Kevin Drum

....Are Condemned to Repeat It

| Sun Aug. 2, 2009 8:34 PM PDT

Responding to a John Quiggin post lamenting the fact that the financial disasters of the late 90s produced no real regulatory action, Matt Yglesias says:

Whatever you think of Greenspan’s overall legacy [...] I think it’s a bit hard to regret that he acted swiftly and decisively to keep the world out of a major recession at the turn of the millennium....Letting things fall apart would have led to millions of additional unemployed people, state budget crises, cutbacks in critical social services, etc., etc., etc.

But it really does seem that the success of these operations was taken as a reason to avoid any serious systematic reform. And you can feel the same kind of thing happening today. It’s disturbing.

You can say that again.  Part of the reason for this might be the fact that even now, with wild figures being routinely thrown around about the size of the bailout ($17 trillion! $23 trillion! 3 years of GDP!), most people still don't truly understand the size and scope of the government action that was required to keep the private sector from melting down completely.  And the reason is pretty simple: the vast, vast majority of it was done behind the scenes by the Fed.  TARP and the stimulus bill were the only parts that really got any public scrutiny.  All the rest was done without congressional debate via an alphabet soup of loan guarantees, term facilities, interest rate reductions, conservatorships, currency swaps, commercial paper backstops, interest on reserve balances, liquidity pumps, collateral forbearance, asset stop-loss guarantees, and more.  This stuff is never going to add up to the astronomical sums people have been tossing out, but it's still a huge amount of money.  And without it, the entire financial industry would have collapsed.

But in the event, the Fed did do all this stuff, and the result is that what most people see is a bad recession but nothing more.  Just part of the business cycle, thankyouverymuch, and like other recessions it will end soon and life will go on.  And needless to say, the financial industry will be lobbying its ass off to make sure that Congress is inclined to see things the same way.  Disturbing indeed.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 31 July 2009

| Fri Jul. 31, 2009 12:06 PM PDT

I iz confused.  A couple of weeks ago I decided to take another crack at setting out limited portions of cat food in order to slim down my critters a bit.  However, after a few days of this, a bit of googling persuaded me that I might have gone too far.  I was underfeeding them, which is potentially dangerous, and in any case not what I had in mind.

So I decided to apply some Science™ to the problem.  Step 1: go back to free feeding them, which has produced their present rotund condition, and see how much they hoover up.  Answer: over the course of five days they ate 24 ounces of dry food and five cans of wet food.  Converting from metric (because the boffins at Hill's list calories per kilogram on the side of their bag), that comes to 2,000 calories of dry food and 400 calories of wet food.  That's 480 calories per day, or 240 calories per cat.

No problem, then.  If I want to shrink them by 20% or so, just cut that down to about 200 calories.

But here's where I'm confused.  As it happens, this matches up perfectly with the recommendation printed on the dry food bag, which suggests that a 15-pound cat needs about 200 calories per day.  But if you google the subject of how much to feed your cat, virtually every source suggests 20-30 calories per pound.  In other words 300-400 calories for a 15-pound cat.

This is ridiculous.  These recommendations aren't even close.  However, since both Science™ and the dry food instructions converge on approximately the same answer, I'm going with 200 calories for now.  The internet appears — shockingly, I know — to be wildly misinformed.

Or something.  Anyway, here are today's Before pictures.  On the left, Domino and Inkblot are lying around in close proximity.  Why?  Because the carpet had just been cleaned and their sensitive little paws didn't like the slight dampness.  So they decamped to the foyer.  On the right, the carpet's all dry!  Inkblot obviously approves.

Did the Stimulus Work?

| Fri Jul. 31, 2009 10:52 AM PDT

Josh Bivens of EPI digs into today's second quarter GDP report to try and figure out what effect the stimulus package has had:

Federal government spending grew at an 11% rate in the quarter, adding roughly 0.8% to overall GDP. State and local government spending grew at a 2.4% annual rate, the fastest growth since the middle of 2007. It is clear that the large amount of state aid contained in the ARRA made this growth possible.

Furthermore, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable personal income rose by 3.2% in the quarter, after rising by only 1% in the previous quarter. A large contribution to this increase was made by the Making Work Pay tax credit passed in conjunction with the ARRA.

....The consensus of macroeconomic forecasters is that ARRA contributed roughly 3% to annualized growth rates in the second quarter. This means that absent its effects, economic performance would have resembled that of the previous three quarters, when the economy contracted at an average annual rate of 4.9%.

The argument that the stimulus bill has "failed" because times are still tough has always been dimwitted.  There was never any chance that it was going to miraculously end the recession, only that it might make it a little shallower than it otherwise would have been.  So far, it appears to have done exactly that.

But Can It Write Blog Posts For Me?

| Fri Jul. 31, 2009 9:43 AM PDT

This is, I admit, pretty cool.  It's almost the dictionary definition of a massive abuse of technology, but pretty cool anyway.  If they could make it work for telephone interviews, I might even get one.

Actually, as things stand now, I can't record telephone interviews at all.  A few years ago, for no reason I've ever been able to figure out, my phone line suddenly developed a loud hum.  You can't hear it during an ordinary conversation, though, only when you plug a tape recorder directly into the line or into the Mic jack on the phone.  I've tried a million different combinations to try to figure out what's causing this, but no dice.  The hum is always there, and it's loud enough to drown out actual conversation.  Very annoying.

Take Back the Beep

| Fri Jul. 31, 2009 9:17 AM PDT

Gabbing about Medicare reimbursements rates is all well and good, but on a purely personal level this is the kind of stuff I really love.  It's from David Pogue:

Over the past week, in The New York Times and on my blog, I’ve been ranting about one particularly blatant money-grab by American cellphone carriers: the mandatory 15-second voicemail instructions.

Suppose you call my cell to leave me a message. First you hear my own voice: “Hi, it’s David Pogue. Leave a message, and I’ll get back to you” — and THEN you hear a 15-second canned carrier message.

....In 2007, I spoke at an international cellular conference in Italy. The big buzzword was ARPU — Average Revenue Per User. The seminars all had titles like, “Maximizing ARPU In a Digital Age.” And yes, several attendees (cell executives) admitted to me, point-blank, that the voicemail instructions exist primarily to make you use up airtime, thereby maximizing ARPU.

Right now, the carriers continue to enjoy their billion-dollar scam only because we’re not organized enough to do anything about it. But it doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to sit there, waiting to leave your message, listening to a speech recorded by a third-grade teacher on Ambien.

Apparently Pogue's campaign to end this ripoff, which he calls "Take Back the Beep," is already having an effect.  It just goes to show that the mainstream media isn't dead yet.  Now if only we can get Lou Dobbs hot and bothered about this.

Chart of the Day

| Fri Jul. 31, 2009 8:33 AM PDT

This comes from a Research 2000 poll commissioned by Daily Kos.  Apparently a majority of Southerners aren't willing to say that Barack Obama was born in the United States.  That's some serious crazy.

Nationwide, 58% of Republicans are unsure that Obama was born in the U.S.  That's some even more serious crazy.

We've obviously spun back into a version of the full-bore Clinton Derangement Syndrome that swept the nation in the early 90s.  This kind of thing always starts with a few fringe characters, but there's a difference this time around.  Clinton craziness was initially pushed by the fringe media and then picked up and amplified by the mainstream guys.  This time it started in the mainstream media: Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, Andy McCarthy, Sean Hannity, etc. etc.  No middleman required.

Which makes you wonder: what would it be like if Hillary Clinton had been elected?  I think we've suspected this all along, but now we know the answer with scientific precision: it would have been exactly the same.  It was never Clinton Derangement Syndrome in the first place.  It was Conservative Derangement Syndrome.

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More Troops in Afghanistan?

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 11:05 PM PDT

The Washington Post reports that the top commander in Afghanistan is preparing recommendations for a new strategic direction:

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who took charge of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan last month, appears inclined to request an increase in American troops to implement the new strategy, which aims to use more unconventional methods to combat the growing Taliban insurgency, according to members of an advisory group he convened to work on the assessment. Such a request could receive a chilly reception at the White House, where some members of President Obama's national security team have expressed reluctance about authorizing any more deployments.

...."There was a very broad consensus on the part of the assessment team that the effort is under-resourced and will require additional resources to get the job done," a senior military official in Kabul said.

....One senior administration official said some members of Obama's national security team want to see how McChrystal uses the 21,000 additional troops before any more deployments are authorized. "It'll be a tough sell," the official said.

Well, this should be a tough sell.  If McChrystal can make his case, fine. But it better be a damn good one.

The Beer Summit

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 4:07 PM PDT

So what's going on today?  Let's check in with the paper of record:

New York Times reporters Helene Cooper, Peter Baker and Jeff Zeleny are live-blogging the so-called beer summit....

Sweet Jesus.  The Times has assigned not one, not two, but three separate highly paid reporters to liveblog this?  Just shoot me now.  Still, since I'm not part of the solution I guess I'm part of the problem.  So I might as well listen in:

Helene Cooper: During the brief time that the press could watch the goings-on, Mr. Biden leaned across the table towards Sgt. Crowley and said something. At another point, Sgt. Crowley gesturing with his hands, said something to Professor Gates.

....Jeff Zeleny: This is not the first time Mr. Obama has turned to beer for a photo opportunity....A little more than a year ago, as Mr. Obama sought to win over working-class voters during the Indiana primary, he turned up in North Liberty, Ind., and walked into VFW Post 1954, where a Coors Light clock was hanging on the wall.

....Update: Sgt. Crowley plans to have a news conference at 7:30.

....Helene Cooper: Everyone is getting along so far, the official said.

....Helene Cooper: Five people — all white — including a young boy and two older teenage girls, arrived at the West Wing gate at around 4:45 p.m....As they passed a group of cameramen, one yelled out: “Not to be rude, but can you say who you are?” The response: “Not who you think.”

....“How much is this costing the taxpayers?” — Paul

Jeff Zeleny: The White House is buying the beer, but that’s it.

Please make it stop.

Quote of the Day

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 3:26 PM PDT

From an entrepreneur in the Middle East:

The financiers are the most important since they organize and plan the big shot operations and are able to pay running cost[s]. Financiers always need to forge deals with traders, land cruiser owners, translators, business people to keep the supplies flowing during operations and manage the logistics.  There is a long supply chain involved in every hijacking.

Hijacking?  What kind of new finance biz lingo is this?  This guy sounds like a wannabe Somali pirate or something. What kind of business is he in, anyway?

Hostages — especially Westerners — are our only assets, so we try our best to avoid killing them.  It only comes to that if they refuse to contact the ship’s owners or agencies.  Or if they attack us and we need to defend ourselves.

Oh.

(Via Armed Liberal.)

Sell Me!

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 10:53 AM PDT

Barack Obama says he's frustrated that it's so hard to get across his healthcare reform message.  Ezra Klein doesn't think selling it is the problem:

The lived experience of most Americans is that health care is too expensive, but not so bad. Similarly, it's that Europe might do a bit better than us on some things and quite a bit worse on others, but they're not very far ahead on anything. And the Veteran's Administration is terrible — didn't you hear about Walter Reed (which most people don't realize is an army, not VA, hospital)?

I don't think the problem for health-care reform is how it's being sold. The problem is the congressional process, and maybe the fact that it's hard to say what this bill gives the median American because it's trying so hard to leave the median American alone.

As near as I can tell I'm practically alone on this, but I think this is absolutely wrong.  It's not that congressional process isn't important.  Of course it is.  This is congressional legislation, after all.

But underneath that, it's all about how it's sold.  Everything has to have a constituency if it's going to get passed.  For ag subsidies it's farmers.  For lax financial regulation, it's banks.  For tax cuts it's rich people.

For healthcare it's.....I dunno.  Who?  But that's the point.  Everyone has been so hung up on congressional process that they seem to have forgotten that Congress responds to the public.  If constituents are mad as hell that their healthcare isn't as good as France's, they'll flood congressional offices with phone calls.  But if they think America has the best healthcare in the world, while the rest of the world is a socialist dystopia of ramshackle hospitals, yearlong waits for hip replacements, and harried doctors who can't see you for months and treat you like a postal customer when you finally get in — well, who's going to get pissed off about the occasional scuffle with their insurance company?  And if the public isn't worked up, then Congress won't get worked up either.

This has always been about public opinion.  Everything is about public opinion.  It's about public opinion being strong enough to overcome the resistance of whatever corporate interests are on the other side.  For some reason, though, liberals don't seem to get that anymore, and because of that we don't spend enough time on either side of the basic vox populi equation: (a) hammering home why individuals, personally, should be unhappy with the status quo, and (b) promising them, personally, lots of cool new stuff if they buy into change.

You don't have to lie to accomplish this.  But you do have to sell, the same way any salesman anywhere sells stuff.  That means understanding your audience, figuring out what they're afraid of, promising them something that will make them better off, overcoming their objections, and then convincing them that they have to call now to take advantage of this one-time offer!  Every pitchman on late night TV understands this.  Why don't we?