Kevin Drum

Bipartisanship and the Filibuster

| Wed Aug. 5, 2009 1:13 PM EDT

Ezra Klein argues today that since minority parties in the U.S. have universally concluded that the best strategy for regaining power is to prevent the majority from ever passing anything important, we should take another look at the filibuster:

There's a good argument [] that eliminating the filibuster would make the Senate a more, rather than less, bipartisan institution. For many legislative efforts, it would remove the "no bill" outcome from the list of possibilities. That would leave minority legislators with one of two options. Vote against a bill that will pass, or work to change and improve and add priorities to a bill that will pass. You might imagine that if "no bill" is the first-best outcome, then a "no vote" would be the second-best outcome. But that's not always true: Voters aren't very interested in ineffectual opposition. They're interested in what you've "done." That can mean killing a bad bill or improving a successful bill. Voting no, over and over again, isn't a very impressive record in any but the most partisan districts.

Actually, this is a testable theory because there's one bill (or, rather, a package of bills) that's passed every year on a straight majority vote: the annual budget.  No filibusters are allowed on budget resolutions, so the question is whether constructing the budget tends to be a more bipartisan process than it is with other bills.  I'm not quite sure what the right metric would be for measuring bipartisan participation in the legislative process, but surely there's some smart political scientist out there who can propose something.  (Or already has.)  Anyone?

In any case, I continue to think the filibuster is unconstitutional.  The fact that certain types of legislation (treaties, constitutional amendments, veto overrides, etc.) specifically require supermajority votes is evidence that the framers assumed that ordinary legislation should be passed by majority vote.  Assumed it so strongly, in fact, that they never seriously considered the possibility that they had to spell it out.

Until I get the Supreme Court to agree with me, of course, this doesn't matter.  But I still think it's true.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias points out that Senate rules are a political question and therefore the Supreme Court can't rule on them.  I think that's probably true — but I'm not absolutely sure it's true.  In any case, I wouldn't mind forcing them to consider the question just to be sure.  Only a senator would have standing to bring a case, probably, but how hard is it to find one rogue senator willing to take a flyer?  Especially in light of this:

I would say the key piece of evidence for Kevin’s interpretation of this is that the initial draft of the rules allowed for cloture on majority vote. Then during an 1806 revision of the rulebook, the cloture motion was scrapped on the grounds that it was never used and therefore unnecessary. Nobody was contemplating the creation of a supermajority requirement.

Like I say, unconstitutional.  The framers quite clearly intended for congressional legislation to be passed by majority rule.

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Flash Trading Finis?

| Wed Aug. 5, 2009 12:41 PM EDT

The New York Times reports that Chuck Schumer has persuaded the SEC to ban one of the most controversial practices associated with high frequency trading:

The S.E.C. chairwoman, Mary L. Schapiro, said on Tuesday that she would push to eliminate a controversial high-frequency trading technique known as “flash orders,” which allow traders to peek at other investors’ orders before they are sent to the wider marketplace.

....In a flash order transaction, buy or sell orders are shown to a collection of high-frequency traders for just 30 milliseconds before they are routed to everyone else. They are widely considered to give the few investors with access to the technology an unfair advantage, even by some of the marketplaces that offer the flash orders for a fee.

Flash trading in an era of supercomputers and 10 millisecond latency is an abusive practive that should be eliminated without question.  The other aspects of high frequency trading are a little murkier: they clearly give an advantage to firms who have the money and connections to colocate massive server farms with the exchanges, but the question is whether these practices are unfair and potentially destabilizing, not whether they're flat-out corrupt.  That deserves further investigation, but getting rid of flash trading is a good start.

The Crazies

| Wed Aug. 5, 2009 12:01 PM EDT

James Joyner admits that there are lots of conservative lunatics running around these days:

But here’s the thing:  There’s plenty of crazy to go around.  Remember Bush Derangement Syndrome?  The 9/11 conspiracy theorists who thought Bush and Cheney were in on the whole thing?  The Diebold plot to steal the 2004 election?  Should we judge the Left by the whackos that show up at the anti-trade rallies?  PETA?  Greenpeace?  Of course not.  Almost by definition, the people motivated and available enough to show up in the middle of the day to express their outrage about something are not like you and me.

Professional intellectuals surround themselves with likeminded folks and get the idea that they and their cohorts are the norm for their group whereas the crazies on TV are the norm for the opposition.  It just ain’t so.

Now, obviously there's some truth to this, but there are a couple of things that have struck me about the recent surge in conservative nutballs.  First: there's just a whole lot of them.  The Diebold folks couldn't even get a hearing at Daily Kos, let alone anywhere more mainstream.  The 9/11 truthers have always been a tiny band.  And most of the people who believed Bush "knew about 9/11" just thought he had been warned something was coming down the pike.  There was never more than a trivial handful who thought he literally knew the details and deliberately let the plot go forward.

Second: the conservative lunatic brigade appeared so goddamn fast.  It's true that some precincts on the left went nuts over Bush, but anti-Bush venom didn't really start to steamroll until late 2002 when he was making the case for war against Iraq.  Nobody drew BusHitler signs after he signed NCLB or called him a war criminal for signing a tax cut.  It took something really big to create a substantial cadre of big league Bush haters.

Conversely, the conservatives who think Obama is a socialist, or think Obama was born in Kenya, or think healthcare reform is going to kill your grandma, or think Obama is going to take all your guns away — well, that stuff started up approximately on January 21st, if not before.  And it's not just a weird 1% fringe.  There's a lot of conservatives who believe this stuff.  And there wasn't any precipitating cause other than the fact of Obama's election in the first place.

Every movement has its loons, but the current crop of conservative loons really isn't the same as the lefties who grew to loathe Bush over the years.  These folks were crazy from day one, they've become crazy in scarily large numbers, and their conspiracy theories are entirely untethered from actual events on the ground.  ODS is a whole different beast than BDS.

Healthcare Ad Wars

| Wed Aug. 5, 2009 10:54 AM EDT

It's not an election year, but it sure feels like one:

Drugmakers, labor unions, both national political parties and the sector currently under the heaviest fire — health insurance companies — are all weighing in with significant ad buys. Nationwide, more than $52 million has been spent this year on health-care reform-related ads, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, setting the stage for what may be a record-breaking legislative battle.

Speaking of this, we'd like to track the advertising and campaigning around the health care bill over the August recess.  If you see or hear an especially egregious ad/robocall/flyer/etc. in your local area, can you let us know about it?  Or send us footage, if you have access to it?  We'd like to post as much of this stuff as possible.  The email address to send it to is scoop@motherjones.com.  Thanks!

California's Prison Disaster

| Wed Aug. 5, 2009 1:11 AM EDT

A couple of weeks ago I described California as "a penal colony with a nice coastline."  The coastline is still nice, but a three-judge panel has finally ordered the state to get off its ass and do something about our wretched and overflowing prison system:

California’s prisons are so overcrowded that the state is violating inmates’ constitutional rights, three federal judges ruled today in a decision imposing a cap on the prison population that will force the state to release nearly 43,000 prisoners over the next two years. The 185-page opinion also accused the state of fostering “criminogenic” conditions, compelling former prisoners to commit more crimes and feed a cycle of recidivism.

A combination of dumb drug laws, dysfunctional parole policies, "three strikes" laws passed by initiative, an endless procession of tougher-than-thou politicians, and a famously thuggish and politically powerful prison guards union has gotten California into this mess.  James Sterngold wrote about it for us last year:

California's archipelago of 33 prisons houses more than 170,000 inmates, nearly twice the number it was designed to safely hold. Almost all of its facilities are bursting at the seams: More than 16,000 prisoners sleep on what are known as "ugly beds" — extra bunks stuffed into cells, gyms, dayrooms, and hallways. [Governor Arnold] Schwarzenegger has referred to the system as a "powder keg."

....Even as Schwarzenegger has promised reform, the corrections budget has exploded during his term, from $4.7 billion in fiscal 2004 to nearly $10 billion in fiscal 2007, or about $49,000 for each adult inmate.

....For more than three decades, California has been trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle where putting more people in prison for longer periods of time has become the answer to every new crime to capture the public's attention — from drug dealing and gangbanging to tragic child abductions. Spurred on by a powerful prison guards' union and politicians afraid of looking soft on crime, corrections has become a bottomless pit, where countless lives and dollars disappear year after year. And now that it has metastasized to the point where even a tough-guy governor and the guards agree that the prisons must be downsized or else (see "When Prison Guards Go Soft"), every attempt at change seems stymied by inertia. The sheer size of the system has become the biggest obstacle to finding alternatives to warehousing criminals without preparing them for anything more than another cycle of incarceration. "The public believes the prison population reflects the crime rate," says James Austin, a corrections consultant who has served on several prison-reform panels in California. "That's just not true. It's because of California's policies and the way it runs the system."

So will the judges be able to make a dent in all this?  Hard to say.  Every attempt to date has failed, and the LA Times quotes a spokesman from the California Attorney General's office saying, "This order doesn’t release anybody from prison, it just orders the state to come up with a plan. We have no immediate plans to appeal this particular order, but there would definitely be thought given to appeal any order that would ultimately order releases."

In other words, they're going to keep stalling.  Mark Kleiman comments:

It wouldn't be hard to shrink prison populations drastically while reducing crime, by doing a better job of supervising prison releasees on parole using drug-testing and position monitoring with swift and certain, but mild, sanctions for each violation of the rules....That's the big finding from Project HOPE in Hawaii. So far, though, there's no indication that the Governor or the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are thinking along those lines. Instead they'll fight the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, and then blame the judges when their failure to do their jobs leads to a crime increase.

What a mess.  And it's not just California, of course.  We're just the worst.  For a look at the big picture, check out our special package on the American penal system: "Slammed: The Coming Prison Meltdown."

Cash for Clunkers

| Tue Aug. 4, 2009 6:18 PM EDT

Has the Cash for Clunkers program been a success?  Justin Fox serves up this tidbit:

By all accounts the program has driven a rush to car dealers. Auto sales in July were at their highest pace in 11 months. In an e-mail to clients Monday, Credit Suisse economist Neal Soss revised his economic growth forecast for the third quarter from 1.3% to 2.0%, and for the fourth quarter from 2.0% to 2.5% — all on the basis of cash for clunkers' success.

I guess that's pretty good.  If it's true, anyway.  My own view has always been that although CfC would normally be a fairly lousy use of taxpayer money, the fact that I, the taxpayer, now own most of GM and Chrysler makes it a little more palatable.  I'm basically using my own money to help keep my own companies from collapsing.  Unfortunately, though, that doesn't seem to be the case.  According to Jalopnik, here are the top-ten cars purchased so far under CfC:

1. Ford Focus
2. Honda Civic
3. Toyota Corolla
4. Toyota Prius
5. Ford Escape
6. Toyota Camry
7. Dodge Caliber
8. Hyundai Elantra
9. Honda Fit
10. Chevy Cobalt

So we've got a single Chrysler model at #7 and a single GM model at #10.  Not exactly a groundswell of support for taxpayer owned auto companies.

Oh well. I just hope Soss is right.  Even if GM and Chrysler aren't getting much of a boost, an increase of half a percent of GDP for two consecutive quarters seems like a pretty decent return for an investment of a billion dollars or three.

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Modern Cookery

| Tue Aug. 4, 2009 5:31 PM EDT

Michael Pollan had a much-quoted piece in the New York Times magazine last week about the decline of actual cooking, the seemingly paradoxical surge in the popularity of TV cooking, and the evolution of what we eat.  Here's a piece:

After World War II, the food industry labored mightily to sell American women on all the processed-food wonders it had invented to feed the troops: canned meals, freeze-dried foods, dehydrated potatoes, powdered orange juice and coffee, instant everything. As Laura Shapiro recounts in “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America,” the food industry strived to “persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.”

So here's something I've been curious about for a while: most people seem to treat cooking as a binary thing.  Either you do it or you don't. But there's actually a broad range here, and I wonder how many people are more or less like me on the cooking continuum?  I don't eat prepared food because I don't like field rations no matter how brightly they're packaged.  On the other hand, neither do I cook — at least not in the conventional sense of hauling out a recipe and making something.  For example, if I'm on my own1 here's my recipe for making salmon:

1. Place a piece of salmon in a baking ban.

2. Put the baking pan in the oven.

3. Take it out after a while and eat it.

So is this cooking?  On the pro side: it's from scratch!  On the con side: it only has one ingredient.  (In the main dish, anyway.)  I don't have the skill or the desire to do much more, but even at that I prefer a simple, freshly baked piece of salmon to, say, Lean Cuisine's "wild salmon on a bed of whole wheat orzo pasta with yellow and orange carrots and spinach in a basil sauce."  And my dinner doesn't take any more time to prepare than theirs, either.

Pollan demonstrates some sensitivity toward this continuum when he talks about what really counts as cooking and what doesn't.  Here he is talking to food marketing researcher Harry Balzer:

Years ago Balzer noticed that the definition of cooking held by his respondents had grown so broad as to be meaningless, so the firm tightened up the meaning of “to cook” at least slightly to capture what was really going on in American kitchens. To cook from scratch, they decreed, means to prepare a main dish that requires some degree of “assembly of elements.” So microwaving a pizza doesn’t count as cooking, though washing a head of lettuce and pouring bottled dressing over it does. Under this dispensation, you’re also cooking when you spread mayonnaise on a slice of bread and pile on some cold cuts or a hamburger patty.

....I kept asking him what his research had to say about the prevalence of the activity I referred to as “real scratch cooking,” but he wouldn’t touch the term. Why? Apparently the activity has become so rarefied as to elude his tools of measurement.

“Here’s an analogy,” Balzer said. “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it.”

So, returning to the excerpt that kicked off this post, here's the question: how many people are there who, like me, (a) resist eating processed food because it reminds them of field rations, but (b) can't really cook in the conventional sense and therefore just end up eating simple but freshly prepared dishes all the time?  Surely I'm not entirely alone in this, am I?

1As you might guess, this isn't very often.  Marian is quite a good cook and does most of the dinner preparation chez Drum.  It's a good thing, too.

Swimming and Finance

| Tue Aug. 4, 2009 2:22 PM EDT

Alex Tabarrok comments on the arms race in swimsuits that's caused world records to topple like dominos over the past couple of years:

High-tech swimming suits [...] are primarily about distribution not efficiency.  A small increase in speed over one's rivals has a large effect on who wins the race but no effect on whether the race is won and only a small effect on how quickly the race is won.  We get too much investment in innovations with big influences on distribution and small (or even negative) improvements in efficiency and not enough investment in innovations that improve efficiency without much influencing distribution.

The phrase I elided in the first sentence was "and trading systems."  Alex is analogizing swimsuits to high-frequency trading, which he suggests is societally wasteful: it's not making stock trading any more efficient, it's just changing who gets the money.  The same is true of much modern financial innovation:

There is good reason to be skeptical about regulation in general but since this product, "financial innovation," is primarily about distribution I'm less worried about regulation in finance than in fields where innovation is more closely tied to efficiency.

High frequency trading is a good example of this.  Taken by itself, it's probably not that big a deal.  In the great scheme of things, the amount of money involved is small and the price paid by ordinary traders is microscopic.  Still, it's a pretty good symbol of what's wrong with the modern finance industry.  Even the CEO of a cigarette company can come up with something good to say about his product, but supporters of HFT mostly come up blank.  They mumble a bit about providing liquidity to the market, but it's obvious that even they don't really believe what they're saying.  In the end, HFT has a gem-like clarity to it: it's an unadulterated example of clever investors figuring out a way to siphon off cash from everyone else by manipulating the system in a way that has no relevance at all to the real world.  It's finance as pure game.

Others have made this point repeatedly and in better ways, but the entire purpose of the finance industry is to oil the gears of the business world.  Nobody objects (much) to Wall Street bankers earning their paychecks from things that do just that: loaning money, helping companies go public, underwriting bond issues, and just generally allocating capital where it can do the most good.  But when those become mere afterthoughts to the real money spinners — CDOs, credit default swaps, option ARMs, HFT, rocket science interest rate plays — all of which are almost completely divorced from providing more efficient services to the outside world, then the outside world starts to wonder what's going on.  As they should.  We need a finance industry that's about half the size it currently is and focused on providing actual financial services to the rest of us.  Until we get it, all we're doing is spending a lot of money on high-tech swimsuits instead of spending money on actually swimming better.

Quote of the Day

| Tue Aug. 4, 2009 12:42 PM EDT

From Arlen Specter (D–Pa.), responding to Joe Sestak's decision to run against him in next year's Democratic primary:

His months of indecisiveness on his candidacy raises a real question as to his competency to handle the tough rapid-fire decisions required of a Senator.

Rapid fire?  The U.S. Senate?  Are we talking about the same U.S. Senate here?

Ad Wars

| Tue Aug. 4, 2009 12:29 PM EDT

Dan Neil, whose day job consists of winning Pulitzer prizes for driving around test tracks in Porsches and Lamborghinis, also writes an advertising column for the LA Times.  And he says that in the healthcare war, liberals are getting their asses kicked:

There's some hope on the horizon, though, in the ad from Americans United for Change....To a kicky bass riff and the occasional cash register ring, the female narrator asks, "Why do the insurance companies and the Republicans want to kill President Obama's health insurance reform?" Note the yoking of insurance companies to Republicans. Note also that it's Obama's health insurance reform. Evil insurance.

The ad then lights into Cigna Corp. CEO Ed Hanway, who is retiring with a $73-million golden parachute. The GOP's prescription for the healthcare crisis? "Be as rich as Ed and you'll be happy too."

Of course it's disingenuous. Executive compensation at insurance companies is at best peripheral to escalating healthcare costs. For all we know, Hanway may be one of the good guys. The important thing is that the ad hominem ad is pointed, shrewd and manipulative.

Well, watch the ad and decide for yourself.  If you ask me, it's still got too light a touch.  And unlike Ezra, I can't say that I feel especially sorry for Karen Ignani, head lobbyist for the health insurance industry.  She's got a job to do, and she's doing it.  But the reality is that I don't think the insurance industry has actually conceded all that much during this round in the healthcare wars.  They were afraid of getting steamrolled, so they did what they had to do to survive.  Nothing more, nothing less.