Kevin Drum

Connecting the Dots

| Mon Jan. 18, 2010 2:27 AM EST

The New York Times reports that there are even more unconnected dots than we thought in the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas bomber. For example:

In September, for example, a United Nations expert on Al Qaeda warned policy makers in Washington that the type of explosive device used by a Yemeni militant in an assassination attempt in Saudi Arabia could be carried aboard an airliner.

Considering that PETN is over a century old and was used eight years ago by Richard Reid to try to blow up an airplane, I'm pretty sure American intelligence was already aware it could be carried aboard an airliner. As new dots go, this is pretty unimpressive. But there's also this:

In early November, American intelligence authorities say they learned from a communications intercept of Qaeda followers in Yemen that a man named “Umar Farouk” — the first two names of the jetliner suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — had volunteered for a coming operation.

Now we're talking. So in November Abdulmutallab's father warned us that his son, Umar Farouk, had been radicalized and might be dangerous, and separately a communications intercept suggested that someone named Umar Farouk had volunteered for a terrorist assignment. I gotta admit: Unless Umar Farouk is a more common name than I think, two separate warnings about the name within a few days of each other sure seems like it should have set off sirens in a database somewhere. If this is confirmed, I think I'm swinging toward the "massive intelligence failure" camp.

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Video of the Day

| Sun Jan. 17, 2010 2:12 PM EST

Back in 2008, when the birther movement was loudly questioning whether Barack Obama was really born in the United States, an interviewer mentioned to Scott Brown that although Obama's mother may have been 18 when he was born, she was married at the time. "Well, I don't know about that," he chuckled.

Brown, of course, is now running for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in Massachusetts and trying to portray himself as a nice, moderate kind of Republican, not some kind of tea party wingnut. But I hope Massachusetts voters know what they're getting themselves into if they elect him. His moderate persona sure seems to be hiding an inner wingnut.

Anyway, here's the video. If liberals had their own version of the Drudge/Fox/Limbaugh axis, this would have been on a 24/7 loop across the country all weekend.

Quote of the Day: John McCain Edition

| Sun Jan. 17, 2010 1:19 PM EST

Dave Weigel says this is the best Game Change quote so far. It's from John McCain:

Fuck you! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!!!

That's a good quote. But not as poetic as this one from Sir Richard Mottram, a British civil servant, commenting on a particularly embarrassing PR fiasco:

We're all fucked. I'm fucked. You're fucked. The whole department is fucked. It's the biggest cock-up ever. We're all completely fucked.

Actually, I'm considering adopting this as my personal weltanschauung — though, as you'd expect from a weltanschauung, you need to sub in "world" for "department" and the cock-up in question would have to change daily. Still, as long as the kids are in the other room it's pretty serviceable for a wide variety of life's little predicaments.

Targeting Inflation

| Sun Jan. 17, 2010 12:47 PM EST

In general, which is a better inflation target: 2% or 4%? Matt Yglesias ponders the question here. I've long thought that the higher target is better for a variety of reasons (spurs consumption, allows wages to react to recessions faster, provides greater monetary flexibility, etc.), but my crude understanding of the situation is that even if this is all true, policymakers are afraid that once inflation targets get above 2% or so, you run the risk of a runaway spiral. Inflation of 4% is OK, but when that turns into 5% and then 7% and then 10%, you've got a big problem. And that's what happens if you're anything but maximally hawkish.

But what I don't know is whether history really supports that view. Aside from episodes of hyperinflation, which aren't really germane to our situation, do inflation targets higher than 2% often lead to an inflationary spiral? In America, the obvious historical episode is the high inflation of the 70s, but that had a variety of causes, and it's not clear that inflation targeting (implicit in this case, since the U.S. Fed doesn't have an explicit target) had anything to do with it.

Anyway, comments welcome. It's obvious that a higher inflation target right now would probably be a pretty useful thing, but how about as a general policy? Would markets go crazy, convinced that the Fed would keep raising the target whenever the economy needed a bump? Or would they shrug after a while and just revert to all of their usual non-inflation-related pathologies? My guess is the latter, but what do I know?

A Paywall for the Times?

| Sun Jan. 17, 2010 12:19 PM EST

Bad news from New York magazine:

New York Times Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. appears close to announcing that the paper will begin charging for access to its website, according to people familiar with internal deliberations. After a year of sometimes fraught debate inside the paper, the choice for some time has been between a Wall Street Journal-type pay wall and the metered system adopted by the Financial Times, in which readers can sample a certain number of free articles before being asked to subscribe. The Times seems to have settled on the metered system.

From a reading point of view, this is not a big deal to me. If I need to subscribe to the Times, I'll subscribe to the Times. But from a blogging point of view, it's a problem. An important part of the great Blogosphere Circle of Life™ is the ability for readers to click on links, both to get the full story for its own sake and to make sure bloggers are playing fair with their excerpts and commentary. If the Times cuts this off, it's a big hit.

So it's semi-good news that they're planning to adopt the FT model, where casual readers can access a dozen or so articles per month without subscribing. At least that's something. Alternatively, if they go with the WSJ model, I hope they provide some mechanism to provide short-term access for nonsubscribers. The Journal does this via email links, which provide public access to linked articles but expire after a week.

And of course, the big question: will it work? Will the Times gain more subscription revenue than they'll lose in advertising revenue? I doubt it, though that depends a lot on whether the recent collapse in online advertising revenue is just a temporary result of the recession or a reflection of long-term trends.

And the second biggest question: will other newspapers follow their lead, thus bringing to an end the great era of endless free news on the internet? Or is the Times one of the few who can even arguably pull this off? Wait and see.

The Black Death

| Sat Jan. 16, 2010 1:11 PM EST

Chapter 6 of William Bernstein's A Splendid Exchange is about the Black Death of the 14th century. It contains this passage:

Even this greatest European apocalypse is only a small part of the story. If the cultural and demographic records of the Black Death are imperfect in Europe, those for the Middle East and Far East are essentially nonexistent; there is no Arab, Indian, or Chinese Decameron.

The basic story here is that the Black Death was actually considerably worse in the Middle East than it was in Europe. In the Nile Valley, where there was no place for city dwellers to escape to (thanks to the surrounding Sahara Desert), the original plague and its aftershocks were especially devastating. Egypt never recovered.

But why are there so few non-Western accounts of the plague? 14th century Arab and Chinese culture were more advanced than European culture, after all. So why no records?

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Friday Cat Blogging - 15 January 2010

| Fri Jan. 15, 2010 2:50 PM EST

On the left, Domino is snoozing in a nice patch of afternoon sunshine. On the right, Inkblot is snoozing on his favorite red American Airlines blanket. And doing it well! Sometimes modesty is appropriate, but other times you just need to show off your strengths. Have a restful weekend, everyone.

Death Knell for the CFPA

| Fri Jan. 15, 2010 2:45 PM EST

Bad news on the financial regulation front:

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd is considering scrapping the idea of creating a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, people familiar with the matter said, an initiative at the heart of the White House's proposal to revamp financial-sector regulations.

....Mr. Dodd's offer is conditional, however: Republicans must agree to create a beefed-up consumer-protection division within another federal agency, these people said.

....Bipartisan support is believed necessary to pass such legislation, as Democrats aren't likely to get the 60 Senate votes needed to overcome a potential Republican filibuster. With Mr. Dodd no longer seeking re-election, some of the pressure to apply a populist stamp on new financial regulations has eased.

This is bad news on multiple fronts. First, although the CFPA isn't a central part of the plumbing that might prevent a repeat of 2008, it was one of the few clean reforms still standing in the regulatory bills working their way through Congress. Second, I have my doubts that ditching it will gain any GOP support. They'll just find other reasons to oppose reform. Third, it was one of the few parts of the reform effort that was genuinely understandable and popular with ordinary voters. Losing it means that regulatory reform is both weak and hard for most people to understand. Yuck. Dems would do better to keep it and force Republicans to vote against it. At least then they'd have a campaign issue.

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.

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.