Kevin Drum

A Wee Question

| Mon Oct. 26, 2009 8:19 PM EDT

Can someone please explain to me why a supposedly sophisticated magazine like the Economist continues to insist on the juvenile practice of refusing to byline blog posts?  I know, I know, voice of God blah blah blah.  But seriously.  Isn't it time to grow up and enter the 21st century?  After all, the whole point of the blog format is to highlight personal voices.  I know I'd link to them more often if I knew who I was conversing with.

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Stop Digging

| Mon Oct. 26, 2009 6:46 PM EDT

The latest story from those pilots who overshot Minneapolis is that they had their laptops out and got so absorbed in what they were doing that they lost track of time.  Private pilot James Fallows isn't buying it:

The difficulty for the pilots is that the version of the story they're resisting — that they simply fell asleep — is less damning for them than any alternative version. If they fell asleep, that's bad, but they could argue some kind of force majeure. But if their "heated conversation" (previous story) or intense laptop use (current story) kept them from remembering their most elemental responsibility as pilots, that really is beyond the pale. The closest comparison would be, say, to an operating-room crew that got so interested in watching a football game on TV that they sliced open a patient but forgot to take out his appendix. Forgetting where you are going is incredible enough on its own. And not having any back-of-mind nag saying, "Wait a minute, we haven't heard anything on the air-traffic control frequency for a while" also is outside any known experience of the professional flight-crew world.

The laptop story really, really doesn't hold water.  Air traffic controllers tried to reach them repeatedly with no success, and there's just no way that busily reviewing flight schedules could have absorbed them so fully that they didn't even hear their radio.  These guys need to remember the first lesson about what to do when you find yourself in a hole: stop digging.

Opt-Out Noses Ahead of Trigger at the Wire

| Mon Oct. 26, 2009 5:16 PM EDT

Last Friday it looked like the most likely compromise on including a public option in the healthcare bill was Olympia Snowe's "trigger." But either that was just a feint or else everyone changed their minds over the weekend:

The Senate health care legislation will include a government-run insurance plan, but states would be allowed to “opt out” of it, the majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, announced Monday afternoon.

....“Under this concept, states will be able to determine whether the public option works well for them and will have the ability to opt out if they so choose. I believe that a public option can achieve the goal of bringing meaningful reform to our broken system.”

Snowe has announced that she won't support this, so that means Republicans are now unanimously opposed to healthcare reform. It can still pass, but only if the Democratic caucus is unanimously willing to allow a floor vote.  Needless to say, this is still up in the air.  Fasten your seatbelts.

15 Years to Go

| Mon Oct. 26, 2009 2:16 PM EDT

Josh Marshall:

It's news to no one that physical, print newspapers are in the throes of a historic decline. But the numbers themselves really take your breath away when you see them. According to the Audit Bureau, daily circulation fell 10.6% year over year in the period between April to September.

Ad revenues are one thing; and they're likely enough to be fatal to newspapers as the dominant mode of news distribution in the country. But that figures in economic trends of various sorts. But readership, while obviously intimately related, is a different sort of metric. I have many thoughts on this. But at the moment I'm not sure what to say other than those numbers take my breath away. A ten percent decline year over year is the rate of a mode of distribution going out of existence.

A few years ago I was on a panel discussion and the moderator asked us all how long newspapers distributed on newsprint would last in the United States.  My guess was 20 years: that is, the last newspaper in the country would shut its doors in 2025.

That's now looking pretty optimistic: a lot of people these days seem to think that 2012 is more like it, and today's news won't do anything to change their minds.  At the same time, there are various ways you can look at that 10% drop, and one of them is simply that the recession has condensed several years of decline into a single year.  A $500 newspaper subscription is a prime candidate to get sliced out of the family budget when times are tough and news can be found everywhere.  So maybe all that's happening is that a cohort of the least dedicated readers are leaving all at once, and when the recession starts to lift newspaper circulations will begin to stabilize a bit.  Or at least decline more slowly.

Maybe.  I'm not sure what I think anymore.  On the one hand, there's a generational attachment to newspapers that just won't go away as fast as people think.  (People routinely underestimate generational attachments.  But the fact is that they only truly go away when generations die out, and that takes a while.)  On the other hand, there really does seem to be a tipping point issue here: as circulations decline, and newspapers respond by cutting back staff, the quality of the product spirals down.  That's a vicious cycle, and there's a point at which the quality deteriorates so fast and so hard that even old newspaper diehards just don't want to bother anymore.  I'm pretty far along the diehard continuum myself, but the deterioration of the LA Times is so obvious these days that even I'm not sure how much longer I really feel like paying for it.  We'll see.

In any case, I guess I'll stick with 2025 for now.  There may be small local papers around for longer than that, but no big city dailies.  New York will be the last to go, but in fifteen years newspapers will be a thing of the past even there.

Apples and Oranges

| Mon Oct. 26, 2009 1:08 PM EDT

Dave Roberts:

I’m sure Steve Mufson and Juliet Eilperin didn’t choose the headline, but whoever did, I think it’s a real mistake to refer to the Kerry-Boxer bill as “a bit more ambitious” than its Waxman-Markey counterpart in the House. This became conventional wisdom almost immediately, but it seems to me both wrong and pernicious — the more Kerry-Boxer is seen as a leftward move from the House bill, the more senators who want to be seen as moderate will want to be seen hacking it down.

Dave's argument is that Kerry-Boxer's emissions reduction target is only slightly tighter than Waxman-Markey's (20% vs. 17%) and that when you compare apples to apples, it's really more like 18% or 19%.  It's a pretty tiny difference, and the rest of the bill is pretty clearly weaker than Waxman-Markey.  Taken as a whole, it's less ambitious, not more.

But I'd go further.  The real difference between the two bills is that Waxman-Markey has already gone through the sausage factory and Kerry-Boxer hasn't.  It's easy for a draft of a bill to be ambitious, but not so easy for it to stay ambitious by the time it gets to a floor vote.  Comparing a draft to a finished bill is like comparing a fantasy football team to the Pittsburgh Steelers.  It's kind of ridiculous to compare them at all at this stage.

POSTSCRIPT: And while we're on the subject, yes, global warming is still real.

Filibusters and Holds

| Mon Oct. 26, 2009 12:34 PM EDT

The Republican effort to block Obama's nominees to federal judgeships is, truly, without precedent.  In the past there have always been a few high-profile fights, as well as a general slowdown toward the end of most presidencies when the minority party hopes that a few months of stalling will allow them to take office and fill the vacancies themselves.  It's not pretty, but not surprising either.

But this presidency is different.  Republicans are holding up everyone, and they're doing it during Obama's first year.  Not a single appellate judge has gotten a vote yet:

And it's not just judicial nominees. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, pointing to the difficulties of responding to the global flu pandemic, recently noted that the Senate isn't allowed to vote on a surgeon general, because Republicans refuse to let Regina Benjamin's nomination come to the floor. "We are facing a major pandemic, we have a well-qualified candidate for surgeon general, she's been through the committee process. We just need a vote in the Senate," Sebeilus said late last week. "Please give us a surgeon general."

....People for the American Way reported last week that between 1949 and 2009 — spanning 11 presidents — there were 24 nominees on which cloture was forced. In the first nine months of Obama's first year in office, there have been five, meaning Senate Republicans on track to force more cloture votes on more Obama nominees than practically every modern president combined.

That's Steve Benen, who points out accurately, "And that doesn't include the secret and not-so-secret holds."  Temper tantrum politics is alive and well in the modern Republican Party.

UPDATE: Oops.  One appellate judge has been confirmed so far: Gerard Lynch for the 2nd Circuit.  Sorry about that.  Complete list here.  More comparisons here.

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Obama and the Public Option

| Mon Oct. 26, 2009 11:28 AM EDT

Ezra Klein and Jon Cohn both report that the Senate leadership is getting a little annoyed with President Obama regarding his support for various flavors of the public option.  They want to know exactly where he stands, and he's not telling them.  Ezra:

If the White House wants to advocate for the trigger, fine. If the White House wants to advocate for the public option, fine. But for the White House to host one meeting where they signal that they're uncomfortable with Reid's decision to push the envelope on the public option and then make a big effort to walk that meeting back after the left gets angry is confusing everybody.....Since the administration is considered the most important actor here, no one knows quite how to structure their strategy so long as the White House refuses to fully show its cards.

And Jon:

Supporters of the public plan have made headway by seizing on a proposed compromise first introduced by Delaware Senator Tom Carper — a proposal under which the federal government would create some sort of national public plan, but still allow states to opt out of it....But when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid briefed the president at the White House on Wednesday, Obama responded with a series of tough questions — not rejecting the idea, but not rushing to embrace it, either. When word of that meeting leaked out, public option supporters took Obama's reaction to mean that the administration continued to prefer the "trigger" compromise, under which a failure by private insurers to deliver affordable coverage would trigger the creation of a public plan.

I think this is a case where my sympathies may be more with Obama than with the Senate leadership.  My guess is that Obama (a) supports a strong public option but (b) doesn't really care about it that much.  Like it or not, that's just the way he feels: he'll support anything that Reid can deliver 60 votes for.  So if Reid tells him flatly that he thinks he can pass opt-out, but he needs a full-court press on, say, Nelson and Lincoln, I'll bet that Obama would be on board as long as his own staff agreed with Reid's assessment.

But is Reid telling him anything that clear cut?  Nobody knows for sure, but I'm sure not getting that impression, and no president is going to lay the full power of the Oval Office on the line without that.  This is hardly something unique to the Obama presidency.

Bottom line: everyone's getting frustrated, but this is just a very tricky issue.  It's literally something where one or two senators can make or break it, and Obama might or might not have the leverage to get them on his side.  Either way, though, it strikes me that Reid needs to deliver a very clear message on whip counts, who the holdouts are, and possible bribes to get them in line.  He's really the key player here, not Obama.

Quote of the Day

| Sun Oct. 25, 2009 1:51 PM EDT

From Azizullah Ludin, chairman of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, on how the runoff between incumbent Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah is going to turn out:

We will have another election, and we’ll have the same result.  Karzai is going to win.

Dexter Filkins of the New York Times reports that Ludin "smiled broadly" when he made this pronouncement.  That's very comforting.  Via Isaac Chotiner.

Futility Bleg

| Sat Oct. 24, 2009 6:11 PM EDT

So I'm watching the Oregon-Washington game, and earlier in the first half, following a sack and a holding penalty, the Ducks were left with second and 36.  Which got me wondering: what's the longest yardage a team has ever had to make a first down?  3rd and 50?  4th and 75?  Anyone happen to know the record in this category?

I'm watching the game on my new "free" hi-def TV.  And the TV itself really was free.  But of course it didn't fit in our current TV cabinet thingy, so we had to buy a new one.  And what's the point of a hi-def TV unless you call up the cable company and order hi-def service?  And hey, as long as I'm at it, why not get a few more channels too?  And maybe I need a Blu-Ray player too.  All told, my "free" TV will probably cost a couple grand just in its first year.  Sheesh.  I'm an idiot.

Plus I now have an old TV and TV cabinet to somehow get rid of.  The cabinet is just a bear.  It doesn't seem that big — maybe five feet wide and as high as my chin — but it weighs a ton.  I can barely move the thing.  I suppose this probably means it's well built, but at this point I sort of wish it were a little flimsier.

Death is Public, So Why Not Taxes?

| Sat Oct. 24, 2009 2:46 PM EDT

Via Alex Tabarrok, this AP dispatch on egalitarianism gone wild is pretty interesting:

In a move that would be unthinkable elsewhere, tax authorities in Norway have issued the "skatteliste," or "tax list," for 2008 to the media under a law designed to uphold the country's tradition of transparency.

....To non-Scandinavians, it would seem to be a gross violation of privacy.  The tax list stirs up a media frenzy, with splashy headlines revealing oil-rich Norway's wealthiest man, woman and celebrity couple.

....The information had been available to media until 2004, when a more conservative government banned the publication of tax records. Three years later, a new, more liberal government reversed the legislation and also made it possible for media to obtain tax information digitally and disseminate it online. Norway's 2007 law emphasized that ''first and foremost, it's the press that can contribute to a critical debate'' on wealth and the elaborate tax scheme that, along with the country's oil wealth, keeps Norway's extensive — and expensive — welfare system afloat.

Apparently the Norwegian data includes total wealth, not just income, which is a little surprising.  Does Norway have a wealth tax?

UPDATE: Turns out the United States tried this experiment for a couple of years back in the 1920s.  However, "popular discomfort with the 1924 experiment prompted lawmakers to repeal the publicity provision two years later."  Thanks to Philip Klinkner for the pointer.