Kevin Drum

Chart of the Day

| Wed Sep. 30, 2009 6:08 PM EDT

Longtime political analyst Charlie Cook thinks there's a good chance that Democrats could lose control of Congress in next year's midterm elections.  Independent voters, he says, are "viscerally" worried about the deficit and hyperactive government.

I wonder.  The deficit is a pretty abstract thing, and "hyperactive government" doesn't necessarily mean healthcare and the stimulus bill.  When it comes to voter discontent, I think I'd put my money elsewhere.  First, as the chart below, from the Economic Policy Institute, shows, people are pretty strongly convinced that the finance industry has gotten huge amounts of help from Obama and Congress, while ordinary people have gotten squat.  As Ezra Klein says, "The economic logic behind preserving the financial sector was bulletproof. But the electorate is not composed of economists. And all they know is that the banks got a lot of money, and this is the worst recession in memory."  In other words, "hyperactive" might be a lot more acceptable if all that activity were aimed somewhere other than Wall Street.

Second, there's jobs.  John Judis tells the story here: if you want to be a popular president, you'd better be able to demonstrate some job growth.  End of story.  Obama still has some time on that front, but probably not very much.  If the economy is starting to recover by next spring, he and the Democratic Party will probably be in decent shape when the midterms roll around.  If not, not.

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Catblogging News

| Wed Sep. 30, 2009 3:27 PM EDT

Attention cat fans: We recently redesigned our thrice-weekly email newsletter into three separate newsletters.  One of those newsletters is based around yours truly, and you know what that means: catblogging.  Or, I guess, catlettering.

Or something.  In any case, we've decided that once a week is plenty of exposure for Inkblot and Domino, so we're soliciting photos of guest cats to appear in the newsletter.  If you want some temporary stardom for your adorable furball, just email a photo to:

cats@motherjones.com

Include a couple of sentences of description (names, ages, what they're up to, favorite tricks, whatever else you feel like) and we'll select one each week.  Dogs are welcome too!  And if you want to sign up to receive the newsletter, you can do it here.  Sign up for one, two, or all three.

Quote of the Day

| Wed Sep. 30, 2009 2:07 PM EDT

From an "industry expert" explaining why Sarah Palin is having trouble booking speeches at $100,000 a pop:

The big lecture buyers in the US are paralyzed with fear about booking her, basically because they think she is a blithering idiot.

I don't understand this.  Since when is being a blithering idiot any kind of drawback for a politician on the lecture circuit?

Russia-Georgia Postmortem

| Wed Sep. 30, 2009 1:51 PM EDT

A long-awaited EU report on the causes of the Russia-Georgia war last year has finally been released.  The New York Times reports the reaction from both Russia and Georgia:

Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s envoy to the European Union, told reporters in Brussels that the central finding concerned Aug. 7, and that he hoped it would prompt foreign leaders to withdraw their support for Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili. The report provided “an unequivocal answer to the main question of who started the war, and it says squarely that it was Georgian massive shelling and an artillery attack which marked the beginning of large-scale hostilities.”

In Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, Temuri Yakobashvili, the minister of reintegration, said the report exonerated Georgia because it emphasized the long-term buildup of tensions. “This report will kill the Russians’ spin that it was Georgia who started the war, and it will finish all these notions and speculations about who started the war,” Mr. Yakobashvili said. “The first line of this report states that the war didn’t start on Aug. 7.”

That's my kind of report: one that resolves nothing.  But in fairness, how could it?  Its conclusions were pretty obvious to everyone aside from hardened ideologues long ago: Russia spent years trying to goad Georgia into war, and in August of last year Georgia finally took the bait.  In a situation like that, who you blame is almost entirely a matter of who you feel like blaming.

So there's no knockout blow here.  Still, I give it to Russia on points.  Georgia was hardly innocent in all this, but Russia's goals were pretty clear all along, and they obviously kept escalating tensions until they got the reaction they wanted.  They deserve all the condemnation they got for that.

How Crazy Are We?

| Wed Sep. 30, 2009 12:47 PM EDT

Do baseball players make a greater number of spectacular plays than they did 30 years ago?  Of course not.  It just seems like it because ESPN packages them all up for us every evening on SportsCenter.  These days, we get to see every spectacular play, not just the ones in the games we happen to watch.

David Post calls this the ESPN Effect and wonders if it applies to politics:

All I hear from my left-leaning friends these days is how crazy people on the right are becoming, and all all I hear from my right-leaning friends is how crazy people on the left are becoming, and everyone, on both sides, seems very eager to provide evidence of the utter lunacy of those on the other side.  “Look how crazy they’re becoming over there, on the other side!” is becoming something of a dominant trope, on left and right.  It is true that we’re seeing more crazy people doing crazy things on the other side (whichever side that may be, for you) coming across our eyeballs these days.   But that’s all filtered reality; it bears no more relationship to reality than the Sportscenter highlights bear to the game of baseball.

My very, very strong suspicion is that there has never been a time when there weren’t truly crazy people on all sides of the political spectrum doing their truly crazy things. Maybe 1% or so, or even 0.1% — which is a very large number, when you’re talking about a population of, say, 100 million.  They didn’t get through the filters much in the Old Days, but they do now.  All this talk about how extreme “the debate” is becoming — how, exactly, does anyone get a bead on what “the debate” really is?  In reality?

Is he right?  Are Fox News and Twitter and the blogosphere and talk radio the collective SportsCenter of politics?  Or are people really crazier than they used to be?

Or is it even worse than that?  SportsCenter mostly just records what happens.  (It might also play an active role in producing more spectacular plays because players are eager to make the night's highlight reel, but that's a small effect.)  But in politics it's worse.  Not only might people act crazier in order to get on the news, but seeing all those crazy people might drive the rest of us crazier too.  So maybe at first this was just the ESPN Effect, but over time it became a vicious circle and now there really are more crazy people around.  I sure feel crazier these days.  How about you?

Not Out of the Woods Yet

| Wed Sep. 30, 2009 11:51 AM EDT

Housing prices were up slightly in July, but there's also this:

The number of homes lost to foreclosures rose about 17 percent in the second quarter of this year despite the launch of an extensive government program aimed at helping borrowers save their home, according to government data released Wednesday.

....The report also reflected the risks still posed by hundreds of thousands of risky home loans known as option adjustable-rate mortgages, which reset to significantly higher payments. With these "option ARMs," also known as pick-a-pay loans, a borrower chooses how much to pay each month, often less than the interest due. But the payments on these mortgages eventually rise significantly, putting the borrower at risk of losing the home.

So: rising foreclosures, another wave of ARM resets, the summer home buying season is over, and the $8,000 federal tax credit for first-time home buyers is about to expire.  Buckle your seatbelts.

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How Not to Deal With a Recession

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 7:22 PM EDT

Via John Judis, who has more about this, here's a story I missed a couple of weeks ago from the Boston Globe:

When the housekeepers at the three Hyatt hotels in the Boston area were asked to train some new workers, they said they were told the trainees would be filling in during vacations.

On Aug. 31, staffers learned the full story: None of them would be making the beds and cleaning the showers any longer. All of them were losing their jobs. The trainees, it turns out, were employees of a Georgia company, Hospitality Staffing Solutions, who were replacing them that day...."It’s unbelievable," said Lucine Williams, 41, who has worked at the Hyatt Regency Boston for nearly 22 years and was making $15.32 an hour plus health, dental, and 401(k) benefits when she lost her job. "I don't know how they can treat people like that."

The outsourced workers make $8 per hour with no benefits.  Nice work, Hyatt.  I think I'll be staying elsewhere in the future.  Now please excuse me while I go throw up.

Income Inequality Still Rising

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 6:48 PM EDT

The Census Bureau reported today that income inequality increased in 2008.  Megan McArdle reacts:

I'm a little surprised; the work of Piketty and Saez seems to suggest that the incomes of the wealthy are disproportionately affected by crises, because they destroy so much asset value.  This effect may show up in the 2009 numbers, when the full effect of the carnage in the markets will be seen in high-end incomes.

My guess is that the destruction of asset values disproportionately affects only the very rich.  The top 10% are mostly just like the rest of us, but with a little more money, while the top 1% are quite different, relying for a lot of their income on capital gains and bonuses tied to asset values.  (And demonstrating a lot more income volatility, too.)  When Piketty and Saez produce their numbers for 2008, I wouldn't be surprised if income inequality has increased a bit if you look at 90/10 comparisons, but decreased a bit if you look at 99/10 or 99.9/10 comparisons.

Politics and Art

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 6:26 PM EDT

The NEA conference call nano-scandal has probably gotten all the attention it deserves already, but Conor Friedersdorf brings up an issue I'm curious about.  Ben Davis says the whole thing was a tempest in a teapot, "essentially a pitch for artists to make glorified PSAs about volunteer work," and Conor responds:

That sounds about right to me — the call wasn’t about furthering controversial elements of President Obama’s agenda, but it was about deliberately politicizing art — that is to say, encouraging artists to advance particular public policy goals rather than enabling them to spend their time and energy creating works of truth or beauty to the best of their ability....It is that effort that I find objectionable, as should anyone who values art or the autonomy or creative people.

So if this conference call had been with, say, a bunch of educator types, urging them to promote public service among schoolkids, would that have been OK?  Or how about law enforcement groups?  Or veterans groups?

Because I don't quite see the difference.  Artists don't exist on some kind of pristine plane of their own and they don't do their work in a vacuum.  They're all part of the same culture as the rest of us, and they react to it and try to influence it just like everyone else.  In fact, artists themselves probably view their work as more explicitly political, in the broad sense of the term, than practically any group of people outside of politicians themselves and the professional pundit/lobbyist/think tank industry that hovers around them.  The whole idea of "politicizing" art is as redundant as the idea of militarizing the Pentagon.

It seems to me that trying to persuade people to promote public service is either a good idea or it's not.  If it's too heavy handed, it's not.  If there are overtones of political payoff, it's not.  If there are insinuations that people who play along will get more grant money, it's not.  But I have a hard time buying the idea that it's affected one way or another by the allegedly delicate artistic sensibilities of the people involved.

The Politics of Climate Change

| Tue Sep. 29, 2009 2:03 PM EDT

Did you see prediction guru Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on Jon Stewart last night?  He's the guy who claims that the CIA says his judgments are accurate 90% of the time.  Fellow forecasting guru Philip Tetlock describes his methodology:

Bueno de Mesquita declares that, once we have mapped the option space, we simply need to follow his four-step formula for making accurate predictions. First, get the best-possible experts to identify every individual or group with a “meaningful” interest in trying to influence the decision. Second, get the experts to estimate as accurately as possible which options each of the identified players is advocating in private — that is, what they want. Third, get experts to estimate how big an issue this is for each of the players — how motivated they are to prevail. Fourth, get experts to estimate the relative political clout or influence of each player in this issue domain.

OK then.  So what does Bueno de Mesquita think about the odds of getting any kind of serious global action on climate change?  Our own Michael Mechanic asked him:

MJ: What's the outlook for Copenhagen?

BBdM: Our analysis shows that the Copenhagen setting will be used to put together what I would describe as a feel-good agreement without teeth....The analysis shows that over the first few years there will be improvement, and then commitment will erode steadily and move away from enforcing the agreement. At the same time, technology changes will be pushing in a positive direction. The other thing this shows is that if the US were committed to a fundamental change in greenhouse gas emissions, it doesn't need Copenhagen; it doesn't need an international agreement. This could be done unilaterally. If Congress decided that it's gonna put a fixed tax on gasoline to ensure that gas doesn't fall below some optimal price, say $5 a gallon, people would change their behavior. There's nothing stopping the US from doing that.

MJ: So somebody has to commit political suicide to make this happen?

BBdM: That's probably correct. Every sensible politician will be in favor of something happening off of their watch: Yes, we will commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions starting year X — X being the year they're no longer in office.

MJ: Was anything surprising about these results?

BBdM: What surprised me is that support built a head of steam, but it collapses quite dramatically within 5 to 10 years. I was surprised at how quickly and sharply it erodes.

Well, that sucks.  The only glimmer of good news here is that Bueno de Mesquita didn't do this analysis himself.  A bunch of his undergrad students did it.  They were "a particularly smart group of kids," he says, but still.  Undergrads have been known to be wrong before, haven't they?