Kevin Drum

Out of Power

| Sat May. 2, 2009 5:57 PM PDT

Matt Yglesias notes that even Republican members of Congress in razor-close swing districts voted unanimously against Barack Obama's budget:

These are not people who can count on the angry anti-Obama minority to win elections for them. And John Boehner has little in the way of favors to hand out, while Nancy Pelosi is in a position to give them something to take back to their district at home in exchange for acquiring a veneer of bipartisan cover. And yet not a one of them — nor even a single House Republicans nationwide — could be induced to vote for the Obama Recovery Act or the Obama budget plan. It’s impressive. My best guess is that the Club for Growth has really put the fear of God into everyone, but maybe there’s more to it.

There's another side to this too.  Basically, these votes are freebies: both the stimulus bill and the budget plan were obviously going to pass the House by wide margins, so Republican votes really didn't matter.  This means GOP members of Congress could cast a base-pleasing no vote without having to worry that their vote might actually derail anything and come back to haunt them.  Being utterly out of power may be a bummer, but I suppose it has its occasional bright spots too.

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Social Security Blues

| Sat May. 2, 2009 5:30 PM PDT

In the previous post, Dean Baker noted that Social Security payments went up considerably last quarter because they're based on inflation measurements that included the big runup in gasoline prices through mid-2008 but not their subsequent fall.  Needless to say, though, there's a flip side to that:

For the first time in more than three decades, Social Security recipients will not get any increase in their benefits next year, federal forecasts show.

.... The forecasts, by the Obama administration and the Congressional Budget Office, indicate that Social Security beneficiaries will not receive any cost-of-living increase in 2010 or in 2011.

This certainly won't help whatever recovery we manage to start eking out next year.

First Quarter Consumption

| Sat May. 2, 2009 10:45 AM PDT

Thursday's miserable GDP number supposedly included a bit of good news: personal consumption was up 2.2%.  Yay consumers!  Something didn't quite add up, though, but after looking at the numbers for a few minutes I got distracted by something else and never came back to it.  Luckily, Dean Baker did:

Many pointed to this rise as an increase in consumer confidence.

Okay, so how does this increase in confidence fit with the rise in the savings rate from 3.2 percent to 4.2 percent?....Higher consumption can't be explained by rising income either. Income fell in the first quarter. So, where does higher consumption come from?

The answer to the mystery is lower taxes and higher transfers, most importantly the big cost of living increase in Social Security payments that seniors got this year. (The cost of living adjustment is based on the 3rd quarter CPI compared with the prior year. This included the run-up in gas prices, but not the subsequent fall.)

So there you have it.  Not really especially encouraging news, after all.  Atrios has another big reason to be pessmistic about the economy over at his place.  And I'm still waiting for Eastern Europe to implode.  Did somebody say "green shoots"?

Friday Cat Blogging - 1 May 2009

| Fri May. 1, 2009 12:06 PM PDT

Happy May Day!  The Worker's Paradise of Cattistan welcomes you.  On the left, Domino strikes a heroic socialist post.  On the right, Inkblot relaxes with a concrete bunny while his human serfs provide for his every need.  Come join us, comrades!  You have nothing to lose but your chains.

Nominating Judges

| Fri May. 1, 2009 11:20 AM PDT

Is Arlen Specter's defection to the Democratic Party bad for the Democrats?  Jay Newton-Small suggests there's one extremely specific way in which it might very well be.  You'll be unsurprised to hear that arcane Senate rules are at the bottom of it.

Souter's Legacy

| Fri May. 1, 2009 10:54 AM PDT

So who will Obama nominate to replace David Souter?  Ideologically, probably someone who's not all that different.  But it's worth remembering that Souter's real legacy is that he's the one who made Supreme Court appointments the artery-hardened slugfests they are today.  It's not his fault or anything, but he was supposed to be a conservative strict constructionist when George H.W. Bush appointed him, and then, over time, turned out not to be.  In 1992 he voted with the pro-choice contingent in Planned Parenthood v. Casey and after that became a steadily more liberal influence on the court.  The conservative rallying cry following this slow-motion defection became "No more Souters!" and liberals learned the Souter lesson too.  The result: nobody gets nominated anymore unless their judicial temperament is fully and unequivocally cast in stone.  The market for moderates and interesting thinkers is pretty much gone.

And all because of mild mannered David Souter.  Who would have guessed?

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Fun with Photoshop

| Fri May. 1, 2009 10:05 AM PDT

James Fallows looks at the tableau of Obama muckymucks at yesterday's announcement that Chrysler would be allowed to file bankruptcy and is impressed with the "human dramas suggested by these faces."  It is, he says, "an impromptu work of art."

Today he's taking nominations for which Old Master it reminds him of.  My contribution is below: a crude Photoshop that makes the scene into an Old Master.  Enjoy!

New Frontiers in Product Branding

| Fri May. 1, 2009 9:38 AM PDT

Via Tyler Cowen, an idea from Geoffrey Miller about product branding that's "intriguing but absurd":

For example, companies could sell certain products only to consumers who have a certain minimum or maximum score on one or more of the certain Central Six [personality] traits....Lexus could sell the "Mensa Quartz Medallic" color of the LS 460 only to customers whose validated intelligence scores are high enough for them to join Mensa International (IQ 130+ or the top one in fifty).  The more exclusive "Prometheus Glacier Pearl" color could indicate an IQ above 160 (the top one in thirty thousand) — the qualification for joining the Prometheus Society.

Too late!  This idea is clearly stolen from J.T. M'Intosh's World Out of Mind, putatively a novel about an alien invasion of Earth, but in reality just a vehicle that allows him to lovingly describe a future in which everyone takes a cognitive test in early adulthood and is assigned a color forevermore.  There are the dull witted Browns, the worker bee Purples, the middling bright Reds, all the way through the Oranges, Yellows, and supergenius Whites.  And in case that's not enough for you, each color is further divided into its Circles at the bottom, followed by its Triangles and then its Stars.  The White Stars, needless to say, run the world.  And in M'Intosh's world, you wear your badge at all times or else.

(Yes, those are really the colors he used.  Race theorists should feel free to have a field day, especially since Miller's proposed colors are remarkably similar to M'Intosh's.)

50s science fiction.  You can't beat it.  We will now return to our normal political kvetching.

Naming Names

| Fri May. 1, 2009 9:01 AM PDT

Ezra Klein says Obama called the bluff of the holdouts who forced Chrysler into Chapter 11: "Not only did the administration let Chrysler fall to the bankruptcy courts, but Obama called the investors out by name."

Really?  That's great news.  I want names!  Sadly, it turns out Obama didn't call out anyone by name at all, saying only that "a group of investment firms and hedge funds decided to hold out for the prospect of an unjustified taxpayer-funded bailout."

Boo.  Hiss.  I want names.  It's pitchfork time.

Krauthammer on Torture

| Fri May. 1, 2009 8:24 AM PDT

Charles Krauthammer writes today that there are only two circumstances that justify torture.  The first is the ticking time bomb.  Of course.  But I'll let that one slide for now.  Here's the other one:

The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great. (One of the "torture memos" noted that the CIA had warned that terrorist "chatter" had reached pre-9/11 levels.) We know we must act but have no idea where or how — and we can't know that until we have information. Catch-22.

What an astonishing coincidence!  That's exactly the situation the Bush administration says it was in.  If it weren't for his legendary dedication to intellectual integrity, you'd almost think Krauthammer had simply taken a post hoc look at what his own team did and had then made up a justification to fit.  But he wouldn't do that, would he?

Of course, any rule worth the paper it's written on has to apply to more than just our side, so presumably this means Krauthammer thinks it's generically acceptable to torture anyone of sufficient rank and value.  If the Germans had captured a colonel with probable knowledge of Patton's battle plan, torture would have been OK.  If the Taliban caught a deputy consul who knew when the next attack on Kandahar was scheduled, torture would be OK.  If al-Qaeda catches a Air Force pilot who might tell them the secret of detecting and shooting down drones, torture will be OK.

Krauthammer's exception isn't an exception.  It can justify practically anything, either from us or from anyone else.  It's essentially the end of the civilized consensus against torture.  Unfortunately, I imagine that's the point.