Kevin Drum

A New Day?

| Fri Jan. 15, 2010 1:08 PM EST

Martha Coakley is pretty obviously not going to win any awards for best Senate candidate of the year. But her Republican opponent in the Massachusetts special election for Ted Kennedy's seat, Scott Brown, sure isn't any great shakes either. According to an op-ed he wrote in the Boston Globe yesterday, his platform is this:

  • Oppose healthcare reform.
  • Oppose fiscal stimulus. (Because February's stimulus bill "failed to create one new job.")
  • An across-the-board tax cut, deficits be damned.
  • Harsh interrogation of the Christmas bomber.

This all comes under the rubric of "a new day is coming," but it sure sounds like the same old tired GOP day to me. Is there even one thing in this entire piece that isn't just a retread of eight years of the Bush/Cheney administration?

And while we're on the subject of state politics, I was sorry to learn today that here in California, Republican Tom Campbell has decided to drop his bid for the governor's mansion and instead run for Barbara Boxer's Senate seat. He would have been a better candidate for governor than either of the other Republicans, and going up against Jerry Brown I might even have voted for him in the general election. But he couldn't raise enough money to compete with a couple of Silicon Valley zillionaires, and I suppose he figured that when push comes to shove, people like me wouldn't have ended up voting for him after all. And he might be right about that. But he doesn't bring anything at all to the Senate, so it's a net loss all around. I doubt that Boxer will have any trouble at all dispatching him.

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Selling Out to Unions?

| Fri Jan. 15, 2010 12:18 PM EST

Our story so far: one of the funding mechanisms for healthcare reform is an excise tax on expensive health plans, popularly known as the "Cadillac tax." As policy, it's a good idea: by taxing expensive plans, you provide an incentive to keep their costs down. As politics, though, it sucks: union health plans, which are often pretty rich, would get hit by the tax. And Democrats like unions.

So yesterday everyone compromised. The excise tax is still in the bill, but the cutoff for the tax was raised from $23,000 to $24,000, dental and vision were excluded, and implementation was delayed a couple of years to give unions more time to renegotiate their contracts. In other words, a policy beloved mostly by wonks and deficit hawks stayed largely intact and unions got only a few crumbs. Nonetheless, John Boehner (R–Ohio) thundered that it was the "latest in a long line of backroom payoffs and sweetheart deals." Sarah Palin tweeted that workers "should oppose their UnionBOSSES backroom deal." Even some liberals bought the framing: "I'm not about to pretend that the union deal was anything but interest group politics," said Ezra Klein.

But except for the sense in which everything in a democracy is interest group politics in one way or another, I don't buy it. This compromise doesn't give unions anything. All it does is slightly moderate a basically anti-union tax. If Democrats were really cutting backroom deals with union bosses, they never would have proposed the excise tax in the first place. Or they would have exempted union contracts completely. There are plenty of other ways to fund healthcare reform, after all. But we've gotten to a point in the United States where anti-union sentiment is so widespread that (a) proposing a tax that falls largely on unions, and then (b) reducing it a bit, is considered a grubby giveaway even by some lefties. Yeesh.

And I say that as a supporter of the excise tax, which I think is good policy even if it does harm union interests a bit.1 But whatever else you can say about it, it does harm union interests, and the new version continues to harm union interests. It just harms them a little less. I sure wish we could cut a few "backroom" deals like that when it comes to giveaways for the rich and powerful.

1Though, as Ezra points out here, there are better, more progressive alternatives.

Healthcare vs. Jobs

| Fri Jan. 15, 2010 11:15 AM EST

Via Bruce Bartlett, here is political analyst Charlie Cook repeating a widely held piece of conventional wisdom:

Nearly a year after Obama's inauguration, judging by where the Democrats stand today, it's clear that they have made a colossal miscalculation. The latest unemployment and housing numbers underscore the folly of their decision to pay so much attention to health care and climate change instead of focusing on the economy "like a laser beam," as President Clinton pledged to do during his 1992 campaign. Although no one can fairly accuse Obama and his party's leaders of ignoring the economy, they certainly haven't focused on it like a laser beam.

....Much of the political debate, meanwhile, has been obsessed with details of competing health care reform bills. Some analysts have wondered whether Democrats in Congress would be better off passing an unpopular bill or risking the consequences of failing to pass one at all. More to the point, though, is the probability that if Obama and Hill Democrats had taken a more modest approach to health care reform, they could have pivoted back to jobs and the economy sooner. It doesn't take much imagination to envision Obama declaring, "Health care reform is a journey; not a single step. We are today laying a foundation on which America can build better health care."

I don't really understand this. Is it a purely political argument that, regardless of the merits, Obama should have been viewed as spending 24/7 hunkered down in the West Wing helping create jobs for American workers? Or is it a substantive argument that governments have limited bandwidth and Obama should have spent more of his on reducing the unemployment rate?

The former is puerile and the latter is mysterious. What exactly should he have done? He passed a big stimulus bill, and it's plain that there's no political will in Congress to pass another one of any size. He extended unemployment benefits. He tried to take action on mortgage foreclosures, and perhaps he could have done more along those lines. But the financial lobby fought him, Congress wouldn't support cramdown legislation, and banks have resisted taking part in his program. The Consumer Financial Protection Agency would be a nice pro-worker feather in his cap, but it wouldn't help anyone find a job and probably wouldn't have gotten through Congress any quicker even if they weren't busy with healthcare.

So exactly what would his "pivot" back to jobs1 have looked like? Nobody ever really says. But aside from giving rousing speeches, the big levers available to fix the economy are monetary, which is in the hands of the Fed; fiscal, which he's done; and meliorative, which he's largely done too. The rest is mostly window dressing.

1Assuming that this mythical "more modest" healthcare bill really could have passed any faster than the current one in the first place. Frankly, given the Republican Party's dedication to "What part of NO! don't you understand" as its political strategy, I doubt it.

Life in Sarahville

| Fri Jan. 15, 2010 10:37 AM EST

Sarah Palin, tweeting at 7:05 am with the GOP talking-point-o'-the-day on the healthcare deal struck yesterday:

Pls pay attention 2 Big Union backdoor deal struck yest w/Big Govt in sweetheart healthcare deal.Call the folks u elected,say NO! UNFAIR....

Sarah Palin, five minutes later, after suddenly remembering that she's supposed to be a woman of the people who sticks up for regular working stiffs like you and me:

good,hardworking pro-business UnionMEMBERS should oppose their UnionBOSSES backroom deal on this;unfortunately/unfairly paints all of'm bad

Nice save, Sarah! Except let me get this straight: hardworking union members should oppose a deal that helps them out because.....um, why exactly? Sadly, Twitter's 140-character limit didn't give her room to explain. But apparently it's bad for union members to support the deal even though it benefits them, and it's bad for them to cut a deal that moderates the excise tax even though Sarah is opposed to the excise tax in the first place. That's life in Sarahville.

Taming the Oil Bubble

| Fri Jan. 15, 2010 2:06 AM EST

Housing wasn't the only financially induced asset bubble in the aughts:

In a move aimed at limiting financial speculators' ability to drive up oil prices, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission on Thursday proposed restrictions on the number of energy contracts that any single investor can hold and new limits on the trading activities of Wall Street banks.

....The Commodity Futures Trading Commission seeks to establish a limit on how many contracts an investor could have across all regulated markets in which oil and natural gas are traded. This would broaden the limits that existed before 2001, since it would apply not only to contracts for future delivery of oil, but also to markets that involve the physical delivery of oil and natural gas.

That's important, because several Wall Street firms got involved not only in the speculative futures market but also in the physical markets, giving them tremendous potential for market manipulation. Morgan Stanley, as a player in the physical market, controls an estimated 15 percent of the home-heating oil supply in New England. Goldman Sachs owns shares of companies that own pipelines and refineries.

The case for a speculative bubble in oil is still, if you'll pardon the expression, a little more speculative than the airtight case for a housing bubble, but there's no question that the evidence seems to point more in that direction that it did a couple of years ago. Which is no big surprise, I suppose: after all, what we really had was a credit bubble, not just a housing bubble. And when there's lots of credit sloshing around, it's bound to drive up a lot of asset prices.

In any case, the position limits the CFTC is proposing are relatively modest. It's worth giving them a try.

Healthcare via Twitter

| Thu Jan. 14, 2010 6:15 PM EST

One of the things Twitter does for us is provide a glimpse into how reporters work. And guess what: they're as confused as the rest of us sometimes! Here's an ongoing Twitter exchange about the latest healthcare deal between Time's Karen Tumulty, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein, and the New Republic's Jonathan Cohn:

Tumulty: 2 me, it sounds like the big news in this #hcr deal is (at least as union guys explained it) allowing any employer 2 buy into the exchanges.

Klein: Yeah, I want to hear the White House on that.

Tumulty: Me too. Lots of details missing -- like what would they have to pay to get in? Would they have to reimburse feds for subsidies?

Klein: This is a bit unclear right now, but it sounds like this deal opens the exchanges to all employers in 2017. Trying to figure this out.

Cohn: so i missed the earlier question on this - was on with operator - did we get answers on the exchange questions?

Tumulty: not yet. WH: "There are a lot of the discussions going on now...not something that can be answered" in detail.

Klein: I just asked again, and I wouldn't say we did.

Cohn: yeah, just heard. so do we think labor guys just got it wrong on their conf call? they sounded a bit confused.

Cohn: I would have to agree with that assessment!

Tumulty: boy, these WH guys don't want to talk about that. do we think the union guys got ahead of themselves?

Cohn: So I didn't get much of an answer either -- and then they cut me off before I could follow up

Klein: My bet is the unions are right on their part of it. Employers: still up in the air?

Klein: Senior White House official: "Over time, the exchanges will open to more and more people."

Twitter: now bringing you the real-time confusion usually reserved for natural disasters and terrorist attacks even for boring stuff!

Not to worry, though. In a few hours all three of these folks will figure out what's going on and crank out a few hundred well crafted words explaining it. At least, they'd better. Because they owe it to me.

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Quote of the Day Revisited

| Thu Jan. 14, 2010 5:52 PM EST

My Quote of the Day yesterday was from JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, who told Congress, "We didn't do a stress test where housing prices fell." My reaction: "Wow." But Megan McArdle says I didn't get the whole quote:

I'm shocked to find that Kevin is shocked.  That's pretty much the standard explanation — at least, a partial one — for why lenders became willing to take on so much risk.  Massive house price depreciation had pretty much dropped out of their models, which mostly focused on prepayment risk.

This is not quite as crazy as it sounds. For one thing, Kevin has truncated the quote a little bit; the version I read has Dimon saying "We didn't stress test housing prices going down by 40%."

That's different. It's still not good, considering how high home prices had gotten, but it's not outright idiocy. Apologies. But then Megan says this:

Even if they had put housing price implosion in their models, where would they have gotten the data to fine-tune their models?  It's not enough to say, "We should model a broad national decline in house prices;" you need some values for how many people will default when house prices fall.  [Etc.]

....That's not to excuse the bankers for not trying; some allowance for the risk of a broad price decline would have been better than none.  But I'm not sure that it would have done much to alter their lending habits.  Going on historical data, the risk of a huge price drop within the average lifetime of a mortgage (which is less than ten years), would normally have been very small....

I'm not so sure about this. Remember: Wall Street is the home of the quant jocks these days. If they could model the fantastically complex derivatives that they routinely wrapped around mortgage securities, they could certainly have modeled this if they'd wanted to. It wouldn't even be that complicated compared to a lot of the stuff they do on an everyday basis. And as for the risk of a huge price drop being "very small," surely even a crude model should have shown that risk becoming pretty sizable as prices starting heading into the stratosphere? There were certainly an awful lot of inputs that suggested it.

I don't think Megan and I are actually disagreeing an awful lot here, but I still think this deserves some pushback. Bubbles aren't always as obvious as they seem in hindsight, but this one got too big to ignore as early as 2003-04. Any bank with allegedly sophisticated risk modeling should have been factoring in the possibility of bigger and bigger downsides every month after that.

Quote of the Day: Haiti

| Thu Jan. 14, 2010 2:29 PM EST

From Rush Limbaugh, reacting to the earthquake in Haiti that killed thousands, left millions homeless, wiped out hospitals and water distribution, and devastated the entire country:

I could sit here and be really cynical.  I'll hold off on the cynicism for a couple hours, I'll hold off on it.  I'm going to hold off on it, give the show's flow a chance to establish, 'cause it's going to be the Media Tweak of the Day.

....Yes, I think in the Haiti earthquake, ladies and gentlemen — in the words of Rahm Emanuel — we have another crisis simply too good to waste.  This will play right into Obama's hands. He's humanitarian, compassionate.  They'll use this to burnish their, shall we say, "credibility" with the black community — in the both light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country.  It's made-to-order for them.  That's why he couldn't wait to get out there, could not wait to get out there.

So I guess that's his Media Tweak of the Day. I wonder what it takes to get the conservative movement to disown this guy?

Conservative Healthcare

| Thu Jan. 14, 2010 1:50 PM EST

If healthcare reform passes, conservatives are planning to mount a constitutional challenge to the individual mandate on the grounds that the federal government doesn't have the right to force you to buy a product from a private corporation. This is doomed to failure, and Ezra Klein argues that that's a good thing for conservatives themselves:

Long-term, conservatism could suffer no greater disaster than the death of the individual mandate. This country will have a national health-care system, and sooner than later. The cost pressures make that inevitable. If you want that national system to be private, as most conservatives do, then your only hope is the individual mandate. That's been true in countries such as the Netherlands and Switzerland, and in Singapore, which is often upheld as a conservative model, contributions to health savings accounts are compulsory. Eliminate those options from the U.S. menu, and you're ensuring that Medicare, Medicaid or some sort of public option will eventually take over the market, as there's no constitutional issue with taxation in return for public services.

Exactly right. The Swiss model is basically about as conservative as you can get among national healthcare systems, and if that option were taken away we'd inevitably end up with something more like France or Sweden or Canada. Which would be fine with me, but not so great for conservatives. In fact, it might be even worse than Ezra says: if the individual mandate were killed but the rest of the current healthcare bill stayed intact, the private insurance industry wouldn't last out the decade. We'd have Medicare for All by the end of Obama's second term.1

Of course, movement conservatives don't believe any of this. They don't believe in things like "adverse selection" because language like that comes from pointy headed liberal healthcare professors. (Though they might want to ask a few insurance company executives whether they believe in it.) And they don't believe that national healthcare is inevitable because they're convinced that our current Rube Goldberg system really does provide the best healthcare in the world and can continue forever without bankrupting us. Or something. I'm not really sure what they believe. I'm not sure they do either. But they sure know what they're against.

1Hell, maybe we liberals should join in the challenge. Go ahead and pass healthcare reform with the individual mandate, get the mandate tossed out in court, and then wait for private health insurers to collapse. Sounds like a pretty good plan. Too bad the court challenge would never work.

More on the Bank Tax

| Thu Jan. 14, 2010 1:08 PM EST

My first post this morning was a reflexive reaction to the paltriness of the proposed bank tax. But a bit of early-morning pissiness probably isn't very convincing. So here's James Kwak with a more considered reaction:

From Q4 2008 through Q2 2009, large banks had a funding cost that was 78 basis points1 lower than that of small banks....[So] the tax isn’t nearly big enough! It’s being calculated as 15 basis points of uninsured liabilities, calculated as assets minus Tier 1 capital minus insured deposits. 15 basis points is a lot less than 78 basis points. And if the FDIC cost of funds data are based on all liabilities (not just uninsured liabilities), then charging 15 basis points on uninsured liabilities only increases the overall cost of funds by about 7 basis points (at least in the administration’s example). This doesn’t come close to compensating for the TBTF subsidy.

The point of the tax shouldn't simply be to pay back the cost of TARP, which is just a small part of what the government did to help out the banking sector in 2007-08. It should also be used to level the playing field. Big banks get funding at lower cost because they are, supposedly, safer than small banks. But guess what? That's a mirage. They fail just like small banks, but they do so less often and get bailed out when it happens. So why give them an advantage that serves mainly to let them grow ever more gigantic? A properly designed tax — one that's both bigger and more graduated, so that it goes up as banks get larger — would be a much better one. More here from Simon Johnson and Peter Boone.

1A basis point is a hundredth of a percent. So 78 basis points is 0.78%, which is quite a bit when you're talking about loan books that amount to trillions of dollars.