Kevin Drum

The End of an Era

Politically, we've finally finished the 20th century. What's next?

| Thu Apr. 8, 2010 11:03 AM EDT

"I’m no expert on American politics," says Tom Friedman, "but I do know something about holes." A Freudian slip? Who knows. But he's pretty much right about this:

If you step back far enough, you could argue that George W. Bush brought the Reagan Revolution — with its emphasis on tax cuts, deregulation and government-as-the-problem-not-the-solution — to its logical conclusion and then some. But with a soaring deficit and a banking crisis caused by an excess of deregulation, Reaganism has met its limit. Meanwhile, President Obama’s passage of health care reform has brought the New Deal-Franklin Roosevelt Revolution to its logical conclusion. There will be no more major entitlements for Americans. The bond market will make sure of that.

In other words, both major parties have now completed their primary 20th-century missions, first laid down by their iconic standard-bearers. The real question is which party is going to build America’s bridge to the 21st century — one that will strengthen our ability to compete in the global economy, while practicing much more fiscal discipline.

Actually, healthcare reform isn't done yet, but point taken. Instead of being a big battleground, it's now likely to evolve steadily into an Americanized version of European national healthcare, and that's basically the final big brick in the New Deal/Great Society wall. Likewise, communism has been defeated and tax cutting has been taken about as far as it can be, and conservatives have been flailing for years to come up with something new to add to that. Right now, they're still flailing.

The rest of Friedman's column is sort of an uninteresting mishmash, but at least it gets at an interesting topic. Conservatives ran out of relevant ideas several years ago and their response to that hasn't been pretty. Liberals aren't there yet, but they could be in a few years. It's worth some thought now and again about what the next chapter is going to look like.

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Chart of the Day: Cutting the Deficit

Americans want to cut the deficit, they just don't want to cut any specific programs.

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 8:58 PM EDT

Ah, the American public. God love 'em. The Economist asked if they'd rather tackle the federal deficit by cutting spending or raising taxes, and the runaway winner was cutting spending, by a margin of 62% to 5%. So what are we willing to cut? Answer: pretty much nothing.

As you can see, there wasn't one single area that even a third of the country wanted to cut back on. Except — hold on there! Down in the middle of the table. There is one area that everyone's willing to trim: foreign aid. Good 'ol foreign aid. A category that, as Roger McShane dryly points out, "makes up less than 1% of America's total spending."

Beyond that, there were only four areas that even a quarter of the population was willing to cut: mass transit, agriculture, housing, and the environment. At a rough guess, these areas account for about 3% of the federal budget. You could slash their budgets by a third and still barely make a dent in federal spending.

I suppose one of these days everyone's going to have to figure this out. Apparently no time soon, though.

More on Net Neutrality

The FCC might still have options after losing its case yesterday.

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 7:26 PM EDT

Does yesterday's court ruling in Comcast v. FCC mean that net neutrality is dead unless Congress steps in with new legislation? After reviewing the details of the court's ruling, David Post weighs in:

So what does this portend for net neutrality rules? Can the Commission proceed with its rulemaking efforts along those lines, or does it need some additional statutory authorization from Congress before it can do so? That’s the million dollar question, and I’m not sure that anyone can say for sure at this point what the answer is. There are (at least) two good arguments the agency might rely on to support that rulemaking.

 First, it can change its mind about the classification of Internet services. If Internet service were classified as a “telecomm service,” there would be no doubts about the FCC’s regulatory authority. The Supreme Court has just recently endorsed the view that the agency can change its mind in matters such as this (FCC v. Fox), as long as it does so in a reasonable manner and explains why it has done so.

The other possibilities are discussed in part IV(B) of the Court’s opinion. There are a number of statutory provisions that might well have supported the FCC’s actions here: sec. 706 (which provides that the Commission “shall encourage the depoloyment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans . . .”), sec. 201(b) (which allows the commission to regulate common carrier charges, which plausibly could have been affected by Comcast’s actions insofar as they might have shifted traffic to other carriers). But in both cases, the Court found that the FCC had waived those arguments by not presenting them in the Comcast Order itself. That, of course, may provide an opening, in any future proceeding, for the Commission to be a little more careful about finding, citing, and explaining its authority before acting, and might provide the agency a way out of this apparent jurisdictional conundrum.

This sounds like (relatively) good news. The first best option is for Congress to write net neutrality regulations into the law, but that's been shot down enough times over the past few years that it seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. The second best option, then, is for the FCC to figure out a different legal justification for imposing the rules itself. Post's read of the opinion seems to suggest that this is quite feasible.

Staying Fit with Your iPad

Apparently there's an app for that. Sort of.

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 4:23 PM EDT

People have making a lot of strong claims for the wonderfulness of the iPad over the past week, but nobody has yet claimed that it will help you live longer. That's kind of surprising, when you stop to think about it, but today Dave Munger finally fills this promotional void. Note, though, that there's more than just an iPad itself involved. There's also a couple of old two-by-fours and a bit of sawing and drilling. You can see Dave's life-extending iPad innovation here.

Crossing the Street

Adding a diagonal speeds everyone up.

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 2:17 PM EDT

I thought this short CNN video was pretty interesting. I confess that I'm a little mystified that this cost $7.6 million, but apparently it was money well spent. It just goes to show that sometimes small (but expensive!) things can have a very big impact.

Assassinating Americans

Should the president be allowed to order the assassination of American citizens?

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 1:01 PM EDT

As we've suspected for a while, the United States government is now officially in the business of assassinating United States citizens it suspects of terrorist activities:

After concluding that he has taken on an operational role in attempted terrorist attacks, the Obama administration has authorized the capture or killing of a U.S.-born Muslim cleric who is believed to be in Yemen, U.S. officials said. Anwar Awlaki, 38, who was born in New Mexico, recently was added to the CIA target list after a special government review of his activities, prompted by his status as a U.S. citizen, one of the officials said.

Andy McCarthy says this is "obviously the right call," so I'll leave it to fellow conservative Kevin Williamson to talk a little sense:

I hate to play the squish, but am I the only one who is just a little bit queasy over the fact that the president of the United States is authorizing the assassination of American citizens?....Surely there has to be some operational constraint on the executive when it comes to the killing of U.S. citizens. It is not impossible to imagine a president who, for instance, sincerely believes that Andy McCarthy is undermining the Justice Department's ability to prosecute the war on terror on the legal front. A government that can kill its citizens can shut them up, no? I ask this not as a legal question, but as a moral and political question: How is it that a government that can assassinate Citizen Awlaki is unable to censor Citizen McCarthy, or drop him in an oubliette? Practically every journalist of any consequence in Washington has illegally handled a piece of classified information. Can the president have them assassinated in the name of national security? Under the Awlaki standard, why not?

As it happens, this might be the right call. CAP's Ken Gude thinks it is, for example. On the other hand, Glenn Greenwald thinks it isn't. But yes: even if you think this is the right decision, it ought to make you feel a little bit queasy.

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Civil Asset Forfeiture

If you want to seize someone's assets, you should have to convict them of a crime first.

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 12:37 PM EDT

Today I hold out the olive branch of comity to my libertarian friends. The Institute for Justice has just released a lengthy report on "civil asset forfeiture," the ability of state and federal agencies to seize property used in the commission of a crime even if no one has actually been convicted of a crime, and I recommend reading it. The practice is appalling all by itself, but it's even worse than it sounds:

In most states and under federal law, law enforcement can keep some or all of the proceeds from civil forfeitures. This incentive has led to concern that civil forfeiture encourages policing for profit, as agencies pursue forfeitures to boost their budgets at the expense of other policing priorities.

These concerns are exacerbated by legal procedures that make civil forfeiture relatively easy for the government and hard for property owners to fight. For example, once law enforcement seizes property, the government must prove it was involved in criminal activity to forfeit or permanently keep it. But in nearly all states and at the federal level, the legal standard of proof the government must meet for civil forfeiture is lower than the strict standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” required for criminal convictions.

Likewise, many jurisdictions provide an “innocent-owner” defense that allows owners to get their property back if they had no idea it was involved in a crime. However, in most places, owners bear the burden of establishing their innocence. In other words, with civil forfeiture, property owners are effectively guilty until proven innocent.

Guilty until proven innocent! It's the American way.

Of course, there are a few states — not many, but a few — that have decent laws on the books that limit civil asset forfeiture. But it turns out that really doesn't provide much protection: law enforcement in states with inconvenient rules simply turn over seized assets to the feds and then take advantage of "equitable sharing." This is a win for everyone: not only are looser federal rules in effect, but the money shared back to the states can only be used to fund law enforcement activities. What local police agency wouldn't be thrilled? And as the chart on the right shows, the amount of money shared back to state law enforcement has skyrocketed over the past decade. The incentive for abuse is pretty obvious. The full report is here.

Quote of the Day: Caving in to Terrorists

Is there really anyone in the world who believes we should give in to suicide bombers' demands?

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 11:56 AM EDT

From Max Boot, on terrorist claims that suicide bombings will bring the West to its knees:

Some Western analysts have added to the hype by arguing, in essence, that suicide attacks are a "poor man's smart bomb" and a tactic against which democratic states have only one recourse: giving in to the bombers' demands.

Why do conservative writers insist on tossing in little stinkbombs like this when they write op-eds? Obviously, "in essence" is Boot's way of wriggling out of this if anyone calls him on it, but why bother in the first place? Sure, there's bound to be someone, somewhere, who vaguely counts as an "analyst" and has said "in essence" that we should cave in to suicide bombers, but you'd have to dig pretty hard to find him. Not giving in to terrorist demands is the closest thing the world has to a consensus view on how to deal with them.

What makes it even weirder is that the rest of the op-ed is pretty reasonable. Boot argues that, in fact, suicide bombing has a lousy record of accomplishing anything, and that's a good point. "The futility of suicide attacks should not be surprising given that they are the last resort of the weak and desperate," he says, and he's right. Why not just stick to that?

Greenspan: Don't Blame Me

The former Fed chairman still doesn't believe in financial regulation.

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 11:12 AM EDT

The other day I mentioned that interest rates weren't the only tool the Fed could have used to put a damper on the housing bubble. Today, former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan acknowledged this but then immediately discarded the idea:

In his testimony, Mr. Greenspan again defended the Federal Reserve against criticism that it failed to crack down on subprime mortgages during his lengthy tenure, pointing out that the Fed warned about subprime lending and low-down-payment mortgages in 1999, and again in 2001. He also said the Fed warned about unfair or deceptive practices by state-chartered banks in 2004.

....Mr. Greenspan also said that while Congress gave the Fed the authority in 1994 to prohibit unfair, deceptive and abusive lending practices, lawmakers left those definitions murky. There was no “prevailing sentiment within the Federal Reserve — and it was certainly not my view — that entire categories of loan products should be prohibited as ‘unfair’ or ‘abusive,’ ” he said.

So there you have it. Interest rates? Not the Fed's fault. Deceptive lending practices? Not the Fed's fault. Amazingly, the Fed was apparently completely powerless to do anything.

To make a long story short, this is why I was so unhappy about the reappointment of Ben Bernanke to the Fed. He may be a smart guy, but as near as I can tell he has nearly the same views as Greenspan. He just doesn't believe that the Fed really ought to regulate any of this stuff. It's also why putting the Consumer Finance Protection Agency inside the Fed is a bad idea. If your job is to regulate abusive lending practices, you really shouldn't be housed within an agency that pretty obviously doesn't care about that mission in the first place.

In a related vein, as Andy Kroll reports, Greenspan is (belatedly) a big believer in reducing leverage in the financial system "In a sense," he said today, "[capital requirements] solve every problem." And he wants capital requirements to "kick in automatically, without relying on the ability of a fallible human regulator to predict a coming crisis."

Finally! Something that should make Kevin happy, right? Well, sort of. I certainly believe that stronger capital requirements and less regulator discretion are important, but it would be a mistake to think, as Greenspan apparently does, that we can just leave it at that. If Greenspan were genuinely in favor of substantially higher capital requirements (he declined to say just how high he thought they should be); genuinely in favor of narrower definitions of capital; genuinely in favor of applying this broadly to all sectors of the financial industry; and genuinely in favor of matching regulations to make this effective — then I'd say three cheers for Greenspan. As it is, though, he gets one cheer. A vague call for higher capital requirements is a step in the right direction, but it's only a step.

Rush vs. NPR

Why do righties prefer Rush while lefties prefer NPR?

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 9:07 PM EDT

Via John Sides, here's a piece from Fast Company a year ago about the spectacular growth of NPR over the past decade:

In one of the great under-told media success stories of the past decade, NPR has emerged not as the bespectacled schoolmarm of our imagination but as a massive news machine poised for what Dick Meyer, editorial director for digital media, half-jokingly calls "world domination." NPR's listenership has nearly doubled since 1999, even as newspaper circulation dropped off a cliff. Its programming now reaches 26.4 million listeners weekly — far more than USA Today's 2.3 million daily circ or Fox News' 2.8 million prime-time audience. When newspapers were closing bureaus, NPR was opening them, and now runs 38 around the world, better than CNN. It has 860 member stations — "boots on the ground in every town" that no newspaper or TV network can claim.

A common question on the left is, "Why is there no liberal talk radio?" That is, no wildly popular liberal version of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or Laura Schlesinger. And the answer is: there is. It's called NPR. When lefties listen to the radio, that's what they listen to.

Now, NPR is obviously not any kind of direct analog to Rush. It's not a one-man talk show. It has a generally liberal worldview, but it doesn't traffic in the kind of in-your-face partisanship that Rush does. It has an eclectic variety of shows. And its audience comes from all over the ideological spectrum.

Still: when people wonder why lefties won't listen to talk radio, they're wondering the wrong thing. Lefties do listen to the radio, they just prefer listening to a different kind of radio than conservatives. But why? I'm thinking about a piece for the magazine right now that hasn't really taken form yet, but as I noodle about it this is one of the questions that I keep coming back to: when it comes to radio listening, why do conservatives prefer the style of Rush/Sean/Laura/etc. while liberals tend to prefer the style of NPR? Is it just a historical accident or is there something more to it? Leave your guesses in comments.