Kevin Drum

Chart of the Day

| Fri Jul. 31, 2009 11:33 AM EDT

This comes from a Research 2000 poll commissioned by Daily Kos.  Apparently a majority of Southerners aren't willing to say that Barack Obama was born in the United States.  That's some serious crazy.

Nationwide, 58% of Republicans are unsure that Obama was born in the U.S.  That's some even more serious crazy.

We've obviously spun back into a version of the full-bore Clinton Derangement Syndrome that swept the nation in the early 90s.  This kind of thing always starts with a few fringe characters, but there's a difference this time around.  Clinton craziness was initially pushed by the fringe media and then picked up and amplified by the mainstream guys.  This time it started in the mainstream media: Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, Andy McCarthy, Sean Hannity, etc. etc.  No middleman required.

Which makes you wonder: what would it be like if Hillary Clinton had been elected?  I think we've suspected this all along, but now we know the answer with scientific precision: it would have been exactly the same.  It was never Clinton Derangement Syndrome in the first place.  It was Conservative Derangement Syndrome.

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More Troops in Afghanistan?

| Fri Jul. 31, 2009 2:05 AM EDT

The Washington Post reports that the top commander in Afghanistan is preparing recommendations for a new strategic direction:

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who took charge of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan last month, appears inclined to request an increase in American troops to implement the new strategy, which aims to use more unconventional methods to combat the growing Taliban insurgency, according to members of an advisory group he convened to work on the assessment. Such a request could receive a chilly reception at the White House, where some members of President Obama's national security team have expressed reluctance about authorizing any more deployments.

...."There was a very broad consensus on the part of the assessment team that the effort is under-resourced and will require additional resources to get the job done," a senior military official in Kabul said.

....One senior administration official said some members of Obama's national security team want to see how McChrystal uses the 21,000 additional troops before any more deployments are authorized. "It'll be a tough sell," the official said.

Well, this should be a tough sell.  If McChrystal can make his case, fine. But it better be a damn good one.

The Beer Summit

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 7:07 PM EDT

So what's going on today?  Let's check in with the paper of record:

New York Times reporters Helene Cooper, Peter Baker and Jeff Zeleny are live-blogging the so-called beer summit....

Sweet Jesus.  The Times has assigned not one, not two, but three separate highly paid reporters to liveblog this?  Just shoot me now.  Still, since I'm not part of the solution I guess I'm part of the problem.  So I might as well listen in:

Helene Cooper: During the brief time that the press could watch the goings-on, Mr. Biden leaned across the table towards Sgt. Crowley and said something. At another point, Sgt. Crowley gesturing with his hands, said something to Professor Gates.

....Jeff Zeleny: This is not the first time Mr. Obama has turned to beer for a photo opportunity....A little more than a year ago, as Mr. Obama sought to win over working-class voters during the Indiana primary, he turned up in North Liberty, Ind., and walked into VFW Post 1954, where a Coors Light clock was hanging on the wall.

....Update: Sgt. Crowley plans to have a news conference at 7:30.

....Helene Cooper: Everyone is getting along so far, the official said.

....Helene Cooper: Five people — all white — including a young boy and two older teenage girls, arrived at the West Wing gate at around 4:45 p.m....As they passed a group of cameramen, one yelled out: “Not to be rude, but can you say who you are?” The response: “Not who you think.”

....“How much is this costing the taxpayers?” — Paul

Jeff Zeleny: The White House is buying the beer, but that’s it.

Please make it stop.

Quote of the Day

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 6:26 PM EDT

From an entrepreneur in the Middle East:

The financiers are the most important since they organize and plan the big shot operations and are able to pay running cost[s]. Financiers always need to forge deals with traders, land cruiser owners, translators, business people to keep the supplies flowing during operations and manage the logistics.  There is a long supply chain involved in every hijacking.

Hijacking?  What kind of new finance biz lingo is this?  This guy sounds like a wannabe Somali pirate or something. What kind of business is he in, anyway?

Hostages — especially Westerners — are our only assets, so we try our best to avoid killing them.  It only comes to that if they refuse to contact the ship’s owners or agencies.  Or if they attack us and we need to defend ourselves.

Oh.

(Via Armed Liberal.)

Sell Me!

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 1:53 PM EDT

Barack Obama says he's frustrated that it's so hard to get across his healthcare reform message.  Ezra Klein doesn't think selling it is the problem:

The lived experience of most Americans is that health care is too expensive, but not so bad. Similarly, it's that Europe might do a bit better than us on some things and quite a bit worse on others, but they're not very far ahead on anything. And the Veteran's Administration is terrible — didn't you hear about Walter Reed (which most people don't realize is an army, not VA, hospital)?

I don't think the problem for health-care reform is how it's being sold. The problem is the congressional process, and maybe the fact that it's hard to say what this bill gives the median American because it's trying so hard to leave the median American alone.

As near as I can tell I'm practically alone on this, but I think this is absolutely wrong.  It's not that congressional process isn't important.  Of course it is.  This is congressional legislation, after all.

But underneath that, it's all about how it's sold.  Everything has to have a constituency if it's going to get passed.  For ag subsidies it's farmers.  For lax financial regulation, it's banks.  For tax cuts it's rich people.

For healthcare it's.....I dunno.  Who?  But that's the point.  Everyone has been so hung up on congressional process that they seem to have forgotten that Congress responds to the public.  If constituents are mad as hell that their healthcare isn't as good as France's, they'll flood congressional offices with phone calls.  But if they think America has the best healthcare in the world, while the rest of the world is a socialist dystopia of ramshackle hospitals, yearlong waits for hip replacements, and harried doctors who can't see you for months and treat you like a postal customer when you finally get in — well, who's going to get pissed off about the occasional scuffle with their insurance company?  And if the public isn't worked up, then Congress won't get worked up either.

This has always been about public opinion.  Everything is about public opinion.  It's about public opinion being strong enough to overcome the resistance of whatever corporate interests are on the other side.  For some reason, though, liberals don't seem to get that anymore, and because of that we don't spend enough time on either side of the basic vox populi equation: (a) hammering home why individuals, personally, should be unhappy with the status quo, and (b) promising them, personally, lots of cool new stuff if they buy into change.

You don't have to lie to accomplish this.  But you do have to sell, the same way any salesman anywhere sells stuff.  That means understanding your audience, figuring out what they're afraid of, promising them something that will make them better off, overcoming their objections, and then convincing them that they have to call now to take advantage of this one-time offer!  Every pitchman on late night TV understands this.  Why don't we?

Protests Continue in Iran

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 12:53 PM EDT

Forty days after the deadliest of last month's clashes in Tehran, Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim of the LA Times report on the latest batch of confrontations:

Thousands and possibly tens of thousands of mourners, many of them black-clad young women carrying roses, overwhelmed security forces today at Tehran's largest cemetery to gather around the grave of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose videotaped shooting at a June 20 demonstration stunned the world.

....Afterward, the crowds began to gather in front of central Tehran's Grand Mossala mosque, defying authorities who had prohibited the use of the site. Protesters chanted slogans as they rode the subway to the venue, setting the stage for more clashes as dusk approached.

Jon Leyne, the BBC's Tehran correspondent, comments:

It's an ominous moment for the government. Those who run the Islamic Republic know only too well the cycle of protests, killings, then Arbayeen ceremonies from 1979, a cycle that helped bring them to power. They must fear history repeating itself, as similar anniversaries approach 40 days after protesters killed in the recent protests.

....The protests now are not remotely on the scale of the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of demonstrators who came onto the streets immediately after the election. But they are happening despite repeated threats and intimidation, and they are keeping up the pressure on the government.

This isn't over yet.  There are too many power brokers on the side of the demonstrators who have a vested interest in keeping things hot.  Stay tuned.

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A Beer in the White House

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 12:25 PM EDT

You know, back when Obama first told the press that he'd invited Skip Gates and James Crowley to the White House for a beer, I thought it was about as brilliant a piece of political ju jitsu as I'd ever seen.  A beer!  In the White House!  But now that Der Tag is here — well, I'm beset with a grim sense of foreboding.  It just doesn't seem like quite such a great idea in the cold light of day, and it's almost certain to keep this ridiculous incident in the news for another week or so.  Plus there are so many ways it could go pear shaped I can hardly count them.  So we'll see.  Can Obama turn political dross into gold once again?  I wouldn't bet against him, but I sure wish he were spending the day instead with some poor woman who got screwed by her insurance company or something.

Speaking of which, Obama's "bill of insurance rights" is good stuff.  I wish he'd unveiled it about, oh, six months ago or so, but better late than never:

No discrimination for preexisting conditions.

No exorbitant out-of-pocket expenses, deductibles or co-pays.

No cost-sharing for preventive care.

No dropping of coverage for the seriously ill.

No gender discrimination.

No annual or lifetime caps on coverage.

Extended coverage for young adults.

Guaranteed insurance renewal.

I can't predict the future any better than anyone else, but I think this is the right way to sell healthcare reform.  It won't satisfy the wonks, who will continue to debate public options vs. exchanges vs. co-ops, but it's the kind of thing the general public wants to hear.  There should have been a ninth item about being able to see the doctor of your choice, and maybe a tenth about guaranteeing all health decision are between you and your doctor, but it's still better than nothing.  And a lot better than most of the stuff we've seen before.

Foreclosure Kabuki

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 1:56 AM EDT

Why are so few mortgage companies willing to modify loans for delinquent borrowers even though the federal government has allocated $75 billion to keep them from taking a big hit when they refinance the loans?  What's the holdup?  Peter Goodman reports:

“It frustrates me when I see the government looking to the servicer for the solution, because it will never ever happen,” said Margery Golant, a Florida lawyer who defends homeowners against foreclosure and who worked in the law department of a major mortgage company, Ocwen Financial. “I don’t think they’re motivated to do modifications at all. They keep hitting the loan all the way through for junk fees. It’s a license to do whatever they want.”

....“If they do a loan modification, they get a few shekels from the government,” said David Dickey, who led a mortgage sales team at Countrywide and Bank of America [....] By contrast, he said, the road to foreclosure is lined with fees, especially if it is prolonged. “There’s all sorts of things behind the scenes,” he said.

....As a home slides toward foreclosure, mortgage companies pay for many services required to take control of the property and resell it. They typically funnel orders for title searches, insurance policies, appraisals and legal filings to companies they own or share revenue with.

An old gag asks, What do you call a thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?  Answer: A good start.  These days, I don't think "lawyer" is the right profession for that joke.

Yet More on High Frequency Trading

| Thu Jul. 30, 2009 1:13 AM EDT

Jon Stokes has more about high frequency trading over at Ars Technica.  His piece doesn't address the allegations that HFT shops engage in front running (i.e., sneaking a look at stock prices a few milliseconds before anyone else), but focuses instead on "pure" HFT strategies.  For example:

One of the most important uses for HFT is to get the best price for very large stock orders by breaking them up into small orders of random sizes and hiding the activity from other traders, who, on sensing that a large order is in progress, might take advantage of that knowledge by making moves that would impact the stock price....Some categories of "predatory algos" closely monitor the markets in order to sniff out exactly these types of hidden large orders, so that the algo can trade against them. For instance, if a predatory algo detects that someone is trying to hide a large sell order for [Intel] by trickling it out into the market in small blocks, it might work to bid down the price of [Intel] just a bit so that it can pick up those blocks at a discount and then sell them for a profit when the share price floats back up to the market's earlier, non-manipulated valuation.

It kinda reminds me of Charlie Stross's fictional Economics 2.0 — an automated economy that runs so fast no human being can keep up with it.  In an interview at Felix Salmon's blog, Stokes adds this comment about the allegedly gigantic trading profits generated by HFT:

To justify this $20B/year “fee” you have to make the case that the market system as a whole is getting something of value to all the payers in return. So supporters will say that it’s the price of liquidity and innovation, and, besides, they’ll argue, everyone who has been participating in the markets for decades has been paying these hidden liquidity taxes (and I’d rather call them taxes than fees) to specialists and any other market maker. But when you see this tax ballooning at Internet speed — much the same way that finance has ballooned as a portion of GDP — you have to take a step back and ask, “what is the real, fundamental benefit that we’re all paying for here when we collectively direct money into this?”

This, of course, is a question we've been asking about a lot of financial innovation lately: how, exactly, does it benefit anyone other than the tiny band of Wall Street zillionaires who collect fees from it all?  And Felix adds this:

My bottom line is that HFT is a black box which very few people understand, and that one thing we’ve learned over the course of the crisis is that if there’s a financial innovation which doesn’t make a lot of sense and which is hard to understand, there’s a good chance there’s systemic risk there. Is it possible that HFT is entirely benign and just provides liquidity to the market? Yes. But that seems improbable to me.

John Hempton offers a contrary view here.  He's very skeptical of the $20 billion number that's been tossed around lately, and in any case says that trading is a whole lot cheaper today than it was in the past even if the HFT folks are skimming a cut off the top.  That's unquestionably true, but I'm not sure it's a very good defense.  If Wal-Mart overcharges every customer by a penny, it's still wrong even if you're saving money compared to the corner market.  Add in the potential systemic instabilities caused by the HFT black box, and I think the burden of proof should be on the high frequency community to convince us that what they're doing is safe and worthwhile, not the other way around.

When Should We Start Leaving Afghanistan?

| Wed Jul. 29, 2009 8:35 PM EDT

Bing West writes in the Wall Street Journal today that it's time to get the hell out of Dodge:

The Taliban are Afghans, to be dealt with by Afghans....On patrols, Afghan soldiers spot the enemy 10 times more frequently than do coalition solders. Afghan soldiers are brave, hardy, ill-disciplined, individualistic, temperamental and trustworthy.

A year from now, coalition forces should be able to gradually withdraw, replaced by robust support and adviser units embedded in Afghan security forces. We shouldn’t make this a NATO war, allowing the Afghans to stand back. We’re outsiders, no matter how many schools we build or cups of tea we drink.

Nothing West says here is especially controversial, really, except for that "a year from now" part.  But why shouldn't we begin withdrawing in 2010?  Al-Qaeda is essentially destroyed, seven years of occupation doesn't seem to have improved our ability to fight the Taliban, and bringing in the DEA isn't likely to help things.  Besides, it's not as if Bing is suggesting that we repeat the mistakes of the past and simply hightail it for the exits:

For things to turn out right for us [...] we have to gradually let the Afghans do their own fighting, while supporting them generously. Afghan forces will need $4 billion a year for another decade, with a like sum for development. The crunch in terms of American support for the war will come a year from now. The danger is that Congress, so generous in supporting our own forces today, may not support the aid needed for progress in Afghanistan tomorrow.

Obama has a plan for leaving Iraq.  He needs one for leaving Afghanistan too.