Kevin Drum

Cash 4 Clunkers Wrapup

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 6:09 PM EDT

Joe Romm says that although the Cash for Clunkers program was never meant to be a cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions, in the end it turned out to be very effective indeed:

In the real world, the public has mostly turned in gas-guzzlers in exchange for fuel-efficient cars — which perhaps should not have been a total surprise since oil prices are rising, gas guzzlers remain a tough resell in the used car market, and most fuel-efficient cars are much cheaper than SUVs.  So as a stimulus that saves oil while cutting CO2 for free — it has turned out to be a slam dunk, far better than I had expected.

....Let’s assume the new cars are driven nearly 20% more over the next 5 years [compared to the old cars they replace], and that the average price of gasoline over the next five years is $3.50.  Then we’re “only” saving 140 million gallons a year or roughly $500 million a year.  The $3 billion program “pays for itself” in oil savings in 6 years.  And most of that oil savings is money that would have left the country, so it is a (small) secondary stimulus.

Using a rough estimate of 25 pounds of CO2 per gallon of gas (full lifecycle emissions), then we’re saving over 1.5 million metric tons of CO2 per year — and all of the ancillary urban air pollutants from those clunkers — for free.

I wouldn't make a habit out of supporting targeted industry programs like C4C, but it was wildly popular, provided a modest but noticeable amount of economic stimulus, and helps reduce U.S. oil consumption.  Not bad for $3 billion.

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Breakfast of Champions

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 5:35 PM EDT

England will be sending four clubs to compete in the European Champions League tournament, which begins group play next month.  Matchups were announced today, and apparently the topic on everybody's mind is whether they have to play anyone more than 90 minutes away:

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez: "The important thing as always is that the travelling isn't too bad. We don't have too far to go for any of the games."

Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon: "There isn't a lot of travel, though, so we have to be reasonably pleased with the draw."

Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis: "It is good to have relatively short travel times, that's something that Arsene (Wenger) thinks about a lot."

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson: "These are difficult ties, especially the trips to Russia and Turkey."

Seriously?  Anything more than a 2-hour plane ride is supposed to be a major drain on these guys?  Are they flying RyanAir or something?

Obama and the Kennedys

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 3:48 PM EDT

Conservative historian Michael Knox Beran writes about Barack Obama and the Kennedy family:

President Obama may in time find it to his — and to his country’s — benefit to fix his gaze not on Ted, but on Jack. For in addition to his more superficial graces, President Kennedy possessed a degree of wisdom, which might be defined as grace of judgment. John Kennedy’s sentiments were liberal, but he knew that a wise president must have the country in his bones, must feel, as by instinct, the temper of the people, and must know what they will bear and what they will not. He was annoyed by those who, like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., urged him to be another FDR. Schlesinger, he said, wanted him to act as if it were 1932. But three decades had passed since 1932; the mood of the people, President Kennedy knew, had changed.

President Obama, if he reverences the memory of Ted Kennedy, would do well to eschew his politics. In joining the battle for health-care reform, Obama has entered on what promises to be the climacteric of his presidency. At so critical a juncture he needs to emulate, not the intoxicated extravagances of the late senator, but the sober moderation of his older brother, who knew that the world has indeed changed since 1932.

Actually, that's what I'm afraid of.  Like Obama, JFK had a charming manner, good judgment, a cool temperament, and liberal instincts.  What's more, as the Cuban Missile Crisis showed, he wasn't afraid to stand up to his advisors.  Obama has all these qualities too, which is why he so often seems like JFK's political heir.

But JFK was also famously cautious, dangerously mainstream on military and national security issues, better able to deliver inspiring speeches than to genuinely move public opinion, and had little sense of how to bend Congress to his will.  In the end, he left behind few accomplishments — a fate Obama risks sharing if JFK becomes too much a role model and too little a warning beacon.  Sober moderation may have its virtues, but worshipping at its altar isn't the stuff of great presidencies.

Intelligence and Secrecy

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 2:29 PM EDT

Chris Hayes writes that after the torture and surveillance abuses of the past eight years, we need a new Church Committee to thoroughly examine the role and proper function of the intelligence community and the executive branch.  But we shouldn't do it with Frank Church's model in mind:

At one point Church referred to the CIA as a "rogue elephant," causing a media firestorm. But the final committee report shows that to the degree the agency and other parts of the secret government were operating with limited control from the White House, it was by design. Walter Mondale came around to the view that the problem wasn't the agencies themselves but the accretion of secret executive power: "the grant of powers to the CIA and to these other agencies," he said during a committee hearing, "is, above all, a grant of power to the president."

A contemporary Church Committee would do well to follow Mondale's approach and not Church's. It must comprehensively evaluate the secret government, its activities and its relationship to Congress stretching back through several decades of Democratic and Republican administrations. Such a broad scope would insulate the committee from charges that it was simply pursuing a partisan vendetta against a discredited Republican administration, but it is also necessary to understand the systemic problems and necessary reforms.

Yes.  The problem isn't with the CIA or the NSA per se, it's with the instructions they got from the president.  For the most part, they've been doing precisely what he wanted done, and they were provided with exhaustive legal opinions telling them it was OK.  Their fear is that an investigation is likely to turn exclusively into an agency witch hunt, and that's a legitimate concern if they end up bearing the brunt of the criticism when it's their political masters who should be bearing it instead.

Beyond those legitimate misgivings, though, lies something larger. As Chris notes, conservatives have built up a mythology in the years since the original Church Report was released that blames it for hobbling U.S. intelligence capability for decades.  There's little to back up such a view, though, and Richard Clarke in particular has no time for it:

"What bothers me," he says, "is the CIA's tendency whenever they're criticized to say, If you do your job, if you do oversight seriously — which Congress almost never does — then we'll pout. Some of us, many, will not just pout; we'll retire early. Our morale will be hurt." And if morale is hurt and the agencies are gutted, they argue, the country will be exposed to attack. In other words: "If you, Congress, do oversight, then we'll all die. Can you imagine FEMA or the agricultural department saying we're all going to retire if you conduct oversight?" Clarke asks in disbelief.

The principle of oversight aside, the right-wing story about the committee ruining intelligence capabilities for a generation posits a golden age of über-competent intelligence-gathering that simply never existed. The activities described in the committee report, more often than not, have a kind of Keystone Kops flavor to them. "From its beginning," says Clarke, "when [the CIA] does covert action as opposed to clandestine activity...it regularly fucks up. I remember sitting with [Defense Secretary] Bob Gates when he was deputy national security adviser, and he said, I don't think CIA should do covert action; CIA ought to be an intelligence collection and analysis [agency]."

I like the idea of a latter day Church Committee, but mainly I like it if it has a strong focus not just on the intelligence community itself, but on the entire apparatus of oversight and executive branch secrecy.  Even the interrogators brandishing the power drills and death threats, revolting as they are, don't deserve condemnation if the guys at the top who were quite plainly cheering them on get off without so much as a slap on the wrist.  We need to investigate the entire system, not just the hands that carried out the orders.

Clean Water

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 1:30 PM EDT

SODIS is a simple method for disinfecting water in areas where lots of kids get sick and die from bad water.  Basically, you pour water into plastic bottles, put 'em on your roof for a day or two, and the water is clean.  But Katja Grace points us to a study showing that it's surprisingly hard to get people to do this:

The technical barrier is that people don’t do it much. About thirty two percent of participants in the study used the system on a given day....The leader of the study, Daniel Mausezahl, suspects a big reason for this is that lining up water bottles on your roof shows your neighbors that you aren’t rich enough to have more expensive methods of disinfecting water.

....Fascinating as signaling explanations are, this seems incredible. Having live descendents is even more evolutionarily handy than impressing associates. What other explanations could there be? Perhaps adults are skeptical about effectiveness?....Parents are known for obsessive interest in their children’s safety. What’s going on?

Skepticism sounds like a reasonable guess.  Or maybe parents know that their kids drink water from lots of different places, so cleaning up their own supply doesn't seem very effective unless everyone else is doing it too.  Or maybe it just takes a while for cultural norms to change.

Banking Health

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 11:57 AM EDT

Can the banking industry earn its way back to good health?  In the long run, sure.  But in the short run, things don't look so hot.  Here's today's press release from the FDIC:

Commercial banks and savings institutions insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) reported an aggregate net loss of $3.7 billion in the second quarter of 2009, a decline of $8.5 billion from the $4.8 billion in profits the industry reported in the second quarter of 2008.

....Indicators of asset quality continued to worsen during the second quarter. Both the quarterly net charge-off rate and the percentage of loans and leases that were noncurrent (90 days or more past due or in nonaccrual status) reached the highest levels registered in the 26 years that insured institutions have reported these data.

...."Deteriorating loan quality is having the greatest impact on industry earnings as insured institutions continue to set aside reserves to cover loan losses," Chairman [Sheila] Bair noted. "Of all the major earnings components, the amount that insured institutions added to their reserves for loan losses was, by far, the largest drag on industry earnings compared to a year ago."

There's a vicious circle at work too.  As more banks go under, the FDIC has to assess higher fees to banks to keep its insurance fund solvent.  Those higher fees depress profits, which in turn keeps the industry underwater.  That's part of what happened this quarter: if it weren't for a special assessment of $5.5 billion the industry would have shown higher earnings.

Bank health, like employment, is a lagging indicator, so today's report doesn't necessarily mean the economy isn't starting to improve.  But the fact that loan quality continues to deteriorate and writeoffs continue to skyrocket sure isn't good news.  If unemployment stays at 10% or above for the next year, as the CBO now projects, this isn't going to turn around any time soon.

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"Socially Useless"

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 1:28 AM EDT

Now here's a bank regulator who's talking like he's found religion.  The Guardian glosses an interview in the British Prospect:

Lord Turner, chairman of the Financial Services Authority, warned bankers that he would support a new wave of taxes on the City to prevent excessive profiteering if they continue to take excessive risks.

In a searing critique of the industry, Lord Turner described much of the City's activities as "socially useless" and questioned whether it has grown too large...."The really fundamental question is whether the overall level of financial services pay is a consequence of the swollen financial sector which has resulted from oversimplistic financial deregulation. This is not a question that any of the politicians have focused on but I think it's an important and legitimate issue of public concern," he said.

....He told Prospect: "If you want to stop excessive pay in a swollen financial sector you have to reduce the size of that sector or apply special taxes to its pre-remuneration profit. Higher capital requirements against trading activities will be our most powerful tool to eliminate excessive activity and profits.

"And if increased capital requirements are insufficient I am happy to consider taxes on financial transactions — Tobin taxes."

Italics mine.  The FSA didn't exactly cover itself in glory during his predecessor's term, so maybe Turner is just talking tough because he wants to keep his job.  But if that's what it takes to turn a technocrat into a populist, then that's what it takes.  I sure wouldn't mind hearing a harangue like this from an American regulator once in a while.

As for the transaction tax, I don't know how practical that is.  But if it can be made to work, it's a good idea.  Not only would it raise some money, but it would put a crimp in some of the most highly leveraged investment schemes, which fundamentally depend on tiny returns multiplied by billions of dollars.  A transaction tax would make a lot of them unprofitable.  So it's a twofer.

Ben's Second Term

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 9:23 PM EDT

What do we have to look forward to from Ben Bernanke's second term as chairman of the Fed?  The New York Times asked a bunch of economists for their predictions.  Here's Mark Thoma:

My worry is that as time passes, we’ll forget how bad things were and the desire to impose necessary new regulation will fade. Here’s where I think Mr. Bernanke’s experience will be crucial. He was there at every step in the development of the Fed’s response to the crisis and he will not soon forget the problems he faced (nor repeat his mistakes), making it more likely that he’ll be a forceful and passionate advocate for new regulation before Congress. [Italics mine.]

Boy, do I hope this is true.  But it strikes me as woefully wishful thinking.  One of the reasons I opposed reappointing Bernanke is that I'd like to have someone running the Fed who's serious about reregulating the financial industry, both at a macro and a consumer level.  With Bernanke, though, we're taking a flyer.  We're hoping that the crisis of the last two years has fundamentally changed his view of market self-regulation, and that he'll apply the same suppleness and creativity he showed dealing with the meltdown to dealing with post-crisis regulatory issues.  And maybe he will.  But people rarely change lifelong worldviews even after they've lived through a catastrophe, and Bernanke has done nothing to make us think he's an exception.  Contra Mark, my guess is that when it comes to actual, concrete legislation and rulemaking, he'll revert to the same Ben Bernanke he's always been.  When that happens, we'll have missed our only chance for years to really reform our financial system.

And here's former Fed economist Vincent Reinhart with another prediction:

The White House will likely learn that a Fed chaired by Ben Bernanke will follow a policy uncomfortably tight as the 2012 election looms into sight. [Italics mine.] Bernanke has espoused a commitment to low inflation over his entire career. He also is a democratic and consultative chairman, so the voices of monetary conservatives among Fed officials will be heard loudly and frequently.

Now this one I believe.  That's what Fed chairmen usually do to Democratic presidents, after all.

Robotic Warfare

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 7:02 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias muses on what the growing use of drone aircraft means for the Air Force:

The military [...] is an institutional culture that puts a great deal of stock on honor, courage, and difficult physical work. A service that consists of guys sitting in cubicles playing video games is going to have trouble holding its head high amidst a warrior ethos. And consequently, the Air Force is tending to resist the technological imperative to go more remote. Ultimately, however, that resistance is doomed and it’s not really clear what will come of it.

There's another side to this: what happens when drones become really, really good?  Right now they're at about the technological phase that airplanes were in during World War I: nice tools in specific circumstances, but not really overall game changers.  But that won't be true for much longer.  Advances in drone technology are likely to come pretty quickly, and the result is going to be a very large fleet of drones that are bigger, faster, stealthier, more maneuverable, have better optics, and can accomodate far more — and more effective — weaponry than today's models.  And since they're relatively cheap and using them runs no risk of loss of life, there's going to be very little institutional or public  pressure against using them.  This is likely to mean they'll get a lot of use.

You see the same two-edged sword with police officers being armed with tasers.  It's great that they have a nonlethal alternative to shooting people, but the fact that they have a nonlethal alternative also means they have less reason to avoid using it.  Result: lots of people being tasered.

It's not just drones, of course.  It's the entire robotic revolution in warfare.  When we get to the point where one side is able to conduct war effectively with virtually no fear of loss of life, does that mean that public pressure against war will start to fade away?  After all, demand curves slope downward.  When war becomes cheaper, we'll get more war.  Right?

Are Teachers Too Hard to Fire?

| Wed Aug. 26, 2009 6:19 PM EDT

Steven Brill writes in the New Yorker about "rubber rooms," where Big Apple teachers accused of incompetence spend years sitting around collecting paychecks while their cases are adjudicated.  But that's only a symbol of what reformers think is the larger problem: namely that virtually no one is ever fired for poor job performance after their three-year probationary period is up and they have tenure.

In seven years [...] unsatisfactory ratings for tenured teachers have risen from less than one per cent to 1.8 per cent. “Any human-resources professional will tell you that rating only 1.8 per cent of any workforce unsatisfactory is ridiculous,” [Dan] Weisberg says.

Is this prima facie evidence that the system isn't working?  Based on my experience, I'd say yes.  On the other hand, I'd also say that, at least in the places I'm familiar with, virtually everyone who got fired was let go within the first year or two they were with the company.  Very few who had been around for more than three years got fired.  On the third hand, occasional layoffs often provided excuses to get rid of poor performers, so perhaps that shrank the pool of people who would otherwise have eventually been axed.

So....I dunno.  Opinions?