Paul Krugman admits that it's impossible to know if President Obama could have gotten a bigger stimulus bill through Congress than he did in 2009. But he still has a question:

One thing I wish apologists for the inadequate stimulus would acknowledge is that Obama and his officials never, at any point, suggested or conceded that they were settling for less than the economy probably needed. Instead, they always described themselves as being bold and forceful, applying the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force to the economic crisis—even as they knew full well that friendly economists were tearing their hair out over the failure to do remotely enough.

Fine. I acknowledge it. But I'm pretty sure I know why this happened. Here it is:

Because this is the way that every political administration in human history has acted.

Obviously I'm exaggerating for effect. There are always exceptions, and I could even name a few off the top of my head. FDR routinely lauded the accomplishments of his administration but, because he considered the New Deal a multiyear package of measures, also routinely described these accomplishments as good starts, not finished products. "This law," he said when he signed the Social Security Act, "represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete."

But this is very much the exception, not the rule. Generally speaking, there's just no mileage in politicians playing down their own accomplishments, and they know it. When they win passage of a bill, it's a landmark in human history, it's the product of thousands of people working together for the common good, it's going to usher in a bright new future for all Americans. Etc. After all, if a president won't brag on his own accomplishments, who will? And if voters aren't regularly reminded of what a great job they've done, who's going to vote for them?

In fact, this dynamic is probably even stronger now than usual, thanks to the scorched-earth era of partisanship we're going through these days. When the opposition isn't satisfied with merely opposing, but routinely froths at the mouth about your agenda clocking in just shy of the collected works of Satan, the only way to keep from being drowned out is to play up the gloriousness of your own accomplishments. It's not pretty, but it's reality.

So that's that. But here's a question right back at Krugman. Like him, I think the stimulus was too small, housing policy was inadequate, and banks were treated too gingerly. But even with all that granted, the way to judge a political leader isn't by the standards of perfection, but by the standards of what human beings working in a messy political environment can accomplish. So here's what I want to know: How did Obama perform compared to his peers? By "peer," I mean the leader of a reasonably large country fighting the global economic mess. Here's the basic list:

  • USA: Barack Obama
  • Germany: Angela Merkel
  • France: Nicolas Sarkozy
  • Italy: Silvio Berlusconi
  • UK: Gordon Brown/David Cameron
  • China: Hu Jintao
  • Japan: Taro Aso/Yukio Hatoyama/Naoto Kan/Yoshihiko Noda

You can add or subtract to this list as you see fit, but I'm deliberately excluding small countries that simply don't have much of a leadership role, as well as developing countries that didn't get hit very hard by the Great Recession. So where would you put Obama on this list? I'd have a hard time putting him further down than #2, and frankly, I think you can even make a case for him being at #1. And if that's the case, then our problem isn't so much with Obama per se, it's with the current state of the art in human collective action.

But maybe I'm being too kind. Anyone want to take a crack at making the case for putting Obama lower on this list?

Both cats spent a lot of time on the fence yesterday, so that's what we get for catblogging this week. Unfortunately, both of them tend to trot immediately over whenever they see the camera, which makes it hard to get a good shot of them. This one of Inkblot on the left is pretty good, though. On the right, Domino is hiding behind the leaves of our Redbud tree with our neighbor's Alder tree in the background. Enjoy.

Would a Romney administration really be very different from a Perry administration? Peter Beinart says no, because modern Republicans are all so right-wing that there's not much difference between them. Will Wilkinson says yes, because Romney would appoint very different kinds of people than Perry to fill up all those assistant deputy cabinet positions. Matt Steinglass moderates:

I [] don't really think there's much of a clash between these two views. A Romney administration would likely involve a significantly different flavour of conservatism from a Perry administration, and would entail different alliances, recruit different people, and focus on different issues; but I doubt it would be any less conservative along a simple single-axis measurement. By way of analogy, a Republican president elected in 2000 who wasn't a Southern evangelical like George W. Bush might not have launched a multi-billion-dollar global effort to fight HIV/AIDS that involved massive funding for faith-based organisations and strict mandates for increased abstinence promotion and anti-prostitution campaigns. But it's hard to argue that the PEPFAR programme wasn't "conservative".

Agreed. But I'd look at this in two different ways. When it comes to garden variety governing, I doubt there would be a huge difference. Every individual has specific issues that they care about strongly, and that would matter a bit. Maybe Romney would try to focus attention on healthcare and Perry would try to focus more on energy policy. Who knows? In any case, that's a bit of a crapshoot and it probably matters only on the margins anyway.

More broadly, both men would find — as every president finds — that there are suffocating levels of institutional, bureaucratic, political, and public opinion pressure that simply don't allow a president to stray too far from the status quo. Even if Rick Perry were serious about eliminating the Commerce Department, for example, he'd discover very quickly that at least a couple of powerful committee chairmen derive most of their power from oversight of the Commerce Department and have no intention of allowing anyone to undermine that. Pretty much every idea for reorganizing the federal bureaucracy runs up against the shoals of congressional committees. If you want to add a department, you can probably do it because it means someone in Congress gets some extra influence. Getting rid of one is a whole different story.

But there's also a second way to look at this: How would Romney and Perry react to surprises and emergencies? And there, I suspect the differences would be stark. Sure, Perry would have a staff just like any other president, but it would mostly be a staff of ideologues that would reinforce his tendency to view everything in simple ideological terms. Romney would be just the opposite. He'd start from a conservative frame, but he and his staff would genuinely want to know what's really going on and how best to address it. They'd be better prepared (FEMA wouldn't have been gutted under a President Romney, for example) and they'd be more reality-based.

A few months ago I was pretty much rooting for a Perry or a Bachmann to win the GOP nomination because I figured (a) they'd lose big in the general election, and (b) their loss might push the Republican Party back toward the center sooner than otherwise. But it's just too obvious now that Obama is genuinely vulnerable and someone in the Republican field might well be our next president. That's why I'm now mostly hoping that the GOP base comes to its senses, holds its collective nose, and just nominates the Mittster. On a day-to-day basis, I suspect Romney would govern about as conservatively as any of the others. But in an emergency, he's the only one who seems pretty certain of responding in a non-catastrophic way.

Are you tired of turning on CNN and seeing taped highlights of the greatest debate gaffes of all time? You know, Dukakis on rape, Stockdale blanking out, Ford on Poland, etc. (Though Reagan's meandering trip down Highway 1 in the finale of the second 1984 debate never seems to make the cut. Too cruel, I guess. I can't even find it on YouTube.) In any case, Bob Somerby is tired of it, so instead he turns his gaze in a different direction:

Are these really the worst debate gaffes? You’ll note an omission in all such reports: When the press corps remembers the big debate blunders, the gaffes are all made by the candidates! The groaners committed by the own kind are left on the cutting-room floor! Once again, your gaze is directed away from the biggest clowns in our nation’s failing culture. In the interest of balance, we offer today the real biggest gaffes of all time.

....Worst debate performances ever:
Jim Lehrer, 1996/2000/2004
Bernie Shaw, 1988
Brian Williams/Tim Russert, Democratic debate, 10/30/07
Judy Woodruff, Democratic debate, January 2000
Tim Russert, Republican debate, January 2000 (in part for its comedy value)

Bob provides details on the first two. The rest you'll have to dredge up from your own memory banks. Or YouTube.

The religious right doesn't have a successful candidate running for president this year, and Amy Sullivan says this isn't really anything new: of the four GOP presidential candidates since the religious right's ascendance in the 80s, only one (George W. Bush) has really been friendly toward their cause. Why? Because, she says, although solid backing from the religious right would be a powerful force, that never happens:

Candidates also know that the Religious Right–not to mention the evangelical electorate–is too divided to be able to deliver unified support....In addition, there is a serious but oft-overlooked theological and cultural division that runs through the Religious Right. Most people think of the movement as a co-production of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. But while those two religious leaders did partner on some efforts, they had deep differences and kept largely to their own operations–Falwell with the Moral Majority and Robertson with the Christian Coalition. Falwell was a Baptist and a fundamentalist, highly skeptical of the charismatic Pentecostal tradition of Robertson. When Robertson ran for the GOP nomination in 1988, winning the Iowa caucuses, Falwell backed George H.W. Bush, with whom he had a long-standing relationship.

This election cycle’s version of the Robertson-Falwell split was between backers of Michele Bachmann (of the charismatic school) and Rick Perry (from more fundamentalist Baptist and Methodist roots). Even if one or both of the politicians had turned out to be stronger candidates, they would have had a hard time uniting conservative evangelicals behind them.

To outsiders, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama probably seemed pretty much interchangeable in 2008. But they provided plenty of heat anyway thanks more to tribal divisions in the liberal movement than to serious policy differences. Likewise, Bachmann and Perry might seem two peas in a pod to those of us who don't understand the tribal divisions within the Christian Right. But they're there anyway.

The "Volcker rule" is a simple thing. Basically, it says that if you're a bank that takes deposits and benefits from federal deposit insurance, you can't also make risky trades that might blow up your bank and cost the taxpayers a bundle. Wall Street never liked the rule, because banks make a lot of their money these days trading for their own accounts and didn't want their trading profits cut off. They fought the idea in Congress, but in the end, the Dodd-Frank bill that passed in 2010 included a version of the Volcker rule in its final draft.

Was this a victory for common sense? Hardly. Last month regulators unveiled their first take on the actual implementation of the Volcker rule, and it had become a monster. "Only in today's regulatory climate could such a simple idea become so complex, generating a rule whose preamble alone is 215 pages, with 381 footnotes to boot," complained American Bankers Association Chief Executive Frank Keating.

Poor banks! But step back for a moment. How did Paul Volcker's baby get so bloated? Keating's crocodile tears aside, the answer is: banks. When it comes to financial regulation, fighting against new laws is merely their first line of defense. When they lose, as they did in the Dodd-Frank battle, the action simply moves to the regulatory agency charged with implementing the law. James Stewart explains what happened next:

When the proposed regulations for the Volcker Rule finally emerged for public comment, the text had swelled to 298 pages and was accompanied by more than 1,300 questions about 400 topics.

…"Here's the key word in the rules: 'exemption,'" former Senator Ted Kaufman, Democrat of Delaware, told me. "Let me tell you, as soon as you see that, it's pronounced 'loophole.' That's what it means in English." Mr. Kaufman, now teaching at Duke University School of Law, earlier proposed a tougher version of the Volcker Rule, which was voted down in the Senate. "We've been through this before," he said. "I know these folks, these Wall Street guys. I went to school with them. They're smart as hell. You give them the smallest little hole, and they'll run through it."

This is probably the biggest reason that no one should take too seriously Republican complaints about burdensome regulations strangling the economy. The truth is that most reformers prefer fairly simple rules. In the tax world, they'd prefer to simply tax all income. In the environmental world, they'd prefer to set firm limits for pollutants. In the financial world, they'd prefer blunt rules that cut off risky activity at its knees.

But businesses don't like simple rules, because simple rules are hard to evade. So they lobby endlessly for exemptions both big and small. This is why we end up with tax subsidies for bow-and-arrow makers. It's why we end up with environmental rules that treat a hundred different industries a hundred different ways. It's why financial regulators don't enact simple leverage rules or place firm asset caps on firm size. Those would be hard to get around and might genuinely eat into bank profits. Complex rules, conversely, are the meat and drink of $500-per-hour lawyers and whiz kid engineers. If the rules are complicated enough, smart lawyers can always find ways around them. And American corporations employ lots of smart lawyers.

Keep this firmly in mind the next time you hear someone from the Chamber of Commerce complaining about how many thousands of pages of regulations they have to comply with. Some of that is inevitable: We live in a complex world, and that means the rules are sometimes complex too. But they don't have to be anywhere near as complex as they end up being. We could have a simple tax code, simple environment rules, and blunt financial regulations. We could probably cut the size of agency regulations by 10 times if we wanted to.

But businesses don't want to. Sure, they'd prefer no regulation at all, but they know that's not in the cards. So in public they bemoan complexity, but in private they fight endlessly for more of it. To their lawyers, every single extra page is an extra opportunity to make more money.

I'm pretty astonished at the number of people sympathizing with Rick Perry's debate debacle last night because, hey, we've all had a brain freeze, right? Happens to the best of us.

I guess I should join in the fun. So here it is: I've been on TV exactly once, and I did exactly what Perry did. I told Bill Moyers I had three points to make, I made two of them, and then I trailed off and forgot the third. Luckily, it was a taped show, and that bit ended up on the cutting room floor. So none of you ever saw it.

So does this mean I should cut Perry a break too? Please. Sure, this could happen to anyone. But Perry didn't forget a complicated point, and he didn't forget something he had just formulated in his mind. He blanked on a single word. And he blanked in a way that made it obvious this wasn't something he really knew or cared about. It was just a talking point. He was like a kid reciting a poem in front of class and forgetting his lines.

But I'm just a liberal partisan hack and obviously I have it in for Perry. So I'll turn the mike over to conservative partisan hack Jonah Goldberg:

I think people in some ways are letting Perry off easy precisely because this “gaffe” was so egregious (we’ve all frozen up in front of audiences before. I think I can remember every time it’s happened to me with excruciating accuracy)....But put aside the queasy awkwardness of the moment for a second. Perry couldn’t remember that he wants to shut down the Department of Energy!? For weeks, energy reform was the only substantive policy he’d put forward. Energy is still one of the only topics he can discuss with anything approaching fluency. But he couldn’t remember he wanted to shut down DOE?

....His performance last night confirmed — with an exclamation point — the negative narrative of his entire campaign. Everyone could forgive Ron Paul if he spaced out on the name of a cabinet agency he wanted to shutter, because everyone knows that Ron Paul knows what he knows and has no problem explaining himself under normal circumstances. People are much more unsure about Perry and he compounded that uncertainty last night. It’s fine to say everyone has these bad moments. That’s true. Everyone makes mistakes. What you look for are patterns. Last night was so deadly because Perry reinforced his pattern rather than deviated from it. And he was already on borrowed time.

Right. And with that, I will now repeat my most brilliant political prediction ever. This was #4 on my list of reasons that Rick Perry won't win the Republican nomination:

He's too dumb. Go ahead, call me an elitist. I'm keenly aware that Americans don't vote for presidents based on their SAT scores, but everything I've read about Perry suggests that he's a genuinely dim kind of guy. Not just incurious or too sure about his gut feelings, like George W. Bush, but simply not bright enough to handle the demands of the Oval Office. Americans might not care if their presidents are geniuses, but there's a limit to how doltish they can be too.

I demand abject apologies from everyone who gave me a hard time over this. Rick Perry is too dimwitted to be president. End of story.

Matt Yglesias points us to the latest forecast from the European Central Bank. It's pretty horrifying. They're projecting a eurozone economy that's barely growing at all in 2012:

  • Unemployment = 10.1%
  • Real GDP growth = 0.5%
  • Domestic demand growth = 0.3%
  • Output gap = -2.2%

And inflation that's extremely well controlled:

  • Inflation = 1.6%
  • Compensation growth = 0.4%

Question: Is the ECB acting like a central bank that thinks its economy is flatlined and inflation shows no signs of being a problem? It sure doesn't seem like it, does it?

Sarah Kliff reports that Massachusetts is trying to decide if it should put a cap on hospital charges:

In a report this past spring, the state found that some Massachusetts doctors charge six or seven times as much as their colleagues for the exact same procedures. Across the board, a three-fold variation in prices was pretty standard.

There’s a pretty simple explanation for all the price variation: hospitals negotiate specific rates for specific insurance companies....Insurers and hospitals alike closely guard those pricing agreements as proprietary information, with neither party wanting to see their pricing agreement undercut by a competitor.

Massachusetts wants to do away with all of that. In a proposal released Wednesday, the Massachusetts Special Commission on Provider Price Reform recommends allowing a panel of state regulators to reject rates charged by hospitals and providers if they’re too high....That would be a really big shift from where we are now, where price negotiations are usually a private matter between insurers and providers, and it’s nearly impossible to figure out how much a given procedure costs.

There's another side to this too. Suppose I decided I wanted to leave Mother Jones and go write a book. Or maybe just retire because my 401(k) is in such awesome shape these days. Well, I couldn't. Even if I had the independent income for it, no health insurer in the country would take me on. I'm a 53-year-old male with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. It's controlled well with meds, but that doesn't matter. I'm far too high a risk for anyone to want my business.

But couldn't I just go without health insurance and simply pay out of pocket for medical care? In theory, yes, although I suspect my choice of doctors would be fairly limited. But here's the thing: it would cost a fortune. If I ended up having that heart attack that my cardio symptoms say is coming someday, the resulting hospital bill wouldn't be $50,000. Or $100,000. That's only the bill if your insurance company pays. The list price is more like $300,000. Or maybe more. I might be able to afford the risk of a $50K hospital bill, or even a $100K hospital bill. But not a $400K hospital bill.

I've long considered this wildly unfair. So I'd do both less and more than Massachusetts. I wouldn't necessarily cap hospital charges, but I would insist that hospitals charge everyone the same rate. They can negotiate whatever rate they want, and that might be quite different in rural hospitals vs. urban hospitals. But once a hospital has a rate, it's posted publicly and that's what everyone pays. Big insurance companies, small insurance companies, individuals, whatever.

Hopefully, of course, this will become largely moot in a couple of years. Obamacare will mostly solve all this — assuming Republicans don't successfully repeal it — because health insurers will no longer be allowed to turn me away. I'll still have to pay annual premiums, but I won't have to run the risk of getting hit by a half-million dollar hospital bill. It's one of the many market pathologies that Obamacare will address, and one that's well worth addressing.

A couple of days ago I was watching yet another McDonald's ad for their McRib sandwich and found myself wondering why. Not "Why am I watching this?" or even "Why would a loving God allow the McRib to exist?" I was wondering why, given its apparent popularity, McDonald's only offers it for sale periodically. Why not make it a regular product?

But the truth is that I don't really care very much, so I didn't even go so far as to Google the subject. I figured there was probably some weird but prosaic marketing reason and then returned to whatever I was doing before.

But it turns out that, in fact, this really is a mystery. Apparently it's not just a simple matter of asking McDonald's and getting an answer. They're not fessing up, apparently. But Willy Staley has a theory, encapsulated in this chart:

Basically, Staley thinks that McDonald's sells the McRib only when pork prices are low:

The theory that the McRib’s elusiveness is a direct result of the vagaries of the cash price for hog meat in the States is simple: in this thinking, the product is only introduced when pork prices are low enough to ensure McDonald’s can turn a profit on the product. The theory is especially convincing given the McRib's status as the only non-breakfast fast food pork item: why wouldn't there be a pork sandwich in every chain, if it were profitable?

....Now, take a look at this sloppy chart I’ve taken the liberty of making. The blue line is the price of hogs in America over the last decade, and the black lines represent approximate times when McDonald’s has reintroduced the McRib, nationwide or taken it on an almost-nationwide “Farewell Tour” (McD’s has been promising to get rid of the product for years now).

....Looking further back into pork price history, we can see some interesting trends that corroborate with some McRib history.....

Much more at the link, including some self-criticism of this theory. For what it's worth "Counter Theory 3" is the one that I always vaguely assumed was the explanation, but now I'm not so sure. Maybe it really is just economics red in tooth and claw.