2012 - %3, March

My Forecast: Barack Obama Will Be Reelected and He Won't Do Much

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 10:46 AM EST

David Fahrenthold and Peter Wallsten write in the Washington Post today that Barack Obama is still a political Rorschach test:

If President Obama wins a second term, he will finally endorse same-sex marriage. Gay rights groups are almost certain. He will also make a new, historic effort to fight climate change — environmentalists are pretty sure. And Obama will finally do just what the Congressional Black Caucus wants. According to some members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Conservative groups are equally confident that Obama, freed from the fear of losing his reelection bid, would deliver on far-reaching left-wing dreams. GOP candidate Mitt Romney forecasts a runaway spending spree. Newt Gingrich envisions a “war” on the Catholic Church. The National Rifle Association predicts a crackdown on gun owners.

There's really something pretty remarkable about this. You'd think that after three years in office — three years in which, frankly, Obama has governed pretty much the way he said he would — both sides would have cooled down. Nobody on the left would think he's the savior of mankind and no one on the right would think he's the second coming of Karl Marx. But apparently some on both sides still do.

What makes this even weirder is that even if you do think that, deep down, Obama is either hero or heretic, it's hard to believe that anyone really believes the stakes are all that high. Aside from the fact that second-term presidents rarely get very much done in the first place (cf. George Bush on Social Security and immigration reform), Obama is almost certain to face a Republican House and absolutely certain to lack a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Even if he wanted to, he couldn't declare war on the Catholic Church and he couldn't pass a historic climate change bill.

Now, Obama will be able to consolidate the implementation of Obamacare if he wins reelection, and I suppose that many on the right have decided this is tantamount to the end of history. Because, you know, an accidental, wildly-expensive, crazy-quilt system that does a terrible job of delivering actual healthcare to actual people is part of the fabric of America handed down by the Founding Fathers. Go figure.

Anyway, here's my prediction: Obama will be reelected and will serve out a relatively uneventful second term. Yes, Obamacare will become the law of the land, and it's even possible that some kind of immigration reform will end up passing if the Republican brain trust finally figures out that their war on Hispanics isn't working out any better for them than it did for Pete Wilson. Probably not, though. Some kind of long-term debt and taxes deal is also possible, but I'd be hard pressed to bet money on it. Foreign affairs are a crapshoot, of course, but let's face it: for all the big talk, Obama's approach to national security isn't really all that different from Mitt Romney's. By 2017 I imagine all this will seem pretty obvious.

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Taking a Closer Look at Economic Insecurity

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 9:37 AM EST

Over the past few years Scott Winship has made a career out of scolding liberals for exaggerating the recent growth of economic insecurity, and I've learned a lot by reading his critiques. But I find that I always have a problem with his pieces: he simply pushes back too hard in the opposite direction. If there are different measures of some variable, he always picks the one that minimizes the problem. If there are alternate explanations for a trend, ditto. If different datasets say different things, ditto again. The right answer is always the one that makes the problem look the smallest.

I was reminded of this today while reading "Bogeyman Economics," a long piece in National Interest whose takeaway is that a careful examination of the data suggests that economic insecurity hasn't risen much at all in recent years. But Winship's thumb is invariably on the scale. In his look at income volatility, for example, he reviews some valuable criticisms of previous research. But he also dismisses the use of an alternate dataset without offering much of an explanation and insists that a proper look at the data — which measures the portion of working-age adults who experience a 25% year-to-year income decline — suggests very little change over the years. But look at his own chart:

The number of families with big income drops has "increased only slightly," he says, and even accounting for cyclical fluctuations "the claims of dramatically increased volatility simply don't stand up." But a simple look at the data says different. I added the green line going roughly through the middle of the data, and it shows the number of at-risk families rising from about 8% to 12%. That's a 50% increase, which is significant by any measure. What's more, if you look at the trend line going through the peaks, which correspond to economic recessions, the increase is even greater. In other words, the impact of recessions has become larger and larger over the past four decades — exactly the concern of those who write about economic insecurity.

Other examples litter the piece. Maybe some of the income drops in the chart above are voluntary, he suggests, without presenting any evidence that voluntary income losses have risen. He calls a joblessness increase of 3% to 6% between 1968 and 2007 "modest," even though it represents a doubling. Long-term unemployment is up a lot, he concedes, but hey — it's a small number of people in absolute terms. A 2% bankruptcy rate per year — up nearly 10x since 1980 — isn't very much. (And we should be suspicious of the number anyway, though Winship provides no data to suggest why.) Credit card debt has doubled, but that's OK because it's only among a minority of Americans. The ranks of those without health insurance has gone up by 12 million, but it's a small worry because it represents an increase of only 4 percentage points (which looks small on a chart that goes from 0 to 100). And throughout it all, virtually every statistic is tied to medians, even though we should expect that income insecurity has probably grown the most in the bottom third or fourth of the population.

I get what Winship is doing. He believes that horror stories of increased economic insecurity have been exaggerated for political effect, so he's fighting back. And he makes some good points along the way. But in the end, he just goes too far. His evidence seems so obviously cherry picked that I never know what to trust and what not to trust. After all, in a rich country economic insecurity will never affect more than a smallish portion of the country, which means that even substantial changes can almost always be dismissed as modest in absolute terms. (A 20% increase in a quarter of the population, for example, nets out to an overall increase of only 5%.) By this measure, a rise in unemployment from 6% to 10% — which only affects 4% of the population — is hardly worth noticing. But as we all know, this is actually a sign of a deep and major recession.

"If we are to effectively confront the fiscal and economic challenges of the 21st century," Winship concludes, "we will need to begin by seeing things as they really are." I agree. But that goes for both sides. Small but persistent rises in economic insecurity suggest serious problems, especially when they're happening in the midst of substantial economic growth and show few signs of slowing down. A fair look at the data is fine, but not one that seems to bend over backward time after time to minimize long-term trends that suggest very real problems and very real distress.

The Wayward Sounds of Sharon Van Etten

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 6:00 AM EST
Sharon Von Etten

When I called her one morning a couple of weeks ago, Sharon Van Etten was on the road, driving a stretch from Ohio to Michigan. ("It's kinda bleak," she observed, accurately.) The context felt appropriate, considering that her new album, Tramp, released last month on Jagjaguwar, takes its name from the singer's nomadic existence during the 14 months it took to complete. Tramp has been winning her widespread attention and acclaim, but it's been a long journey to get to this point.

Van Etten was born and raised in suburban New Jersey, where she grew up performing in local choir groups and singing show tunes. ("They definitely informed my sense of melody and how to write harmonies and how to work with other singers," she says. "I don't think the dancing has come into play yet but maybe I'll incorporate that eventually?") After graduating from high school in 1999, she moved to Tennessee, where she (temporarily) attended college, worked at a café, and kept her open mic nights secret from her controlling, insecure emo-band boyfriend who thought her songs were too revealing.

Review: Sleigh Bells' "Reign of Terror"

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 6:00 AM EST

Sleigh Bells
Reign of Terror
Mom+Pop

When Sleigh Bells burst onto the music scene in 2010 with their debut album Treats, there was nothing else that sounded quite like their mix of airy female vocals and aggressively distorted guitar, and they quickly won both a devoted following and critical acclaim within the realm of indie rock.

While there still isn't anyone quite like Sleigh Bells out there, their aesthetic isn't novel anymore, and while most sophomore albums face the challenge of maintaining a sound without simply copying it, the challenge in this instance is made particularly difficult by the distinctiveness of the sound in question.

Band members Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller seem to recognize this, because while Reign of Terror is immediately identifiable as Sleigh Bells, it's a very different album. The heavy guitar and the breathy vocals are still there, but the songs are slower and less discordant; whether you think they pull it off or not probably depends on whether you think it's for better or worse that screams are no longer used as punctuation. The only tracks that really match the raucous energy of Treats are "Comeback Kid" and "Demons." Even "True Shred Guitar" doesn't sound shreddy so much as carefully calibrated. (Which, of course, is another piece of the contrast at the heart of Sleigh Bells: the chaos of a punk show, but controlled as tightly as a cheerleading routine.) Reign of Terror is prettier, poppier, and likely more palatable than Treats' convulsive clamor.

Workers: Walmart Contractor Paid $3 to $4 an Hour

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 6:00 AM EST
Warehouse workers picketing outside Schneider facilities in Mira Loma, California

As if running around a warehouse 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, in sweltering heat, to move an absurdly large quantity of dildoes, toilet paper, and baby food—as Mac McClelland did while working for an onine shipping giant—weren't bad enough. Try doing it for less than minimum wage.

Workers at a Walmart warehouse in the Inland Empire in Southern California were sometimes paid as little as $3 to $4 an hour, according to former crew leader Jorge Soto, who says he was ordered to falsify employees' time sheets to cheat them out of fair pay. Workers at this warehouse and two others in the area have filed a lawsuit that claims, among other things, that they were forced to sign blank time sheets which supervisors would then fill in with less than half of the time actually worked, according to a new investigation by Lilly Fowler for the nonprofit news organization FairWarning.org.

Iowa Moves to Keep Its Factory Farms Shielded From View

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 3:10 AM EST
Now you see it, now you don't: a screenshot from Mercy for Animals' 2011 video of Iowa egg operation Sparboe Farms.

On Friday, Iowa governor Terry Branstad signed a bill that will make it much more difficult for animal welfare advocates to sneak cameras into Iowa's factory livestock farms. The bill's fate is being watched nationwide, because Iowa's factory farms grow more hogs and keep more egg-laying hens than those of any other state.

The news got me to thinking of my own attempt, years ago, to peer inside an animal factory.

I was on a tour of a rural Iowa county, given by some farmers who were angry that massive hog-raising facilities had been plunked down in their community (I wrote about it here). At one point, we got out of the van so I could gape at two rows of such low-slung buildings, each holding thousands of hogs. A vast manure cesspool separated the two rows.

Even more repellent than the smell—which nearly dropped me to my knees—was the large man who came barreling out of one facility to demand to know what we were up to. When we informed him that we were citizens standing on a public road, he reminded us that just beyond that road lay private property, and we'd be well advised not to set foot on it. I asked him if I could have a look inside one of the buildings. He shot me a glare and turned on his heel, barking into his cell phone as he returned to his lair. I took the response as a "no," and we moved on.

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Chart of the Day: What We Pay for Healthcare

| Sun Mar. 4, 2012 1:50 PM EST

Via Ezra Klein, who has interesting things to say about this, the chart below compares the cost of various medical procedures in the United States and several other countries. By a mile, we pay more for pretty much everything, and this is a big reason that our overall healthcare costs are the highest on the planet. As a bonus, I've highlighted Switzerland in purple. Aside from the U.S., they probably have the biggest free-market component to their healthcare system in the rich world, and guess what? They come in second or third on all but one of the procedures. You may draw your own conclusions.

Obama Asks AIPAC to Trust Him a Little While Longer

| Sun Mar. 4, 2012 1:15 PM EST

Barack Obama gave a speech to AIPAC this morning and once again announced that when the chips are down he has Israel's back. "I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," he told them to applause. "And as I've made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests." Nonetheless, Spencer Ackerman makes the case that Obama engaged in the absolute minimum level of pandering possible in his speech:

Obama made a case for Israel and AIPAC to trust him on international sanctions to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon while telling Iran not to think he won’t unholster his own guns. He did it without pretending to AIPAC that see the world the same way. Or to put it differently, Obama challenged AIPAC to see the world his way, while every other American politician who addresses this forum will say he sees the world their way. 

....He made a case against “loose talk of war,” and for his diplomatic leadership, which he accurately noted “allowed us to rally the international community as never before; to expose Iran’s intransigence; and to apply pressure that goes far beyond anything that the United States could do on our own.”....Are we closer to avoiding an Iran war? It seems like it. The onus is on Netanyahu now to respond to Obama. One can cynically suggest that one of Netanyahu’s targets in a strike on Iran is Obama’s presidency; I would not put anything past Netanyahu. But Netanyahu has to consider — and my understanding is his advisers are indeed considering this — that Obama may very well be reelected, and then Israel will have to deal with the consequences of defying him when he returns to the height of his political power. Obama’s speech to AIPAC threw down a gauntlet to multiple audiences, while challenging them to do things his way.

This is not really my bailiwick, but if Obama's speech really does represent the far reaches of Middle East non-militarism in the mainstream community — and I don't have any reason to doubt Spencer's word on that — then I'm not sure we're especially close to avoiding war at all. Obama has indeed been much more successful with sanctions than George Bush was, and he's certainly less bellicose than, say, John McCain. But let's face it: it's still unlikely that sanctions will ultimately slow down Iran's nuclear program. In other words, Iran is probably going to call Obama's bluff, the one he says he's serious about, and by the time they do the public will be well and truly whipped into a war frenzy.

What happens then? According to Obama, we start the bombing runs. At the moment, then, it sounds like the main difference between Obama and Netanyahu is that Obama would like to wait until his second term to give the Pentagon its marching orders.

In the meantime, here's a question: I've seen entire forests felled providing me with the inside story of what Obama and his advisors really thought and did during the economic crisis of 2009-10. But I've seen virtually nothing — actually, scratch that: I've seen nothing — providing me with an inside glimpse of what Obama really thinks about Iran and Israel. Why is that? Is the foreign policy team just a lot more tightlipped than the domestic guys?

"Return of the Jedi" is the Best Star Wars Movie of All Time

| Sat Mar. 3, 2012 7:05 PM EST

Have you ever had the experience of blurting out a secret shame and then discovering that other people shared your secret? None of them were willing to talk about it either, and you all thought you were alone. But it's not true. It turns out you have friends after all.

No, I'm not confessing to being a Justin Bieber fan. But I do think that Return of the Jedi is the best of the six Star Wars movies. Yesterday I tweeted this, and the torrent of abuse was immediate.  @AdamSerwer: "This is crazy. Empire is the best by leaps and bounds, even the Vader/Luke fight is better." @drgrist: "The world demands a @kdrum post justifying his absurd ranking of Return of the Jedi above Empire." @jbouie: "Empire is unquestionably the best film. Really, ROTJ? No way. No how." @ChrisWKelly: "For me, 'Jedi' was so awful that it kept me from even bothering with the prequels."

But I wasn't completely alone. "Are we tweeting about how Return of the Jedi is our favorite star wars movie?" asked @kombiz warily. "I agree, didn't know i could say it publicly."

Well, you can! Just because everyone has been telling you for years that The Empire Strikes Back was the best of the original trilogy doesn't mean you have to keep quiet and knuckle under to the mob. That's what Goebbels counted on, right? So say it proudly: Return of the Jedi is the best of the six Star Wars movies! Come out of the closet!

And now, in the spirit of all those counterintuitive essays that Slate is so famous for, here's why. But first, a bit of throat clearing. In any trilogy, the first and last episodes have a built-in advantage. The first episode gets to introduce the setting and it gets to introduce all the characters and all the themes. Learning about the Force for the first time is just unbeatable. And the last episode gets to wrap everything up. If you do a good job of it, that's unbeatable too. The middle piece, though, can be a real slog. We already know all the characters and we're not going to get a resolution. Just lots of exposition.

So the middle part is really hard. To borrow a phrase, it has a very high degree of difficulty. And if you count that, maybe Empire was a better movie than the others. We got a great new character in Yoda and a great new theme in the Luke/Vader relationship. Given the hurdles it had to overcome, it was a helluva good film.

But resolving an epic tale satisfyingly is pretty hard too, and on an absolute scale I still think Jedi is underrated. So now, with my throat clearing out of the way, let's dive right in and address the elephant in the film: Ewoks. You hate them. I hate them. Everyone hates them. But don't let that blind you. The truth is that there's less of them than you think. There are, basically, two extended Ewok sequences. The first, when the Ewoks capture Luke and Han, is inexcusable. I won't even try. But it's only ten minutes of a two-hour movie. The second sequence is the battle for the shield generator station, and in that one the Ewoks really don't matter. It's a set-piece fight, and the Ewoks are just the extras — small, furry extras, but still extras. Ignore them. If someone recut the film to excise most of the first, infuriating Ewok sequence, I honestly think a lot of people would see the rest of it in a whole different light.

So the Ewoks aren't enough to ruin the film. But what makes it great? For starters, there's the start. The introductory sequence where Darth Vader pays a visit to the new Death Star is riveting, and its closing line — "The emperor is not as forgiving as I am" — pitch-perfect and perfectly delivered by James Earl Jones — is one of the best of the entire trilogy. What a way to pull you in!

And then there's the extended opening sequence on Tatooine. This is just great filmmaking. It's fast-paced, it advances multiple story elements effortlessly, it provides plenty of surprises, and it does a superb job of showing off Luke's maturing talents. Anyone who isn't fully engaged in this film after its first half hour has no business being in the theater in the first place.

And there's more. Visually, Jedi is far and away the best of the Star Wars movies. Face it: Hoth and Dagobah and the Cloud City were kind of meh, visually. And in movies like this, that matters. But Jedi has stunning visuals everywhere. It might not be easy to remember at this late date, for example, but the speeder chase on the forest moon was pretty spectacular in 1983. Hell, it's not bad now. The Death Star is gorgeous, and the emperor's throne room is a masterpiece of lighting and set design. The night sequences in the tree city are beautiful. The whole movie is a visual feast.

The arc of the story is completely engaging too. There's the Luke story, the Han/Leia story, and, of course, the Darth Vader story. There are a hundred ways any of these could have been fucked up (cf. the entire prequel trilogy), but they weren't. Take the treetop scene between Luke, Leia, and Han. This had to happen. We all knew it was going to happen. Any false notes would have wrecked it, but there weren't any false notes. Mark Hamill, granted, is not filmdom's finest actor, but even so the whole sequence plays out fluidly and convincingly. When Luke tells Leia she's his sister, what should she say? The answer is: "I know. Somehow I've always known." And that's exactly right. Once she's said it, you know it's the only thing she could have said.

And then, finally, there's the finale. For all its Saturday matinee melodrama — and this is, after all, Star Wars' heritage — the confrontation between Luke, Vader, and the emperor in the emperor's throne room is, by a mile, the best extended sequence in any of the movies. The dialog is terrific, the pacing is near-perfect, the visuals are spectacular, and the final metamorphosis of both Luke and Vader — which, again, is really hard to pull off credibly and could have been fucked up in a hundred different ways — was instead pulled off flawlessly. And then, in a mirror image of the movie's start — a terrific short opening scene followed by a longer introductory sequence — the long final sequence in the throne room is capped off by a shorter final scene on the hangar deck between Luke and Vader. This was a genuinely poignant scene. Even the music was perfect.

And so many great lines in this movie! "This bounty hunter is my kind of scum: fearless and inventive." "So what I told you was true... from a certain point of view." "If you will not turn to the Dark Side... then perhaps she will." "You were right. You were right about me. Tell your sister... you were right." "Now witness the firepower of this fully ARMED and OPERATIONAL battle station!" "Many Bothans died to bring us this information." "Strong am I with the Force, but not that strong." "You want this, don't you?" "Now you will pay the price for your lack of vision." "Your overconfidence is your weakness....Your faith in your friends is yours."

All you have to do is watch Revenge of the Sith to understand just how ineptly a heroic space opera based on elemental clashes can be wrapped up. It's no mean feat to resolve a story like this in both a narratively convincing and emotionally compelling way, but Return of the Jedi does it, and does it without stinting on the action and without letting the wheels and pulleys show. This is much, much harder than it looks

So put aside your hate! (Of Ewoks.) Instead, do this. Relax. Empty your mind of all Ewok thoughts. Then watch the movie again. At about 1:07, click ahead three chapters. That's it. Aside from that one ten-minute sequence, the Ewoks are just furry extras, not nearly as annoying as you remember them. And while the first two parts of the original trilogy are great on their own merits, the remaining 117 minutes of Jedi — its visuals, its pacing, its character development, its resolution of all the trilogy's main themes — make it the best and most satisfying of the bunch.

Mitt Romney's True Believer Problem

| Sat Mar. 3, 2012 1:01 PM EST

Ed Kilgore comments on a New York Times piece highlighting Mitt Romney's willingness to do and say anything to win the Republican nomination:

If that's true, then Romney's efforts to pretend he's the "true conservative" in the campaign have been something of a waste of time. All he really needs to do is to prove he has absolutely no conscience or inhibitions about negative campaigning. Because that's what "base" activists want more than anything else, even more than victory: a holy war against Barack Obama to articulate their visceral hatred of the incumbent, with which they hope to infect persuadable voters. Mitt's well on his way to passing that most crucial test.

Well....maybe. There's no question that if/when Romney wins the nomination, everything will soon be forgiven and the base will rally around him as their sole salvation from another four years of Obama. The same thing is happening on the left, as Obama talks tougher and tosses out base catnip like phone calls to Sandra Fluke in order to win back the affection of his erstwhile admirers from 2008. Still, I suspect that Romney really does have a long-term problem here. Sound and fury aside, I think the lefty base is actually more willing to accept compromise in their leaders than the right-wing base is. These folks really do want a true believer, and if you aren't one it demonstrates a serious moral deficiency, not just an unfortunate weakness. Weakness can be accepted if push comes to shove; moral failure can't be.

So it's a problem for Mitt. Maybe it's a small one: only two or three percent of the Republican base. But in a close race, that could be a lot.