Kevin Drum

Quote of the Day

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 5:14 PM EDT

From Robert Kagan, allegedly the "smart" neocon, on Barack Obama's oft-stated desire to engage with Iran diplomatically:

It would be surprising if Obama departed from this realist strategy now, and he hasn't. His extremely guarded response to the outburst of popular anger at the regime has been widely misinterpreted as reflecting concern that too overt an American embrace of the opposition will hurt it, or that he wants to avoid American "moralizing." (Obama himself claimed yesterday that he didn't want the United States to appear to be "meddling.")

But Obama's calculations are quite different. Whatever his personal sympathies may be, if he is intent on sticking to his original strategy, then he can have no interest in helping the opposition. His strategy toward Iran places him objectively on the side of the government's efforts to return to normalcy as quickly as possible, not in league with the opposition's efforts to prolong the crisis.

What a douchebag.  These guys really have no shame at all.

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Obama's Weak Tea

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 2:01 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias argues that the Obama administration has done the right thing by proposing that increased systemic risk authority be given to the Fed, which is insulated from the blowing of the political winds.  But I think this is backward.  If you're going to create some kind of systemic risk regulator at all — about which I'm sort of agnostic in the first place — you want to give the authority to an agency that's institutionally dedicated to reducing risk and considers it a primary task.  That ain't the Fed.  It's just going to get buried in the bureaucracy and forgotten there.

Matt also points to a couple of things Obama got right in his new financial regulation proposal:

Their regulatory package is reasonably strong on two ideas that I think could work. On the one hand, they have this consumer protection business.....It [] continues to be somewhat unclear exactly how much of the bad lending activity was truly fraudulent, but it’s at least possible that stronger consumer protections will help keep things under control. Last and most important of all, I think, is the idea of creating a clear legal process for the “resolution” of large, complicated financial firms. This is the one aspect of the crisis where I think you really can say that policymakers did want to do something different and better than what they did (ad hoc bailouts and bankrupties) and really were restrained by a lack of statutory and regulatory authority.

These are both potentially good things — assuming Congress doesn't water them down into useless swill.  But I think it's wildly unlikely that a consumer protection agency would have prevented the housing bubble.  After all, plenty of agencies knew about the fraud in the home loan market.  They just didn't do anything about it.  And the resolution authority, although it's important, only addresses what do to after a bubble has burst.  What's more important is trying to keep bubbles from inflating quite so high in the first place.

So color me still discouraged.  There's a legitimate concern that we not go crazy and overregulate the finance sector in response to the events of the past year.  But frankly, we're not within light years of that yet, and reckless overuse of leverage is still the key issue that needs to be addressed.  Obama's plan is weak on that score, and it will probably get even weaker after Dodd and Schumer and K Street are done with it.  For more on that, read George Soros's brief column in yesterday's Financial Times.  It seems on target to me.

Housekeeping News

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 1:03 PM EDT

Quick note: I've gotten lots of email this morning asking me what happened to the Washington Monthly site.  Answer: it got hacked last night and their tech gremlins are busily rebuilding it.  With luck it should be back up sometime this afternoon.

UPDATE: They're back up now.

Who Voted for Ahmadinejad?

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 12:50 PM EDT

Conventional wisdom says that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's main base of support was in Iran's small towns and rural villages while Mir-Hossein Mousavi's support came mainly from young people and urban areas.  Eric Hooglund, an expert in rural Iran, casts some doubt on this:

Take Bagh-e Iman, for example. It is a village of 850 households in the Zagros Mountains near the southwestern Iranian city of Shiraz. According to longtime, close friends who live there, the village is seething with moral outrage because at least two-thirds of all people over 18 years of age believe that the recent presidential election was stolen by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

....Carloads of villagers actually drove to Shiraz to participate in the massive pro-Mousavi rallies that were held on the three nights prior to the balloting. And election-day itself was like a party in Bagh-e Iman. Many people openly announced their intentions to vote for Mousavi as they cheerfully stood in line chatting with neighbors, and local election monitors estimated that at least 65 percent of them actually did so. “Although some probably really voted for [Ayatollah Mehdi] Karubi, who also is a man of the people,” said election monitor Jalal.

....By Saturday evening, the shock and disbelief had given way to anger that slowly turned into palpable moral outrage over what came to be believed as the theft of their election. The proof was right in the village: “Interior Ministry officials came from Shiraz, sealed the ballot boxes, and took then away even before the end of voting at 9 pm,” said Jalal. In all previous elections, a committee comprised of representative from each political faction had counted and certified the results right in the village. The unexpected change in procedures caught village monitors off guard, as it did everywhere else in the country.

Read the whole thing.

Healthcare CEOs Shoot Themselves in the Foot

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 12:25 PM EDT

Yesterday the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations decided to investigate the practice of recission.  This is when you pay your premiums for years to a healthcare insurer, then get sick, and then have your insurance cancelled.  The insurance industry executives at the hearing did not exactly cover themselves with glory:

A Texas nurse said she lost her coverage, after she was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, for failing to disclose a visit to a dermatologist for acne.

The sister of an Illinois man who died of lymphoma said his policy was rescinded for the failure to report a possible aneurysm and gallstones that his physician noted in his chart but did not discuss with him.

....Late in the hearing, [Bart] Stupak, the committee chairman, put the executives on the spot. Stupak asked each of them whether he would at least commit his company to immediately stop rescissions except where they could show "intentional fraud."

The answer from all three executives: "No."

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said that a public insurance plan should be a part of any overhaul because it would force private companies to treat consumers fairly or risk losing them. "This is precisely why we need a public option," Dingell said.

Even the Republicans on the committee couldn't defend the insurance company position.  A few more hearings like this and getting a public option into healthcare reform is suddenly going to look like a real possibility.  Nice going, guys.

Sarah Palin's Political Instincts

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 11:34 AM EDT

A few days ago David Letterman told a crass joke about Bristol Palin.  It was, as Paul Farhi points out, similar to a million other crude jokes told about the Palin family over the past year.  But this time Sarah Palin went ballistic and last night Letterman apologized. James Joyner comments:

A week ago, I wrote a post titled Letterman Palin Jokes Cross the Line, both excoriating Letterman for his remarks but defending him from the ridiculous charge that he was some sort of pervert who liked to joke about 14-year-olds.  Since then, Letterman first explained his remarks and subsequently apologized for them profusely. And rightly so.

But I have a hard time believing Palin was legitimately confused days later about the target of the joke and, in light of the previous jokes told about Bristol’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, particularly outraged at this one.   Instead, she took advantage of the initial media brouhaha over the Willow/Bristol confusion and made a big spectacle, hoping to both remove the Bristol mess out of the realm of legitimate ridicule and reframe herself as an aggrieved party rather than a rather cartoonish figure.

Letterman may have gone over the line, but that plainly wasn't what bothered Palin.  She was just looking for some free publicity, and getting her supporters worked up over a supposed insult from a dissolute member of the East Coast liberal elite played directly into her standard class resentment schtick.  It shows impressive political instincts, in a way.  It's a good thing she's not as ruthless, smart, or tireless as Richard Nixon or we might all be in real trouble.

In related news, check out the Sarah Palin shrine at the New York Stock Exchange.

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Best in Blog: 17 June 2009

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 9:00 AM EDT

A quick round up of quick MoJo reads:

Those meddling kids at the State department asked Twitter to postpone the Fail Whale's Tehran cameo; Wall Street breathed a sigh of relief; and this week's adorably endangered animal is the Hawaiian monk seal.

Meanwhile, Blackwater lost a federal-issue fryer (and $55 million), health care reform is feeling a bit faint, and Chastity Bono's sex change = shrug.

And the question of the day: Are there any senators whose Tweets aren't cringeworthy? This guy, not so much.

Still Listening

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 1:27 AM EDT

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau report today that Congress is once again becoming concerned that the NSA is intercepting domestic email messages without a warrant:

Supporting that conclusion is the account of a former N.S.A. analyst who, in a series of interviews, described being trained in 2005 for a program in which the agency routinely examined large volumes of Americans’ e-mail messages without court warrants. Two intelligence officials confirmed that the program was still in operation.

....He said he and other analysts were trained to use a secret database, code-named Pinwale, in 2005 that archived foreign and domestic e-mail messages. He said Pinwale allowed N.S.A. analysts to read large volumes of e-mail messages to and from Americans as long as they fell within certain limits — no more than 30 percent of any database search, he recalled being told — and Americans were not explicitly singled out in the searches.

There's also this:

The N.S.A. is believed to have gone beyond legal boundaries designed to protect Americans in about 8 to 10 separate court orders issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, according to three intelligence officials who spoke anonymously because disclosing such information is illegal. Because each court order could single out hundreds or even thousands of phone numbers or e-mail addresses, the number of individual communications that were improperly collected could number in the millions, officials said.

....Overcollection on that scale could lead to a significant number of privacy invasions of American citizens, officials acknowledge, setting off the concerns among lawmakers and on the secret FISA court. “The court was not happy” when it learned of the overcollection, said an administration official involved in the matter.

Rep. Rush Holt (D–NJ), chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel is investigating.  "Some actions are so flagrant that they can't be accidental," he says.

Chart of the Day

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 12:57 AM EDT

Josh Harkinson says the big new climate report released today by the Obama administration is no big deal because it's largely the same as the draft report that was released by the Bush administration last year.  Technically, maybe that's true.  But even though the report won't directly affect either legislation or agency rulemaking, surely it matters that we have an administration that actively and willingly releases a comprehensive report like this rather than one that fumes and delays and denies for four years before finally being forced to make it public with about the same enthusiasm that most of us reserve for getting a root canal?

Besides, even though it's primarily a review of existing literature, it's a pretty good review, covering everything from wildfires to rainfall to hurricanes to the fact that Illinois will look like Texas by 2100 (that's on p. 117).  Having a report this good, this comprehensive, and this authoritative may not save the planet, but it's still a pretty worthwhile data source to have around.

What's more, it's a gold mine of colorful charts!  And you know I'm a sucker for that kind of stuff. So here's your chart of the day: a 15-year history of electrical grid problems caused by increasingly extreme weather.  That's a new one on me, so maybe it's a new for you too.  The full report is here.

UPDATE: I picked this chart sort of randomly just because I'd never seen anything like it before.  Turns out there was a good reason for this: the increase in electrical grid problems is mostly the result of better reporting, not climate change.  Sorry about that.  Details here from Warren Meyer.

UPDATE 2: Evan Mills, who created this chart, emails to respond to Meyer's criticism.  He points out that (1) the caption specifically says this data doesn't demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship, (2) the growth in weather-related incidents is not merely an artifact of better data collection, and (3) there was a larger increase in warm weather incidents than cold weather incidents.  However, regardless of whether climate change has caused any of the recent increase in grid disturbances, the data does show what may be in store for us in the future if climate change continues.  More here.

Permit, Permit, Who Gets the Permits?

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 9:17 PM EDT

Does the Waxman-Markey energy bill really give away 85% of its emission permits to big polluters?  Dave Roberts says no: most of the permit allocations go to consumers, households, and green energy programs.  Only about 22% of the permits go to big industrials.  That's still about 22% too high, but it's a lot less than most press reports would lead you to believe.  Details here.