Kevin Drum

Obama and the Surge

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 11:19 AM EDT

Marc Ambinder comments on Barack Obama's primetime Iraq speech tonight:

Now then: will he take the bait dangling from Republican hooks and give President Bush credit for the surge? He will telephone President Bush earlier in the day, presumably to thank the president for his judgment in a way that does not acknowledge that his own opposition to the surge was (in retrospect) incorrect. Officials make the argument that people read a lot into the surge, and that a number of different factors, some of them independent of the surge, contributed to the taming of the insurgency. Obama won't get into those arguments there, but it will be interesting to see how he deals with the historical narrative that has President Bush mistakenly choosing to go to war in Iraq and then supporting a strategy that brought about its close more quickly.

Since it's a slow news day, let's mull this over. First take: can you imagine anything that would piss off the liberal base more than acknowledging that the surge worked? You'd be able to hear the steam coming out of lefty ears from sea to shining sea. Second take: Even if he decided to do it anyway, would it be worthwhile? If he wants to be honest, Obama would have to at least mention all those other factors that Ambinder mentions, namely that the reduction in violence in 2007 was quite clearly the result of 4 S's: Surge, Sadr ceasefire, Sectarian cleansing, and Sunni Awakening. But is this too much to talk about? And would it seem churlish to acknowledge the surge and then immediately try to take some of the credit away from it?

Third take: Forget it. Not only would mentioning the surge piss off liberals, but it would also imply some kind of "victory" in Iraq, and surely Obama can't be dimwitted enough to come within a light year of claiming that, can he? Of course not. Not with sporadic violence back in the news and Iraqi leaders still stalemated on forming a government five months after the March elections.

So I'll predict no direct mention of the surge. And since I'm usually wrong about this kind of stuff, I suppose you should try to lay down some money right away on Obama mentioning the surge tonight. But I still don't think he'll do it.

POSTSCRIPT: And now for a usage question. What's the right way to refer to four things that start with the letter S? Should it be 4 Esses? 4 Ses? 4 S's? Or what? They all seem pretty awkward to me.

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The Unlisted Phone Number Scam

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 10:44 AM EDT

David Lazarus complains about one of his favorite bugaboos today, and since it's one of mine too I'll quote him:

This month, Time Warner Cable more than doubled its fee for an unlisted number to a whopping $1.99 a month, or nearly $24 a year....That's a recurring fee — now one of the highest of its type in the telecom industry — for something Time Warner isn't doing for customers.

....Time Warner's fee is all the more remarkable because the company doesn't produce its own phone book. It pays Sprint to compile all its customers' names and numbers, and to then pass them along to whichever phone company dominates a particular market for inclusion in that firm's directory. Just to be clear: That's $1.99 a month not to be in a phone book that Time Warner doesn't even publish.

AT&T's and Verizon's fees are a little more understandable. After all, they make extra cash selling ads in their phone books. The more people who choose not to be listed, the less valuable the directory becomes to advertisers, so the phone company wants to discourage people from leaving.

But Time Warner isn't in the phone book business. Its recurring fee for unlisted numbers is a money grab, pure and simple.

This is one of my pet peeves not because I have to pay this fee — my phone number isn't unlisted — but because it's symptomatic of the looking glass way that we treat privacy in this country. Lazarus points out that the cost of unlisting a phone number is basically zero since it's just a matter of flipping a flag in a database, and that the only reason Time Warner gets away with charging so much is because that's what the market will bear. People who want unlisted phone numbers are willing to pay $24 per year in protection money to get one.

For fly-by-night operators, this is annoying but fine. They have the right to collect information and publish it, whether it annoys me or not. But phone companies are regulated monopolies. If I want phone service, I have no choice but to contract with a tiny number of suppliers who then have privileged information about me. Should I also pay them protection money for withholding my Social Security number or my date of birth from their phone books? After all, their access to that data is all due to their privileged position too.

As a society, we value privacy. We shouldn't allow regulated utilities to decide who gets it and who doesn't. Let the phone companies make money by selling services, not protection.

(Also worth noting: as cell phones and Skype and Google Phone become more popular, the only people who will have to pay for unlisting their phone numbers are increasingly likely to be the old and poor. Do we really want to endorse what's basically a $24/year tax on the most vulnerable segments of the population?)

What Happens When Summer is Over?

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 12:18 AM EDT

Gallup got a lot of attention today for a news release reporting that the Republican lead over Democrats in the generic congressional poll had blown out from three points last week to ten points this week. It's only one poll, but it was a pretty dramatic result.

So I went over to to see what their latest poll aggregation showed. It's on the right, with the period from June through August highlighted in pink for both 2009 and 2010. It's not instantly obvious to the eye, but it turns out that pretty much the same thing happened both last year and this. During the three months of summer in 2009, Republicans went from -2 to +1, a change of three points. This year they went from +1 to +5, a change of four points.

So what does the recent change mean? I don't know, but if I had to guess I'd say it shows that conservative hysteria during a slow news season is a pretty effective attention getter, at least in the short term. Last year it was death panels and frenzied town hall meetings. This year it's the Ground Zero mosque and a Glenn Beck rally on the Mall.

So will they lose some of this lead as summer winds down and there's a little more real news to report, as they did last year? Beats me. But I wouldn't be surprised. This is shaping up to be a bad year for Democrats, but once August is over, everyone goes back to work, and the real campaigning begins, things might tighten back up a bit.

How Immigration Boosts Your Pay

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 8:45 PM EDT

Felix Salmon points to a new research note from the San Francisco Fed about the effects of immigration on U.S. employment and productivity. The bottom line results are interesting: the author says that immigration has no effect on employment ("the economy absorbs immigrants by expanding job opportunities rather than by displacing workers born in the United States"); it has a strong upward effect on average income ("total immigration to the United States from 1990 to 2007 was associated with [...] an increase of about $5,100 in the yearly income of the average U.S. worker"); and immigration improves an economy's total factor productivity dramatically.

Like I said: pretty interesting. But what I thought was even more interesting was the explanation that followed. Why does immigration increase average income? How does it increase productivity and efficiency? Here's the scoop:

The analysis begins with the well-documented phenomenon that U.S.-born workers and immigrants tend to take different occupations....Because those born in the United States have relatively better English language skills, they tend to specialize in communication tasks. Immigrants tend to specialize in other tasks, such as manual labor. Just as in the standard concept of comparative advantage, this results in specialization and improved production efficiency.

If these patterns are driving the differences across states, then in states where immigration has been heavy, U.S.-born workers with less education should have shifted toward more communication-intensive jobs. Figure 3 shows exactly this....In states with a heavy concentration of less-educated immigrants, U.S.-born workers have migrated toward more communication-intensive occupations. Those jobs pay higher wages than manual jobs, so such a mechanism has stimulated the productivity of workers born in the United States and generated new employment opportunities.

What's really striking about this is that the very mechanism that provides the productivity boost — the fact that immigrants don't speak English well and therefore push native workers out of manual labor and into higher-paying jobs — is precisely the thing that most provokes the immigrant skeptics. They all want immigrants to assimilate faster and speak English better, but if they did then they'd just start competing for the higher paying jobs that natives now monopolize.

The usual caveats apply here. This is only one study. (Well, two actually, but still.) And in order to generate useful results the authors have to control for a whole menagerie of variables that can muck things up. There's always a chance that some important variable got missed or that another one got controlled for incorrectly. So don't take this as the last word. It does, however, join a growing literature that suggests immigration has no negative effect on wages and might actually have a positive effect. Interesting stuff.

Papers, Please

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 3:56 PM EDT

Megan McArdle writes about the loan paperwork she had to fill out before buying a home recently:

The underwriting standards have been very tight, in terms of the paperwork I have had to produce — in order to use money that we received as wedding gifts as part of our downpayment, for example, I needed to produce a copy of our license, an invitation, and the announcement from the Times.

Say what? Just the fact that you have money in a bank account isn't good enough? And what would have happened if the Times had declined to print an announcement?

End the FDIC!

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 3:40 PM EDT

Mike Konczal dips into 15 years worth of financial regulation advice from the Cato Institute and is impressed with their consistency:

With one exception [], there are no new ideas on financial market regulation as a result of the financial crisis. None....You would have no idea that we’ve just experienced the most major financial crisis since the Great Depression by reading their high-level policy suggestions. How cool is that?

The only change is that in 2009 they aren’t calling for abolishing FDIC insurance....They do that every year except their latest version. I wonder why they’ve backed off that all of a sudden? Did the financial crisis show a lack of panic in the commercial banking system, and they suddenly support FDIC insurance? Or are they biting their tongues and sitting it out for a half decade or so before calling for it to be dismantled again?

I'm guessing the latter. Still, I'm disappointed that they've turned out to be so craven on this vital issue of libertarian principle.

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Who You Calling Racist?

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 1:19 PM EDT

Is the Tea Party movement fundamentally bigoted? Ditto for modern Republicanism, which increasingly takes its cues from the tea partiers. Bob Somerby has been unhappy with sweeping liberal charges of racism against the entire movement for some time, and today, responding to a Digby post about Glenn Beck's rally this weekend, he says so again:

Obviously, it wasn’t an all-white audience, but it felt good to say so (or something). Most people weren’t in lawn chairs, but that conveys an image....That said, we were most struck by Digby’s focus on skin color, a mocking focus which then extended into her readers’ comments. (Along with mocking comments about the age and clothing of the people who attended Beck’s event, including some first-hand observations.)....The people at the event were pink skinned; they are also “dumb as dirt,” we were told in an earlier post. Sorry, but this is the type of language adopted by haters worldwide, language which will be aimed at hundreds of thousands or millions of folk at a time.

Calling broad swathes of the electorate dumb and bigoted is probably not a great vote-getting strategy. But is it true? Here is Christopher Hitchens for the defense:

One crucial element of the American subconscious is about to become salient and explicit and highly volatile. It is the realization that white America is within thinkable distance of a moment when it will no longer be the majority.

....This summer [] has been the perfect register of the new anxiety, beginning with the fracas over Arizona's immigration law, gaining in intensity with the proposal by some Republicans to amend the 14th Amendment so as to de-naturalize "anchor babies," cresting with the continuing row over the so-called "Ground Zero" mosque, and culminating, at least symbolically, with a quasi-educated Mormon broadcaster calling for a Christian religious revival from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

What is the right way to talk about this? I think Bob has a point: calling people stupid racists just isn't very bright. For the most part it probably isn't true, and even to the extent it is, it's bad electoral politics to harp on it. Calling an individual person racist for some particular action is fine if it's justified. Ditto for specific groups with overtly racist agendas. But entire movements? Probably not.

On the other hand, can we talk? You'd have to literally be blind not to notice that the Fox/Rush/Drudge axis has been pushing racial hot buttons with abandon all summer. There's all the stuff Hitchens mentions, and you can add to that the Shirley Sherrod affair, the continuing salience of the birther conspiracy theories, the New Black Panthers, and Beck's obsession with Barack Obama's supposed sympathy with "liberation theology." Are we supposed to simply pretend that it's just a coincidence that virtually every week brings another new faux controversy that just happens to appeal to the widespread, inchoate fear of a non-white country that Hitchens writes about?

For what it's worth, I think this is a genuinely hard question. I don't feel like putting my head in the sand and pretending that the leaders of the conservative movement don't know exactly what they're doing. On the other hand, like Bob, I'm not really on board with dismissing half the country as bozos and racists either.

So how do you thread this needle? How do you talk honestly about all the racially charged paranoia oozing out from conservative leaders without also implicating half the country as willing racists? I'm not sure.

A Liberal Version of Social Security Private Accounts

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 12:21 PM EDT

Andrew Biggs, a conservative who served on George W. Bush's Social Security commission, has gotten some attention for writing a piece in National Review today explaining that privatization is no cure-all for Social Security's problems:

Personal accounts are a valid choice, and one I’ve supported in the past and continue to support. But accounts aren’t exclusive to tax increases or benefit cuts; they don’t, as I’ll explain, reduce the need for these other choices. One problem for the Bush administration’s reform drive in 2005 was that many congressional Republicans had bought into the idea that accounts reduce or eliminate the need for tax increases or benefit cuts. Finding out they don’t may have taken some wind out of their sails. Because of this, combined with some pretty shameless demagoguery from the left, Bush’s reform ideas didn’t even come up for a vote.

Shameless demagoguery? Hold on a second. The left was indeed opposed to Bush's plan, but a lot of the opposition was based on the fact that it was sold as a costless panacea, exactly the problem that Biggs himself identifies. My own position was (and is) that Social Security should simply be left alone for the time being, but that there are also some legitimate reasons to bite the bullet and shore up its financial position now — and if we do, "there's nothing wrong with private accounts in theory as long as they're properly accounted for, tightly regulated, and honestly funded."

Don't believe it? Click the link and my proposal for Social Security reform with private accounts is right there. Would liberals accept this if it were presented honestly? I don't know, because no one has ever tried it that way. But they might. The problem is that "honestly" almost unavoidably includes some tax increases, and that kind of honesty just isn't acceptable to current Republican dogma. So we're stuck. There's the dishonest approach, which Democrats won't accept because it's dishonest, and there's the honest approach, which Republicans won't accept because it's honest. It's hard to see the middle ground here.

Meg's Millions

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 11:27 AM EDT

Ed Kilgore writes that eBay zillionaire Meg Whitman, currently running for governor of California, can present herself to voters as a moderate without suffering the wrath of the state's famously rabid Republican right wing:

Whitman has an advantage over most Republicans in choosing her general election strategy in this year of conservative vengeance against moderation: her virtually limitless money, which will bankroll not only her own campaign, but the get-out-the-vote efforts crucial to the entire GOP ticket. This has put something of a damper on right-wing demands on the former eBay exec at the Republican confab.

....Uniquely in the Republican politics of 2010, Meg Whitman has the freedom to swing towards the center if she wishes, so long as she keeps her checkbook open and meets the easy test of being more orthodox than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Conservatives may grouse and pine for a mighty warrior to smite the anchor babies and the tree-huggers and the abortionists of the Golden State, but they are signed on to eMeg’s wild money-fueled ride, wherever her cold-blooded pollsters take them.

That's true. But Meg has another advantage too: the virtual invisibility so far of her Democratic opponent. Here's longtime state watcher George Skelton:

There was a blond sitting at a Lake Tahoe waterfront bar recently who had Jerry Brown's problem nailed. "Millions of Democrats are waiting for a reason to vote for Jerry Brown and he isn't giving them one," she said, interrupting the tortured analyses spewing from me and some other political junkies.

The woman didn't want to be identified by name. But, OK, she's my wife. And she's usually right about these things, largely because she has a normal life outside politics and punditry.

I'd amend her assessment to include not only Democrats but also independents and moderate Republicans. They're all waiting for the Democratic candidate to get a move on and finally tell them why he'd be a better governor than Republican political novice Meg Whitman.

This is the damnedest campaign I've seen in a long time. Granted, Labor Day isn't until next week, and Brown simply doesn't have the kind of money that Whitman does. But so far I've barely heard a peep out of him, and the peeps I have heard have been nothing more than the most soporific kinds of generalities. It's almost as if he's decided he's too tired to bother campaigning at all, and that's really not the image a 72-year-old career politician wants to send out. I sure hope there's some kind of deep strategy here that I'm not privy to. Whitman is a deeply cynical campaigner, but she has enough money to keep most of the public from seeing that. If Brown doesn't start beating her up soon, it's going to be too late.

Financial Journalism

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 11:05 AM EDT

Ryan Avent on the role of financial journalists:

There is a growing sense of despair among some economic writers that policymakers will not do much more to bolster the flagging global recovery. And critics who note the limits of policy intervention have a bit of a point—not all of the shortfall in demand and employment can be fixed by government intervention. But much of it can be and should be. And if it isn't, that's not because we lack the ability to conceive of helpful policies. It's because policymakers are unwilling to do what they should be doing.

It's not the job of the economics journalist to take that as a given and declare that America will have to muddle through. It's their job to correctly identify the problem, and name the names of those causing it.

By "economic writers," I assume Ryan is talking mostly about columnists and pundits here. And he's right that it does, in fact, look as though political realities will prevent any serious additional government intervention to stimulate the economy. Those political realities include White House advisors who seem unsure what to do, a president who's unwilling to speak up forthrightly about the mess we're in, and a Republican Party that's either deep in the ditch of 19th century economic principles or else figures its best chance to regain power is to make sure the economy stays in the tank. Or both. It's hard to say without being able to read minds.

But while columnists certainly have a responsibility to explain political realities to their readers, they have an even stronger responsibility to explain the economic realities as they see them. If they legitimately think there's nothing more that can be done, fine. But if they don't, they shouldn't use politics as a cover for throwing up their hands. The federal government can't wave a magic wand and make everything OK, but there are still plenty of things left in its armory. We don't have to accept 8-10% unemployment for the next four years if we don't want to.