Ben Bernanke, Missing In Action

Brad DeLong is perplexed:

One of the puzzles of the Obama administration that I have absolutely no read on is the reappointment of Ben Bernanke. When Obama reappointed Ben Bernanke I was sure — and I had reason to be sure — that the Ben Bernanke they were reappointing was the academic I knew well, "Helicopter Ben," the intellectual advocate of much more aggressive policy responses to the collapse of the real-estate bubble in Japan in the 1990s.

Obama would, after all, have to be a complete idiot to appoint somebody who did not view the world the way Ben-Bernanke-the-academic had viewed it in the late 1990s, and who had not assured him that he did still view the world the way he had viewed it in the 1990s.

So huh?! What happened?

Perhaps this is the result of too many trips to Jackson Hole, where private conversations with the great and good can too easily convince you that the great and good all agree with you in their heart of hearts. But in August 2009, if you were someone who had never met Ben Bernanke, who had never been to Jackson Hole, who had never spoken privately with anyone of consequence in the economic community — in short, if all you had to go on was Ben Bernanke's public actions and public statements — I think you would conclude that he thought the economy was on the mend and had no intention of lighting his hair on fire over minor things like sky-high unemployment and trillion dollar output gaps. You would also, I think, conclude that he was still the same laissez faire Republican economist he has always been and had no real desire to seriously re-regulate the financial sector even after the biggest financial meltdown since 1929.

And guess what? You would have been right. I'd say that about 90% of the time, public actions and public statements are more reliable guides to reality than all the private conversations in the world. Unfortunately, the other 10% of the time they aren't, and that 10% tends to be fairly dramatic. So, like a gambler who gets a big payoff just often enough to keep him at the table, we continue to be suckered by what we think is inside knowledge. Just human nature, I suppose. Maybe I should add it to my list.

Why They Win

Andrew Sullivan, who argues endlessly against the politics of outrage, emotion, and resentment, demonstrates today why the politics of outrage, emotion, and resentment work so well. Sharron Angle, he admits, is a "nutcase." But if he lived in Nevada, he still couldn't vote for Harry Reid, even if that was the only way of keeping Angle out of the U.S. Senate:

He is everything I hate about Democrats: incapable of making an argument, a face so weak it changes depending on the way the wind is blowing, a voice so sad you think he's a funeral director, a man whose appareance on television has never evinced any reaction from me but "where's the remote?" I just couldn't pull the lever for the guy. Sorry. So I won't be surprised if the nutjob wins. And a tiny part of me will feel a pulse of intense pleasure to see him go down.

Harry Reid is an inside player, not a Sarah Palinesque bomb thrower. He's no good on TV. But guess what? Against monumental odds, he played the inside game pretty decently this term, shepherding a stimulus bill, a healthcare reform bill, and a financial reform bill through the Senate. And to do it, he needed to figure out how to deal with prima donnas like Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, Scott Brown, and Olympia Snowe without losing his sanity. These are some of the most infuriating, self-regarding people on the planet. Could you do it? I know I couldn't. Hell, I probably would have taken a swing at Lieberman on the Senate floor around September of last year.

And then we would have lost his vote and healthcare reform wouldn't have passed. But I'd look tough! Cable news would love me! Andrew would be thrilled! Dems are showing some backbone!

And all at the minor cost of passing nothing. But at least we'd have someone telegenic running the Senate, and God knows that's what's really important.

Honeybee Collapse (Partly) Solved!

And now for some genuinely good news. It appears that we've finally figured out whether it's a virus or a fungus that's reponsible for the collapse of honeybee colonies over the past few years. Answer: it's both.

Researchers on both sides say that colony collapse may be the first time that the defense machinery of the post-Sept. 11 Homeland Security Department and academia have teamed up to address a problem that both sides say they might never have solved on their own.

....Human nature and bee nature were interconnected in how the puzzle pieces came together. Two brothers helped foster communication across disciplines. A chance meeting and a saved business card proved pivotal. Even learning how to mash dead bees for analysis — a skill not taught at West Point — became a factor.

....Research at the University of California, San Francisco, had already identified the fungus as part of the problem. And several RNA-based viruses had been detected as well. But the Army/Montana team, using a new software system developed by the military for analyzing proteins, uncovered a new DNA-based virus, and established a linkage to the fungus, called N. ceranae....The Army software system — an advance itself in the growing field of protein research, or proteomics — is designed to test and identify biological agents in circumstances where commanders might have no idea what sort of threat they face....The power of that idea in military or bee defense is immense, researchers say, in that it allows them to use what they already know to find something they did not even know they were looking for.

So there you have it. Academic researchers teamed up with Army software designed to identify biological agents on the battlefield to figure out what was going on. Now all that's left is to figure out just how this virus/fungus combo works and whether there's any way to fight it.

Today's Grim Employment Report

Do I have to do a post about today's employment report? I do? Fine: it sucks. Private sector job growth was anemic, just as it has been since falling off a cliff in May, and shows no signs of picking up. Public sector job growth, thanks to state and local layoffs, was negative, just as it has been since falling off a cliff in June. As a result, total job growth was tiny, far too small even to keep up with population growth. At the rate things are going right now, unemployment is going to stay near double digits for a very, very long time.

Too negative, you say? You want some good news, you say? Here it is:

While job creation remains scarce, there could be a silver lining. Expectations are growing that the Federal Reserve will try to stimulate the economy by stepping up its purchases of government bonds. The gloomy jobs report could give the Fed more incentive to act.

Jason Pride, director of investment strategy at wealth management firm Glenmede, said "by not being stronger, (the jobs report) gives them the window of opportunity to take action."

Any other good news? Well, the stock market broke 11000 and the teen apparel sector posted strong growth as part of "brisk" back-to-school sales. So buck up, folks. Prosperity is right around the corner.

The Ghost of Congress Future

"GoolsbeeGate" is a look at things to come if Republicans take over the House in November. I can't wait. It sounds like a worthy successor to the Clinton Christmas card investigation. 

How the Taliban Does It

Dion Nissenbaum of McClatchy reports that although the Pakistanis have blocked U.S. military convoys passing through Torkham to Afghanistan, they're letting everyone else through, including Taliban fighters:

"Every day, 40,000 to 70,000 people pass through the border, we can't handle it," said Gen. Mohammed Zaman Mamozai, the commander of the Afghan Border Police stationed at Torkham gate. "For us it's very difficult, and it's not possible to ask every single person where they are going and if they have a passport."

....For nearly a decade, the U.S. has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to cut off the remote, high altitude mountain trails Taliban forces use to smuggle weapons and fighters into Afghanistan. Now, the U.S. military is turning its attention to the border crossing.

"More and more we've realized that they are not coming through the passes, they're just coming through the . . . gate," said one U.S. government official in Afghanistan who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could candidly discuss the unfolding plan to focus on the border crossing.

Wait a second. After ten years, we're only now realizing that the Taliban might be coming in and out of Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass? That can't possibly be right, can it?

The Real McCain

Todd Purdum in Vanity Fair:

The prevailing question about John McCain this year is: What happened? What happened to that other John McCain, the refreshingly unpredictable figure who stood apart from his colleagues and seemed to promise something better than politics as usual? The question may miss the point....It’s possible to see McCain’s entire career as the story of a man who has lived in the moment, who has never stood for any overriding philosophy in any consistent way, and who has been willing to do all that it takes to get whatever it is he wants. He himself said, in the thick of his battle with Hayworth, “I’ve always done whatever’s necessary to win.” Maybe the rest of us just misunderstood.

I'm hardly the best judge of character in the world, but I confess that the McCain phenomenon has always baffled me. Even back in the glory days of the Straight Talk Express he seemed like a consummate phony to me, sucking up to reporters not because he was being unusually candid, but because it seemed like a good strategy to beat a well-financed guy who was running ahead of him. He's always been nasty, he's always been hot tempered, he's always looked out for number one, and he's always been willing to take whatever position was convenient at the time. All politicians shade their messages now and again, but on that score McCain has always been a politician's politician.

Or so it seemed to me. I've never understood how he managed to convince so many people otherwise for so long.

Today's Fundraising Pitch

Hey, guess what? It's fundraising season again! Why now? I guess the thinking is that you've already got your wallets out to support the candidates of your choice right about now, so why not donate to the media of your choice while you're at it? Maybe Mother Jones, for example?

A few dollars helps support this blog, and also helps support reporting like Karen Greenberg's story today that a federal judge has officially decided that, yes, torture is illegal. (There's more to the story than that, though, so go read it. You're paying for it, after all. Aren't you?)

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ACA Continuing to Work Normally

In news that should surprise no one, the Department of Health and Human Services has announced a set of temporary waivers for companies that provide mini-med healthcare insurance:

Thirty companies and organizations, including McDonald's (MCD) and Jack in the Box (JACK), won't be required to raise the minimum annual benefit included in low-cost health plans, which are often used to cover part-time or low-wage employees.

....The plans will be exempt from rules intended to keep people from having to pay for all their care once they reach a preset coverage cap. McDonald's, which offers the programs as a way to cover part-time employees, told the Obama administration it might re-evaluate the plans unless it got a waiver....The waiver program is intended to provide continuous coverage until 2014, when government-organized marketplaces will offer insurance subsidized by tax credits, says HHS spokeswoman Jessica Santillo.

In other non-shocking news, HHS also announced a couple of days ago that 3,000 companies so far have signed up to take part in a program that protects early retiree programs until healthcare reform fully kicks in in 2014. There are certain to be unanticipated bumps in the road as healthcare reform unfolds over the next few years, but so far everything that's happened has been pretty much according to plan. Somebody tell the Wall Street Journal.

America's Non-Decline

David Bell on the common theme of America's decline:

Twenty-two years ago, in a refreshingly clear-sighted article for Foreign Affairs, Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington noted that the theme of “America’s decline” had in fact been a constant in American culture and politics since at least the late 1950s. It had come, he wrote, in several distinct waves: in reaction to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik; to the Vietnam war; to the oil shock of 1973; to Soviet aggression in the late 1970s; and to the general unease that accompanied the end of the Cold War. Since Huntington wrote, we can add at least two more waves: in reaction to 9/11, and to the current “Great Recession.”

....What is particularly fascinating about these older predictions is that so many of their themes remain constant. What did our past Cassandras see as the causes of America’s decline? On the one hand, internal weaknesses — spiraling budget and trade deficits, the poor performance of our primary and secondary educational systems; political paralysis — coupled with an arrogant tendency toward “imperial overstretch.” And on the other hand, the rise of tougher, better-disciplined rivals elsewhere: the Soviet Union through the mid-'80s; Japan until the early '90s; China today.

My guess is that this is a bit more of a conservative impulse than a liberal one, since conservatives tend toward both an over-rosy view of the near past and a religious temperament that views man as a fallen creature. Still, that doesn't mean they're wrong. After all, in relative terms America has declined since World War II. How could it not? There's simply no possible world in which a single country could retain the kind of power and influence that America held over a shattered world in 1945. As other countries rebuilt and grew, the inevitable consequence was that their power would grow relatively faster than ours.

But what's remarkable, really, is how little America has declined. We are perpetually astounded that our military might doesn't guarantee us instant victory anywhere we go and that other countries are routinely able to make trouble for us, but that says more about our national psyche than about our actual global influence or military power. If anything, our ability to project power may be greater today than it's ever been, and it's certainly greater relative to other countries than it was 50 years ago. Economically, our share of GDP fell surprisingly little in the postwar era, from 28% to about 22%, and has stayed very nearly flat since 1980. And political idiocy aside, our ability to lead the world in a rebound from a world historical financial crash has actually been pretty impressive.

Anyway, I find that when I'm feeling depressed I think America is in terminal decline, and when I'm in a good mood I don't. Despite being sick at the moment, I'm in a relatively good mood today, so I don't think we're in decline. But ask me again next week and I might change my mind.