Wonkbook: Can government keep up?

October 8, 2012

Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.

Wonkbook dashboard

RCP Obama vs. Romney: Obama +1.4%; 7-day change: Obama -2.6%.

RCP Obama approval: 49.1%; 7-day change: -0.8%.

Intrade percent chance of Obama win: 64.1%; 7-day change: -10.7%.

Wonkbook's number of the day: 3%. That's the bounce Nate Silver thinks Mitt Romney got from the debate, at least judging by the earliest tracking polls. We'll know more as the major polls with post-debate samples begin filtering out this week, and then even more when they begin coming out next week and we can see whether Romney's bump persists or melts away.

Top story: Can policy keep up with the rapid changes in the private sector?

How changing markets and high-frequency trading is forcing the SEC to play catch-up. "As billions of shares course through the stock market each day, investors rely on the government to keep up with Wall Street’s rapid-fire traders. But in an acknowledgment that the Securities and Exchange Commission has fallen behind the firms it regulates, the agency is turning to one of those high-frequency traders for help...The program, called 'Midas' by the S.E.C., is part of a broader effort at the agency to monitor the proliferation of new technologies and to crack down on practices that have given sophisticated traders an advantage over ordinary investors...The S.E.C.’s rudimentary technology has hobbled its ability to untangle these events and police the automated trading firms...The system, akin to an X-ray machine for the stock market, could enable regulators to detect whether trading firms are overwhelming the market’s plumbing when they rapidly submit and cancel orders." Nathaniel Popper and Ben Protess in The New York Times.

@ReformedBroker: Problem is, if the NYSE got rid of HFT, that's 80% of their biz! Should they back muffins and sell to traders instead?

How the place of patents is changing in an era of software innovation. "[C]ompanies [are] caught in a software patent system that federal judges, economists, policy makers and technology executives say is so flawed that it often stymies innovation. Alongside the impressive technological advances of the last two decades, they argue, a pall has descended: the marketplace for new ideas has been corrupted by software patents used as destructive weapons...Patents are vitally important to protecting intellectual property. Plenty of creativity occurs within the technology industry, and without patents, executives say they could never justify spending fortunes on new products. And academics say that some aspects of the patent system, like protections for pharmaceuticals, often function smoothly. However, many people argue that the nation’s patent rules, intended for a mechanical world, are inadequate in today’s digital marketplace. Unlike patents for new drug formulas, patents on software often effectively grant ownership of concepts, rather than tangible creations...As a result, some patents are so broad that they allow patent holders to claim sweeping ownership of seemingly unrelated products built by others." Charles Duhigg and Steve Lohr in The New York Times.

What's great about the Bureau of Labor Statistics is that everyone believes it pretty much all of the time. "The real story about BLS data is how enormously credible it is. Financial markets, the press, opposition politicians, and everyone else almost uniformly takes it seriously. If anything, the national pathology is taking the month-by-month errors a little too seriously and not wrestling with sample error, modeling error, and the relatively large scale of revisions. Conspiracy theorists are rare enough to be newsworthy, and widely dismissed as conspiracy theorists...This is a remarkable fact and it's a big part of what makes America great. Trustworthy economic data is a very valuable public good that serves as a useful production input for tons of private businesses. It also helps smaller-scale government agencies and nonprofits make smarter decisions. And last but by no means least, precisely because the BLS is credible presidents know that they'd take an enormous political hit if they were seen as manipulating it. The result is a stable equilibrium that's friendly to democracy and capitalist prosperity alike." Matthew Yglesias in Slate.

PEARLSTEIN: Baumol's disease means cheaper computers, but higher tuition. "[O]ur current predicament is that 'goods' such as medical care and education, public safety or social work suffer from the fact that they are so labor intensive. It’s hard, if not impossible, for them to be produced more efficiently. It was in the early 1960s that a young economist, William Baumol, working with his Princeton colleague William Bowen, hit upon what has become known as 'Baumol’s disease.' No matter how innovative people were in coming up with new technology and new ways of organizing their work, Baumol and Bowen reasoned, it would still take a pianist the same 23 minutes to play a Mozart sonata, a barber 20 minutes to cut the hair of the average customer and a first-grade teacher 12 minutes to read her class 'Green Eggs and Ham.' Based on this observation, the duo predicted that the cost of education and health care would inevitably outstrip the price of almost everything else." Steven Pearlstein in The Washington Post.

@stevedarden: If the Baumol-Robinson theory is right, then real-terms caps on health and education budgets are a very bad idea.

GLAESER: How to privatize Amtrak. "U.S. President Barack Obama wants to jump-start a world-class high-speed rail network, but Republican candidate Mitt Romney wants to end Amtrak’s run as a government- controlled, subsidized rail company. This debate mirrors the larger conflict between Obama’s optimistic vision of a public sector that enriches our lives, and Romney’s skepticism about what the government actually delivers...Any decision on Amtrak should be based on whether the subsidies provide enough social benefit to offset their cost, and they should be tied to the measured advantages to society when people take the train instead of driving cars...[A] sensible rail-privatization plan should focus, perhaps exclusively, on the system’s busiest lines -- the Northeast Corridor, San Diego to Los Angeles, and San Jose to Oakland." Edward Glaeser in Bloomberg.

Top op-eds

BROOKS: Romney and the opportunity society. "Going after Mr. Romney regarding 'the 47%' will be high on the list of targets. The Republican's supposed insensitivity to the plight of ordinary Americans -- long a theme of the Obama campaign -- is sure to be central to the president's message until election day. So what should Mr. Romney do? Start by emphasizing two facts. First, low-income Americans are struggling by any measure...Second, economic opportunity is declining...These may seem to be simple facts for Mr. Romney to acknowledge. Yet, strangely, the theme of this year's Republican convention was a cheerful affirmation that America is still the land of opportunity...Think of America in 2012 as an apartment building. In the penthouse, people are living pretty well -- while the folks in the lower floors are getting flooded out. Unfortunately, the elevator hardly works anymore...Mr. Obama's only solution is to throw rocks at the top floor...Mr. Romney needs to say how he intends to fix America's elevator." Arthur C. Brooks in The Wall Street Journal.

KRUGMAN: The recovery is not a conspiracy. "If anyone had doubts about the madness that has spread through a large part of the American political spectrum, the reaction to Friday’s better-than expected report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics should have settled the issue. For the immediate response of many on the right -- and we’re not just talking fringe figures -- was to cry conspiracy...It was nonsense, of course. Job numbers are prepared by professional civil servants, at an agency that currently has no political appointees...Furthermore, the methods the bureau uses are public -- and anyone familiar with the data understands that they are 'noisy,' that especially good (or bad) months will be reported now and then as a simple consequence of statistical randomness. And that in turn means that you shouldn’t put much weight on any one month’s report...[I]f you look at the trend over the past year or so, both surveys suggest a labor market that is gradually on the mend, with job creation consistently exceeding growth in the working-age population." Paul Krugman inThe New York Times.

@pourmecoffee: Dark clouds at Romney rally. Obama and his Chicago thugs have no doubt activated their weather machine, amirite Jack Welch?

IP: What a Pres. Romney would owe Obama. "Cast your mind forward to October 2014. The economic rebound for which Barack Obama had worked so hard and hoped so long is finally underway: Growth is humming, unemployment is steadily dropping, and the stock market is hitting one record high after another. But unfortunately for Obama, he’s not in the White House anymore -- and President Mitt Romney is the man whose approval ratings are being carried aloft by the Dow...The irony is that, if Romney wins the election and the economy rebounds on his watch, much of the recovery will be due to efforts undertaken during the Obama administration." Greg Ip in The Washington Post.

@JimPethokoukis: Romney tax cut: He is being too cautious on growth impact. Corp. tax cut would mostly pay for itself.

BUCHANAN: The idiocy of crowds. "In some clever experiments, mathematician Jan Lorenz and others from the Swiss technology university ETH Zurich tested how ordinary human interactions affect the wisdom of crowds. They had volunteers answer questions -- such as 'How many murders were there in Switzerland in 2006?' -- for which the true answers were known. In some trials, the participants knew what others chose (in detail, or on average) before making their own choice...As it turns out, the crowd really isn’t so wise, even when people do act on their own. The average response on the murders question, with no social influence, was 838, compared with a true number of 198. The error reflects a known bias: When people try to estimate numbers for things they know little about, they often tend to guess for the right scale or magnitude...When given access to others’ estimates, the participants did even worse. They tended to revise their own guesses to fit more closely with those of others, a dynamic that pushed the average answer toward the periphery of the range of estimates." Mark Buchanan in Bloomberg.

Bonus interlude: 60 Pundits And Politicos As They Were In The 80s And 90s.

Top long reads

Jim Tankersley analyzes generational warfare, asking if the Baby Boomers are parasites: "I love my dad fiercely, even though he’s beaten me in every argument we’ve ever had except two, and even though he is, statistically and generationally speaking, a parasite. This is the charge I’ve leveled against him on a summer day in our Pacific Northwest vision of paradise. I have asked my favorite attorney to represent a very troublesome client, the entire baby-boom generation, in what should be a slam-dunk trial—for me. On behalf of future generations, I am accusing him and all the other parasites his age of breaking the sacred bargain that every American generation will pass a better country on to its children than the one it inherited."

@jimtankersley: Congress has been majority-Boomer since GWB took office. They've cut their taxes, expanded their benefits, and passed costs to future gens.

Camille Paglia explains how capitalism can save art, and why a new generation has chosen iPhones and other glittering gadgets as its canvas: "Does art have a future? Performance genres like opera, theater, music and dance are thriving all over the world, but the visual arts have been in slow decline for nearly 40 years. No major figure of profound influence has emerged in painting or sculpture since the waning of Pop Art and the birth of Minimalism in the early 1970s...What has sapped artistic creativity and innovation in the arts? Two major causes can be identified, one relating to an expansion of form and the other to a contraction of ideology."

Debates interlude: Jon Stewart vesus Bill O'Reilly.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Still to come: the employment breakdown by sex after the recession; HIV funding in flux; we need more money to fight wildfires; a glut of solar panels in China; and how to steal the Space Shuttle.

Economy

The two sides of housing fever. "The boom and bust in the housing market was a dual social epidemic. First, there was an epidemic of positive thinking that led to high expectations for long-term home price appreciation -- and for the economy, too. Then, after 2005, an epidemic of negative thinking discouraged many people from buying a house or from spending in general, and kept many employers from hiring...Recognizing when you are being caught up in a social epidemic is often difficult...It is possible to go deeper -- to ask what people are thinking, and infer something about the social epidemics that drive the economy...Karl Case of Wellesley College, and I have been trying to do that for over a decade. We have conducted an annual mail survey of home buyers for years, with a total now of nearly 5,000 completed questionnaires...We found that those who filled out our questionnaires were generally well informed about recent home price trends, and that their expectations for the next year’s home price appreciation were actually on the sober side. There were no signs of bubble thinking in these short-run expectations. But expectations about long-term price appreciation -- for what home prices would do over the next 10 years -- were less sober."Robert J. Shiller in The New York Times.

@blakehounshell: Earnest question: How do the BLS truthers explain the improving consumer credit, confidence, housing, auto sales, etc. numbers?

Men versus women in employment after the recession. "Men have lost more jobs than women over the course of the recession -- in large part because male-dominated industries like construction have suffered some of the most dramatic drops. But male employment has also recovered at a faster pace...By contrast, women have lost fewer jobs than men -- both in real and relative terms -- but it’s taken them longer to recover...That’s in part because women hold a disproportionate number of public-sector jobs...In recent months, however, women’s employment has begun to accelerate. And in the latest jobs report from September, women gained half of the jobs that were added in September...In particular, they’ve been aided by continuously strong growth in private health and education services, which added 40,000 jobs for women in September alone." Suzy Khimm in The Washington Post.

Europe's bazooka. "It has been referred to as 'the bazooka' -- the 500 billion euro European bailout fund that after much dispute will have its first board meeting on Monday. Dreamed up two years ago by euro zone ministers and officials as a permanent weapon against any financial problems that might besiege the region, the $650 billion bazooka might eventually be aimed at Spain’s banking crisis. Or it could be wielded to scare off bond market speculators who might otherwise try to drive up the borrowing costs of beleaguered governments in Madrid or other euro zone capitals. But as with many of the other improvised solutions to the euro zone’s problems, the bailout fund’s reality is less elegant than the theory behind it." James Kanter in The New York Times.

A weak quarter for US companies. "The slowdown in the global economy and anaemic US recovery is expected to result in one of the worst US quarterly earnings seasons since late 2009. Analysts expect earnings for the period ended September to decline, the first negative result after 11 consecutive quarters of gains...Wall Street analysts expect third-quarter earnings per share for S&P 500 companies will fall 2.7 per cent versus the same quarter a year ago, according to FactSet. Just three months ago analysts had forecast growth of 1.9 per cent. In the past three months, warnings from large companies about reduced full-year profits due to global economic weakness fuelled this pessimistic view." Anora Mahmudova and Michael Mackenzie in The Financial Times.

@justinwolfers: The revisions to the non-farm payrolls data tell us basically that the economy never slowed. Q3 was a good quarter folks.

The worker-corporation relation in Germany. "Think workers don’t have enough of a say in U.S. companies? Look to Germany, Boston College professor Kent Greenfield argues in the latest issue of Democracy. Through a process called 'codetermination,' large German companies are required to elect half their board of directors by a vote of their employees, rather than of their shareholders...While there’s little evidence that they increase sales or overall employment, they do seem to have a positive effect on productivity, according to the two most recent studies on that question. One found that Western German firms saw a huge 25 percent spike in productivity, while Eastern German firms transitioning out of Communism saw an even bigger 30 percent jump...ut similar policies in the United States have borne fruit. Studies of Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), in which employees are encouraged to take an ownership stake in their own firms, find that they increase overall compensation, job satisfaction, productivity and profitability." Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Your week ahead in economic data. "Data to be released will include wholesale trade for August and the Federal Reserve beige book (Wednesday); weekly jobless claims, trade deficit for August and import prices for September (Thursday); and the Producer Price Index for Septemberthe Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index for October (Friday)." The New York Times.

Sunshine you are my sunshine interlude: MIT looks at photovoltaic potential in a maps mashup.

Health Care

Could small businesses skirt Obamacare’s mandates? "Bob Laszewski, a former insurance executive, has taken a look at how small businesses might dodge a number of the health law’s (potentially expensive) mandates: They could self-insure...In self-insured plans, the employer assumes responsibility for for all health care costs of their workers -- as opposed to paying out a per person premium to an insurance carrier...'The ability of small employers to in effect opt-out of the ACA’s stiffest insurance reform requirements by moving to self-insurance is on the cusp of becoming a market trend...Regulators are worried about self-selection in the market––the healthiest small groups going self-insured and refusing to be part of the ACA’s insurance exchange pool leaving only the sickest small groups to fall under the ACA.'" Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Fewer HIV funds for women, youth in big cities including D.C. "The federal government is providing fewer safety-net funds for women and children living with HIV/AIDS in many large cities with high infection rates, including Washington. At the same time, 19 other cities are for the first time receiving funds to help this population, according to federal data. Federal officials say the broader geographic focus is part of the national HIV/AIDS strategy. The goal is to respond to the changing epidemiology of the disease in a more coordinated way and to target areas of the country with unmet needs. Seven of the cities getting new funding are in the South, the epicenter of new HIV infections." Lena H. Sun in The Washington Post.

Domestic Policy

The well runs dry on the Forest Service's funds for fighting wildfires. "In the worst wildfire season on record, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service ran out of money to pay for firefighters, fire trucks and aircraft that dump retardant on monstrous flames. So officials did about the only thing they could: take money from other forest management programs. But many of the programs were aimed at preventing giant fires in the first place, and raiding their budgets meant putting off the removal of dried brush and dead wood over vast stretches of land -- the things that fuel eye-popping blazes, threatening property and lives." Darryl Fears in The Washington Post.

House panel calls for blocking a merger due to fears of foreign espionage. "The federal government should block mergers of U.S. firms with Chinese telecommunications companies suspected of ties to the Chinese government to lower the potential risk that such firms could serve as conduits for espionage, a congressional panel concluded. The recommendation is one of several growing out of a nearly year-long investigation by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which is set to issue its report Monday. The report accuses two major Chinese telecoms, Huawei and ZTE, of failing to cooperate fully with the panel’s probe into their operations and alleged ties to the Chinese government and military." Ellen Nakashima in The Washington Post.

@jbarro: My first instinct is to assume Huawei fearmongering is driven by US firms trying to avoid competition.

TX Gov. Perry pushes $10k college degree. "For sale: a college education for $10,000 or less. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is renewing his call for such lower-cost undergraduate degrees, in what he hopes will be the state's signature response to the national problem of rising college tuition and student debt...Ten Texas colleges have responded to the governor's challenge, first made a year ago. Angelo State University, a 7,000-student school in west Texas, announced Wednesday it will offer a $10,000 degree starting next fall. The 10 schools educate more than 50,000 students, or roughly 10% of the undergraduates at public universities in the state, but don't include the state's flagship public universities, such as the University of Texas at Austin...Mr. Perry's plan comes at a time when tuition is soaring; undergraduate costs at public four-year universities climbed 139% between 1990 and 2010, according to the nonprofit College Board." Nathan Koppel and Douglas Belkin in The Wall Street Journal.

The logistics of (imaginary) master theft interlude: How one might steal the Space Shuttle.

Energy

Look who's saying you need to get used to oil being $110 a barrel. "Fatih Birol, Chief Economist at the International Energy Agency: 'In the coming months and years, it will be a surprise to see oil prices dropping below $110...The high prevailing prices of oil which are around $110 per barrel is possibly the greatest risk to the global economic recovery.'" Ali Berat Meric in Bloomberg.

@mattyglesias: The great Obama oil and gas extraction boom looks to be slowing down.

China facing a glut of solar panels. "China in recent years established global dominance in renewable energy, its solar panel and wind turbine factories forcing many foreign rivals out of business and its policy makers hailed by environmentalists around the world as visionaries. But now China’s strategy is in disarray. Though worldwide demand for solar panels and wind turbines has grown rapidly over the last five years, China’s manufacturing capacity has soared even faster, creating enormous oversupply and a ferocious price war. The result is a looming financial disaster, not only for manufacturers but for state-owned banks that financed factories with approximately $18 billion in low-rate loans and for municipal and provincial governments that provided loan guarantees and sold manufacturers valuable land at deeply discounted prices. China’s biggest solar panel makers are suffering losses of up to $1 for every $3 of sales this year, as panel prices have fallen by three-fourths since 2008." Keith Bradsher in The New York Times.

@Ben_German: Obama touts oil/gas, adds “I also believe that we have got to look at the energy sources of the future like wind and solar and biofuels”

The politics of coal. "The Energy Information Administration said Thursday that coal production through Sept. 29 of this year was 5.4% below the year-earlier level. A rise in coal exports has offset some of the loss in U.S. consumption. Natural-gas production in the first seven months of 2012 was up 5.9% over the same period a year earlier, according to the EIA. While market forces—in the form of a glut of cheap natural gas—have persuaded many power plants to voluntarily switch to natural gas from coal, the coal industry says a string of environmental rules also prevent the construction of new coal-fired plants...At the center of the debate are rules being developed by Mr. Obama's Environmental Protection Agency to limit emissions of mercury and carbon dioxide from power plants. Combined, the two rules could drastically reduce the amount of coal used in the U.S., the industry says." Tennille Tracy in The Wall Street Journal.

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