Kevin Drum

Yet More West Coast Unfairness

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 12:13 PM EDT

Contrary to his usual practice, USC football coach Pete Carroll told the press that players wouldn't be available for interviews after practice on Thursday.  How come?

"We're leaving in 44 minutes," he said, referring to a row of buses waiting to take the Trojans to the airport. "We've got to get out of here."

Part of his concern stemmed from an NCAA rule that prohibits teams from leaving more than 48 hours before a competition. Because kickoff at Ohio Stadium is scheduled for 5 p.m. PDT, the team plane was not scheduled to leave the ground until 6 p.m. on Thursday, with an estimated arrival at the hotel past 1 a.m. ET.

Hmmph.  That's completely unfair to West Coast teams traveling east.  Why not have a rule that says you can't arrive more than 48 hours before kickoff instead?  It's not as if coaches would leave really early and then schedule long layovers at O'Hare, would they?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Did Osama Fail?

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 11:39 AM EDT

Tony Karon writes today that al-Qaeda has failed:

The purpose of the 9/11 attacks was not simply to kill Americans; they formed part of bin Laden's strategy to launch a global Islamist revolution aimed at ending U.S. influence in Muslim countries, overthrowing regimes there allied with Washington, and putting al-Qaeda at the head of a global Islamist insurgency whose objective was to restore the rule of the Islamic Caliphate that had once ruled territory stretching from Moorish Spain through much of Asia.

Today, however, al-Qaeda is believed to comprise a couple of hundred desperate men, their core leaders hiding out in Pakistan's tribal wilds and under constant threat of attack by ever-present U.S. drone aircraft, their place in Western nightmares and security assessments long-since eclipsed by such longtime rivals as Iran, Hizballah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

All true.  At the same time, 9/11 touched off two wars; a regime of officially sanctioned torture by the United States; a massive increase in our surveillance apparatus; a population grown so fearful that it's meekly accepted a new routine of intrusive security checks that would have been unthinkable a generation ago; and a multi-trillion dollar debt that's still growing without end.  Osama didn't get his caliphate, but still: if what he got at the cost of 19 lives and few box cutters was a failure, I'd hate to see what counts as a success.

Pulling the Trigger

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 1:07 AM EDT

A few days ago I noted that legislative "triggers" have a long history of sounding good but not really working.  Either nobody likes the idea in the first place or else they turn out to be toothless in the crunch. Over at Slate, Tim Noah takes a closer look and agrees: triggers are mostly just a bunch of flimflam:

Legislative triggers have an especially dismal history in health care policy, argues Timothy S. Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee. In 1996 the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act required states to impose health-insurance reforms similar to those proposed in the current health reform bill; if the states failed to act, the federal department of Health and Human Services would impose them. States failed to implement reforms—and so did HHS.

In 2003, when Congress added a drug benefit to Medicare, it worried that its new program to provide coverage through private plans subsidized heavily by the government would prove ineffective. But a trigger to end the program focused only on whether these private plans would serve all regions of the country, which they did. The trigger failed to address the real problems that emerged: fraud, abrupt changes in formularies and drug charges after beneficiaries signed up, and high costs.

Meanwhile, a separate trigger in the bill required the president to address projected shortfalls within 15 days of receiving notice that 45 percent or more of Medicare funding was drawing down general revenues. Congress would then appropriate the necessary additional funds under an expedited procedure. But when President Bush notified Congress in 2006 that the 45 percent threshold had been exceeded, Congress did nothing. The threshold has been exceeded every year since then. Congress continues to do nothing.

So do triggers ever work?  According to Noah, the only clear success story has been with base closings: the 1990 base closing bill created a commission to recommend closures, with the closings to be automatically triggered unless Congress objected within 45 days.  It didn't, and the bases were closed.

That's better than nothing, I guess, but Noah seems on pretty firm ground when he says that a public option trigger in the healthcare bill would probably be little more than window dressing.  When the time comes, Congress will still have to define what the public option should look like, and that will require congressional action.  There's nothing automatic about it, trigger or no trigger.

Still, a trigger is probably better than nothing, especially if its requirements are spelled out in sharp detail.  Even if, practically speaking, nothing happens unless Congress acts, the existence of a clear formula would at least provide supporters with a hook for demanding action down the road.  In all likelihood, though, that's all it would be: a way to guarantee that the public option gets renewed attention someday.  But whether it's now or later, it's still going to have to get enough votes to land on the president's desk.  If that's where we end up, let's just make sure the trigger has a short enough fuse that it lands on this president's desk.

Our Lost Decade

| Thu Sep. 10, 2009 7:24 PM EDT

Today the Census Bureau released its latest income numbers, and they weren't pretty: median income dropped by nearly $2,000 between 2007 and 2008.  Nor was the long term picture much better: median income in the past decade has dropped from $52,587 in 1999 to $50,303 in 2008.

But there's more to your earnings than just cash income.  As we've all been reminded over and over lately, healthcare costs are skyrocketing, which means that healthcare premiums paid by your employer have risen dramatically during the past decade.  That's all part of your compensation too.  So if you add in employers' contributions to healthcare premiums, how do things look then?

Answer: a little better, but still nothing to write home about.  Roughly speaking, if you add together both cash income and healthcare premiums and adjust everything for inflation, median income over the past decade has increased from about $56,400 to $57,000.  In other words, a whopping 1%.  It really has been a lost decade1.

1Though not for everyone.  During the same period, the average income of the richest tenth of a percent increased by about $2 million, or about 35%.  No wonder there wasn't much left for the rest of us.

NOTE FOR NERDS: There's no bulletproof source for the value of healthcare premiums over time, and in any case the value differs depending on whether you're married, single, have kids, etc.  So here's what I did to get a rough cut on the data.

Basic cash income table is here.  Healthcare premium estimates for the past decade are here.  I subtracted the employee contribution and then took the average of family and single coverage.  This may understate the cost a bit, but not by much.  Then I applied the GDP deflator to put all the healthcare costs in 2008 dollars.  This is strictly a cheap and cheerful bloggy estimate, but it's probably not too far off the mark.

Of AIPAC and Astroturfers

| Thu Sep. 10, 2009 2:33 PM EDT

It's Laura, zooming by with the latest MoJo must reads. 3 non-health-care stories today:

1) Is AIPAC still the chosen one? Bob Dreyfuss explains the shifting terrain for the Israel lobby.

2) Who's really behind the Van Jones attack? Meet Phil Kerpen, master astroturfer and green job blocker extraordinaire.

3) Dr. Evil's Payday: How PR op Richard Berman's "economic literacy" nonprofit spun payday loans into gold.

Laura McClure hosts weekly podcasts and is a writer and editor for Mother Jones. Read her recent investigative feature on lifehacking gurus here.

Swimming With Sharks

| Thu Sep. 10, 2009 2:07 PM EDT

One of Andrew Sullivan's readers writes about the antics of congressional Republicans during Obama's speech last night:

Yes, the GOP of 2009 is the party of torture and fiscal recklessness. But as Joe Wilson's outburst last night made clear, it is every bit as much the party of the College Republicans.

....Juvenile, manipulative, impossibly smarmy, hateful — or at least more than willing to use the weapon of other people's hate — and, above all, relentlessly cynical. To these (mostly) men, politics is not the "art of the possible", not a means for peaceably grappling with the most difficult and complex issues of the day, or for attempting to improve the lives of people you will never meet. It is nothing but a game, one where the object is not just to win but to destroy your enemies with a weird mix of angry slander and junior high insults — and to have a good chuckle while admiring your handiwork.

"Swimming With Sharks," Frank Foer's 2005 article about the College Republicans, is one of the best political pieces I've ever read.  If you didn't see it back when it came out, do yourself a favor and read it now.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Obama Economy

| Thu Sep. 10, 2009 1:54 PM EDT

John Hempton, who is himself merely a humble (Australian) investment manager, says that one investment opportunity in particular might tell us something about how Barack Obama is doing after seven months in office.  It turns out that the big runup in firearm sales to people who were convinced that Obama planned to confiscate their guns seems to be over.  In fact, according to Smith & Wesson, their order book is collapsing:

The warning about the backlog not being binding is new — and it is clear from the new disclosure that they are having massive problems during this quarter with order cancellation.

The backlog dropped from $268 million to $178 million — a drop of 90 million.  Ten percent of that (say $27 million) was order cancellation — but a net $63 million of sales came from the backlog.  Total sales were 102 million — and less than 100 million in firearms.  The rate at which Americans are placing orders for new Smith and Wesson handguns is collapsing.

The company did not tell us the current forward order book.  At that rate of collapse what they are facing is a disaster. Whether that says anything about the size and intensity of belief of the Rush Limbaugh right — well I will leave that for my readers to discern.  We just want to make money for our clients — so we are short Smith & Wesson.

Easy come, easy go. But perhaps this means the "Obama is a fascist tyrant" bubble is about to burst — since, you know, it turns out that he's actually a fairly conventional mainstream liberal politician with exactly zero interest in re-igniting any facet of the culture wars whatsoever.  And just how many extra guns do you really need to protect yourself against imaginary enemies anyway?  Just saying.

The Tentacles of the Fed

| Thu Sep. 10, 2009 1:21 PM EDT

You've heard of "regulatory capture," right?  This is the phenomenon in which interest groups end up running the government agencies originally designed to rein them in.  So farm interests dominate the USDA, Wall Street interests dominate the SEC, corporations dominate the NLRB, etc.

Today, Ryan Grim suggests that exactly the opposite has happened with the Federal Reserve.  The field of monetary economics is relatively small, and a startling number of its practitioners either currently work for the Fed or have at one time.  So if you want to get ahead in the field, it pays not to be too critical of the Fed:

The Federal Reserve's Board of Governors employs 220 PhD economists and a host of researchers and support staff, according to a Fed spokeswoman. The 12 regional banks employ scores more.

....It's fair to [estimate] that there are something like 1,000 to 1,500 monetary economists working across the country. Add up the 220 economist jobs at the Board of Governors along with regional bank hires and contracted economists, and the Fed employs or contracts with easily 500 economists at any given time. Add in those who have previously worked for the Fed — or who hope to one day soon — and you've accounted for a very significant majority of the field.

....Affiliations with the Fed have become the oxygen of academic life for monetary economists. "It's very important, if you are tenure track and don't have tenure, to show that you are valued by the Federal Reserve," says Jane D'Arista, a Fed critic and an economist with the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

....The Fed [also] keeps many of the influential editors of prominent academic journals on its payroll. It is common for a journal editor to review submissions dealing with Fed policy while also taking the bank's money. A HuffPost review of seven top journals found that 84 of the 190 editorial board members were affiliated with the Federal Reserve in one way or another.

"Try to publish an article critical of the Fed with an editor who works for the Fed," says [Jamie] Galbraith. And the journals, in turn, determine which economists get tenure and what ideas are considered respectable.

Read the whole thing.  Even Paul Krugman gets into the act, claiming that ever since he began criticizing Alan Greenspan a few years ago, he's been blackballed from the Fed's annual Jackson Hole get-together of everyone who's anyone.

Overall, though, this is more a sociological critique than a claim that the Fed uses its raw power to stifle dissent.  Rather, you pull your punches a bit knowing that the editor of the journal you're submitting to used to work for Greenspan.  You dial it down a notch because someday you might want a job at the Fed yourself.  You stay within the mainstream because that's the safest place to be when upwards of half your profession depends on the largesse of the Fed to feed their families.

Is this true?  I don't know, but it certainly sounds plausible — and the circle of monetary economists really is startlingly small.  And from a journalistic point of view, the great thing about this story is that it's nonfalsifiable: the more economists who pooh pooh your theory, the more proof you have that they've all been captured by the Fed.  And you have to admit, it sure explains a lot about what happened over the past decade or so.  Did 98% of the profession really believe that there was no housing bubble in 2004?  Or did they just decide that staying quiet was a better career move?  The latter seems rather more likely, doesn't it?

(Via Tim Fernholz.)

The Evolution of the Blogosphere

| Thu Sep. 10, 2009 12:14 PM EDT

Scott Payne of the League of Ordinary Gentlemen has posted an interview with me about how the political blogosphere has evolved over the past seven years.  If this seems like the most gruesome topic possible, don't click the link.  Do not click the link.  If it sounds like a decent excuse to avoid work for a few minutes, however, go ahead.  Click away.  It's short, and Scott had the good taste to illustrate it with the best photograph ever taken of me.

Another Million Uninsured

| Thu Sep. 10, 2009 11:23 AM EDT

Can we please please please not talk about Joe Wilson anymore?  Haven't we glorified enough assholes already this summer?  Via email, Bruce Bartlett says probably not:

No doubt, right wing publishers like Regnery and Crown will be beating down Wilson's door today to sign a book deal that will put him at the top of the New York Times bestseller list along with drivel from the likes of Michelle Malkin, who has probably already started writing her biography of Wilson, titled, "The Man Who Spoke the Truth."  By the end of the day a Wilson for President web site will be fully functioning if it isn't already.  Watch for the announcement on Glenn Beck’s show this afternoon.

OK, but we don't have to talk about it.  Instead, let's talk about this:

The U.S. Census Bureau said the number of uninsured Americans increased in 2008 to 46.3 million, compared to 45.7 million in 2007.

The poverty rate also increased to 13.2%, and the median family income declined to $50,303.  These are all worth far more discussion than the mentally unbalanced antics of yet another GOP congressman.