Kevin Drum

Obama and the Chinese Tires

| Mon Sep. 14, 2009 1:09 PM EDT

Dan Drezner is unhappy with the Obama administration's decision to slap an import tariff on Chinese tires.  But he admits:

We trade enthusiasts are an excitable lot, however, what with everything leading to falling off cliffs, crossroads being reached, and red zones being breached.  Seven years ago, the allegedly free-trade Bush administration imposed steel tariffs that were found to be WTO-inconsistent.  There was a lot of gnashing of teeth and wailing, yet the world trade system proved to be pretty robust.  So maybe my trade compatriots are exaggerating things a wee bit, yes?  In all likelihood, won't this be resolved via the WTO dispute settlement mechanism about 18 months from now?

Yeah, I was kind of wondering where the WTO was in all of this, too.  Now that China is a member, all this means is that they file a complaint, it grinds slowly through the gears of the trade dispute resolution process, and eventually they either get relief or they don't.  All very civilized.

But Dan offers four reasons why this might be worse than it seems.  Click the link to see what he has to say.  In the end, though, his biggest concern is that unlike Bush's steel tariffs, which were a one-shot deal, this might not be:

With the Obama administration, however, this feels like the tip of the iceberg.  Most of Obama's core constituencies want greater levels of trade protection for one reason (improving labor standards) or another (protecting union jobs)....If I knew this was where the Obama administration would stop with this sort of nonsense, I'd feel a bit queasy but chalk it up to routine trade politics.  When I look at Obama's base, however, quasiness starts turning into true nausea.

Well....I'm not so sure about this.  For starters, the steel tariffs weren't a one-off.  Remember the bra wars?  And unlike the steel decision, that one was quite clearly aimed squarely at the Chinese.  And there was the softwood lumber tariff.  And a few others.  Ending with the almost comical Roquefort cheese duties.

None of which is meant to defend Obama's decision one way or another.  But with advisors like Larry Summers and Austan Goolsbee on staff, I'd be pretty surprised if Obama has turned into some kind of tariff warrior.  Frankly, the tire decision looks to me like a fairly standard payoff to a core constituency, not something that suggests a long-term change in policy.  And just as with Bush's tariffs, my guess is that a white hot Chinese reaction will be quite enough to turn him around even if he did have plans for a more protectionist trade policy.  (Note, for example, that this decision was announced late on Friday, the usual dumping ground for things that you'd just as soon not have to defend very vigorously.)  My guess: China will retaliate, the WTO's gears will grind, and the whole thing will blow over.

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The Art of the Scare Ad

| Mon Sep. 14, 2009 12:12 PM EDT

"Republicans want to end Medicare," insists the breathless narrator of the ad on the right.  FactCheck.org says it isn't true.  And Megan McArdle asks: "I'd really like to know whether this sort of thing works, or whether it comes across as so ludicrous that people start wondering about the Democrats' sanity."

My guess: yes, it works, and no, no one will be wondering about Dems' sanity.  I mean, when you're competing with "Obama is a socialistfascistcommunistthug," you've got a pretty high bar to cross before you look extreme.  Instead, what I'm curious about is why the DNC bothered with this.  Why not just tell the truth: Republicans essentially voted in favor of turning Medicare over to private industry.  With only a few words of explanation, this could easily be more effective than the ad that actually ran.  Like so:

Republicans voted to turn Medicare over to private insurance companies!  You heard right: they want to hand Medicare over to the same companies that [insert two or three insurance company outrages here, maybe a Wall Street reference, something about profits over people, etc.].  Democrats will never do that.  Blah blah blah.

Would that really be any less scary than the ad that actually ran?  Or is the DNC afraid that the urban legends are true, and everyone thinks Medicare is a private plan already?

Headline of the Day

| Mon Sep. 14, 2009 11:26 AM EDT

From the LA Times this morning:

Some fear GOP is being carried to the extreme

All well and good, but it might be a better story if "some" turned out to be more than a grand total of two people.  And even at that, one of the two is David Frum, who's been estranged from the loony bin wing of the party for nearly a year now.  By contrast, the article quotes four people defending the crackpots.  "Some" might indeed fear that the GOP is being carried to extreme, but apparently it's a pretty small movement so far.

The Public and the Public Option

| Mon Sep. 14, 2009 12:55 AM EDT

Here's today's healthcare reform question: How do Americans feel about the public option?  Do they (a) support it, (b) oppose it, or (c) not care all that much?

I think you can guess the answer.  Here are two questions from the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll:

So: 46% support the overall plan.  But 55% support the public option.  The public option is actually more popular than the overall plan.

So what happens if you remove the public option?  Answer: support for the plan goes up.

At first this seems counterintuitive: why would support go up if you remove a popular option?  The answer, of course, is simple: a small number of people who oppose the plan are willing to support it if you remove the public option.  At the same time, supporters of the public plan are mostly pretty luekwarm.  Sure, they like the idea of a public option, but if you remove it they still support reform.  Apparently, most supporters really don't care one way or another.

I guess you can spin this whichever way you want.  If you oppose the public option, this poll shows that healthcare reform does indeed have stronger support without it.  But if you support the public option, this poll shows that it's much ado about nothing: removing the option appeases only a tiny number of people.  And a solid majority support the public option in the first place.

My guess is that polls like this doom the public option: removing it helps in Congress and apparently does no harm with the public.  Nobody goes to the mat for an issue that plays out like that.

Politics and Lederhosen

| Sun Sep. 13, 2009 12:46 AM EDT

Via Henry Farrell, the Economist's Charlemagne columnist tags along with Angela Merkel while she campaigns near Munich and then falls into a reverie about how America handles such things:

The Bavarian event was genuine, in a way that stage-managed American politics cannot match. There is a lot that is creepy about an American campaign event. Arriving early at Bush rallies, I would watch aggressive and chilly young Republican aides in smart suits kneeling on gymnasium floors with fistfuls of different felt tip marker pens, and large rectangles of white card. Frowning with concentration, they would then write things like “South Dakota Loves W” in deliberately babyish writing, or pick out the words “Hello Mr President” in red, white and blue lettering.

The styles and slogans would be carefully varied, and the end results were impressive: a stack of signs that looked as though supporters of all ages had lovingly written them out on homely kitchen tables. Then, when the crowd arrived (all of them invited and vetted as bona fide Bush supporters) any of them who had forgotten instructions not to bring signs of their own would have them politely confiscated. Then they would be handed one of the ersatz home-made signs by one of the chilly, bossy young munchkins from campaign HQ. On television, it all looked very sweet.

Good times.  The Germans don't get off entirely scot free, though.  Read the whole thing for Charlemagne's thoughts on lederhosen.

Deep Thought

| Sat Sep. 12, 2009 2:29 PM EDT

Why have Americans allowed the British to overtake us in the pivotal contest to erect waterproof coverings over large tennis stadia? What has become of our national honor?

UPDATE: Speaking of tennis, tonight featured the Footfault Heard Round the World.  And I didn't see it because I didn't even know they were playing tonight.  But I probably wouldn't have anyway since I was watching USC-Ohio State instead, which turned out to be helluva game too.  But if I'd known, at least I could have switched obsessively back and forth between the two.

And all the while, Wozniacki and Wickmayer were playing a U.S. Open semifinal before a roaring crowd of 300.  Sheesh.

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Quote of the Day

| Sat Sep. 12, 2009 2:07 PM EDT

From Sen. Jim DeMint, commenting on the demonstrators in Washington DC carrying signs that call Nancy Pelosi a Nazi and Barack Obama a communist:

This is not some kind of radical right-wing group. I just hope the Congress, the Senate and the president recognize that people are afraid of what’s going on.

Uh huh.  That really means a lot coming from a guy like DeMint.

But what I'm really curious about is the guy in this photo with the Nancy Pelosi sign.  I'm trying to figure it out.  The other signs all sport  some pretty standard fare (Chicago thugs, socialism, Acorn, cap-and-tax, etc. etc.), but what's this guy trying to say about Pelosi?  That she dreams of Nazis?  That she thinks about Nazis?  That she's secretly a Nazi?

And then there's the even more puzzling "ASTROTURF!!!!" business.  Is Nancy Pelosi an astroturf Nazi?  What would an astroturf Nazi be?  Or is he suggesting that conservatives can defeat Pelosi via an astroturf campaign?  Somebody help me out on this.

Paying for Traffic

| Sat Sep. 12, 2009 12:20 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias links to an IBM survey asking people how much they'd be willing to pay to shave 15 minutes off their daily commute, and concludes that most people would consider $10 a pretty good deal.  James Joyner, who commutes 45 minutes to work each day, is skeptical.  "I simply don’t believe the numbers," he says.

I commute about 30 seconds each day, so I don't really have a personal opinion about this.  But here's a data point.  A few years ago a toll road company opened up a highway that slashed the commute time coming in to Irvine from Riverside County.  A few of my coworkers who lived up there were ecstatic: it would cut their travel time by upwards of 45 minutes each way, they said.

Now, they might have been exaggerating.  Maybe it was more like 30 minutes.  But the price of the toll road at rush hour is only about $4, and since the toll folks could charge more if they wanted to, this is presumably the fee that maximizes their revenue.  If it really saves 30 minutes compared to taking the nearest freeway, it values commute time at roughly $8 per hour.

This is just one data point, and I don't know for sure how good a substitute the new toll road is for the existing freeways in the area.  It's not a bad one, though.  And surely there are plenty of other examples like this, where a toll road roughly parallels a free road, which gives you a good idea of how much people are willing to pay in real life to avoid crawling in traffic.  That seems like a much better way of collecting this data than taking a survey.

9/11 Truthers and Tweets

| Sat Sep. 12, 2009 12:10 AM EDT

Happy weekend y'all—Laura here, back with the latest Kevin and David week-in-review podcast. This week: Kevin and David bat around Obama's speech timing, Joe Wilson, and the weirdest thing about Twitter. Plus: David doesn't really like to talk about the truthers, which makes his latest take on Van Jones and 9/11 conspiracies all the more interesting. And is that a dog I hear in the background chez Kevin? Give a listen: Kevin and David's 9/11 Week-in-Review podcast.

Laura McClure hosts weekly podcasts and is a writer and editor for Mother Jones. Read her recent investigative feature on lifehacking gurus here.

Friday Cat Blogging - 11 September 2009

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 3:13 PM EDT

It's flash photography day!  Which is not so great since the flash on my camera is pretty mediocre.  What's more, although it does a miraculous job of eliminating redeye in humans, it's not so great at eliminating laser eye in cats.  But somehow we soldier on anyway.  On the left, Inkblot is snoozing on a pile of fresh laundry under the ever-watchful gaze of the Brobdingnagian Fuzzy.  On the right, Domino falls for the old finger in the sky trick.  They just never learn.