Pissing Off Liberals

Paul Waldman notes that only a few years ago most of today's crop of Republican presidential wannabes were willing to admit that global warming was a serious problem. But then:

Over the last couple of years, climate change went from something Republicans acknowledged was happening and were willing to do something about, to something they acknowledged was happening but weren't really willing to do anything about, to something that they refuse to acknowledge is happening. That has now become the orthodox Republican position.

The line in the story about Al Gore shows why this has happened. Hating liberals was always important to conservatives, but of late, it has become the central organizing principle of American conservatism. If Al Gore thinks climate change is a threat, you can't be a real Republican unless you deny it. If liberals like NPR, it must be destroyed. If liberals favor net neutrality, it must be a communist plot.

I've never bought this. Conservatives have opposed public broadcasting pretty much forever, right? As for climate change denialism and opposition to net neutrality, they basically belong in the category of "let corporations do anything they want." This has been a Republican totem for a long time too.

Modern conservatives have a few simple guiding principles. Keep taxes on rich people low. Let corporations do whatever they want. Toe the Christian right line on social issues and the NRA line on gun issues. Support military action overseas if a Republican president proposes it. Oppose spending on poor people.

This explains about 90% of what you need to know. Pissing off liberals is a nice side benefit, but you really don't need it to explain Republican positions.

My Crystal Ball Says.....

Haley Barbour will not be the next president of the United States. Anybody who thinks otherwise, including Haley Barbour, is nuts. That is all. 

California, Gateway to the Future

Do you wonder what the future looks like, with Congress effectively hamstrung forever by a small band of uncompromising, hard-right ideologues? Come to California and see! We're facing a massive, no-shit, this-time-we're-really-doomed deficit this year, and it's not because spending is out of control. California hasn't always been the most fiscally prudent state you could imagine, but over the last decade or so we've reined in spending pretty well on average. Federal funding aside, total outlays last year came to $127 billion, and adjusted for inflation and population growth this is actually less than it was ten years ago.

Anyway, Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed that we cover half our $25 billion deficit with further spending cuts and half by extending some tax hikes that were originally put in place by Arnold Schwarzenegger. He wants to give voters a chance to accept or reject this deal, but since California requires a two-thirds vote to put an initiative on the ballot, he needs a few Republicans to go along with this plan. So far they've flatly refused, but today they finally named their terms for allowing voters to decide for themselves if they want to extend taxes or not:

The handful of Republican lawmakers most likely to provide crucial votes for Gov. Jerry Brown's budget plan are threatening to withhold their support without a dramatic rewriting of state environmental law.

....The proposal would sharply limit Californians' ability to go to court to challenge a construction project's environmental impact report....telecommunications companies seeking to expand their broadband networks would receive exemptions from environmental rules for related construction....The GOP proposal also would broaden the kinds of projects allowed to skip certain steps in the environmental review process....Environmental activists say the proposed change would exempt nearly all urban and suburban development from rigorous review....The plan also would ease some restrictions relating to greenhouse gas emissions caused by development.

Welcome to the future, where tiny bands of Republican legislators can hold an entire state hostage, using a budget crisis caused by a Wall Street implosion to force a corporate-friendly gutting of environmental policies that has nothing at all to do with the budget. You almost have to admire the beauty of it: Deregulation of one industry helps cause the crisis in the first place, and this presents conservatives with an opportunity to deregulate yet another industry. It's almost like a perpetual motion machine.

Boehner Agonistes

Suzy Khimm on the dilemma facing House Speaker John Boehner:

The House passed yet another short-term extension of the budget on Tuesday. But John Boehner faced a revolt by 54 Republicans who voted against the bill for not going far enough to slash spending, effectively forcing the GOP Speaker to rely on Democratic votes for the stop-gap measure to pass. As Talking Points Memo's Brian Beutler explains, the vote now puts Boehner between a rock and a hard place: either he makes concessions to Democrats to pass a final budget, risking provoking greater fury from the tea party right, or he gives in to the GOP's right flank—risking a government shutdown, as the Democratic Senate is unlikely to pass any bill that guts spending to satisfy hard-line conservatives.

I think Boehner's problem here is pretty obvious, so there's no point in belaboring it. The more interesting question is: which way does he jump?

My guess is that he sides with the tea partiers and forces a government shutdown. I don't have any special insight here, just a feeling that, in the end, the hardcore right holds the whip hand in the Republican Party these days. If this is correct, though, it leads to a second question: how does this end? Obviously Republicans can't keep the government shut down forever, and eventually this means that Obama will win some kind of compromise and it will get passed by a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans. The tea partiers will lose.

Given that this almost has to be the case, wouldn't it make more sense for Boehner to compromise in the first place and avoid the humiliation of giving in down the road? In a rational world, sure. But in the tea party universe, he can't. The forces working here will force Boehner into the worst of both worlds: he won't assert control over the tea party faction from the start, which is bad, and then he'll end up caving in to Democrats a few weeks or months down the road, which is worse.

But maybe I'm missing something here. Is there some other scenario for Boehner that works out better for him?

Wall Street and the Earthquake

Doug Merrill argues that last week's earthquake in Japan shouldn't spark any serious global economic problems. Why?

Because Tokyo Earthquake is probably the most widely used wildcard in any sort of future/scenario planning. Sure, it was a low-probability event at any given time, but over longer terms it had a non-trivial likelihood of coming to pass. From financial markets to supply-chain managers, they all should have a file at hand marked Tokyo Earthquake, and the work — for people far away — now involves dealing with how reality diverges from what was planned. Maybe some international actors will be exposed as having neglected to answer this most obvious of what-ifs, but most will have worked through the possibilities.

Roughly speaking, I'll buy this. On the other hand, my confidence in the ability of global financial actors to properly identify and plan for big but low-probability catastrophes has been pretty shaken over the past couple of years. I mean, how surprised would you be if it turned out that a bunch of big financial players, weakened by the 2008 collapse, knew perfectly well that "Tokyo Earthquake" would put them out of business but just decided to cross their fingers and hope it didn't happen for a while?

In my case, not very. Still, as Doug says, this is the kind of catastrophe that insurance companies really do know how to account for, so he's most likely right.

From the Mailbag: Building Up New York City

Earlier today, I linked to a Ryan Avent post complaining that although dense cities like New York are much greener than towns and suburbs, his lefty, environmentally-aware neighbors fight against new high-density developments in the city anyway. A little later, I had an email exchange with HW, a lefty, environmentally-aware New Yorker who thinks Ryan has it all wrong. Here's the exchange:

HW: It is true that people living in NY have much much lower carbon footprints than those who live in lower density areas. It's also true that it is a highly desirable place to live. So wouldn't the way to accomplish more people living in high density areas like NY be to replicate it elsewhere? Or should we insist on cramming more people into NY against NYers' will and make it a less desirable place to live?

Wouldn't it be better for 8 million people to live in NY and have it serve as a beacon for a great, lower carbon footprint lifestyle? If you cram an extra million people in, sure, you lower their carbon footprints, but you may also make high density urban living far less attractive and less likely to be replicated around the country.

Avent mentions problems with parking and traffic as a throw-away, but I can tell you, the 4-5-6 running up from midtown to the Upper East Side is quite literally crammed wall-to-wall with people every morning. Parking is unlikely to be an option for anyone unwilling to spend several hundred dollars a month. And yes, another ten skyscrapers will result in the city becoming a darker and more depressing place. Not to mention the fact that the last ten high rises that went up on the Upper East Side were creatures of the housing bubble, resulting in massive losses and lots of empty units.

So would it be so terrible if we built up the downtown areas of Jersey City, White Plains and Stamford instead?

My reply: Well, that's the funny thing. Building new high-density areas is the obvious answer here, but no one ever does it. Why? I assume it's because it's next to impossible to get people to move to new high-density developments. You get all the bad aspects of density without any of the good aspects of living in a big, well-established city.

It's a conundrum. We could use more well established cities, but no one wants to live in the intermediate stages that it takes to build one. And of course, in well-established smaller towns and cities, the residents fight like crazed weasels to prevent the kind of development that they associate with crime and gangs.

I don't really know what the answer is.

HW again: I'm not sure that's entirely true. What about all the downtown redevelopment projects that have happened around the country? Or the urban centers that sprout up around the core of big cities like NY. Next time you are in NY, look across the East River and take a gander at Long Island City. It's as close to midtown as the Upper East Side, easy to build there, far less expensive, and just as dense. And every single one of those luxury high rises went up in the past 12 years; it's literally a skyline that didn't exist 12 years ago. Jersey City is a similar story, both for residential and financial (every big bank has moved their IT back office out there). Or look at the gentrification of Brooklyn!

So why obsess on cramming a couple hundred thousand more people on the island of Manhattan, which will push it past the bursting point? It's just not a smart premise. In fact, I'll go further: it bears no relationship to reality. No one would stop a luxury high rise in any of the other four boroughs or right across the river in NJ and it's just as dense and low-carbon to live in those spots. It's just that Ryan Avent doesn't WANT to live in those spots. He wants to live in a cheaper high rise in Manhattan (which, by the way, has seen tons of them go up already in the past decade — in the Financial District, Hell's Kitchen, the Upper East Side). Avent should ride the 4/5/6 at 8 am every morning for a week, come back, and tell us if his article makes any sense. As a 4th generation NYer, I don't think it even begins to.

I don't really have a dog in this fight since I've lived in the leafy suburbs of Orange County all my life. But I thought this was an instructive response that was worth sharing. Back to you, Ryan.

Death by Wi-Fi

The Wall Street Journal writes today about the latest in pseudo trends: finding a place to work that's internet free:

Gone are the days when a café with good enough coffee, a lax policy on lingering and an open Wi-Fi signal made it the perfect spot for writers to work. With infinite temptations just a mouse click away, many writers are seeking out an increasingly scarce amenity in a wired city: disconnected workspaces.

For the past eight years, Joanna Smith Rakoff has worked at the Writers’ Room, an office on Astor Place where creative types pay monthly fee to keep a desk. In an effort to stay productive, she never asked for the Wi-Fi password. But a recent deadline crush forced her to get online, and in the process she learned a password she couldn’t forget:12345678.

“I’ve not worked as well since,” said Smith Rakoff, 38, who published her first novel, “A Fortunate Age,” last year. “The pull of the Internet, of correspondence, is just too distracting.” She’s now contemplating a move to Paragraph, another workspace on 14th Street, in a bid to recapture her Internet innocence.

Etc. etc., with several other examples offered of writers desperately seeking out coffee shops that don't have Wi-Fi. Like this: "After much searching, West Village novelist Daphne Uviller happened upon her “second office.” The author, whose novel “Hotel No Tell” will be published next month, refused to divulge too many details. She did admit that her workspace without Wi-Fi required her to purchase a lot of $10 quinoa salads."

Look, I get that being online is distracting. But seriously, what's up with these people? You can turn off the Wi-Fi on your laptop, can't you? (I can on mine.) You can turn off your cell phone, can't you? (I can turn mine off.) So what's the deal here? I know all about internet addiction, since I have at least a mild case of it myself, but just how little self-control do you have to have to be unable to simply turn off your connection when you don't want to be disturbed? This is nuts.

Avoiding the President

Here's the latest on gun legislation in the aftermath of the Tucson shooting:

Administration officials have concluded that Obama would probably lose any legislative fight against the National Rifle Association. So, they are taking a different approach: Inviting the NRA to sit down for a chat. Administration officials said Monday that the Justice Department will ask NRA officials to participate in closed-door meetings in the coming weeks to explore a path forward.

But the NRA turned him down flat:

“Why should I or the N.R.A. go sit down with a group of people that have spent a lifetime trying to destroy the Second Amendment in the United States?” said Wayne LaPierre, the longtime chief executive of the National Rifle Association.

I don't want to make too much of this. LaPierre is about as hardcore as interest group leaders get, and his attitude is perhaps not a surprise.

Still, in the past there's always been a bipartisan assumption that the president is the president, and if he invites you to a meeting, you go. That's broken down recently, and I attribute it to two things: Obama's appearance at the Republican retreat last January, followed by his healthcare summit a month later. When Obama offered to speak at the retreat, Republicans let him do it. He's the president, after all. And when Obama initially proposed the healthcare summit, even uber-obstructionist Bill Kristol echoed the old school sentiment: "Obviously when the president invites you to the White House, you go."

But no longer. Now conservatives do their best to delay meetings at the White House, or they just outright refuse, as LaPierre did. Why? I think it's partly because Obama scored such obvious public opinion wins at both the retreat and the summit. He's mastered the art of controlling the conversation and sounding like a voice of reason in settings like this, and conservatives — especially tea party conservatives — don't trust themselves any longer to come out ahead when they're negotiating with him. They now consider even closed-door meetings at the White House to be traps, and they are, to put it bluntly, afraid of Obama. I'm not quite sure whether that's good news or bad.

Defunding the Left

Dave Weigel says that Republican governors like Scott Walker, Rick Scott, and John Kasich are "using the power to push through structural political and economic changes that will be hard to reverse. They're making the same bet Obama did — if they do this, the economy will rebound, and their political opponents will have been weakened in a way they may never recover from." Jonathan Bernstein disagrees:

Really? I don't think so. The clearly analogue for what Scott Walker did in Wisconsin would have been card check for the Democrats; they didn't do that. Nor did they pass a campaign finance bill to tilt the future playing field (Democrats did eventually push fairly hard for a minor campaign finance bill after Citizens United, but it wasn't even on the agenda before that). Nor did Democrats take advantage of their temporary 60 vote supermajority in the Senate to flood the federal courts with liberal judges. For that matter, there's nothing magic about 60, and Democrats certainly could have refashioned the Senate into a majority-rules institution, and then passed whatever they wanted even when they "only" had 58 or 59 votes.

The Democrats didn't even bother to secure two solid votes in the Senate by passing DC statehood.

I'm with Jonathan on this one. I just finished a short piece for the next issue of the magazine about Republican efforts to push through structural changes that either permanently defund the left or reduce its voting strength. In the past, that included efforts to defund public interest law groups, ongoing battles to degrade the power of private sector unions, promotion of "pack and crack" redistricting that limited the influence of minority voters, and support of tort reform rules that hurt trial lawyers. More recently, it's included their assaults on public sector unions, the defunding of ACORN, and tenacious efforts to pass voter ID laws aimed at making it harder for minorities, the young, and the poor to vote.

One question my editors had when I turned in the piece was an obvious one: don't liberals do this too? And if they don't, why not?

As near as I can tell, the answer to the first is no, they don't. The closest equivalent would be serious campaign finance reform that reduced the power of rich people and corporations, but there's never really been a ton of support for that among working politicians on the left. What's more, really hardcore campaign finance reform would hit hard at a lot of Democratic donors too, not just Republican ones. Even in the best case, it would probably tilt the playing field only modestly.

As for the second question, I don't have a clue. I very much doubt it's because we're nicer guys than our counterparts, so it must be something else. Maybe it's just plain harder to defund conservative support groups like the NRA, the Christian right, big business, and rich people. Maybe it's because Democrats depend too much on rich people and corporations themselves. Or maybe it's something else. Both sides fight for their own preferred policies just as hard as the other, but when it comes to attacking the other side's basic infrastructure, Republicans are unquestionably more ruthless and creative than Democrats. Anybody have some interesting guesses about why this is?1

1By "interesting," I mean something other than "conservatives are all a bunch of shameless thugs, so what do you expect?"

The Other Shoe

Megan McArdle comments on the stock market crashes that have followed Japan's recent earthquake:

Periodically, you hear students of the Great Depression wondering whether another shoe is going to drop, the way it did with Austria's Creditanstalt in 1931. The economy looked as if it was going to recover from a sharp, but not all that unusual recession--and then Creditanstalt failed and everything really went to hell. Unfortunately, we have a lot of candidates for the next disaster: oil disruptions in the Middle East, the European debt crisis, and now Japan.

Pessimist though I am, I have to admit that "gigantic earthquake in Japan" was not on my list of possible flash points for the global economy. And in the end, I don't think it will be. Still, it just goes to show that you can't think of everything. If the losses in Japan expose weaknesses in the insurance industry, who knows what might happen next?