Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What Ezra & Matt said . . .

Ezra Klein: Retconning, death panels, and bailouts
"Retconning" is, well, a nerd term for "the deliberate changing of previously established facts in a work of serial fiction." Say you want to change Captain America's creation myth to accommodate the plot of a new storyline: Rather than rail at the heavens about how your new plot won't work, you just go and do it. You rewrite the past so that it fits your needs in the present.

There's a similar dynamic on the right. A politician will make a hyperbolic, absurd claim that will catch fire but prove totally false upon examination. Shame, right? Not to worry! Members of the conservative expert class will quickly construct new arguments based on different parts of the bill that have no relationship to the original argument but save the claim, or at least allow members of the right-wing media to say it's still a live charge.

The paradigmatic example of this is Sarah Palin's allegation that the health-care bill included "death panels." Palin clarified that she was referring Section 1233 of HR 3200, entitled “Advance Care Planning Consultation.” But that section had nothing to do with death panels. It had to do voluntary visits with a doctor to talk about end-of-life care, and Sen. Johnny Isakson, a conservative Republican, turned out to be an key advocate. Not to worry! Soon enough, Cato's Michael Cannon explained that Palin was at least partly right, as the death panel "is right there in the legislation now before Congress, and it is called the Independent Medicare Advisory Council."

The words "Independent Medicare Advisory Council," of course, didn't appear in either Palin's original post or in her footnoted follow-up. In fact, the bill Palin was referring to was the House bill, and IMAC was only in the Senate bill. And we're seeing the same thing happen with Mitch McConnell's claim that the Dodd bill ensures "endless taxpayer-funded bailouts for big Wall Street banks."

At the center of McConnell's claim was the $50 billion orderly liquidation fund. But tapping that fund would wipe out the bank's shareholders, fire its management and liquidate the institution. Oops.

But not to worry. McConnell's actual argument might have died a quick death, but his high-polling claim hasn't. "Yes, it's a Bailout Bill," writes AEI's Phillip Swagel. The bill gives "the government discretion to bail out creditors," which "makes the Dodd proposal a permanent bailout authority." And again: "The Dodd proposal is a bailout bill, plain and simple."

Before we get to the bill's treatment of creditors, let's look back at what McConnell was saying. The word "creditor" never appears in his speech. He talks about "Wall Street banks" and the $50 billion orderly liquidation fund, which would destroy any bank that tapped it. So whatever the validity of this claim, it is not the claim that originally supported the “bailout” charge.

Now we're told the issue is creditors. Swagel says that the bill "gives the government discretion to bail out creditors" and that it should instead rely on bankruptcy proceedings, where "a judge would divide up a failing firm’s resources among its creditors and leave no possibility of a bailout without a vote of Congress."

So does the bill bail out creditors? Not really. Let's say McConnell Bank -- a systematically important bank that was based on a lot of bad information -- goes bankrupt. The rules for this are in Section 210 of the bill. Most creditors are limited to "the amount that the claimant would have received if the FDIC had not been appointed receiver with respect to the covered financial company and the company was liquidated under chapter 7 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code or any State insolvency law."

Most creditors, in other words, will get what they would've gotten under bankruptcy -- or less. There are exceptions. One exception is for cases where paying off creditors is "necessary to minimize losses to the FDIC." The other is where paying the FDIC determines that paying off the creditor will "maximize the asset value of the company or maximize the present value of the proceeds (or minimize the amount of any loss) from disposing of the assets of the company." Another is when creditors survive in the bridge company that gets sold off.

In other words, in cases where it'll save the country money to pay a creditor above and beyond what bankruptcy would demand, the FDIC can do it. An example would be that McConnell bank has a bunch of branches across the country, all of which it pays rent on. McConnell bank isn't worth anything if it doesn't have any more branches, so the FDIC pays the rent until McConnell bank can be sold off to another company. But -- and this is important -- it can't use taxpayer money to do it.

The money it can use comes from out of the orderly liquidation fund, which the banks pay for, or borrowing against the existing assets of the failed bank, which selling those assets pays for. So either it's a tax on the banks or an estate sale of the failed bank's stuff that goes to pay out the creditors. Some taxpayer-funded bailout.

Now, there's regulator discretion here, and there's no doubt that it can be abused. This is a tough policy issue: Removing regulator discretion to pay off necessary creditors could lead to total chaos that would require Congress to vote for an actual bailout and create a Lehman-like situation that damages the economy. We can have that debate, and maybe there's a better policy.

Unfortunately, the debate we're actually having, as you can see in the title of Swagel's piece, is whether this is "a bailout bill." Is anyone really under the impression that a bailout is when the banks put up money for the FDIC to take over one of their number, and the FDIC then wipes out the shareholders and management and operates the bank -- including paying some, but not all, creditors -- until the institution can be sold off? I doubt it.

But it's important for conservative politicians to be able to say that the bill is a "bailout bill" and that requires conservative elites to have some argument in their back pocket that lets them say there's some truth to the claim, even if that truth has nothing to do with whatever the claim was originally describing. Fans of comic books will recognize this instantly: It's retconning, and sometimes it's the only way to make a new idea work under an old title.

Yglesias: Freedom’s Just Another Word for I’m An Orthodox Conservative With Orthodox Conservative Views

I was joking on Twitter yesterday morning that since the Tea Party is so upset about intrusive government, they’ll definitely be outraged about the horrible anti-immigrant bill in Arizona. Hardy har har. But it reminded me of something more serious that I wrote recently, for a forum cosponsored by Demos and TDS. The centerpiece is this John Schwarz essay that details the role of freedom-rhetoric in conservative thought and politics and proposes the need for progressives to reclaim a left-liberal conception of freedom for our own purposes.

I think there’s a lot to be said for what Schwarz is proposing, but that fundamentally what he wants to do is have a positive liberty versus negative liberty debate and that’s not really what conservative freedom-rhetoric is about:

Consider that the proponents of right-wing “freedom” are not even slightly inclined to back elements of a libertarian agenda that conflict with conservative identity politics. When John Boehner says “most importantly, let’s allow freedom to flourish” he’s not suggesting we should open our borders to more immigrants or drop the vestigial Selective Service system or allow gay couples to marry or let Latin American countries sell us more sugar or reduce military expenditures. Indeed, the very same critics who castigate Obama for limiting Americans’ freedom also accuse him of being insufficiently eager to torture people, unduly hesitant to detain suspects without trial, and too eager to take the side of black professors subject to police harassment for the crime of trying to enter their own home.

Which is just to say that Boehner is a conservative. He sides with the military, with law enforcement, with the business establishment, and with the dominant ethno-cultural group in the country. In the United States of America, people who adhere to these values like to talk about “freedom” but this has nothing in particular to do with any real ideas about human liberty.

Back in September of 1960, the leading lights of the nascent conservative movement met in Sharon, Connecticut to found Young Americans for Freedom and they proclaimed that “foremost among the transcendent values is the individual’s use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force.” A naive person might read that and conclude that William F Buckley, Jr was a strong proponent of federal anti-lynching legislation and other civil rights laws since, clearly, it was African-Americans in the Jim Crow South who were most subject to “restrictions of arbitrary force” and general lack of freedom. In the real world, a couple of lines down the Sharon Statement is talking about state’s rights, “the genius of the Constitution – the division of powers – is summed up in the clause that reserves primacy to the several states, or to the people in those spheres not specifically delegated to the Federal government.” In 1962, YAF gave its Freedom Award to none other than Strom Thurmond, and in 1964 they helped organize the GOP nomination victory of Barry Goldwater, spearheading the party’s turn away from its historic support of liberty for black people. Somewhat similarly, the far-right parties in the Netherlands and Austria are both called “Freedom Party.”

This isn’t to say that talk about freedom is a mask for racism, but rather than talk about “freedom” is just talk about conservatism. Conservatives side with business over unions and environmentalists, with police and prosecutors over criminal defendants, with nationalists against cosmopolitans, with majoritarian ethnic and religious groups against annoying weirdos, and with the military against peaceniks. Ideas about freedom and small government are totally irrelevant to the actual political agenda and the Tea Party is no different from any other conservative movement in this regard.

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