Kevin Drum

Letting Go of Bernanke

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 1:08 AM EDT

Edmund Andrews writes in the New York Times about Ben Bernanke:

As central bankers and economists from around the world gather on Thursday for the Fed’s annual retreat in Jackson Hole, Wyo., most are likely to welcome Mr. Bernanke as a conquering hero....Fellow economists [...] are heaping praise on Mr. Bernanke for his bold actions and steady hand in pulling the economy out of its worst crisis since the 1930s. Tossing out the Fed’s standard playbook, Mr. Bernanke orchestrated a long list of colossal rescue programs: Wall Street bailouts, shotgun weddings, emergency loan programs, vast amounts of newly printed money and the lowest interest rates in American history.

I really don't have it in for Bernanke or anything (honest!), but this level of adulation puzzles me.  Yes, the blizzard of term facilities and liquidity programs he engineered during 2007 and 2008 was impressive, but is everyone really so sure that no other Fed chairman would have acted similarly?  And beyond that, there's pretty broad agreement that Bernanke (a) badly mishandled the runup to the crisis, (b) inherited and then perpetuated weak regulation of consumer loan products, something that aggravated the housing bubble, and (c) was complicit in allowing Lehman Brothers to collapse.  These are all serious black marks, especially the Lehman fiasco, which is widely believed to have been the trigger for the most acute phase of the crisis during the fall of last year.

Reappointing Bernanke would hardly be a disaster.  But his judgment has been questionable on several fronts, his dedication to better consumer regulation is doubtful, and we'd all be better off if we stopped pretending that Wall Street has to be endlessly coddled by reappointing whatever Fed chairman they've gotten used to over the past few years.  Hero worship of the Fed is a vice that's worth stamping out, and now's a good time to start.  Let's give someone else a chance.

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Quote of the Day

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 8:49 PM EDT

From Michael Scherer, after pointing out that Sarah Palin's latest Facebook post is wrong:

Maybe Palin will post a follow up on Facebook clarifying.

Um, sure.  That would certainly be in character, wouldn't it?

Afghanistan and the Taliban

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 2:05 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias, having decided to pay more attention to Afghanistan, finds himself confused about something:

One question I’m looking at somewhat hazily is this. If you read accounts of the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, people generally always seem to think that American and Saudi and Pakistani support for the Mujahedeen was an important factor. I don’t see anyone saying “it was all a big waste of time and the same stuff would have happened anyway.” The Taliban has, as best as anyone knows, nothing remotely resembling that level of external support. So why isn’t that making more of a difference? Is our side actually much less effective than the Soviets were when you control for the change in external support?

Actually, that's usually presented as one of the big arguments for staying in Afghanistan and continuing the fight.  Since the Taliban is relatively small and has only minimal outside support, it means they're eminently beatable.  This isn't like Vietnam, where we were taking on half a million troops that had a superpower for a patron.

But I think the opposite is true.  If the Taliban really is small and isolated, we shouldn't need a troop buildup.  We should be able to beat them with 50,000 troops plus help from the Afghan army.  The fact that we haven't after eight years — that, in fact, our progress has been negative over that time — suggests either (a) we have no idea how to fight them, or (b) they're more formidable than we think.

Neither of those is a good reason for withdrawing if we have a clear and well-articulated reason for staying, but I haven't heard it.  Maybe it's in the reading list from Spencer Ackerman that's included in Matt's post.  I'll take a look later today.

Keeping Up With the Loons

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 1:31 PM EDT

Healthcare conspiracy theories continue to bubble up from right-wing chain email hell.  Ezra has the latest here.

Harnessing Nationalism

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 1:05 PM EDT

Brad Plumer today:

A recurring source of anxiety among op-ed writers lately is the fear that China is winning some sort of clean-energy race. Earlier this month, venture capitalist John Doerr and GE head Jeffrey Immelt took to The Washington Post to fret that Chinese cars were 33 percent more efficient than U.S. cars, that China was investing ten times the fraction of its GDP on clean energy that the United States was, and that China was on track to generate five times as much wind power by 2020. "We are clearly not in the lead today," they concluded. "That position is held by China, which understands the importance of controlling its energy future."

Those pleas for stronger U.S. action have some merit....But framing these efforts as some sort of zero-sum competition, in which only the winners benefit, isn't quite right. The entire planet will benefit from cheaper, better sources of clean energy, and it's not as if we'll somehow "lose" if China makes a massive push to mop up its emissions.

Sometimes there can be such a thing as too much intellectual honesty.  This is one of those times.

Look: on the global warming front, "Bangladesh will drown and California will have more wildfires in 2080" doesn't seem to be doing the job.  So if the only way to convince Americans to get serious about this stuff is to have 4-star generals issue grim warnings about climate change being a national security threat, followed by corporate honchos ginning up some kind of "green race" with the scary Chinese, then so be it.  If this kind of thing got us to the moon, maybe it can save the planet as well.  I say we go along.

Besides, having the Pentagon worry about climate-induced global instability is a good thing.  And competing with China to produce wind turbines is way more productive than endless scaremongering about whether they're going to build an aircraft carrier or two by 2020.  So let's get in the spirit of things.  We must never allow the quasi-socialist Chinese hordes to overtake us in producing green technology!  Green tech is the future of our country!  Buy (green) American (stuff)!  USA!  USA!

POSTSCRIPT: Brad actually does have some serious points to make about cooperating with the Chinese on green tech.  But that's hard to turn into a jingoistic crowd pleaser, I'm afraid.

The Real Barack Obama

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 11:25 AM EDT

Our story so far: Democrats offer up a bipartisan proposal to fund advance care counseling and Republicans turn it into a plan to create death panels.  Democrats agree to fund home nurse care and Republicans tar it as a secular brainwashing program.  Democrats take Republican concerns about cost containment seriously by setting up the Independent Medicare Advisory Council and Republicans start screaming about "rationing."  Democrats give in on a public option and accept a co-op program in its place and Republicans dig in and finally announce that they're just going to oppose everything no matter what Democrats do.

The White House has taken notice:

Given hardening Republican opposition to Congressional health care proposals, Democrats now say they see little chance of the minority’s cooperation in approving any overhaul, and are increasingly focused on drawing support for a final plan from within their own ranks.

....Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said the heated opposition was evidence that Republicans had made a political calculation to draw a line against any health care changes, the latest in a string of major administration proposals that Republicans have opposed.

“The Republican leadership,” Mr. Emanuel said, “has made a strategic decision that defeating President Obama’s health care proposal is more important for their political goals than solving the health insurance problems that Americans face every day.”

OK then.  Obviously Emanuel said this with presidential approval, so the question is: did Obama ever expect anything different?  Was his calm, deliberative, bipartisan sales pitch genuine, or did he know it would fail all along?

We've been asking this question ever since the primaries — does he really believe he can sweet talk Republicans into cooperating with him? — and we still don't know the answer.  Obama is a guy who plays his cards very close to his chest.  But the next couple of months should give us a clue.  If he really believed it, then he probably doesn't have much of a Plan B and the next stop for this train is Chaosville.  But if it was mostly an act, then his next step is obvious: he'll make a barnstorming public case that he made a good faith effort to work with Republicans but they were just completely intransigent.  He'll attack them mercilessly and do everything he can to whip public opinion into a lather against the obstinate, obstructionist, reactionary GOP.

If that was his plan all along, it wouldn't be a bad one.  He correctly divined a long time ago that the American public was weary of endless partisan fighting and wanted a break, and he rode that insight to victory.  Regardless of his own beliefs, then, it meant he had to start his presidency by demonstrating a genuine effort to work across the aisle, and he had to keep it up long enough to show he was serious.  Only if it plainly failed would he be able to turn the screws and start fighting on pure partisan lines.

Will it work?  Stay tuned.

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Barney Frank and the Loons

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 10:18 AM EDT

Here's a clip from the Barney Frank Show, soon to be a reality series on MSNBC.  Sean Hannity and Michele Bachman were all over this last night, full of faux dismay and tut tutting about how Frank treated his constituents, but oddly enough, they didn't play this particular clip featuring the woman proudly waving the Obama = Hitler sign.  Strange, isn't it?

Anyway, it's here mainly for entertainment value.  Not everyone can afford to do this, and not everyone has Barney's, um, way with words either.  Still, it shows a refreshing willingness to call a loon a loon instead of just fretting defensively about decorum and manners, and it's also fun to watch.  Fun is good!  And while some people will be offended by it, I'll bet the majority reaction outside the right wing would eventually become supportive if more Dems did this.  People would start laughing at the loons instead of pretending their black helicopter nonsense represents some kind of genuine upwelling of "heartland" grievance.  Give 'em hell, Barney.

Filibuster Wanking

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 10:02 AM EDT

This is, I admit, just total blue sky wanking, but the whole healthcare reconciliation debate raises another question: what if Democrats got rid of the filibuster?

Basically, this is easy to do.  Without going into all the gory details, it depends on having a friendly Senate chair declare the filibuster unconstitutional and then having it sustained by a majority of the Senate.  So all you need is Joe Biden (the chair) and 51 Democrats to support him and the filibuster is history.

This would, obviously, be the end of Barack Obama's post-partisan unity act, and the next step would be for the opposition party to go ballistic and shut down the Senate.  That's what Dems would have done if Republicans had tried this, and it's what Republicans would do if Democrats try it.  At that point, either the Senate chair rams through rule changes that eliminate the various ways individual senators can halt business, or else it becomes a pure public relations battle.  So who would win?

Beats me.  But I don't think it would depend very much on the nature of the bill that touched things off.  It would depend on how the public felt when they learned — really learned — just how the Senate works and how wildly undemocratic it is.  I suspect most people don't really have a clue about this and would basically support a move to make it into a majoritarian institution.

On the other hand, the public is also generally repelled by exercises in pure power mongering, and there's no question that's what this would be.  So it's a tossup.  I wouldn't mind finding out, though.

POSTSCRIPT: Yes, I know this isn't in the cards or anything.  But it's August.  Aside from death panels, things are slow.  Give me a break.

Fighting the Ghosts

| Wed Aug. 19, 2009 12:51 AM EDT

An awful lot of journal articles supposedly written by medical researchers are actually written by pharmaceutical company PR departments.  Someone is finally starting to do something about it:

With a letter last week, a senator who helps oversee public funding for medical research signaled that he was running out of patience with the practice of ghostwriting. Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has led a long-running investigation of conflicts of interest in medicine, is starting to put pressure on the National Institutes of Health to crack down on the practice.

....The full scope of the ghostwriting problem is still unclear, but recent revelations suggest that the practice is widespread. Dozens of medical education companies across the country draft scientific papers at the behest of drug makers. And placing such papers in medical journals has become a fundamental marketing practice for most of the large pharmaceutical companies.

“Just three days ago, I got a request to be the author of a ghostwritten article about the effectiveness of a cholesterol-lowering drug,” Dr. James H. Stein, professor of cardiology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, said this month. “This happens all the time.” He declined to attach his name to the paper.

Grassley's a weird dude, and he's been notably unhelpful on the healthcare reform effort.  But at least he's not completely worthless.  Good for him for taking this on.

Breaking a Public Option Filibuster

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 5:56 PM EDT

Armando, in his usual restrained way, asks why I think Republicans can filibuster a healthcare bill:

Republicans alone can not filibuster anything. So tell me Kevin, who are the Dem senators who are going to join a GOP filibuster of health care reform? Let's stick to the facts please. Even when you are shilling for a Dem capitulation on health care reform.

Well, it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster, and unless someone gets Teddy Kennedy back on the floor of the Senate, Democrats only have 59 votes right now.  As for the Democratic senators who might join a filibuster if the bill contains a public option, who knows?  But Ben Nelson is certainly a candidate.  So are Evan Bayh, Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor and Mary Landrieu.

On the other hand, it's possible that Harry Reid could hold the entire Democratic caucus together and then add a senator or two from Maine to successfully break a Republican filibuster.  Maybe.  Not many people seem to think this is likely, but your guess is as good as mine.