Kevin Drum

The Real Sarah Palin

| Fri Mar. 19, 2010 12:46 PM EDT

Via Dave Weigel, Variety has your Sarah Palin news of the day. She's coming to basic cable!

A&E and Discovery appear to be the front-runners to land the untitled Alaska-themed series, to be produced by Mark Burnett Prods.

....As first reported by Entertainment Weekly, the Palin project will center on interesting characters, traditions and attractions in the 49th state — with the ex-VP candidate as a guide. Burnett and Palin pitched the show to all four major networks — but given the travelogue nature of the series, it ultimately made more sense for a cable network, insiders said.

...What's fueling the interest? Even though the show promises to be completely devoid of politics, Palin has a loyal following -- and even folks who detest her politics may be curious enough to tune in and see what she's up to.

Jon Stewart must be licking his chops over this. And anyone who believes Palin's show will be "completely devoid of politics" is either delusional or lying. What's the over/under on how many episodes it takes before we have one set smack in the blasted hellscape that is ANWR?

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Can Resolution Authority Work?

| Fri Mar. 19, 2010 12:05 PM EDT

I've been trying to decide what I really think of Chris Dodd's financial reform bill, and so far the answer is: not much. Yesterday, for example, Mike Konczal took a look at how it handles the problem of winding up big failed banks. Basically, the bill mandates that large banks write their own "living will," with fines proposed for those who do a lousy job. Here's Mike:

Notice how this strategy would look for FDA if we were creating the FDA now: “Drug companies will be required to submit the effects of their drugs that they market from internal studies that they’ve carried out. That is all.”

There’s an obvious agency problem: if you are a large, complex company and you’ve failed, you want the regulators to be as confused, scared, and uninformed as possible so they will bail you out. It’s worked before. What’s the penalty for a failed firm that doesn’t do this well? They are already failed. If you are less cynical about the financial markets than I am, it’s still costly, time consuming and kind of a pain in the ass to collect this information well, so you will probably half-ass it.

I'd add something even more fundamental: can this work even in theory? Mike is right that banks have lots of reasons to do a self-serving job when it comes to drafting their plans, and when times are good it's unlikely that the Fed or any other regulator is going to be especially tough on them. But beyond that, is it even possible to set forth a plan in advance that would, say, unwind Citigroup cleanly and without a big government bailout? I have my doubts, and I'd sure like to hear a few skeptical experts weigh in on this. What would a real resolution plan for Citigroup look like?

In another post, I think Mike gets to the key issue: we really ought to be more concerned with detection than with resolution. Once a gigantic bank has started to spiral out of control, it's probably going to need some kind of massive government support no matter what kind of resolution plan it has in place. So what's really important is stopping that spiral before it starts. But that gets us back to things like limiting leverage, insisting on more robust capital requirements, insisting that derivatives are traded openly and only by firms with the collateral to back them up, etc. Resolution authority is something the federal government needs — regardless of whether or not it's messy — but I'd put it somewhere in the bottom half of the top ten things we should be concerned about.

I am, however, extremely persuadable on this point. So: is resolution authority more important than I think? And if so, what would it take to do it right? I'll try to follow up on this later.

Reporting on Oil

| Fri Mar. 19, 2010 2:02 AM EDT

Here's a story that shows the value of the Freedom of Information Act:

The U.S. government faces shortcomings in producing its oil-inventory data, according to internal Department of Energy documents, casting doubt on figures that affect the production and prices of the world's most important industrial commodity.

The documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, expose several errors in the Energy Information Agency's weekly oil report, including one in September that was large enough to cause a jump in oil prices, and a litany of problems with its data collection, including the use of ancient technology and out-of-date methodology, that make it nearly impossible for staff to detect errors. A weak security system also leaves the data open to being hacked or leaked, the documents show.

....On Sept. 16, the EIA released data showing almost four million barrels of oil had vanished from the Cushing storage hub in Oklahoma during a single week. The market paid particular attention because Cushing is the nation's most important commercial storage facility. Its oil is used to fill orders from buyers on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Oil futures jumped 2.2% after the report.

But out of the sizable drop at Cushing, 1.7 million barrels represented a correction made after the EIA discovered a previous error in one company's reporting, according to the emails. James Beck, who heads the team that conducts the weekly survey, confirmed the correction in an interview.

Good to know.

Zoning and Sprawl

| Thu Mar. 18, 2010 7:28 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias has been making the case recently that zoning and land use laws encourage suburban sprawl, and if we did away with them we'd have a greater number of dense, walkable neighborhoods. Cato's Randall O'Toole took exception, so Matt condensed his argument into PowerPoint form:

  • Throughout America there are many regulations that restrict the density of the built environment.
  • Were it not for these restrictions, people would build more densely.
  • Were the built environment more densely built, the metro areas would be less sprawling.

There's a lot I could say about this, but that's a mistake in a blog post. So I'll stick to one main point: these regulations aren't something that's been imposed by "government." They exist because people really, really, really want them.

I need to be clear here: I'm neither praising nor condemning this, just describing how things are. To get an idea of how strongly people feel about this, you really need to come live in a suburb for a while. But failing that, consider the balance of power here. Corporations would like to be able to build wherever and whatever they want. Wealthy land developers would like to be able to build wherever and whatever they want. And local governments hate single-family neighborhoods because they're a net tax loss: they cost more in services than they return in property tax remittances. And yet, even with corporations, wealthy developers, and local governments all on one side, suburban zoning is ubiquitous. This is a triumvirate that, under normal circumstances, could get practically anything they wanted, but in this case it's not even a close fight. Suburban residents have them completely overwhelmed.

That's how strong the desire is for suburban sprawl. Again: I'm not taking a position on whether this is good or bad. And I'm not saying the fight is hopeless. I'm just saying that everyone needs to understand what they're up against here. It's not zoning per se that causes sprawl, it's the fact that lots of registered voters actively want sprawl and have successfully demanded rules that keep density at bay. These kinds of land use regulations aren't going away without the mother of all knock-down-drag-out fights first.

And now for a second point, even though I said I wouldn't make one: walkability is very difficult to create. It's not enough to build a bunch of houses with shopping nearby. It's not enough to have a few big apartment buildings. And there's no practical way to convert an existing suburb into a high-density area. The thing is, you can't be 90% walkable. You have to be 100% walkable, and for a development of any size you have to jam people together to get enough density to truly make that happen. You will never get this outside a central business core where the price of land is so high that you have no choice.

So....I dunno. Maybe eventually we'll run out of oil and everyone will have to move into urban cores whether they like it or not. Short of that, though, I just don't see how it's going to happen. Working to keep existing city centers walkable seems eminently doable and eminently worth doing. Outside of that, though, building a truly walkable neighborhood strikes me as the next best thing to impossible.

So here's a serious question: outside of a big city core, has anyone ever successfully built a walkable, high-density suburb? Not a village or a small town. I mean something really dense and walkable: a place where sidewalks are busy, mass transit is good, and there are plenty of high-rise apartment buildings. I know the New Urbanist folks talk about this a lot, but do any actually exist? Educate me, peeps.

Reining in Healthcare Costs

| Thu Mar. 18, 2010 2:14 PM EDT

Ezra Klein does a good job of describing why healthcare reform not only should pass, but probably will pass:

If you're a liberal House Democrat, here's what you'd be voting against: Legislation that covers 32 million people. A world in which 95 percent of all non-elderly, legal residents have health-care coverage. An end to insurers rescinding coverage for the sick, or discriminating based on preexisting conditions, or spending 30 cents of each premium dollar on things that aren't medical care. Exchanges where insurers who want to jack up premiums will have to publicly explain their reason, where regulators will be able to toss them out based on bad behavior, and where consumers will be able to publicly rate them. Hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to help lower-income Americans afford health-care insurance. The final closure of the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit's "doughnut hole."

If you're a conservative House Democrat, then probably you support many of those policies, too. But you also get the single most ambitious effort the government has ever made to control costs in the health-care sector. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill cuts deficits by $130 billion in the first 10 years, and up to $1.2 trillion in the second 10 years. The excise tax is now indexed to inflation, rather than inflation plus one percentage point, and the subsidies grow more slowly over time. So one of the strongest cost controls just got stronger, and the automatic spending growth slowed. And then there are all the other cost controls in the bill: The Medicare Commission, which makes entitlement reform much more possible. The programs to begin paying doctors and hospitals for care rather than volume. The competitive insurance market.

The cost controls in the bill are a good start. But they're going to have to get better over time to have any chance of seriously reining in healthcare inflation, and it would be nice to think that once the partisan warfare is over and Republicans give up their fantasy of repealing the bill after a November triumph, they'll finally get serious about cost controls too. Because one way or another, it's going to take both parties giving cover to each other to get the job done.

The Enemy Belligerent Act of 2010

| Thu Mar. 18, 2010 1:13 PM EDT

Marc Ambinder wrote about John McCain and Joe Lieberman's "Enemy Belligerent, Interrogation, Detention, and Prosecution Act of 2010" a couple of weeks ago, but I missed it. It's basically designed to allow us to detain enemy belligerents indefinitely if they meet certain criteria:

The bill asks the President to determine criteria for designating an individual as a "high-value detainee" if he/she: (1) poses a threat of an attack on civilians or civilian facilities within the U.S. or U.S. facilities abroad; (2) poses a threat to U.S. military personnel or U.S. military facilities; (3) potential intelligence value; (4) is a member of al Qaeda or a terrorist group affiliated with al Qaeda or (5) such other matters as the President considers appropriate. The President must submit the regulations and guidance to the appropriate committees of Congress no later than 60 days after enactment.

The bill applies to U.S. citizens as well as foreign nationals, and the determination of whether someone is "high value" is made by the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Team and confirmed by the Secretary of Defense and the Attorney General. Glenn Greenwald provides his usual mild-mannered commentary:

It's probably the single most extremist, tyrannical and dangerous bill introduced in the Senate in the last several decades, far beyond the horrific, habeas-abolishing Military Commissions Act. It literally empowers the President to imprison anyone he wants in his sole discretion by simply decreeing them a Terrorist suspect — including American citizens arrested on U.S. soil. The bill requires that all such individuals be placed in military custody, and explicitly says that they "may be detained without criminal charges and without trial for the duration of hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners," which everyone expects to last decades, at least. It's basically a bill designed to formally authorize what the Bush administration did to American citizen Jose Padilla — arrest him on U.S. soil and imprison him for years in military custody with no charges.

Well, sometimes mild-mannered commentary is just what the doctor ordered. This sounds every bit as bad as Glenn says it is. Basically, it reminds me of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which we've long since decided was not exactly a shining bright spot in our nation's history.

My hope is that the reason this bill has gotten so little attention is that no one thinks it has any chance of passage. Unfortunately, given the current mood of the country and the obvious angst of centrist Democrats about attacks on their terrorism-fighting credentials, that hardly seems plausible. Of course it has a chance of passage. This is well worth keeping an eye on.

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Corporate Douchebaggery Watch

| Thu Mar. 18, 2010 12:20 PM EDT

This kind of story always strikes me as just plain weird. Back in 2007, WellPoint pledged that its charitable foundation would give $30 million in grants to help the uninsured:

However, WellPoint's public records indicate that from 2007 to 2009 the foundation gave less than $6.2 million in grants targeted specifically at helping uninsured Americans get access to coverage and care — barely one-fifth of what was promised and just 11% of the charity's total giving over the last three years.

"It was just not something that the company really wanted to do," said one former executive, who, like others interviewed for this story, asked not to be identified out of concern that discussing WellPoint could have adverse career consequences. "So it went by the wayside."

WellPoint's flack says that she's been "assured" that they have, in fact, given $30 million to help the uninsured, but the reporting process is "complicated" and they don't care to break the numbers down for nosy outsiders. Translated, that means they didn't do it. But why? $30 million is chump change for these guys. Why bother reneging on this promise? Are they trying to confirm that they're the scumbags everyone thinks they are? Or did they just not figure that anyone would ever follow up on this?

All Systems Are Go

| Thu Mar. 18, 2010 12:03 PM EDT

One of the roadblocks in the way of the reconciliation rider to the Senate healthcare bill is that, in order to meet reconciliation rules, it has to decrease the budget deficit by at least $1 billion. According to the latest CBO score, that's no problem:

The incremental effect of enacting the reconciliation proposal — assuming that H.R. 3590 had already been enacted — would be the difference between the estimate of the combined effect and the previous estimate for the Senate passed bill, H.R. 3590. That incremental effect is an estimated net reduction in federal deficits of $20 billion over the 2010-2019 period over and above the savings from enacting H.R. 3590 by itself.

Click the link for details. The reconciliation rider would also continue to reduce federal deficits in the decade after 2019, just like the main Senate bill. As far as I know, this is the last hurdle in the way of healthcare reform aside from, you know, actually voting on it. That should happen sometime this weekend.

Quote of the Day: Do the Right Thing

| Thu Mar. 18, 2010 11:15 AM EDT

From Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, who I've blogged about before, on her vote to pass Bill Clinton's budget in 1993:

While it is easy to say my balanced-budget vote cost me reelection, that assumes the line of history that followed the bill's passage. Had I voted against it, the bill wouldn't have passed, the Republican opposition would have been emboldened, the Clinton presidency would have moved into a tailspin . . . and all of this could have just as easily led to my undoing.

Simply put, you could be Margolies-Mezvinskied whether you vote with or against President Obama. You will be assailed no matter how you vote this week. And this job isn't supposed to be easy. So cast the vote that you won't regret in 18 years.

If anything, defeat of the healthcare bill is likely to lead to bigger House losses this November than otherwise. So good policy is good politics, no matter how distant or hard to believe that seems in the heat of the moment. So let's all do the right thing, OK?

By the way, after being offline for most of yesterday due to a computer upgrade that took (surprise!) longer than I expected, I'm now typing this post on a blazing fast new box loaded with gobs of memory and Windows 7. Does it seem even slicker and more insightful than usual?

You and Your Browser

| Wed Mar. 17, 2010 2:30 PM EDT

Via Tyler Cowen, this comes from a Microsoft Research paper about why ordinary people are probably justified in ignoring most security advice on the internet:

Browser vendors have invested considerable effort in making it harder to ignore certificate errors. In Firefox version 3, when encountering an expired, invalid or self-signed certificate the user sees an interrupt page explaining that the SSL connection failed. If he chooses to add an exception he sees another interrupt page with more warnings and a choice to add an exception or "get me out of here." If he elects (again) to add an exception he must click to get the certificate, view the certificate, and then add the exception. Internet Explorer 8 is somewhat less intrusive, but the procedure also seems designed to suggest that adding exceptions is very risky. Is it? Ironically, one place a user will almost certainly never see a certificate error is on a phishing or malware hosting site. That is, using certificates is almost unknown among the reported phishing sites in PhishTank. The rare cases that employ certificates use valid ones. The same is true of sites that host malicious content. Attackers wisely calculate that it is far better to go without a certificate than risk the warning. In fact, as far as we can determine, there is no evidence of a single user being saved from harm by a certificate error, anywhere, ever.

I've long wondered about those certificate errors I get from time to time, but apparently they're just that: errors. Now I know I can just ignore them and still sleep soundly at night.