Kevin Drum

Supreme Court Kabuki Watch

| Wed May 27, 2009 1:38 AM EDT

The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is only 12 hours old and I'm already sick of it.  Conservatives, who seem constitutionally incapable of viewing any non-white nominee as anything other than identity politics run wild, have already decided she's just a crass affirmative action hire.  Out of a decade-long appelate court career, the only opinion of hers they seem to have heard of, or care about, is Ricci.  And unlike all the middle class white guys on the court, who are apparently paragons of race-blind rationality, they're convinced that she's just naturally going to be incapable of judging any case before her as anything other than a woman and a Hispanic.

Not that it matters.  We all know how this is going to play out.  First, everyone is going to start looking for some dark secret in her background that will derail her nomination.  That will probably fail.  Then she'll testify before the Senate, and everyone will ask what she thinks of Roe and Casey and Kelo.  She'll dutifully claim that she's never even heard of these cases, and on the off chance that any of them ring a bell, she'll sing the usual song about how it would be improper to say anything about any matter that might come before the court in the future.  Which is everything.  After a few weeks of this, all the Democrats and maybe a dozen or so Republicans will vote to confirm her and she'll join the court in time for the fall term.

It's all so tedious.  So instead of going though with it, why don't we just pretend we did all this, confirm her tomorrow, and then get back to something important, like fighting a couple of wars, trying to rescue the world economy, creating a national healthcare plan, and stopping global warming?

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Owning GM

| Wed May 27, 2009 12:50 AM EDT

Here's the latest on America's auto industry:

General Motors Corp. and the United Auto Workers have agreed to a new restructuring plan that would give the union a significantly smaller stake in the company than previously envisioned, and leave the U.S. government owning as much as 70% of the car maker.

....The union — concerned about the GMs prospects — sought the lower stake in exchange for preferred shares that provide annual income as well as a $2.5 billion note from GM, said people familiar with the situation.

I know this is only "temporary."  I know that the followon problems from a collapse of GM might be devastating.  Maybe we have to do this.  Maybe there's no choice.  But I sure don't like it.

Banks are one thing. They're systemically important in a way no other industry is.  When they go broke the government has to either arrange a fire sale or else take them over.  But owning a car company?  Especially one that's in such bad shape that there's a good chance we'll never be able to re-privatize it?  Which means that we'll probably keep it on life support forever because it's politically impossible to shut it down?  Jesus.  This whole deal just keeps getting worse and worse.

Healthcare and Me (And You)

| Tue May 26, 2009 9:20 PM EDT

Over at the Washington Monthly, Jonathan Gruber writes that universal healthcare would create more fluid job markets and spur entrepreneurship:

The main reason for this is a phenomenon known as "job lock," a term coined during the last round of debate over universal health coverage in the early 1990s. Job lock refers to the fact that workers are often unwilling to leave a current job that provides health insurance for another position that might not, even if they would be more productive in that other position. This is because employer-provided insurance is traditionally the only reliable form of fairly priced private insurance coverage available in the U.S.

....[Alison] Wellington estimates that universal health care would therefore likely increase the share of workers who are self-employed (currently about 10 percent of the workforce) by another 2 percent or more. A system that provides universal access to health insurance coverage, then, is far more likely to promote entrepreneurship than one in which would-be innovators remain tied to corporate cubicles for fear of losing their family’s access to affordable health care.

That's true.  Take me.  Suppose I wanted to quit my job and write a book.  The first step would be for me to have a book in mind that I wanted to write — which, unfortunately, I don't.  But say I did.  Would I leave MoJo to do it?

Probably not.  I've never shopped around for an individual healthcare policy, but my guess is that despite my general good health, I'd get turned down simply for being over 50 and having high cholesterol.  And without health insurance, I really couldn't afford the risk of being self-employed.

It's true that this is a moot point until I have a burning desire to spend full time writing a book, but you never know.  Maybe someday I will.  It doesn't matter, though, because that book will probably stay unwritten no matter how good it might be, since I'd have to give up my health coverage to write it.  Pretty stupid system we have, isn't it?

Gay Marriage in California

| Tue May 26, 2009 2:19 PM EDT

The latest on Prop 8 from the LA Times:

The California Supreme Court today upheld Proposition 8's ban on same-sex marriage but also ruled that gay couples who wed before the election will continue to be married under state law.

....Although the court split 6-1 on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the justices were unanimous in deciding to keep intact the marriages of as many as 18,000 gay couples who exchanged vows before the election. The marriages began last June, after a 4-3 state high court ruling striking down the marriage ban last May.

This doesn't surprise me on either count.  The argument that Prop 8 was a constitutional "revision" requiring a two-thirds vote, not a constitutional amendment requiring a majority vote, never seemed legally defensible.  At the same time, all the marriages performed prior to Prop 8 were as legal as church on Sunday.  I don't know if even an initiative could retroactively annul them, but at the very least it would need to do so specifically and directly, which Prop 8 didn't.

But it might soon be moot anyway.  Prop 8 passed by only a bare majority, and public sentiment is continuing to change.  An initiative to legalize gay marriage might well pass in 2010, and if it doesn't it certainly will by 2012 or 2014 at the latest.  Time is on the side of the good guys.

Waiting for the Meltdown

| Tue May 26, 2009 12:57 PM EDT

Leaving aside Jonah Goldberg's contention that Sonia Sotomayor is "the most left-leaning Hispanic possible/confirmable" Supreme Court nomination, this actually strikes me as an interesting point:

If Obama picked a centrist, opposition would have been principled, but pro-forma. By picking Sotomayor, conservatives will no doubt demand full-throated opposition, which plays perfectly to Obama's purposes (so long as he doesn't dump Sotomayor for some, any, reason). I don't think this was the key factor in his decision, but you can be sure the White House will love casting conservative opposition in those terms.

I also doubt that this was a key factor, but it wouldn't surprise me if a few people in the West Wing did indeed figure that this was a nice bonus.  The wingnut wing of the Republican Party seems hugely energized by Sotomayor's nomination and ready to go ballistic over it.  This might be good for them in the short term (it's a nice fundraising opportunity, brings internal factions together, etc.), but Obama, as usual, is looking a few moves ahead and understands that a shrieking meltdown from the usual suspects will mostly help the liberal cause: the American public already thinks the conservative rump running the Republican Party is crazy, after all, and this will help cast that feeling in stone.  Most normal people think empathy is a good thing, not a code word for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

And Obama?  He gets to be the calm at the center of the storm, providing his usual striking contrast to the seething stew of preachers, radio screamers, and Gingrich acolytes who will be making themselves ever more tiresome to Mr. and Mrs. Heartland with their ranting jeremiads.  I don't blame conservatives for opposing Sotomayor even though they know that she'd only be replaced by someone equally liberal if they did somehow manage to derail her (liberals did the same with Roberts and Alito, after all), but if they're smart they'll realize that the usual shriekfest is playing right into Obama's hands.

But they're not smart, are they?

North Korea

| Tue May 26, 2009 11:45 AM EDT

Dan Drezner remarks on the DPRK's recent nuclear test:

I think the Obama administration has come up with a novel way of dealing with the North Koreans — get everyone to talk about something else.

That is novel — at least compared to the nonsense normally spewed by the Bush administration every time Kim Jong-il decided to yank their chains.  And in any case, if meaningless bluster isn't your thing, there aren't a whole lot of choices available:

The alternatives to the repeated short-term carrot strategy are even less appealing.  There is no viable military option unless everyone is comfortable with the destruction of Seoul; there is no viable sanctions option unless China decides to cut off the energy tap, and they'll only do this if they're sure it won't lead to a stream of North Korea refugees entering Manchuria.

In other words, there's really not a lot we can do about this unless China, against all odds, (a) finally tires of Pyongyang's antics, (b) beefs up its suprisingly porous border with North Korea, and (c) decides to cut off aid.  There's some evidence of (a), but not much for anything else.

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The Sotomayor Nomination

| Tue May 26, 2009 10:55 AM EDT

Jack Balkin thinks that Barack Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is likely to go smoothly:

Senators are just as aware of the politics of appointments as Obama is.  Obama will likely need one or two Republicans to avoid any threat of a fillibuster; a candidate who appeals to important constituencies that Republicans also need will be harder to oppose and can help provide the 60th vote. Also helpful may be the fact that Sotomayor was first appointed to the bench by a Republican and is being positioned as a moderate or pragmatic liberal. In this respect, the careful positioning of Sotomayor as not the most liberal candidate Obama was considering helps to make her confirmation easier and also helps establish Obama's own image as a non-doctrinaire pragmatist.

But if you prefer to be prepared for the worst, Tom Goldstein at ScotusBlog outlines the most likely lines of attack against her:

Opponents’ first claim — likely stated obliquely and only on background — will be that Judge Sotomayor is not smart enough for the job....The second claim – and this one will be front and center – will be the classic resort to ideology:  that Judge Sotomayor is a liberal ideologue and “judicial activist.”....The third claim — related to the second — will be that Judge Sotomayor is unprincipled or dismissive of positions with which she disagrees....Finally, critics will characterize her as gruff and impersonable, relying on excerpts from oral arguments and anonymous criticisms in the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary.

There's more at both links.  In the end, I don't think Sotomayor will have any real trouble winning confirmation.

Friday Cat Blogging - 22 May 2009

| Fri May 22, 2009 3:13 PM EDT

This week we have file photos.  The picture of Domino on the left was taken right after the Showdown on the Stairway™ that I featured here last week.  The picture of Inkblot on the right was part of the 10th birthday series of studio portraits that I took a couple of weeks ago.  (Note: "studio" = backyard.)  But hey — they're both good pictures, so why waste them?

Have a nice Memorial Day weekend, everyone.  Don't forget to give your pets an extra treat on Monday.

A Taxonomy of Consumer Credit

| Fri May 22, 2009 2:52 PM EDT

Are credit cards, generally, good things?  Steve Waldman says we have to distinguish between two benefits they provide.  The first is transactional credit, which is simply the convenience of using a card to buy stuff instead of hauling around cash or checks.  This type of credit gets paid off every month.  The second is revolving credit, which is when you deliberately buy more than you can afford with the intention of paying off the charges over time.  It's essentially a preapproved loan available anytime you have an emergency — or merely an irresistable urge to buy a pair of shoes you don't happen to have the money for right now.

Steve is right that transactional credit is basically beneficial, while revolving credit isn't.  In moderation it's fine, but human nature being what it is, it's often not used in moderation, which suggests it might be a good idea to limit its availability.  I'm tentatively on board with this so far, but then things go off the rails:

In fact, while transactional credit provision is a perfectly good business, it might be reasonable for the state to offer basic transactional credit as a public good. This would be very simple to do. Every adult would be offered a Treasury Express card, which would have, say, a $1000 limit. Balances would be payable in full monthly. The only penalty for nonpayment would be denial of access of further credit, both by the government and by private creditors. (Private creditors would be expected to inquire whether a person is in arrears on their public card when making credit decisions, but would not be permitted to obtain or retain historical information. Nonpayment of public advances would not constitute default, but the exercise of an explicit forbearance option in exchange for denial of further credit.) Unpaid balances would be forgiven automatically after a period of five years. No interest would ever be charged.

Let's think about how this would work. For most people, access to various forms credit — transactional credit, auto and home loans, unsecured revolving credit, whatever — is worth more than $200 per year. Although people might occasionally fall behind, for the most part borrowers would pay off their government cards, simply because convenient participation in the economy is worth more than a once-in-five-years $1K windfall. However, people with no savings and irregular income (for whom transactional credit is a misnomer, since they haven't the capacity to pay) might well take the money and run. The terms of the deal amount to a very small transfer program to the marginal and disorganized, and a ubiquitous form of currency for everyone else. People with higher incomes would want more transactional credit, or revolving credit, which they would acquire from the private sector.

I don't really get this.  We already have "Treasury Express" cards: this is basically what debit cards are, and they provide the same benefits of transactional credit that regular Visas or Mastercards do.  Why do we need the government for that?

That leaves us with the problem of limiting revolving credit, which is the same problem we have now.  Do we need firmer rules on interest rates, fees, and penalties?  Better bankruptcy protection?  Bans on things like universal default?  An end to tricks and gimmicks and fine-print-laden marketing come-ons?  More sensible ways of setting credit limits?  Maybe.  Probably.  But unless Steve is suggesting that we essentially ban credit cards entirely — and then create some kind of federal mega-authority to limit every other kind of consumer credit too — those are all the same issues we have now.  I'm not really sure what his proposal would accomplish.

Paying for College

| Fri May 22, 2009 1:18 PM EDT

Robert Reich points out today that the average college graduate today has to repay $22,000 in student loans, a number that's like to continue skyrocketing as university costs go up and state funding goes down.  This forces a lot of grads to shun good works and instead head straight to the highest paying job they can find:

So here's my proposal: Any college student can get full funding from the government, with only one string attached. Once they've graduated and are in the work force, they pay 10 percent of their incomes for the first 10 years of full-time work into the same government fund they drew on to finance their college education.

Now maybe that formula will need to be adjusted up or down to cover all the costs. And surely some people will game the system as they do every other one. But the essential idea is that linking the costs of college to subsequent wages makes college affordable to everyone.

I kind of like this idea.  Maybe instead of a flat percentage it's a sliding scale that starts at 2% and goes up to 20% to take account of rising salaries as grads gain job experience.  Or something.  Sure, you could still game the system, but you'd have to pretty damn dedicated to avoid a job initially because of a measly 2% charge and then keep it up for ten years.

The counterargument, of course, is that college is valuable.  It generally attracts people who already have a lot of advantages, and then provides them with a degree that enhances their earning power even more.  Why should they be subsidized at all?

It's a compelling argument.  In the end, though, I think society benefits from attracting as many kids into college as possible.  I'm no fan of the proposition that we should try to send everyone to college, but I do think we benefit by making it as attractive as possible to the largest feasible set of students who can take advantage it.  Keeping the cost manageable is part of that.