. Treasury" by Froman.  But that's kind of silly.  At the cabinet level, Obama didn't need Froman's advice.  He chose Geithner all on his own.  Taibbi also commits one of my pet peeves, suggesting that the bailout may eventually cost taxpayers $23 trillion.  That's ridiculous.  He also fails to emphasize enough that virtually all of the bailout money was directed by the Fed and virtually all of it predates Obama's presidency.

But look: this is all just nitpicky bullshit.  Taibbi's piece is basically about how the finance industry owns Congress and the Obama administration, and that's basically true.  In fact, I have a piece coming out in a week or so in the print magazine that makes pretty much the same point.  My approach is different, and my language is all PG-rated, but my conclusions are pretty much the same.  The finance industry, through both standard lobbying and what Simon Johnson calls "intellectual capture," has, over the decades since Reagan was elected, convinced nearly everyone that what's good for Wall Street is good for America, and that what's bad for Wall Street would be catastrophic for America.  Everything else follows from that.

So, sure, I think Taibbi overstates Rubin's influence and thereby understates the real systemic problem here, but hey — it's his article, not mine.  Generally speaking, he gets his facts right and he gets the big picture right: Obama's team is nearly as dedicated to the economic status quo as Republicans are.  Ditto for many — though not all — Democrats in Congress.  It's worth reading.

POSTSCRIPT: One more thing.  Here's the final paragraph of Taibbi's piece:

What's most troubling is that we don't know if Obama has changed, or if the influence of Wall Street is simply a fundamental and ineradicable element of our electoral system. What we do know is that Barack Obama pulled a bait-and-switch on us. If it were any other politician, we wouldn't be surprised. Maybe it's our fault, for thinking he was different.

I don't think Obama has changed, or that he pulled a bait-and-switch.  In fact, I'd say his moderate, mainstream centrist approach to the economy was pretty clear during the campaign.  I vote instead for the influence of Wall Street being a "fundamental and ineradicable element of our electoral system."

Taibbi vs. Obama

Sat Dec. 12, 2009 9:43 PM EST

Matt Taibbi's long polemic about Barack Obama's economic team in the current issue of Rolling Stone has attracted its share of both support and derision in the blogosphere over the past couple of days.  Big surprise, eh?  Digby rounds up some of the reaction here.

Well, after reading the piece this afternoon you can basically count me among the supporters.  Is it over the top?  Of course it is.  Are there some matters of interpretation that I think Taibbi gets a bit wrong?  Sure.  For example: the conceit of the piece is that Obama chose to build his economic team around people who were acolytes of Bob Rubin, and this strikes me as misguided.  Basically, Obama chose to build his economic team around mainstream Democratic economists with previous government experience, and virtually all of these guys have ties to each other and therefore to Rubin.  That's every bit as bad — maybe worse, in fact — but it changes the problem from one of personal influence to one of systemic influence.  There's a real difference there.  What else?  Taibbi spends a lot of time on Rubin pal Michael Froman, who led Obama's search for an economic team during the transition, and this leads him to say that Tim Geithner was "hired to head the U.S. Treasury" by Froman.  But that's kind of silly.  At the cabinet level, Obama didn't need Froman's advice.  He chose Geithner all on his own.  Taibbi also commits one of my pet peeves, suggesting that the bailout may eventually cost taxpayers $23 trillion.  That's ridiculous.  He also fails to emphasize enough that virtually all of the bailout money was directed by the Fed and virtually all of it predates Obama's presidency.

But look: this is all just nitpicky bull****.  Taibbi's piece is basically about how the finance industry owns Congress and the Obama administration, and that's basically true.  In fact, I have a piece coming out in a week or so in the print magazine that makes pretty much the same point.  My approach is different, and my language is all PG-rated, but my conclusions are pretty much the same.  The finance industry, through both standard lobbying and what Simon Johnson calls "intellectual capture," has, over the decades since Reagan was elected, convinced nearly everyone that what's good for Wall Street is good for America, and that what's bad for Wall Street would be catastrophic for America.  Everything else follows from that.

So, sure, I think Taibbi overstates Rubin's influence and thereby understates the real systemic problem here, but hey — it's his article, not mine.  Generally speaking, he gets his facts right and he gets the big picture right: Obama's team is nearly as dedicated to the economic status quo as Republicans are.  Ditto for many — though not all — Democrats in Congress.  It's worth reading.

POSTSCRIPT: One more thing.  Here's the final paragraph of Taibbi's piece:

What's most troubling is that we don't know if Obama has changed, or if the influence of Wall Street is simply a fundamental and ineradicable element of our electoral system. What we do know is that Barack Obama pulled a bait-and-switch on us. If it were any other politician, we wouldn't be surprised. Maybe it's our fault, for thinking he was different.

I don't think Obama has changed, or that he pulled a bait-and-switch.  In fact, I'd say his moderate, mainstream centrist approach to the economy was pretty clear during the campaign.  I vote instead for the influence of Wall Street being a "fundamental and ineradicable element of our electoral system."

Chart of the Day: Healthcare Spending

| Sat Dec. 12, 2009 3:43 PM EST

Yesterday the Office of the Actuary for Medicare released its estimate of national healthcare costs if the Senate healthcare plan is adopted.  Unsurprisingly, it shows that total spending will rise: the bill, after all, would cover about 30 million more people, so you'd expect spending to go up at first.

But there's more to the story — although you won't learn this by listening to Fox News.  The bill also reduces the growth in expenditures over time, and this means that within a few years we're covering a lot of additional people for no net increase in spending.  Jon Cohn explains:

The underlying trend is in the right direction. As more time passes, it's more likely we'll save money. Why do I say that? It has to do with two competing trends that explain how the Medicare Actuary arrives at its bottom line [i.e., more people being covered drives spending up, but increased efficiencies drive spending down –ed.]

....According to the projection, under reform the government will reduce its spending on Medicare significantly. Establishing a commission on the cost of Medicare will reduce it further, although not by much in the early years. And a tax on the most expensive health insurance plans will curb spending in the private sector.

Over time, the cumulative effect of these changes will grow, so that the gap between what we'd spend on health care without reform and what we'd spend with it will shrink. In 2019, the last year of the projection, the difference — that is, the amount of extra money our society devotes to health care — is a measly $23 billion out of more than $4.5 trillion total.

....But the actual price may be even lower, at least as time goes forward. The Medicare Actuary does not project beyond the 2019 window. But it's reasonable to assume that if the trend holds until 2019, it will hold for a few years beyond, to the point where medical care spending really would come down.

The Medicare Actuary might not go beyond 2019, and Jon might not go beyond 2019, but I'm happy to.  The chart above starts in 2014, when the spending provisions of the bill kick in, and then extends the trend line out to 2026.  It's based on nothing but a simple extrapolation, but it shows graphically what Jon and the Medicare Actuary talk about in words: a decade after the reforms kick in, we'd be providing healthcare to at least 30 million more people and spending no more than we would if we did nothing.  Unless you're a Republican, that's a pretty good deal.

Friday Cat Blogging - 11 December 2009

| Fri Dec. 11, 2009 4:04 PM EST

I've been fighting off my cats this week.  Domino has taken to jumping up on my desk and making a nuisance of herself because she wants me to vacate my chair so she can sleep in it.  I finally got tired of this, so I decided to put her pod on the desk and see if she'd be satisfied with that instead.  As you can see, it worked.  So then I put a pillow on the floor next to my desk, put the pod on the pillow, and drew her attention to that.  She seems very happy, and now mostly leaves me alone.

Unfortunately, as you can also see, nature abhors a vacuum and cats abhor an empty spot from which to annoy their humans.  Domino may be happy with her pod, but now Inkblot is the one jumping up on my desk trying to get me out of the chair.  He's never been attracted to pods, so I'm not sure what the solution is going to be if he keeps this up.  Suggestions?

China's Problems

| Fri Dec. 11, 2009 3:52 PM EST

Dan Drezner points to a piece in the New York Times about growing discontent with China in the developing world:

China has long claimed to be just another developing nation, even as its economic power far outstripped that of any other emerging country. Now, it is finding it harder to cast itself as a friendly alternative to an imperious American superpower. For many in Asia, it is the new colossus.

“China 10 years ago is totally different with China now,” said Ansari Bukhari, who oversees metals, machinery and other crucial sectors for Indonesia’s Ministry of Industry. “They are stronger and bigger than other countries. Why do we have to give them preference?”

To varying degrees, others are voicing the same complaint. Take the 10 Southeast Asian nations in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known as Asean, a regional economic bloc representing about 600 million people. After a decade of trade surpluses with Asean nations that ran as high as $20 billion, the surplus through October totaled a bare $535 million, according to Chinese customs figures, and appears headed toward a 10-year low. That is prompting some rethinking of the conventional wisdom that China’s rise is a windfall for the whole neighborhood.

Vietnam just devalued its currency by 5 percent, to keep it competitive with China. In Thailand, manufacturers are grousing openly about their inability to match Chinese prices. India has filed a sheaf of unfair-trade complaints against China this year covering everything from I-beams to coated paper.

I don't have any lengthy comment about this, other than the obvious: China looks scary to some people today because they project its current growth rates into the far future and then assume that everything else in the world will stay the same.  But as China becomes more highly developed, it's going to encounter the same problems maintaining growth that everyone else does.  What's more, it's going to start developing a lot more rivals, both overseas and nearby.  That's going to make its foreign policy way trickier than it is today.  They're already getting a taste of that in Copenhagen, where American representatives are getting occasional breathing spells from the usual attacks as climate activists bash China instead.  It's only going to get worse for them in the future.

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The Problem From Hell

| Fri Dec. 11, 2009 2:45 PM EST

Over at Democracy in America, one of the Economist's teeming masses of anonymous bloggers1 takes a deeper look at Willis Eschenbach's claim that climate data was cooked in Darwin and concludes:

So, after hours of research, I can dismiss Mr Eschenbach. But what am I supposed to do the next time I wake up and someone whose name I don't know has produced another plausible-seeming account of bias in the climate-change science? Am I supposed to invest another couple of hours in it? Do I have to waste the time of the readers of this blog with yet another long post on the subject? Why? Why do these people keep bugging us like this? Does the spirit of scientific scepticism really require that I remain forever open-minded to denialist humbug until it's shown to be wrong? At what point am I allowed to simply say, look, I've seen these kind of claims before, they always turns out to be wrong, and it's not worth my time to look into it?

Well, here's my solution to this problem: this is why we have peer review. Average guys with websites can do a lot of amazing things. One thing they cannot do is reveal statistical manipulation in climate-change studies that require a PhD in a related field to understand. So for the time being, my response to any and all further "smoking gun" claims begins with: show me the peer-reviewed journal article demonstrating the error here. Otherwise, you're a crank and this is not a story.

This, of course, gets to the nub of the problem: climate deniers claim that the scientific community is engaged in a wide-ranging conspiracy (or, more subtly, "groupthink") designed specifically to keep them out of the literature.  The fact that their stuff isn't peer-reviewed has nothing to do with its quality, only with the fact that they aren't part of the community.

Now, I don't really know what the answer to this is.  It's a feature of every conspiracy theory that the very fact that experts don't take you seriously is evidence that the conspiracy exists.  So this isn't going to stop.  But what to do?  From a scientific point of view, you don't want to shut out legitimate dissent, but you also don't have the time to deal with every one of the hundreds of cranks who claim to have found an anomaly in your data.  From a public opinion point of view, you don't want to be so dismissive that even reasonable people think you're being a jerk, but you also don't want to give this stuff enough oxygen that you're implicitly saying it's legitimate criticism.  This tightrope is especially difficult to navigate since everyone's self interest (including mine) leads them in the direction of desperately preferring to believe that climate change isn't real.2  So you have to deal with that.

Climate change: it's the public policy problem from hell.  It's the scientific problem from hell.  It's the PR problem from hell.  If you had a classroom assignment to dream up a problem what would be almost impossible to solve given the realities of human nature and global institutions, climate change would be it.  It makes healthcare reform look like a walk in the park.

1And look: if you won't allow these guys to blog under their own names, shouldn't you also ban them from using the words "I" or "me," or from directly arguing with other anonymous Economist bloggers?  This really makes no sense.

2I can't tell you how many times I've wished the deniers were right.  I read their stuff with a combination of contempt for their crankery leavened with a teensy bit of hope that maybe they're onto something this time and the globe really isn't warming.  Because it would make a whole bunch of liberal projects a lot easier if greenhouse gases weren't a problem.

Obama's Economy

| Fri Dec. 11, 2009 2:10 PM EST

Brad DeLong continues to be puzzled by the Obama administration's unwillingness to aggressively pursue more expansionist fiscal policies:

Yes, uncertainty is enormous. And any one policy might not work. But that any one individul policy initiative might not work is not an argument for not trying anything — unless you are happy if things develop according to the current-policy forecast and we see an unemployment rate between 9% and 11% for the next year and a half at least.

Thus if I were in the administration I would be trying everything:

He follows this with a list of suggestions, including several Fed actions, a bunch of spending actions, and some regulatory stuff.  So given the weak state of the economy, and the fact that unemployment promises to stay high for 4-5 years, why isn't Obama's team pushing for any of these things?

It's a good question, but I think the answer is pretty simple.  However, it requires you to ignore what people are actually saying.  I imagine that no one in the administration will ever admit this, even off the record, but the main reason for inaction is almost certainly because they believe there's zero chance of getting any of this stuff done.  Politically, then, there's nothing but downside here: yet another long, bruising battle with both Congress and the Fed, ending in total defeat.  If everyone in the administration were utterly convinced that the economy was completely sunk otherwise, they might risk that.  But no one in his right mind will risk it for anything less.

The key thing to remember here is simple: the original stimulus bill passed the Senate 60-38.  That was for a bill passed a month after inauguration, while the economy was still in deep recession, and that was supported by virtually every economist with an IQ higher than Donald Luskin.  Given that, what are the odds of passing anything significant now?  The only thing that prevents the answer from being negative is the laws of probability.

So we'll get a little playing around the edges, maybe with the remnants of TARP, and maybe the Fed will do a bit of tinkering too.  But unless there's another crisis that sends the world into a tailspin, a little bit of uncertainty combined with the same Republican intransigence that's marked the entire previous year will prevent any serious new action.  Welcome to America.

Quote of the Day: You Talkin' To Me?

| Fri Dec. 11, 2009 1:24 PM EST

From Olympia Snowe, on the idea of allowing 55-64 year-olds to buy into Medicare:

I can’t see it. I am talking to a lot of my providers this afternoon and I know they are mighty unhappy.

Maybe she should try talking to some of her constituents instead?

Are Democrats Sunk?

| Fri Dec. 11, 2009 2:31 AM EST

A friend of mine from Virginia forwarded an email to me today from the NRCC.  It started like this:

After the spending spree the Democrats have gone on in 2009, you better believe there will be a backlash in 2010. As all Americans are tightening their belts to weather the Pelosi Recession, her Democrat puppets just voted to extend their credit limit. What they don't realize is that their bills are past due and next fall, we'll have the opportunity to collect by sending them home. Etc. etc.

I laughed it off, but he wasn't having any:

Not to be too presumptuous, but you might want to share the fundraiser (or parts of it) with your readers because Democrats better get off their butts soon and start pushing back and getting a lot more energized or we are going to get our clocks cleaned in 2010.

The main reason Bob McDonnell won in Virginia last month was Democratic exhaustion. After the 2008 election, most Virginia Democrats were emotionally and financially exhausted. We were in such a stupor we foolishly (and quite lazily) allowed Creigh to get the nomination. I can't tell you the number of usually-politically-plugged-in friends who were calling me a month before the election asking me who were the Democratic nominees for Lt. Governor and Attorney General.

We can't afford for that to be the prevailing national mood among Democrats in 2010. There is way too much at stake and it's time to rally the Democratic troops, left, right and moderate. We really cannot afford to allow the Republicans to seize control of either the House or the Senate but if we behave like Virginia Democrats just did, that will almost surely be the case.

Comments?  Is lefty obsession with the public option going to torpedo Dems in 2010?  Or will everyone manage to get energized in time for the midterms?  I live in California, where elections are almost all preordained, so it's hard for me to judge.  What's it like in the rest of the country?