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Have We Reached Peak Kevin?

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 4:28 PM EDT

In the Guardian today, Paula Cocozza writes about her effort to hunt down the origin of the phrase "peak X." She turned to linguist Mark Liberman, who runs the Language Log blog, but he says it's a hard idiom to track:

There is some good news, though. Liberman remembers the first time he noticed the phrase. It was in 2008, when the US writer John Cole blogged that "we may have hit and passed Peak Wingnut", a derogatory term for rightwingers.

Cole's post is nearly six years old, but can he recall what inspired the phrase? "I came up with 'peak wingnut' because I was shocked," Cole says. "The Republicans seemed to get crazier and crazier. The source of it is [US blogger] Kevin Drum. At the Washington Monthly, one of the things he was always talking about was peak oil."

This comes as news to Drum, who now writes for the web magazine Mother Jones. He was not the only person writing about peak oil, of course, but he was the one Cole read. "I'm very proud of that," he says. "I had no idea that I had been so influential."

So now I have three items for my future obituary: creator of Friday catblogging, popularizer of the lead-crime theory, and just possibly the kinda sorta inspiration for the Peak X meme. Not bad!

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"The Troll Slayer": Don't Miss This Fascinating Profile of Mary Beard

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 3:40 PM EDT
Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard

Here is a partial list of things for which the British historian Mary Beard has gained reverence and notoriety:

  • Positing that Pompeiians had bad breath, based on tartar levels on their fossilized teeth.
  • Theorizing that Romans didn't smile, since Latin lacks words for anything resembling one.
  • Being the world's foremost scholar on how Romans pooped.
  • Going on television without wearing makeup or dying her gray hair.
  • Retweeting a message she got from a 20-year-old calling her a "filthy old slut."
  • On 9/11: suggesting that on some level, the United States "had it coming."
  • Disclosing that she was raped when she was 20 in an essay on rape in ancient Rome.

You can read all about it in Rebecca Mead's excellent new New Yorker profile on the endlessly fascinating Cambridge don. It opens on a lecture that Beard gave earlier this year at the British Museum, titled "Oh Do Shut Up, Dear!," on the long literary history of men keeping women quiet, from the Odyssey's Penelope ordered upstairs to her weaving by her son—"Speech will be the business of men," he says—to the death threats, rape threats, and general nastiness that Beard and other outspoken women get online. ("I'm going to cut off your head and rape it," read one of her tweet mentions.) For her part, Beard does not subscribe to the "don't feed the trolls" school of thought when it comes to dealing with online assailants. She engages, both publicly and privately, often with surprising results:

She has discovered that, quite often, she receives not only an apology from them but also a poignant explanation…After a "Question Time" viewer wrote to her that she was "evil," further correspondence revealed that he was mostly upset because he wanted to move to Spain and didn't understand the bureaucracy. "It took two minutes on Google to discover the reciprocal health-care agreement, so I sent it to him," she says. "Now when I have a bit of Internet trouble, I get an e-mail from him saying, 'Mary, are you all right? I was worried about you.'"

Fun stuff. And when you're done with Mead's piece, check out Beard's latest book, Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up.

New Discovery Cuts Brainwashing Time in Half

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 1:43 PM EDT

The frontiers of science continue to expand:

In experiments on mice, scientists rewired the circuits of the brain and changed the animals' bad memories into good ones. The rewriting of the memory wasn't done with drugs but by using light to control the activity of brain cells. While science is a long way from achieving a similar feat in people, it adds to a body of research that is starting to uncover the physiological basis of memory.

Yes, I know what you're wondering. And the answer is yes:

The researchers said they were able to do the opposite as well—change a pleasurable memory in mice into one associated with fear.

So I guess that wraps up both Brave New World and 1984 all in one nice, neat package. What could go wrong?

Quote of the Day: Let's Just Drop a Few Bombs and See What Happens

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 12:45 PM EDT

From Bill Kristol, during an appearance on conservative radio host Laura Ingraham's show, bringing his megawatt analytic powers to bear on the problem of ISIS in Iraq:

What’s the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens? I don’t think there’s much in the way of unanticipated side effects that are going to be bad there.

You can't make this stuff up. We liberals often accuse folks like Kristol of mindlessly advocating military action all the time, no matter what. But we're exaggerating, aren't we? Nobody literally wants to unleash an air campaign just to see what happens. Nobody just casually ignores the possible drawbacks. That's ridiculous! Why do we insist on juvenile caricatures like this?

I don't know. Why do we?

White Privilege? What White Privilege?

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 11:54 AM EDT

Here's the latest from the annals of criminal justice in America:

Beverly Hills police officials said Tuesday that it was "extremely unfortunate" that officers handcuffed and detained an African American film producer who was in the city to attend a pre-Emmy party.

Producer Charles Belk "matched the clothing and physical characteristics" of a suspected bank robber when he was pulled over by officers on Friday evening....“Hey, I was ‘tall,’ ‘bald,’ a ‘male’ and ‘black,’ so I fit the description.”

Come on, Charles! Buck up. Mistakes can happen. I'm sure the Beverly Hills PD would have treated a white guy who fit the description of a bank robber exactly the same way. In fact, I'll bet this happens all the time to Bill O'Reilly.

Chart of the Day: The Federal Deficit Is In Pretty Good Shape These Days

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 10:51 AM EDT

You already know this—don't you?—but just to refresh your memories, here's the latest projection of the federal deficit from the Congressional Budget Office. As you can see, for the entire next decade CBO figures that the deficit will be running at a very manageable 3 percent of GDP, right in line with historical averages. Be sure to show this to all your friends who are consumed with deficit hysteria. There's really not much reason to panic about this.

Now, CBO's forecast doesn't take into account future booms or busts in the economy, since they can't predict those. And as the chart makes crystal clear, that's what causes big changes in the deficit. It's the economy, stupid, not runaway spending. When times are good, the deficit shrinks. When times are bad, it gets worse. If you really want to avoid big deficits in the future, stop obsessing about cutting spending on the poor, and instead spend some time obsessing about economic policies that will help grow the economy.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 27, 2014

Wed Aug. 27, 2014 10:33 AM EDT

The Class of 2015 at West Point receive their class rings as they enter their final academic year. (US Army Photos by John Pellino/ USMA DPTMS VI)

40 Percent of Restaurant Workers Live in Near-Poverty

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

It isn't just fast-food empires that rely on a low-paid, disempowered, and quite-often impoverished workforce. As a stomach-turning new report (PDF viewable here) from the Economic Policy Institute shows, the entire restaurant industry hides a dirty little labor secret under the tasteful lighting of the dining room.

Here are some highlights:

• The restaurant industry is a massive and growing source of employment. It accounts for more than 9 percent of US private-sector jobs—up from a little more than 7 percent in 1990. That's nearly a 30 percent gain.

• The industry's wages have stagnated at an extremely low level. Restaurant workers' median wage stands at $10 per hour, tips included—and hasn't budged, in inflation-adjusted terms, since 2000. For nonrestaurant US workers, the median hourly wage is $18. That means the median restaurant worker makes 44 percent less than other workers. Benefits are also rare—just 14.4 percent of restaurant workers have employer-sponsored health insurance and 8.4 percent have pensions, vs. 48.7 percent and 41.8 percent, respectively, for other workers

• Unionization rates are minuscule. Presumably, it would be more difficult to keep wages throttled at such a low level if restaurant workers could bargain collectively. But just 1.8 percent of restaurant workers belong to unions, about one-seventh of the rate for nonrestaurant workers. Restaurant workers who do belong to unions are much more likely to have benefits than their nonunion peers.

As a result, the people who prepare and serve you food are pretty likely to live in poverty. The overall poverty rate stands at 6.3 percent. For restaurant workers, the rate is 16.7 percent. For families, researchers often look at twice the poverty threshold as proxy for what it takes to make ends meet, EPI reports. More than 40 percent of restaurant workers live below twice the poverty line—that's double the rate of nonrestaurant workers.

• Opportunity for advancement is pretty limited. I was surprised to learn that for every single occupation with restaurants—from dishwashers to chefs to managers—the median hourly wage is much less than the national average of $18. The highest paid occupation is manager, with a median hourly wage of $15.42. The lowest is "cashiers and counter attendants" (median wage: $8.23), while the most prevalent of restaurant workers, waiters and waitresses, who make up nearly a quarter of the industry's workforce, make a median wage of just $10.15. The one that has gained the most glory in recent years, "chefs and head cooks," offers a median wage of just $12.34.

Industry occupations are highly skewed along gender and race lines. Higher-paid occupations are more likely to be held by men—chefs, cooks, and managers, for example, are 86 percent, 73 percent, and 53 percent male, respectively. Lower-paid positions tend to be dominated by women: for example, host and hostess (84.9 percent female), cashiers and counter attendants (75.1 percent), and waiters and waitresses (70.8 percent). I took up this topic in a piece on the vexed gender politics of culinary prestige last year. Meanwhile, "blacks are disproportionately likely to be cashiers/counter attendants, the lowest-paid occupation in the industry," while "Hispanics are disproportionately likely to be dishwashers, dining room attendants, or cooks, also relatively low-paid occupations," the report found.

• Restaurants lean heavily on the most disempowered workers of all—undocumented immigrants. Overall, 15.7 percent of US restaurant workers are undocumented, nearly twice the rate for nonrestaurant sectors. Fully a third of dishwashers, nearly 30 percent of nonchef cooks, and more than a quarter of bussers are undocumented, the report found. So a huge swath of the people who feed you pay payroll taxes and sales taxes yet don't receive the rights of citizenship.

Thus you can't opt out of supporting deplorable labor conditions for the people who feed you simply by refusing to pass through the Golden Arches or to enter the Burger King's realm.

So what can you do? One thing is to seek out restaurants that explicitly pay their workers a living wage. Two I can think of offhand: Austin's Black Star Co-op, a cooperatively owned gastro-pub that's managed by a "workers assembly" as a "democratic self-managed workplace." Another is Chapel Hill's excellent Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe. I'd love to hear about more examples in comments.

But these examples are vanishingly rare. The only real solution to the industry's bottom-feeding labor practices are legislative, the EPI report makes clear. That means reforms like a much higher minimum wage and a path to legal status for undocumented workers. Anyone who wants to learn more about working conditions in our nation's eateries should read Saru Jayaraman's outstanding 2013 book Behind the Kitchen Door. (Read the Mother Jones review here.)

And just for fun, here's the Mother Jones fast-food wage calculator, which will give you a sense of what some workers are up against:

$  

Obama's Iraq Policy Has Been Pretty Masterly

| Tue Aug. 26, 2014 1:00 PM EDT

I'm not a diehard supporter of Barack Obama's foreign policy. Some of his actions I just plain disagree with: the surge in Afghanistan, the enormous increase in drone use, his almost inhuman patience in putting up with Bibi Netanyahu's nearly open contempt for him. Then there are other actions of his that were arguably justifiable but have worked out less well than he hoped. However, they mostly represent very, very tough problems. And foreign policy is hard—especially now. Almost nobody gets even a small fraction of what they want out of it.

That said, the relentless criticism of Obama's approach toward ISIS strikes me as unusually shortsighted. As near as I can tell, he's handled it almost perfectly so far. If we had offered air support to destroy ISIS six months or a year ago, it probably would have made things worse. Iraq flatly wasn't able to provide the ground troops to complement an air campaign, and America would have shared in the inevitable fiasco. We also would have been explicitly bound to Nouri al-Maliki and his policies, which were the very ones responsible for the rise of ISIS in the first place. The outcome of all this would have been the worst of all possible worlds for American interests.

Instead, Obama allowed Maliki to fail on his own, and then used the leverage of promised American air assistance to engineer his ouster. Needless to say, this hardly guarantees eventual success against ISIS, but is there really any question that it was a necessary precondition for success? I don't think so. Maliki never would have left unless he was forced out, and it was plain that his brutally sectarian governing style was fueling the insurgency, not halting it. He had to leave.

The alternative to Obama's strategy wasn't more aggressive action. That would have been disastrous. Nor would it have made a difference if Obama had left a few troops in Iraq back in 2009. Nor would stronger intervention in Syria have made a difference. It might even have made things worse. The truth is simpler. There's no single reason for the rise of ISIS, but there is a single primary reason: Nouri al-Maliki. Obama saw that clearly and kept his eye on what was important, working patiently and cold-bloodedly toward engineering Maliki's departure. It was hardly a perfect plan, and messiness was always inevitable. Nonetheless, it was the best plan available. Because of it, there's now at least a chance of defeating ISIS.

UPDATE: Does "masterly" go too far? Maybe so. But I was trying to attract attention to my main point: the ISIS threat couldn't even be addressed until Iraq's political dysfunction was addressed first. Unlike a lot of people, Obama recognized that and stuck to a toughminded approach that focused on getting rid of Maliki instead of getting distracted by endless calls for a stronger intervention before Maliki was gone. It wasn't easy, but it was the smart thing to do.

Can the new government fight ISIS more effectively? There's no way of knowing yet. But at least they've been given a chance.

Is Europe's Central Bank Finally Getting Worried About Deflation?

| Tue Aug. 26, 2014 12:21 PM EDT

Brad DeLong notes that Mario Draghi, the head of Europe's central bank, went off text in his speech at Jackson Hole. Here's his summary of Draghi's extended ad-lib:

The speech text says:

  1. The ECB knows that inflation has declined.
  2. The decline in inflation has not led to any decline in expectations of inflation.
  3. THE ECB will, if necessary, within its mandate, use QE and other policies to keep expectations of inflation from declining.

The speech as delivered says:

  1. The ECB knows that inflation has declined.
  2. My usual line is that the decline in inflation is due to temporary factors that will be reversed.
  3. That explanation is now long in the tooth: the longer "temporary" lasts the greater the danger.
  4. In fact, it is too late to "safeguard the firm anchoring of inflation expectations".
  5. Inflationary expectations have already declined.
  6. We will use all the tools we have to reverse this.

Is this deviation a mere line wobble....Is this deviation an audience effect....Or does it signal a recognition on Draghi's part that the Eurozone is heading for a triple dip, and that if he doesn't assemble a coalition to do much more very quickly to boost aggregate demand we will have to change the name "The Great Recession" to something including the D-word, and he will go down in history as the worst central banker since the 1930s?

I would like to know...

I suppose we'd all like to know. The Germans better start taking this stuff seriously pretty soon. They can't stick their heads in the sand and live in the past forever.