Kevin Drum

Cheney's Interview with the Feds

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 2:39 PM EDT

I've been unhappy about the Obama administration's embrace of several Bush-era secrecy rules, but I'm on the fence about the latest one.  David Corn reports that they're continuing to fight the release of Dick Cheney's interview with the FBI in the Valerie Plame case:

On Wednesday night, in another move that puts the administration on the side of secrecy over openness, Obama's Justice Department filed a memo supporting its ongoing opposition to a lawsuit requesting the release of the Cheney interview. This memo included a declaration from Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who said that if the Cheney interview is made public it could cause public officials in the future to not cooperate with criminal investigations.

I guess what I'm unclear about here is the distinction, if there is one, between an ordinary FBI interview and one with a high-ranking politico.  Just speaking generally, it strikes me that it's genuinely in the public interest for interviews like these to be kept private unless they lead to criminal prosecutions.  Lots of people really would would be less forthcoming during FBI investigations if they knew their interviews might become public, so it's reasonable that the default position should be that they stay confidential.  That's certainly how I'd want things to stand if I were dishing dirt to the FBI.

Now, perhaps things should be different for non-ordinary people like vice presidents.  But I don't know if that's part of the legal argument here or not.  Are there any law bloggers out there who can step in and explain what's going on here?

UPDATE : Jeralyn Merritt points out that FBI interviews are also kept private in order to protect the names and reputations of the innocent, those who don't get indicted:

Even though this isn't a grand jury secrecy case, I think in order to protect the privacy and reputation of those who are mentioned or discussed by the subject of a law enforcement interview, the reports of these interviews, untested by cross-examination, should remain in government hands and not subject to release via a FOIA request.

....The same rule should apply to Cheney as to everyone else. In my view, the Congressional Committee had a right to the documents since they are federal officials investigating a matter related to the subject matter of the grand jury's Valerie Plame leak investigation. But CREW and the public don't. It's too bad that Dick Cheney is the one who wins if the material is not released to CREW and the public, but I'd rather have that than a precedent that allows reports of law enforcement interviews of the average citizen who ultimately is not indicted, and who may have slandered Tom, Dick and Mary during their interview, subject to public disclosure.

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How Long in Afghanistan?

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 1:54 PM EDT

I haven't been keeping close tabs on the details of our mission in Afghanistan lately, but Steve Hynd mentions something today that's interesting.  Back in March, Barack Obama said we would be focused primarily on counterterrorism — killing bad guys — but now that's changed.  Without really announcing anything, the mission is now apparently focused on counterinsurgency and nation building:

Counter-insurgency "clear, hold and build" has entirely taken over from counter-terrorism "hunt, kill and disupt". That might be the right thing to do — although I have my doubts — but the point is that it wasn't what Obama said would happen and government policy has radically shifted in favor of an interventionist, long-war, nation-building policy straight from the military and the folks at CNAS without any official announcement or very much public debate. In fact, it's almost as if Obama himself hasn't been told.

I don't have anything much to say about this, and it might even be that Steve is drawing too strong a conclusion from a couple of hazy data points.  I'm not sure. But it seemed worth sharing.  Just how long is Obama planning on staying in Afghanistan, I wonder?

Outrage Blogging

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 1:17 PM EDT

Via McMegan, Laura at 11D has a very good post about the evolution of the blogosphere over the past few years.  In particular, she mentions something I've noticed too:

3. Norms and practices. Bloggers have undermined the blogosphere. Bloggers do not link to each other as much as they used to.  It's a lot of work to look for good posts elsewhere and most bloggers became burnt out. Drezner and Farrell had a theory that even small potato bloggers would have their day in the sun, if they wrote something so great that it garnered the attention of the big guys. But the big guys are too burnt out to find the hidden gems. So, good stuff is being written all the time, and it isn't bubbling to the top.

I write as much as I ever have, but in my posts I link more to news sources and less to other bloggers than I used to.  I'm not sure why.  Part of it might be related to another evolution I've noticed: the political blogosphere increasingly seems to latch on to four or five outrages of the day that suck up most of its attention.  It seems like every blog I read posts about the same few political nano-scandals every day, and since I mostly find this stuff kind of boring I don't link to it very much.

I don't know for sure if that's a real trend or not.  My memory is famously fuzzy and I have a hard time really remembering what things were like four years ago compared to today.  But whatever the case, the end result is less engagement with other bloggers and less conversational tone to the blogosphere.  That may or may not be entirely a bad thing, but I kind of miss it.

Chart of the Day

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 12:48 PM EDT

From Calculated Risk, here's a chart incorporating today's bad unemployment news.  We're now clearly in the worst slump since the Great Depression, and by far the worst slump in the past 50 years.  And if that's still not bad enough news for you, keep in mind that we're in good shape compared to Europe and China.  If and when another shoe drops (ARM resets? Eastern European defaults? a big bank collapse? an oil price spike?), it could be 2008 all over again.

On the bright side, the Wall Street Journal reports that banker pay has rebounded and is now back up to bubblicious 2007 levels.  It's good to see that not everyone is suffering.

California Night Sweatin'

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 11:59 AM EDT

Just for the record, since I get asked this a lot: the reason I'm not writing about the California budget mess, even though I live in California, is because I just can't stand to.  Sorry.  If you ever thought there was a group of lawmakers who could make the U.S. Congress look like a sober, highminded deliberative body, the clowns in Sacramento are them.

In case you're interested, here's the latest.  No budget agreement is on the horizon, but on June 29 Dems tried to pass a bill that would have saved a bit of money.  It was a technical measure related to how education money is distributed via Proposition 98, but the bottom line is that it would have saved the state about $3 billion. It had to be passed before June 30 or not at all, but Arnold Schwarzennegger flatly refused to consider it.  Why?  Who knows.  No "piecemeal" budgeting, he says.  He wants an entire budget all at once that slashes $24 billion without increasing taxes so much as a dime, or nothing at all.  Why?  Again, who knows?  It's like trying to figure out a five year old.

So, anyway, our gargantuan budget deficit, much of it caused by almost lunatic irresponsibility on Schwarzenegger's part in the first place, is now about $3 billion higher because of further lunatic irresponsibility on Schwarzenegger's part.  And while Dems may not exactly be heroes in this mess, at least they're doing something.  Proposing things.  Trying to keep the state from resorting to IOUs for blind people.  Hoping to do something to prevent our credit rating from going down the toilet, making our budget problem even worse.  Something.  Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger has no plans at all, and the sullen Republican rump in the Senate and Assembly just sits around and votes no on everything.  No proposals, no ideas, no nothing.  Just no, no, no.

Like I said, it makes Washington DC look like the second coming of Periclean Athens.  Depressing.  But if you really want to know more — and you're a stronger man than me — check out the fine folks at Calitics.  They'll keep you up to speed.

Good News on Healthcare

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 11:20 AM EDT

When Republicans passed the Medicare prescription drug bill in 2003, they didn't really need to worry much about how to finance it.  Their plan was straightforward: first, have the administration lie repeatedly about the cost of the bill and make sure Congress never knew about it.  Second, don't worry about financing it anyway.  Just blow another hole in the deficit and move on.

Democrats, bless their goo-goo little hearts, are doing their best to actually pay for their healthcare reform project.  That would make things hard enough, but unfortunately, they're making things even more difficult for themselves via some fairly stunning incompetence at getting cost estimates out of the CBO.  In turn, Republicans are twisting the CBO estimates to make them look even worse than they are.  This isn't especially highminded of them, but hey — politics ain't beanbag, and Dems know how the CBO scoring process works as well as anyone.

Anyway, today we have new cost estimates.  Sort of.  To get them, though, you have to paste together several items.  Ezra Klein tries to explain:

The short version is this: CBO estimates that by 2019 the bill will cover 21 million people at a cost of $597 billion. But — and this is important — the HELP Committee's bill doesn't include the Medicaid expansion, because Medicaid is under the sole jurisdiction of the Finance Committee. But if Medicaid is expanded to 150 percent, it will cover an additional 20 million at a cost of about $1 trillion. Add in the savings that Finance is expected to get from reforming Medicare and you're looking at a bill that will cost $1 trillion to $1.3 trillion and cover 42 million people (which would mean 97 percent of the legal population in 2019 would have health insurance) by 2019.

The headlines will still probably get this wrong because it requires putting together several different numbers.  And Republicans will undoubtedly try to twist the numbers to their advantage — which is exactly what you expect an opposition party to do.  Democrats have really made a hash out of these competing estimates, leaving themselves open to all sorts of attacks they wouldn't have to put up with if they'd produced some reasonably clean bills for CBO to score.

But anyway, this is where we're at now.  The difference between this estimate and the previous ones appears to come mostly from the addition of an employer mandate, and covering 97% of the population for a little over $100 billion per year is probably quite doable if this is where things stay.  Add a strong public option and the cost might even come down some more.

Read the whole post for more, and read Jon Cohn for a different take on the same numbers.  It's too bad it's taken so long to get here, but it's basically good news.

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Housekeeping Note

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 1:22 AM EDT

Quick note.  Two or three times a week our resident MoJo editor and politics junkie Laura McClure drops by with a post called MoJo Mix.  The idea is to highlight a few good items on our other blogs — MoJo, Blue Marble, and The Riff — that the politics junkies here might be interested in reading too.  It's worth checking out.

More Sweetheart Deals

| Wed Jul. 1, 2009 9:14 PM EDT

Back in October, when we started bailing out banks with TARP funds, the Treasury received warrants from each bank in return for their investment.  Several of these banks have now paid back the TARP money, but what about the warrants?  While I was on vacation the Treasury announced its plan for selling the warrants back:

The Treasury Department said the banks will make the first offer for the warrants. Treasury will then decide to sell at that price or make a counteroffer. If the government and a bank cannot agree on a fair price for the warrants, the two sides will have the right to use private appraisers.

This is ridiculous.  This isn't like the toxic waste on bank balance sheets that can't be sold because it's impossible to value.  If you want to know how much the warrants are worth, just offer them to the highest bidder.  Simon Johnson has it right: "The only sensible way to dispose of these options is for Treasury to set a floor price, and then hold an auction that permits anyone to buy any part — e.g., people could submit sealed bids and the highest price wins."

If the Obama administration wants us to believe that it's not entirely in thrall to the banking industry, it needs to stop offering absurd sweetheart deals like this to banks that already received sweetheart deals in the original TARP bailout — and are continuing to benefit from trillions of dollars in various Fed support programs and liquidity guarantees.  Just auction the damn warrants.

Is Waxman-Markey Worth It?

| Wed Jul. 1, 2009 2:03 PM EDT

I've got a bit of a ramble teed up on climate change and the Waxman-Markey bill, which unfortunately means that my conclusion is going to be buried at the end of a long post.  So if that's all you want to read, feel free to skip down to the last two paragraphs.  The rest is just throat clearing.

Still here?  Then here's the ramble.  Over the past couple of weeks there's been a lot of blogospheric chatter surrounding a cost-benefit analysis of Waxman-Markey done by Jim Manzi.  I'm not going to link to the dozens of posts going back and forth about it, but suffice it to say that Manzi concludes that W-M isn't a good deal.  Over the next century, it's going to cost us more in lost economic growth than it will benefit us in reduced global warming.

I didn't get involved in this conversation for a simple reason: I've been on both the producing and receiving end of too many cost benefit analyses to trust them.  If you're being relatively honest and if you're dealing with fairly concrete, short-term issues, they're useful tools, but even then it's still the case that you can manufacture strikingly divergent conclusions by manipulating your assumptions and inputs by surprisingly small amounts.  Cost-benefits usually look like they're grounded in hardheaded thinking simply because they're numerically based, but quite often they're nothing of the kind.

And that's in the best case.  Climate change is far worse.  Not only are we decidedly not talking about concrete, short-term issues, but there's a huge asymmetry in what we can say about the cost side and the benefit side of fighting global warming.

On the one hand, you have the actual science of climate change.  And although climate models are enormously complex and subject to considerable uncertainty, they're fundamentally based on physics, chemistry, and thermodynamics.  We know how much CO2 we're pumping into the atmosphere and we can project with pretty good confidence how much that's going to increase over the next century if we do nothing to stop it.  We know how the greenhouse effect works, we have pretty good historical records of how CO2 concentration correlates with global temperatures, and we have a pretty good sense of the feedback loops involved in things like melting icecaps and saturation of the ocean sinks.  Basically, our level of uncertainty is within tolerable bounds here.  And what we know is that if we do nothing, global temps are absolutely certain to rise 2°C over the next century, fairly likely to rise by 4-5°C, and at least somewhat likely to rise by 6-7°C.  The lower number would be bad but, just possibly, manageable.  You could at least make an arguable case, as Manzi does, that the cost of preventing an additional 2°C is higher than it's worth.  The two bigger numbers, however, would be catastrophic.  Unfortunately, the science increasingly suggests that these higher numbers are considerably more likely than we thought even a few years ago, and any serious cost-benefit analysis needs to address that.  Using only the lower number avoids tackling the real problem we're up against.

So that's the climate analysis in a nutshell.  On the opposite hand you have the economic analysis.  And that's simply hopeless.  An economic analysis that goes even ten or twenty years into the future is as much guesswork as anything else.  One that goes a hundred years into the future is just voodoo.  It looks like economics, but you might as well be throwing darts.  Compounded over a century, even minuscule changes in assumptions and operating parameters produce enormous changes in your conclusions, and the result is that you end up deep in the weeds arguing over tiny differences in those assumptions instead of simply admitting that they're flatly impossible to forecast.  That's good for slowing down the debate, but not much else.

(For a couple of more detailed versions of this argument, see Dave Roberts here and Patrick Appel here.)

So where we stand is fairly simple: we have a pretty good idea of what climate change is going to do to the planet, and we have a pretty good idea that there's at least a reasonable chance that the results are going to be catastrophic (and much more catastrophic for some than for others).  However, we don't have a good idea of the economic impacts of addressing climate change, and we never will.  The problem is simply too nonlinear and too long-term to be analyzable, especially when the differences between high-end and low-end projections are on the order of two or three percent.  When it comes to climate change, cost-benefit on anything other than a very broad scale is a mug's game.

Still, let's grant several things.  First, Waxman-Markey is a kludge of a bill.  It's possible that its cost-benefit is negative, and it's almost certain that, by itself, its cost benefit is quite small even if it is positive.  Second, W-M's carbon caps by themselves will probably have only a tiny effect on rising temperatures.  Third, global warming is a hopeless problem if we don't get the rest of the world to address it too.  If China and India and the rest of the developing world don't play along, nothing the U.S. and Europe do by themselves will be enough to halt it.

That's all true.  So why support Waxman-Markey?  There are all sorts of reasons.  For one thing, it's a good start.  Also: it may be hard to persuade other countries to join us, but it will be impossible if we aren't willing to do something ourselves.  And although the cap-and-trade piece of the bill starts out weak, at least it puts in place the administrative framework we'll need down the road if and when we work up the will to address climate change more seriously.

But here's what I think is the overriding reason to support W-M despite its flaws: even if it's weak, and even if the rest of the world doesn't join in immediately, it starts to align incentives in the United States in favor of inventing and deploying green technologies.  (Ditto for the ETS cap-and-trade system in Europe.)  And that's critically important: it's in the advanced economies of the world that new green technologies will be invented.  And it's in the advanced economies of the world that existing green technologies will be proven to work on a wide scale.  Once that happens — once the technologies are proven and economies of scale start to bring down their costs — the rest of the world will start to adopt them too.  W-M, in its final form, may not be a strong bill, but by raising the price of carbon even a little bit, it makes the development and deployment of green tech far more likely in the United States, and therefore, far more likely on a global basis too.

And that's critically important.  Conservation and efficiency and cutting back are all necessary parts of addressing climate change, but human nature being what it is, that's never going to be enough.  We're going to have to invent entire new technologies as well.  W-M makes that more likely, and that's why it needs to be passed.  Warts and all.

What's Next for South Carolina?

| Wed Jul. 1, 2009 12:19 PM EDT

As Mark Sanford's increasingly bizarre effort to turn the South Carolina governor's office into an extension of the Oprah Winfrey show barrels toward its seemingly inevitable conclusion, the Washington Post introduces us to André Bauer, the lieutenant governor who will take over if Sanford resigns:

Bauer, 40, has made a career of running against South Carolina's establishment — and winning. Elected to the state legislature at age 26, he became known as an ambitious politician, rising quickly and winning the state's No. 2 position in 2002.

Yet as lieutenant governor, he has become known as much for his personal behavior as for his political record. In 2003, he was charged with driving 60 mph and running two red lights in downtown Columbia. When pulled over, Bauer was so aggressive that a police officer pulled a gun on him.

In 2006, Bauer was stopped by a state trooper who clocked him driving 101 mph on an interstate highway. He used his state-issued radio to tell the officer he was "S.C. 2" — the code for lieutenant governor — and was not ticketed. Then, weeks later, Bauer was injured when the single-engine airplane he was piloting crashed and burned.

....Over the years, Bauer's romantic life has stirred rumors, the latest bubbling up in recent days. In an interview Monday with the State, a Columbia newspaper, Bauer voluntarily brought up the subject of his sexual orientation. "Is André Bauer gay? That is now the story," the lieutenant governor was quoted as saying, adding his answer: "One word, two letters. 'No.' Let's go ahead and dispel that now."

I live in California, so I can hardly throw stones at another state's dysfunctional politics.  But I can still throw pebbles.  The Palmetto State really knows how to pick 'em, doesn't it?