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Jonathan Chait’s Not-So-Magical Thinking

09/07/2011 by Peter Hart

Chait: A self-described "liberal hawk".

As progressive criticism of the Obama administration has intensified,  the critics of the critics have stepped forward to defend the White House. Much of the case comes down to saying that Obama’s lefty critics don’t know how the game is played in Washington.

Jonathan Chait from the New Republic had a New York Times Magazine piece this weekend (9/4/11) taking issue with Obama critics like Glenn Greenwald, accusing them of “magical thinking” about the power of the presidency. As the argument goes, Congress can stop what the White House wants to do, so you can’t blame Obama for not winning more progressive victories.

I am fairly certain that people like Greenwald or Paul Krugman know how Congress works. Their criticism of Obama is more substantive–that the policies he advocates aren’t very good even before one factors in what Eric Cantor or John Boehner are going to say about them.

The next part of his critique was even less convincing. Chait wrote that Obama’s liberal critics think he should have been bolder on the economy, but there’s a problem:

It’s worth recalling that several weeks before Obama proposed an $800 billion stimulus, House Democrats had floated a $500 billion stimulus. (Oddly, this never resulted in liberals portraying Nancy Pelosi as a congenitally timid right-wing enabler.) At the time, Obama’s $800 billion stimulus was seen by Congress, pundits and business leaders–that is to say, just about everybody who mattered–as mind-bogglingly large. News reports invariably described it as “huge,” “massive” or other terms suggesting it was unrealistically large, even kind of pornographic. The favored cliché used to describe the reaction in Congress was “sticker shock.”

If I’m understanding this correctly, Chait is saying that media coverage of the debate over the stimulus was terribly misleading. That seems true. But how does that have any bearing on what his critics are saying? As thisFiredoglake post pointed out, plenty of nonentities like Dean Baker, James Galbraith and Mark Zandi argued at the time that the stimulus wasn’t large enough. If Chait’s point is that these economists “don’t matter” in elite circles, he might have a point. But that’s a very different critique than the one he’s making–and one that actually makes a lot more sense than his other argument.

The Pragmatism of Dirty Air

09/07/2011 by Peter Hart

The New York Times has a story today (9/7/11) by Jeff Zeleny about how both sides are branding Obama:

The White House is in the midst of rebranding the president as a pragmatic problem solver prepared to set aside ideology to address a compelling need (see last week’s concession on ozone regulations), a reasonable man in an era dominated by extreme views.

I’m not sure that qualifies as “rebranding”–I think that’s been the Obama “brand” all along.

More worrisome is the notion of “pragmatism” here. It’s not clear whether the White House offered the ozone rule as evidence of Obama’s pragmatism, or if this is the Times‘ view. Either way, it doesn’t really make sense–unless you believe that there’s a “compelling need” for dirtier air, or that wanting fewer deaths from air pollution is an “extreme view.” Or, come to think of it, you define cleaner air as a “problem” that is “solved” by loosening pollution rules.

Smog Rules and Hazy Reporting

09/06/2011 by Peter Hart

The Obama White House made (yet another) move bound to disappoint progressive activists.  But good luck trying to get corporate media to explain the impact.

Here’s how the September 3 New York Times piece by John Broder started off:

WASHINGTON — President Obama abandoned a contentious new air pollution rule on Friday, buoying business interests that had lobbied heavily against it, angering environmentalists who called the move a betrayal and unnerving his own top environmental regulators.

The president rejected a proposed rule from the Environmental Protection Agency that would have significantly reduced emissions of smog-causing chemicals, saying that it would impose too severe a burden on industry and local governments at a time of economic distress.

Business groups and Republicans in Congress had complained that meeting the new standard, which governs emissions of so-called ground-level ozone, would cost billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs.

So this new standard would lead to HUNDREDS of thousands of lost jobs? Wow. That’s a powerful argument against it. Where does that figure come from? Is  it correct? The Times is of no help–“balance” requires that both sides get a hearing, no matter the details.

But a little history would be helpful. Similar claims were made during 1997 debates about provisions of the Clean Air Act; as this Center for American Progress report demonstrated, the massive job losses that industry warned about are difficult to spot.

Broder was back on the job-killing beat on September 5, writing (along with Motoko Rich) a piece with this lead:

Do environmental regulations kill jobs?

The answer would seem to be more yes than no. “Republicans and business groups say yes,” readers learn–and the next paragraph says, “Many economists agree that regulation comes with undeniable costs that can affect workers.”

A third group, meanwhile, has a different take: “But many experts say that the effects should be assessed through a nuanced tally of costs and benefits that takes into account both economic and societal factors.” That sounds sensible. The article goes on:

For example, when the Environmental Protection Agency first proposed amendments to the Clean Air Act aimed at reducing acid rain caused by power plant emissions, the electric utility industry warned that they would cost $7.5 billion and tens of thousands of jobs. But the cost of the program has been closer to $1 billion, said Dallas Burtraw, an economist at Resources for the Future, a nonprofit research group on the environment. And the EPA, in a paper published this year, cited studies showing that the law had been a modest net creator of jobs through industry spending on technology to comply with it.

That’s actually helpful–and might lead one to dismiss industry claims. Which might be why the piece goes on to note that “House Republicans say the administration is engaged in a spasm of rule-making that is retarding the nation’s economy and exacerbating persistently high unemployment,” before inevitably winding its way back to the “middle”:

Finding a middle ground is difficult, especially in the midst of heated political wrangling over how to cope with the sputtering economy. Businesses are focusing almost entirely on the costs. Environmental groups, meanwhile, tally up the benefits without paying much heed to the costs.

The piece actually does a pretty good job of explaining why we shouldn’t really believe industry complaints about job losses–they’ve exaggerated in the past, and there’s little to show that they’re not doing the same now. Journalists  searching for the “middle ground” do little to clarify such debates.

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