Kevin Drum

Regulate 'Em All

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 9:42 PM EST

Billionaire private equity honcho Stephen Schwarzman thinks that bankers are being unfairly pilloried:

If there is one common theme that I have heard in conversations with senior bank executives over the past several months, it is that their fundamental business model is under siege. They are uncertain about [blah blah blah]. These uncertainties have severely hampered banking executives' ability to plan how to run their businesses or even know what their businesses may include. Predictably, bankers are reacting to this unprecedented uncertainty by becoming conservative and cautious. The result is that there is less lending and less credit available.

....It is important to remember that a variety of actors helped create the financial crisis....Regulators permitted dramatic increases in leverage at investment banks, and billions of dollars of debt stayed off some banks' balance sheets. There was failure at virtually every level of regulatory oversight, including, critically, minimal controls over mortgage brokers, who encouraged many subprime borrowers to contract for houses or take out additional loans that they could never afford.

Tim Fernholz is unimpressed:

Doesn't it sound like a burglar complaining a robbery was not his fault because the cops weren't watching the house closely enough? Schwarzman seems to forget that regulators permitted these bad actions in response to financial sector lobbying — it's not like the regulators just up and announced absurd leverage requirements without outside pressure.

Yep. Financiers will do whatever the law allows them to. And they'll always push to make the laws as friendly as possible. That's just human nature and it's not going to change. Which is exactly why Congress ought to start ignoring them and begin passing laws to rein them in, just like Stephen Schwarzman apparently thinks they should. After all, if you want to cut down on speeding, you don't just sit around complaining about how reckless people are. You pass a law against speeding and then staff up the highway patrol.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, Schwarzman's op-ed is actually even more damning than Tim suggests. Schwarzman's point isn't just that there was regulatory failure, his point is that there were huge failures everywhere in the financial industry. He's right! But far from exonerating bankers, it's exactly why regulatory reform ought to be broad and sweeping. His op-ed is an argument for regulating bankers and everyone else too.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Friday Cat Blogging - 19 February 2010

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 2:59 PM EST

After a couple of weeks of heavy rain, the weather here in Southern California has been spectacularly beautiful for the past few days: clear skies, mid-70s, and just a hint of a breeze. Inkblot and Domino, of course, are pleased that their staff managed to twist a few arms and make this happen. On the left, Domino celebrates by rolling around in the sunshine and waiting for her masseur to come over and rub her belly. On the right, Inkblot employs the long-awaited sunshine to its highest and best purpose. Have a nice weekend, everyone.

Quotes of the Day: Hank Paulson Edition

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 2:26 PM EST

From Newsweek's summary of Hank Paulson's upcoming memoir, which recounts his days running the Treasury Department during the great financial meltdown of 2008:

Paulson delivers a continual and biting critique of Republicans....Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning is a “cantankerous conservative” (page 275). Meetings with Senate Republicans were “a complete waste of time for us, when time was more precious than anything” (page 275). Ideas that Republicans do add are “unformed,” like Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor’s plan to replace TARP with an insurance program. In a rare moment of sarcasm, Paulson goes off on the minority Whip: “I got a better idea. I’m going to go with Eric Cantor’s insurance program. That’s the idea to save the day” (page 285).

This is no surprise. In his Vanity Fair interview last year, Paulson had glowing comments about Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi, and Tim Geithner, but about his fellow Republicans he was considerably less charitable. Basically, he says they were preening, ignorant, ideologues. Imagine that.

Health Insurance Across State Lines

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 1:50 PM EST

Bob Somerby takes both liberals and the media to task for not fighting back against a conservative meme:

In recent weeks, we’ve mentioned the press corps’ failure to examine a ubiquitous GOP claim — a claim asserting the merits of letting consumers buy health insurance “across state lines.” On the various cable “news” channels, voters hear this proposal advanced again and again and again.

....The voters deserve to hear this explained. We have never seen this explained on cable, although we’ve endlessly heard the proposal. And we still haven’t seen this matter explained in a simple, “explainer” news report. For the most part, our big news orgs simply don’t explain things. In all candor, they rarely seem to know what sorts of claims are being made in the wider discourse.

We’ll offer one further suggestion for any newspaper which might want to do an explainer piece — a piece which might be called, “Buying across state lines for [us] dummies.” On cable, Republicans and conservatives often draw a comparison between health insurance, which can’t be sold “across state liners,” and car insurance, which apparently can. Since voters constantly hear that refrain, an “explainer” piece ought to address it.

Is it really true that no cable or major print outlet has ever addressed this? It might be! I don't watch enough cable to know, and I don't read every article in every major newspaper. But I confess that my memory says Bob is right: I don't remember ever seeing this given any kind of serious treatment.

The basic problem with this proposal, of course, is pretty simple. If you allow health insurance policies to be sold across state lines, states would start competing for insurance industry business by writing ever friendlier regulations. Eventually some small state will win this contest with an absurdly lax regulatory regime, and every insurance company in America will set up shop there. Essentially, the entire country would be forced to accept whatever pro-industry rules that, say, Wyoming decides to write for the rest of us. Do the citizens of all the other states really want to cede that power to Wyoming?

As for car insurance, if you want to sell auto policies in California, you have to abide by California laws. Ditto for the other 49 states, regardless of where your company is actually located. So the comparison is bogus. Every state does have its own auto insurance regulations, just as they do in the health insurance arena.

But a longer, more definitive explanation would be welcome. If Bob is right that no one has ever bothered to do this even though conservatives repeat this proposal regularly, maybe someone should think about taking a reporter or two off the CPAC beat and assigning them to this instead.

CPAC and the Press

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 12:50 PM EST

Why does the press devote so much attention to CPAC every year? Marc Ambinder (sort of) asks the question:

It has become a place to network and cheer at applause lines — nothing more. Leave the hall and end the day, and you've had a good time, but you don't feel fulfilled. CPAC is a guilty pleasure.

....CPAC isn't supposed to be a policy conference, which is fortunate, because policy is almost non-existent. Some of the panels are set up to rehearse the conservative-libertarian divide over certain issue sets, but no ideas get advanced at CPAC. Judging by the exhibitors, conservatives don't care about education, or the environment, or health care, or urban policy — only abortion, Supreme Court nominations, gun rights, campaign finance (Citizens United has a very nice booth) and deifying Ronald Reagan.

Asked and answered! Put on a serious conference that discusses real ideas, and you will get no attention. Put on a show with fake sumo wrestling and lots of outrageous speeches and the media will beat a path to your door. Ambinder thinks CPAC is showing its age, but I think CPAC is actually a perfect symbol of contemporary politics as reality show spectacle. As long as a camera is there, it's all good.

And if you're loud enough, the cameras are always there, aren't they?

Obama and the Public Option

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 12:21 PM EST

Ezra Klein reports that the White House is opposed to the effort to revive the public option and pass it in the Senate via reconciliation. Why? Because they want to appear "bipartisan." Matt Yglesias is unimpressed:

While it’s true that the White House has sought to brand itself “as a bipartisan outpost” you know and I know and Ezra Klein knows and I certainly hope David Axelrod knows that at the end of the day if a health care bill emerges no Republicans will vote for it. And any shine of bipartisanship that Obama may or may not have put on himself is going to go away. So what’s the point in being “sharply opposed” to the public option concept? This is very bad logic, and if true very fishy behavior on the part of the White House.

I think this gets to the deepest, most mysterious question about Barack Obama: does he really believe in bipartisanship? That is, does he actually believe that if he sticks to his guns and keeps pushing away at compromise, eventually Republicans will start to work with him in good faith? Or is this basically a ploy to get public opinion on his side because he knows that the public is deeply in love with bipartisanship?

I hope it's the latter, because even a year ago the former was a belief that only a political naif could maintain. Today, you'd have to be a thoroughgoing idiot. But all evidence suggests that Obama is neither naive nor stupid, so I have to assume that this is basically part of a long-term effort to turn public opinion sharply against Republicans.

Alternatively, I suppose it could be strictly a short-term, inside play to maintain Democratic support for passing a bill. Obama may believe that Dems are so scared, and support for passing anything is so fragile, that bringing back the public option at this point runs the risk of frightening a big chunk of the caucus away for good. Sadly, I can't pretend this is a groundless fear.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Conservatives and the Stimulus

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 11:29 AM EST

Following up on my post yesterday about the stimulus, Robert Waldmann makes a good catch. Reihan Salam had said, "I don't think that anyone doubts that ARRA helped perk up growth," but it turns out that not only is this untrue, it's spectacularly untrue. Here's a CNN poll from a few weeks ago:

So 41% of American adults think the stimulus had no effect or made things worse. CNN doesn't provide crosstabs, but I think it's a pretty good guess that this belief is primarily held by conservatives and right-leaning independents who take their cues from conservative media. In other words, it's likely that upwards of three-quarters or more of conservatives believe the stimulus had no effect.

That doesn't happen unless conservative pundits and politicians are almost unanimously pushing exactly that belief. There might be a few conservative thinkers out there who are offering up judicious, nuanced conclusions about the stimulus, but their effect on public discourse in general is nil. Among the vast majority of conservative opinion leaders, not only is it untrue that few people doubt ARRA helped perk up growth, but apparently virtually everyone doubts that ARRA helped perk up growth.

Which Conservatives Matter?

| Thu Feb. 18, 2010 8:24 PM EST

On Tuesday, David Leonhardt took issue with conservatives who think the stimulus didn't do any good for the economy. The next day, Reihan Salam took issue with David Leonhardt:

Leonhardt refers to "hard-core skeptics," and my worry is that this does a lot of the work for him. Critics like Desmond Lachman believe that the stimulus was poorly timed and poorly designed....Others are concerned about the impact of heavy deficit spending on long-term growth prospects, i.e., the fiscal stimulus program has a beneficial growth impact in the short term, but exacerbating extreme fiscal policy swings are very difficult to sustain....So is Leonhardt taking issue with people who believe that spending hundreds of billions of dollars in the space of a few month would have zero impact on GDP growth? In that case, I would enthusiastically agree with him.

....But again, I don't think that anyone doubts that ARRA helped perk up growth. It is very hard to imagine that spending an enormous sum of money would not.

Reihan claims that Leonhardt is arguing with a strawman, but as both Jon Chait and Matt Yglesias point out, there really are lots of conservatives — including most of the loudest ones — who believe that the stimulus literally had no impact on jobs or growth — or maybe even a negative one. It's hardly a stretch to say that this is a pretty widely held right-wing view, and Matt draws a broad conclusion from Reihan's reluctance to acknowledge this: "I think [this is] a pretty common failing among the smarter set of conservative commentators, namely a tendency to dismiss as straw-man characterizations positions that are in fact the mainstream conservative orthodoxy."

Well, yes. I'm reminded of Megan McArdle's revelation a couple of years ago when she discovered that mainstream conservatives really do have a party line that insists tax cuts always raise revenues. "A conservative publication," she admitted, "just spiked a book review because I said that the Laffer Curve didn't apply at American levels of taxation....I suppose I ought to have known, but I didn't. Go ahead liberals, pile on: you told me so."

But I think there's something else going on here too. In his post about the stimulus bill, Reihan is implicitly suggesting that liberals ought to be engaging with the best of conservative thinkers, many of whom hold nuanced and moderate positions. And it's true: some of them do. The problem is that in the real world, these nuanced and moderate thinkers have virtually no influence. Among actual politicians and high-profile yakkers, it's nearly unanimously held that, for example, the stimulus had no positive effect on the economy; that tax cuts always increase revenues; that Europeans all have poorer healthcare than Americans; and that man-made global warming is a delusion. Reihan and Megan and others like them may hold more careful views, but the vast bulk of the conservative movement simply doesn't. And that's the reality of the world that liberals have to deal with.

Now, whenever something like this comes up, I wonder if there's something similar on the liberal side of the aisle. Are there hot button issues on which the Kevin Drums and Jon Chaits of the world hold moderate, techno-googoo views, but on which elected politicians and bigfoot TV pundits unanimously insist on extreme, lockstep views? I can't really think of any. Taxes? Healthcare? National security? Immigration? Climate change? Education? Abortion? Gay rights? Labor law? On all of these, either liberal politicians hold a fairly broad variety of leftish views (national security, immigration, education) or else they hold pretty similar views but so does the commentariat (climate change, gay rights). No important issue comes to mind in which the liberal think tank community holds a lively and diverse set of opinions but actual liberal politicians unanimously maintain a death grip on some extreme, base-pleasing position.

But that doesn't mean there isn't one. It just means I can't think of it. So help me out. Can anyone come up with a few good examples?

Financial Innovation Watch

| Thu Feb. 18, 2010 5:43 PM EST

Paul Volcker famously said last year that the only recent positive financial innovation he could think of was the ATM machine. Today, via Tyler Cowen, we have a paper from Bob Litan of the Brookings Institution that tries to judge whether Volcker was right. His conclusion:

I find that there is a mix between good and bad financial innovations, although on balance I find more good ones than bad ones.  Individually and collectively, these innovations have improved access to credit, made life more convenient, and in some cases probably allowed the economy to grow faster. But some innovations (notably, CDOs and Structured Investment Vehicles, or SIVs) were poorly designed, while others were misused (CDS, adjustable rate mortgages or ARMs, and home equity lines of credit or HELOCs) and contributed to the financial crisis and/or amplified the downturn in the economy when it started.

I haven't read the full paper yet, but in the bloggy tradition of tossing out provocative material to see what other smart people have to say about it, here is Litan's summary table of what's good and what's bad in financial innovation. For now, I'll just note that aside from the rise of venture capital, which wasn't a Wall Street phenomenon, there's not a single innovation in the investment arena that Litan scores as a productivity enhancer. (Securitization gets a positive score, but that's provisional on it being "restructured by the market and/or policymakers.") That's pretty damning coming from a guy who's obviously pretty sympathetic to innovation. Other comments welcome.

Inside the Tea Parties

| Thu Feb. 18, 2010 2:20 PM EST

David Barstow talks to CJR's Greg Marx about his big tea party story that ran in the New York Times on Monday. An excerpt:

At some point along the way I was struck by the number of people who had really been transformed since the recession hit. You could not miss the number of people who were drawn to this movement because of the events of the fall of ’08. That was one theme that became really clear to me — their incredible anger at the economic pain that they were witnessing in their own lives and the lives of their friends and family, and their anger and disappointment at the government’s role in both the events that led to the recession and the response, especially the bailouts.

The other thing that came through was this idea of impending tyranny. You could not go to Tea Party rallies or spend time talking to people within the movement without hearing that fear expressed in myriad ways. I was struck by the number of people who had come to the point where they were literally in fear of whether or not the United States of America would continue to be a free country. I just started seeing that theme come up everywhere I went.

....If you spend enough time talking to people in the movement, eventually you hear enough of the same kinds of ideas, the same kinds of concerns, and you begin to recognize what the ideology is, what the paradigm is that they’re operating in....You begin to understand why it is that they’re so concerned about ACORN, why it is that they’re so concerned about global warming, why it is that they’re worried about the potential for things like FEMA camps. You understand why they’re so angry not just at Obama and the Democrats, but also at people like John McCain. You understand where they’re coming from on stimulus and bailouts and the Federal Reserve. If you scrape deep enough with people and spend enough time really listening to what they’re concerned about, it does tend to gel. There’s a fear that both parties have been complicit in this giant charade that has done enormous damage to ordinary Americans. It’s very complex, and yet at the same time there is something coherent about it.

Barstow's piece is well worth your time if you haven't already read it. Click here. I hope that someday he writes a companion piece focusing just on the ideology that he talks about in this interview. Some of it is well worn, and some of it is new, and it would be fascinating to tease these strands out. On the one hand, you have the perfectly sensible belief that "both parties have been complicit in this giant charade that has done enormous damage to ordinary Americans" — something that even most readers of this blog might largely agree with — and on the other hand you have exotic worries about FEMA concentration camps and Interpol agents arresting U.S. citizens on their own soil.

I'm still not sure where this is going, but my sense is that we've seen this movie before. The tea party movement is basically a modern day John Birch Society, and eventually they'll either wither away or implode. These kinds of groups tend to get increasingly conspiratorial over time, and that limits both their growth potential and their influence. Republicans are pandering to them now, but I wonder how much longer they'll keep it up?

In fact, given the way that politics has been speeded up in virtually every way over the past few decades, the tea party implosion might come faster than we think. Having Fox and Glenn Beck behind them has obviously helped the movement grow far faster than, say, the John Birch Society could grow in the 60s, but it also means that they might hit their peak a lot sooner too. Eventually even conservatives are going to tire of Beck's gold buggery and wacky conspiracy theories, and they'll likely tire of the tea party movement too. And it will all happen at fast forward speed.

That's my guess, anyway. In the meantime, Barstow says you really need to read The Five Thousand Year Leap — the version with the Glenn Beck introduction, presumably — if you want to understand how tea partiers think and what motivates them. So get cracking.