Potatoes and the Constitution

Michele Bachmann, a person we are assured is a serious candidate for president if she decides to run, is upset that the federal government is thinking about seriously limiting the use of potatoes in school lunches. "Where in the #Constitution does it say the fed. government should regulate potatoes in school lunches?" she tweets. "It doesn’t."

Well, no, it doesn't. Nor does it say that highways should be built out of concrete instead of asphalt, or that naval vessels should be powered by nuclear reactors instead of sails. Matt Yglesias rolls his eyes:

This is emblematic of two horrible intellectual habits that have overtaken the current populist right. One is the incredibly slipshod constitutional law here. Obviously the federal government has the authority to specify for what purposes federal grant money can be used. Obviously. How else could it work? The other is the tendency to regard any existing profit stream as a form of property. Banks are entitled to their federal subsidies to offer student loans. For-profit colleges are entitled to their own student loan subsidy stream. Health care providers are entitled to unlimited wasteful spending at federal expense. Potato growers are entitled to their school lunch money.

This is why one should never take conservatives seriously when they claim to favor free enterprise. They don't. What they generally favor is pro-business policies, which are very decidedly not the same thing. It's entirely understandable that banks, colleges, healthcare providers, and potato growers want to keep all the taxpayer dollars that happen to flow their way, but it has nothing at all to do with free enterprise. Supporting these policies likewise has nothing to do with free enterprise. It has to do with currying favor with existing rent seekers and campaign contributors.

Both parties do this, of course, but Republicans do it on a considerably grander and more self-righteous scale than Democrats. And as Michele Bachmann demonstrates, a considerably more ignorant and historically preposterous one too.

Where the Bill of Rights Goes to Die

So here's the story: police in Lexington, Kentucky, were chasing after some guy who'd just scored some crack. He went into an apartment building, but police didn't know what door he had gone into. So, smelling marijuana under one door, they pounded loudly and announced their presence. But they guessed wrong. It was just some random dude doing drugs, not the guy they were after. The dude, unsurprisingly, panicked when police suddenly started pounding on his door and tried to dump the evidence. Police, hearing this, busted down his door, arrested him, and eventually sent him to prison for 11 years.

But let's back up. The police busted down his door? Don't you need a search warrant for that kind of thing? Answer: no, not if there are "exigent circumstances" that make it urgent that police get in. For example, if a suspect is busily getting rid of evidence.

But back up again. This particular guy, it turns out, had actually done nothing to attract police attention in the first place, and the only reason he was flushing his drugs away was because police were pounding on his door. This is pretty predictable behavior, which means that the police created the exigent circumstances themselves and then used that as an excuse to bust down a door instead of getting a search warrant. Surely that's a violation of the Fourth Amendment?

Well, maybe it was last week, but it's not anymore thanks to eight Supreme Court justices who ruled yesterday that this behavior is fine and dandy. As Scott Lemieux says, the war on drugs is "where the Bill of Rights goes to die":

Dismayingly, and demonstrating again that the Supreme Court essentially lacks a real liberal wing, the decision was 8-1, with both of Obama’s appointees in the majority....The key problem with the case, as [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg convincingly argues, is that it’s the latest example of the drift of the exigency exception away from actual emergencies and toward the mere convenience of the police. If the police have time to obtain a warrant and there isn’t an actual emergency, they should be required to obtain one. But when security in the home faces the War (On Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs, it generally loses.

But don't worry. This will never happen to a law-abiding person like you. Nothing to get in a lather about.

Shortly before California's 2003 special election for governor, the Los Angeles Times reported that a number of women had accused Arnold Schwarzenegger of groping and various other sexual advances. Arnold vaguely fessed up to some bad behavior in the past, but said, "I don't remember things that I've done or said 20 years ago. I don't remember things that I've done 30 years ago." The Times series was widely viewed as a thinly veiled hit piece scheduled to run just days before the election in order to ruin Schwarzenegger's chances.

That was never true. The reason the stories ran so late is because the special election was only six weeks long. If it had been any ordinary election, the Times would have spent far more time on its reporting and the story would likely have broken months before election day. In the event, though, the accusations were out there and the Times did heroic work putting together a hugely complex story under tight deadline pressure. As far as I know, the accuracy of their reporting hasn't been seriously challenged to this day.

And what about Arnold? He insisted that this stuff was so far in the dim past that he could barely remember it. But it wasn't. Today we learn that he had cheated on his wife and had a child out of wedlock just a few years before. His megawatt-smile denials were pure pap, and if knowledge of his affair had been public it's almost a dead certainty that the recall would have failed and Gray Davis would have remained governor. The car tax would have stayed in place, no bonds would have been issued to make up for it, and California's deficit problems would have been less than half as bad as they turned out to be under Schwarzenegger.

That's what comes of running a politically motivated snap election with weird rules in six weeks: you don't really know what you're getting. In the end, the Times was right about Schwarzenegger, and his folksy boys-will-be-boys denials were lies. We've paid a pretty high price for that.

Translating BHL on DSK

Michael O'Hare translates Bernard-Henri Lévy's defense of Dominique Strauss-Kahn so you don't have to soil your soul reading the whole thing yourself:

DSK is my friend, and I am Bernard-Henri Lévy. How dare these people of no importance treat him as though he has been credibly accused of a violent crime! He has a wife, with whom I, BHL, have dined, at parties with witty and charming Important People, and to speak publicly of any of this is victimizing her. To show my loyalty to this member of my privileged and superb tribe, I am going to make up nonsense about how rooms are cleaned in New York hotels, and assert, in my most magisterial way, that the US criminal justice system has a presumption of guilt. I have been to America, and I know about these things. The idea that a chambermaid is permitted in that vile country to accuse a Man of Great Importance! That a servant is permitted to trip up the great enterprise of my beloved French socialism! That if my seductive, charming, friend DSK, who loves the ladies, especially his own three, has forced himself on women they are supposed to be seen as victims – the nerve!

If you do want to soil your soul, the whole thing is here.

Quote of the Day: Pro Blogging Tips

From Karl Smith, explaining why a post of his was less than stellar:

It was also late at night, post-Ambien and by the time I hit post I had forgotten what I had intended to write about in the first place. This is how blogging is often done.

I assure you that Karl is going to get a stern letter from the guild disciplinary committee for exposing professional secrets. George Will is very upset about this.

Why Obama Negotiates

Why is Barack Obama allowing Republicans to make demands on him as a condition of raising the debt ceiling? The other day I suggested that it was because he wants Republicans to make demands on him. And why is that? Partly I think it's because he genuinely wants to address spending levels but wants Republican cover for it. Greg Sargent says the other half of the answer lies in Obama's desire to win back independents:

As David Axelrod said in a recent interview with bloggers, after the midterms Obama’s advisers concluded that they needed to get back to “first principles” and recapture what’s been “central to Barack Obama’s public life and outlook.” Axelrod defined Obama’s first principles as follows: “you don’t have to agree on everything, or even most things, to work together on some things.”

It seems clear that Obama and his advisers think laying down a firm marker — playing the game the way Republicans do — makes him sound like just another Washington politician. Saying “no,” as Krugman puts it, risks miring Obama in the same mud as all the rest of the partisan mud-slingers on both sides. The health care wars left Obama splattered with that mud. Signaling openness to compromise at the outset while articulating general principles as opposed to bottom lines — whatever it does for the Dems’ negotiating position — is central to Obama’s political identity and is the best way to recapture the aura that propelled him into the White House in the first place. It might be called “Beer Summit-ism.”

I think this is about right. My guess is that Obama views the lame duck compromise last year as both a policy and a political win. And I think he's probably right. Likewise, he also views some modest combination of spending cuts and revenue increases (probably via reductions in tax expenditures) as both a policy and a political win, but by making Republicans go first he gets cover for his left flank and gets to seem like the reasonable compromiser. Lefties won't like it but their grumbling will be mostly pro forma, and independents will be impressed.

And Republicans would be wise to go ahead and agree to something. It might be a political win for Obama, but frankly, they don't seem especially serious about trying to win the presidency next year. Might as well give Dems a political win now when it doesn't really make much difference.

Hooray for Doctor Shortages!

The healthcare reform bill of 2009 will provide health services to more people. Conservatives pointed out that this was a problem because the law didn't also create more doctors to help all these new patients. They had a point:

So Page 519 of the sprawling 2010 law to overhaul the health-care system creates an influential commission to guide the country in matching the supply of health-care workers with the need. But in the eight months since its members were named, the commission has been unable to start any work.

The group cannot convene, converse or hire staff because $3 million that it needs for its initial year has been blocked by two partisan wars on Capitol Hill — strife over the federal budget and Republicans’ disdain for the health-care changes that Democrats muscled into law 14 months ago.

To translate: lack of primary care physicians is a big problem when it's a good way of attacking Democrats, but solving the problem of primary care physicians is also a big problem — when it's a good way of attacking Democrats, anyway. This comes via Jon Cohn, who remarks acidly, "It's almost as if the Republicans are more interested in political symbolism than they are in making sure people can see the doctor in a timely fashion." Almost!

The Death of Uncertainty

Josh Barro notes that conservatives have been yammering away about "uncertainty" for the past couple of years, insisting that things like liberal health care reform rules and new financial regulations are causing investment to seize up until the future is clearer. But not anymore:

Isn’t it odd that we’re not hearing it in regard to the debt limit negotiations? A debt limit standoff certainly fosters uncertainty, discouraging investment and growth....As with any policy, there could be good reasons to manufacture a debt limit impasse despite the uncertainty it creates. (In my view, there aren’t, but there could be.) Still, opponents of a clean debt limit increase need to account for the uncertainty that their preferred policy will foster.

Since I'm not a conservative and I don't have to pretend to be nice, I'll provide the obvious answer: nobody ever really believed in this argument in the first place. Financial uncertainty has certainly been the cause of weak investment ever since the Great Collapse, but regulatory uncertainty has never been a big issue one way or the other — and conservatives have known this perfectly well all along. This is why right-wingers who are allegedly allergic to uncertainty can blithely threaten to force a reckless default on U.S. debt unless they get their way on their pet budget issues. It's because uncertainty has always been a purely political attack, not one grounded in either ideological consistency or empirical evidence. When it outlives its political usefulness, it's easily discarded.

Following the Money

Via Felix Salmon, this chart shows the amount of money flowing into commodity markets following the Great Collapse of 2008. At a minimum, there are two things going on here. First, the Fed's quantitative easing program made lots of cheap money available to Wall Street. Second, with the housing market in tatters and the real economy in deep recession, there were a limited number of places to invest that money. However, emerging markets were still hot, and that was likely to drive an increase in demand for commodities. So with commodities looking set for a rise and no other investment opportunities presenting themselves, Wall Street piled on. Anything worth doing is worth overdoing, after all, and modern finance seems almost purpose-built to overreact to changes in world markets.

So will this be as disastrous as the housing bubble? Probably not, because, as Felix says, commodity investments probably aren't as highly leveraged as subprime investment vehicles became:

The impossible-to-answer question is how much of that investment is leveraged, in one way or another. The lesson of the commodities crash is ultimately a hopeful one: it didn’t set off any panic, and Main Street didn’t suffer much in the way of visible losses. And I don’t think that Wall Street has a leveraged long position in commodities in the same way that it had a leveraged long position in subprime in 2008. So the systemic risks posed by any commodities bubble are probably small.

Still, this is clearly now a speculators’ market, and that’s bad news for commodity-reliant industries. They’re up against finance types, now, which is never a pleasant position to be in. The crash will come — but only after real-world end-users have hedged their needs at very high prices.

The aspect of this that bothers me the most is the same one that's been in the back of my mind for quite a while: this kind of pile-on, leveraged or not, is an indication that there are too few good investment opportunities in the world of real goods and services. There have been indications that this is the case for years now, and in the long run that strikes me as more dangerous than any specific bubbles.

Obama's Peanut Gallery

Glenn Greenwald:

There are about 30 obsessive, truly unstable Obama cultists who sit on Twitter all day, literally, smearing with vile, rancid invective anyone who criticizes their Leader - last night's target: @JoanWalsh - just look at her stream to see what they spew every day, all day, at anyone who commits the Supreme Sin of criticizing the President of the United States. Every day they find a new heretic - it's the same 30 people over and over - whose only life activity seems to be this

Only 30? Actually, that doesn't seem so bad to me. I would've figured that Obama still had at least a few thousand die-hard supporters on Twitter. This is either a sign that the mental health of the left is fairly good, or else that Obama is going to have a tougher time getting reelected than I think.