Questions and Observations

Free Markets, Free People

Andrew Sullivan “Misremembers” The Last 8 Years (Update – Sullivan Responds)

Apparently history began for Andrew Sullivan on January 20th of this year:

This much is now clear. Their clear and open intent is to do all they can, however they can, to sabotage the new administration (and the economy to boot). They want failure. Even now. Even after the last eight years. Even in a recession as steeply dangerous as this one. There are legitimate debates to be had; and then there is the cynicism and surrealism of total political war. We now should have even less doubt about what kind of people they are. And the mountain of partisan vitriol Obama will have to climb every day of the next four or eight years.

Obviously Sullivan can’t think of “legitimate debates to be had” concerning this awful bill (just turn toward the White House, bow and sign). And you have to assume that he doesn’t consider putting this bill together without letting the Republicans participate as a party (not as the ‘picked off three’) a cynical declaration of “total political war”. In fact you have to wonder when he began paying attention to “mountains of partisan vitriol” that presidents have to climb over every day.

Andy, when the opposition party “war” dedicated to undermining a presidency and causing it to fail even approaches that which the Democrats waged against George Bush for the last 8 years, I’ll be first to let you know.  In the meantime, quit whining for heaven sake.  This ain’t bean bag.

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan responds to my points about “legitimate debates” and Republican inclusion:

You mean Obama never went to the Congress to talk to the House GOP? That he hasn’t been relentless in including Republicans in the debate? That he didn’t urge over $300 billion in tax cuts in the bill to assuage Republican feelings in the first place?

Of course going to Congress to talk with the House GOP turned out to be more for show than substance. It was made clear, afterward, that while he was polite and at least pretended to listen, little if any of what they asked for ended up in the bill. One reason that’s so is the bill was written by Democrats in Congress, not Barack Obama. If it had been written by Obama and his administration, Sullivan might have a leg to stand on. But obviously his “relentless inclusion” attempt was ignored by the Democratic Congressional leadership and the GOP was shut out of the process to craft the bill.

Concerning tax cuts, as we’ve pointed out here any number of times, transfer payments my be called tax cuts just like a pile of dog feces may be called a rose, but by any other name, they’re still just welfare checks. Those aren’t the tax cuts the GOP asked for and certainly not what the GOP would support.

~McQ

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About That Caterpillar Story

President Obama has been waving a quote from Jim Owens, CEO of Caterpillar, “said that if Congress passes our plan, this company will be able to rehire some of the folks who were just laid off.”

Oops:

Asked if the stimulus package would be able to stop the 22,000 layoffs or not, Owens said, “I think realistically no. The truth is we’re going to have more layoffs before we start hiring again”

“It is going to take some time before that stimulus bill” means re-hiring, he said.

Amateur hour continues.

~McQ

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Sen. Judd Gregg Withdraws Name From Commerce Sec Consideration

Well, well, well. I wondered what the impact of moving the census from under Commerce to the White House (a blatantly political move) would have on Gregg. Apparently it became obvious he was a token Republican (but a strong Senator) who was being taken aboard the Obama administration in a relatively useless position to give Obama some bi-partisan cover.

Said Gregg:

Sen. Gregg stated, “I want to thank the President for nominating me to serve in his Cabinet as Secretary of Commerce. This was a great honor, and I had felt that I could bring some views and ideas that would assist him in governing during this difficult time. I especially admire his willingness to reach across the aisle.

“However, it has become apparent during this process that this will not work for me as I have found that on issues such as the stimulus package and the Census there are irresolvable conflicts for me. Prior to accepting this post, we had discussed these and other potential differences, but unfortunately we did not adequately focus on these concerns. We are functioning from a different set of views on many critical items of policy.

“Obviously the President requires a team that is fully supportive of all his initiatives.

“I greatly admire President Obama and know our country will benefit from his leadership, but at this time I must withdraw my name from consideration for this position.

Gregg also said there was nothing that came up during the vetting process that caused him to withdraw.

Irreconcilable differences.

Good call.

So Obama’s back in the hunt for a Commerce Secretary.

~McQ

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Free Market Bashing

Since the inception of the current downturn, free market capitalism has taken quite the bashing. Supporters of significant government involvement in the economy deride the horrors of “unfettered capitalism” and a “free market run amuck.” Frequently, deregulation of capital markets is singled out as the most dastardly culprit, to which Pres. Obama seems to be alluding when he blames “relying on the worn-out dogmas of the past,” and “too little regulatory scrutiny.” Yet, after the last eight years in which we witnessed Sarbanes-Oxley, No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and numerous attempts to reign in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shoved aside by legislators, evidence of unregulated economic activity being the source of our crisis seems rather scant.

The idea that “deregulation” was somehow responsible for the mortgage meltdown is a particularly shaky proposition. Shannon Love explains why:

Leftists have to answer a question: if greedy, irresponsible, unregulated etc. capitalism caused the housing bubble, why didn’t we see a similar bubble in commercial real-estate markets which operate under even less regulation than the residential markets? Why does the politically neglected and unregulated commercial real-estate market exhibit much milder swings?

[...]

The differences between residential and commercial real estate provide the means to test the hypothesis that government intervention or the lack thereof caused the housing bubble and subsequent collapse of the financial system. We can compare the two markets because the same institutions ultimately make residential and commercial loans. They make loans in the same communities and regions. Changes in the economy affect both types of real estate at the same time and to the same rough degree. The only major difference between the two markets lies in the degree of government intervention.

After dispensing with some obvious questions about the comparison, Love highlights how the residential market was essentially turned into a Lemon’s Market:

More than any other policy, the creation of Freddie Mac and Fanny May distorted the residential mortgage market in a way that the commercial market escaped. The FMs exist solely to induce lenders to make residential loans that the free market judged too risky. The FMs buy up residential mortgages from primary lenders and bundle them together in securities. They do so precisely in order to short-circuit the free-market feedback system that communicates to banks when the financial system as a whole has lent out as much money as it safely can. That feedback system worked like a governor on an engine. It kept the system from running away and lending more money than it could recoup, but also prevented people with poorer credit from getting loans.

Politicians who wanted the engine to run faster created the FMs to bypass the governor in order to get higher performance in the short run. Since the FMs would buy up almost any mortgage, lenders could make riskier and riskier loans without suffering any negative consequence. The FMs replaced the self-interested secondary-market buyers with people playing with government money and a mandate to induce more and more lending. Special dodgy accounting rules allowed the FMs to hide the risk behind the securitized mortgages they sold.

Deregulation caused the residential mortgage meltdown?

Deregulation caused the residential mortgage meltdown?

As Love points out, the commercial real estate market has no such mechanism muddying its waters, and information is comparatively less asymmetric. Without the government interference, commercial mortgage lenders let the potential for bad outcomes drive their decision making:

Tellingly, no such intervention occurred in commercial markets. The FMs’ charters expressly prevented them from buying commercial mortgages. As a result, the commercial mortgage market functioned with a free-market governor. When lenders made too many risky loans, free-market secondary buyers stopped buying their mortgages and the system cooled down. As a result, commercial markets saw no runaway boom and subsequent colossal bust.

Although I think that laying the crisis solely at the feet of the residential mortgage market is overly simplistic (for example, what was up with the ratings agencies?), Love does point to a very apt comparison as to how government intervention in the market changes incentives and behavior. If you guarantee risks against bad loans, and subsidize the debtors, then more of such loans will be made. Remove such a guarantees and subsidies and market forces will severely punish improperly compensated risk taking.

The trade off, of course, is that free markets do not allow much opportunity for rent-seeking. Which is why Love’s final lament is so true:

Sadly, experience suggests that mere empiricism has no place in political economics.

That’s because empiricism does not buy votes.

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Details, Promises And Other “Stimulus” Package Fun Stuff

As the details of the compromise stimulus package come out, most will find plenty to not like.

For instance, those stimulative tax cuts for 95% of Americans:

Q: What are some of the tax breaks in the bill?

A: It includes Obama’s signature “Making Work Pay” tax credit for 95 percent of workers, though negotiators agreed to trim the credit to $400 a year instead of $500 — or $800 for married couples, cut from Obama’s original proposal of $1,000. It would begin showing up in most workers’ paychecks in June as an extra $13 a week in take-home pay, falling to about $8 a week next January.

$13 bucks a week for 6 months, down to $8 bucks a week by January. $338 in ’09, and, if it stays in place for all of ’10, $416.

Wow. 800 billion of your dollars and in the next year and a half you’re going to see $754 of it. Go make that down payment on the new house or car now!

Now, here’s the rope-a-dope:

Q: How will infrastructure spending affect jobs?

A: The Federal Highway Administration has estimated that every $1 billion the federal government spends on infrastructure projects translates to 35,000 jobs. Collins put the total infrastructure spending — including highways, mass transit, environmental cleanups and broadband facilities — at $150 billion. Do the math and that translates into more than 5 million jobs, based on the highway administration’s assumptions.

Senate leaders have offered their own estimate — they said Wednesday that the total stimulus package will sustain some 3.5 million jobs.

Most of that work will go to people who already have jobs. And those who are hired will be hired on a temporary basis. When the revenue stream for that job ends, so will the temporary jobs.

And one other thing to keep in mind – these people are estimating based on nothing more than some assumptions they’ve decided look rosy and fit their narrative. They have no freakin’ idea how many jobs, if any, their spending will bring.

Q: How long would it take for highway projects to begin?

A: Lawmakers say most of the projects could be up and running within 90 days, although it could take somewhat more time in northern states with longer winters. Highway construction groups have estimated that there are thousands of projects that could be started within that 90 days.

Here’s a dirty little secret about this answer – projects that are 90 days from beginning have most likely already been funded and those who are going to work on them have been hired.

All the rest of the projects in the bill will have to go through the normal years long bidding process that is required by government. So “shovel ready” does not necessarily mean an infusion of new cash or jobs.

Q: Does the bill include federal aid to the states?

A: Yes. It includes major contributions to states to help with their budget shortfalls and assure the viability of Medicaid and education programs.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the moderate Republican who helped broker the deal, said the spending includes about $90 billion in increased federal matches to states to help pay for Medicaid, along with a $54 billion “fiscal stabilization” fund that states could use to build and repair schools and improve facilities at institutions of higher learning.

This bill is the “State Fiscal Mismanagement Bailout Bill” which rewards states for budget busting.

Tell me, in life, what is one of the major means of changing behavior?

Pain. No pain, nothing learned. Be it emotional, physical or financial pain, unless you suffer it, you have no reason to change your behavior. Given this bill, profligate state governments have no reason to change their spendthrift ways.

BTW, none of that spending will stimulate anything but more government.

More:

Q: What are some of the other main focuses of the bill?

A: Here are some highlights:

Education: The package has some $11.5 billion to support the IDEA program for special education. There’s another $10 billion for a federal program to help low-income students.

Energy: The package includes funds to modernize the electrical grid — in part by incorporating renewable energy resources — and to make federal buildings more energy efficient and help low-income households weatherize their homes.

Health: The plan includes subsidies to allow people who are laid off to purchase health insurance through the federal COBRA plan. There is also money to support hospitals seeking to modernize health information technology.

Infrastructure: The infrastructure section of the package includes funds for building and repairing highways and bridges, expanding transit systems, upgrading airports and rail systems and building and repairing federal buildings — with the focus on making them more energy efficient. Funds are available for clean water projects, cleanup of environmental waste areas and nuclear waste cleanups.

Nothing listed here is stimulative. Nothing. This is all the pork that everyone has denied is in the bill. This is the left’s shopping list of the last 40 years rolled into one big raid on your wallet.

And what about the engine of productivity, the creator of jobs and wealth? Not much at all:

From auto dealers to the home-building industry, big business appears to be the biggest loser in the final economic stimulus plan being pieced together Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

Negotiators from the House and Senate sliced billions of dollars in tax incentives for businesses and slashed huge tax breaks for consumers that were strongly backed by industry lobbyists.

Many of the business tax provisions were added to the stimulus legislation in the Senate in an effort to attract Republican votes. President Barack Obama wants bipartisan support for the plan and was dealt a setback when no Republicans voted for the House version of the plan two weeks ago.

But when only three Republican senators voted for the Senate version of the bill Tuesday, Democrats slashed the business tax proposals in an effort to bring the total cost of the bill under $789 billion.

That’s right, Democratic spite and their propensity toward government as the solution have mostly driven tax breaks for business, the one sector that can, in fact, create real jobs that produce wealth, out of the bill.

Tthe Democrats like to use the term “trickle down” derisively, but as Karl Rove notes, you’re  about to see their version of it. The difference is the money will “trickle down” through the government filter. Any guess as to how much will actually reach down to where it is needed?

Well, don’t bet that whopping $754 bucks you’ll be seeing over the next year and a half that it will do any good. Instead you might consider buying gold with it, since my guess is it isn’t going to be worth $754 when the Democrats get done with screwing around with the economy.

~McQ

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When “Green” Turns Deadly

Some real anger is welling up down under against some “green” laws which prevented residents from taking prudent fire control measures which may have prevented both property destruction and deaths:

ANGRY residents last night accused local authorities of contributing to the bushfire toll by failing to let residents chop down trees and clear up bushland that posed a fire risk.

During question time at a packed community meeting in Arthurs Creek on Melbourne’s northern fringe, Warwick Spooner — whose mother Marilyn and brother Damien perished along with their home in the Strathewen blaze — criticised the Nillumbik council for the limitations it placed on residents wanting the council’s help or permission to clean up around their properties in preparation for the bushfire season. “We’ve lost two people in my family because you dickheads won’t cut trees down,” he said.

As many as 230 feared dead in Australian bushfire

As many as 230 feared dead in Australian bushfire

Sound familiar California? And there are other places as well where environmental activists have successfully blocked forest management procedures which help inhibit the type of holocaust loosed in the bush of Australia and in the California fires of a year or so ago.

It seems, when given the opportunity, environmentalists tend toward the extreme. The result in Australia, of course, just as in California, was the total destruction of all the trees they were supposedly saving. Not doing what anyone with common sense would call prudent has also lead to the deaths of not only masses of wildlife, but fellow human beings as well.

There was widespread applause when Nillumbik Mayor Bo Bendtsen said changes were likely to be made about the council’s policy surrounding native vegetation.

But his response was not good enough for Mr Spooner: “It’s too late now mate. We’ve lost families, we’ve lost people.”

Congratulations.

~McQ

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Government: Always Late To The Recession

How does one demonstrate that if left alone, the economy will recover from a recession without government intervention?

Charts like this are helpful:

Quite a track record.

Quite a track record.

As Nick Gillespie says, if the chart is true, we must be beginning the recovery. Of course the larger point is, economies do recover without intervention and, in many cases, intervention comes as too late.

What it does, however, is give politicians a means of claiming credit for something that was already underway. And, as is obvious, putting you in debt up to your ears is fine with them if it buys them another 2, 4 or 6 years.

~McQ

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Knowing Your Base And Not Really Caring What They Think

I have to admit I’m surprised that the bill that came out of markup was smaller than either the House or Senate version of the bill. That’s a true rarity. If it wasn’t such a bad bill, I’d have to complement the three Republican Senators who helped negotiate it.  It speaks to how badly the Democrats want to be able to say “bi-partisan” when they talk about it.  It won’t fly of course, but it does demonstrate the point.

“I’m all for bipartisanship, but I don’t consider three Republican senators bipartisan,” said Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who oversees economic recovery issues for the CBC. “Let’s not deny who we are legislatively for three senators.”

But they have to deny it if you can believe a 790 billion dollar bill denies much of anything. Are we so numbed to the numbers that some think that what these people came up with is a significant savings? Do we not understand what 1.2 trillion (including interest) means?

Good grief.

Of course “progressives” are very unhappy with the final bill:

Some House Democrats are working furiously to reinstate funds the Senate cut from an $789 billion economic stimulus package speeding to the floor this week.

In particular, progressive Democrats and members of the Congressional Black Caucus would like to see more money for social spending programs that was cut from the Senate package over the weekend in a deal with three moderate Republican senators. It’s not clear if they will get all their wishes, but the deal announced this afternoon will be finalized in the coming hours.

The CBC sent House negotiators a letter Wednesday asking them to add an additional $4.2 billion for the federal government to lend states money to acquire foreclosed homes, another $4 billion for job-training programs and $14 billion for school construction.

Question: Does anyone think any of the Democratic leadership cares one whit what the CBC wants put back in there? Furthermore, does anyone think the CBC won’t vote for this if they don’t get their way?

Nope – three Republican Senators and the ability to say “bi-partisan”, no matter how thin it sounds, is far more valuable to the Dems than the CBC. And not for the first time.

~McQ

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Poll Battle

Do Americans support the stimulus bill proposed by Congress, or hate it? The only way to glean a credible answer is by looking to reliable polls. Bruce did that earlier with respect to the ATI-News/Zogby poll which found that:

Amidst all the rhetoric surrounding President Barack Obama’s first signature piece of legislation, a massive $800 billion economic “stimulus” bill, one thing is clear: a majority of Americans reject the President’s handiwork. A just-released ATI-News/Zogby International poll shows that clear majorities of Republicans and Independents are against it.

On the other hand, a USA Today/Gallup poll found that support for the bill has dramatically risen [HT: Hot Air]:

Public support for an $800 billion economic stimulus package has increased to 59% in a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Tuesday night, up from 52% in Gallup polling a week ago, as well as in late January.

So which is it? Is support up or down? Frankly, I don’t think we can really tell. Here’s why.

Both polls reveal the number of people questioned, and break down the results by party affiliation (although the ATI-News commissioned poll did not provide any numbers for Democrats). However, neither poll details how many participants of each party were polled, and/or whether the results were weighted. In short, if the ATI-News poll included substantially more Republicans and Republican leaning people among the 7,010 voters questioned, then the results should predictably skew towards the Republican side of the issue. Similarly, if there were significant number of Democrats and Democratic leaning independents among those 1,021 national adults polled by the USA Today poll, then we should expect that poll to favor the Democratic side.

Because we aren’t informed as to the breakdown of the total by party affiliation, we really can’t say how reflective the polls are of the country as a whole. Seeing as how the polls contradict one another, it’s safe to say that neither one accomplishes that task.

It’s tempting to conclude that, since the ATI-News poll was conducted over 5 days, as opposed to one, and interviewed almost 7 times as many people as the USA Today poll, the larger sample provides a more accurate picture. Moreover, the poll showing that the public is against the stimulus bill claims a margin of error (+/- 1.2%) that is far lower than the other poll (+/- 3.5%). Yet, the confidence interval for the latter poll is 95% and none is given for the ATI-News offering. If it was only 90%, I think (but could be wrong) that makes the USA Today poll slightly more accurate. In addition, without knowing how many answers came from each party (D/R/I), it’s impossible to say just how representative the poll actually is.

By the same token, the USA Today poll appears to offer a more comprehensive look at those questioned, and the questions asked seem less likely to evoke biased answers. For example, the main USA Today poll question was this:

As you may know, Congress is considering a new economic stimulus package of at least $800 billion. Do you favor or oppose Congress passing this legislation?

Compare that question to the following:

Most Republicans oppose the currently proposed stimulus bill supported by President Obama because they say there is too much money being spent for non-stimulus items. Do you agree or disagree that too much money is being spent on items that won’t improve the economy?

The first question above is simple, straightforward, and doesn’t present any potential bias words with respect to the issue. The second, however, sets up a premise, attaches “Republican” to it, and then asks for agree or disagree. Not surprisingly, the second question elicited a much stronger response from Republicans (93% agreed) and Independents (66%) than the first (56% Independents; 28% Republicans). Perhaps then the USA Today poll, despite its small sample, is the more accurate?

Once again, we don’t know how many of each party were questioned. If it was overwhelmingly Democratic Party leaners, then the results would have to be expected. In addition, the USA Today poll questioned all adults, while the ATI-News poll only queried voters, whom one might assume are somewhat better informed. Finally, the fact that any poll of voters could find a string correlation between the words “agree” and “Republicans” suggests that the wording was not causing any undue bias (unless, of course, it was mostly Republicans interviewed, which is pretty unlikely).

In the end, I don’t know how to view these two contradictory polls in a way that sheds any light on how the populace is actually feeling about the stimulus bill. Other than the glaring fact that Democrats overwhelmingly favor its passage, while Republicans do not, there is nothing definitive to be learned. I do agree with Bruce’s assessment that Independents are the best to look for answers, however the poll numbers we have don’t seem to match up.

I guess its possible that the a majority of people are ambivalent about the stimulus bill — yeah it’ll probably be a big screw up, but we have to do something, don’t we? — which would explain some of the apparent contradiction. And maybe Obama’s sales job made the difference in the numbers (the ATI-News poll ended on the 9th, while the USA Today poll was taken on the 10th).

Whatever the reason for the contradiction, I think it’s interesting that each day we have a different poll telling us that the public loves/hates the stimulus package, yet we never see any polls testing the public’s knowledge of what’s in the bill (much less anyone in Congress). Maybe if people were better informed about the contents of the legislation we see more consistent polling. Instead of constantly reading polls asking if the Republicans are right or wrong, or if $800 billion is a good number to spend, perhaps we’d learn more about what the public really thinks if we asked them how stimulated they would be by $4.2 billion for “neighborhood stabilization activities,” or $34 million to renovate the Department of Commerce headquarters, or $88 million to help move the Public Health Service into a new building, or $55 million for Historic Preservation Fund, or $6.2 billion for the Weatherization Assistance Program, or $2.4 billion for carbon-capture demonstration projects. Now there’s a poll I’d like to see.

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More Fairness Doctrine Talk

The rent-seekers find another ally:

BILL PRESS: …And, thanks for your leadership, thanks for your good work, it’s great to have you there Senator. And, great to have you on the show. Appreciate it.

SENATOR TOM HARKIN (D-IA): Well, anytime – just let me know Bill. I love being with you, and thanks again for all you do to get the truth and the facts out there. By the way, I read your Op-Ed in the Washington Post the other day. I ripped it out, I took it into my office and said ‘there you go, we gotta get the Fairness Doctrine back in law again.’

BILL PRESS:  Alright, well good for you. You know, we gotta work on that, because they are just shutting down progressive talk from one city after another. All we want is, you know, some balance on the airwaves, that’s all. You know, we’re not going to take any of the conservative voices off the airwaves, but just make sure that there are a few progressives and liberals out there, right?

SENATOR TOM HARKIN (D-IA): Exactly, and that’s why we need the fair—that’s why we need the Fairness Doctrine back.

BILL PRESS: We’ll work on that together. Hey, thanks, Senator! Always good to talk to you.

SENATOR TOM HARKIN (D-IA): Thanks Bill, see you, bye.

BILL PRESS: There it is – you heard it here on the Bill Press Show. Senator Tom Harkin: bring back the Fairness Doctrine!

If you can’t make it on your own merit, get the government to step in and grant you what you haven’t earned.

Good work there, Billy.

~McQ

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