Kevin Drum

Props 16 and 17 Lose

| Wed Jun. 9, 2010 10:07 AM EDT

When I went to sleep last night, California Props 16 and 17 were winning by narrow margins. This morning, with 100% of the vote cast, they lost. There is a God.

This means that PG&E (Prop 16) and Mercury Insurance (Prop 17) have just wasted a boatload of money trying to use the ballot box to improve their corporate fortunes. In turn, this means that other corporations might be a little less willing to try their hand at this in the future. Only a little less, mind you, but that's way better than the alternative. If they had passed there would have been an absolute tidal wave of stuff like this in the future.

Proposition 14, which essentially gives California an open primary system, was approved. I was against it, but I don't mind all that much that it passed. It's not as if our politics can get an awful lot worse than it already is. We'll see how it works out.

UPDATE: A reader emails to note that Prop 14 passed every place except San Francisco and Orange Country. "FWIW, my guess is that what SF and the OC have in common is a high level of partisanship relative to other counties, and partisans are more likely to want to protect their own party's primaries." That sounds like a reasonable theory to me.

UPDATE 2: Mickey Kaus won 5% of the vote in the Democratic Senate primary, well behind second-place vote-getter Brian Quintana. Barbara Boxer won 80% of the vote.

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R.I.P. Climate Legislation

| Wed Jun. 9, 2010 12:50 AM EDT

Today probably marks the official death of climate legislation in the United States. Lindsey Graham, the only Republican even nominally favorable toward any kind of carbon pricing plan, has announced that he can't support the Kerry-Lieberman bill because it doesn't allow enough offshore drilling (!), and without Graham there's pretty much zero chance of getting any further Republican support. So the odds of passing climate legislation, already slim, have now dropped to zero. The only option left is a pure energy bill, something that accomplishes very little, and accomplishes that little solely by offering up subsidies to every special interest you can imagine.

By coincidence, Stanford researcher Jon Krosnick has an op-ed in the New York Times today that suggests this is exactly what the American public wants:

When respondents were asked if they thought that the earth’s temperature probably had been heating up over the last 100 years, 74 percent answered affirmatively. And 75 percent of respondents said that human behavior was substantially responsible for any warming that has occurred.

....Fully 86 percent of our respondents said they wanted the federal government to limit the amount of air pollution that businesses emit, and 76 percent favored government limiting business’s emissions of greenhouse gases in particular. Not a majority of 55 or 60 percent — but 76 percent.

Large majorities opposed taxes on electricity (78 percent) and gasoline (72 percent) to reduce consumption. But 84 percent favored the federal government offering tax breaks to encourage utilities to make more electricity from water, wind and solar power. And huge majorities favored government requiring, or offering tax breaks to encourage, each of the following: manufacturing cars that use less gasoline (81 percent); manufacturing appliances that use less electricity (80 percent); and building homes and office buildings that require less energy to heat and cool (80 percent).

So there you have it: the American public believes in global warming and wants the government to do something about it. However, the American public doesn't want to do anything — carbon taxes or cap-and-trade — that might actually work. But they do want to open the federal goody bag and dole out subsidies and tax breaks to everyone under the sun, presumably because these all sound like pleasant things to do and they're under the impression that they're all "free." Whether they work or not isn't really on their radar.

And it looks like that's what Congress is going to deliver. We are, in this case, getting exactly the government we deserve. A government of children.1

1Yes, I'm feeling bitter about this at the moment. Anyone have a problem with that?

Quote of the Day: Gays in the Military

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 4:34 PM EDT

From Rep. Ike Skelton (D–Missouri), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, on why he doesn't want to end the ban on openly gay soldiers in the military:

What do mommas and daddies say to a seven-year-old child about this issue? I don't know. I think it would be a family issue that would concern me the most ... What they might see in their discussions among the kids.

WTF? Skelton thinks seven year olds are asking their parents about whether gays can serve in the military? What planet is this guy from?

Kicking Ass at the White House

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 1:34 PM EDT

Last night, the media boomlet of the nano-moment was President Obama's televised Chuck Norris schtick, when he told NBC's Matt Lauer that the reason he talked to experts about the Gulf oil spill was because they "potentially have the best answers so I know whose ass to kick."

Boo-yah! Obama's showin' some outrage! He's takin' it to the street! Bluster, baby, bluster!

Except, no. I was unhappy that Obama said this because I don't think he should give in to the yahoos who insist that he needs to be the emoter-in-chief, but I didn't bother commenting on it because something about the clip seemed slightly off. I wasn't sure what, but it didn't quite scan. Today, via Steve Benen, I know why. Here's the whole exchange:

LAUER: Critics are now talking about your style, which is the first time I've heard that in a long time. They're saying here is a guy who likes to be known as cool and calm and collected, and this isn't the time for cool, calm and collected. This is not the time to meet with experts and advisers; this is a time to spend more time in the Gulf and — I never thought I'd say this to a president — but kick some butt. And I don't mean it to be funny.

OBAMA: No, and I understand. And here's what — I'm going to push back hard on this. Because I think that this is a — just an idea that got in folks heads, and the media's run with it. I was down there a month ago, before most of these talking heads were even paying attention to the Gulf. A month ago I was meeting with fishermen down there, standing in the rain talking about what a potential crisis this could be. And I don't sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar. We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers so I know whose ass to kick.

Well, that explains it. Obama's seemingly odd answer about why he talks to experts was a direct reply to the question Lauer asked and to the way Lauer phrased it. But none of us knew that because NBC chose to release only a part of Obama's answer and none of Lauer's question. They knew perfectly well what impression this would leave, they knew perfectly well that the media interpretation of Obama's statement would be set in stone before anyone saw the entire interview, and if you go to about the 4:30 mark (and then to the 9:50 mark to hear the rest of Obama's answer to the "kick some butt" question), you'll see that the clip they released represents the exact opposite of how Obama twice told Lauer he actually feels. But they went ahead and did it anyway. Because, I guess, they really don't care about reporting the news accurately. They just care about attracting attention.

But at least now I have a pretty good idea of whose ass I want to kick. The BP execs are going to have to get in line.

Go Vote!

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 12:45 PM EDT

I feel the need for some fresh air. I believe I'll take a stroll down to my local polling place and cast a vote or three against Proposition 16. I'll vote on a few other things too, but mainly I'm just going to vote against Prop 16. I'll be back in a little bit.

Reining in the Debt Machine

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 12:15 PM EDT

The conference committee on financial reform gets down to business this week, and one of the subjects on the table is Susan Collins's provision to increase capital requirements for banks. Wall Street is dead set against this, of course, but Pat Garofalo dismisses their objections:

Throughout the financial reform debate, the banks have claimed that every proposed regulation would hinder credit and decrease the availability of loans. The same threat, used over and over, begins to ring a bit hollow.

I sort of wonder about the advisability of this approach. Because let's face it: the banks are right. Other things equal, anything that raises capital requirements or reduces leverage does limit the size of a bank's asset base. That's the whole point. And since the vast bulk of most bank assets consists of loans in one form or another, higher capital requirements will indeed lead to them reducing the availability of loans.

Now, it's possible that the effect will be less than Wall Street says. Maybe banks will shift their portfolios in ways that keeps credit to the real economy flowing. Maybe other parts of the financial industry will take up some of the slack. Maybe. But the housing bubble of the aughts was really a credit bubble, and one of the whole points of financial reform is to put rules in place that rein in the kind of unsustainable increases in debt we saw over the past decade. It might or might not work (the financial industry is pretty good at figuring out ways around prudential regulation, and global capital flow imbalances are going to continue driving debt upward unless we get them under control), but putting a modest damper on loan availability is a feature of financial reform, not a bug.

Whether it's wise to say this very loudly I'm not sure of. But I'm not sure it's wise to deny it too loudly either.

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Was Obama Ever a Raging Lefty?

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 11:48 AM EDT

James Bennet, in the Atlantic's annual "Ideas" issue, writes an entry called "Obama Is No Liberal." It starts like this:

It was a beautiful moment when Barack Obama, with his election, drew the left and right together in one powerful conviction: that he was a raging lefty.

I've heard variations on this many times, but where does it come from? The right certainly invested itself in a narrative of all-but-Marxism to galvanize the troops in opposition to Obama, but the left? Maybe I'm just hanging out in the wrong precincts, but it seems to me that the left pretty much always saw Obama as a pragmatic, mainstream liberal. Seriously: who on the left ever claimed Obama as a fellow "raging lefty"? (I'd ask Bennet to "name one," but hell, there probably is one. There always is. So how about naming half a dozen? That shouldn't be hard if left and right really were drawn together in this powerful conviction.)

It's fair to say that a lot of liberals hoped to accomplish more than we have. But it's really not fair to say that most liberals ever viewed Obama as a raging lefty. Better ideas, please.

Taxes and the Rich

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 10:55 AM EDT

Felix Salmon notes Jeff Sachs's suggestion that tax rates on the rich should rise substantially, and demurs:

I don't think this is possible, politically, in either the US or the UK. In the US, the middle classes are implacably opposed to tax hikes on people making more money than they themselves will ever make. I'm not entirely clear on the reasons for this, but I suspect it has something to do with the American Dream of becoming incredibly successful: no one wants to reach that gilded land only to find it full of taxes.

Someone — a journalist or an academic, I'm not sure which — should consider this an assignment desk piece: Why are Americans so unsympathetic to higher taxes on zillionaires? Does it really have something to do with an unfounded optimism about themselves someday becoming rich? I've heard this explanation a thousand times, but there's really never any evidence for it except for one thing: an old poll (which I can't locate just at the moment) showing that 19% of Americans think that someday they'll be millionaires. The problem is that (a) it's just one poll and (b) it's still only 19%. If that were really the reason Americans were opposed to taxing the rich, we'd still have about 80% of the country in favor.

So what is the reason? The "American Dream" answer is one possibility. Generic anti-tax fervor is a possibility. A principled sense of justice (i.e., no one should have to pay more than half their income in taxes, or some such) is a possibility. Widespread delusion about how much the rich currently pay in taxes is a possibility. There are lots of possibilities. But which of these are actually the prime motivators? Someone should try to find out.

California Propositions

| Tue Jun. 8, 2010 9:00 AM EDT

It's voting day! For all my California readers, here's a recap of my recommendations for the five initiatives on today's ballot:

  1. Seismic retrofits: YES.  This is small and harmless.

  2. Open Primaries: NO. I'm not a fan of letting members of one party select the other party's candidates.

  3. Fair Elections Act: YES. This is a limited experiment with public financing for a single office. It's worth a try.

  4. Municipal Power: NO. This is an effort by PG&E to use the ballot box to eliminate its competition. If it passes, you can expect a lot more sleazy initiatives like this.

  5. Auto Insurance: NO. This initiative is funded entirely by Mercury Insurance, which wants to base auto insurance rates on a factor not related to the risk of filing a claim. I think we're better off maintaining a very bright line that prohibits this.

For more details, see here.

California Hatin'

| Mon Jun. 7, 2010 11:18 PM EDT

Ladies and gentlemen, courtesy of Public Policy Polling, I give you the state of California:

We'd never done a public poll in California before last week and the thing I found most remarkable was how much voters in the state hate all of their politicians.

Arnold Schwarzenegger of course is the least popular Governor in the country with a 20/64 approval rating. The battle to replace him looks like it will be between someone marginally unpopular (Jerry Brown and his 37/39 favorability ratio) and someone very unpopular (Meg Whitman and her 24/44 favorability ratio.)

In the Senate race right now an unpopular incumbent (Barbara Boxer, 37/46 approval) is still favored for reelection because her likely opponent is just as unpopular (Carly Fiorina, 22/30 favorability and that's before the Democrats start really spending money on attacking the heck out of her.)

....Dianne Feinstein's breaking even at 41/41 seems like a monumental level of popularity in comparison to everyone else.

It's true: we hate everyone. Of course, one thing to keep in mind is that the current political season has been almost 100% brutally negative. I've never seen such a tidal wave of negative advertising in my life as I have in the past couple of months. Add in a recession that's hit California worse than most of the country, a budget crisis that's become nearly unfathomably disastrous, and a dysfunctional political system that's almost literally incapable of doing anything, and it's a miracle that these folks don't poll even worse.

In any case, I'd just like to say that Arnold Schwarzenegger fully deserves his unpopularity. I'm not sure who the 20% are who still approve of him, but they must be seriously deranged.