Archive for November, 2008

Knights Who Say…

November 25, 2008

Matthew Yglesias catches up with me on the subject of “too big to fail.”  To his credit, he does apply some actual economic principles to the situation to suggest a way forward, which I didn’t do.

Whither State?

November 22, 2008

A popular topic of conversation — or maybe the word is “obsession” — for the politicos these days is what a Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would mean for the Obama administration.  Some, even inveterate Clinton-haters, say it’s bleeding brilliant.  Others, particularly early Obama supporters, say it’s a betrayal and, at best, borrowing trouble.

Most of the rhubarb concerns not Clinton herself, but all the people who come with her.  Bill is part of that, but not the primary concern.  The primary concern is the long-time Clinton loyalists whom a Sec. Clinton would likely appoint to all the sub-cabinet jobs in the State Department.  Since she would report directly to Obama, most people feel Hillary would follow Obama’s policy rather than asserting her own.  They worry, though, that the people she installs beneath her in the bureaucracy would deflect, redirect, and otherwise undermine Obama’s policies where they differ from Clinton’s own.

Heck if I know.  I can see things going either way, and much will depend on how Obama and Clinton negotiated those sub-cabinet appointments: will Clinton get to make all of them? will Obama make some? which ones?  There’s clearly a chance this is hubris on Obama’s part; for now, though, I’m going to proceed on the assumption that Obama will run his administration about as well as he ran his campaign, and knows what he’s getting into.

As I’ve said before, I pretty much don’t care about the politics of it.  But this kind of stuff ends up having policy ramifications, and I do care about policy.  The State Department has got some serious work to do in the coming years.  It would be nice if it did it along the axis Obama won on, not the one Clinton lost on.

This is the best one-stop discussion of these issues, I think.

Knights Who Say . . .

November 21, 2008

Brad DeLong says we’re gonna have to “nationalize” Citigroup, as part of the economic stabilization.  And then he uses the phrase we do not say:

No real point to merging it into JPMorgan Chase or Bank of America. And it is definitely too big to fail.


Compromise we can believe in.

November 18, 2008

Lots of discussion these days of possible Bush pardons of any- and everyone in his administration who could face prosecution for crimes committed during the “War on Terror,” and of what President Obama will do regarding such investigations and/or prosecutions.  Some want congressional investigations.  Some want a special prosecutor.  Some want something like South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation commissions, which is an idea I’ve suggested before.  (I can’t remember where, but I think it was in a comment around here, somewhere.)  Some want an investigatory board.  Obama pretty clearly wants none of the above.

Personally, it’s been clear to me for quite a while that that was the case. Obama has been much too much of a conciliator to pursue such investigations. I think his approach is bad for the country in the long run, but in the short run, I can see his point.

What I would like to see, however, is an executive order that makes all of the memos, etc., public. He did run on transparency in government, after all.

ISTM that would also solve the current stalemate with congress over some of those papers (i.e., the ones they’ve subpoenaed but the Bush administration has refused to give them). They still want the papers, but Obama is worried that if they get them, congress will get bogged down in investigating the Bush era at the cost of moving legislation forward in the Obama era. Fair enough. Make a deal with them to make all the documents public, in exchange for congress not investigating.

Publish them all online.  Let the public — journalists, public interest groups, bloggers, dare I say historians, etc. — go through them and make it known what the Bush administration actually did and didn’t do. And if private-party suits or prosecutions can be brought as a result, let a thousand flowers bloom.

A not inconsiderable part of me thinks that’s better than all the other options, anyway.  Failing publication of the papers, though, I could still settle for a T&R approach.

I bet this is generating a lot of interesting discussions in law schools around the country.

Discipline and Punish 2

November 18, 2008

So the Senate Democratic caucus decided to to let Lieberman keep his big chairmanship (Homeland Security and Gov’t Affairs Committee), and all his little sub-committee chairmanships, but took one of his minor committee memberships away.  I have 3 possible reactions to this.

One: As noted before, whither discipline?

Two: As a punishment, this is worse than nothing.  If you’re going to punish somebody, punish them.  If you’re going to let them off, let them off.  Trying to look like you’re punishing them when it’s absolutely obvious to everyone that you’re not punishing them just makes you look like you got in a fight and started slapping like a girl (apologies to the girls here’bouts).

Three: I had a thought last night, while watching news reports of Obama’s meeting with McCain.  I wonder if that meeting and Obama’s absolution of Lieberman (which seems to be the key factor in the caucus’s girl-slap) are connected.  That is, I wonder if what we’re seeing is the president-elect cobbling together a filibuster-proof majority on certain key policies, and McCain and Lieberman came as a package deal.  They are famous chums, after all.

Just a thought.  But I wanted to write it down in case it turns out to be right and makes me look hella smart.

Cases In Point

November 16, 2008

One of the fundamental disagreements in American politics is over the marginal roles of the market and the government in determining economic outcomes.  I say “marginal” roles because in America, unlike many European countries, almost nobody favors eliminating either one; the differences are, as the economists say, at the margins.

There are a couple of things in the news a lot lately that point out the challenges faced by both sides in this debate.

The big one, of course, is the financial crisis.  This one points out the problem for free marketeers.  In this case, an insufficiently regulated market ran amok, leading to not only its crash, but horrendous effects on the rest of the economy.  There are some free marketeers who insist that, in fact, this isn’t the result of inadequate regulation, but of too much regulation.  This is exactly what it seems: nonsense.  Even Alan Greenspan, economic wise man and lifelong libertarian, admits it.

The other one is the battle over the Washington, DC, public schools.  In that one, a reform-minded mayor and superintendent are trying to overhaul one of the worst-performing school systems in the nation.  One of the things they’re trying to do toward that end is eliminate teacher tenure.  Teachers unions, of course, don’t love the idea.  The one reasonable objection I’ve seen them make is that, right now, there simply is no good way to measure teacher performance; until there is, they’re not comfortable with the elimination of tenure.  Standardized tests are the standardized answer to this problem, especially now, in the era of No Child Left Behind.  Teachers respond that the tests are already overemphasized to the point that they distort what happens in the classroom, to the detriment of the students.

Without diving off into the details of those arguments, let’s just agree that both sides are right that you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

The public schools are a non-market education system.  Schools are funded by the government, rather than by “consumer” behavior.  With parents and students unable to vote with their dollars, the way they would in a market system, measuring success is a problem.  This is a common failing of non-market systems.  How do you measure what there should be more of, and what less?  How do you determine where further investment dollars should go, and what should be abandoned?

I’ll skip the discussion of those questions for now.  I just thought it was interesting that we had two stories in the news that are textbook examples of the problems with both of the options we debate in America.  I’m not sure how often that happens.

Discipline and Punish

November 12, 2008

Whither Joe?

No, not our Joe.  Lieberman.  Do the senate Dems let him keep his committee chair, his other committee assignments, his seniority, and stay in the Dem caucus?  Do they boot him completely out of the caucus?  Do they do something in between?

To a large degree, I don’t care.  I mean, Lieberman’s a blue-ribbon jackass, but that’s hardly unusual in American politicians.  However, I do care in one respect, and that’s party discipline in the senate.  We’ve seen how disciplined the GOP caucus is, so we know that when big legislation come up for a vote on cloture, they are going to have their members whipped into line.  We also know that conservative Dems like Ben Nelson and Mark Pryor have a habit of going against their party.  So Harry Reid has got to be able to enforce some discipline on the troops if he’s going to have any chance of moving progressive legislation past the filibuster and through the senate.

If Lieberman can do everything he’s done in the last few years and not get punished for it, what would get a caucus member punished?  It’s hard to think of an answer.

It’s even harder to answer when you consider how weak a position Lieberman is in right now.  If the Dems punish him and he doesn’t like it, the worst he can do is go caucus with the GOP.  So what?  The ramifications of that are miniscule for the Dems, and huge for Lieberman.  The Dems would still control the senate by a comfortable margin, Joe would be caucusing with people who hated him 90% of the time (because that’s the rate at which he agrees with the Dems on policy), he would have no greater influence in the senate, and he’d almost certainly lose his seat in his next election.

As George Costanza would say, he’s got no hand in this relationship.

Weirdly, though, you still see quotes like this from anonymous Dem operatives:

“He’s got momentum, and we need to keep him in the caucus, and this fits into Barack Obama’s message of change and moving forward,” said one Senate Democratic aide familiar with discussions. “The message here is that we don’t want to start off a new era with retribution.”

What on Earth is s/he talking about?  What momentum does Joe have?  He just very publicly crossed his party in a presidential race to back the losing ticket; a ticket that lost by the widest margin in 20 years.  The nation disagrees with him on what he’s made practically his only issue: Iraq.  Joe’s moving right while the voters just moved left.  How does that give him momentum?

And “we need to keep him in the caucus” because . . . why was that, again?

As for retribution, as suggested above, one man’s retribution is another man’s discipline.  The Dem caucus does not have a filibuster-proof majority.  The GOP caucus will be very disciplined in opposition, as always.  So the Dems are going to have to be disciplined in leading.

I just don’t see how Reid will be able to maintain anything like discipline if he lets Lieberman off the hook, and that means the senate will continue to be a graveyard for good legislation.

Edited to Add:

The one scenario in which I could see this working is if by keeping Lieberman in the caucus, Reid had him in the situation Lyndon Johnson famously had V.P. Hubert Humphrey in.  Quoth Johnson: “I keep Hubert’s balls in my coat pocket.”


November 11, 2008

I’ve expressed, before, my keen appreciation for George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch.  I ran across the following today, from one of her earlier novels, Adam Bede, about the passage of one’s life.  I couldn’t not share it.

It would be a poor result of all our anguish and our wrestling, if we won nothing but our old selves at the end of it–if we could return to the same blind loves, the same self-confident blame, the same light thoughts of human suffering the same frivolous gossip over blighted human lives, the same feeble sense of that Unknown towards which we have sent forth irrepressible cries in our loneliness.  Let us rather be thankful that our sorrow lives in us as an indestructible force, only changing its form, as forces do, and passing from pain into sympathy–the one poor word which includes all our best insight and our best love.

I can haz mind-altering irony?

November 10, 2008

Aside from being a socialist and a secret Muslim, it seems President-elect Obama’s biggest problem is his difficulty expressing himself.  He needs to learn linguistic precision from . . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . . yeah, George W. Bush.  Oh.  My.  God.

h/t TPM

Strange Bedfellows

November 9, 2008

Over at Slate, some prominent conservatives are having a post-mortem discussion about what went wrong and where to go from here.  One comment from Tucker Carlson I found interesting:

The various Republican constituencies need some reason to hang together. It’s not obvious what socially conservative, big-government types like Mike Huckabee have in common with economically conservative libertines like Rudy Giuliani. So why are they in the same party? It used to be because they both hated communism. Then it was Bill Clinton. Most recently, it was a shared fear of Islamic extremism. What now? Time to think of something—quick. There’s no natural reason these two groups should be connected. In fact, they sort of despise each other, as you’ll notice immediately if you ever eat with them.

I have long wondered about the odd marriage of these two groups.  I even asked the uber-libertarian guy I work with right now whether he felt at home in the GOP given the Religious Right (he classifies himself as “areligious”).  He said he doesn’t care about feeling welcome, just that economic issues take precedence over social issues for him.  I suspect that is true for a lot of libertarians, and I’ll refrain from giving my views of the characters of such folks.  Anyone have any thoughts about the economic conservative/social conservative partnership and its future?