2010 - %3, January

The End of Anonymity (Sort Of)

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 1:27 PM EST

The Economist's blogs have officially entered the 20th century:

Today we are changing the way we write our bylines [i.e., they are actually using bylines for the first time ever. –ed] in order to make it clearer that different correspondents are writing different posts. We hope this will facilitate discussion between our bloggers and with other blogs, and clear up any confusion about multiple correspondents in the same city.

Some readers will wonder why we do not move to full bylines, as opposed to signing only our initials. We still consider this blog a collective effort, where what is written is more important than who writes it. This is how we have run The Economist in print since 1843, and the newspaper will remain without initials. We hope this anonymity liberates correspondents to write what they think and not worry about how it makes them look to the world. Even as we sign our initials on this blog, we hope the focus remains on the substance of our posts, not on us.

That particular post was written by "R.M." Next step: force the Economist kicking and screaming into the 21st century by figuring out who the names are behind all the initials and posting them somewhere for easy reference. This is clearly a job for crowdsourcing, so let's get cracking, people.

In the meantime, I guess this means I can suspend my semi-boycott of Economist blogs. Progress!

UPDATE 1: A start: R.A. = Ryan Avent, G.I. = Greg Ip. Keep 'em coming!

UPDATE 2: R.M. = Roger McShane.

UPDATE 3: M.S. = Matt Steinglass.

UPDATE 4: E.G. = Erica Grieder.

UPDATE 5: A motherlode of names! R.L.G. = Robert Lane Greene, J.F. = Jon Fasman, J.S. = Julian Sanchez, P.D. = Peter David, A.S. = Allison Schrager.

UPDATE 6: N.M. = Noah Millman, W.W. = Will Wilkinson.

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Starve the Poor

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 12:52 PM EST

Poor people are like stray dogs and cats, says South Carolina’s Republican Lt. Governor, Andre Bauer. If you feed, them, they’ll just come back for more–and worse still, they’ll multiply. That’s why it’s a bad idea to give them free food or other forms of public assistance. 

At a forum in Greeneville on Saturday, Bauer, who is running for governor, told the crowd:

My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed.

You’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don’t think too much further than that. And so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior. They don’t know any better.

In a later interview with the Columbia, S.C. newspaper The State, Bauer "said he could have chosen his words more carefully," but that doesn’t change the fact that "South Carolina needs to have an honest conversation about the cycle of government dependency among its poorest residents."

Polarization and Presidents

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 12:34 PM EST

Ezra Klein points to some recent research showing that there's been a trend over the past few decades for Congress to spend ever more time on presidential initiatives. It's up from about 15% of Senate votes in the early 80s to 25% today:

If you're wondering why this matters, the answer is simple: polarization. When the president takes a position on an issue, that issue polarizes instantly. To test this, Lee looked at "nonideological" issues — that is to say, issues where the two sides didn't have clear positions. In the Senate, only 39 percent of those issues ended in party-line votes. But if the president took a position on the issue, that jumped to 56 percent. In other words, if the president proposed the "More Puppies Act," the minority is likely to suddenly discover it holds fervently pro-cat beliefs.

So: more presidential initiatives, more polarization. Or is it the other way around? Has increased polarization forced presidents to be more proactive setting the legislative agenda — or, at the very least, forced presidents to take a public stand on more issues? Seems to me that could play a pretty big role in this dynamic.

November Looms

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 12:14 PM EST

Imagine that nine months from now, all of your neighbors got to vote on whether you should keep your job. Even if you thought you would win that vote, it would definitely be on your mind—a lot.

That's how members of Congress—especially Democrats—are feeling right now. In nine months, they could be out of a job. Fear is one reason that Dems are balking at the prospect of pushing through health care reform. And the way the November elections are shaping up, it looks like Dems are right to be worried. The big election news today is that Beau Biden, Delaware's attorney general (and the son of Vice President Joe Biden) won't run for his Dad's old Senate seat. That means Mike Castle will probably win the seat. Castle is a Republican member of the House who is the state's most popular politician. Castle has been winning statewide elections in the First State since the Reagan era, and he'll be a heavy favorite to win in November.

The other big election-related news for today is a Rasmussen poll out of Indiana that shows Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) leading Evan Bayh, the incumbent Democratic Senator, by 3. The race is already on election expert Nate Silver's takeover radar, even though Pence hasn't announced he will run.

Between the Bayh and Biden news, the Democrats look increasingly likely to risk losing control of the Senate. North Dakota, where Sen. Byron Dorgan is retiring, looks like a near-lock for GOP Governor John Hoeven. Delaware looks like a lock for Castle. Democratic incumbents are also in serious trouble in Nevada (Harry Reid), Arkansas (Blanche Lincoln), Pennsylvania (onetime GOPer Arlen Specter), and Colorado (appointed Sen. Michael Bennet). If Republicans can sweep those four races, win the two near-locks, pick up the open seat in Illinois (where popular Rep. Mark Kirk is running), beat Bayh in Indiana, and beat Barbara Boxer in California and get Joe Lieberman to switch allegiances, they'll have control of the Senate. Right now, all of those tasks look achievable. But even in the best cycles, it's hard to get everything to go your party's way. Nate Silver puts the odds of the Republicans getting to 50-50 or beyond at a bit less than 15 percent. That seems about right. But unless the national environment changes, the Dems are definitely set to lose a bunch of seats—and we haven't even talked about the House of Representatives yet.

So is there any hope for the Democrats and President Barack Obama's agenda? Tom Jensen of PPP, a polling firm, thinks they might have a shot at salvaging a few seats if they run anti-establishment candidates in the open-seat races:

Texas Spill: Oil and Water Still Don't Mix

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 12:07 PM EST

Up to 11,000 barrels of oil spilled into a Texas waterway over the weekend, the largest spill in the state in nearly two decades. The spill, from a hole in the side of the 807-foot tanker Eagle Otome, happened in Port Arthur, where the state's petroleum and shipping industries meet. The incident is expected to close the Sabine-Neches Waterway—which is used to transport oil to four Texas refineries—for at least five days. In a healthy dose of irony, the Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce's motto is, "Where oil and water mix, beautifully."

The spill comes as Congress ponders passing an energy/climate bill that's expected to include some expansion of offshore drilling in the United States. Indeed, it may be the inclusion of more drilling that gives that bill a fighting chance of passage this year. Republican supporter Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and a number of moderate Democrats have voiced desire for expanded drilling, and the White House has floated drilling as part of a "grand bargain" to get something passed. The Senate framework from Graham, John Kerry (D-Mass.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) includes drilling provisions. Even many environmental groups have now accepted that additional drilling will likely be necessary as part of a compromise to get a cap on carbon dioxide.

Proponents of drilling often tout how environmentally friendly their practices are these days. But Saturday's spill is a healthy reminder that no matter what you do to oil, there's nothing very green about it.

Ross Douthat: America's Most Interesting Conservative?

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 8:01 AM EST

Ross Douthat's thoughts on health care outline the ideological stalemate that assures the demise of comprehensive reform. But you wouldn't know it from his weekly column. So far this year, the New York Times' new conservative columnist has produced anemic columns on topics like Internet politics and Tiger Woods' faith. But his strength is best showcased on his meticulously maintained blog, which moved from the Atlantic to the Times in December.

After Scott Brown swiped the Democrats' Senate supermajority last week, the Times' youngest columnist (30) blogged about the future of health care legislation in the Senate. One post claims that the public rejects the high taxes of liberals and the aversion to government programs common among conservatives. So to pass health care, Douthat writes, both sides need to take baby steps. This "would mean trying to prod the country in the direction they want it to go, instead of trying to drag the public, kicking and screaming, toward wholesale transformations."

At this point, comprehensive health care reform is a long shot. And although it would be a shame to let the last few months of legislative nightmare go to waste, Jonathan Chait and Ezra Klein agree that Democrats can't salvage a scaled back version of the bill. But Douthat's willingness to accept the Democrats' ideas, if not their political strategy, makes him one of the Times' most surprising columnists. While he's certainly conservative (pro-choice, pro-abstinence, anti-big government), he rejects the party-line Republican platform. He's uncomfortable taking a firm position on gay marriage, for example, because his opposition is rooted in his Catholicism. In the current issue of Mother Jones, Mark Oppenheimer sums up Douthat's unpredictable conservatism:

His comfort with complexity, and with those who disagree with him—along with his somewhat unconventional upbringing, his unorthodox ideas on abortion law, and his embrace of both popular culture and highbrow literature—make him a surprising conservative writer. More surprising than most of his Times readers would ever know, and compelling in ways his fellow conservatives may not like to admit.

For these reasons (not to mention his love for The Wire), Douthat is a great addition to the Times op-ed page. Read the piece for more about the quirky upbringing and budding career that make Douthat a great blogger, an important columnist, and perhaps America's most interesting conservative voice. 

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Need to Read: January 25, 2010

Mon Jan. 25, 2010 8:00 AM EST

 The must-read stories from around the web and in today's papers:

 

Music Monday: The Pirate Cat DJs

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 7:45 AM EST

"Abbracadabra means I create as I say," declares 30-year-old Abby Rubinson, who DJ's at San Francisco's Pirate Cat Radio under said name. For two hours every Monday morning, Rubinson—an out-of-work lawyer—interviews people "creating as they say, play, or otherwise do as they do," then splices these often politically charged segments with doses of indie, shoegaze, Brit-pop, and Brazilian Tropicalia fare. Even though all 70 Pirate Cat DJs are asked to incorporate interviews into their shows, it is Rubinson's assorted cast of local and political movers and shakers that offers a ripe picture of the substance behind the Pirate Cat hype. (Listen here.) While visiting the station recently to chat with Pirate Cat's founder, I also took the time to sit down with Rubinson and Music Director Katherine Kirby (a.k.a. DJ Canary Turd; listen here), who offered their own insights into the unlicensed station's FCC troubles and how complying with the rules could water down the eccentricities of a local cultural hub.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 25, 2010

Mon Jan. 25, 2010 7:33 AM EST

US Soldiers from 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, arrive at an Afghan National Police checkpoint in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Jan. 15, 2010. (US Army photo from Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez.)

Music Monday: Gainsbourg Galore

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 7:30 AM EST

The world becomes slightly richer in Serge Gainsbourg mythology this month, thanks to both a new CD compilation and a biographical film from French cartoonist Joann Sfar. The prolific musical master and chain-smoking lothario was at one time best known for his hit "Je t’aime, moi non plus" ("I love you, me neither"), which featured breathy vocals by English actress Jane Birkin. Explicitly erotic and culminating in a simulated (as far as we know) orgasm by Birkin, it was banned from radio play in several countries, and denounced as obscene by L’Osservatore, the official Vatican newspaper—what greater endorsement could you ask for? These new releases build upon both the artist’s considerable legacy and extra-debauched mythos.

Before I use any more adjectives (and if I start doing it again, feel free to throttle me senseless with a spellbinding seven-minute centerpiece or some ethereal post rock), shall we take a moment with the video for "Je t’aime, moi non plus"? Yes, let’s:

Wasn't that obscene? Gloriously so. Anyone interested in learning more about Gainsbourg's ravishing, Gallic (spellbinding, too) degeneracy would be well advised to check out A Fistful of Gitanes by Sylvie Simmons, the first English-language biography about him.

Moving on! Serge Gainsbourg: Poet and Provocateur kicks off with the legendary Frenchman crooning (croaking, really, in the way that he does) a jazz-inflected, snappy number about fingers clicking upon a jukebox, and follows with a handful of relatively rare studio recordings—then a few live ones from a set at Théâtre Des 3 Baudets including "Le Poinçonneur des Lilas," a spirited lament of the quotidian working world through the eyes of a subway ticket puncher. We’re subsequently treated to a set of Gainsbourg songs sung by French actress Juliette Greco (the man did love his actresses—and they loved him back!), including the exquisite "Les Amours Perdues." The CD wraps up with Gainsbourg’s score for the film L’Eau à la Bouche and the soundtrack for Voulez-vous Danser Avec Moi? (See the full track list here.) After the jump, a short clip of Gainsbourg making his screen debut in the latter film, which starred Brigitte Bardot.