Kevin Drum

Time to Leave the Island

| Wed Jul. 22, 2009 2:04 PM PDT

Rich Miller of Bloomberg reports:

Global investors give Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke top marks for combating the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and overwhelmingly favor his reappointment amid optimism that the world economy is on the mend.

Well, I don't favor it — and this has nothing to do with whether Bernanke has done a good job or not.  Just look at a couple of the quotes Miller dug up.  "He's the best, maybe around the world," says one guy.  "If he weren't renominated, it could have potentially very serious and severe repercussions on the stock market and the economy," says another.  Spare me.

Look: Bernanke isn't indispensable, any more than Alan Greenspan or Paul Volcker or William McChesney Martin were.  But everyone thought they were indispensable at the time, and that's a dangerous way to think about these guys.  Putting Fed chairmen on a pedestal, as the financial community does routinely, breeds both complacency and insularity.  In the long run, it's bad for business.

Wall Street needs to calm down and learn that being Fed chairman for a few years doesn't make someone superhuman.  The world won't end if Bernanke is replaced by one of the other dozen or so highly qualified candidates available, and Obama should take the chance to demonstrate this when he chooses Bernanke's replacement.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

How to Be a Very Serious Person

| Wed Jul. 22, 2009 11:23 AM PDT

If you want to be a Very Serious Person in the foreign policy wonk community, Stephen Walt lays out the rules of the road here.  I'm not sure he's correct about #5 and #6, but the others sound about right.  Via Dan Drezner.

Righteous Anger

| Wed Jul. 22, 2009 10:38 AM PDT

It's true, as Josh Marshall said yesterday, that the political and institutional landscape is more receptive to healthcare reform this year than it was in 1994.  We have bigger majorities in Congress; the GOP is in tatters; the HMO revolution has failed; the AMA and the hospital industry are willing to play ball; unions are working with us; business opposition is far more muted; and Obama's legislative strategy is more sophisticated than Clinton's.

Oh, and the public mood is more favorable to healthcare reform too.  Right?  Bob Somerby doesn't think so:

In fact, the Democrats “went into this round” with a public which is massively clueless about health care reform — and massively lacking in righteous anger, in angry desire for change....Real progressives would work for years — for decades — to develop public understanding and anger about such complex affairs. It takes a long, aggressive struggle to develop progressive political frameworks. As Krugman explained, the other side has pimped its poll-tested narratives down through all those years. But our own denatured “liberal leaders” are too fat and happy to fight against that. When have you ever seen them fight to develop a winning politics about anything known to this earth?

I'm not quite that gloomy, but I think Bob is basically right.  Sure, if you take a survey and ask people if they "support healthcare reform," a large majority will say yes.  But while that may be better than a large majority saying no, it's mostly meaningless.  Most repondents haven't thought about it much, don't really know what healthcare "reform" is, and will switch views in a millisecond once they see a single TV attack ad.  What you need isn't people willing to murmur yes to a pollster, it's people pissed off enough to inundate their congressmen with phone calls.  But we don't have that.

Even though it's an even day and I'm supposed to be pessimistic about healthcare, I still think it's more likely than not that we'll get a fairly decent bill passed this year.  Call it 60-40, maybe a little better.  But the odds would be a lot shorter if liberals had done a better job over the past decade of getting middle class voters as angry about their healthcare as they get over, say, a pothole outside their front door.  Note to Dems: it's still not too late.

Lou Dobbs is a Crackpot

| Wed Jul. 22, 2009 9:37 AM PDT

I see that Lou Dobbs is continuing to take seriously the "birthers" — the clowns who claim that Barack Obama wasn't really born in Hawaii and is therefore president illegally.  I'm very pleased to hear this, since it means maybe — just maybe — it will finally make obvious to the broader world just how far off his rocker Dobbs has gone.  If it does, it will have been worth it.

POSTSCRIPT: And as long as we're on the subject, note that this guy is my congressman.  Dresses nice, doesn't he?

Iran Update

| Wed Jul. 22, 2009 9:14 AM PDT

After the public demonstrations against Iran's election debacle were put down a couple of weeks ago, the conflict switched to behind-the-scenes maneuvering among various powerful and well-connected factions.  Then, more recently, it switched again to a much more public fight between powerful and well-connected factions.  Borzou Daragahi has the latest:

Iran's president, under attack by reformists after his disputed election victory last month, on Tuesday openly defied his most powerful backer, refusing an order by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to dump a newly chosen vice president who is despised by hard-liners for insisting last year that Iranians had no quarrel with the Israeli people.

....Ahmadinejad surprised many observers by defending the vice president, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, an in-law, in the face of a torrent of criticism from his hard-line allies.

News agencies confirmed Tuesday that Khamenei sent a letter to Ahmadinejad on Monday asking for the removal of Mashaei.  "The president should announce the dismissal, or acceptance of the resignation of Rahim Mashaei right away," said Mohammad Hasan Abu- torabi, the deputy speaker of parliament, according to the semiofficial Iranian Students News Agency.

But Ahmadinejad insisted on state television that Mashaei "will continue his job," adding, "he is very loyal to the Islamic Revolution and a servant of people."

Juan Cole says there's something "fishy" about this story: "If Khamenei wanted Ahmadinejad to do something, why would he do it in a secret letter that only two MPs have seen?"  And this:

One possibility is that Khamenei is displeased but does not want to weaken Ahmadinejad by publicly overruling him, at this juncture when things are already unstable. That would make sense of his sending a private letter. Maybe it was circulated to other hard liners only when Ahmadinejad declined to heed it?

In the Iranian constitution, Supreme Leader Khamenei can overrule Ahmadinejad on virtually anything, and can dismiss him at will. So if Khamenei really wants Rahim-Masha'i gone, he'll be history.

Perhaps.  But this has gone so far beyond merely a conflict between Khamenei and Mir Hossein Mousavi that it's hard to say what's really happening behind the scenes.  Khamenei is obviously not the unquestioned authority he was before all this started, and the fact that he's now being challenged by Ahmadinejad, the very guy he attached his fortunes to in the first place, says something about his position.  Or about Ahmadinejad.  Or about something else none of us can even guess at.  Stay tuned.

A Penal Colony With a Nice Coastline

| Wed Jul. 22, 2009 8:20 AM PDT

As of yesterday, fees to attend a Cal State university have gone up by a third in the past year:

As several hundred students shouted "Vote no!" outside the chamber door, California State University trustees Tuesday approved a student fee hike of 20% and agreed to furlough most faculty and staff, including college presidents, for two days each month.

....Cal State also plans to cut its 450,000 enrollment by 40,000 students over the next two years, and $183 million more in budget cuts will be borne by individual campuses.

The 23-campus university system, the nation's largest, has almost tripled its basic fees over the last eight years, approving increases in every year but one. But Tuesday's was by far the steepest, and followed a 10% hike approved just in May.

When I went to school at Cal State Long Beach in 1978, I paid about $100 per semester, plus another $50 or so for books.  Call it $300 a year.  Basically, even the poorest could afford it without going into debt.  Now it's more like $5,000 per year.

I know there are some pretty good arguments for having higher public university fees.  After all, why should the taxpayers subsidize kids who are just going to use their degrees to earn a lot more money over the course of their lives anyway?  And yet.....I don't buy it.  Applied to Harvard, maybe.  But I really like the idea of having a public university system that isn't world class (that's what UC is for), but does provide a basic, good quality, no-frills education to anyone who wants it, and is designed to attract as many people as possible to give it a try — without having to worry that they're racking up a huge debt if it turns out they can't make it.  There's not only a meritocratic ideal in this that appeals to me greatly, but it says something about the priorities of the citizenry that's inspiring as well.

Maybe I'm living in the past.  Maybe community colleges provide that function these days.  A lot of people think so.  But I don't.  And if I had the choice of keeping Cal State universities accessible to everyone vs. shoveling another 10,000 petty crooks into prison, I know which I'd choose.  Over the past 30 years my fellow California residents have decided they'd rather become a penal colony with a nice coastline than a land of opportunity.  It's not a change for the better.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Taming the Blue Dogs

| Tue Jul. 21, 2009 10:55 PM PDT

Karen Tumulty reports that President Obama is starting to twist arms on Capitol Hill a little more:

One close Obama ally predicted to me: "He's going to become increasingly specific — and increasingly persistent — about the things he does and doesn't want" in the health care bill. This afternoon found the President knee-deep in negotations with the conservative Democrats known as "Blue Dogs," who have been slowing down Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman's efforts to get a bill through his panel. And as a result, the President and the conservative Democrats are making common cause on one cost-containment measure that both would like to see added to the House bill.

In a conference call with a group of reporters after the session, Obama Budget Director Peter Orszag said that the White House and the Blue Dogs agree that the "biggest missing piece" of the House bill is a proposal — similar to one championed in the Senate by Democrat Jay Rockefeller — to take the job of setting Medicare reimbursement rates out of the hands of Congress, and turn it over to an independent agency that presumably would have more expertise — and more insulation from political pressure. (You can read our earlier discussion of it — and Orszag's argument for it — here.) The idea has also won words of praise from the Mayo Clinic on the very blog where it criticized the House bill yesterday. And Obama's engagement may be bringing the Blue Dogs aboard.

Right now rate setting is little more than a naked annual porkfest, and there's really no good reason Congress should be involved in it except at the hundred-thousand foot level anyway.  I don't know if giving it to an independent agency will actually contain costs very much, but if this is what it takes to bring the Blue Dogs on board it's fine with me.

Waist Management

| Tue Jul. 21, 2009 8:17 PM PDT

So what's happening over at Slate these days?  Let's take a look:

For years, critics of the body mass index have griped that it fails to distinguish between lean and fatty mass. (Muscular people are often misclassifed as overweight or obese.) The measure is mum, too, about the distribution of body fat, which makes a big difference when it comes to health risks. And the BMI cutoffs for "underweight," "normal," "overweight," and "obese" have an undeserved air of mathematical authority. So how did we end up with such a lousy statistic?

Oh man, not this again.  Yes, it's true: there are a few of us with such Adonis-like physiques that our BMI is high even though we're not overweight. But not many, and you know who you are anyway.  For most of us, let's face facts: if you have a high BMI it's because you've been eating a few too many Snickers bars.

What's more, it's no mystery why BMI has become so widely used: it might not be perfect, but it's a pretty good rough-and-ready measure of obesity and it's really, really easy to measure.  Mine is about 28.  And anyway, all these articles moaning about how bad BMI is never give us anything better to use.

Except — wait!  Hallelujah!  This one does:

Our continuing reliance on BMI is especially grating given there's a very reasonable alternative. It turns out that the circumference around a person's waist provides a much more accurate reading of his or her abdominal fat and risk for disease than BMI. And wrapping a tape measure around your gut is no more expensive than hopping on a scale and standing in front of a ruler.

OK, so what's the formula?  WC squared divided by neck size?  Or what?  Is Slate seriously going to make us click those links and wade through a couple of epidemiological studies instead of just telling us?  Jeebus.  But fine.  I'll go look.  From the second link, here it is:

Men and women who have waist circumferences greater than 40 inches (102 cm) and 35 inches (88 cm), respectively, are considered to be at increased risk for cardiometabolic disease....Waist circumference measurements should be made around a patient's bare midriff, after the patient exhales while standing without shoes, both feet touching, and arms hanging freely. The measuring tape should be made of a material that is not easily stretched, such as fiberglass.

That's it?  No formula?  Just one number?  That's pretty nice — though I don't really like this one much.  My BMI tells me I'm a little heavier than I should be, but not that much heavier.  Hooray!  My WC, on the other hand, clocks in at 42 inches, clearly higher than it should be.  Boo!

But as it turns out, this is a point in favor of WC since I've always felt that BMI is too kind to me.  My gut is considerably more jello-like than it should be, and my WC measurement makes that clearer than my BMI does.

Still, don't take this too seriously.  The study in the first link above shows that WC is a better measure of various kinds of fatty tissue than BMI, but not that much better.  And the second study says that although WC provides "incremental value" in predicting diabetes, CHD, and mortality rate above and beyond that provided by BMI, it's not clear if it provides enough incremental value to be worth it: "Based on NHANES III data, 99.9% of men and 98.4% of women would have received the same treatment recommendations proposed by the NHLBI Expert Panel by evaluating BMI and other cardiovascular risk factors, without an assessment of WC."

So go ahead and measure your waist.  It's fast and easy, and if you don't cheat it's a fairly decent predictor of body fat.  But for 98% of us, if you know your BMI already you're probably not going to learn anything you don't already know.

(Now, whether you should care is another question entirely.  I'll leave that for another day.  But regardless of your weight, don't forget to exercise!  Everyone agrees that a sedentary lifestyle is bad for you.)

Who's Afraid of Futures Contracts?

| Tue Jul. 21, 2009 4:16 PM PDT

It's become popular lately to attack the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill as yet another giveaway to Wall Street.  In his recent tongue-lashing of Goldman Sachs, for example, Matt Taibbi warned that trading in carbon credits would be the next subprime debacle:

Instead of credit derivatives or oil futures or mortgage-backed CDOs, the new game in town, the next bubble, is in carbon credits — a booming trillion dollar market that barely even exists yet, but will if the Democratic Party that it gave $4,452,585 to in the last election manages to push into existence a groundbreaking new commodities bubble, disguised as an "environmental plan," called cap-and-trade.  The new carbon credit market is a virtual repeat of the commodities-market casino that's been kind to Goldman.

As you know, I'm pretty skeptical of this.  The market for carbon credits may be big, but it's nowhere near big enough to cause the kinds of systemic problems that abuse of subprime mortgages did; the derivatives in question are simple ones like options and futures, not CDOs and swaps; and Waxman-Markey has some pretty good language regulating them in any case.  Today Paul Krugman takes up the argument:

Any time you have a market, there’s some opportunity for speculation....So, should fear of speculation lead us to ban trading in wheat? Nobody would say that....Now substitute “emission permits” for wheat. It’s exactly the same story. Why should you address it any differently?

....The prime example of an energy market gone bad is the western electricity market in 2000-2001; and let me say that I have some moral authority here, since I called it when it was happening. That was the real thing — but what made it possible was a combination of at least two factors. First, the demand for electricity was highly unresponsive to prices; second, the relevant markets were fairly small (northern and southern California were isolated both from the outside world and from each other by transmission bottlenecks).

In the case of emission permits, demand will probably be quite responsive to prices — and the market will, as Joe Romm says, be huge.

Read the whole thing. Joe Romm has more here. I'm all in favor of Waxman-Markey containing strong language to restrict fraud and speculation, but there's no reason tie ourselves in knots thinking that this is another subprime debacle waiting to happen just because it involves commodity trading.  The facts on the ground really don't back it up.

F-22 Fail

| Tue Jul. 21, 2009 11:57 AM PDT

The Senate has voted 58-40 to cut off funding for the F-22.  There's still more to come on this, both in the Senate and in conference, but it's promising news.  The case against the F-22 was pretty rock solid, and if the funding cutoff had failed it would have meant that, basically, it's impossible to cut anything in the Pentagon budget.  Score one for common sense.