2012 - %3, March

More Twaddle From the Twit

| Wed Mar. 7, 2012 8:00 PM EST

Did the Iranians release their American hostages on the day of Ronald Reagan's inaugural because they were scared shitless of what the Gipper would do to them if they held out? In a word, no. Probably just the opposite. They weren't especially afraid of Reagan, but they were pissed off at Jimmy Carter and wanted to deny him the satisfaction of being able to announce the hostages' release. What's more, by 1981 Iran was in a war with Iraq and really, really needed the money that had been frozen while the hostages were being held.

But not everyone is aware of all this, and James Joyner argues that this includes people running for president:

It’s rather unreasonable to expect our presidential candidates to consult with teams of historians to get their post hoc, studied reactions to events. Those who have studied the negotiations since — and presumably had the ability to talk to some on the Iranian side — have since concluded that there’s little to no evidence that the incoming president’s foreign policy was a significant factor. But there’s no reason on earth Romney should know that.

Well, sure, I'll go along with that. We can't expect presidential candidates to know everything.

But here's the thing: if you don't know about this history, you probably shouldn't write op-eds in the Washington Post about it. Or if you do, you should spend a minute or two on the internet checking things out. That would keep you from writing nonsense like this:

Beginning Nov. 4, 1979 , dozens of U.S. diplomats were held hostage by Iranian Islamic revolutionaries for 444 days while America’s feckless president, Jimmy Carter, fretted in the White House. Running for the presidency against Carter the next year, Ronald Reagan made it crystal clear that the Iranians would pay a very stiff price for continuing their criminal behavior. On Jan. 20, 1981, in the hour that Reagan was sworn into office, Iran released the hostages. The Iranians well understood that Reagan was serious about turning words into action in a way that Jimmy Carter never was.

What twaddle. If Romney is clueless about this episode in American history, fine. He's had other things on his mind for the past 30 years. But if he doesn't know anything, he shouldn't be mouthing off about it either. Deal?

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99 Cents and the Future of Journalism

| Wed Mar. 7, 2012 3:42 PM EST

There's a new journalism startup in town called Matter. Their pitch: once a week they're going to publish a stunningly good piece of long-form journalism about issues in technology and science. "That means no cheap reviews, no snarky opinion pieces, no top ten lists. Just one unmissable story." Each one of these unmissable stories will cost an iTunes-like 99 cents.

So: will it work? Matter is raising money on the internet, and they've already blown past their $50,000 goal to get started. But will enough people buy their pieces at 99 cents a pop to keep them going? Felix Salmon and Stephen Morse debate the issue over at Felix's site, but really, I think Felix says all that needs to be said in this short paragraph:

Matter’s Kickstarter campaign proves that people want to give them their money. The task facing Matter is to create material that’s so unique, so great, that readers around the country and the world will be eager to buy subscriptions, or individual issues, in the knowledge that their money is going straight to the creators of that content. It’s an exercise in doing something which has historically been extremely rare, in the world of journalism: selling stories to readers, as opposed to selling readers to advertisers.

Yep. But here's the thing: getting great material is the challenge faced by every single magazine and newspaper in the world. And how do you get great material? Answer: make sure your stories are written by great writers. But there are really only two ways to do this:

  • Hire the best writers and reporters in the business. You do this the old-fashioned way: by paying higher rates than anyone in the business.
  • Find fresh, young writers and reporters who produce great stuff but are relatively unknown. 

But again: these are the options open to every single magazine and newspaper in the world. Option #1 is really expensive, because the top writers are either already on staff somewhere and probably unavailable at all, or else they charge punitively high word rates. Option #2 is great, but everyone in the world is hunting for people like this. If you've figured out a way to find them better than anyone else, then you have a bright future. But it's a future based on your talent scouting ability, not your delivery mechanism.

So we'll see. I don't have much of an opinion about Matter because I suspect their delivery mechanism is beside the point. It does have the benefit of keeping overhead costs low, but that's probably a wash since they also have no advertising revenue. Basically, if they're able to consistently produce spectacular pieces of journalism that generate a lot of online buzz, they'll succeed. If they can't, they won't. But that would probably be true regardless of what kind of delivery model they choose.

Will Retiring Baby Boomers Overwhelm the Housing Market?

| Wed Mar. 7, 2012 1:58 PM EST

Paging Karl Smith! Suzy Khimm writes today about something that I remember getting a bit of attention a few years ago: namely that as we baby boomers age, we're all going to sell our houses. This is going to put an unusually large number of old houses on the market, which could keep the construction market depressed for a long time. It's our final parting gift to the younger generation.

But is it true? Suzy is writing about a new study from the Bipartisan Policy Center, so I went off to read it. In the executive summary, it says this:

Depending on assumptions about the economic recovery, seniors will release a net of 10.6–11.3 million housing units between 2010 and 2020....Between 2000 and 2010, the net release of homes totaled some 10.5 million units.

So, um, pretty much the same. The next decade will see a release of maybe a few hundred thousand more old homes than the last decade. That's a rounding error. Here's the detail, which accounts for different forecasts of economic growth:

Under the low scenario, total absorption of owner-occupied housing amounts to only 13.3 million units; after subtracting the units released by older adults, this would mean an increase of only 3.8 million in owner-occupied units for the decade, compared with an increase of slightly more than six million for the decade from 2000 to 2010. The high scenario, by contrast, would bring a projected 18.6 million new households into homeownership and yield a net growth of 10 million new homeowners.

In the medium scenario, there would be an increase of about 7 million units, compared to 6 million for the past decade. That doesn't sound especially Armageddon-like. I'm having a hard time getting too panicked about this.

In any case, this is a chicken-and-egg problem. If the economy is bad, then fewer people will buy homes. If the economy is good, more people will buy homes. No surprise there. But of course, if more people buy homes, that will help drive the recovery. Would you care to weigh in on this, Karl?

UPDATE: In fairness, I should note that the study also suggests that this release of housing will be quite different in different states, so there could be substantial issues in some regions but not in others. Also, we're going to need a lot of new retirement and assisted-living homes as the baby boom generation ages. But I think we already knew that.

The Left Strikes Back

| Wed Mar. 7, 2012 12:41 PM EST
Rush Limbaugh

Bob Somerby points out today that Rush Limbaugh has been spewing bile for years. And yet, he says, "We liberals have been too lazy, too feckless, too ditto-headed to insist that big news orgs challenge Limbaugh." So Limbaugh has mostly gotten away with it.

I don't really buy Bob's examples of supposed liberal fecklessness. They involve things like claiming that lower taxes will bring in more revenue, which has been conservative dogma for years. It's also been the subject of relentless fights. Still, it's true that Limbaugh has said terrible stuff in the past, but it's only SlutGate that's come close to generating a serious level of blowback against him. How come?

I don't know. But I was reminded of a Suzy Khimm piece from a couple of weeks ago that asked a similar question about the proposed ultrasound law in Virginia, which also generated a tremendous amount of liberal protest:

What makes this all slightly surprising is that the Virginia law is not new. Twenty states have ultrasound-related abortion restrictions...So why is an old abortion restriction suddenly coming under fierce protest this time around? Analysts say that a new political landscape, coupled with a shift in abortion rights rhetoric, have allowed opponents to successfully push back against an abortion restriction that has passed with much less protest in a half-dozen other states.

...."In any of these contests, you need to get people passionate," says Anna Esacove, a sociologist at Muhlenberg College who studies abortion politics. "Framing this as rape creates a passionate response for people who are against the laws. Even if people don't think it's rape, it gets people talking about it."

....The messaging reminds some who have followed reproductive health politics of the antiabortion movement's successful rhetoric in pursuing a ban on "Partial-Birth Abortion."..."Partial-birth abortion was really a watershed in terms of rhetoric," says Deana Rohlinger, a sociologist at Florida State University whose research focuses on social movements. "When the National Right to Life tested it, it just tested through the roof, and now it's history."

If this is right, it's bad news for Bob, who's consistently argued against the Foxification of the left and for a tough but fundamentally factual approach to fighting the modern right. But Suzy is suggesting that although the key to success in Virginia was partly better organization, it was mostly about using more incendiary language. Likewise, in the case of Rush, the key to success had nothing to do with his odious point of view. It was all because we could highlight a single word—"slut"—that enraged people.

I don't know if this is correct. I'm just tossing it out for comment. But politics has always been about emotion, not cool logic, and maybe these two recent examples suggest that liberals are rediscovering that lesson. We'll see.

Colbert On Targeted Killing: "Due Process Just Means There's A Process That You Do"

| Wed Mar. 7, 2012 12:08 PM EST

On Tuesday, Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert took on Attorney General Eric Holder's legal justification for killing American citizens abroad suspected of terrorism, particularly Holder's argument that "due process and judicial process are not one and the same."

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"Trial by jury, trial by fire, rock, paper scissors, who cares? Due process just means that there is a process that you do," Colbert said. "The current process is apparently, first the president meets with his advisers and decides who he can kill. Then he kills them."

Pretty much.

It's Mitt, Mitt, Mitt for the Home Team

| Wed Mar. 7, 2012 12:01 PM EST

Apologies for the lack of Super Tuesday posting. Five minutes of Newt's victory speech sucked all the wind out of me. So here's my wrapup: Mitt Romney used to be the inevitable nominee. After last night, he's still the inevitable nominee. As David Corn notes, Gingrich is obviously the walking dead at this point, but is too egotistical and just plain mean to realize it. Ditto for Santorum, though I suppose you could argue that he still has a tiny chance of winning.

At this point, I can just barely conceive of a scenario where everyone doubles down and refuses to exit the race, preventing Romney from winning a clear majority on the first ballot. But by "barely," I mean "like the odds of an asteroid landing on one of Mitt's cars." It's unlikely in the first place, and the pressure on both Santorum and Gingrich to stop the bloodletting would be intense if they tried to hold out. I don't think they could do it.

Like it or not — and no one does — it's Mitt. Might as well get used to it.

UPDATE: Nerd alert of the day comes from Dave Weigel: "[Romney's] strategy from state to state looks a bit like Galactus's strategy for planet-devouring: Move in, absorb everything. Restore Our Future is his Silver Surfer, softening up the terrain and warning of doom." Okey dokey. Dave also points out something that struck me as well last night: when the talking heads talked about Ohio, it was almost as if Romney was a Democratic candidate. All night, he racked up big wins in the big urban counties while Santorum colored the state purple with wins in all the rural counties. That sure sounds like a mirror image of November to me.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 7, 2012

Wed Mar. 7, 2012 11:08 AM EST

An OH-58D Kiowa Warrior from Task Force Saber, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, fires a 2.75-inch rocket at a mountainside during a test flight in eastern Afghanistan, March 2, 2012. The Kiowa warrior is the Army's scout and reconnaissance aircraft, which often provides close support for ground troops on the battlefield. Saber's Kiowas lead the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, which has flown more than 65,000 hours across all airframes since October 2011. US Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Eric Pahon, Task Force Poseidon Public Affairs.

Maybe I'll Get an iPad 3 After All

| Wed Mar. 7, 2012 10:56 AM EST

The iPad 3 — or the iPad HD or whatever Apple decides to call it — is coming out today, and I have no plans to get one. At least, I didn't have any plans to get one until yesterday. Now I'm thinking about it.

Why? Because something suddenly occurred to me that I hadn't thought about before. I regularly use a remote access program called TeamViewer to do tech support on my mother's computer. I also have it installed on my laptop so that I can access my desktop PC. I've always known that an iPad client was also available, but for some reason it never clicked with me that I could actually use it. But of course, I can. And that would mean that I'd have a lovely iPad with all the usual lovely iPad functionality, but I'd also be able to pop up my desktop Windows screen anytime I want and use the stuff that's unique to it. And if all the rumors are right and the iPad 3 has a new super high-res display, I assume that my desktop screen would scale down to iPad size fairly cleanly.

I still don't know if I'll get an iPad, but I'm suddenly thinking that I might. The combination of high-res viewing, Kindle app, and remote desktop make it a pretty appealing idea. I just hadn't ever thought about that combination before.

I guess there's no reason for any of you to be interested in this. But you might be! So I'm sharing. Any of you ever tried this with an iPad 2?

The "Pink Slime" in Your Kid's School Lunch

| Wed Mar. 7, 2012 5:30 AM EST
USDA photo of a beef grinding operation

Like a horror-film villain, "pink slime"—the cheeky nickname for scraps of slaughtered cow that have been pulverized, defatted, subjected to ammonia steam to kill pathogens, and congealed into a filler for ground beef—takes a pounding but keeps coming back.

Last month, McDonald's announced it would stop using the stuff. But just this week, pink slime got a de facto endorsement from none other than the USDA, which—the online journal The Daily reported—plans to keep buying millions of pounds of it for use in the National School Lunch Program.

These developments are just the latest installments of a long-playing drama. The product first entered my consciousness in the 2008 documentary Food, Inc., when the product's maker, Beef Products International, was proud enough of its now-infamous burger extender to do what no other meat company would: invite filmmaker Robert Kenner into its factory to film its shop floor in action.

Dennis Kucinich Goes Down in Ohio. Now What?

| Tue Mar. 6, 2012 11:55 PM EST
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio)

You may have missed it amid Newt Gingrich's ruminations on algae and the Romney-Santorum nail-biter in Ohio, but there was a Super Tuesday result with serious ramifications for progressive politics: In the Democratic primary in Ohio's 9th Congressional District, Rep. Marcy Kaptur knocked off Rep. Dennis Kucinich by double digits, putting the political future of one of Washington's loudest liberal voices in serious doubt. Again.

Kucinich, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 and 2008 largely on an anti-war platform, was drawn out of his old Cleveland district during the state's redistricting process (the state lost two seats after the 2010 census), ending up in a primary against Kaptur, a 15-term Democratic incumbent. The resulting, excessively gerrymandered 9th district hugs Lake Erie, stretching from Toledo, where Kaptur lives, all the way to Cleveland, Kucinich's home. (Shira Toeplitz notes, "The district is connected by a bridge that's only 20 yards wide, as well as by a single beach at one point.") Kucinich took his best shots at Kaptur—alleging, for instance, that her campaign had illegally stolen all of his yard signs. But he faced a different set of voters, most of whom he'd never previously courted—and not even Russell Simmons could save him:

In his eight terms in Washington, Kucinich held down the far-left of the House Democratic caucus and built up his national profile in tandem. He famously called for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, then took things a step further last spring, suggesting that President Obama's imposition of a no-fly-zone in Libya might also be an impeachable offense. He held out for months on health care reform because of his support for the public option.

But while Kucinich's rhetoric has been unwavering, his record of accomplishments is relatively small. Kaptur is pro-life and votes accordingly, but otherwise holds fairly conventional liberal views for a Rust Belt Democrat. She's also never traveled solo to meet with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and then defended him to her hometown paper.

The question now is what Kucinich will do next. Over the course of his career he's demonstrated a remarkable ability to come back from crushing defeats. He lost three congressional races before he was 30, and was already a washed-up ex-mayor at 35. After moving to California for a brief period of soul searching, he ran unsuccessfully for two more statewide offices, moved to New Mexico for some more soul searching—and then came home and won a House seat. If believes he still has more work to do in Washington, the odds are pretty good he'll try to find a way to stay there.

Case in point: Before opting to stay at home last year, Kucinich publicly contemplated moving to Washington state to run for a seat there. In an interview with Politico last week, his campaign spokesman, Andy Juniewicz, pointedly refused to rule out the possibility that Kucinich might exercise the Evergreen option should he come up short against Kaptur. (According to Public Policy Polling, just 22 percent of Washington state Dems want Kucinich to run for office in their state.) He has until May 18 to declare his intentions. Who knows, we may not have seen the last of Dennis Kucinich.