Kevin Drum

Trapped in the Bubble

| Mon Jul. 13, 2009 1:41 PM EDT

Via The Corner, here is Austin Hill working up some righteous populist outrage at Townhall.com:

Last week the Social Security Administration flew approximately 700 of its managers from across the U.S. and Guam to Phoenix, Arizona’s posh Arizona Biltmore Hotel and Resort, for “organizational training.” The event, which included musical entertainment and dancing, skits, catered food, cocktails, and a “casino night” featuring “door prizes,” cost us lowly taxpayers approximately $750,000.

Seriously?  SSA managed to put together a three-day corporate training session for $1,071 per person?  That's.....unbelievable.

Seriously.  That's unbelievable.  SSA must have some world class penny-pinching accountants and event planners on their staff.  I doubt there's a corporation in America that would even try to budget less than two grand a head for something like this.

And why did SSA hold their training session at the "posh" Arizona Biltmore?  Let me take a guess: because it's 120 degrees in the shade in Phoenix during July.  The heat hits you like an anvil and the Biltmore practically gives rooms away for free in order to keep the place from turning into a ghost town.  SSA probably paid less than they would have at a Holiday Inn in Schaumburg.

(Yep.  $85 per night it says here. That's really cheap for a hotel with convention facilities for 700 people.)

Apparently this has been the outrage du jour among conservatives for the past few days.  Sad.  If they knew anything about how the real world works they'd be applauding, not catcalling.

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Blah Blah Blah

| Mon Jul. 13, 2009 12:36 PM EDT

So.....how's the Sotomayor hearing going?  Let's turn on the TV.

Ah, it's Senator Tom Coburn, the guy who absolutely did not advise John Ensign to pay $96,000 in hush money to his lover's husband.  Coburn, it seems, is troubled.  He comes from the heartland.  He thinks the law should be stable.  It's the glue that binds us together.  He shakes his head.  Now he's troubled all over again.  We can't pay attention to foreign law.  The oath of office is important.  Empathy is bad.  Aristotle had it right.

Etc. etc.  Jesus.  The Senate would be a much better place if senators weren't allowed to speak.  Is there really any reason at all for an entire day of inane opening statements from these people?

UPDATE: Patrick Leahy is now spending more time blabbing about a brief outburst in the gallery than the outburst itself took.

Forms to the Left of Me....

| Mon Jul. 13, 2009 12:12 PM EDT

Alison Leigh Cowan of the New York Times investigates Standard Form 152, the form that allows federal bureaucrats to create new forms. Apparently it's being used a lot these days:

Last year, Americans spent nearly 10 billion hours [pdf] filling out more than 8,000 different government forms and other official requests for information tracked by the federal budget office. That compares with roughly one billion hours spent on similar paperwork in 1981, which in hindsight looks to have been a refreshingly uncomplicated time.

Sounds grim.  But there's some slightly good news: according the to the linked CRS report, about 80% of all those hours are dedicated to tax forms.  Aside from taxes, all that remains is about 2 billion hours of form-filling nirvana, and I'm willing to bet that 80% of that is incurred by compliance officers and other paid professionals.  That leaves only about 400 million hours for us ordinary citizens, which works out to about two hours per year per adult.

So once you do your taxes you only have about two additional hours of government form filling out to do each year.  To be honest, that's less than I would have guessed — but that's probably because I've been fooled by the fantastic increase in private sector forms that make up the unseen superstructure of the internet age.  Here's my guess for me personally: one hour spent filling out government forms in 2008 (an accountant does our taxes) and, oh, let's say 10,000 hours spent filling out various annoying and idiotically designed online forms that allow me to buy things, access sites, write blog comments, take stupid quizzes, and order new services that allow me to continue living my convenient 21st century net-centric life.

OK, maybe not 10,000 hours.  But I wouldn't be surprised if I spend 30-40 hours a year filling out various online forms for one thing or another.  How about you?

Behind the Curtain

| Mon Jul. 13, 2009 11:21 AM EDT

Dan Drezner spent the past week guest lecturing at the Barcelona Institute for International Studies and reports back:

One mildly surprising finding from surveying my students was the extent to which many of them believed that the United States government was consciously manipulating every single event in world politics.  Ironically, at the moment when many Americans are questioning the future of U.S. hegemony, many non-Americans continue to believe that the U.S. government is diabolically manipulating events behind the scenes (For example, the Ghanaians in the crowd wanted to know why Obama visited their country last week.  The standard "promotion of good democratic governance" answer did not satisfy them, They were convinced that there had to be some deeper, potentially sinister motive to the whole enterprise).

Actually, the United States probably is trying to manipulate every single event in world politics. Dan's students were right about that.  The part they're missing is that they don't understand just how bad we are at it.  Answer: really bad.

Palin vs. Palin

| Mon Jul. 13, 2009 1:12 AM EDT

The New York Times takes a look at Sarah Palin's post-campaign life up in Alaska:

Almost as soon as she returned home, the once-popular governor was isolated from an increasingly critical Legislature. Lawmakers who had supported her signature effort to develop a natural gas pipeline turned into uncooperative critics.

.... Her growing list of detractors quickly signaled that they were not impressed with her celebrity status. “We had business to do,” said State Representative Nancy Dahlstrom, a Republican who had worked on Ms. Palin’s 2006 race for governor. “It’s not all about adoration.”

....Democrats who had been crucial to her governing coalition now saw her as a foe. Republican leaders who had previously lost fights with her smelled weakness. An abortion bill she supported requiring parental consent stalled, the Legislature rejected her choice for attorney general and lawmakers became skeptical of the natural gas pipeline effort.

There was a lot more than just this, of course.  Among other things, there were money issues, personal issues, organizational issues, and an almost pathological inability to avoid a feud no matter how small or trivial.  But the fact that she found it almost impossible to govern Alaska after she returned obviously played a big role in Palin's decision to quit too.

Which got me to thinking: when was the last time someone ran for national office, lost, and then had to go back to being governor?  Answer: in the past 50 years it's happened only once, to Michael Dukakis after he lost in 1988.  And as you may recall, things didn't go swimmingly for Dukakis either when he returned to the statehouse — despite the fact that he was an experienced governor, didn't have any money problems, didn't participate in endless personal feuding, didn't try to position himself for another run four years later, didn't have tabloid magazines staked out in front of his house 24/7, was famously well organized, and had no problem discussing issues intelligently when called upon to do so.

In other words, maybe returning to run a state after participating in a brutal presidential campaign is just a tough assignment for anyone in today's media-saturated environment.  But Sarah Palin never figured that out, and if the Times is to be believed she refused to listen to anyone who tried to tell her.  As always, Sarah Palin's worst enemy was — Sarah Palin.

UPDATE: More here from the LA Times: "What is remarkable is the contempt Palin has engendered within her own party and the fact that so many of her GOP detractors are willing, even eager, to express it publicly."

Slaves to Farming

| Sun Jul. 12, 2009 9:30 PM EDT

Dave Schuler laments:

As best as I can tell I’m one of the very few in the American political blogosphere who comments on trade negotiations — you can check back through my archives for my many posts posts on the subject. It doesn’t seem to be a subject that captures the imagination, possibly because there’s not a great deal of partisan hay to be made from the subject. I’d still like to know the answer to a question I posed nearly a year ago to Candidate Obama: how would he revive the Doha trade talks?

I sort of feel his pain.  But I'm not sure that lack of partisan venom is the reason for this.  More likely it's because everyone has just given up.  To me, writing about the Doha round is sort of like griping about how big states should have better representation in the Senate or musing about how we ought to eliminate the Defense Department.  I mean, if that's what floats your boat, fine.  The blogosphere is deep.  But we all know this stuff is never going to happen, so it's sort of a waste of time, isn't it?

Trade talks aren't quite that bad.  But they're close.  The Doha round in particular lives or dies based on the willingness of rich nations to substantially reduce tariffs and subsidies on agricultural products, and seriously, what are the odds of that?  We can't even have a serious discussion about reducing subsidies on corn ethanol, possibly the stupidest use of taxpayer dollars in the past century, let alone reducing farm support payments to ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland.  Meanwhile, the European attitude toward farming makes ours look positively levelheaded and beneficient.  Paris would probably go up in flames if EU farm payments were ever rationalized.

So: what are the odds of making progress on agricultural issues?  Especially these days, you'd need scientific notation to express it properly.  Might as well wish for a pony instead.

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Wagging the Dog

| Sat Jul. 11, 2009 11:23 PM EDT

Here's an interesting little tidbit from yesterday's inspector general report on the various domestic spying programs known collectively during the Bush/Cheney era as the President's Surveillance Program.  The way it worked was this: the CIA at first, and later the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, produced a threat assessment every 45 days that was known internally as the "scary memo."  That memo was the basis for periodic renewal of the PSP.  If the memo wasn't scary enough, then no PSP:

CIA Office of General Counsel (OGC) attorneys reviewed the draft threat assessment memoranda to determine whether they contained sufficient threat information and a compelling case for reauthorization of the PSP.  If either was lacking, an OGC attorney would request that the analysts provide additional threat information or make revisions to the draft memoranda.

....During interviews, ODNI personnel said they were aware the threat assessments were relied upon by DOJ and White House personnel as the basis for continuing the PSP, and understood that if a threat assessment identified a threat against the United States the PSP was likely to be renewed.

Italics mine.  Now, the report dutifully goes on to say that the ODNI inspector general found the threat assessment process "straightforward, reasonable, and consistent," and that counterterrorism analysts believed the al-Qaeda threat to the United States was "overwhelming."

And yet — if that's the case, why would the scary memo ever lack "sufficient threat information" and need to be beefed up at the request of a CIA attorney?  And why would the IG's report go out of its way to mention, without comment, that the drafters of the memo were well aware that it needed to be sufficiently scary to justify the PSP?

Beats me.  I just work here.  But without saying so directly, the IGs who wrote the report sure seem to be going out of their way to suggest that sometimes the surveillance program was driving the threat assessment rather than the other way around.  Does that ring any bells?

Paying for the Times

| Sat Jul. 11, 2009 1:50 PM EDT

The New York Times is considering charging half a sawbuck per month for online access, and Michael Crowley approves:

Given that some people spend $5 per day on coffee, paying that much per month for online access the best newspaper in the world strikes me as an absolute no-brainer. I myself would pay twice as much. I hope the idea catches on, and I hope this marks a shift from the days of newspapers panicking to the start of successful new business models.

I'm a little torn here.  I don't have any problem with paying for the Times.  I already pay for the Wall Street Journal online, for example, and I figure that's just part of the job.  But if the Times does go this route, I hope they provide some mechanism for providing short-term public links to individual articles.  I generally try not to link to pieces that readers can't click through to read themselves, partly as bloggy courtesy and partly because it's one of the things that keeps bloggers honest.  If the Times blocked off online access completely to nonsubscribers, I'd link to them way less and would therefore find them way less useful.

As for the broader question of whether this will work, it's hard to say.  On the one thand, we're rapidly entering an era in which the Times is almost literally the only top notch general purpose newspaper in the country, now that the LA Times and Washington Post seem to be in death spirals.  That means less competition, which in turn means that if you really care about serious news, you don't have much choice except to pony up.

On the other hand — well, the Post and the LAT aren't that bad, and McClatchy and AP and the Guardian and the BBC and NPR and all the cable nets are still around.  The Times has them beat on a number of scores, but you still have to be a real news junkie before you're going to be unsatisfied with the flood of news from other outlets.  And I'm just not sure how many serious news junkies there are out there who don't already subscribe to the print edition.

But on the third hand, online advertising seems to have collapsed so completely that it's hard to see the downside of charging for access.  Even if it only brought in a few million dollars a year, that's probably more than they make from online ads these days.  So what's the harm in trying?

Let the Feds Fund Medicaid?

| Sat Jul. 11, 2009 1:19 PM EDT

If we need more stimulus, what form should it take?  Matt Yglesias comments:

In an ideal world at this point what I’d like to see is more aid to state and local governments. Probably this should just be done in a very crude way — some flat per capita disbursement that could be implemented very rapidly at the federal level and kick specific decisions to someone else. Some of the money would be wasted or used in bad ways, but it wouldn’t be congress or the executive branch doing the wasting, so it’d be someone else’s problem. That kind of thing would work quickly, would be highly stimulative, and would allow structural shifts in the private sector to proceed apace.

Well, one quick way to do this might be to stop dinking around with alterations to the Medicaid funding formula (as the first stimulus bill did) and simply turn Medicaid into a purely federal program funded entirely with federal dollars.  This would instantly save states something on the order of $100 billion or so.  Here in California, we'd save a little over $10 billion, which would be $10 billion less in demand-destroying budget cuts we'd have to make.  Eventually this might lead to Medicaid becoming more standardized throughout the country, rather than being a hodgepodge of 50 different plans, but that's probably OK.  I'm not sure Medicaid has really been a great poster child for states as laboratories of democracy anyway.  Maybe it's time to turn the entire program over to the feds so it's not constantly a procyclical drain on the economy and be done with it.

The Clown Show Forges On

| Fri Jul. 10, 2009 7:43 PM EDT

It's hard for a Republican to compete with Mark Sanford and Sarah Palin in the weirdness sweepstakes these days, but Sen. John Ensign is working hard to grab the spotlight back.

Yesterday, I thought that Ensign was doing pretty well on the comic relief front when his pal Sen. Tom Coburn, who has apparently been counseling him about how to handle his messy private life, informed reporters that he would refuse to testify about what he told Ensign.  "I was counseling him as a physician and as an ordained deacon," he said.  "That is privileged communication that I will never reveal to anybody." Coburn, of course, is an Ob/Gyn.

But then it got better — and less comic.  As we all know, Ensign was having an affair with Cindy Hampton, the wife of one of his former aides, and yesterday we learned that Ensign got his parents to pay $96,000 in hush money to the Hamptons.  Why $96,000?  According to Ensign's lawyer, his mother and father gave $12,000 apiece to Cindy Hampton, her husband, Doug, and two of their children in the form of a single check.  Hilzoy piles on:

$96,000 is a lot of money. Interestingly, it is precisely the amount you can give as a gift without having to report it to the IRS, multiplied by eight: one gift of $12,000 from each parent to Ensign's lover, her husband, and two of their children. I wonder what the IRS will make of that? I certainly hope that neither of the parents has made use of their children's money, or done anything else to suggest that this was all one big gift split up to avoid paying gift tax, or (more likely) having to report the gift. It's bad enough asking your parents to cough up $96,000 to cover up your indiscretions; asking them to violate the tax code and risk prison is a whole lot worse.

On the other hand, if the $96,000 was all one big gift, then I don't have to feel so bad for the one Hampton child who mysteriously got no gift at all. (There are three. I believe the oldest is 19.) If the gifts were genuine, it might be hard to explain to that third child why his or her siblings just got $24,000 from Mommy's lover's parents while s/he got nothing at all, not to mention why Mommy's lover's parents suddenly started feeling so generous.

Obviously Sarah Palin is now going to have to do something even more bizarre than last week's lakeside press conference if she wants people to start paying attention to her again.  I wonder what she'll dream up?