2011 - %3, August

Report: Muslim Americans Are Incredibly Normal

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 4:56 PM EDT

The Pew Center has a new 136-page report out about Muslim Americans. The report's title, "Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism" makes Pew's perspective clear, and seems directed at some conservatives who suggest that all Muslims and Muslim Americans are potential terrorists. Or professors and physicists. But mostly terrorists.

The survey shows Muslim Americans as being distinctly anti-terror, with 48% of them saying U.S. Muslim leaders "have not done enough" to speak out against Islamic extremists. Only 1% of those surveyed said there was "often" a justifiable excuse for using violence to defend Islam, and only 5% had a favorable view of Al Qaeda. The majority of Muslim Americans (60%) were concerned about rising Islamic extremism in the US, and they have good reason: 55% of them say life in America has become "more difficult" since 9/11, 25% say that mosques and Islamic centers where they live have been targeted, and 43% say they've been treated with suspicion or called names in the past year. Six percent were physically attacked or threatened because of their religion.

Despite the harassment some Muslim Americans face, they are actually more satisfied with life than the average U.S. citizen. As Gawker points out, Muslim Americans are more American in some ways: They're more likely to watch college football than the average American, more likely to believe that that people can get ahead in life with hard work, and are more likely to attend weekly worship services.

Another way that Muslim Americans are just like non-Muslim Americans is that some of them belive Obama is a Muslim. About 10% of American Muslims falsely believe the president shares their faith, as compared to 18% of the general public. One important difference: for the general public, people who dislike Obama's performance are three times as likely to believe he's Muslim. For Muslim Americans, things were reversed. Eleven percent of Muslim Americans who approve of Obama's job performance think he's Muslim, and only 3% of those who dislike his performance believed he was. Seems that Americans of all faiths could be a wee bit guilty of letting their beliefs influence their facts rather than the other way around.

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Graphic of the Day: Hospital Infections

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 4:03 PM EDT

UPDATE: This chart appears to be completely wrong. Apologies. More details here.

Via Chris Bodenner, this graphic compares fatal hospital infections in the U.S. to those in Europe. This might disturb you at first, but remember: the free market is always right, so clearly we've collectively made a rational choice here. We've decided that although our healthcare costs are far higher than in Europe, this is worth it in return for far higher death rates from hospital infections. Best healthcare in the world, baby!

More graphic at the link.

The Economy and World War II

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 2:14 PM EDT

I'm curious about something. Conservatives are forever reminding us liberals that the New Deal didn't get us out of the Great Depression. It was World War II that got us out of the Great Depression. And roughly speaking, that's true enough.

So why, then, isn't that a good model for getting us out of our current slump? WWII featured five years with federal deficits above 10% of GDP, three of which were above 20% of GDP. And although WWII might have been a good thing for global freedom, all that spending was for war materiel that was completely useless to the U.S. economy. If we repeated this today, we could do better than that even if half the stimulus spending was meaningless makework.

So what's the deal? Did WWII rescue the American economy or not? And if it did, what's the argument for not trying it again, but without the war?

The AT&T Merger and Overseas Travelers

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 1:24 PM EDT

My position on the proposed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile (which the Justice Department has decided to fight) is aggressively wishy-washy. On the one hand, maybe the mobile phone market is sort of a natural duopoly given the huge capital costs of building out a good nationwide network. Then again, maybe having three or four companies really does provide more competition, stronger price pressure, and increased innovation. I just haven't studied this enough to know. Still, Felix Salmon makes an interesting point here:

One thing which fascinates me is the way in which neither the complaint nor the press release makes any mention of the fact that the proposed deal would give the merged company substantially all of the market in GSM cellphones — the only ones which work in most of the rest of the world. Americans who travel internationally pretty much have to get their cellphone service from one of these two providers — and they’re highly sensitive to exorbitant international roaming fees. Which would almost certainly go up in the event of this merger.

Now, you could argue that this is actually a pretty small segment of the market. Maybe Felix cares about it, but the number of Americans who travel abroad frequently and need a universal phone isn't that large. So it's not something the Justice Department should be worrying about.

Still, it's an interesting observation — though I'd note that dual-mode phones are available from Verizon and others who use CDMA networks in the U.S., and current international roaming fees are so outrageously high from all U.S. carriers that it's hard to imagine them going up much more with or without a merger. But maybe that just shows a lack of imagination on my part. Those of you who travel overseas frequently and know more about this should feel free to school me in comments.

Feds Move to Block AT&T-T-Mobile Merger

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 12:50 PM EDT

On Wednesday, the Department of Justice filed a suit to block the proposed $39 billion merger between AT&T and T-Mobile. The deal would combine the powers of the second- and fourth-largest mobile phone carriers, dwarfing the current no. 3, Sprint Nextel. The hypothetical telecom juggernaut would have a 43% market share in the US, making it the biggest carrier in the country.

Back in July, AT&T—which has spent millions in lobbying and campaign contributions in support of the deal—filed a report with the Federal Communications Commission claiming that the merger would result in lower prices, increased service in metropolitan areas, and 5,000 new, "in-sourced" jobs, Bloomberg News reports. But the DOJ begs to differ, alleging that the merger violates anti-trust law. Removing a low-cost carrier like T-Mobile from the market would result in drastically reduced competition, less choice, and higher prices for wireless customers, the Justice Department argues.

AT&T has plenty at stake if regulators strike down the deal. AT&T shares fell by 5 percent after the suit was announced. And if regulators reject the merger, the company would have to cough up $3 billion in cash to T-Mobile's Germany-based parent company. It would also have to hand over wireless spectrum, among other things, to T-Mobile, in a package valued at $7 billion.

Reform advocates praise the suit. "It's encouraging to see the federal regulators have not been snowed by AT&T's promises and bluster," Craig Aaron, the head of the media watchdog group Free Press, said in a press release. "This was a bad idea from the start, and no amount of corporate spin [could] overcome that reality."

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said the suit is a big win for consumers in a struggling economy: "[T]he Department took an important step to ensure that consumers have continued access to affordable mobile services and new technologies. The action will protect American consumers and American jobs, the very purpose of our antitrust laws."

But what about the unions? The Communication Workers of America supports the deal, which it believes would create jobs. The left, it appears, is split. As Matt Yglesias reminds us, these sorts of political debates are often more complicated than they initially appear:

It also highlights the fact that many practical political issues in the United States don’t pit "workers" against "owners" or "managers" but rather pit firm against firm or sector against sector. There are some issues on which the interests of the Communications Workers of America differ from the interests of the owners and managers of AT&T, but there are also many issues on which their interests are perfectly aligned.

It's important for progressives to remember they can't take labor for granted. What opponents of the merger can and should do, though, is illustrate that those 5,000 jobs AT&T is advertising might be deceiving. Any such short-term growth would likely be dwarfed by the long-term consequences of losing smaller, nimbler, more innovative companies like T-Mobile. The merger would set a precedent for fewer consumer options, stymied growth, and, ultimately, fewer jobs.

UPDATE: Participants on a conference call with representatives from several media interest groups praised the suit. At its core, they said, the merger is about AT&T's underinvestment in its own communications network. Merging with T-Mobile—which pours several billion dollars a year into refurbishing its network—would allow AT&T to sidestep improving its own infrastructure.

And a merger of this size certainly wouldn't help the economy. If AT&T and T-Mobile were to join forces, duplicative service towers would be dismantled and redundant retail stores shuttered, resulting in massive job losses. Harold Feld, the legal director of Public Knowledge, said that T-Mobile had been in the process of preparing layoff notices for up to 20,000 employees in anticipation of the merger. "In the past couple months, it's become clear that AT&T, like a used car salesman, will say anything to close a deal," Feld said.

While the call participants stressed their ties with labor, they were clearly skeptical of the CWA's support for the deal. "At the end of the day, a few thousand new union jobs in these times don’t offset the loss of up to 20,000 jobs in total," said Derek Turner, the research director at Free Press. Turner added that the deal would result in reduced investment in capital expenditures by $10 billion in the years immediately following its passage, resulting in further layoffs.

The suit will now move on to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which will refer the case to an administrative law judge. Regardless of whether the news is good or bad for AT&T, it can appeal to a full commission, which could then either accept, reject, or modify the judge's decision.

"Only then would there be a final resolution by the FCC that the parties would have to live with or take to the courts," Howard Feld said. But, historically, a full commission hearing is considered the kiss of death for mergers like these.

Why Do Conservatives Get a Pass?

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 12:42 PM EDT

Rick Perry would like to repeal the 16th and 17th Amendments, hates the New Deal, thinks Social Security is a Ponzi scheme and global warming is a gigantic hoax, and would pretty much like to roll back America's entire social-welfare edifice "from housing to public television, from the environment to art, from education to medical care, from public transportation to food, and beyond." Ruth Marcus is appalled:

Whoa! These are not mainstream Republican views—at least, not any Republican mainstream post-Goldwater and pre-Tea Party. Even Ronald Reagan, who had once criticized Social Security and Medicare, was backing away from those positions by the 1980 presidential campaign.

…Perry’s ideas range from wrongheaded to terrifying.…The subtitle of Perry’s book is "Our Fight to Save America from Washington." Reading it summons the image of another, urgent fight: saving America from Rick Perry.

Here's what gets me. Perry's views are getting denounced by all the usual lefty suspects but not much by anyone else. And the reason for this is something very odd: In modern America, conservatives are largely given a pass for saying crazy things. They're just not taken seriously, in a boys-will-be-boys kind of way. It's almost like everyone accepts this kind of stuff as a kind of religious liturgy, repeated regularly with no real meaning behind it. They're just the words you use to prove to the base that you're really one of them.

Why is this? I'm not quite sure what the left-wing equivalent of this would be, but it would be something along the lines of Hillary Clinton writing a book that proposed repealing the 2nd Amendment and adding one that banned hate speech; limiting defense spending to 2 percent of GDP; raising the top marginal tax rate back to 90 percent on millionaires and 100 percent on anything above, say, $10 million; instituting British-style national health care; and spending half a trillion dollars on new programs for universal preschool, two-year paid leaves for new parents, and an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour. But in real life, Dennis Kucinich wouldn't support a platform like this, let alone a front-runner for the presidential nomination. And if one did, he or she would be instantly tarred as an insane nutball and would never see the business end of a TV camera again.

But when Republicans say the mirror image of stuff like this, it just gets a shrug. Sure, Perry apparently wants to roll things back to about 1900 or so. But hey—it's just a way of firing up the troops. Nothing to be taken seriously.

But why not?

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A Quick Look at How Our Kids Are Doing

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 11:41 AM EDT

I'm pretty sure I've posted this before in one form or another, and I'm not sure what prompted me to do it again, but every once in a while I feel the urge to present some raw data about how our kids are doing in school. The charts below are taken directly from the most recent NAEP report card, generally viewed as the "gold standard" among measures of student achievement. Here are the results among eighth-graders over the past 20 years in reading:

  • Overall scores are up.
  • White scores are up.
  • Black scores are up.
  • Hispanic scores are up.

And for math:

  • Overall scores are way up.
  • White scores are way up.
  • Black scores are way up.
  • Hispanic scores are way up.

Obviously it would be nice to be doing even better. It would be nice if black and Hispanic scores were catching up faster. We still have plenty of lousy schools that we should be working hard to improve. And achievement results among twelfth-graders are more ambiguous. School reform is an important topic and worth spending a lot of time on.

Still, keep these basic results in the back of your minds. Contrary to widespread opinion, our children are doing better today than they were 20 years ago. We're making progress, not falling ever further behind.

Weiner Seat in Jeopardy for Dems?

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 11:00 AM EDT
David Weprin.

The House seat vacated by disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner suddenly doesn't look so safe for Democrats. That's thanks in part to a series of untimely gaffes by Democratic candidate David Weprin, who will face off against Republican Bob Turner in a special election on September 13.

Here's TPM:

The influential New York Daily News savaged Weprin over the weekend after he belly flopped on a simple question from their editors: what is the national debt? With a reported "deer in headlights" look, he twice guessed $4 trillion, about $10 trillion off from the correct answer. As cringe-worthy a moment as it was on its own, its impact is much worse in Weprin's case: he's been selling himself as a fiscal Mr. Fix-it, touting his eight years as chair of the City Council's finance committee as his top qualification.

The next day Weprin dropped out of a debate with Turner at the last minute, citing logistical problems caused by the hurricane. But the storm had already passed and the move prompted speculation—fanned by [Republican candidate Bob] Turner's camp—that Weprin had dropped out to avoid taking heat for his debt screw-up the day before.

A little bad press will not sink a campaign. But one poll showed Weprin leading Turner by just six points before the gaffe machine went into overdrive. Democratic strategists still think Weprin's going to win. But he'll have to lean even more heavily on union support, milk a plum endorsement from The New York Times for all it's worth, and go full-on negative. So far, that's meant trying (and mostly failing) to link the apparently moderate Turner to the tea party. It's a tough sell.

For his part, Turner has had no problem taking cheap shots at Weprin, using TV ads to tie him to the Cordoba House "controversy" and insinuating that Democrats are prepared to sell out Israel (Weprin is an Orthodox Jew). With the election's close proximity to the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the candidates are expected to dial back the vitriol in their campaigns' closing days.

Weiner's district is considered a Dem stronghold. If Weprin loses, expect liberal pundits to sound the death knell for the party in 2012. Which, of course, would be a totally kneejerk, exaggerated reaction. But don't forget: although it takes a team of dedicated, tireless strategists to win an election, it takes just one ill-prepared candidate to blow it. 

Stimulus Spending and the Unemployed

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 10:25 AM EDT

Tyler Cowen links to a pair of papers that conclude that only 42 percent of the workers hired using stimulus funds came from the ranks of the unemployed. The rest came from other organizations or were hired straight out of school. Tyler concludes that this means the stimulus worked poorly:

One major problem with ARRA was not the crowding out of financial capital but rather the crowding out of labor.…You can tell a story about how hiring the already employed opened up other jobs for the unemployed, but it's just that—a story. I don't think it is what happened in most cases, rather firms ended up getting by with fewer workers.

There's also evidence of government funds chasing after the same set of skilled and already busy firms. For at least a third of the surveyed firms receiving stimulus funds, their experience failed to fit important aspects of the Keynesian model.

This paper goes a long way toward explaining why fiscal stimulus usually doesn’t have such a great "bang for the buck." It raises the question of whether as "twice as big" stimulus really would have been enough. Must it now be four times as big?

Maybe this is just my priors speaking, but I'd draw the exact opposite conclusion from this. First of all, a lot of stimulus spending went to states, where it was explicitly used to avoid laying off workers. That doesn't take anyone off the unemployment rolls, but it certainly keeps unemployment from getting worse. Second, no one expected ARRA to hire solely from the ranks of the unemployed. That's just not feasible, so these results hardly seem like a surprise to me. In fact, they seem pretty good. Third, yes, it's "just a story" that firms whose workers were hired away filled some of those new openings with the unemployed. But far from being some kind of weird fairy tale, it seems almost inevitable that this is partly true. And if even a third of those jobs were filled this way, it means nearly two-thirds of ARRA's total hiring (direct and indirect) was among the unemployed. And that's not even counting the effect of the increased spending from these newly hired workers that drives hiring in other firms

And fourth, my intuition says this result is an excellent argument that the stimulus should have been twice as big. Think of it this way. If the stimulus had been very small—say, $50,000—what would have happened? Well, if you could hire only one person, you'd almost certainly hire someone who was already working. There'd be lots of people to choose from, and it's a safer bet. At some point, though, you start to run out of good choices, and the currently employed are too expensive. So as the stimulus gets bigger you start to hire some of the best of the unemployed. Now make the stimulus super big, and cherry picking from the ranks of workers has played out almost completely. If 40 percent of the direct hires from the original ARRA spending were unemployed, I'd expect that something like 70 to 80 percent of the hires from a second trillion dollars of ARRA to be unemployed. What's more, all the newly employed people from that extra trillion would have created enough additional demand to benefit the rest of the economy as well.

Obviously, my intuition could be wrong. But overall, these results actually seem pretty positive to me. Probably at least half of ARRA's spending ended up in the hands of the unemployed, and if it had been bigger the vast bulk would have ended up in the hands of the unemployed. It's too bad we're not willing to try this out in real life to find out who's right.

Tar Sands Promoters Turn to Oprah Fans for Support

| Wed Aug. 31, 2011 9:53 AM EDT

The promoters of the Canadian oil industry are now resorting to appeals to "women's liberation" to promote tar sands oil. A group calling itself "Ethical Oil" is running ads on the Oprah Winfrey Network asking women to support extracting and exporting oil from the tar sands as a means of protecting women in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, the ad says, "doesn't allow women to drive, doesn't allow them to leave their homes or work without their male guardian's permission." "Why are we paying their bills and funding their oppression?" it asks. The Michigan Messenger flagged the ad yesterday, which is posted below:

The website for the organization urges readers to "choose Ethical Oil from Canada, its oil sands and other liberal democracies."

The tar sands have been in the news of late because the Obama administration is considering whether or not to approve a giant pipeline that would transport tar sands oil from Alberta down to refineries in Texas. This has sparked a two-week protest at the White House, with opponents arguing that the detrimental impacts of both tar sands extraction and the higher carbon output of the oil should be taken into consideration. (See our backgrounder on the pipeline for more.)

Yes, Saudi Arabia treats women poorly. But that wasn't a big consideration a few years ago when President Bush was holding hands with the Saudi prince. Nor does the argument really hold water. Even if we increase output from the tar sands, it's not going to put a huge dent in Saudi Arabia's earnings, since Saudi Arabia will still have the largest oil reserves in the world and be the world's largest exporter. And there's plenty of concern that tar sands oil, if shipped to US ports, wouldn't stay in the US anyway, and thus really wouldn't put a dent in our imports from Saudi Arabia.

If you care about women's liberation in Saudi Arabia, you should support women's liberation efforts in Saudi Arabia. Saudi women shouldn't be used as a ploy to draw support for dirty oil extraction in Canada.