Kevin Drum

Chart of the Day

| Mon Nov. 30, 2009 12:38 PM EST

I think I published an earlier version of this, but here's the latest analysis of the Senate healthcare bill from MIT economist Jonathan Gruber:

Analysis of the non-partisan information from the CBO suggests that for those facing purchase in the non-group market, the [Senate] bill will deliver savings ranging from $200 for singles to $500 for families in today’s dollars — even without subsidies. The savings are much larger for lower income populations that receive premium credits. This is in addition to the higher quality benefits that those in the exchange will receive, with actuarial values for low income populations well above what is typical in the non-group market today. It is also in addition to all the other benefits that this legislation will deliver to those consumers — in particular the guarantee, unavailable in most states, that prices would not be raised or the policy revoked if they became ill.

There are three important things to note about this.  First, the Senate bill lowers the premiums for low-cost plans across the board.  Second, in addition to this reduction, the Senate bill provides subsidies to low- and middle-income familes that makes health insurance even less expensive.  Third, it does this for a plan that covers about 70% of all medical expenses, compared to a non-reform plan that covers only about 60% of all expenses.  On an apples-to-apples basis, the Senate bill lowers premiums by about 20% and then subsidizes that lower price to reduce the cost of coverage even more.

I hardly need to mention what an enormous boon this would be for millions and millions of real flesh-and-blood people, do I?

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Holiday Sales Update

| Mon Nov. 30, 2009 2:38 AM EST

Here are the holiday weekend shopping results for 2009:

Roughly 195 million consumers shopped in stores and online over the Black Friday weekend, up from 172 million last year, according to the National Retail Federation. But average spending dropped to $343.31 per person from $372.57 a year ago. Overall sales for the four-day weekend totaled $41.2 billion, up marginally from $41 billion last year, the NRF estimated.

....November sales were likely boosted by a spate of pre-Black Friday deals. Spending on Black Friday itself rose 0.5%, or $54 million, to $10.7 billion this year from last, according to ShopperTrak RCT Corp.

Everyone is probably tired of hearing this from me, but as usual, these numbers are misleading because they aren't adjusted for inflation.  CPI numbers for this month aren't in yet, but most likely the November-November inflation rate was about 2.0%, which means that sales volume was actually down 1.5% this year in real terms.  That compares to an increase of about 2% last year in real terms.

Minarets in Switzerland

| Sun Nov. 29, 2009 2:11 PM EST

No more minarets in Switzerland:

Swiss voters have supported a referendum proposal to ban the building of minarets, official results show. More than 57% of voters and 22 out of 26 cantons — or provinces — voted in favour of the ban.

The proposal had been put forward by the Swiss People's Party, (SVP), the largest party in parliament, which says minarets are a sign of Islamisation.

Is this a sign of the resurgence of hard-right anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, or is it just an exceptional result from an exceptional country?  Switzerland is a very socially conservative place (its famous multilingual tolerance notwithstanding), so in one sense it's not a surprise that this referendum passed.  Still, it was polling at only 37% support a week ago and ended up winning with 57% of the vote.  That's a big swing from just a few final days of campaigning,1 and it suggests that it would hardly be impossible for other European countries to follow suit.2

1Unless, of course, Swiss voters have a tendency to lie to pollsters on sensitive questions like this, as they seem to in America.

2If they had referendums, that is.  Which most of them don't.  But obviously a referendum isn't the only way to accomplish something like this.

War and Peace

| Sun Nov. 29, 2009 1:37 PM EST

On Tuesday Barack Obama will announce a major escalation of the war in Afghanistan.  A week later he'll be in Oslo accepting his Nobel Peace Prize.  Pretty good timing, no?

Watching the World

| Sat Nov. 28, 2009 2:31 PM EST

John Judis a few days ago on the possible fallout from the Dubai World crisis:

You have to remember that the Great Depression only became “great,” that is, global, when an obscure Austrian bank went under in 1931, and set off a massive financial explosion around Europe.  Capitalism is an irrational system that is often full of unpleasant surprises. The collapse of Dubai World may turn out to be nothing.  But it could also turn out be one of those unpleasant surprises.

Hopefully not.  But this has always been my biggest concern.  A slow jobless recovery seems all but certain at this point, but I also think we'll be lucky if that's as bad as it gets.  The nightmare scenario is that something like Dubai World panics investors and sends them fleeing back to quality; Eastern Europe can't roll over its debt; Brazil goes kaboom as hot money suddenly stops flowing; Western European banks start to fail; etc.  You can fill in the rest.  I was unpleasantly reminded of all this by the lead to this story in the Washington Post today:

DUBAI CRISIS IS WAKE-UP CALL
Investors weigh risks in emerging economies

Global markets were jolted in recent days following the threat by a state-owned company in Dubai to default on its debt, as investors reawakened to the risks posed by mammoth debts in developing economies.

After the credit collapse of 2008, financial folks rushed to tell us that they had learned their lesson.  But a lot of us were skeptical: sure, maybe they'd learned their lesson for a few years while the wounds were still fresh, but what about five years from now?  Ten?

In the end, though, it didn't take five or ten years.  It took one.  Twelve months after the catastrophe of September 2008, hot money is racing around the globe, the carry trade is as big as ever, Wall Street profits are at record highs, and the chase for supposedly risk-free returns seems to be as widespread as it's ever been.  That combination didn't end well even when it took place against the background of a strong economy, so how's it likely to end against the background of a weak and fragile one now that investors are "reawakening"?

Beats me.  I sure hope I'm just a worrywart.

Thanksgiving Catblogging

| Thu Nov. 26, 2009 12:56 AM EST

It's time to stop thinking about politics for a few days and instead think about turkey and mashed potatoes and football games and 4 am sales.  And cats.  It is for me and mine, anyway.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

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Finance Lobby Update

| Wed Nov. 25, 2009 7:50 PM EST

I've sometimes wondered what it would take to get a guy like Dana Milbank to wipe the smirk off his face and get genuinely outraged.  Now I know: listening in on a call with the finance lobby.

On Tuesday, the American Financial Services Association even held a conference call with reporters to update them on its efforts — successful so far — to torpedo plans for a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which would protect people from the sort of lending abuses that led to last year's implosion.

...."It looks more and more like Senate banking won't take it up until January or February, and with next year being an election year, that does raise the concern level," [Bill] Hempler reported with satisfaction. "This could delay the overall effort." Or, with a bit of luck, kill it outright.

....In Tuesday's conference call, AFSA's executives offered the many familiar reasons why government regulations are bad....But the argument most likely to prevail for the financial firms on Capitol Hill was offered by Chris Stinebert, the trade group's chief. "Especially now, when we're in a very, very sensitive time, when the capital markets are just starting to recover," he said, "introducing a high level of uncertainty in the marketplace could be very detrimental."

Or, to put it another way: Don't regulate us now because the economy is still suffering from the mess we made because we weren't regulated the last time. Chutzpah, it appears, is recession-proof.

In other finance lobby news, Simon Johnson reads and explains a new research report from Morgan Stanley insisting that increased capital requirements for large banks would be a terrible thing for the economy:

The bottom line, translated: let us adjust our balance sheets (downwards to some degree) and continue with our existing business models (including unconstrained bonuses), and we will bring you back to growth eventually.  If you mess with us, unemployment will stay high for a long time.  And any future crises that may befall us are just a cost of doing business, and making us whole is just what you have to do.

All this lobbying and more1 will be crashing down on the United States Congress soon, insisting that any but the most anodyne new regulations will wipe out the economy, wreck the banking system, and turn the country over to the Chinese with barely a whimper.  They will be eagerly assisted by Fox News, the entire Republican Party,2 the Wall Street Journal, the business community, and — in a tremendous irony — tea partiers of all stripes, who will somehow be gulled into believing that good, hardworking bankers are under attack from the same malign forces that are trying to kill grandma.  Raise your hand if you think a majority of our members of Congress have the stones to stand up to this.

1And by more, yes, I mean tidal waves of campaign cash.

2Plus, as several commenters have mentioned, a dispiritingly large portion of the Democratic Party.

Messages From the Past

| Wed Nov. 25, 2009 3:46 PM EST

Wikileaks has released an archive of half a million wireless pager messages from 9/11.  Here's a random sampling:

13:37:52 All, feel free to work from home the remainder of this week.  All is fine and I am in Kansas City now.  I am attempting to get to Denver tomorrow, but do not know if I will get there or not.
13:37:52 Call me ASAP All TEA travel has been cancelled until further notice.  You will have to stay where you are for now.
13:37:54 ]!z00]"AJ];0a]<6America Under Attack  ]<4Breaking News:  ]<2The U.S. stock markets are closed u
13:37:56 National Preparedness Responce Team Update: Due to terrorist action in New York 23 DS3's leased from TCG are down
13:37:59 PLEASE CALL WIFE ON CELL OR ANYWAY YOU CAN.
13:38:50 IM GLAD YOUR SAFE. I LOVE YOU. CALL ME IF YOU CAN GET THROUGH.  SUNSHINE
13:38:56 Russ, I am going to work from home, honestly I can not concentrate here, news, radio, hope you understand
13:38:56 Mike, The Center has been asked to evacuate
13:38:57 Pizza has been ordered if you haven't had lunch yet.  Come by fish bowl.   sd
13:38:57 YOUR SISTER CALLING TO CHECK TO SEE IF YOU ARE OK.

Where did all these messages come from?  Wikileaks says: "While we are obligated by to protect our sources, it is clear that the information comes from an organization which has been intercepting and archiving national US telecommunications since prior to 9/11."  I wonder who that could be?

Phil Carter Leaves the Pentagon

| Wed Nov. 25, 2009 2:40 PM EST

Earlier this morning I said that whenever I settle down and take a serious look at the policies Barack Obama has pursued so far, "nine times out of ten" it's pretty much what I expected.  Among big-ticket items, the biggest one-time-out-of-ten where he's not doing what I expected is in the area of detainee and civil liberties issues.  Glenn Greenwald wonders if this is what led to the abrupt resignation of Phil Carter the other day:

I have no idea what actually motivated Carter's abrupt resignation, but here's what I do know:  so many of the detention and other "War on Terror" policies Obama has explicitly adopted were the very same ones which Carter (as well as Obama) repeatedly railed against during the Bush years, in Carter's case primarily in blogs he maintained both at The Washington Post and at Slate.  Whatever else is true, the policies Obama has adopted in the last six months in the very areas of Carter's responsibilities were ones Carter vehemently condemned when implemented by Bush.

Last week, the Obama DOJ announced that it would deny trials to several Guantanamo detainees and instead send them to military commissions....announced two weeks ago that Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, whose case originated as a criminal investigation with the FBI, would now be turned over to a military commission for prosecution....use of the "state secrets" privilege as a means of evading vital constitutional and other legal questions.

....Following Greg Craig, this is now the second high-profile resignation of a relatively devoted civil libertarian in a short period of time.  Combine that with the still-missing-and-unconfirmed Dawn Johnsen, and all of this leaves those who are indifferent or hostile to civil liberties values — people like John Brennan and Rahm Emanuel — with even fewer counter-weights than before.

I don't have any special insights here either.  Maybe Phil was disappointed in Obama, or maybe he really did resign for personal reasons.  There's no telling.  But it's a disappointment either way, as is Obama's unwillingness to fight harder for civil liberties.  The shoals of reality have just proven a little too rocky.

More Stimulus, Please

| Wed Nov. 25, 2009 1:22 PM EST

Matt Yglesias thinks the Fed needs to do more to stimulate the economy:

I’ve had some correspondents suggest that the Fed really does want to be more accommodating but there’s nothing more they can do. That’s certainly not the way recent statements have sounded to me. On the contrary, it seems to me that Ben Bernanke and co. are just flagrantly ignoring their actual legal mandate to balance considerations of employment, growth, and price stability. If we had five percent unemployment and five percent inflation instead of 10 percent unemployment and no inflation, the Fed would be freaking out. So why not freak out at 10 percent unemployment.

Actually, I'd like an answer to that question.  What should the Fed do at this point?  When inflation is high, the answer is obvious: if it wants to, the Fed can simply keep raising interest rates until inflation is under control.  The sky's the limit.  But the other direction is harder.  With interest rates already at zero and trillions of dollars of quantitative easing already in place, what's left to bring down unemployment?  Brad DeLong suggests that the Fed announce a long-term inflation target of 3% instead of 2%, but I haven't heard a lot of other proposals.

If the answer is even more dramatic quantitative easing, that's fine.  But is it?  Inquiring non-economists want to know.