Episode 368

Terror in Mumbai, the collapse of Seattle banking and an update on the new Obama cabinet.

Links Mentioned: A timeline of the Mumbai carnage … SAM and WaMu … some early warning signs of trouble at the Seattle bank … Obama’s new Labor secretary?


A 21st-Century Depression

This article from Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe is a few weeks old, but I’m just getting to it. It’s really interesting:

At the household level, the look of want is different today than during the last prolonged downturn. The government helps the unemployed and the poor with programs that didn’t exist when the Great Depression hit – unemployment insurance, Medicaid, food stamps, Social Security for seniors. Beyond that, two of the basics of existence – food and clothing – are a lot cheaper today, thanks to industrial agriculture and overseas labor. The average middle-class man in the late 1920s, according to the writer and cultural critic Virginia Postrel, could afford just six outfits, and his wife nine – by comparison, the average woman today has seven pairs of jeans alone. So we’re less likely to see one of the iconic images of the Great Depression: Formerly middle-class workers in threadbare clothes lining up for free food.

If we look closely, however, we might see more former lawyers wearing knockoffs, doing their back-to-school shopping at Target or Wal-Mart rather than Banana Republic and Abercrombie & Fitch. Lean times might kill off much of the taboo around buying hand-me-downs, and with modern distribution networks – and a push from the reduce-reuse-recycle mind-set of environmentalism – we might see the development of nationwide used-clothing chains.

After The Parliamentary Presidency

I’m just getting to this New York Times magazine article, “After the Imperial Presidency” (I usually only get to read the magazine after my wife’s had a week to read it and another week to do the crossword puzzle), and I found it both better and worse than I expected.

I was expecting to read about the rise of executive power in the Bush Years, which would probably have covered Gitmo, secret prisons, the Iraq War, etc., etc. And there was some of that, to be sure. But the article was actually about something else, something that’s been on my mind a lot lately, the rise of parliamentary-style democracy in America. Instead of a system where the branches of government check each other, we’re moving slowly towards a system where the branches coordinate when they’re held by the same party, and the parties oppose each other. This is a telling anecdote:

When [LBJ] was elevated to the vice presidency in 1961, he suggested to Senator Mike Mansfield, his successor as Senate majority leader, that he be permitted to continue presiding over the Democratic caucus. Mansfield initially agreed — but the rest of the caucus revolted. The vice president might be the ceremonial president of the Senate, they argued, but to empower him to attend their caucuses, let alone run them, would create a dangerous precedent.

By contrast, in recent years, you could set your watch by the arrival of Vice President Cheney’s motorcade on Capitol Hill for the Republican caucus’s weekly strategy sessions. He was at times known to bring Karl Rove with him as well. “You can imagine the amount of dissent that goes on with the two of them sitting there,” Leahy told me.

I have mixed feelings about the rise of parliamentary politics in America. In general I think it’s a bad thing, but it’s also sort of inevitable with the rise of the party system.

But what I really wanted to know, and what the article completely avoids (perhaps because it was likely written before the election), is whether or not any of that changes in an Obama administration, and why. Obama will have a relatively sizeable Democratic majority in both houses to work with. Will Joe Biden and Rahm Emmanuel show up on Capitol Hill for strategy sessions? I think the fact that Obama is filling his staff with congressional heavy-hitters (Emmanuel, Daschle, Schiliro) speaks volumes on this score. On the other hand, the Democrats are by nature more of a coalition, as the Prof once wrote, so the coordination will probably be less intense (cue Will Rogers quote).

At any rate, the dynamic between Obama and the Democratic congress will be fun to watch.

Our Dumb Contrarian Decade

The indicators are here and the stats are in:

[A] “counterintuitive” finding is more interesting, and thus more likely to get published, than an intuitive one. But maybe lots of our intuitive ideas are correct and the “counterinuitive” selection bias is obscuring that. Certainly this is a problem in punditry and (especially) magazine writing, where the key to getting a lot of column inches is to have an interesting idea rather than a true one.

Sullivan, we’re gunning for you . . .