Kevin Drum

Must See TV

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 12:50 PM EST

The Onion's AV Club rates the 30 best TV series of the decade here.  Looking through it, what struck me is that I've seen almost none of them.  Three, to be exact: Lost, The Office (UK version), and Firefly — the latter two solely on DVD.

I blame blogging.  Seriously.  I've never watched a ton of TV, but ever since I took up blogging I've watched even less.  The problem is that blogging requires at least a couple of hours at the computer every evening.  I don't multitask well enough to blog and watch TV at the same time, so that means I can't afford to watch more than one show per night at most.  The solution, obviously, is a DVR, but I'm still holding out on that front.  If Cox allowed multiple DVRs in the house for one low price, I think they would have snagged my business last month when I upgraded our service, but they don't, and they didn't.  Maybe someday.

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The Debit Card Hustle

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 12:25 PM EST

While I was out yesterday, there was big news on debit card fees.  Here's how the LA Times headlined it:

Fed Reserve bans most bank overdraft fees

This caused some editorial gnashing of teeth at MoJo world headquarters, since a big chunk of my upcoming piece on the finance lobby is built around the failure of authorities to do anything about overdraft fees.  In the end though, it turned out we didn't have to do very much aside from changing "the Fed has never done anything" to — well, I don't want to give anything away just yet.  Let's just say the change wasn't a big one.

You see, the Fed didn't ban most overdraft fees, regardless of what the Times copy desk might think.  All they did was tell banks that they have to give customers the option of whether they want overdraft protection in the first place.  If they don't, they'll be allowed to opt out and purchases that run your account down past zero will simply be rejected.

This is, without question, a good thing.  The fact that banks not only made billions of dollars by charging outrageous overdraft fees, but insisted that customers had to accept overdraft protection even if they didn't want it (a policy put in place a few years ago as a deliberate way to make more money from their most vulnerable customers), made it almost a poster child for abusive practices.  So three cheers that it's gone.

But look: most people want overdraft protection.  Banks are right about that.  Unlike checkbooks of old, debit cards are marketed as routine payment devices, and since debit cards don't have built-in check registers that warn you when your account is getting low, it's all too easy to inadvertantly run up big overdraft charges.  But the new Fed regulations do nothing about that.  Under industry pressure, they ruled in 2004 that overdraft fees weren't loans, and they still aren't.  So a $35 fee on a $17 overdraft that's paid off in five days —and yes, this is the industry average — amounts to an APR of over 10,000%.  Except it's not an APR because it's not a loan.  It's a "fee."

Hogwash.  It's a small, short-term loan, just like a credit card charge.  The APR should be somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-30%, like a credit card, with perhaps a small processing fee added to that.  And since we live in an electronic era, that processing fee is small: maybe 50 cents or so.  A dollar max.

But the Fed did nothing about that.  Or about the number of fees banks can charge per day.  Or about re-ordering of fees to run up total charges.  Overdraft protection really is a convenience in a world where banks are doing everything they can to encourage their use even for tiny transactions, and consumers shouldn't be required to accept usurious loan rates and sleazy hidden hustles in order to get it.  Wake me up when the Fed gets around to that.

Obama and the Deficit

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 11:39 AM EST

Politico reports that the White House plans to change direction next year:

President Barack Obama plans to announce in next year's State of the Union address that he wants to focus extensively on cutting the federal deficit in 2010 — and will downplay other new domestic spending beyond jobs programs, according to top aides involved in the planning.

....“Democrats have to reassure voters we are not being reckless,” said a Democratic official involved in the planning. “The White House knows this and that's why we'll be hearing a lot about reducing the deficit early next year. Democrats owned this issue for the past four years and cannot afford to cede it to Republicans now."

I think I'm more sympathetic toward this approach than most liberals.  Part of the reason is practical: although it would probably be wise to focus more on job creation right now than we are, that's just not in the cards.  There aren't the votes for it, and there's not much point in endlessly tilting at windmills.

But on a policy basis I think this might be a good idea too.  It's unlikely that Obama will try to do anything to cut spending in 2010 itself (or 2011 for that matter), but some initiatives that credibly promise to reduce the deficit in 2012 and beyond would be smart both politically and economically.  Politically because a guy who's approved a trillion dollar stimulus package, a trillion dollar healthcare bill, a trillion dollar energy bill, and (possibly) a substantial increase in Afghanistan spending, needs some credibility on the spending front.  It's also smart politically because it puts Republicans in a tough spot: they've been screaming for months about fiscal rectitude, and this forces them to put their money where their mouths are.  That has the potential to hurt them at the polls whether they go along or not.

But it's smart economically too, because we really do have a long-term deficit problem.  I'm not the biggest deficit hawk in the world or anything, but if it starts to look like we can't ever get our deficits under control, we run the risk of blowing up another bubble, getting further in hock to the Chinese, losing the trust of the international financial community, and more.  Obama was smart to try and accomplish as much as he could as soon as he took office, but he'd also be smart to make some serious gestures toward long-term stability once he's passed all his big bills.  More here from CBPP if you want a smart, reliably progressive take on the issue.

HSR Tradeoffs

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 12:17 AM EST

The latest rail news from California:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger quietly spiked an effort last month to win $1.1 billion in federal high-speed rail stimulus funds for 29 projects to improve the safety, speed and capacity of heavily traveled commuter corridors through Southern California. Instead, he ordered state officials to seek money for only one project — the proposed bullet train between San Francisco and San Diego.

....The action has sparked debate among rail advocates about whether too high a priority is being placed on the high-speed train project at the expense of the second-busiest rail corridor in the nation, where budget-strapped commuter services have been trying to improve safety, add track and cut travel times from San Diego to Santa Barbara.

Not to beat a dead horse, but this is the kind of thing I was afraid of when we approved the LA-SF high-speed line last year.  There's a limited amount of money available for transit projects statewide, so as we spend more on HSR, there's less available for other projects.  It's not a firm 1:1 tradeoff, and certainly politicians have the option to try and increase the total size of the transit pie, but in general there's a pretty strong tendency for budget decisions to work like this.

My doubts aside, hopefully the LA-SF line will be great when it's finally up and running.  But there's definitely a cost involved to other transit projects in the meantime.

Housekeeping Note

| Thu Nov. 12, 2009 12:01 PM EST

I'm a little under the weather this morning.  Blogging will probably be pretty light today.  Back this afternoon or tomorrow, I hope.

Embassy Revolt in Kabul

| Thu Nov. 12, 2009 1:55 AM EST

Karl Eikenberry, our man in Afghanistan, has apparently decided to drop a last-minute bombshell on the White House:

The U.S. ambassador in Kabul sent two classified cables to Washington in the past week expressing deep concerns about sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan until President Hamid Karzai's government demonstrates that it is willing to tackle the corruption and mismanagement that has fueled the Taliban's rise, senior U.S. officials said.

....Eikenberry's last-minute interventions have highlighted the nagging undercurrent of the policy discussion: the U.S. dependence on a partnership with a Karzai government whose incompetence and corruption is a universal concern within the administration. After months of political upheaval, in the wake of widespread fraud during the August presidential election, Karzai was installed last week for a second five-year term.

In addition to placing the Karzai problem prominently on the table, the cables from Eikenberry, a retired four-star general who in 2006-2007 commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan, have rankled his former colleagues in the Pentagon — as well as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, defense officials said. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has stated that without the deployment of an additional tens of thousands of troops within the next year, the mission there "will likely result in failure."

According to an unnamed official, after reading Eikenberry's cable Obama "wants to know where the off-ramps are." So would a lot of the rest of us.

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Common Sense

| Wed Nov. 11, 2009 10:52 PM EST

Here is National Review's Rich Lowry on the constant chatter in the media about post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of the Ft. Hood massacre:

The obsession with PTSD serves two purposes. First, it fits the media’s favorite narrative of soldiers as victims. Here was poor Hasan, brought low like so many others by the unbearable burden of Iraq and Afghanistan. Never mind that PTSD usually results in sleeplessness, flashbacks, and — in the extreme — suicide. Hasan is the first victim of PTSD known to jump on a table and allegedly yell “Allahu Akbar” while slaughtering his fellow troops.

Actually, I sort of share Lowry's annoyance on the PTSD front.  It's belaboring the obvious to say that of course PTSD is a serious problem, one that the military should (and, I think, does) take seriously.  But intentionally or not, hauling it out after every meltdown by a service member serves largely to tar them all in the public mind as unstable misfits who could blow up at any second.  That's both unfair and lazy.

But Lowry then goes on to insist that we should obsess over the fact that Nidal Malik Hasan was a Muslim who was apparently motivated by religious fervor.  His colleague Andy McCarthy puts it even more bluntly, claiming that the same beliefs that animated Hasan are widely accepted by Muslims in the United States:

The rote government response is to point out, mulishly, that there are many Muslims honorably serving in the U.S. armed forces. This is absolutely true but utterly beside the point....The honorable service of many Muslims does not alter the reality that there is enormous pressure on Muslim soldiers, from their religious authorities, to sabotage American military operations. Hasan's massacre of his fellow soldiers is the worst incident we've seen, but it's hardly an isolated incident.

I wonder if they even see the contradiction here?  When it comes to PTSD, every soldier is an individual and it's insulting to see it lying in wait everywhere.  But when it comes to extremist beliefs, well, Muslims are all under extreme pressure and we'd be fools not to see it lying in wait everywhere.

I prefer door #1: soldiers aren't all time bombs waiting to go off, and Muslims aren't all Manchurian candidates waiting to turn on their fellow Americans.  Just because they're different problems doesn't mean we can't address them both with equal doses of common sense.

No More Lou (On TV, Anyway)

| Wed Nov. 11, 2009 8:13 PM EST

Today's big media news:

Lou Dobbs, the longtime CNN anchor whose anti-immigration views have made him a TV lightning rod, said Wednesday that he is leaving the cable news channel effective immediately.

“Some leaders in the media, politics and business have been urging me to go beyond my role here at CNN and engage in constructive problem-solving,” Mr. Dobbs said just after 7 p.m., suggesting that he would remain involved in the civic discourse, but perhaps not on television.

Hey, maybe he's going to run for office!  Wouldn't that be fun?  Maybe mayor of some border city to start.  I'm thinking El Paso.  Then, after Sarah Palin wins the presidency in 2012, she could appoint him to head up Homeland Security. From there, the sky's the limit.

For more on Dobbs, here is Sridhar Pappu's profile from our January 2007 issue.  Enjoy!

Quote of the Day

| Wed Nov. 11, 2009 5:58 PM EST

From Charles Johnson, founder of Little Green Footballs and onetime leader of the post-9/11 warbloggers, on why he's given up on his fellow travelers:

The main reason I can’t march along with the right wing blogosphere any more, not to put too fine a point on it, is that most of them have succumbed to Obama Derangement Syndrome. One “nontroversy” after another, followed by the outrage of the day, followed by conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory, all delivered in breathless, angry prose that’s just wearying and depressing to read.

It’s not just the economic issues either. I’ve never been on board with the anti-science, anti-Enlightenment radical religious right. Once I began making my opinions known on issues like creationism and abortion, I realized that there just wasn’t very much in common with many of the bloggers on the right. And then, when most of them decided to fall in and support a blogger like Robert Stacy McCain, who has neo-Nazi friends, has written articles for the openly white supremacist website American Renaissance, and has made numerous openly racist statements on the record ... well, I was extremely disappointed to see it, but unfortunately not surprised.

There's was never any reason for surprise, of course.  2009 = 1993 all over again.

Reforming the Senate

| Wed Nov. 11, 2009 2:31 PM EST

Back in July, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) put a hold on Thomas Shannon, President Obama's nominee for ambassador to Brazil. Why? Not because he was unqualified or anything like that.  It was because Shannon once questioned the value of import tariffs on sugar-based ethanol (mostly from Brazil).  This is heresy in the corn state of Iowa.

In the end, the White House groveled and Grassley relented. But now there's yet another hold.  Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.), who has had six months to cogitate over Shannon's qualifications, says he's placed a hold on his nomination so LeMieux can “discuss my concerns” and “fully vet” him.  Uh huh.

LeMieux can do this because the Senate rules let him.  Just like the Senate rules allow 40 members to block any legislation they want. Earlier today, Matt Yglesias wrote about whether anything can be done about this aside from whining about it in blog posts:

The answer is that yes there is. Key elements of Senate procedure have been altered repeatedly throughout history and there have been failed efforts to do it that might have worked had folks been a bit more determined.

What’s missing right now is any sign from anyone politically important of any interest in turning up the heat. As Chris Bowers explains here it seems to be possible in practice for 50 Senators backed by the Vice President to force basically whatever procedural move they want. Traditionally, that’s not the way things have worked. Instead, having key people talk seriously about going this route has produced a political crisis and encouraged people to cut a deal. That’s how the filibuster got pared back from 67 votes to 60 votes. And it’s also how, as recently as 2005, Senate Democrats were persuaded to relent on several judicial filibusters.

But I’ve seen no sign of a serious public campaign of pressure from Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, or other leading figures to delegitimize this minoritarian obstruction.

Ah, but here's the thing: not only does it take pressure from the Democratic leadership, it also takes 50 Democratic votes.  That's the hard part.  This is just a wild guess, but I'd say that if Team Obama tried to push hard on eliminating the filibuster, they'd get no more than 30 or 35 votes on their side.  Maybe 40.  Even among the majority party, there just isn't very much support for doing away with a procedure that everyone knows they might want to use themselves in the foreseeable future.  Most senators, I think, are far more interested in being assured they can block legislation they dislike than they are in being assured they can pass legislation they favor.

But what about holds?  I'd say there's good news and bad news here.  The bad news is that, if anything, the hold process is nearer and dearer to senators' hearts than the filibuster.  It gives them lots of individual power, lots of authority over home state appointments, and lots of bargaining clout.  It's a personal prerogative that very few of them are willing to give up.

But — I wonder if there isn't some kind of deal that might be made here?  The Shannon case is a good example of abuse gone wild, as is the fate of many of Obama's judicial appointments this year.  Senators aren't likely to give up their power to place holds entirely, but it's possible that a concerted effort might gin up support for a bit of reform.  Maybe stronger limits on the number of holds (so that Grassley and LeMieux couldn't both put a hold on the same guy, for example) or stronger limits on how long holds can last.  The appointment process has become a swamp over the past couple of decades, wasting both the Senate's time as well as preventing the executive branch from operating in a reasonable way, and there just might be enough senators who recognize that to want to do something about it.

In any case, the abuse with holds is more obvious (one guy vs. 40) and the slowdown more routine than it is with filibusters, so it seems like that would be the place to try to put together some kind of reform effort first.  I'm not holding my breath or anything, but I could see this becoming a big enough deal that eventually there's an opportunity to make some change.  Even some Republicans might buy in.