Kevin Drum

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.

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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.

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.

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Flooding the Zone

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 2:55 PM EDT

You be the judge: did the Washington Post fulfill its duty to inform the public last night by running a mere eight separate pieces about Joe Wilson's outburst during President Obama's healthcare speech on Wednesday?  Or is anything less than a dozen a sign that they aren't really trying anymore?  After all, Politico had at least 15 Wilson-related pieces, including a big front pager by Andie Coller headlined "A Party of Cranks?"

I suppose I shouldn't complain, but unlike a lot of my fellow lefties, I'm not convinced that obsessing over Joe Wilson actually does our cause any good.  It's time to send him back under the rock he crawled out from.

Watching the Watchmen

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 2:23 PM EDT

Amy Zegart says that one of the biggest unfinished pieces of business from 9/11 is reform of intelligence oversight.  Not reform of the intelligence community itself, which has made at least some progress over the past few years, but specifically of congressional oversight.  Congress simply refuses to take action to make its oversight both serious and consequential.  For example:

Both the House and Senate have repeatedly rejected proposals before and after 9/11 to give the Intelligence Committees appropriations powers. Instead, the intelligence budgetary system is divided: Intelligence Committees can threaten to punish recalcitrant agencies with budget cuts, but Appropriations Committees must deliver. History has shown that they don’t, and that savvy intelligence agencies game the system — bypassing the Intelligence Committees and getting their pet projects funded by the appropriators instead. One congressional staffer recently told me that the Senate Intelligence Committee has tried to kill three expensive and ineffective satellite programs — on a bipartisan basis — for years. They’ve finally terminated 2 of them, but all were funded far longer than they should have. We’re talking billions of dollars.

Bad stuff.  But no surprise, either.  Congress is famously disjointed (it's why the healthcare and climate change bills have both been forced to wend their way through multiple committees, getting watered down at every stop), and Appropriations is always a prize appointment because everything that matters ends up in its clutches eventually.  This strikes me as very, very unlikely to change.  But it should!

The Freefall of 2008

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 1:28 PM EDT

Ezra Klein surveys yesterday's report from the Census Bureau and says: "Median income dropped a bit, poverty rose a bit, and so too did the number of Americans without health insurance. But the actual changes aren't very large."

Based on the reporting I saw yesterday, which initially caused me to think that income had dropped only slightly, this is a widespread view.  But it just isn't true.  In fact, the 2008 drop in median household income was the biggest since the Census Bureau started tracking this stuff in 1976.  Income dropped $1,860 in 2008, and the next closest competitor is 1980, when it dropped $1,439.  Last year was the worst year for household income in both absolute terms and percentage terms in the past three decades.

And, as Ezra says, that was only 2008.  This year is likely to be as bad — or possibly worse. Income drops typically persist for several years during a recession, and the combined impact of this recession is almost certain to do more damage to middle class incomes than any recession since World War II.

Doing Comparisons Right

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 12:51 PM EDT

Apparently the LA Times has some kind of moronic deal that allows them to reprint Ron Brownstein's columns in their print edition but not online.  So it's off to National Journal to see Brownstein's latest, ripped straight from the blogosphere and therefore old news to everyone here (Republicans are the Party of No; old-style coalitions have broken down; we're moving to a de facto parliamentary system; etc. etc.).  It's basically fine, though, except for this one paragraph that's become pundit conventional wisdom lately:

It is revealing that Obama is facing nearly unanimous Republican opposition on health care just four years after President Bush couldn't persuade a single congressional Democrat to back his comparably ambitious Social Security restructuring.

I understand why people write stuff like this, and the parallels are strong enough to make it defensible.  But is it really true?

Maybe I'm remembering things through partisan-colored glasses, but my recollection is that there are some pretty significant differences here.  First, George Bush never sought out any compromise at all.  He insisted on a pure, budget-busting carve-out privatization scheme and never gave Democrats so much as a chance to make a deal.  But what if he'd made it clear that he was open to compromise?  Say, part carve-out, part add-on, and with a modest collection of benefit cuts and tax increases to go along with it?  I suspect a lot of Dems would have been open to something like that, but Bush never gave them a chance.

Second, it wasn't just Democratic opposition that killed Social Security privatization.  Thanks to Bush's intransigence, his plan became so radioactive that even a lot of Republicans didn't support it.  By the time Congress returned from its summer recess, it was obviously DOA and no bill was even introduced.

There are obvious superficial similarities between Social Security in 2005 and healthcare reform in 2009.  But in the former, Bush outlined a purely conservative proposal and never gave an inch on it.  In the latter, Obama has outlined a generally liberal proposal but allowed some give and take with Republicans.  As Brownstein himself mentions, the plan's basic structure has support "from such Republican-leaning groups as hospitals, drug manufacturers, and the American Medical Association, which fought almost all previous reform efforts. Obama told the AMA last summer that he is open to some medical-malpractice reform, a top Republican priority. And for months, he has signaled his willingness to retrench on creating a public competitor to private insurance companies, the idea that most enrages conservatives."

The Social Security comparison will probably never go away because it's just too good a story.  Too good to check, in fact.  But it's only half true.  The punditocracy really ought to stop peddling it.