Kevin Drum

Friday Cat Blogging - 30 October 2009

| Fri Oct. 30, 2009 3:02 PM EDT

Today's picture is life imitating art.  Or is it art imitating life?  Hard to say.  Is Windows wallpaper art?  Is Inkblot life as we know it?  Questions, questions, questions.

(Note: I'm talking about the picture below, not the one on the left.)

And here's another question: who's the cutest cat of them all?  Inkblot knows the answer, but as an employee-by-concatenation of the Foundation for National Progress, aka the publisher of Mother Jones magazine, he's ineligible for our upcoming cat contest.  But your cat isn't!  Go here and register a first-round vote in our contest to find the cutest cat made into a Mother Jones cover.  If you think you can do better, make a cover out of your cat and submit it for the cat-off to be held in two weeks.  May the best cat win.

As for Inkblot, the powers-that-be tell me that he'll be appearing in costume on our home page over the weekend.  An e-costume, of course.  Check it out tomorrow.

UPDATE: No, it turns out that it's Domino who gets the e-costume.  Which is appropriate since she's the black cat in the house.  So everyone gets a picture this week!

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Messy but Effective in Honduras

| Fri Oct. 30, 2009 1:42 PM EDT

I was on vacation and not watching the news back in June when Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a coup.  Ever since then I've used this as an excuse not to blog about it, since I hadn't really kept up with the twists and turns that got it all started.  But today, both sides signed a deal that restored Zelaya to office for the remainder of his term and allowed the scheduled November election to proceed with everyone's blessing.  Tim Fernholz comments:

If the election in Honduras goes smoothly — doesn't every foreign-policy article these days include the sentence, "If the election in ________ goes smoothly"? — then Honduras' democratic system will have been reinforced without harsh sanctions, which would mainly affect the people of the state, or military conflict. Affirming democracy in Latin America is a positive step, especially coming from the United States, which does not have a particularly good history in that department. While the White House's domestic opposition will no doubt call this deal a sham or attack the president for helping restore a controversial leader to power, this outcome will likely improve inter-American relations, and that is a win for a relatively green foreign-policy team.

The truth is that I still don't know all the ins and outs of what happened in Honduras and whose side I'm supposed to take.  But what I do know is that conservatives came out of the chute almost instantly with demands that the Obama administration adopt the hardest line possible in favor of the coup leaders.  This appeared to be for no special reason except that Zelaya was friendly with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, and to call this idiotic would be an insult to idiots everywhere.  Tim is right: the Obama administration's calmer approach was the right one, and messy or not, it helped get the job done in a region where the U.S. is not exactly known for subtlety and respect for local customs.  Not bad.

Learning From California

| Fri Oct. 30, 2009 1:09 PM EDT

Rich Yeselson says, "We are living through the Californiafication of America — a country in which the combination of a determined minority and a procedural supermajority legislative requirement makes it impossible to rationally address public policy challenges."  Ezra Klein agrees.

Me too!  Here's what I wrote a couple of weeks ago, back when the Dodgers and Angels still had a chance of getting to the World Series:

Unfortunately, a local championship or two are about all the good news we’re likely to get anytime soon in the Golden State.  We have structural deficits as far as the eye can see.  A Republican governor took over a few years ago and cut taxes, making things even worse.  Healthcare costs have gone through the roof.1  Unemployment is over 12%.  And a rabid Republican minority in Sacramento can — and does — prevent any of these things from being seriously addressed because the state constitution requires a two-thirds majority to pass a budget or raise taxes.

But no schadenfreude, please.  In Washington DC, federal deficits have become enormous, Republican tax cuts have made them even worse, healthcare costs are skyrocketing, unemployment is about to break double digits, and it’s nearly impossible to seriously address these problems because the Republican Party has adopted a policy of making the filibuster a routine tool of state.  If you can’t get 60 votes in the Senate, you can’t pass anything of consequence these days.

In the past, California has been a bellwether for the nation, and that’s been no bad thing.  But this time?  Fasten your seatbelts, gang.  It’s going to be a very bumpy ride indeed if it happens again.

Don't remember reading this?  That's because I wrote it for our weekly email newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.  All I can say is this: for years I was basically uninterested in Sacramento politics because it was such a cesspool.  It made Washington DC look like a model of good government.  But no longer: Sacramento is still a cesspool, but DC is catching up fast.  If we keep it up much longer, the entire country may end up in the same mess we've made for ourselves here.  That would be decidedly not a good thing.

1And prison costs!

So How's That GDP Growth Treating You?

| Fri Oct. 30, 2009 12:47 PM EDT

GDP was up 3.5% in the third quarter, and yesterday I wondered where all that growth was going.  Today we get part of the answer: not to workers.

The BEA reports that personal income and disposable personal income, adjusted for inflation, were down again in September and down for the entire quarter.  Spending was up in August thanks to Cash for Clunkers, but dropped 0.6% in September.

Separately, the BLS reports that the Employment Cost Index was up 0.4% in the third quarter.  However, since inflation rose about 0.6% in the same period, that's a real decrease of about 0.2%.  "With incomes so soft," analyst Ian Shepherdson said in a statement of the obvious, "increased spending will be a struggle."

So: the economy is growing, but very little of that growth seems to be trickling down to us middle class types.  Happy holidays!

Happy Bonus Season!

| Fri Oct. 30, 2009 11:36 AM EDT

Good news!  The financial industry plans to pick up the stimulus slack as the government's efforts start to tail off next quarter:

Having shaken off the biggest economic decline since the 1930s, almost three in five traders, analysts and fund managers believe their 2009 bonuses will either increase or won’t change, according to a quarterly poll of Bloomberg customers. Only one in four see a decline. Asians are the most optimistic about pay and Americans and Europeans somewhat less so.

“The large banks are knocking the cover off the ball,” said Daniel Alpert, managing director of New York-based investment bank Westwood Capital LLC. The industry is “making money, though with government help.”

Worldwide, a majority of market professionals in the survey also turn thumbs down on government attempts to limit compensation, with 51 percent saying restrictions will stifle useful innovation. Only about 38 percent think pay limits will control excessive risk-taking.

There are still some naysayers out there, like Mark Borges, a compensation consultant at Compensia Inc., who says the survey results "give some fuel to the people who claim that Wall Street hasn't really gotten it."  But me?  I'm just grateful that bankers are going to be part of the economic recovery of struggling Porsche dealerships and Cape Cod real estate agents.  I'd say they get it just fine.

High Noon

| Fri Oct. 30, 2009 1:47 AM EDT

Now that it looks like Congress is only inches away from producing a surprisingly decent healthcare bill, Paul Krugman lays down the law:

Everyone in the political class — by which I mean politicians, people in the news media, and so on, basically whoever is in a position to influence the final stage of this legislative marathon — now has to make a choice. The seemingly impossible dream of fundamental health reform is just a few steps away from becoming reality, and each player has to decide whether he or she is going to help it across the finish line or stand in its way.

....For conservatives, of course, it’s an easy decision: They don’t want Americans to have universal coverage, and they don’t want President Obama to succeed.

....Should progressives get behind this plan? Yes. And they probably will.

The people who really have to make up their minds, then, are those in between, the self-proclaimed centrists....I’d just urge them to take a good hard look in the mirror. If they really want to align themselves with the hard-line conservatives, if they just want to kill health reform, so be it. But they shouldn’t hide behind claims that they really, truly would support health care reform if only it were better designed.

For this is the moment of truth. The political environment is as favorable for reform as it’s likely to get. The legislation on the table isn’t perfect, but it’s as good as anyone could reasonably have expected. History is about to be made — and everyone has to decide which side they’re on.

I don't know if "self-proclaimed centrists" listen to Krugman, but he's right.  The modest public option that's survived the sausage factory so far just isn't a big enough deal to sink the entire bill over.  At least, it's not if you really want healthcare reform in the first place.  It's time for everyone to figure out if they do.

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Gay Marriage in Maine

| Thu Oct. 29, 2009 5:34 PM EDT

Via Andrew Sullivan, here's a sample of the pro-marriage (left) and anti-marriage (right) ads running in Maine right now.  Reminds me of California 11 months ago: generally bright and positive from the pro side, dark and fearmongering from the anti side.  Note especially the almost comically menacing musing from the anti folks.

Of course, as we all know, fear sells: the anti side won in California.  But not by much!  Only by a couple of points, and I remain convinced that if Barack Obama had been willing to step in a little more forcefully he might have turned things around.  I understand his reluctance to address hot button cultural issues until he gets most of his legislative agenda through Congress this year, but justice is justice.  He ought to speak up on this.

Quote of the Day

| Thu Oct. 29, 2009 4:18 PM EDT

From Fay Chapman, former chief legal officer at Washington Mutual, about loan standards during the housing bubble era:

"Someone in Florida had made a second-mortgage loan to O.J. Simpson, and I just about blew my top, because there was this huge judgment against him from his wife's parents," she recalled. Simpson had been acquitted of killing his wife Nicole and her friend but was later found liable for their deaths in a civil lawsuit; that judgment took precedence over other debts, such as if Simpson defaulted on his WaMu loan.

"When I asked how we could possibly foreclose on it, they said there was a letter in the file from O.J. Simpson saying 'the judgment is no good, because I didn't do it.' "

Via Mark Thompson.

Taking on the Iron Triangle

| Thu Oct. 29, 2009 2:30 PM EDT

It's a testament to the difficulty of healthcare reform and the power of the healthcare lobby that it's able to make reform of Pentagon procurement look almost easy by comparison.  But that's how it's turned out: at the same time that President Obama's healthcare reform has been fighting through the congressional underbrush one painful subparagraph at a time, his defense cuts have practically sailed through.  Remarkably enough, he's succeeded almost completely in cutting back the weapons platforms he targeted earlier this year, and he's succeeded so quietly that I'd pretty much forgotten it was even happening.  But it did, and the defense appropriations bill Obama signed yesterday included nearly all the cuts he had asked for:

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said Wednesday that the plan was to threaten a veto over a prominent program — in this case, the F-22 fighter jet — “to show we were willing to expend political capital and could win on something that people thought we could not.”

Once the Senate voted in July to stop buying F-22s, Mr. Emanuel said in an interview, that success “reverberated down” to help sustain billions of dollars of cuts in Army modernization, missile defense and other programs.

....Military analysts said [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, also aimed at the most bloated programs. And Senator John McCain of Arizona, the former Republican presidential candidate, who has criticized the Pentagon’s cost overruns, provided Mr. Obama with political cover to make the cuts without being seen as soft on the military.

“They probably get an ‘A’ from the standpoint of their success on their major initiatives,” said Fred Downey, a former Senate aide who is now vice president for national security at the Aerospace Industries Association. “They probably got all of them but one or maybe two, and that’s an extraordinarily high score.”

Yes, Obama and Gates mostly took on only the most egregiously bloated Pentagon programs and then plowed the money they saved into other areas, which probably cut down considerably on opposition grumbling.  Still, this is a landmark effort.  Cutting even a single bloated program is usually the work of years, and to cut three or four at once is unprecedented.

Having a conservative (and politically savvy) Defense Secretary like Gates carrying the ball for the program cuts was instrumental in getting them done, in the same way that having a conservative like Gates carrying the ball for ending DADT will probably be instrumental in getting it abolished next year.  I was sort of ambivalent about the Gates appointment when it was announced last year, but I have to admit that so far he's come through on the potential upside.

(Via Steve Benen.)

Palin and the Presidency

| Thu Oct. 29, 2009 1:40 PM EDT

Iowans aren't accustomed to paying politicians to speak at their events.  Just the opposite, in fact: as the kick-off state for the presidential primary season, most politicians are so eager to speak in Iowa that they're almost willing to pay for the privilege.

But not Sarah Palin!  She's hungry for scratch, and Iowans have to pay up the same as anyone else:

A conservative Iowa group’s effort to lure Sarah Palin to its banquet next month has had an unintended effect: Rather than exciting conservatives about the prospect of a visit from the former Alaska governor, the group’s plan to raise a six-figure sum to bring her to the state has GOP activists recoiling at the thought of paying to land a politician's speaking appearance.

Matt Yglesias is cynical: "The hard-right loves Sarah Palin and wants her to be president, but she really just wants to cash in." Nick Baumann isn't so sure: "Running for President does mean sucking up to Iowans, and if Sarah Palin isn't willing to do that, she either has an outrageously inflated sense of her own importance or she isn't planning on running. You can probably find evidence for either of those explanations."

Why yes you can.  Or both!  As for myself, I go back and forth on whether Palin plans to run for president in 2012.  At times, it really does seem as if the 2008 campaign made her realize that the rigors of big-time politics weren't for her.  On the other hand, she really, really loves the spotlight, and what's a bigger stage than the White House?  But if she planned to run, would she really be quite so obviously frenzied about cashing in on her notoriety while she has a chance?  Still, Nick is right: her sense of self-importance is so manifest that you can practically see her measuring the Oval Office drapes when she makes public appearances.  But surely her advisors know perfectly well that she has absolutely no chance of beating Barack Obama and will let her know that?  Maybe so, but that might just mean she'll find herself new advisors.  The ability of people to convince themselves that they can win the presidency (Fred Thompson?  Chris Dodd?  Seriously?) is the stuff of legend.

So I don't know.  I'd put it at about 50-50.  Or maybe 45-55.  If I had to bet, I'd say she won't run.  But I wouldn't bet very much.  Give her another year or two and she might very well delude herself into thinking that the American people are really, really yearning for her to be the leader of the free world.  After all, they love her book, don't they?

POSTSCRIPT: If you want to know the truth, this post is really just an excuse to include that picture of Palin, captured some time ago from her old Twitter page.  It cracks me up.  The first time I saw it she reminded me of some Paul Bunyanesque giant gazing down curiously on the antlike peasants below — perhaps just before rampaging over the Alaskan tundra and crushing a few villages in the process.  Or maybe I just have an odd sense of humor?

UPDATE: As is so often the case with Palin, it turns out that the real story here is murky.  Is she really asking for $100,000?  Is she even planning to be in Iowa at all?  Maybe not.  More here.