Negative Interest

Link roundup

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– Spencer Ackerman: Iranian Cult Is No Longer Officially a Terrorist Group

– Owen Bennett-Jones: Our New Iran Plan Is to Help a Cult Gain Power. What Could Go Wrong?

– Jared Bernstein: Me, Chuck, and Poverty Policy

– Rajiv Chandrasekaran: The Afghan Surge Is Over

– Steve Coll: Days of Rage

– Helen Cooper and Robert Worth: In Arab Spring, Obama Finds a Harsh Test

– Daniel Larison: The Mistaken Decision to De-List the MEK

– Scott Lemieux: Should We Long For The Good Old Days Of The Alien And Sedition Acts?

– Paul Pillar: Unavoidable Ugliness in Afghanistan


Written by negativeinterest

September 27, 2012 at 4:42 am

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Drone strikes and bipartisan apathy

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Kevin Drum comments on a sobering new Stanford/NYU report on the effects of drone attacks:

The most depressing part of all this is that you can’t just blame this on one guy, and hope that it might change once he’s out of office. Bush started it, and Obama has ramped it up. What’s more, there’s no partisan pushback at all. To repeat something I said last year, Republicans are in favor of anything that kills more bad guys, regardless of collateral damage, and Democrats are unwilling to make trouble for a president of their own party. Put those two things together, and drones have become stealth weapons both politically and technologically. Everybody is in favor of them.

It’s impossible to deny that partisanship plays a large role in shaping public opinion on this issue, but I don’t think Democrats being unwilling to make trouble for a Democratic president is the only dynamic at play here. Certainly they are more inclined to support their president’s policies, but I think there is a simpler reason why drones have broad bipartisan support. Republicans like killing bad guys and Democrats like killing bad guys too.

The Democratic Party was never a broad anti-war coalition, even during the height of the Iraq debacle. The general position was that one of many reasons why Iraq was such a disaster was that it was diverting energy and resources away from al-Qaeda. It’s not as though Democrats were opposed to targeting al-Qaeda under Bush and suddenly swung the other way under Obama. Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network made a few good points in an interview with David Shuster earlier this year – Americans are weary about land wars and drone strikes may seem like a better alternative than trying to fight terror groups with troops on the ground. Drones provide us with comfort that we are killing our enemies without the messiness of land warfare, and we aren’t exposed to many of the realities of drone warfare.

Additionally, it’s tough to be a high information voter on drone strikes. As Hurlburt points out, not only is there a large amount of secrecy surrounding the program, but it’s a new technology that has no real precedent and ambiguous long term consequences. This study is an important step, but a tiny fraction of the population is going to be exposed to Living With Drones. We see the headlines about dead terrorists without the images of war that brought the scenes in Iraq home to the United States. There is a broad consensus that killing more terrorists is a good thing and starting more land wars is maybe not such a good thing.

All of this is not to discount the role of partisanship in public opinion about drone strikes and other national security issues. Indeed, the amount that Americans trust in the federal government’s ability to handle international problems has clearly partisan swings. But it’s not the only thing determining the lack of outcry towards drone strikes.

Written by negativeinterest

September 27, 2012 at 12:02 am

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“Perhaps” Glenn Kessler should attempt some journalism

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Glenn Kessler:

There is no doubt that McConnell said he wanted to make Obama a one-term president. But he did not say it at the start of Obama’s term; instead, he made his comments at the midpoint, after Obama had enacted many of his preferred policies.

Perhaps, in Obama’s memory, McConnell was always uncooperative. But that does not give him and other Democrats the license to rearrange the chronology to suit the party’s talking points.

Michael Grunwald:

At the retreat, McConnell reminded the Republican senators that there were still enough of them to block the Democratic agenda – as long as they all marched in lockstep…Politically, they had nothing to gain from me-too-ism.

McConnell recognized that Obama’s promises of bipartisanship gave his dwindling minority real leverage. Whenever Republicans decided not to cooperate, Obama would be the one breaking his promises…”We thought – correctly, I think – that the only way the American people would know a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan,” McConnell explain later in one of his periodic outbreaks of candor. “When you hang the ‘bipartisan’ tag on something, the perception is that the differences had been worked out.”

Maybe Obama had rewritten the rules of electoral politics, but the rules of Washington politics still applied. The dream of hope and change was about to enter the world of cloture votes and motions to commit. That was McConnell’s world.

That retreat took place in early January 2009, before Obama took office. At the House retreat around the same time, Pete Sessions delivered this message to his colleagues:

The team’s goal would not be promoting Republican policies, or stopping Democratic policies, or even making Democratic bills less offensive to Republicans. Its goal would be taking the gavel back from Speaker Pelosi.

“That is the entire Conference’s Mission,” Sessions wrote.

Kessler doesn’t bother trying to find out if Mitch McConnell and his Republican colleagues were actually being uncooperative from the start of Obama’s term – perhaps he was, if only in Obama’s memory.

So yes, Kessler is correct about the quote’s timeline. But to suggest that there is some ambiguity about Mitch McConnell’s commitment to cooperation from January 2009 on or to not even bother making a cursory examination is just unspeakably lazy journalism.

Written by negativeinterest

September 26, 2012 at 4:12 am

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  • The full Planet Money debate on infrastructure between Robert Frank and Russ Roberts has been posted as the latest EconTalk. Even going in with the expectation that I was going to disagree with Roberts more than I would agree with him, I was shocked by the weakness of his arguments. He attacked straw men (we shouldn’t spend more money on infrastructure because San Francisco doesn’t need a second Golden Gate Bridge?) and didn’t really answer Frank’s most effective points. At one point he agreed that spending money to repair bridges and roads is worthwhile, but he also said that the federal government shouldn’t spend money to fund these projects because if they would have been funded already if they were really worthwhile projects. And the most persuasive Frank point, that our borrowing costs are as low as they will ever be and that spending money today can save money in the future (because repairing an aging bridge might cost us $6 million today, but repairing a collapsed bridge 20 years from now might cost $30 billion) basically went unchallenged. I’m scoring this one for Frank; more from him on road repair here.
  • Tim Duy comments on this Josh Lehner piece comparing the current recovery to past recoveries from financial crises. Duy notes that the work of Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart on the difficulty of post-financial crisis recovery has been used as an excuse for inaction by policymakers when it should have been seen as a demand for more forceful action. I think this gets it exactly right, and I also think that the appeal of the structural unemployment theory is that it offers a similar excuse. It allows policymakers to say that they did everything that could be done, and the rest is the fault of the nature of the crisis or workers with mismatched skills.
  • Laura D’Andrea Tyson writes about income inequality and educational opportunity. The key part: “The United States is caught in a vicious cycle largely of its own making. Rising income inequality is breeding more inequality in educational opportunity, which results in greater inequality in educational attainment. That, in turn, undermines the intergenerational mobility upon which Americans have always prided themselves and perpetuates income inequality from generation to generation. This dynamic all but guarantees a permanent underclass.”
  • Jared Bernstein highlights new studies by Owen Zidar and the Economic Policy Institute on the high end tax cuts. The bottom line: they are ineffective stimulus and the fears about repeal don’t match up with the data.

Written by negativeinterest

September 24, 2012 at 11:50 pm

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An unconvincing President Romney counterfactual

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Luigi Zingales, a generally respectable economist to the best of my knowledge, has a new piece at Bloomberg View arguing that the country would have been better off for the past four years had Mitt Romney been president. Perhaps some people will find his case convincing, but it didn’t convince me of much beyond the limitations of Mr. Zingales’ imagination.

His counterfactual rests on four areas. True to the form of the man he supports for president, Zingales’s examples are short on detail and long on empty rhetoric.

On health care, he criticizes the Obama administration for passing a law that was not fully implemented immediately. “Even if you are a hard-core supporter of health-care reform,” he argues, “you have to concede that the new law didn’t have any positive impact in the past four years, and might have had some negative ones.” This particular supporter of health care reform disagrees with this assessment; this timeline disagrees in far more detail. When Zingales writes that “[a]ll the good changes advertised by the Obama administration will take place only after this year’s election,” he apparently does not count the extension of dependent coverage to age 26 that has led to a 40% drop in young adults’ uninsured rate as a good change advertised by the Obama administration. The White House disagrees.

What would Romney do differently on health care? If you said that he would “try to fix problems” and “not advance…an ideology,” you apparently possess deep insight worthy of a Bloomberg editorial. His evidence that Barack Obama has governed like an ideologue is that Obama kept a campaign promise to pass a health care reform bill. Apparently the high costs, low coverage, and poor quality of the United States health care system did not represent a problem worth fixing. Apparently abandoning the biggest policy priority of your party is the sign of a successful president. I’ll give Zingales one thing: Mitt Romney would not govern the country to advance an ideology, because he has no ideology to advance.

On unemployment, Zingales is again upset that Obama decided to advance legislation that fulfilled his campaign promises. Instead of focusing solely on temporary tax cuts as stimulus, he “used the crisis as an opportunity to expand government spending in sectors dear to him, such as green energy, construction and education.” Instead of promoting stimulus projects that would also act as a long term solution to the country’s energy, infrastructure, and education problems,  Zingales argues that Romney would have simply passed a payroll tax cut and a temporary sales tax rebate. In forty years I will drive my electric car to the high speed rail station, bitterly weeping about the temporary sales tax rebated that got away. Though he doesn’t quite say it, he implies that Mitt Romney would not do something as foolish as fulfilling his campaign promises once elected. Here I can join with Zingales in agreeing that that would be a good thing.

On the auto bailout, he suggests that the comparison that Obama saved the automakers while Romney would have let them go bankrupt is “disingenuous.” He argues that it is disingenuous because “[b]ankruptcy is not liquidation” and American Airlines and United Airlines are still flying. He does not actually address the topic of liquidation; for this, I will turn to Steve Rattner, former “auto czar” in the Treasury:

As a presidential aspirant, Mr. Romney evidently hasn’t felt a need to be consistent or specific as to what should have been done to address the collapse of the auto industry starting in late 2008. But the gist is that the government should have stayed on the sidelines and allowed the companies to go through what he calls “managed bankruptcies,” financed by private capital.

That sounds like a wonderfully sensible approach — except that it’s utter fantasy. In late 2008 and early 2009, when G.M. and Chrysler had exhausted their liquidity, every scrap of private capital had fled to the sidelines.

I know this because the administration’s auto task force, for which I was the lead adviser, spoke diligently to all conceivable providers of funds, and not one had the slightest interest in financing those companies on any terms. If Mr. Romney disagrees, he should come forward with specific names of willing investors in place of empty rhetoric. I predict that he won’t be able to, because there aren’t any.

Without government financing — initiated by President George W. Bush in December 2008 — the two companies would not have been able to pursue Chapter 11 reorganization. Instead they would have been forced to cease production, close their doors and lay off virtually all workers once their coffers ran dry.

Those shutdowns would have reverberated through the entire auto sector, causing innumerable suppliers almost immediately to stop operating too.

Despite the relative health of its balance sheet, even Ford would have been forced to close temporarily, because critical parts would have become unavailable. And service providers — trucking companies, restaurants and more — would have been severely affected.

More than a million jobs would have been lost, at least for a time. Michigan and the entire industrial Midwest would have been devastated.

Ignoring this point, Zingales claims that the only difference between Romney and Obama on the auto bailout is that Obama bailed out unions by bullying creditors and a bankruptcy judge, which Romney presumably would not have done. This ignores the concessions made by the United Auto Workers in the final deal, but again this is a criticism of process, not policy. “Opinions may differ on whether this was fair, but it was done the wrong way” looks an awful lot like “I have no substantive criticism of the administration’s policies” to me.

It’s in the paragraph on financial regulation that the brilliance really shines through. It’s worth quoting in full:

In principle, it’s reasonable to expect that Romney would have been more sympathetic to Wall Street’s interests, a bias that could have been an impediment to much-needed reform. In practice, it’s hard to imagine he could have done worse than Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who enacted regulations that increase the cost of doing business while failing to solve the problems that caused the crisis. In fact, Romney probably would have done better. He might not have introduced much effective regulation at all, but he would have avoided the populist and anti-business rhetoric Obama was forced to use to please his electoral base.

Catch that? While Romney’s Wall Street sympathies would likely have been an impediment to financial reform, he would have done a better job on financial regulation than Obama because he would have avoided populist and anti-business rhetoric while not introducing effective regulation at all. Finally, someone with the guts to say that the key to effective financial regulation is saying nice things about rich people and bankers and not passing any financial regulations.

For those of you keeping score at home, Zingales’ case that Romney would have made a better president over the past four years had four arguments. On health care, Romney would have governed as “the ultimate pragmatist…trying to fix problems, not advance an ideology.” On the economy, he would have “focused on subsidies to employment (a payroll-tax cut) and incentives for purchases of durable goods (a temporary sales-tax rebate)…rather than on pushing a liberal agenda.” On the auto bailout…well, Zingales doesn’t actually say what Romney would have done differently. To be fair to him, Romney himself still hasn’t settled on what he would have done differently. And on financial regulation, he would “not have introduced much effective regulation at all, but he would have avoided the populist and anti-business rhetoric Obama was forced to use to please his electoral base.”

Are you inspired yet?

“A president should be judged for his ability to play the cards he has been dealt, not for his luck (or lack thereof)” Zingales argues, and on this point I have some sympathy. Zingales is doing his best to play the cards he has been dealt. It’s his bad luck that he has to resort to arguing for such unconvincing counterfactuals to defend such a poor candidate, so I will try not to judge him too harshly.

Written by negativeinterest

September 24, 2012 at 3:30 am

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Ben Smith debunks Ben Smith

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Ben Smith has a review of David Maraniss’s Barack Obama: The Story that is uncritical to the point that it cannot be properly called a review; it seems more like Drudge/Breitbart bait than an attempt to critically examine Maraniss’s claims.

The slant of Smith’s piece is that Dreams from My Father is an attempt to make Barack Obama appear “blacker and more disaffected” than he actually was (in Maraniss’s words). It turns out that Obama’s race didn’t actually affect him! It turns out his grandfathers were actually bad people! If only the media had properly vetted him in 2008, we might have known better than to accept the lie that racial identity had any role in shaping the life and career of Barack Obama. Thanks, BuzzFeed.

The real irony of Smith’s review is that, in his attempts to portray Obama as a serial fabricator, he returns to a 2008 New York Times story that has since been thoroughly debunked by, among others, Maraniss’s biography. Smith probably remembers this, because as editor of the BuzzFeed Politics section, he almost certainly saw Gavon Laessig’s “A User’s Guide to Smoking Pot with Barack Obama,” a summary of the 13 juiciest revelations about Obama’s high school drug use. No mention of that in Smith’s review, though. Instead we get this:

Reporters who have sought to chase some of the memoir’s tantalizing yarns have, however, long suspected that Obama might not be as interesting as his fictional doppelganger. “Mr. Obama’s account of his younger self and drugs…significantly differs from the recollections of others who do not recall his drug use,” the New York Times’s Serge Kovaleski reported dryly in February of 2008, speculating that Obama had “added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic.” (In one of the stranger entries in the annals of political spin, Obama’s spokesman defended his boss’s claim to have sampled cocaine, calling the book “candid.”)

That is Smith’s entire treatment of Barack Obama’s youthful drug use. How well has Serge Kovaleski’s dry reporting held up in light of Barack Obama: The Story? Not so well, as it turns out:

It’s funny to think that this was one of the major stories vetting Obama’s drug use during the 2008 campaign, and it actually ended up underplaying the extent to which drugs were a part of his life in order to depict him as a fabulist.

Look, it goes without saying that some of the stories and composite characters in Dreams from My Father are rhetorical devices and not an attempt to provide a 100% accurate portrayal of his life. It goes without saying because Obama already said it in the introduction of his book. I have no problem with an attempt to figure out “the real story” of Barack Obama and compare it to the semi-fictionalized version, as long as it is done with the proper context. It would have been nice if Smith’s review was an actual book review and not a collection of all of the ways Obama can be made to look like a liar.

In his rush to celebrate the book as a “debunking,” he either a) endorses a 2008 story he knows is factually incorrect or b) admits that both Maraniss’s book and a BuzzFeed article that he presumably edited (both of which are consistent with the story Obama gives in Dreams) are factually incorrect.

I see Smith’s review as another entry in the new rush of mainstream media outlets to react to conservatives conspiracy theories and attempt to retroactively “vet” the president. The last high profile attempt didn’t go so well, but I’m afraid we can look forward to a very long summer of this.

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June 17, 2012 at 4:49 pm

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Link roundup

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Written by negativeinterest

June 1, 2012 at 3:12 am

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