WITHOUT FEATHERS

Posted in Election 2008 on October 16th, 2008 by Ed

(I want to preface this by stating quite clearly that I am not implying that this presidential election is "over." My comments refer to the position in which McCain finds himself right now and does not suggest that no change can take place before Election Day)

While many commentators have opined that this election is fascinating, unprecedented, and unique in numerous ways, I believe that twenty years from now we will still be studying what happened to McCain in the short time between the GOP convention and the second presidential debate. Republicans' heads must be spinning right now. Electoral fortunes rise and fall, but rarely so rapidly.

The most basic of questions will suffice here: what in the hell happened? McCain emerged from the convention on even footing with Obama for the first time. It felt like a race. It gave every indication of being an eight-week dogfight until Election Day. For a moment it even looked like Obama would be the underdog. Now, just a few weeks later, adjectives like "pathetic" and "desperate" seem a lot more fitting than "strong" or "energetic." How did McCain go from possible front-runner to worrying if he could hold Montana? I will suggest three answers.

First, there is a portion of the electorate that does not pay any attention to the races until after the conventions. They have a limited interest in politics and, if you'll forgive the metaphor, they don't turn the ballgame on until the 9th inning. I will go to my grave convinced that "Undecided" responses in pre-September polling are proxies for "I have paid no attention whatsoever." Part of what happened recently, in short, is that some of that 10-15% of undecided/no-answer respondents in the polls we've been seeing all year have finally decided to pay a little attention to the race. Once they put some thought into it, many apparently realized that they don't like this McCain fellow so much.

Second, these voters began to pay attention at the height of the latest installment of our financial distress. Economic trouble is always the harbinger of doom for incumbents and the incumbent party.

Third, the turning point in this entire race: Sarah Palin talked. The second she opened her mouth, non-Republicans found it nearly impossible to take the McCain campaign seriously. The campaign, which invested so much capital in McCain's wisdom, experience, judgment, and professionalism, suddenly felt like a PTA meeting in a trailer park. McCain had it right in January – in these difficult times Americans are looking for someone serious, someone in control. His decision to try to sell "folksy" and "Main Street common sense" could not have been more poorly timed. This economic crisis is a moment at which Americans don't want to look across the table at their candidate – they want to look up to someone, someone who seems like he or she knows what the fuck is going on and is prepared to handle it. We're not interested in someone who "shares our values." We're interested in someone who can fix a potentially catastrophic problem.

Post-Palin, the McCain campaign has sputtered and my hunch is that he's going to regret this decision until he dies. If his appearance in the last few days is any indication, that may be soon. He looks tired, angry, and desperate.

I do not know what miracle McCain can conjure at this point, but unless the polls are wrong – utterly, completely, historically wrong – he had better think of something fast. His recent efforts to right the ship landed with a thud; his ads are terrible, the Ayers/terrorist thing only stuck with people who weren't voting for Obama anyway, and he's burned a lot of his credibility and veneer of dignity by resorting to rolling around in pig shit in the desperate hope that he'll find a diamond buried in the pile. Emily Dickinson famously described hope as "the thing with feathers." McCain 2008 is starting to look pretty bald.

SEARCHING FOR THE TRILLION-DOLLAR EARMARK

Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies, Rants on October 15th, 2008 by Ed

Rather than resorting to my usual marathon of words, today I intend to use some numbers to prove that a major McCain talking point (and a staple of right-wing rhetoric) has something in common with Trig Palin.

"I can eliminate $100 billion of wasteful and earmark spending immediately–35 billion in big spending bills in the last two years, and another 65 billion that has already been made a permanent part of the budget." — Sen. McCain, All Things Considered, April 23, 2008

How does Gramps McCain's mysteriously-derived estimate of earmark spending compare to calculations by organizations that bother with "facts" and "numbers"?

John McCain: earmarks = $100 billion
Anti-tax hawks Citizens Against Government Waste: FY 2008 earmarks = $17.2 billion
Anti-tax hawks Taxpayers for Common Sense: FY 2008 earmarks = $18.3 billion

McCain magically (and without explanation, even when pressed, of where the $100 billion figure comes from) quintuples the amount of "wasteful spending" calculated by people who follow such matters for a living. More importantly, the premise of his argument is downright ridiculous when we look at earmarks in context. Yes, yes, I know. Republicans hate context. Context has a pronounced liberal bias. Consider the following.

FY 2008 earmark spending: ~$18,000,000,000 (#1 state: Alaska)**
Annual cost, tax-deductible home mortgage interest: $65,000,000,000
Bailout of sinking insurance giant AIG: $85,000,000,000
FY 2008 Iraq War spending: ~$155,000,000,000
FY 2008 cost of Bush tax cuts: $189,100,000,000
FY 2008 cost of Bush tax cuts with AMT "relief": $247,400,000,000
FY 2008 interest on the Federal debt: $261,000,000,000
FY 2008 Dept. of Defense budget (excluding Iraq): $481,000,000,000
FY 2008 Social Security: $608,000,000,000
Financial "rescue" plan: $700,000,000,000
FY 2008 Federal Budget: ~$3,000,000,000,000
National Debt as of 9/30/08: ~$10,000,000,000,000

FY 2008 Earmarks as a percentage of the Federal budget: 0.6%

That's right, folks! Vote for John McCain and in the fantasy world in which he can eliminate all Congressional earmarks (using the line-item veto….which was just declared unconsitutional by Scalia and Thomas ten years ago) you can maybe, kinda, potentially (but probably not) save six-tenths of a percent of the annual Federal outlay of your hard-earned dollars! Yes, truly those wasteful earmarks for things like cancer research and military aid to Israel (which McCain hates, right? Let's ask Joe Lieberman) are the cause of our economic difficulties.

Let's go one step further, critically examining the common right-wing bitching point about "unnecessary" Federal spending of the non-earmarked kind.

FY 2008 budget, Environmental Protection Agency: $7.2 billion
FY 2008 Deparment of Labor budget: $10.6 billion
FY 2008 Department of Interior budget: $10.6 billion
FY 2008 Treasury Department budget: $12.1 billion
Iraq War in FY 2008: $12.9 billion per month
FY 2008 Bush tax cuts to top 1% of income earners alone: $79.5 billion

For the mathematically challenged – and polling indicates that about 45% of you are – the annual budgets of your least favorite Cabinet agencies, if completely eliminated, would not fund the Iraq War for 30 days. To put it another way, the combined budget of Labor and Interior ($21.2 billion) is 4.4% of the Department of Defense budget or 3.5% of the cost of Social Security for one year. This year we spent four times as much giving tax cuts to the ultra-wealthy (top 1% = incomes greater than $275,000) as we did on the Departments of Labor and Interior combined.

The point, and one that will surely be lost on McCain, is not that earmarks or the Department of Labor are productive uses of our financial resources. The point is that eliminating them would not make the slightest goddamn difference when considered in the context of our Federal budget. It is a spit in the ocean. A grain of sand in the Sahara. A snowflake on a glacier. "Wasteful" or not, earmarks and the budgets of agencies most loathed by conservatives represent piss-ant sums compared to the items that perennially dominate the budget. Uncle Sam saving the money spent on earmarks would be about as meaningful as a millionaire with $100 million in debt finding a quarter in his couch. McCain's earmark crusade fits snugly into the narrative about those shiftless tax-and-spend libruls. But like so much of the conservative canon, it makes sense only as long as one remains stunningly ignorant of the facts.

**Is life hilarious or what? I could not make this shit up if I tried.

MIND: BOGGLED

Posted in Election 2008, Quick Hits on October 14th, 2008 by Ed

OK, the Republicans might want to just hide under a pile of coats for the next few weeks. Democratic Army veteran Jim Martin has pulled even with Saxby Chambliss in the Georgia Senate race. Georgia. I will repeat that: the race between a Republican incumbent and a no-name challenger in Georgia is a statistical tie.

No matter how negative a picture we paint, reality seems intent on one-upping us.

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INTO THE ETHER

Posted in Rants on October 14th, 2008 by Ed

I'm 29. That places me in the last generation of Americans to experience any part of the Cold War and superimposes my formative years over eight years of Reagan Worship. Accordingly, an integral part of my image of the Baby Boomers (my/our parents) is their raging erection for privatization. Boy, those fat cats in Washington can't do anything right! There's nothing worth doing that Private Enterprise can't do better! Government-run health care programs? Privatize 'em. Military personnel? Privatize them too. NASA wants to build a space probe? Private sector will do it better. Airport security? Yeah, that can be privatized. And the big one: Social Security? Oh hell yeah, we'd best privatize the fuck out of Social Security.

This is easily one of the most fascinating issues of our time, not because it has any intellectual merit but because of its tendency to create rabid, short-lived enthusiasm at great intervals and then disappear into the ethers. One day it is all over the news and the next day it is as impossible to locate as last night's thunderstorm. It is the Keyser Soze of public policy – everyone has heard of it, no one sees it.

When Our Leader first took office in 2001 he put substantial energy into this issue. Then 9/11 happened and it summarily vanished. He gave it another push after the 2004 Election (which provided a mandate and all the political capital on Earth!). Alas, he couldn't even convince his own party – who held healthy majorities in Congress – to sign on. Again it vanished.

John McCain, a supporter of privatization (although he's trying his best to deny it for some strange reason) dipped his toe in the water early in the campaign but today he'd sooner eat broken glass with an AIDS chaser than mention it in public. And the obvious link among the issue's three most recent appearances on the national stage? Well, oddly enough it disappears every time the stock market does a half-gainer off the high board into an empty pool. Which, of course, reminds everyone who is about to retire of just how screwed they would be with a market-based "alternative."

Stocks, as the plan's supporters point out, are an excellent long-term investment. You'll generally come out ahead over 30 or 40 years. In the short term, however, they are pretty damn unpredictable. How would you like to be 65 and preparing to retire right now? You did post-retirement planning with the assumption (which held as recently as a few months ago) that your "investment" is worth X dollars. Now it's worth 60% of X. In six more months it'll be 40% of X. Why, you'd be pretty fucked, wouldn't you?

That, "my friends", is why this half-assed idea never goes anywhere – not because of the much more valid arguments about the impossibility of ushering such a behemoth pool of money into the stock market (pension fund socialism, anyone?). The right tries to railroad a privatization plan through Congress every time the economic barometer rises, but people have the annoying habit of asking questions like "Gee, what if the Dow does an uncontrolled flight into terrain six months before I retire?" The answer is pretty obvious – the providential hand of the market "corrects" your standard of living.

KRISTOL STICKS A FORK IN IT

Posted in Election 2008, Quick Hits on October 13th, 2008 by Ed

Well, add Mr. Sunnis-and-Shias-Love-One-Another to the list of rats fleeing a sinking ship (today's NYT column: "Fire the Campaign"). Note the irony in Kristol criticizing McCain's campaign for its panicked, frantic behavior in a column that reads like the author is running about like a chicken minus its head.

Some day a friendly reader is going to register "www.billkristol.net" as a gift to me (my birthday's coming up!) and I will use it to chart a timeline of every Kristol column and major TV appearance since 2000, based on which I will determine what percentage of the time this man is actually right about anything. And as a bonus, we will see how many times he contradicts himself in print in any six-month period Friedman Unit.

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SIXTY, OR: LET'S TRY THE FIREWALL AGAIN

Posted in Election 2008 on October 13th, 2008 by Ed

As the armageddon scenario for the GOP – sixty Democrats in the Senate and Obama in the White House – becomes a possibility it might be a good time to get some perspective. Possible? Yes. Likely? Not really. Some extraordinary things would need to happen. And the world's biggest cocksucker would once again be thrust into a position of power.

The current Senate features 50 Democrats (counting Bernie Sanders), 49 Republicans, and Joe Lieberman. This gives the Democrats a nominal 51-49 edge. To reach 60 they would need to pick up nine seats in one election. Some GOP losses seem inevitable. Others would be a stretch.

Republican incumbents who are all but assured of going down include Sununu (NH), CO Open (Allard retirement), NM Open (Domenici retirement), and VA Open (Warner retirement). This means the Democrats can confidently assume a 55-45 split counting Lieberman as a Democrat.

Several incumbents have a very good chance of going down but may hold on: Smith (OR), Dole (NC), Coleman (MN), and Stevens (AK) are all in big trouble. Sweeping these four – no easy task – would leave the GOP at 59-41. Ouch. But it's not 60.

To reach 60, the Democratic candidates would have to pull off an improbable victory in MS-2 (Wicker vs. Musgrove) or Kentucky (where Mitch McConnell is fighting for his life). Neither can be considered likely. If they pull one of these races off then it is 60-40.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, it's more like 59-40-Cocksucker because that sixty includes Holy Joe. I can only imagine how deeply the party dreads having that sanctimonious asshead in a pivotal position yet again. To "Lieberman-proof" a 60-seat majority they would need to win both the McConnell and Wicker races (or some other race which isn't even considered competitive at the moment, Cornyn-Noriega in TX being the only real possibility). That is, to say the least, unlikely.

It is highly likely – something on the order of 99.9% – that the Democratic edge in the Senate will reach 55 seats in a few weeks. It's nearly as likely (let's say 80%) that the majority will be 58 or 59. But the odds drop precipitously at that point. The battle to get to 58 will be a pretty easy one but there will be rapidly diminishing returns beyond that point. Fighting their way to 60 will require an improbable victory and a few more years of kissing Joe Lieberman's ass, bending to his every whim.

Now that I've downplayed the odds as much as possible it's worth noting that the scenario is costing the GOP some sleep. In what can only be described as a ringing vote of confidence, the RNC is reportedly ready to stop spending money on McCain's rudderless ship of a campaign in order to devote more resources to a "firewall" at 40 Senate seats. Think about that for a second. If the big victory they can take away from this election is "We have enough Senators to threaten a filibuster!" then the GOP has truly suffered a beating of historic proportions. Note, however, how well the "firewall" at 50 worked in 2006. Something tells me this one will work slightly better, if only because the odds of the Democrats hitting 60 (and especially doing so sans Lieberman) are small independent of any GOP strategy.

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THEN MY NAME IS JAGDISH

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 10th, 2008 by Ed

We are all familiar by now with the phenomenon of outsourced call centers handling marketing, customer service, and technical support calls for thousands of American businesses. Advances in telecommunications technology make it as easy to have 1-800-BUY-DELL connect to a depressing shack in Bangalore as a depressing office park in Tupelo. Logistical costs are greater but more than offset by depressed foreign wages.

The change has hardly been seamless for American consumers. India-based call banks have become a cultural punchline dotting media commentary, films, sitcoms, and hacky stand-up comedy routines. Aside from bringing the usual nativist prejudices out of the woodwork, there has been some legitimate backlash. First, being as frank as possible, intelligibility can be an issue. Understanding someone who learned English out of a textbook speaking with a heavy Indian accent over a 6,000 mile connection on our cell phones as we walk down a noisy street is often difficult. Non-native speakers staff these call centers after being rapidly crammed with colloquial American English at the behest of foreign employers, putting the people on both ends of the call in an uncomfortable situation. Second, some American customers resent the farming out of what were once American jobs – shitty jobs, but domestic shitty jobs.

Companies using South Asian call centers have attempted to compensate in the most awkward, ridiculous way: by pretending that the employees are American. We've all been on a tech support call which began with a young man whose accent is heavier than Apu from The Simpsons introducing himself as "Hello, my name is Brian." My favorite personal experience involved an AT&T DSL service call two weeks ago in which the obviously Calcutta-based representative introduced himself as "Todd McIntosh." I had to restrain myself from telling "Todd" that if he's a third-generation Irishman in America than I am a native Hindi speaker named Jagdish. The second most popular tactic is forcing phone reps to read even more American colloquialisms off of a script.

In whose interest are these charades? American callers, of course, are not fooled. It remains immediately obvious that we are speaking to someone in India. If anything it is slightly more offensive to imply that we are stupid enough to think that "Brian" or "Heather" are speaking to us from Iowa – not to mention how offensive it is to make the employees conceal their identities to appease an American audience. Neo-colonialism indeed.

EXHIBIT A

Posted in Election 2008, Quick Hits on October 9th, 2008 by Ed

It's great that the day I post about fake Rove-generated "comeback" stories and efforts to create realities that don't exist, Mr. Rove himself runs a WSJ editorial entitled "Voters Haven't Decided Yet."

Aside from being a textbook example of fantastically wishful thinking, it's patently untrue. It is an empirical fact that the vast majority of voters of any political persuasion have long since decided. Nice try, though, d-bag.

UPDATE: ONE MONTH OUT

Posted in Election 2008 on October 9th, 2008 by Ed

Less than 30 days remain until the election. Having talked about the Senate races in detail, where do we stand in The Big Race? Well, this much is all but carved in stone:

Obama 260, McCain 174 (sorry for the poor image quality – I remain tech-tarded and would love for someone to explain how to get a decent jpg out of Flash)

Very few states remain in play, although it is not beyond McCain to put a state like Wisconsin or Pennsylvania back in play. If the election took place tomorrow, though, we would expect Obama to come out on top in these states. Note that I am being conservative giving Obama 260 EV; based on aggregated state polling, Pollster puts him at 320 right now. Let's stick with the safer estimate, which I believe is a reasonable one based on the data and trends, and consider what each candidate needs to do in order to win.

McCain needs to win every undecided state. Obama needs to win one. That's a slight oversimplification, but that's essentially the score.

McCain will need to rally in Florida, Colorado, and Ohio, where he currently trails, in addition to fending off Obama in surprisingly-competitive Virginia and North Carolina. I'm being very generous and handing him Indiana, which is reasonable, and assuming that he can win Missouri (where he leads but is struggling).

Remember, Obama wins the tiebreaker in the House so he only needs 9 EV. New Hampshire and Nevada together would give him 9, as would any other state currently undecided (IN, VA, NC, FL, OH, MO, or CO) on its own.

I believe that any election decided after Election Day (in the House or in court) is harmful to the winner. So Obama is unlikely to ease off the accelerator in any state he reasonably thinks is competitive in order to score a decisive win. If McCain sweeps the undecided states and wins, he will be winning by a nose (something like 270-275 EV). A decisive win isn't really an option for him this year. Obama, as indicated by the generous estimate on Pollster, can win with a big margin. Whether he will remains to be seen.

The short answer is that McCain is in trouble. Both he and his campaign appear moribund in recent days. Democrats should refrain from breaking out the America-Hating Champagne, though. Four weeks is plenty of time for things to change. Here's what's likely to happen.

McCain will rally with about 10 days left (last week of October). More accurately, he'll "rally." His campaign will saturate anyone who will listen with messages about how he's "coming on strong" or mounting a huge last-minute comeback. The media will carry the water because, frankly, a close election is in their (ratings) interest too. The 2006 Election provides a good template – remember those last 48 hours before the polls closed when the media was abuzz with the GOP's great big rally that didn't exist? Expect that again, only louder and more insistent.

Whether he actually rallies or Karl Rove simply attempts to create a new reality with a few planted stories will be revealed shortly. Having lapsed into desperation and full-on smear mode, a real rally is unlikely. As the body digests its own muscles in a starving person, McCain is burning his credibility as fuel to stay alive right now. This makes no difference, of course, because the talking point will be the same – boy, what a "surge" McCain is making! He's closing fast!

If you support Obama, I encourage you not to be worried about this predictable tactic. The media will pound you with "comeback" stories right before the election but they're likely to be bullplop. They certainly didn't mean anything in 2004 or 2006. McCain needs to establish real momentum in Ohio and Florida, not the "let's just say we have momentum and hope people buy it" kind. The same old shit – smear Obama, rely on ultra-conservative Evangelicals to sweep the GOP to victory – isn't cutting it. McCain needs to give those voters a reason to vote for him, not against Obama.

MORAL BANKRUPTCY

Posted in Rants on October 8th, 2008 by Ed

I expect the recently-legislated bailout of the lending system to amount to a hill of beans in the long run. It's an insanely expensive gamble premised on a number of unduly optimistic assumptions. Unlike many commentators I do not subscribe to the "at least they're doing something" theory; spending money like drunken sailors in a logical vacuum potentially makes things worse. I can agree, though, that doing nothing is a poor option.

On the Friedman/Hayek-worshipping right, letting the entire financial system go belly-up is the preferred, if not only, course of action (e.g. Jeff Miron's "Bankruptcy, Not Bailout, Is the Right Answer"). The stated reasons have a lot to do with pious talk and free-market idolatry. Oh, so wonderfully principled those economic libertarians are. As usual the real motive is hidden carefully behind the curtain.

Who benefits from what Miron calls the "bankruptcy" option? Lending institutions fail, stockholders get creamed, private individuals will need a black ski mask and a gun to get a loan, and the entire economy will contract. There is no obvious winner excepting a bunch of Ron Paul supporters who will get raging erections. But Miron is careless and lets slip the winners in this scenario:

Bankruptcy means that shareholders typically get wiped out and the creditors own the company. Bankruptcy does not mean the company disappears; it is just owned by someone new (as has occurred with several airlines).

The "Do Absolutely Nothing" plan is about one thing – redistributing wealth by consolodating even more of it in the hands of the top 1%. Bankruptcy and financial chaos simply allow the sliver of the nation with the resources to ride out the storm to go bargain shopping. Miron's plan is a disingenuous way of driving asset prices through the floor, at which point it will just so happen that what few entities are financially healthy (JPMorgan, for example, is on a buying spree) will purchase their former rivals for pennies.

It's not just for behemoth financial conglomerates, though – the average Joe Millionaire Six-Pack can handsomely profit from buying foreclosed homes! The message is the same either way: this recession won't last forever and assets bought on the cheap now will be worth millions later. Libertarians are simply hoping that as many assets as possible end up in the bargain bin, waiting for our heroic betters to swoop in like vultures and gorge themselves on the remains of our prosperity.