Kevin Drum

Ending the Filibuster

| Sun Nov. 7, 2010 12:45 PM EST

Tim Fernholz says Senate Democrats should eliminate the filibuster when they open the 112th session of Congress in January:

Of course, the advantage for Democrats is that they will be able to have more control of the one chamber where they possess a majority, making it easier to pass their own priorities — rather than have the House pass a lot of bills and the Senate take no action, you could see a dynamic where the Senate and the House pass a lot of competing versions of bills, creating both more contrast between the parties and making the possibility of actual legislation more likely.

The funny thing is that this would actually be a pretty good time for Republicans to go along with this. Contra Tim, the fact that the GOP controls the House means that Democrats won't find it easier to pass their own priorities if they ditch the filibuster. But it might set up the contrast Tim mentions, and Republicans seem to think this contrast would be entirely in their favor. What's more, if Republicans genuinely think they can win control of the Senate and the presidency in 2012, getting rid of the filibuster now would serve them pretty well.

But they won't go along anyway. And I doubt very much that Harry Reid can find the votes to do this in the Democratic caucus even if he's inclined to try. He'd need 51 out of 53 votes and Obama's OK (in order for Biden to make the appropriate rulings), and I don't see him getting that.

But what about something narrower? The least defensible use of the filibuster is against executive branch appointments, and I wonder if Republicans couldn't be talked into supporting a change here? Maybe something that does away with the filibuster but puts in place some specific and limited ways that executive branch appointments can be delayed instead. This runs up against the hideous (and bipartisan) ego-driven nature of the Senate, where every member prizes their ability to hold up appointments in order to extort favors of one kind of another from the White House, but still — you never know. With only two years left in Obama's term and Republicans feeling like history is on their side, it's not completely out of the question.

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The Circular Firing Squad

| Sun Nov. 7, 2010 12:01 PM EST

The Washington Post collects a batch of Democratic handwringing today over their loss in the midterm election:

"There doesn't seem to be anybody in the White House who's got any idea what it's like to lie awake at night worried about money and worried about things slipping away," said retiring Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D). "They're all intellectually smart. They've got their numbers. But they don't feel any of it, and I think people sense that."

....Obama "is not Bill Clinton in the sense that he's not an extrovert. He doesn't gain energy by connecting with people," said a Democratic strategist, who worked in the Clinton White House and asked not to be named while offering a candid criticism. "He needs to be forced to do it, either by self-discipline or others. There's no one around him who will do that. They accommodate him, and that is a bad thing."

....William A. Galston, a Clinton White House policy adviser who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the midterm election revealed what had always been a "missing middle" to the Obama campaign message.

Honest to God, stuff like this just makes me want to scream. Why do Democrats panic so badly whenever they lose an election? Why run to the nearest reporter to spout idiocies about Obama not feeling middle class pain or not being an extrovert like Bill Clinton? Bill Clinton! For chrissake, I like and defend the guy, but he was an extrovert who felt people's pain and he lost 54 seats in the 1994 midterm. No one cared if he felt their pain. Likewise, no one cares if Obama feels their pain. They want jobs, not pursed lips and moist eyes.

This stuff is so inane, so ego-driven, so self-destructive that it drives me crazy. Why are Democrats such idiots?

Hecho in Mexico

| Sat Nov. 6, 2010 6:14 PM EDT

A few years ago I bought Marian a case of Dr. Pepper from a bottler in Texas that uses real sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup. She said it was fantastic. I couldn't tell the difference. I think that might be part of what's going on in Jonah Lehrer's post about his preference for Mexican Coke (sweetened with sugar) to American Coke (sweetened with HFCS):

But here’s the rub: Mexican Coke appears to be a cognitive illusion.

....Consider this clever study of soft drinks led by Samuel McClure and Read Montague. The experiment was a recreation of the Pepsi Challenge, except this time all the tasting was being done in a brain scanner. Each person swallowed sips of cola from a plastic tube while their brain was being scanned. When Coke and Pepsi were offered unlabeled, the subjects showed no measurable preference for either brand. Most of the time, they couldn’t even tell the two colas apart. But Montague’s second observation was more surprising: subjects overwhelmingly preferred drinks that were labeled as Coke, no matter what cola was actually delivered through the tubes. In other words, brand trumped taste. We cared more about the logo than the actual product.

....Mexican Coke has become my Coke. I see that glass bottle and I’m flooded with all sorts of dopaminergic associations, those smug feelings reminding me that I don’t drink that generic high-fructose corn syrup crap. I drink the real stuff, the cola made with old-fashioned sugar. But those associations are almost certainly an illusion — my tongue is too crude a sensory device to parse the difference between Coke and Pepsi, let alone between slightly different formulations of the exact same drink.

It's possible that Lehrer's tongue is indeed too crude a sensory device to taste the difference between Coke and Pepsi. Mine probably is. But there's a sizeable minority who can tell the difference, and I suspect they tend to be proselytizers. Most of us may not be able to distinguish the tastes ourselves,1 but we aspire to be people who can, so we allow the proselytizers to convince us of something that our own senses don't really confirm. That kind of thing happens all the time in other circumstances, after all.

For the most part, this is probably the same phenomenon that McClure and Montague documented. We're both saying that people respond to more than just the taste of the colas, but they're ascribing the difference to packaging and advertising. I'm ascribing it to peer pressure, more or less, which eventually gets associated with the packaging and advertising. More research, please!

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, none of this means that the preference for one cola over another (or any food over any other) is "fake." If you prefer it, you prefer it, regardless of what's triggering the response. So don't be an asshole and go around telling people who like Mexican Coke that there's no difference. There is.

1Hell, in blind wine tastings lots of people can't even distinguish between reds and whites. We think we know a lot more than we really do.

The Brain Observatory

| Sat Nov. 6, 2010 1:37 PM EDT

A few days ago, after reading yet another story about Bill Clinton's superhuman ability to socialize untiringly with every person he's ever laid eyes on, I said, half jokingly, "I hope his brain is preserved for science when he dies." Well, now I know just the guy to do the preserving, superstar brain cataloger Jacopo Annese, the man entrusted with the last remains of Henry Molaison, "the most important brain of the twentieth century":

People who've read newspaper articles about Annese's work with Henry's brain have already called him up, made direct arrangements to donate their own....Annese knows the publicity will continue, hopes it will continue to inspire donation. He had wanted to get the brain of the guy Rain Man was based on, but that hadn't worked out. Eventually he'd like to get somebody really big, a household name, Bill Clinton, someone like that.

Exactly! Bill Clinton! What better resting spot for our 42nd president than Annese's Brain Observatory, "the world's largest [and] most useful collection of brains"? Quick, somebody start a Facebook page dedicated to this project.

A New Level of Crazy?

| Sat Nov. 6, 2010 11:27 AM EDT

Over the past two years, as the right has gone increasingly conspiracy-minded over Barack Obama, there always remained one slightly optimistic aspect of the whole spectacle: at least it wasn't as bad as the Clinton years. The birth certificate thing aside, the constant stream of mini-eruptions were generally based on some tiny kernel of truth. They were crazy, but not completely made up. It wasn't quite like the Clinton era, with its Mena airfield and its Christmas card list investigation and the pals buried in Arlington cemetery, all things that seized the conservative imagination but were literally invented out of whole cloth.

But now we seem to be entering a new era. Or revisiting an old era. Or something. Earlier this week, the Drudge/Beck/Rush axis declared that Obama's trip to India was costing the American taxpayers $200 million per day, complete with 5-star rooms for his entire entourage and an escort of 34 navy warships. NBC's Chuck Todd tweeted:

Cannot believe reports about bogus cost of president's trip didn't pass smell test with so many folks. Ridiculous that it got any traction

But as Steve Benen noted, "Is it really so hard to believe that this happened? This is just how the right has operated for as long as I can remember, especially during the Clinton years, when it was common for baseless allegations, sometimes placed in obscure foreign outlets, to ricochet from activists to talk radio to partisan media to the White House briefing room to major outlets."

The good news is that the mainstream media didn't bite on this. That's progress, I guess. But I wonder how they're going to do when the wingers come up with something that isn't quite so easy to check out? It's not as if Chuck Todd wasn't around during the 90s, after all, so his surprise over this isn't a good sign.

Anyway, buckle up. If you thought the last two years were mind bending, the next two should send you scuttling straight for the electroshock machine. It's not going to be pretty.

No Policy, No Narrative

| Fri Nov. 5, 2010 6:06 PM EDT

So last night Marian suggested that Obama is doomed. The economy is going to improve, Republicans will take all the credit for it, and they'll win in 2012.

I don't actually believe that — partly because I'm not sure the economy is going to improve substantially, and partly because if it does I think Obama will get credit for it. Presidents always do. Still, it did remind of how self-assured conservatives are compared to liberals. The basis for Obama being doomed, after all, is that Republicans have a great story all primed and ready in the American imagination, which means that when (if) the economy improves they'll easily be able to persuade people that they were responsible. Even Marian, who doesn't pay a ton of attention to politics, knows their story.

So what does the American economy need, according to conservatives? That's easy. Lower taxes. Smaller deficits. Reduced spending. Less uncertainty. It may be nonsense, but it's not an act. They are 100% convinced that this is bedrock truth, and they tell their story with absolute conviction.

And what's the liberal story about what the economy needs? Don't all raise your hands at once. More stimulus? That's a good answer, but every Democrat in an actual position of power is either afraid to say so or doesn't believe it. Hell, most of them weren't even willing to take credit for the positive effects of the 2009 stimulus. A payroll tax holiday? Also not a bad answer, but no one is pushing it. Policies to weaken the dollar? That'll be a cold day in hell. Massive infrastructure investment? A direct government jobs program? Work subsidies? Maybe, kind of, and we're not sure.

In other words, liberals don't have a story at all. A few of them do — call them the Krugmanites for short — but it's a small and uninfluential band. In the halls of power and the corridors of the media, liberals have nothing but a collective clamor of pet ideas and peevish finger pointing. So even if the economy does improve, there won't be any way for them to persuade the public that their policies were responsible. For starters, they themselves probably won't really believe it.

Anyway, nothing new here. Just felt like getting it off my chest. Feel free to fire away in comments.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 5 November 2010

| Fri Nov. 5, 2010 1:54 PM EDT

On the left, an action shot of Inkblot! He looks like he's about to thrash some poor defenseless insect or something, but no. He was just arousing himself from his midday nap. He looks far more purposeful than he actually was. On the right, Domino stretches out in the afternoon sun to her full majestic length.

In other adorable mammal news, my sister passes along this story about a sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica. Who knew sloths needed a sanctuary? But before you click, be warned: the sheer cuteness factor is so high you might want to have your insulin shot ready ahead of time.

Quote of the Day: Entitlements

| Fri Nov. 5, 2010 1:31 PM EDT

From Eric Cantor (R–Virginia), in a letter to his fellow Republicans:

Getting our long-term deficit under control will require that we address major entitlement reform. It is a conversation that we must have, but one that is easier said than done. President Obama, congressional Democrats, and their liberal allies have made it abundantly clear that they will attack anyone who puts forward a plan that even tries to begin a conversation about the tough choices that are needed.

Uh huh. Matt Steinglass takes a well-deserved sledgehammer to this particular piece of sophistry. Republicans have just finished up an absolute blizzard of campaign spending demonizing Obama and congressional Dems for daring to rein in Medicare spending earlier this year, and now they're trying to pretend that Obama and congressional Dems are the problem when it comes to reining in Medicare spending? Gumption indeed.

Obama and the Economy

| Fri Nov. 5, 2010 12:58 PM EDT

Did Barack Obama screw up by not focusing on the economy like a laser right from the beginning of his administration? I think there's a good argument to be made that a bigger, better stimulus would have goosed the economy more strongly, reduced unemployment, and helped eventual Democratic election prospects. But once that was finished up, what else could he have done? Here is the core of Bruce Bartlett's case:

Substantively, I think there was more that could have been done to stimulate growth that might have been doable if Obama had been more engaged in the problem. For example, all economists know that monetary policy is critical to restoring growth. Yet Obama allowed vacancies on the Federal Reserve Board to be unfilled for months and then did nothing to get his appointees confirmed in the Senate.

....If Obama had been out there every day talking about the economy, pressuring Congress and cabinet agencies to be more active, and paying closer attention to the progress of the stimulus, then I think the political dynamics might have been quite different. It’s likely that further stimulus, which has appeared to be politically impossible, might have been achievable. At least Obama could have been more engaged in the extension of expiring tax cuts, which threaten a significant fiscal contraction on January 1 unless Congress acts quickly.

Maybe. But this still strikes me as thin gruel. A better Fed still would have been a Fed with a limited ability to affect the economy. What was needed was fiscal stimulus, and I have my doubts that talking relentlessly about the economy would have improved the prospects of getting Congress to act. Republicans and centrist Dems simply weren't persuadable and, in any case, probably didn't care all that much about unemployment in the first place. Which brings us to this:

It has amazed me since the beginning of the recession that the many millions of those unemployed seem to have accepted their fate so meekly. I don’t know why this is the case. Perhaps it’s because they have been browbeaten into accepting the right-wing idea that they are just lazy and could find a job if they really wanted to, or maybe they have given up hope of ever finding a job and taken early retirement, or perhaps a still-working spouse has kept the family adequately afloat.

I think that a major factor is the decline of labor unions in the U.S., especially those in the private sector, because they tend to be the organizers of political pressure related to jobs. Another factor may be that so many of those that are still union members are now in the public sector, where they have different political priorities, such as protecting their own jobs, pay and benefits from cuts forced by sharply-declining state and local government revenues.

As a structural explanation, this strikes me as much more powerful. Mountains of research suggests that members of Congress don't really care about the desires of the poor and the working class very much, and this goes double when the poor and working class aren't taking to the streets with torches and pitchforks. And it goes triple when there's no longer any institutional power to speak for them, something that the long-term decline of private sector unionization cemented into place many years ago.

So count me as still skeptical. By focusing on other things, Obama passed a historic healthcare bill, a decent financial reform bill, and half a dozen smaller bills. If he had skipped this stuff and instead spent all his time "focused on" the economy, I think the result would have been no healthcare reform, no financial reform, and — maybe — a loss of 55 seats in the House instead of 65. There just flatly wasn't that much he could do. Warts and all, I think he made the right decision.

Why Are Banks Foreclosing?

| Fri Nov. 5, 2010 12:12 PM EDT

Mike Konczal makes a familiar point today about the HAMP program, which was supposed to help reduce home foreclosures but, in fact, has accomplished close to nothing:

Obama's Treasury team took a system that had a terrible design and doubled-down on it. Servicers aren't modifying mortgages. There's an active empirical debate we'll cover next week over whether or not servicers are not modifying mortgages because of information problems or becomes of adverse incentive structure — or if you don't speak economics, whether or not the servicers are dumb or corrupt. What was meant to be a passive, thin, pass-through vehicle with obvious conflicts of interest now has to actively manage a giant portfolio of troubled mortgages. And they are either unwilling or incapable of acting as a fiduciary for investors and getting mortgages back to being current and working.

Well, I for one look forward to next week's discussion of this. As I understand it, the basic problem is that loan servicers can make a lot of money by stringing homeowners along, raking in a lot of fees along the way — for insurance, appraisals, title searches, legal services, etc. — and then eventually allowing them to default anyway. The basic story is here. To some extent, then, what's happening is understandable: the incentives are lousy and companies are simply making money on other people's misery. Nothing new about that.

And yet....somehow this has never quite added up. I don't doubt that loan servicers are in business to make money and don't really care if homeowners suffer or not. That's pretty commonplace corporate behavior. But they are in business to make money, and if there's one thing banks are good at, it's figuring all the angles when it comes to making a buck. If, in the long run, principal reductions really, truly were the most profitable way to deal with underwater homeowners, I'd expect that not only would banks figure this out pretty quickly, they'd be figuring out ways to create securitized bundles of principal reductions to sell to gullible German investors. That well can't be completely dry, can it?

So why hasn't this happened? There are a couple of obvious possibilities here. One is that the complicated nature of mortgage securitization simply makes principal reduction too hard. Once the loans have been securitized, tranched, retranched, and re-retranched, there are so many note holders with a legal stake that it's all but impossible to get unanimous agreement to do a principal reduction. Another possibility is that banks are afraid of knock-on effects: once they start reducing principal in a few cases, their entire customer base will find out what's going on and start withholding payment in hopes of getting the same treatment. Reducing principal for 10% of their customers might make sense, but banks might be afraid that there's no way to hold the line there.

However, this is just uninformed speculation, and I await Mike's more informed take on this. One way or another, though, it's hard to believe that banks are really, truly passing up a win-win opportunity here. There has to be more going on.