Kevin Drum

Just Another Day in the Senate

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 12:59 PM EST

The LA Times reports on Ben Bernake's confirmation hearings for a second term as Fed chairman:

Reflecting the antagonism Bernanke faces in Congress, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont placed a hold on the Fed chief's nomination late Wednesday.

The move by Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Senate's Democrats, isn't expected to derail Bernanke's confirmation.

Aside from my general dislike of the whole hold process, this is a pretty good example of a big specific problem with it: namely that I don't think Sanders has even the slightest hope that his hold is genuinely going to keep Bernanke from being confirmed.  I mean, Paul Krugman and Dean Baker both favor his reappointment, for God's sake.  So all this does is gum up the gears and force the Senate to spend time on Bernanke instead of the million other things it should be spending time on.

Alternatively, I suppose maybe Sanders is just using this to get leverage for something he wants.  I still think holds are a lousy way to do this, but I suppose some good could come out of it if it raises public awareness of the fact that the Fed is supposed to bear some responsibility for maintaining full employment, not just controlling inflation.  Unfortunately, it's more likely to raise public awareness of cranky Ron Paul-esque Fed bashing, which doesn't do anyone any good.  (Except for Ron Paul, of course.)  All in all, just another day in the Senate, the world's worst legislative body.

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The Political Ecosphere

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 12:45 PM EST

Glenn Greenwald on Jane Hamsher:

“I think Jane’s success in a prior career has made her immune to the rewards of access — and fear of punishment — which keep most younger inside-the-Beltway progressives obediently in line,” he said. “She’s not 26 years old and desperate to work for a DC think tank, a Democratic politician or a progressive institution. She doesn’t care in the slightest which powerful people dislike her, but rather sees that reaction as vindication for what she’s doing.”

Matt Yglesias objects to this because he's 28 years old and works for a DC think tank.  Fair enough.  But the bigger problem with this quote, I think, is that it misapprehends the incentive structure at work in political activism.  Implicitly, the idea here is that Jane sits outside that structure completely, but that's really not true.  Just as beltway types have incentives that generally lead them to compromise in a centrist direction, base activists have incentives that push them in exactly the opposite direction.  They can get ostracized for being too accomodating exactly the same way that think tank folks can get ostracized for being too shrill.

In any case, I really think temperament drives most of this stuff in the first place.  After all, I'm in pretty much the same situation as Jane.  Maybe more so, in fact, since I live 3,000 miles away from DC and rarely even socialize with other bloggers.  And yet, obviously, I have a pretty moderate, accommodating blogging style.  But that's more because of who I am than because of who I work for.

Anyway, I generally like both the activists and the beltway types and figure they have symbiotic roles in the political ecosphere.  So more power to both of them as long as they're roughly on my side.  How's that for accommodating?

Where are the Jobs?

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 2:52 AM EST

Here's the end of Robert Samuelson's column today:

Obama can't be fairly blamed for most job losses, which stemmed from a crisis predating his election. But he has made a bad situation somewhat worse. His unwillingness to advance trade agreements (notably, with Colombia and South Korea) has hurt exports. The hostility to oil and gas drilling penalizes one source of domestic investment spending. More important, the decision to press controversial proposals (health care, climate change) was bound to increase uncertainty and undermine confidence. Some firms are postponing spending projects "until there is more clarity," Zandi notes. Others are put off by anti-business rhetoric. The recovery's vigor will determine whether unemployment declines rapidly or stays stubbornly high, and the recovery's vigor depends heavily on private business. Obama declines to recognize conflicts among goals. Choices were made — and jobs weren't always Job One.

Is he serious?  Unemployment is high because we don't have a trade agreement with South Korea and new oil fields haven't been opened up?  To say that's tissue thin is to insult tissues everywhere.  And suggesting that healthcare reform and "anti-business rhetoric" are slowing down the recovery hardly passes the laugh test either.  Surely Samuelson could have invented something better than this if he was really that desperate to hang something on Obama?

If Samuelson really cared about job growth, he might have spared a word or three for Republicans in Congress, who have steadfastly refused to consider the kind of serious stimulus measures that might actually promote employment.  But they stay oddly out of the picture.  I wonder why?

Housekeeping Update

| Thu Dec. 3, 2009 2:14 AM EST

Ok, let's see if everything works.....

Hooray, it works!  Normal blogging to commence shortly.

Housekeeping Note

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 2:55 PM EST

We're upgrading our site today to newer, faster, better, and more reliable software.  Hooray!  That also means the site will be shut down for the next few hours.  Boo!  You'll still be able to read everything, but comments will be shut down and there will be no new posting for the rest of the afternoon.

I'll be back later tonight if everything goes well.  We may encounters a few hiccups as we settle in (did I mention that this is a software upgrade?), but after that everything should be much smoother around here.  Keep your fingers crossed.

New Frontiers in Obstructionism

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 2:49 PM EST

The filibuster is far from the only delaying tactic available to Republicans as they try to hold off healthcare reform.  Taegan Goddard glosses an article from Roll Call for us:

For instance, instead of offering a conventional amendment to the bill this week, Republicans used "an esoteric procedural tactic" that would send the bill back to committee with instructions to eliminate certain cuts. If successful, Republicans would force Democrats to "hold another filibuster-killing vote on whether to restart debate on the bill."

"Republicans said they are likely to use the procedural tactic repeatedly during debate this month as they seek to make the point that the Senate should go back to the drawing board on the health care bill."

This is going to be fun couple of months, isn't it?

 

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Chevy Volt Near Release

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 2:37 PM EST

Atrios writes about the new Chevy Volt:

Plug-in hybrid car goes on sale next year. I don't think "pure" electric vehicles will really be viable until the range goes up a bit and fast charging stations are more widely available, though an exception would be for certain government and business fleets. Obviously some people might want one!

Atrios gets this right: the Volt is basically a hybrid, though not of the same type as a Prius.  I'm not sure why I care about this, but for some reason an awful lot of people think the Volt is a "pure" electric vehicle.  It's not.  It's got a gasoline engine that kicks in when the battery gets low, charging the battery as you drive.  It's true that the drivetrain is pure electric (the gasoline engine is there purely to charge the battery), but the range of the Volt is far more than the 40 miles you usually hear about.  Basically, if you do, say, 90% of your driving around town, there's a good chance that 90% of your driving will be purely electric.  When you take longer trips, though, the gasoline engine will kick in to keep you going for as long as you want.  That makes it a pretty versatile car.

Of course, it still costs $40,000.  That's probably a bigger drawback than the technology.  Still, if you do most of your driving locally, and then add in a government subsidy that you might get, the Volt could end up being a decent deal in the long run.

Leaving Afghanistan

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 1:30 PM EST

So are we really planning to leave Afghanistan in 2011?  Michael Crowley rounds up some reasons to be skeptical:

I wonder how many Americans who may be paying only cursory attention appreciate the thinness of Obama's pledge to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in 2011. Subsequent commentary from administration officials has made this point clearer than Obama did last night.

First, there was Michèle A. Flournoy, under secretary of defense for policy, who told the New York Times this morning that "The pace, the nature and the duration of that transition are to be determined down the road by the president based on the conditions on the ground."

Next there was Centcom commander David Petraeus....When it comes to expectations about a near-term withdrawal, he added: "Conditions-based [are] very important words that need to be focused on."

And then there was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton...."I do not believe we have locked ourselves in to leaving," Clinton responded, before repeating the core administration talking point: "By July 2011 there can be the beginning of a responsible transition that will of course be based on conditions."

This was something struck me pretty starkly too.  All Obama promised to do was to begin withdrawals in 2011.  He didn't say how many troops would be withdrawn, how fast they'd be withdrawn, when he expected the withdrawal to be complete, or whether he intended to keep some number of troops there forever.  In other words, he really didn't promise much of anything.

At the same time, I still think it was an important promise.  Vague as it was, it set some very public expectations that we don't plan to stay in Afghanistan forever.  This is good for the Afghans, who now have a clearer incentive to take control of their own security.  It's good for the troops, who now have a specific goal and don't feel like they're stuck in an endless quagmire.  It's good for our allies, who might be better able to sell their own publics on the war if it's seen as a time-limited commitment.  It's good for Muslim public opinion, since it reduces fears of a permanent American empire in the Middle East and central Asia.  And for the Taliban, which already hopes to stay around forever regardless, it really doesn't make any difference.

So it's a positive step, setting expectations and aligning incentives in the right way.  At the same time, Crowley is right: there's a helluva lot of wiggle room in this promise, and even in the best case Obama plans to keep us in Afghanistan in force for at least four more years.  Maybe longer.  That's a pretty thin promise.

Senate Healthcare Followup

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 12:56 PM EST

I made this point briefly in comments on Monday, but after reading coverage yesterday of the CBO report on the Senate healthcare plan, it probably deserves a quick front page post of its own.

The CBO report says that the average cost of an individual policy will go up under the Senate plan.  (The cost of group coverage goes down slightly.)  However, this is because CBO expects that people will be attracted, on average, to policies that are more generous.  Roughly speaking, CBO expects the average policy to get 30 percent better but cost only about 10 more.  Subsidies will then lower this cost further for most families.

That's a pretty good deal, and it doesn't mean that the Senate bill raises the cost of individual health insurance.  It means that people are buying better insurance.  In fact, if you compare similar policies with similar coverage, they cost less under the Senate bill.  This is the comparison that Jonathan Gruber was trying to make in my original post.  He figures that costs will go down about 5%, while the CBO report itself figures 7-10%.

Bottom line: premium costs will go up for some people, but not for most.  And if you choose to buy a policy similar to the one you have today, your cost will almost certainly go down.

A Technocratic Speech

| Wed Dec. 2, 2009 1:34 AM EST

I didn't hear Obama's Afghanistan speech in real time, but I did read the transcript and then catch a replay on CSPAN.  Overall, I was pretty underwhelmed.

Partly that was just the tone of the speech itself, which was much clunkier than his usual efforts.  Take this, for example:

I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I do not have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I am mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who — in discussing our national security — said, "Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.”

If you've never heard this Eisenhower quote before, there's a reason for that.  Why would you have?  It's about the dryest, least memorable passage you could think of from any president anywhere.  It's positively soporific.  Why would you dig up something like this for use in an address designed to rally support for a troop surge?1

Two other problems leaped out as well.  First, there was really no discussion of new tactics at all.  I didn't expect much on this score, but at least there should have been something to help convince us that months and months of planning had produced something genuinely new and different.  Instead, all we got was this: "I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan."  That's pretty lame.  There were a few additional words about a civilian surge and a better partnership with Pakistan, but it was brief and pro forma and it's hard to imagine anyone being persuaded by any of this.  Obama really owed it to us to provide at least a sense of why the planning process took so long and how our new strategy will be more effective than the one that hasn't worked for the past eight years.

Second, most of the speech wasn't even devoted to the war at all.  By my count, only about a third of the address was really about his plan for the war, with the rest meandering around about the danger of al-Qaeda, a potted history of post-9/11 military efforts, and paeans to America's place in the world.  A little bit of that stuff is fine, but this was supposed to be a speech about Afghanistan.

On the substantive side, the good news was Obama's clear declaration that this would be limited effort and he plans to begin withdrawing the surge troops within 18 months.  Conservatives are outraged by this, of course, but look: we've been in Afghanistan for eight years.  If 100,000+ NATO troops can't start to turn the tide by 2011, then it's time to leave.  The alternative is to commit to staying forever, and that's insane.  Obama has now given the military everything it needs to succeed, and if they still can't do it, then they just can't do it.

Now, whether Obama has the spine to stick to his timeline when 2011 rolls around is a whole 'nother question.  But at least it's out there.  The details are deliberately vague, but it's out there.  The military knows what it has to do; Karzai knows what he has to do; and the country knows what we've signed up to do.  And the Taliban knows perfectly well that we're going to leave eventually, so this is hardly news to them.

Overall, I liked Adam Serwer's take:

It was perhaps his least inspiring speech ever — Obama has been at his most inspiring when he reconciles lofty American aspirations with the reality of American accomplishments and American failures. This speech was Bush-like in its embrace of platitudes and vagueries, it was often the least convincing where once it might have been the most inspiring. It was a speech that reflected the president deciding on what is maybe the least crappy of a number of crappy options — without convincingly explaining how it would work.

There are two possible reasons for the speech being so unconvincing: either Obama doesn't know how to deliver a good speech or else Obama isn't really convinced himself.  But we know the former isn't true, don't we?  You can fill in the rest yourself.

1On the other hand, it was apparently Dan Drezner's favorite part of the speech.  Go figure.