Kevin Drum

Ban the Laptop!

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 2:39 PM EST
At the beginning of his Criminal Law class last semester, Eugene Volokh decided to ban laptops as an experiment.  So how did it go?  As the post-class survey summarized below shows, pretty well.  Unsurprisingly, the ban was a net negative for note taking, but it turned out to be a pretty strong net positive on every other scale.  This is mostly of interest to students and professors, but even outside academia it's an intriguing data point for anyone who thinks that the increasing device-driven ADD in modern America might deserve a little more pushback than it usually gets and would like some evidence to back up their instinct.

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Screwing the Poor

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 2:04 PM EST
Karen Tumulty writes in Time this week about her brother, Pat, who was diagnosed with kidney failure and then learned that the private insurance he'd been paying for for years wouldn't cover him.  That's bad enough, but then there's this:

A paradox of medical costs is that people who can least afford them — the uninsured — end up being charged the most. Insurance companies, with large numbers of customers, have the financial muscle to negotiate low rates from health-care providers; individuals do not. Whereas insured patients would have been charged about $900 by the hospital that performed Pat's biopsy (and pay only a small fraction of that out of their own pocket), Pat's bill was $7,756. For lab work — and there was a lot of it — he was being charged as much as six times the price an insurance company would pay.

There are lots of things to hate about our current medical system, and all of us have our own favorite things to hate.  This is mine: the fact that the system massively overcharges you if you're uninsured, and they do it just because they can.  If you're uninsured, you've got no leverage, no alternatives, no nothing.  So you get screwed.  It's like the shopkeepers who charge twenty bucks for a pair of flashlight batteries after hurricanes.  Maybe it's the free market at work, but if so, that's all the worse for the free market.  In the healthcare biz, it just doesn't work.

Quagmire

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 1:12 PM EST
Matt Yglesias reads Time magazine and writes:

Joe Klein’s article on the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan is informative, but doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence. It seems that military planners want the Obama administration to dispatch further additional troops to Afghanistan over and above the plus-up that’s already been announced. But nobody really knows what the mission of these troops would be.

.... Just about everyone seems to agree that the more serious problems are actually in Pakistan...and they’re ultimately political in nature — related to the willingness and capability of the Pakistani government to take on Taliban groups in border areas and, importantly, related to public opinion in Pakistan regarding priorities.

He's right.  Klein's article is here, and it's dismal reading.  I never really thought the Vietnam analogy was apt in the case of the Iraq war, but in the case of Afghanistan it seems to fit all too well: troop increases every year, diminishing success rates, no real strategy in place, and major problems with neighboring countries.  Unlike Iraq, destroying al-Qaeda's ability to wage war is obviously in our national interest.  But until someone produces a credible plan for accomplishing this, it's difficult to see what we're doing there.

French Toast

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 12:49 PM EST
Roger Cohen is scared that Barack Obama wants to turn American into France:

The $3.6 trillion Obama budget made me a little queasy. There is a touch of France in its "étatisme"....For everyone from the oil and gas industry to drug companies, the message was clear: Off with their heads!....I’d thought of Obama as less Robespierre than Talleyrand....The former French President François Mitterrand....manifold sensual, aesthetic and gastronomic pleasures offered by French savoir-vivre....High French unemployment ....French frontiers have not shifted much in centuries....careful to steer clear of his French temptation....The United States is in full post-Bush nemesis. In its core values, un-Gallicized, lies the long road to redemption.

Is there something about having a New York Times column that makes you lose your mind?  Obama wants to push taxes on the super wealthy back up to 2001 levels.  He wants to move in the direction of carbon pricing and universal healthcare, just like he promised repeatedly during the campaign.  He wants to increase defense spending, but increase it slightly less than the Pentagon would like.  Stimulus outlays aside, the budget as a whole is up only moderately compared to two years ago.

If you object to this, fine.  But Cohen doesn't. "After the excesses of Reagan-inspired deregulation and the disaster that unfettered markets have delivered, the pendulum had to swing."  But how much less could Obama swing it and still be making any noticeable difference at all?  What, exactly, has Cohen so worried?  He never says.  He just loses himself in a paroxysm of stammering cliches.  Has he been taking lessons from Maureen Dowd?

Pop Culture Watch

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 6:34 PM EST
I've been meaning to write posts about both 24 and Watchmen for a while, but haven't quite gotten around to it because I don't have anything really meaty to say.  So I'm just going to toss out a couple of offhand observations instead, mostly as an excuse to host an open thread on either or both of these fine Hollywood products.

First, 24.  It's turned into exactly the train wreck that I was afraid of when the season started.  Back when Jack Bauer merely tortured people as part of the script, that was one thing.  Your mileage might vary on whether you felt like watching it, but in the end it was just modern-day Dirty Harryism.  Nothing to get all that worked up about.  But this season Jack isn't just spontaneously beating up on bad guys who know where the ticking time bombs are buried.  No.  This season Jack is beating up on the bad guys as part of a premeditated strategy and then talking about it endlessly.  And so is everyone else.  The writers are no longer content to merely suggest that (in their fictional universe) a bit of extralegal torture might sometimes be justified because it gets results.  They're bound and determined to explicate it on screen every single time it happens and demand that we, the audience, actively approve of it. This is not only depraved, it's lousy storytelling too.  All the usual 24 preposterousness aside, it's made the show cringe-inducing this season.

Next, Watchmen.  Like many fans of the comic, I suppose, I've been waiting for it with a mixture of both anticipation and trepidation.  Anticipation, of course, because it's a seminal comic and I'm eager to see how it gets translated onto the screen.  Trepidation because I don't think it will translate well.  This isn't because I think it's "unfilmable," or because I think Zack Snyder will necessarily ruin it.  (I'm agnostic about that.  I thought 300 was fairly entertaining, so I don't hold that against him.)  No.  Oddly enough, it's because I think the story is simply too absurd to survive the transition to film.  I realize that proposition is a little hard to defend, but there's a sense in which a story that tries to treat costumed superheroes as real people is much harder to accept than one in which the essential burlesque of the superhero genre is simply taken for granted.  Once you start to interrogate the whole concept, it's much harder to successfully suspend disbelief.

Now, obviously that didn't hurt the comic.  (Not much, anyway.)  But I think it's harder to pull this off on the screen, which works by default in a realist mode, than it is in a comic book, which doesn't.  Or so it seems to me, anyway — though I cheerfully admit that the whole argument sounds kind of half-baked.  Feel free to mock me in comments.

This won't stop me from seeing Watchmen, of course.  Maybe I'll even see it on Friday if I can find anyone to go with me.  The question is: how many people who haven't read the comic a dozen times will do the same?

Feeding the Beast

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 4:10 PM EST
Ross Douthat takes a guess at what Barack Obama is up to:

What you see in his budgeting proposals, I think, is the liberal equivalent of the conservative attempt to "starve the beast." In both the Reagan and Bush eras, Republicans passed tax cuts and ran up large deficits while hoping that by starving the federal government of revenue they would curb its long-run growth. Obama's spending proposals would effectively reverse that dynamic — they would create new spending commitments and run up large deficits, in the hopes that the dollars poured into health care and education will create a new baseline for government's obligations, which in turn will create the political space for tax increases on the middle class. Like the starve-the-beast approach, the Obama strategy puts off the hard part till tomorrow: Give them tax cuts today, conservatives said, and they'll swallow spending cuts tomorrow; give them universal health care, universal pre-K, subsidies for green industry and all the rest of it today, liberals seem to be thinking, and they'll be willing to pay for it tomorrow.

I think this is pretty much right, and it's exactly what conservatives are afraid of.  As Bill Kristol knows all too well, social spending programs, once they get started, tend to be pretty popular.  The odds of deep sixing, for example, national healthcare after it's up and running is essentially zero.  And once it's up and running, taxes will follow because most Americans would rather see their taxes go up than their healthcare services go down.

Of course, this mostly applies to broad-based programs.  Smaller ones are still hard to get rid of, but not impossible.  It's the bigger ones that become third rails.  Both Obama and the GOP are smart enough to know this, which is why Obama wants to swing for the fences and congressional Republicans want to become the Party of Nyet.  If they don't stop him now, they never will.

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The Market

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 3:34 PM EST
One of the memes making the rounds in the leftosphere these days is that the media pays way too much attention to the stock market.  There's a lot of justice in this.  Day-to-day fluctuations are pretty meaningless, and the media's longstanding insistence on inventing reasons to explain each day's results has always been ridiculous.

But this critique can also be taken too far.  Just because Jim Cramer has the emotional maturity of a five-year-old doesn't mean that the S&P 500 has nothing to tell us.  It can tell us, for example, that investors have little faith in the near-term earning power of American industry.  It can tell us that lots of 50-somethings have suddenly seen their retirement savings cut in half and are scared as hell about it.  And if Robert Barro is right, it can tell us how likely it is that a recession will turn into something much worse:

The U.S. macroeconomy has been so tame for so long that it's impossible to get an accurate reading about depression odds just from the U.S. data. My approach uses long-term data for many countries and takes into account the historical linkages between depressions and stock-market crashes.

....In the end, we learned two things. Periods without stock-market crashes are very safe, in the sense that depressions are extremely unlikely. However, periods experiencing stock-market crashes, such as 2008-09 in the U.S., represent a serious threat. The odds are roughly one-in-five that the current recession will snowball into the macroeconomic decline of 10% or more that is the hallmark of a depression.

Now, it's worth pointing out that almost all of Barro's data comes from developing countries.  There have been only a tiny handful of post-WWII depression-level events in rich countries.  Still, events being what they are, you might say that we are all banana republics now, and if Barro is right the Dow is telling us that we might have as much as a 20% chance of spiraling into depression.  That's worth listening to.

Gordon and Barack

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 2:10 PM EST
It now seems to be nearly universally agreed that Barack Obama snubbed British PM Gordon Brown pretty hard yesterday, holding no formal press conference and taking only a few questions.  But why?  Alex Massie speculates that Obama just didn't want to deal with foreign reporters:

Obama has been briefed about the British press corps and sees no reason to humour them. This would not be wholly unsurprising: Fleet Street's finest are viewed as scatalogically-obsessed, bottle-throwing, teenage yobs far too fond of relieving themselves behind the bushes in the Rose Garden, or worse, in the East Room's pot plants.

Joshua Keating figures Obama's reasons are more prosaic:

I think his motives are actually a bit colder. Obama's most powerful diplomatic weapon right now is his own international popularity, and he seems to be making it clear that he won't share it with just anybody. 

Obama giving the cold shoulder to Brown probably doesn't mean he has any less respect for the special relationship with Britain than any of his predecessors. More likely, and bluntly, he probably just thinks of Gordon Brown as a bit of a loser. Why roll out the red carpet for guys like Brown and Taro Aso who will likely be out of office soon anyway? Something tells me that when Dmitry Medvedev or Hu Jintao visit the White House, the Obamas will break out the good china.

Poor Gordon.  He's the Herbert Hoover of British prime ministers: a guy who took over at precisely the wrong moment and hasn't been able to figure out since how to deal with the hand he's been dealt.  He probably never had a chance.

Quote of the Day - 03.04.09

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 1:22 PM EST
From Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R–Ca.), speaking to one of her aides after a visiting reporter suggested that the stimulus bill didn't actually contain a provision for a maglev train from Los Angeles to Las Vegas:

"Get him the bill, it's right there, show him."

You will be unsurprised to learn that no such provision turned out to be in the bill.  Mack's reaction went sadly unrecorded.  (Via Steve Benen.)

Cuba Lunacy

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 12:35 PM EST
Barack Obama supports a provision in the spending bill before Congress that would allow Cuban-Americans to visit relatives on the island once a year and end limits on the sale of American food and medicines in Cuba. New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez (D–Lunaticville) is so outraged by this that he's threatening to oppose the entire bill.  And he's holding up two of Obama's science nominations (John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco).  And he's threatening to hold his breath until his face turns blue.

Jeebus.  What is it about Cuba that drives people into decades-long fits of insanity?  Even JFK, the guy who instituted the Cuba embargo in the first place, thought we were all kind of crazy on the subject.  But 50 years later?  Crazy doesn't begin to describe it.

What's more, it's a different kind of crazy from most exile communities.  What accounts for it?  A Cuban-American congressional candidate told me last year that the difference was simple: most Cuban exiles, when they fled the island after Castro's takeover, left with their entire families.  So for a lot of them, there's literally nothing remaining there that they care about.  You could drop a nuke on Havana and they'd be OK with that.  This promotes a different brand of insanity than in most exile communities, which might hate the current regime in their home country but still have deep personal ties to it.

I don't know if that's really the explanation or not.  Comments welcome on this score.  But there's got to be something that explains this.  It's just nuts, and Menendez should be ashamed of himself.  It's time to grow up.