Jasper Smith

Commentary on politics, economics, culture and sports.

Archive for November 2007

Free advice to Mitt

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Huckabee’s rise in polls of Iowans may be just what the doctor ordered for Romney, in similar fashion to how Obama’s rise among Iowan Democrats benefits Hillary: in both cases expectations are helpfully adjusted downwards. It would probably be disastrous for Romney were he to lose by eight or nine points to Huckabee in Iowa if that’s not what the polls are predicting. But should Romney enter Iowa with the polls predicting a second place finish to Huckabee, the latter’s victory wouldn’t necessarily cause the Mittster huge problems.

My advice to Romney: ratchet up the TV spots in Iowa emphasizing your record for fiscal conservatism and your (new) hardline approach to immigration. The spots will be designed to hit Huckabee in his vulnerable areas, but don’t mention him by name (you might need him as a running mate, after all, and you don’t want to stoke up any more anti-Mormon animus amongst the fundies than you’re already dealing with). You might also want to consider tying your expertise in venture capital and business creation with a pitch to Iowans focusing on energy independence. Huck can’t match your new economy leadership bonafides. Also, don’t be afraid to feature your lovely, all-American looking family in your spots. Do your best to whittle Huck’s lead down as much as possible in Iowa. If you manage to prevail, Huck’s done. If you manage merely to exceed expectations, you’re still in pretty good shape. Meanwhile, starting in, say, mid-December, absolutely UNLOAD on Giuliani with negative ads in the NH/Boston media market. Focus on Kerrik and mistressgate. Make SURE you dispatch Rudy at the time of the NH primary. You can’t waste the opportunity to hit your most dangerous competitor hard in a battlefield where you have a decisive advantage: after all, the inevitable “back at ya” attacks Rudy will mount won’t be as effective as yours, because it won’t be possible for him to paint horns on you to voters (including lots of ex-Bay Staters) who feel they already know you quite well. Anyway, a (say) fourth or fifth place finish in Iowa for Rudy followed by a (say) third or fourth place finish in NH basically ends the New Yorker’s campaign, and effectively means its you against Huck for the nomination.

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November 29, 2007 at 5:14 pm

Managing expectations in Iowa

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Matt Yglesias opines on Romney’s chances:

It seems to me, though, that this basically all comes down to what happens in Iowa. In particular, it comes down to what happens with the remaining Fred Thompson supporters once they realize that their man is in third place and slipping. At the moment, Huckabee and Romney are both trending upwards, but Huckabee is gaining on Romney because he’s trending upwards faster. If the bulk of Thompson’s remaining supporters (a not inconsiderable slice of the electorate) decide that Huckabee is the southern white Christian dude for them, then Huckabee stands a decent chance of pulling off an upset and Romney’s in big trouble. But if they decide that they need to do the pragmatic “Stop Rudy” thing and vote for Romney, then it really does seem like Mitt winds up sweeping the early primary table and Giuliani’s in big trouble.

I personally think it’s not so much about who “wins” Iowa (or NH, for that matter) but who does what in the expectations game.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that Huckabee continues to gain on Romney in the polls, and that, by the end of December, he’s built, say, an eight point lead among Iowans likely to vote. Under such circumstances if Romney loses by only two points, he might plausibly claim he’s “won” — and that the momentum is back on his side. A similar dynamic can be seen among the Democrats. Hillary Clinton obviously doesn’t want to finish second to Obama in Iowa. But it’s far better for her to come out behind Obama there if that’s what the polls are predicting (especially if she can “beat the spread”) than to do so when the polls are predicting a first place finish. Indeed, for Hillary, there may be something of a silver lining in her recent slippage in Iowa vis a vis Obama, as it lowers expectations for her.

It’s all about expectations and momentum in the early going

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November 27, 2007 at 1:43 pm

Ezra on Obama

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Ezra articulates his disappointment with the candidacy of Barrack Obama. Not surprisingly, given the fact that Ezra is the progressive blogosphere’s eminence grise on matters related to healthcare,  he focuses on Senator Obama’s dismal healthcare plan:

I understand that he needs to defend his plan, but he’s making an argument that, I imagine, future Republicans will quote back at progressive reformers. To me, this is worse than the Social Security stuff. At least there, he’s advocating a progressive policy, if buying into a Republican frame. Here, he’s constructing a conservative frame to defend a bad policy, a policy I believe his campaign regards as a mistake. He talks a lot about honesty. He should be honest. The lack of a mandate was a mistake, born out of caution, and he should rectify it. Hell, he’s already said that, if he could go back to the country’s beginning, he’d choose single-payer. So if he doesn’t want to turn and mimic Clinton’s position, and if he instead wants to say that having thought it through, the individual mandate is the wrong way to guarantee universality, and we should simply make insurance a right, guaranteed by the government because that’s what sort of country we are, and he’s sorry for letting consultants constrain him, that would be great. But to see Obama, day after day, argue against collective action and universality, is deeply disappointing, almost heartbreaking. He had the capacity to elevate those ideals, to do for them what Reagan did for individualism. He’s letting that opportunity, that potential, slip away.

Preach it, Ezra.

A progressive economic agenda happens to be my biggest priority in 2008. It’s not my only priority. But it is number one. It’s too bad that Obama isn’t as strong as he could be in this department, because his candidacy has a lot to offer the country. But I’m tired of mucking about: The tea leaves strongly favor a Democrat in 2008, and I want to make sure the Democrat taking the oath shares my priorities. If he’s still viable when the Massachusetts primary comes around, I’ll strongly consider John Edwards. But as of right now, I’m a Clinton supporter. Should Obama heed Ezra’s advice and publicly resharpen some of his domestic policy plans (especially on healthcare), I may reconsider. Heaven forbid a politician change his mind about something he’s plainly wrong about, so that he can now be right.

By the way, Hillary Clinton’s plan, which, we all acknowledge, was basically right out of Edwards’s playbook (with one or two improvements), was politically very astutely written and presented. My own take on the Hillarycare fiasco of 1993 is that its biggest flaw was that it didn’t get the politics of healthcare right. So, her efforts this time around tell me that she has learned from her mistakes, and that having failed the first time around, Hillary Clinton is — as she claims, and contrary to her critics — more, not less, likely to succeed in giving every American meaningful healthcare coverage.

We are correct in avoiding people who make the same mistake again and again. But people who learn from their mistakes are usually some of the most effective people on offer.

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November 26, 2007 at 5:58 pm

Obama v. Clinton: deciding factors

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Barrack Obama supporter Matt Yglesias has been fairly tough on Hillary Clinton lately. Foreign policy wonk that he is, Matt’s objections to Clinton, not surprisingly, focus on this area:

When I see a race between two politicians, one of whom got Iraq wrong and one of whom got it right, to me that establishes a presumption in favor of the candidate who got it right, no matter whose husband the wrong one is. When it turns out that the one who got it wrong also has a group of advisors heavily weighted toward the group of pro-war “experts” who helped push so many Democratic politicians into taking her wrong position on the war in 2002, that re-enforces my presumption. When the one who got it right is closer to a circle of people who were cast out of favor due to their opposition to the war or willingness to associate with Very Shrill Howard Dean, that re-enforces my presumption. Stuff like the Kyl-Lieberman vote, the funny business on nuclear weapons, the “naive and irresponsible” bit all further re-enforces my presumption. And I think once you look at it that way, the whole race looks different. There’s been a ton of commentary about how Barack Obama hasn’t said or done anything to debunk people’s presumption that Hillary Clinton should be the nominee. And that appears to be true. But what if you don’t start with that presumption? And I don’t think we should. To me, the presumption that a candidate who can say he has a record of sound foreign policy judgment that can be contrasted with Republican X’s record of support for Bush administration fiascos makes a lot more sense than the presumption that Clinton should get the nomination.

All good points by Matt; this line of thinking could certainly seal the deal in favor of Obama for a person favorably disposed toward either of the two Democratic frontrunners, if such a person is basing his/her vote primarily on foreign policy and national defense.

I know there’s an argument out there that foreign policy is exactly what you should base your decision on, given the executive branch’s primacy in this area, and Congress’s prominence in domestic affairs. But dammit, the country’s domestic political economy is might screwed up at the moment, and, personally, I’m really jonesing for sanity, competence and proper priorities in this area, too. And here — at least from the little I’ve gleaned about Senator Obama’s positions from following the campaign — his instincts really seem worryingly off-kilter. Especially for someone who cut his political teeth as a community organizer. Obama’s views on Social Security strike me as particularly ill-informed, and his proposal to remove millions of old people from the income tax rolls is just bizarre. And his health care proposal is frankly awful. In a word, Obama seems to me like a real rookie when it comes to bread and butter issues.

Anyway, none of this may make much difference if a President Obama allows a more heavily Democratic Congress to set the agenda on domestic affairs, and said Congress is lead by Democrats with sound principles. But I’d feel much more comfortable voting for Senator Obama in the primary were he to show more substance on kitchen table issues — even if that meant — heaven forbid — modifying some of his earlier positions and risking the dreaded charge of flip-floppery.

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November 20, 2007 at 5:51 pm

The rumor mill, or, Jasper engages in sheer speculation

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By now you’ve no doubt heard about Robert Novak’s story regarding the Clinton/Obama rumor keffufle. Allegedly, Hillary’s campaign is threatening to spill the beans on dirt they possess on Barrack Obama, should the latter indulge in rumor mongering about the former president’s post-White House extramarital adventures. Yes, shockingly, there are rumors out there that the lusty lad hasn’t mended his ways.

Ross Douthat wants to know why, if the stories have any credibility, nobody has broken a story yet:

Is it credible that if there were sex scandals lurking out there, waiting to explode on the Clinton campaign, we wouldn’t know about them yet? I don’t care if Drudge is cozy with the Clintons now, or if Clinton-pal Ron Burkle gets control of every single supermarket tabloid in God’s creation – this is the age of TMZ and Gawker Stalker, and I find it hard to believe that someone like Clinton would be able to get away with his old tricks without some alternative, internet-age media outlet getting hold of the dirt. Mainstream outlets (like, say, the LA Times) might have qualms about running with a “Clinton commits adultery – again” story that doesn’t have a direct legal or political angle, but there are too many outlets devoted to full-time gossip now for journalistic high-mindedness to keep something like that out of the news. Aren’t there? Or am I being naive about the ability of someone as mobbed-up as Clinton to do what he pleases without it leaking online?

My guess: Bill has not been faithful to Hillary since leaving office, but his dalliances have been fairly discrete, quiet affairs — involving a woman (or women) who won’t talk. He’s probably gotten more careful. So there’s simply nothing but rumor and innuendo at this point — there’s no soiled dresses or photographs. He’s obviously not stupid enough to send his paramours emails, or be seen holding hands in a restaurant. And remember, he has Secret Service protection, and one happy side-benefit for him is it makes things more difficult for the papparazi. Anyway, this is my guess as to why no big story has yet broken. And yes, the Clintons are well-liked by a lot of media moguls, and have many friends in high places, so this doesn’t hurt, either.

I furthermore suspect the Clintons may very well have dirt on Obama. Why wouldn’t they? They’ve probably got dirt on Edwards, Richardson, Dodd, Biden, Giuliani, McCain, Huckabee, and Romney, too. Opposition research is pretty standards these days in American politics. Surely the Clintons possess expertise in this particular branch of the political black arts. So, yes, this, too, helps keep Bill’s skeletons in the closet, just as Novak reported. If such a strategy can buy the Clintons another twelve months, they’re home free. I don’t think anybody would be shocked if, not long after Hillary Clinton takes the oath of office, it is announced the president and first gentleman have agreed to “an amicable separation.”

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November 19, 2007 at 3:00 pm

Declining cities and vicious circles

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There’s been a lot of talk lately — indeed it’s renewed talk as we slide into hard times and deal with the foreclosure crisis — about the decline of American rust belt cities. I’ve long held the view that we truly exacerbate our urban ills with bad public policy choices — or at least bad public policies born out of accidents of history.

It’s clear to me that, in America at least, local governance — and especially the way local governance is financed — contributes to the sort of longer-term, truly pernicious urban decline apparent in places like Detroit and Cleveland, or in some of the smaller cities in my own backyard such as Lawrence or Brockton. I would argue it is bad policy to require a municipality to raise the bulk of its revenue from its own local economy. It would be wiser for all revenues to be raised at the state level; the economy of an entire state is larger than that of a municipality, after all, and therefore subject to less volatility. Raising all local governance money in a centralized fashion at the state level — and then distributing funds back to municipalities on a per capita basis — would help deteriorating cities resist decline. Under status quo arrangements (which typically require municipalities to rely heavily on the property values within their borders to finance local services), once economic decline sets in, it is often next to impossible to reverse, as a vicious circle is set off: A flagging economy and declining population reduce property values, which in turn decimates tax collections, which in turn makes it difficult to pay for adequate schools, infrastructure and public safety, which in turn exacerbates the economic decline and population exodus…

Centralized, state-level funding of local governance isn’t a magic bullet. But it is a concept that ought to seriously be considered as a means of arresting the seemingly inexorable decline of America’s hardest-pressed cities

Written by Jasper

November 18, 2007 at 11:51 pm

Posted in Cities, Economics, Policy

Friday Rudy blogging

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Ross Douthat is skeptical that it is Rudy Giuliani’s pro abortion rights stance that makes him a formidable candidate in a general election:

I’m often inclined to think that Giuliani would be the strongest GOP nominee – because he’s a celebrity, a national hero, and a very capable politician. I’m skeptical that he’d be the strongest GOP nominee because he’s pro-choice, which is something that his supporters often suggest, and that elite-level Democrats and Republicans alike seem to believe. Not just because of the possibility of a spoiler candidate (though that certainly factors in), but because there’s at least as much reason to think that Giuliani’s abortion views would hurt the GOP with socially-conservative, economically moderate voters (with the middle-class white Catholics, for instance, who broke for Bush heavily in ’04) as there is reason to think that they would help the GOP with socially-liberal fiscal conservatives.

Right. Why bother to pull the lever for Rudy when he’s no better than Hillary on abortion, and when at least the latter might help you with your health insurance?

That said, I still suspect Rudy’s likely one of the two strongest candidate the GOP can put up. He’d surely be more competitive in places like New Jersey, New York and California than, say, Mitt Romney (at least I think he would). But who knows? A Rudy nomination — even if it doesn’t prompt a right wing third party/independent candidate to run — probably would risk some luke-warmism amongst the GOP faithful in the bible belt. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few white, Protestant, southern Republicans vote for Hillary (to say nothing of John Edwards, were he to get the nod) over the multiply-divorced,  lapsed Catholic, pro-abortion rights, formerly nice to gays and immigrants, cross-dressing Italian-American with the New York accent.

I guess I could see it breaking either way with respect to Giuliani’s social moderate-ism in a general election, but I still think the GOP’s most electable candidate is John McCain.

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November 9, 2007 at 5:24 pm

Posted in Election 08, Politics

Examining the exurbs

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Matt Yglesias gets into a discussion on the geographical composition of the foreclosure crisis in his analysis of the situation with Blue Dog Democrats, and their alleged caving in to financial interests intent on sticking it to beleagured mortgage payers:

My look at the data thus far has been very cursory, but my preliminary conclusion would be that the hardest-hit areas are the high-growth fringes of vibrant metro areas. In Virginia, for example, Arlington County right next door to DC has a higher foreclosure rate than South Dakota. It’s lower, however, than the rate in Fairfax County — the further-out part of suburban Virginia. Fairfax’s foreclosure rate, in turn, is lower than the rates in Loudon County and Prince William County — the dread exurbs. The ring of counties around those two counties — rural areas — see the rate dropping again.

One of the thread commenters mentions his skepticism that higher gas prices are adding much fuel to the fire for hard-pressed exurban home owners, opining that such people stand to “save” a couple of hundred thousand bucks by choosing to live far out from the city center (a “savings” that, according to his logic, apparently far outweighs the recent spike in gasoline prices).

I’m not so sure about this line of reasoning. It seems to me plenty of folks in exurban  areas really are facing major financial stresses these days, and higher prices at the gas station don’t help matters. In the first place, is the whole concept of buying in the exurbs really a question of “saving” $200k? That makes it sound like the average exurbanite has the option of buying a $500k house close to the city but instead opts to “save” a couple of a hundred thousand by tolerating a sixty mile commute.

I think the reality is that, in most exurbs, many of the people who have settled there have done so because that’s all they can afford. This is in contrast to city centers and close-in suburbs, which are often populated either by wealthier folks or people, who, for whatever reason, (too poor, or else young urban hipsters who haven’t started families yet) have no burning need (or ability) to be homeowners. In other words, exurbs are peopled by folks who very often are strapped for cash. Just the kind of people who got into an exotic mortgage a couple of years ago — and bought at the height of the market. There’s a heavy preponderance of residents with children, as well, and kids, as we all know, aren’t exactly cheap.

Anyway, it doesn’t surprise me that foreclosures are higher in the exurbs than either in more central location or in truly rural areas. The exurbs are where the American dream — in all its glorious excess — thrives in good times, and crashes and burns when the time comes to pay the piper.

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November 8, 2007 at 11:08 pm

Dollar doldrums

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With respect to the falling dollar, one hears that it could get a lot worse very quickly, and there is dark talk of a sudden plunge, or speculation that “the Chinese might decide to dump US holdings.” What I want to know is, if, by “Chinese” one is referring to the government of China, exactly why would they Beijing want to take this course of action?

Wouldn’t dumping dollar assets just put yet more, enormous downward pressure on the greenback, thereby making Chinese exports more costly to American consumers? Last time I heard, they’ve got a lot of mouths to feed, and a very restive population; the last thing they need is massive layoffs. Here’s the point: the Chinese government is, um, a government. Why does a sovereign government care if its holdings of a particular financial asset are worth less? It has these things called “printing presses,” after all. And moreoever, the government of China is not saving up for a downpayment on a house, or trying to build a nest egg for retirement, or anticipating a costly wedding down the road. Governments don’t need to save, or build up portfolios, in the same manner as individuals.

I’m not saying people making such claims about the dumping of US bonds by the Chinese are wrong, mind you. I just don’t understand the logic, and I wonder if someone has an explanation.

Obviously private sector Chinese actors are dumping dollar-denominated assets just like other folks around the world, or else the dollar wouldn’t be dropping. I’m just wondering why they government in Beijing might want to do this. Seems to me a risky move for little (or no?) gain.

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November 8, 2007 at 10:43 pm

School choice: like kryptonite to liberals

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Ezra criticizes supporters of school choice, citing the example of a voucher program in place in the D.C. school system:

Given that a lot of this conversation (about vouchers) has actually been about the DC public school system, this data is relatively important. Again, it doesn’t mean that experimentation couldn’t have positive impacts — say, under charter schools, where pubic accountability is retained — but this intense focus on vouchers stems from a commitment to economic orthodoxy, not because the programs have any proven results.

I frankly don’t get the reluctance of my fellow economic liberals to support injecting competition and choice into the K-12 model. I agree that libertarians have a lot of nutty ideas with respect to the role of government and the efficacy of markets (they underestimate the former and overestimate the latter). But it seems to me they’re basically correct about the desirability of funding students instead of funding schools.

Now, just to clarify, I’m not some kind of concern troll here. On this and other forums I’ve called for an additional $600 billion in federal safety net enhancements (that’s totally doable, by the way — we’d only be looking at an additional 4-5 points of GDP, which would still leave us way south of the EU average). And I want to see this type of government funded with a rather Nordic combination of progressive income taxes and consumption taxation. Give me Denmark in America, baby. There’s no question but that I’m an economic liberal of a rather robust sort.

But as long as government is willing to spend what it ought to be spending, it seems to me it shouldn’t be engaged in actually owning, managing and operating the facilities that provide services (such as schools) unless there’s no alternative, or unless there’s some utterly compelling reason it’s better to do it this way. You don’t have to be a loony libertarian to like the cool things given to us by free markets. I likes me some big robust safety nettage and very free (albeit prudently regulated) markets.

And any way, lots of government benefits are already portable: Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps and Social Security to name a few. I would imagine the quality of, say, grocery store services enjoyed by retirees or poor people genuinely would suffer if, instead of issuing Food Stamps and Social Security checks, we “assigned” the recipients of such programs particular stores where they were required to do their shopping (the only way out being the purchase of an expensive address in an pricey “shopping district” where they have fancier stores). Anyway, I suspect we are already getting some sort of reduction in the quality of public education because of a similar lack of competition in public K-12. I don’t think this is a liberal or conservative thing. I think it’s simple human nature. Unless the possibility of failure exists (ie., losing your customers to the competition) there’s simply no sufficiently powerful leverage to insure that schools — just like, say, software companies and hospitals and law firms and universities – are constantly striving to improve their “product.” The latter institutions are all capable of losing their customers. But K-12 public school mostly aren’t.

I rather have the notion that school choice is for American liberalism what, say, the politics of homosexuality is for American conservatives. Surely a lot of libertarian-minded American conservatives know in their heart of hearts that, in addition to being immoral, it’s simply nonsensical to base much of your platform on being nasty to gay people.

Similarly, most liberals these days are perfectly comfortable with free markets. We enjoy the better restaurants, fancy IPhones and improved coffee competition brings us. Indeed, we’re quick (and rightly so) to sic the Justice Department on would-be monopolists, because we know restraint of trade harms society.

So, why, when there are no reasons based on technical feasibility or efficaciousness to oppose a market approach to K-12, are we so stubborn? After all, such liberal societies as Sweden and The Netherlands have apparently enjoyed pretty good success with allowing taxpayer money to follow students to the schools of their choice. And indeed in America we ourselves have enjoyed world-leading success with the way we structure post secondary education– a sector characterized by competition, choice, and funding portability. A sector, in other words, that is structured a lot like a voucher program.

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November 5, 2007 at 9:24 pm

Jury Duty

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Sorry for the long absence. I was stuck in a long (three week) jury trial — a civil matter at Suffolk Superior in downtown Boston.  I may comment on it later. It was rather an interesting experience.

I’ve also been getting a new business up and running, so time has been in short supply. Oh yeah, I’ve also been wasting spending tons of time commenting on other blogs. Oh well.

Anyway, like the new blog theme? I’m delighted with it.

Written by Jasper

November 5, 2007 at 9:11 pm

Posted in Miscellania