Tag Archives: Kevin Drum

Park Slope and The Rats of NIMBY

Elisabeth Rosenthal at NYT:

Park Slope, Brooklyn. Cape Cod, Mass. Berkeley, Calif. Three famously progressive places, right? The yin to the Tea Party yang. But just try putting a bike lane or some wind turbines in their lines of sight. And the karma can get very different.

Last week, two groups of New Yorkers who live “on or near” Prospect Park West, a prestigious address in Park Slope, filed a suit against the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to remove a nine-month-old bike lane that has commandeered a lane previously used by cars.

In Massachusetts, the formidable opponents of Cape Wind, a proposed offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound, include members of the Kennedy family, whose compound looks out over the body of water. In Berkeley last year, the objections of store owners and residents forced the city to shelve plans for a full bus rapid transit system (B.R.T.), a form of green mass transit in which lanes that formerly served cars are blocked off and usurped by high-capacity buses that resemble above-ground subways.

Critics in New York contend the new Prospect Park bike lane is badly designed, endangering pedestrians and snarling traffic. Cape Wind opponents argue the turbines will defile a pristine body of water. And in Berkeley, store owners worried that reduced traffic flow and parking could hurt their business.

But some supporters of high-profile green projects like these say the problem is just plain old Nimbyism — the opposition by residents to a local development of the sort that they otherwise tend to support.

Ryan Avent:

The Times piece delves into the psychology of this kind of neighborhood opposition, but what it doesn’t say is that as annoying as this is, it has a far smaller impact on net emissions than the far more common anti-development strain of NIMBYism. Bike lanes make New York City a teeny bit greener. But New York is already much, much greener than most American cities, thanks to its dense development pattern and extensive transit network. Net emissions fall a lot more when someone from Houston moves to New York than when someone from New York starts biking.

Happily, lots of people would LOVE to move to New York. This is one huge benefit we don’t need to subsidize to realize. Unhappily, the benefit is nonetheless out of reach because of the huge obstacles to new, dense construction in New York. New York can’t accommodate more people unless it builds more homes, and it can’t build more homes, for the most part, without building taller buildings. And New Yorkers fight new, tall buildings tooth and nail. They fight them on aesthetic grounds, and because they’re worried about parking and traffic, and because they’re worried about their view, and because they just think there’s enough building in New York already, thank you. And many do this while heaping massive scorn on oil executives and the Republican Party over their backward and destructive views on global warming.

Of course, the obstruction of development is offensive for lots of reasons: it makes housing and access to employment unaffordable, it reduces urban job and revenue growth, it tramples on private property rights, and so on. But the environmental hypocrisy is galling, and it’s not limited to New York. My old neighborhood, Brookland, voted overwhelmingly for Obama (about 90-10, as I recall). Many of the locals are vocally supportive of broad, lefty environmental goals. And yet, when a local businessman wants to redevelop his transit-adjacent land into a denser, mixed-use structure, the negative response is overwhelming, and residents fall over themselves to abuse local rules in order to prevent the redevelopment from happening.

This project would bring new retail with it, which would enable more local residents to walk to a retail destination. It would bring new residents, and those residents would be vastly more likely to walk or take transit to destinations than those living farther from Metro. Forget the economic benefits to the city, the people occupying the new housing units would have carbon footprints dramatically below the national average. But this basically does not matter to the NIMBYs however much they profess to care about the environment.

To the extent that public opinion matters and can be shaped, I think it would be a huge boon for humanity for attitudes toward NIMBYism to turn decidedly negative. People should be ashamed of this behavior, which is both selfish and extravagantly dismissive of property rights.

Kevin Drum:

Earlier today, I linked to a Ryan Avent post complaining that although dense cities like New York are much greener than towns and suburbs, his lefty, environmentally-aware neighbors fight against new high-density developments in the city anyway. A little later, I had an email exchange with HW, a lefty, environmentally-aware New Yorker who thinks Ryan has it all wrong. Here’s the exchange:

HW: It is true that people living in NY have much much lower carbon footprints than those who live in lower density areas. It’s also true that it is a highly desirable place to live. So wouldn’t the way to accomplish more people living in high density areas like NY be to replicate it elsewhere? Or should we insist on cramming more people into NY against NYers’ will and make it a less desirable place to live?

Wouldn’t it be better for 8 million people to live in NY and have it serve as a beacon for a great, lower carbon footprint lifestyle? If you cram an extra million people in, sure, you lower their carbon footprints, but you may also make high density urban living far less attractive and less likely to be replicated around the country.

Avent mentions problems with parking and traffic as a throw-away, but I can tell you, the 4-5-6 running up from midtown to the Upper East Side is quite literally crammed wall-to-wall with people every morning. Parking is unlikely to be an option for anyone unwilling to spend several hundred dollars a month. And yes, another ten skyscrapers will result in the city becoming a darker and more depressing place. Not to mention the fact that the last ten high rises that went up on the Upper East Side were creatures of the housing bubble, resulting in massive losses and lots of empty units.

So would it be so terrible if we built up the downtown areas of Jersey City, White Plains and Stamford instead?

My reply: Well, that’s the funny thing. Building new high-density areas is the obvious answer here, but no one ever does it. Why? I assume it’s because it’s next to impossible to get people to move to new high-density developments. You get all the bad aspects of density without any of the good aspects of living in a big, well-established city.

It’s a conundrum. We could use more well established cities, but no one wants to live in the intermediate stages that it takes to build one. And of course, in well-established smaller towns and cities, the residents fight like crazed weasels to prevent the kind of development that they associate with crime and gangs.

I don’t really know what the answer is.

HW again: I’m not sure that’s entirely true. What about all the downtown redevelopment projects that have happened around the country? Or the urban centers that sprout up around the core of big cities like NY. Next time you are in NY, look across the East River and take a gander at Long Island City. It’s as close to midtown as the Upper East Side, easy to build there, far less expensive, and just as dense. And every single one of those luxury high rises went up in the past 12 years; it’s literally a skyline that didn’t exist 12 years ago. Jersey City is a similar story, both for residential and financial (every big bank has moved their IT back office out there). Or look at the gentrification of Brooklyn!

So why obsess on cramming a couple hundred thousand more people on the island of Manhattan, which will push it past the bursting point? It’s just not a smart premise. In fact, I’ll go further: it bears no relationship to reality. No one would stop a luxury high rise in any of the other four boroughs or right across the river in NJ and it’s just as dense and low-carbon to live in those spots. It’s just that Ryan Avent doesn’t WANT to live in those spots. He wants to live in a cheaper high rise in Manhattan (which, by the way, has seen tons of them go up already in the past decade — in the Financial District, Hell’s Kitchen, the Upper East Side). Avent should ride the 4/5/6 at 8 am every morning for a week, come back, and tell us if his article makes any sense. As a 4th generation NYer, I don’t think it even begins to.

I don’t really have a dog in this fight since I’ve lived in the leafy suburbs of Orange County all my life. But I thought this was an instructive response that was worth sharing. Back to you, Ryan.

Avent responds to the e-mail exchange:

I’m just pointing out the obvious here — many more people would like to live in Manhattan, it would be good economically and environmentally if they did, and it’s bad that local neighborhood groups are preventing them from doing so because they’re worried about their view. Further, my guess is that even without a relaxation in development rules Manhattan will cram in a couple hundred thousand more people, and demand will continue to rise; somehow, Manhattan will manage not to burst. Though it might eventually be swamped, if city-dwelling NIMBYs continue to make Houston exurbs ever more affordable relative to walkable density.

The transportation problem can be solved, in part, by better transportation policy. It is a crime that the subways are crammed while drivers use the streets of Manhattan for free, but that’s a policy failure, not a density failure. It’s also worth noting that heights fall off sharply as one moves away from the central business districts of Lower and Midtown Manhattan. If developers could build taller in surrounding neighborhoods and add residential capacity there, then more Manhattan workers could live within easy walking distance of their offices, and fewer would need to commute in by train.

Finally, let me point out that this is not about what I want. I’m not planning a move to New York, and I’m not remotely suggesting that the government should somehow mandate or encourage high-density construction. I’m simply saying that it should be easier for builders to meet market demand. It should be easier for builders to meet market demand in Manhattan, and Brooklyn, and Nassau County, and Washington, and downtown Denver, and so on. People clearly want to live in these places, and it would be really good for our economy and our environment if they were able to do so. And I find it very unfortunate that residents deriving great benefits from the amenities of their dense, urban neighborhoods are determined to deny those benefits to others.

Matthew Yglesias:

I don’t want to say too much about the debate over increased density in Manhattan because, again, ebook proposal. But one reality check on this whole subject is to note that the population of Manhattan 100 years ago at 2,331,542 people. It then hit a low of 1,428,285 in 1980 and has since then risen back up to 1,629,054.

Back in 1910 there were only 92,228,496 people in the United States. Since that time, the population of the country has more than tripled to 308,745,538. And if you look at Manhattan real estate prices, it’s hardly as if population decline in Manhattan has been driven by a lack of demand for Manhattan housing. Back around 1981 when I was born, things were different. The population of the island was shrinking and large swathes of Manhattan were cheap places to live thanks to the large existing housing stock and the high crime.

Karl Smith at Modeled Behavior:

Many years ago I gave a talk entitled, Green Manhattan, where I made the case that Metropolis was the greenest place in America.

Naturally, I got a lot of funny looks but the line that seemed to win a few converts was this: the best way to protect the environment is by keeping people out of it.

I admit I took a few liberties in the talk, not discussing how agriculture would be performed and supported, for example. Nonetheless, I think this framing breaks the intuition that green is about living with nature rather than letting nature live on its on.

Megan McArdle:

New York hasn’t actually been growing steadily; it’s been rebounding to the population of roughly 8 million that it enjoyed in 1950-70 before the population plunged in the 1970s.  It’s really only in the last ten years that the population has grown much beyond where it was in the 1970.

This matters because I think you can argue pretty plausibly that New York’s infrastructure has put some limits on the city’s growth–that by 1970 the city had about grown up to those limits, and that we can push beyond them only slowly.  The rail and bus lines that sustain the business district are pretty much saturated, and the roads and bridges can’t really carry many more cars at peak times.  Adding busses could conceivably help you handle some of the overflow, but unless those busses actually replace cars, they’ll also make traffic slower.
Unless you plan to fill the city entirely with retirees who don’t need to go to work, there’s actually not that much more room to build up New York–you could put the people there, but they wouldn’t be able to move.  And even the retirees would require goods and services that choke already very congested entry and exit points.  There has been peripatetic talk about switching all deliveries to night, but that would disturb the sleep of low-floor apartment dwellers, and be fantastically expensive, forcing every business to add a night shift.
At the very least, the current city dwellers are right that adding more people would add a lot more costs to them–crammed train cars, more expensive goods.  In New York, much more than in other places, the competition for scarce resources like commuting space is extremely stark.
That doesn’t mean it is impossible to add a lot more people to New York.  But doing so requires not just changing zoning rules–as far as I know, there’s already quite a lot of real estate in the outer boroughs that could accommodate more people, but it’s not close to transportation, so it’s not economically viable.  If you want to add a lot more housing units, you also need to add considerable complimentary infrastructure, starting with upgrading the rest of the subway’s Depression-era switching systems (complicated and VERY expensive because unlike other systems, New York’s trains run 24/7).  And ultimately, it’s going to mean adding more subway lines, because short of building double-decker streets, there’s no other way for enough people to move.
Those lines don’t have to go to the central business district; there’s already been some success developing alternate hubs in Queens and Brooklyn.  But they do have to go from residential neighborhoods to somewhere that people work, and they have to add actual extra carrying capacity to the system–line extensions do no good if the trains are already packed to bursting over the high-traffic areas of the route.
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Filed under Go Meta, Infrastructure

Reading Is Fundamental, Mr. Krugman

Paul Krugman:

A followup on the post about mostly economics reading; on politics, culture, etc. there are other blogs I read fairly often. On politics, Greg Sargent, Josh Marshall, Digby, and I still get a kick out of Atrios, who gets to use all the words I can’t. And I’m a big fan of the folks at Crooked Timber.

Some have asked if there aren’t conservative sites I read regularly. Well, no. I will read anything I’ve been informed about that’s either interesting or revealing; but I don’t know of any economics or politics sites on that side that regularly provide analysis or information I need to take seriously. I know we’re supposed to pretend that both sides always have a point; but the truth is that most of the time they don’t. The parties are not equally irresponsible; Rachel Maddow isn’t Glenn Beck; and a conservative blog, almost by definition, is a blog written by someone who chooses not to notice that asymmetry. And life is short …

Mark Hemingway at The Weekly Standard:

Bear in mind that this paragraph comes right after Krugman lists a lot of perfectly respectable (though shamelessly ideological and hyperbolic) liberal blogs.

So in other words, if you’re reading this you’re probably more informed than at least one Nobel Prize Winner.

Scott Sumner at Wall Street Pit:

That’s right, and George Will isn’t Michael Moore; and a liberal blog, almost by definition, is a blog written by someone who chooses not to notice that asymmetry.  No need to read Marginal Revolution, Becker/Posner, Econlog, John Taylor, Greg Mankiw, Robin Hanson, Steven Landsburg, etc, etc.  Nothing of interest, just move right along folks.  I’m always amazed when someone so brilliant can be so clueless about life.  How someone can reach middle age and still live in a kindergartener’s world of good guys and bad guys.

Perhaps if Krugman would get out a bit more he might make fewer embarrassing errors,  like this one, where he forgot the fallacy of composition, something taught in EC101.  I guess none of his liberal friends have the nerve to point out these sorts of silly errors.  So it’s still there, uncorrected after two weeks.  A monument to his pride at being ignorant of the views of those with whom he disagrees.

You might ask whether I’m being a bit harsh calling him “ignorant.”  Actually, he’s the one who proudly flaunts his ignorance of conservative thought.

I find that reading good liberal blogs like Krugman, DeLong, Thoma, Yglesias, etc, sharpens my arguments.  It forces me to reconsider things I took for granted.  I’d guess that when Krugman tells people at cocktail parties that the post-1980 trend of lower tax rates, deregulation, and privatization was a plot devised by racist Republicans, they all nod their heads in agreement.  If he occasionally read a conservative blog he might learn that all those trends occurred in almost every country throughout the world after 1980, usually much more so than in the US.

I wonder if his blanket condemnation of reading conservative outlets would include books that attack silly liberal arguments for protectionism.  Or articles that show the folly of liberal opposition to sweatshops.  Are those conservative ideas also no longer worth reading?

Kevin Drum:

The problem is sort of a Catch-22: reading the loony tunes blogs isn’t worthwhile except for entertainment value, so I mostly don’t bother. Conversely, the more moderate types have interesting things to say, but they’re so out of touch with mainstream conservatism that they often don’t seem worthwhile engaging with either. I mean, what’s the point in arguing over some technocratic point that’s a million light years away from the views of actual, existing conservatism, which doesn’t yet admit that cutting taxes reduces revenues or spewing carbon into the air heats the globe? It all has a very ivory tower feel to it.I’ll go on reading the non-insane conservatives, because (a) it’s worth having my views challenged by smart people and (b) you never know: maybe someday the tea party version of conservatism will collapse and the moderates will regain a bit of power. That sure seems like a pipe dream right now, though.

James Joyner:

This is a recurring theme and, while I certainly read plenty of conservative pundits–and, indeed, still consider myself one–like Kevin, I read fewer than I used to. I prefer rational, facts-based analysis and find more of it across the aisle than on my own side.

Partly, it’s a function of the fact that academics and policy wonks with strong academic backgrounds are more likely to produce the kind of writing I find interesting and those groups tilt to the leeward side. But I’m not the only conservative who has noticed that even mainstream journals on the right have gone crazy. And the David Frums, Bruce Bartletts, and Daniel Larisons have largely been written off as RINOs angling for invites to liberal cocktail parties.

Are the rational conservatives simply being outshouted? Out-promoted? Or are there just too few to matter anymore?

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Give The Public What They Want, More Blog Posts On Mandates

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Kevin Sack at NYT:

Seeking to appease disgruntled governors, President Obama announced Monday that he supported amending the 2010 health care law to allow states to opt out of its most burdensome requirements three years earlier than currently permitted.

In remarks to the National Governors Association, Mr. Obama said he backed legislation that would enable states to request federal permission to withdraw from the law’s mandates in 2014 rather than in 2017 as long as they could prove that they could find other ways to cover as many people as the original law would and at the same cost. The earlier date is when many of the act’s central provisions take effect, including requirements that most individuals obtain health insurance and that employers of a certain size offer coverage to workers or pay a penalty.

“I think that’s a reasonable proposal; I support it,” Mr. Obama told the governors, who were gathered in the State Dining Room of the White House.

“It will give you flexibility more quickly while still guaranteeing the American people reform.”

Kate Pickert at Swampland at Time:

As I wrote in November, there’s no guarantee Republicans governors will embrace this 2014 opt-out waiver plan, which would have to pass through Congress to become law:

Aside from the political implications of endorsing a plan championed by a Democratic leader on health reform – even if he is in cahoots with a Republican from a blue state – some on the right might balk at the Wyden-Brown plan on the grounds that it’s still an expensive expansion of government. The Wyden-Brown plan, after all, does not – as far as I can tell – spend any less money than the ACA without a state opt-out. On the contrary, it may cost more.

The Wyden-Brown plan also does not impact the huge Medicaid expansion called for in the ACA, which Republicans vehemently oppose. It doesn’t eliminate taxes on expensive health insurance plans, or fees levied on medical devices or pharmaceuticals.

Another catch: The Wyden-Brown plan only allows states to opt out if they have a good plan for how to undertake comprehensive health care reform on their own. Most states don’t have such a plan. Massachusetts, which enacted reform in 2007, obviously does, which is why Brown was a logical co-sponsor of the opt-out bill. California, Connecticut and Vermont are three other states that are on their way toward developing health care reform inside their borders. But red states – especially southern states – are among those least equipped to design and implement reform that could accomplish what the ACA attempts to do, as they typically have higher percentages of uninsured residents and looser insurance regulation.

Conn Carroll at Heritage:

As long as the HHS Secretary, whether it is Kathleen Sebelius or the next occupant of the office, has the final say on granting Obamacare waivers, then there is no real flexibility for states under Obamacare. All 50 of them would still be at the mercy of the whim of the HHS. The only real way to give states true flexibility on health care reform begins with the full repeal of Obamacare.

UPDATE: Politico confirms that Wyden-Brown has nothing to do with offering Obamacare critical states “flexibility” and everything to do with advancing single payer health care:

[A] White House conference call with liberal allies this morning says the Administration is presenting it to Democrats as an opportunity to offer more expansive health care plans than the one Congress passed.

Health care advisers Nancy-Ann DeParle and Stephanie Cutter stressed on the off-record call that the rule change would allow states to implement single-payer health care plans — as Vermont seeks to — and true government-run plans, like Connecticut’s Sustinet.

The source on the call summarizes the officials’ point — which is not one the Administration has sought to make publically — as casting the new “flexibility” language as an opportunity to try more progressive, not less expansive, approaches on the state level.

“They are trying to split the baby here: on one hand tell supporters this is good for their pet issues, versus a message for the general public that the POTUS is responding to what he is hearing and that he is being sensible,” the source emails.

Ezra Klein:

The question is whether this makes Wyden-Brown more or less likely to pass. I’m guessing less likely. The political theory behind Wyden-Brown was that it gave Republicans a constructive way to attack the Affordable Care Act: The waiver program could be sold as a critique of the law — “it’s such a bad bill that states need to write their own policy” — even as it entrenched the country’s basic commitment to universal health-care insurance. You could’ve imagined it being attached to the budget or one of the spending bills as part of a larger bargain.

But now that Obama has admitted it’s not a threat to the Affordable Care Act, a lot of the appeal for Republicans dissipates. Supporting it could even be seen as helping the White House in its efforts to defend the law against repeal. So the idea looks likelier to become a talking point for the administration — see how reasonable we’re being? — than an outlet for Republicans. But perhaps that doesn’t matter: Wyden-Brown hasn’t attracted any Republican co-sponsors beyond Scott Brown, so maybe it never had a chance of playing its intended part anyway.

Kevin Drum:

I suspect this is not as big a deal as it seems. Basically, Obama is calling the bluff of Republicans who insist that they can build a healthcare system that’s as extensive and affordable as PPACA using some combination of tea party-approved “free market” principles. He’s telling them to put their money (or, rather, money from the feds) where their mouths are, which will probably demonstrate fairly conclusively that they can’t do it. It’s possible that a state like Oregon might enact a more liberal plan that meets PPACA standards, but I doubt that Alabama or Tennessee can do it just with HSAs and high-deductible health plans.

Still, we’ll see. This is a chance for conservatives to show that they have a better healthcare answer in the real world, not just as talking points at a tea party rally. Obama is betting they’ll fail, and he’s also betting they’ll tear each other apart arguing over details while they do it. Life is easy when all you have to do is yell “Repeal Obamacare!” but it gets a lot harder when you have to produce an actual plan.

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DOMA Dies A Lawyered Death

 

US Department of Justice:

The Attorney General made the following statement today about the Department’s course of action in two lawsuits, Pedersen v. OPM and Windsor v. United States, challenging Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage for federal purposes as only between a man and a woman:

In the two years since this Administration took office, the Department of Justice has defended Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act on several occasions in federal court.   Each of those cases evaluating Section 3 was considered in jurisdictions in which binding circuit court precedents hold that laws singling out people based on sexual orientation, as DOMA does, are constitutional if there is a rational basis for their enactment.   While the President opposes DOMA and believes it should be repealed, the Department has defended it in court because we were able to advance reasonable arguments under that rational basis standard.

Section 3 of DOMA has now been challenged in the Second Circuit, however, which has no established or binding standard for how laws concerning sexual orientation should be treated.   In these cases, the Administration faces for the first time the question of whether laws regarding sexual orientation are subject to the more permissive standard of review or whether a more rigorous standard, under which laws targeting minority groups with a history of discrimination are viewed with suspicion by the courts, should apply.

After careful consideration, including a review of my recommendation, the President has concluded that given a number of factors, including a documented history of discrimination, classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a more heightened standard of scrutiny.   The President has also concluded that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to legally married same-sex couples, fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional.   Given that conclusion, the President has instructed the Department not to defend the statute in such cases.   I fully concur with the President’s determination.

Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic:

The announcement by the Justice Department came just minutes before White House press secretary Jay Carney’s regular briefing. Carney took care to press upon reporters that the president’s personal view about DOMA — that it is unfair to gays and lesbians — is distinct from the decision. The announcement from the administration came because of a court-imposed deadline from the 2nd Circuit.

Carney also said that the U.S. government will still be a party to these cases to allow the courts to make a recommendation about constitutionality and to allow other interested parties, such as Congress, to defend the law if they wish.

“We recognize and respect that there are other points of view,” Carney said.

The decision means the Justice Department will cease to defend two suits brought against the law. The first was a summary judgment issued in Gill et al. v. Office of Personnel Management and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. United States Department of Health and Human Services last May by the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. The plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of the law’s definition of “marriage” as a legal union between a man and a woman.

District Judge Joseph Louis Tauro ruled Section 3 of the act unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated states’ rights to set their own marriage policies and violated the rights of same-sex couples in the states that permitted marriages. But the president felt compelled to defend the law, reasoning that Congress had the ability to overturn it. The Justice Department entered into an appeal process on October 12, 2010. Tauro stayed implementation of his own ruling pending the appeal. The department filed its defense in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit on January 14.

The second lawsuit, involving the cases of Pedersen v. Office of Personnel Management and Windsor v. United States, would have been appealed in the Appeals Court for the 2nd Circuit, which has no established standard for how to treat laws concerning sexual orientation.

The president has won favor with the gay community recently by pushing for and winning repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays serving in the military, which the lame-duck Congress passed in December. At that time, Obama reiterated his support for repealing DOMA but did not take further steps.

Matt Welch at Reason:

The law is still in effect, but probably lost whatever chance it had of surviving a legal challenge. You can read Holder’s letter here.

Reason on DOMA here, including this piece from 1996 by Nick Gillespie. Excerpt:

It is a misguided attempt to define for all time an institution that is constantly, if slowly, evolving. Its supporters may think they can stop social evolution in its tracks and enforce a singular vision of the good society. But such people misunderstand the very nature of a free society and its dependence on choice and change. The Defense of Marriage Act may well have put off state recognition of same-sex marriage for the time being, but such laws can do precious little to keep things as they are. There can be little doubt that, ultimately, the government will be following IBM’s lead, even as IBM has followed its employees’.

William C. Duncan at The Corner:

There is something about the marriage issue that provokes an “any means necessary” approach from its proponents (among whom I believe we can count the president, notwithstanding campaign rhetoric to the contrary).

The president’s strategy, however distasteful, could be successful. In almost every successful same-sex-marriage case so far, the attorneys charged with defending the marriage laws either refused to do so (Iowa, Northern District of California) or made only pro forma defenses while conceding key points to the pro-redefinition side (Connecticut, California Supreme Court). Whether it is a good thing to have key social policies decided by lawyer inaction is an important question.

Presumably Congress can seek to intervene in the DOMA suits in order to defend the law. Maybe the federal courts need a public-defender program for statutes that have fallen out of favor with the elites in power.

Doug Mataconis:

It’s worth noting that when Judge Walker struck down California’s Proposition 8 last year, he used to lower “rational basis” test. Nonethless, Holder’s arguments in the letter are very similar to those Walker used in his opinion, and I won’t be surprised to see parts of this letter show up in appellatte briefs down the line as persuasive authority.

Personally, I think the entire act is unconstitutional, an opinion that is also shared by Bob Barr, who introduced the Act when he was a Member of Congress in the 1990s:

I’ve wrestled with this issue for the last several years and come to the conclusion that DOMA is not working out as planned. In testifying before Congress against a federal marriage amendment, and more recently while making my case to skeptical Libertarians as to why I was worthy of their support as their party’s presidential nominee, I have concluded that DOMA is neither meeting the principles of federalism it was supposed to, nor is its impact limited to federal law.

In effect, DOMA’s language reflects one-way federalism: It protects only those states that don’t want to accept a same-sex marriage granted by another state. Moreover, the heterosexual definition of marriage for purposes of federal laws — including, immigration, Social Security survivor rights and veteran’s benefits — has become a de facto club used to limit, if not thwart, the ability of a state to choose to recognize same-sex unions.

Even more so now than in 1996, I believe we need to reduce federal power over the lives of the citizenry and over the prerogatives of the states. It truly is time to get the federal government out of the marriage business. In law and policy, such decisions should be left to the people themselves.

In 2006, when then-Sen. Obama voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment, he said, “Decisions about marriage should be left to the states.” He was right then; and as I have come to realize, he is right now in concluding that DOMA has to go. If one truly believes in federalism and the primacy of state government over the federal, DOMA is simply incompatible with those notions.

The other problem with DOMA is that it essentially tells couples living in states where same-sex marriage, or civil unions, are legal that they can only live in states where the law is the same, or where their marriage will be recognized, which at this point constitutes less than 1/4 of the United States. It means a couple married in Iowa cannot move to any state in the American south without giving up all of their legal rights. This is exactly the kind of thing that the Full Faith And Credit Clause was designed to prevent. In fact, under current law, a marriage between a man and a woman that may not be legal in one state — such as a marriage between first cousins — will still be recognized as legal since it was legal under the laws of the state in which it took place. There is no rational reason why the individual liberty of gays and lesbians should be restricted in this manner.

Bryan Preston at PJ Tatler:

Does a president have the power to unilaterally declare laws passed by Congress and signed by his predecessors “unconstitutional?” This strikes me as setting an extremely dangerous precedent.

Kevin Drum:

This, by the way, is a good example why I’ve never joined in the general condemnation of conservatives for “reigniting the culture wars” whenever they introduce an abortion bill or somesuch. I’m on the opposite side of these conservative efforts, of course, but the fact is that liberals started the culture wars in the 60s and it’s something we should be proud of. So while I oppose the conservative side of the culture wars, I approve of the culture wars in general, and I applaud Obama and Holder for reigniting it last year when Congress repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and for reigniting it in the case of DOMA today. Blacks, Hispanics, gays, women, the disabled and millions of others have benefited tremendously from the culture wars, and I’m happy to see it continue until there’s no more war to fight.

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Filed under Families, Gay Marriage

Hey Kids, Tyler Cowen Wrote A Book!

Tyler Cowen’s new book, “The Great Stagnation”

Tyler Cowen:

That’s the title and it’s by me, the Amazon link is here, Barnes&Noble here.  That’s an eBook only, about 15,000 words, and it costs $4.00.  If you wish, think of it as a “Kindle single.”

Your copy will arrive on January 25 and loyal MR readers are receiving the very first chance to buy it.  Very little of the content has already appeared on MR.

Many of you have read my article “The Inequality that Matters,” but there I hardly touched on median income growth.  That is because I was writing this eBook.

Has median household income really stagnated in the United States?  If so, why?  Are the causes political or something deeper?  What are the important biases in how we are measuring national income and productivity and why do they matter for economic policy?  Are we getting enough value for all the extra money we are spending on the health care and education sectors?  What do some major right-wing and left-wing thinkers miss about this phenomenon?

How does all this relate to our recent financial crisis?

I dedicated this book to Michael Mandel and Peter Thiel, two major influences on some of the arguments.

Why did big government arise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, what is its future, and why is science so important for macroeconomics?  How can we fix the current mess we are in?

Read (and buy) the whole thing.

Scott Sumner:

How great was Tyler Cowen’s marketing coup?  Well he forced a technophobe like me to actually learn how to use Kindle.  I wasn’t too happy about that, which makes me inclined to write a very negative review.  But that’s kind of hard to do credibly when I agree with the central proposition of the book; that technological progress (at least as traditionally measured) has slowed dramatically, and will continue to be disappointing for the foreseeable future.

In an earlier post I argued that my grandma’s generation (1890-1969) saw the biggest increase in living standards; most notably a longer lifespan (due to diet/sanitation/health care), indoor plumbing and electric lights.  Less important inventions included home appliances, cars and airplanes, and TVs.  From the horse and buggy era to the moon landing in one life.  And all I’ve seen is the home computer revolution.  Not much consolation for a technophobe like me.  I’m probably even more pessimistic than Tyler.

The parts of the book I liked best were those that discussed governance.  I had noticed that there was a correlation between cultures that are good at governance, and cultures that are good at running big corporations.    But Tyler added an interesting perspective, arguing that the technologies that facilitated the growth of big corporations also facilitated the growth of big government.  I don’t recall if he made this point, but I couldn’t help thinking that the neoliberal revolution, which led to some shrinkage in government size, was also associated with a move away from the big corporate conglomerates of the 1960s, towards smaller and more nimble businesses.

Tyler has a long list of complaints about the wasteful nature of our government/education/health care sectors, which he hinted is really just one big sector.  While reading this section I kept wondering when he was going to mention Singapore, which has constructed a fiscal regime ideally suited for the Great Stagnation.  When he finally did, on “Page” 830-37, he did so in an unexpected context, as an example of a society that reveres scientists and engineers.  He had just suggested that the most important thing we could do to overcome the stagnation was:

Raise the social status of scientists.

My initial reaction was skepticism.  First, how realistic is it to expect something like this to happen?  I suppose the counterargument is that every new idea seems unrealistic, until it actually occurs.  But even if it did, would it really speed up the rate of scientific progress?  My hunch is that if we doubled the number of people going into science, there would be very little acceleration in scientific progress.  First, because the best scientists (think Einstein) are already in science, driven by a love of the subject.  Second, with a reasonably comprehensive research regime, progress in finding a cure for cancer may require a certain set of interconnected discoveries in biochemistry that simply can’t be rushed by throwing more money and people at the problem.  Similarly, progress in info tech may play out at a pace dictated by Moore’s law.  Given Moore’s law, no amount of research could have produced a Kindle in 1983.  Could more scientists speed up Moore’s law?  Perhaps, I’m not qualified to say.  But that’s certainly not the impression I get from reading others talk about information technology.

Here’s another exhortation that caught my eye:

Be tolerant, and realize there are some pretty deep-seated reasons for all the political strife and all the hard feelings and all the polarization.

I couldn’t help thinking of Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen, the two brightest stars of the economic blogosphere.  If only one of those two are able to have this sort of dispassionate take on policy strife, how likely are the rest of us mere mortals to be able keep a clear head and remain above the fray?  Still, it’s great advice.

Ryan Avent at Free Exchange at The Economist:

Mr Cowen’s book can be very briefly (too briefly) summarised as follows. The rich world faces two problems. The first is that a decline in innovation has reduced the growth rate of output and median incomes, making it hard for rich countries to meat obligations accepted when expectations were higher. The second is that a lot of recent innovation is occuring in places like the internet, where new products are cheap or free and create very few jobs.

Mr Sumner’s response is a good one. What Mr Cowen is essentially saying, he suggests, is that the actual price level is tumbling. Technology has created a lot of great things that are available for free, and so the price of a typical basket of household consumption is dropping like a rock. People used to spend a lot of money going to movies, buying books and records, making expensive long-distance phone calls, paying for word processing software, and so on. Now, a lot of that can be done at almost no cost. Prices are falling.

That has a couple of implications. It suggests that real incomes are actually rising, at least for those consuming the bulk of the free online content. And perhaps real incomes are too high, in some cases, for labour markets to clear. Given broader disinflation (understated because non-purchased goods aren’t included in price indexes) both prices and wages may need to adjust, but if they’re sticky, then they won’t. What’s needed is reinflation.

To a certain extent, Mr Cowen is concerned about society’s ability to pay off old obligations, and one reason society might struggle to do this is that new innovations deliver value through non-monetary transactions. But the value is still there, and that’s what should really matter for the paying-off of obligations. When you borrow, you’re offering to compensate the lender with more utility tomorrow for less utility today. Thanks to the internet, utility today is cheap, and that’s only a problem because the obligations we acquired yesterday were denominated in dollars. But we can print enough money to meet yesterday’s obligations. Indeed, we should, in order to offset the deflationary pressures from the cheap innovations.

Imagine a world in which technology has advanced to the point that robots can build robots that operate at basically no cost at basically no cost, such that people can have anything that want anytime for free; the only constraint on consumption is the time available. That would be a cashless economy, and as a result, debtors would be totally unable to pay creditors. But does that matter?

Paul Krugman:

Tyler Cowen argues that technological change since the early 1960s hasn’t been as transformative for ordinary peoples’ lives as the change that went before.

I agree. I wrote about that a long time ago, using the example of kitchens:

Better yet, think about how a typical middle-class family lives today compared with 40 years ago — and compare those changes with the progress that took place over the previous 40 years.

I happen to be an expert on some of those changes, because I live in a house with a late-50s-vintage kitchen, never remodelled. The nonself-defrosting refrigerator, and the gas range with its open pilot lights, are pretty depressing (anyone know a good contractor?) — but when all is said and done it is still a pretty functional kitchen. The 1957 owners didn’t have a microwave, and we have gone from black and white broadcasts of Sid Caesar to off-color humor on The Comedy Channel, but basically they lived pretty much the way we do. Now turn the clock back another 39 years, to 1918 — and you are in a world in which a horse-drawn wagon delivered blocks of ice to your icebox, a world not only without TV but without mass media of any kind (regularly scheduled radio entertainment began only in 1920). And of course back in 1918 nearly half of Americans still lived on farms, most without electricity and many without running water. By any reasonable standard, the change in how America lived between 1918 and 1957 was immensely greater than the change between 1957 and the present.

Now, you can overstate this case; medical innovations, in particular, have made a huge difference to some peoples’ lives, mine included (I have a form of arthritis that would have crippled me in the 1950s, and in fact almost did 20 years ago until it was properly diagnosed, but barely affects my life now thanks to modern anti-inflammatories.) But the general sense that the future isn’t what it used to be seems right.

David Leonhardt interviews Cowen at NYT

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic:

Tyler Cowen’s celebrated Kindle publication “The Great Stagnation” has received a lot of attention from the Web community. The New York Times David Leonhardt gets the author to sit for an e-interview on his e-book and asks a good first question: If our innovation motor is broken, what should we do know?

Cowen responds that we should double down on science…

The N.I.H. has done a very good job in promoting medical innovation and this is in large part because it allocates funds on a relatively meritocratic basis; Congress doesn’t control particular grants and on many important fronts the N.I.H. has autonomy. It is one reason why the United States is the world leader in medical research and development and I would expand its funding, provided it retains this autonomy. Basic research is often what economists call a “public good” and it offers economic and health returns for many years to come.

… and get realistic about clean energy.

“Clean energy” is a very important issue, for reasons of climate change, but it won’t be a job creator in a useful sense. In terms of energy production, fossil fuels are quite powerful. With green energy, at this point, we are simply looking to break even, namely to receive some of our current power but without the negative environmental consequences which accrue from carbon. That’s a worthy goal, but we shouldn’t start thinking about green energy as speeding up economic growth or creating jobs. It’s more like a necessary burden we will have to bear and the fact that these costs lie in front of us – from both the climate change and from the technological adjustments — is a sobering thought.

These are smart thoughts from a very smart guy. But let’s think about NIH funding from a jobs perspective. If the government increases science funding and this results in more pharmaceutical drugs coming online, that’s a great thing for the pharmaceutical industry. But new drugs, like any new technology, can be disruptive. For example, a drug to ease the side-effects of end-of-life diseases might replace the need for home health aides, which are projected to be one of the fastest growing jobs in the country for low-skilled workers. That’s not a reason not to develop a totally useful rug! But it throws a wrench into a claim (one that I’ve often made, too) that innovations in biosciences are pure job-creators.

Ezra Klein:

Cowen’s characterization of plumbing, fossil fuels, public education systems, penicillin and so forth as “low-hanging fruit” bugs me a bit. It took human beings quite a while to figure all that out. But Cowen is right to say that once discovered, those innovations produced extremely high returns. From the economy’s perspective, the difference between having cars and not having cars is a lot larger than the difference between having cars and having slightly better cars. A 1992 Honda Accord and a 2010 Honda Accord aren’t the same, but they’re pretty close.

The obvious rejoinder to this is, “What about the internet?” The problem, as Cowen points out, is that the Internet is not yet employing many people or creating much growth. We needed a lot of people to build cars. We don’t need many people to program Facebook. It’s possible, Cowen thinks, that the Internet is just a different type of innovation, at least so far as its ripples in the labor market are concerned. “We have a collective historical memory that technological progress brings a big and predictable stream of revenue growth across most of the economy,” he writes. “When it comes to the web, those assumptions are turning out to be wrong or misleading. The revenue-intensive sector of our economy have been slowing down and the beg technological gains are coming in revenue-deficient sectors.”

Maybe the Internet just needs some time to come into its growth-accelerating own. Or maybe the Internet is going to be an odd innovation in that its gains to human knowledge and enjoyment and well-being will serve to demonstrate that GDP and even median wage growth are insufficient proxies for living standards. Either way, we’re still left with a problem: Stagnant wages are a bad thing even if Wikipedia is a big deal.

And it’s not just the Internet. Even when we’re growing, things look bad. The sectors that are expanding fastest are dysfunctional. We spend a lot of money on education and health care, but seem to be getting less and less back. The public sector is getting bigger, but it’s not at all clear it’s getting better. For much of the last few decades, the financial sector was was generating amazing returns — but that turned out to be a particularly damaging scam. And economic malaise is polarizing our politics, leaving us less able to respond to these problems in an effective or intelligent way.

Kevin Drum:

Tyler makes a bunch of other arguments in “The Great Stagnation” too, some more persuasive than others. Like some other critics, I’m not sure why he uses median wage growth as a proxy for economic growth. It’s important, but it’s just not the same thing. Besides, median wage growth in the United States slowed very suddenly in 1973, and it’s really not plausible that our supply of low hanging fruit just suddenly dropped by half over the space of a few years. I also had a lot of problems with his arguments about whether GDP generated by government, education, and healthcare is as “real” as other GDP. For example, he suggests that as government grows, its consumption is less efficient, but that’s as true of the private sector as it is of the public sector. A dollar of GDP spent on an apple is surely more “real” than a dollar spent on a pet rock, but there’s simply no way to judge that. So we just call a dollar a dollar, and figure that people are able to decide for themselves whether they’re getting the same utility from one dollar as they do from the next.

The healthcare front is harder to judge. I agree with Tyler that we waste a lot of money on healthcare, but at the same time, I think a lot of people seriously underrate the value of modern improvements in healthcare. It’s not just vaccines, antibiotics, sterilization and anesthesia. Hip replacements really, truly improve your life quality, far more than a better car does. Ditto for antidepressants, blood pressure meds, cancer treatments, arthritis medication, and much more. The fact that we waste lots of money on useless end-of-life treatments doesn’t make this other stuff any less real.

To summarize, then: I agree that the pace of fundamental technological improvements has slowed, and I agree with Tyler’s basic point that this is likely to usher in an era of slower economic growth in advanced countries. At the same time, improvements in managerial and organizational efficiency thanks to computerization shouldn’t be underestimated. Neither should the fact that other countries still have quantum leaps in education to make, and that’s going to help us, not just the countries trying to catch up to us. After all, an invention is an invention, no matter where it comes from. And finally, try to keep an even keel about healthcare. It’s easy to point out its inefficiencies, but it’s also easy to miss its advances if they happen to be in areas that don’t affect you personally.

David Brooks at NYT

Cowen and Matthew Yglesias on Bloggingheads

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Let’s Go Back To WikiLeaks And Learn Something Interesting!

John Vidal at The Guardian:

The US fears that Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude oil exporter, may not have enough reserves to prevent oil prices escalating, confidential cables from its embassy in Riyadh show.

The cables, released by WikiLeaks, urge Washington to take seriously a warning from a senior Saudi government oil executive that the kingdom’s crude oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 300bn barrels – nearly 40%.

The revelation comes as the oil price has soared in recent weeks to more than $100 a barrel on global demand and tensions in the Middle East. Many analysts expect that the Saudis and their Opec cartel partners would pump more oil if rising prices threatened to choke off demand.

However, Sadad al-Husseini, a geologist and former head of exploration at the Saudi oil monopoly Aramco, met the US consul general in Riyadh in November 2007 and told the US diplomat that Aramco’s 12.5m barrel-a-day capacity needed to keep a lid on prices could not be reached.

According to the cables, which date between 2007-09, Husseini said Saudi Arabia might reach an output of 12m barrels a day in 10 years but before then – possibly as early as 2012 – global oil production would have hit its highest point. This crunch point is known as “peak oil“.

Husseini said that at that point Aramco would not be able to stop the rise of global oil prices because the Saudi energy industry had overstated its recoverable reserves to spur foreign investment. He argued that Aramco had badly underestimated the time needed to bring new oil on tap.

One cable said: “According to al-Husseini, the crux of the issue is twofold. First, it is possible that Saudi reserves are not as bountiful as sometimes described, and the timeline for their production not as unrestrained as Aramco and energy optimists would like to portray.”

It went on: “In a presentation, Abdallah al-Saif, current Aramco senior vice-president for exploration, reported that Aramco has 716bn barrels of total reserves, of which 51% are recoverable, and that in 20 years Aramco will have 900bn barrels of reserves.

“Al-Husseini disagrees with this analysis, believing Aramco’s reserves are overstated by as much as 300bn barrels. In his view once 50% of original proven reserves has been reached … a steady output in decline will ensue and no amount of effort will be able to stop it. He believes that what will result is a plateau in total output that will last approximately 15 years followed by decreasing output.”

Kevin Drum:

This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been following the oil industry over the past few years. Matthew Simmons’ Twilight in the Desert, which I reviewed six years ago, made a detailed case that Saudi Arabia’s production capacity had pretty much maxed out already, and Business Week published an article three years ago based on internal Saudi documents that said much the same: the Saudis could pump 12 million barrels a day in short spurts but only 10 million barrels on a steady basis — and that’s all there is. Production capacity just isn’t going up.

Steve LeVine at Foreign Policy:

The issue is pivotal. Put simply, the price of oil — the price you are paying at the pump, indeed the cost of everything in your home — is wholly determined by what oil traders think Saudi reserves and production capability really are. As an example, oil plunged yesterday to their lowest price of the year — $87.87 a barrel — when Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi (pictured above) suggested that the kingdom will put new oil supplies on the market to compensate for any uptick in global demand.

The thing is, the Saudis are highly secretive about these figures — unlike almost every important petro-state on the Earth outside the Middle East, the Saudis will not permit their oilfields to be independently audited. One might wonder why that would be the case, and the late Matt Simmons, for example, made much hay suggesting that the reason is that the Saudis simply don’t have as much oil as they claim. I myself got ahold of documents back in 2008 suggesting the same. Sensible voices, however, said such are the thoughts of the conspiratorial-minded, and that the Saudis genuinely possess what they claimed — they were denying the right to verify because … well because that’s just what they do.

Ryan Avent at Free Exchange at The Economist:

It’s interesting to look at recent production data with this kind of news in mind (to see production numbers you can download  this PDF, or check out charts at the Oil Drum). What we observe is that from around 2004, oil production hasn’t increased very much, even as prices have soared. Now, one reason for this plateau may be the lag in bringing new supply online. During the cheap oil 1990s, production growth and exploration were limited. As prices rose in the early 2000s, producers brought existing, high-cost facilities online, adding to supply. But once existing production was running at capacity, the industry had to wait to get new facilities up to increase supply, and that process doesn’t happen overnight. So it could be that, globally, we’re experiencing a temporary period of high prices and stagnant supply while new extraction is set up.

Of course, in an environment of growing demand, a temporary supply limit can be costly.

But let’s think about one other potential dynamic. In the old days, OPEC attempted to use its cartel status to artificially limit supply and raise prices. This, however, was difficult to orchestrate; there was always the incentive to cheat and sell more than one’s quote of oil at the artificially high price, and as more participants cheated the supply limit fell apart. But as global supply runs against natural limits, incentives begin shifting the other way.

If an individual gains information suggesting that oil reserves are overstated, then they’re likely to expect an increase in future prices. Such an individual could bet on this outcome by buying oil futures, but this behaviour is limited by the nature of the contract; at some point traders may need to take delivery of actual oil, in which case they’ll need a place to store it, and that storing activity would be highly visible in the form of rising inventories.

But what if you’re an oil producer, and you learn this information? Well, obviously you’d like to make the same bet, and hold on to your oil until you can sell it at a higher price. Fortunately for you, oil producer, nature has provided a natural storage tank. All you have to do to make your bet is not produce any more oil than you need to sell to cover costs.

All of which is to say, the world doesn’t need to experience declines in potential oil production to see a rise in oil prices. All it needs is for oil producers to see that such limits loom and begin betting on the near-certainty of rising prices. Of course, different countries will face different liquidity constraints; some leaders may find themselves producing full out in order to sustain their socialist paradise, particularly when prices temporarily dip thanks to recession. But at those times, other countries with fiscal room to spare should cut back their production further—to buy more, essentially, when prices are low in order to sell more when prices are high.

Ariel Schwartz at Fast Company:

Even Jeroen van der Veer, the chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell, has admitted that oil supply may no longer keep up with demand by 2015. But the just-released cables, which detail a back-and-forth between the U.S. consul general and geologist Sadad al-Husseini, the former head of exploration at Saudi Aramco, confirms that the situation is serious.

Weasel Zippers

Israel Matzav:

If this is taken seriously, it should accelerate the search for alternative energy sources and reduce the influence of ‘our friends the Saudis.’ Both those results would be blessings.

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He (We Gave Him Most Of Our Lives) Is Leaving (Sacrificed Most Of Our Lives)

Anthony Shadid and David D. Kirkpatrick at NYT:

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt prepared to address the nation Thursday, with government officials indicating that they expected him to step aside, and Egypt’s military announcing that it is intervening in state affairs in an attempt to stop a three-week old uprising.

The military declared on state television that it would take measures “to maintain the homeland and the achievements and the aspirations of the great people of Egypt” and meet the demands of the protesters who have insisted on ending Mr. Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Several government officials said Mr. Mubarak is expected to announce his own resignation and pass authority to his hand-picked vice president, Omar Suleiman. But if the military does assume formal control of the government, it remains uncertain if it would give Mr. Suleiman, a former military officer, a leading role.

State television said in a bulletin that Mr. Mubarak would make a statement tonight. The news anchor stumbled on her words as she said Mr. Mubarak would speak “live on air from the presidential palace.” Footage just before then had showed the president meeting with Mr. Suleiman and the country’s prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.

Weasel Zippers:

Victory, but for whom?

Michelle Malkin:

Twitter is hoot this past hour, with BIG-CAPITAL-LETTER BREAKING NEWS flying about Hosni Mubarak possibly stepping down. Or maybe not. Or maybe so.

CIA director Leon Panetta leaped forward to proclaim a “strong likelihood” that Mubarak would be out today.

And then, a CIA spokesman quickly retracted the statement because Panetta was basing his assessment on cable news reports — not independent US intel.

And now, Panetta’s office assures us they are “monitoring the situation.”

From White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, we learn that it’s a “fluid situation.”

I’ll let you decide what kind of fluid.

Stephen J. Smith at Reason:

American and Arab media are buzzing with late-breaking rumors that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will announce his resignation tonight, almost surely in anticipation of massive rallies planned for tomorrow after Friday prayers. If true, this would be a significant victory for the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo and throughout Egypt throughout the last few weeks.

What comes next, however, is not clear. The military has been threatening a coup since yesterday, with the Egyptian Army Chief of Staff Sami Enan telling the masses in Tahrir today that “all your demands will be met…it ends tonight.” Although that statement is similar to ones made by other regime officials throughout the last few days, the mood among the protesters in Tahrir suggests that they expect the Army to be more receptive to their demands than Mubarak and his intelligence chief and newly-minted Vice President Omar Suleiman.

The big question now is who exactly will take over, and how temporary his rule will be. Speculation is changing rapidly, but the predominant theory that’s being pushed on Al Jazeera English right now is that the military was troubled by the possibility that Hosni Mubarak would try to hand over the reigns to Omar Suleiman, and that is why they’ve effectuated what appears to be a coup. Suleiman is Mubarak’s dyed-in-the-wool intelligence chief, and few have faith in him to carry out real reforms, with even his American backers expressing doubts about his commitment to change.

Doug Mataconis:

So, basically what we’ve got is a military coup with the promise of a democratic transition in the future. Whether that’s how it turns out remains to be seen, of course, but it seems clear that this is turning out the best it could so far under the circumstances.

Kevin Drum:

I’m not dumb enough to make any predictions about how this is going to end, but historically, when a country’s military announces that it’s taking over in order to “support the legitimate demands of the people,” that doesn’t bode well for the legitimate demands of the people. It may be good for stability, but count me skeptical that this is going to turn out well for democracy.

Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy

Andrew Exum:

I was in Beirut when Rafik Hariri was assassinated and lived in Lebanon for the next 12 months as well. The March 8th and 14th demonstrations, and the popular movement that led to the end of the Syrian military occupation of Lebanon, were all very exciting to live through and witness — especially as a young guy, fresh out of the Army and studying the politics of the Middle East. (I learned more on the streets than I did in the library that year!) But in so, so many ways, the six months that followed the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon were more interesting than the frantic weeks that led up to the withdrawal itself. In those six months, we saw what had really changed in Lebanon, and the answer was not much at all. If the rumors are true, and if Hosni Mubarak steps down today, the most interesting “Friedman Unit” will be the six months starting now. We will see what kind of order replaces — or doesn’t replace — the current regime, and we will see how the disorganized opposition groups fracture and fight among themselves about the way forward. The true meaning of this uprising will be found not in what happens today or what has taken place in Tahrir Square over the past three weeks but in the weeks and months ahead.

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