Kevin Drum

Reporting on Strikes

| Wed Nov. 4, 2009 8:42 PM EST

Atrios blogs about the transit workers strike in Philadelphia:

A big problem is that in these situations there often isn't much solid information about just what are the real issues for the union. News stories focus on wages, and while everyone thinks 50 grand (with some seniority) is a lot for a bus driver, not many of those people are applying for those awesome bus driver jobs. This article provides a bit more of the union's perspective. Aside from wages and health care, concerns about pension underfunding and other issues exist.

If I'm reading this right, Atrios is suggesting that the media is at fault here: unions (and mangement) have lots of serious issues at stake when strikes are imminent, but reporters just lazily throw out a few lines about wage demands and move on.  The result is that the rest of us remain fuzzy about what's really going on.

But I think something else is going on here.  I noticed this a few years ago during the supermarket strike here in Southern California, and I noticed it again a couple of weeks ago reading about the postal workers strike in Great Britain: neither labor nor management is willing to publicly explain exactly what the current contract provides, exactly what the current dispute is over, and exactly what offers each side has laid on the table.  It's frustrating as hell.  It might also be excellent bargaining strategy (though I wonder about that), but in any case I don't think the vagueness in press reports is usually the fault of the press.  Their reports are vague either because both sides are hurling accusations at each other but aren't willing to provide concrete evidence for them, or because neither side will say anything much at all.  Much like a political campaign.

I'm happy to be wrong about this if anyone with more experience can school me on how this stuff really plays out.  But it seems to be a pretty common problem, and it's a little hard to believe that every single reporter who's ever covered a strike is just a bored hack too lazy to spend ten minutes getting the facts straight.

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Gone With the Wind

| Wed Nov. 4, 2009 6:25 PM EST

After the election last November I noted that "for the first time since Reconstruction, the South will be almost completely shut out of national power....This is the first time this will be true in well over a century."

Over at the Economist, an exile from Dixie puts a little more meat on those bones.  During the 90s and early oughts, he notes, Washington was almost completely controlled by Southerners: Clinton, Gore, Gingrich, Armey, Lott, Bush, Frist, and DeLay.  "It was southerners in every position of power for an unusually long time."

In 2006, things started to go wrong. Nancy Pelosi (California) and Harry Reid (Nevada) took over the top jobs in Congress. Then Barack Obama (Illinois) was elected president, and declined to balance his ticket regionally by picking a southerner.

But the Republican leadership shifted too. The party ran two non-southerners for president and vice-president in John McCain and Sarah Palin. The RNC is now run by a black Marylander, Michael Steele. The House minority leader, John Boehner, hails from Ohio. The whip's job has gone to Eric Cantor who, though Virginian, is an atypical southern Republican in being Jewish. Only Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), the Senate majority leader, is the stereotypical white Protestant southerner. His whip and assistant, John Kyl, comes from Arizona.

"I want my country back," has become a conservative-populist rallying cry. They have not truly lost their country, but have seen a wild swing of power north and towards the coasts. It won't last, either. But it's a painful reality right now for a region that once revelled in separatism, then dominated the country as a whole for an oddly long stretch.

Despite the oceans of ink spent analyzing the electoral shift in 2006 and 2008, I continue to think this transformation has been underappreciated.  The Old South has punched above its weight in American politics ever since 1787, and during the few times their influence has temporarily waned (Reconstruction, the 60s) it drove them crazy with fear and persecution mongering.  So it's not really surprising that it's happening again.

It's hard to say what's next.  Republicans are the party of the South these days, and sure, the GOP will regain power eventually.  But will they be able to do it if they remain a party dominated by the culture of Dixie?  Demographics suggest pretty strongly that they can't, which means that eventually the South will have to come to grips with the fact that they no longer hold the whip hand in American politics and probably never will again.  This means acknowledging that they're just another region, one with influence that waxes and wanes but basically corresponds to their population.  I wonder how long it will take for them to do that?

The Right Not To Be Framed

| Wed Nov. 4, 2009 5:31 PM EST

Via OTB, here's an NPR story about a couple of guys who were framed for a murder they didn't commit and are now suing local prosecutors in the case for misconduct.  The prosecutors are claiming absolute immunity from suit:

The Supreme Court has indeed said that prosecutors are immune from suit for anything they do at trial. But in this case, Harrington and McGhee maintain that before anyone being charged, prosecutors gathered evidence alongside police, interviewed witnesses and knew the testimony they were assembling was false.

The prosecutors counter that there is "no freestanding constitutional right not to be framed." Stephen Sanders, the lawyer for the prosecutors, will tell the Supreme Court on Wednesday that there is no way to separate evidence gathered before trial from the trial itself. Even if a prosecutor files charges against a person knowing that there is no evidence of his guilt, says Sanders, "that's an absolutely immunized activity."

Well, yeah, there's no actual section in the constitution that says, "The right of the people not to be framed shall not be abridged."  And prosecutorial immunity is a longtime staple of common law.  But deliberately framing someone with evidence you know to be faulty?  Maybe the law is an ass, but one way or another, that just has to be wrong.

Where the Banking Things Are

| Wed Nov. 4, 2009 2:39 PM EST

In a column about something else entirely, Brad DeLong says in passing:

The Economic Policy Institute reports a poll showing that Americans overwhelmingly believe that the economic policies of the past year have greatly enriched the bankers of Midtown Manhattan and London’s Canary Wharf (they really aren’t concentrated on Wall Street or in the City of London anymore).

True, but "Wall Street" and "the City" are very handy labels for referring to the financial industry in, respectively, the United States and Great Britain.  Anyone who writes about finance should therefore be eager to keep them around.  In fact, I think we need more of them for other countries.

But do we have them?  Are the bankers of Frankfurt, Zurich, and Tokyo concentrated in some part of the city that's since become a synonym for, respectively, the German, Swiss, and Japanese financial industry?  If so, what are they?  If not, why not?  I remember wanting such a word for the Japanese financial sector once, but I couldn't find it.  But I also couldn't figure out whether that was because it doesn't exist, or because I just didn't know where to look.  Can any jet setting financiers help me out here?

Italy's Rendition Trial

| Wed Nov. 4, 2009 2:12 PM EST

An Italian court has convicted 23 American CIA agents in absentia for their role in kidnapping a Muslim cleric from the streets of Milan and then flying him off to Egypt to be tortured.  "Here, Italian law rules, not American law or any other law," the Italian prosecutor said.

Well, maybe.  Here are the details:

Judge Oscar Magi handed an 8-year sentence to Robert Seldon Lady, a former C.I.A. station chief in Milan, and 5-year sentences to 22 other Americans. Three of the other high-ranking Americans were given diplomatic immunity, including Jeffrey Castelli, a former C.I.A. station chief in Rome.

The judge did not convict three high-ranking Italians charged in the abduction, citing state secrecy, and a former head of Italian military intelligence, Nicolò Pollari, also received diplomatic immunity. All the Americans were tried in absentia and are considered fugitives.

Let me get this straight: the Italian judge was happy to convict a bunch of Americans who he knew would never pay a price since they'll never be extradited, but he wasn't willing to convict the Italians involved in all this, who would have paid a price.  You'll excuse me, I hope, if I don't exactly see this as a triumph of judicial independence.  Convicting a bunch of foreigners is easy.  It's holding your own people to account that's hard.  Wake me up when either of our countries starts doing that.

Off-Off Yakking

| Wed Nov. 4, 2009 1:52 PM EST

I understand that everyone wants to spin yesterday's election results in the best possible light for their side, but the sheer volume of yak is astonishing.  Was there this much postgame analysis after the off-off-year elections in 2005 or 2007?  I don't remember it, but maybe I'm just forgetful these days.

In any case, jeez, can we all get a grip?  Democrats lost races in two states.  That's a bummer for them, but hardly a referendum on the future of the party.  Republicans lost one House seat after a stupid primary squawl.  That's a bummer for them, but hardly a referendum on the future of conservatism.  Everyone needs to turn down the dial before this election becomes the balloon boy of politics.

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Quote of the Day

| Wed Nov. 4, 2009 1:32 PM EST

From Ezra Klein, explaining modern romance:

Old modes of courtship are giving way to a faster, freer, fairer market, where transaction costs have fallen and participants have better information and competition is fiercer. In this market, supposedly rational actors make supposedly rational decisions and then reap the rewards or bear the consequences. New technologies such as cellphones and online dating are helping the market overwhelm older, less "efficient" norms.

Sounds exciting!

California's Democrats

| Wed Nov. 4, 2009 12:15 PM EST

In a column about Michael Bloomberg's slow but steady takeover of New York City politics, Michael Tomasky notes that Bloomberg was aided and abetted by the slow but steady deterioration of the city's Democratic Party:

I covered its demise as well as Bloomberg's ascent. The former was far more gruesome to watch. In a city that's six-to-one Democratic in voter enrolment, there isn't really a plausible mayor among the dozens of elected Democrats who represent the city or some portion of it at the federal, state and local levels.

This sounds eerily familiar.  Here in the great state of California, there are something like 10 million registered Democrats.  It's one of the bluest states in the country.  And yet, when it comes time to find someone to run for governor, there's no one to choose from.  When San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom dropped out of the race a few days ago, my first thought wasn't about Newsom at all.  My first thought was, "Jerry Brown?  Seriously?"  But yes: Jerry Brown, a 70-year-old guy who's already been governor twice is now the only Democrat running for governor.  That's the best we could do.

The GOP isn't in much better shape, either.  Their leading candidate right now is eBay zillionaire Meg Whitman, who barely seemed to know the Republican Party even existed until a couple of years ago.  But hey — at least they have two other candidates as well, even if they aren't exactly household names.

Jeez.  Jerry Brown. A guy who almost literally won't tell you what he thinks about anything or what he'd like to do as governor.  That's it.  That's all that California's Democratic Party can produce for the 2010 election.  Yikes.

Throwing the Bums Out

| Wed Nov. 4, 2009 12:55 AM EST

The electorate was pretty tough on incumbents tonight.  Democrats got kicked out in Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans got kicked out in NY-23, and Michael Bloomberg, who was expected to win reelection in a rout, only barely squeaked by.  John Garamendi won in CA-10, but that was hardly a race in the first place.

I guess that's not too big a surprise considering the lousy economy and the generally sour mood of the voters.  Unfortunately, it looks like the Maine referendum on same-sex marriage got caught up in the sour mood too, losing by 52-48, the same as California last year.  From a purely practical political perspective it's easy to understand why Obama didn't want to get involved in this, but it might have made a difference.  I don't have any doubt that California and Maine will both flip within a few years anyway, but sooner sure would have been better than later.

UPDATE: More here on the NY-23 race from David Corn.

More on the Next Bubble

| Tue Nov. 3, 2009 11:26 PM EST

The housing bubble may be over in America, but all the money that fueled it still has to go somewhere.  The Wall Street Journal reports today on the same resurgent bubble-iciousness that Nouriel Roubini was warning about yesterday:

Concerns are mounting that efforts by governments and central banks to stoke a recovery will create a nasty side effect: asset bubbles in real-estate, stock and currency markets, especially in Asia.

....Behind the trend are measures such as cutting interest rates and pumping money into the financial system, which have left parts of the world awash in cash and at risk of bubbles, or run-ups in asset prices beyond what economic fundamentals suggest are reasonable.

....The symptoms of a frenzy are most evident in Asia and the Pacific, where economies are recovering most quickly....Over the summer, a Singapore condominium developer raised prices 5% the day before units went on sale. After dozens of would-be buyers lined up on a steamy night, the developer — a joint venture of Hong Leong Group and Japan's Mitsui Fudosan — held a lottery for a chance to bid on the units. Singapore home prices rose 15.8% in the third quarter, the fastest rate in 28 years.

....The Australian dollar has jumped about 35% over the past 12 months as investors borrow in U.S. dollars to purchase Australian currency. The practice is propelling stock and bond markets faster than in the U.S. and Europe. Currency traders are betting that the Australian central bank, which raised interest rates by 0.25% on Tuesday, the second rise in two months, will continue tightening.

There should be better uses for this money.  Why aren't there?