Kevin Drum

Unlike Diamonds, E-Books Are Not Forever

| Thu Dec. 4, 2014 9:21 PM EST

Microsoft is getting a divorce from Barnes & Noble:

On Thursday, the two companies parted ways, with Barnes & Noble buying out Microsoft for about $125 million. In other words, in just over two years, the value of the Nook business has lost more than half its value.

....And yet despite these grim numbers, Barnes & Noble has reason to look favorably on its relationship with Microsoft. The initial $300 million investment gave the bookseller an infusion of cash when it needed it most....Microsoft, meanwhile, was hoping that the Nook software would bolster its own tablet business, making it a more viable competitor to Apple’s iPad. That didn’t pan out, and Microsoft was left committed to a declining Nook business that was adding little to its own ambitions in the tablet market.

This highlights one of the big problems with e-books: what happens when there's no software left to read them? I'm a big user of the Nook app on my Windows tablet, but its demise was announced months ago. Microsoft doesn't care about Nook because it's not a killer app for Windows 8, and B&N doesn't care about Windows 8 because Windows tablets have a minuscule market share. So the app died. For now everything is still fine, but it's inevitable that when upgrades stop, eventually an app stops working for one reason or another. Will I then be able to read my Nook books in some new Microsoft reader? Or will I just be up a creek and forced to switch to an iPad or Android tablet? There's no telling.

It's weird. I think I now know how Mac partisans used to feel when Microsoft was eating their lunch. They all believed that Macs were obviously, wildly superior to anything from Redmond, and were only on the edge of extinction thanks to massive infusions of marketing by an industry behemoth. Now I'm in that position. After considerable time spent on both iPad and Android tablets, I find my Windows tablet obviously, wildly superior to either one. It's not even a close call. But the market disagrees with me. The few drawbacks of Windows 8, which I find entirely trivial, are deal breakers for most users, and as a result app makers have stayed away. This causes yet more users to avoid the Windows platform and more app makers to stay away, rinse and repeat.

What a shame. I guess I can only hope that by the time Windows tablets are consigned to the dustbin of history there will finally be an Android tablet that's actually usable by adults who want to do more than update their Facebook pages. We'll see.

POSTSCRIPT: Of course, this wouldn't be a problem—or not such a big problem, anyway—if Amazon and other e-book vendors allowed third-party apps to display their books. But they don't, which means Amazon's monopoly position in e-books also gives them a monopoly position in e-book readers. This is really not a situation that any of us should find acceptable.

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No, the Garner Case Doesn't Show That Body Cameras Are Useless

| Thu Dec. 4, 2014 12:51 PM EST

Very quick note: ever since last night, a lot of people have been making the point that Eric Garner's killing produced no grand jury indictment even though the whole incident was captured on video. So maybe the whole idea of body cameras on police officers is pointless.

This is ridiculous. There are pros and cons to body cameras, but only in the rarest cases will they capture a cop killing someone. Even if, arguendo, they make no difference in these cases, they can very much make a difference in the other 99.9 percent of the cases where they're used. The grand jury's decision in the Garner case means a lot of things, but one thing it doesn't mean is that body cameras are useless.

Can We Please Kill Off the Kabuki in the Press Room?

| Thu Dec. 4, 2014 12:14 PM EST

Things are a bit slow this morning, so I want to replay for you a Twitter conversation with CNN's Jake Tapper. The subject is Jonathan Karl of ABC News, who harassed press secretary Josh Earnest earlier this week over President Obama's picks as ambassadors to Argentina and Hungary. Neither one has any special diplomatic experience, and one of them is a former producer for a soap opera:

Jake Tapper: meant to give props to @jonkarl for his Bold and Beautiful ambassador questions to @PressSec the other day

Kevin Drum: Why? Is anything really gained by this daily kabuki in the press room?

JT: why what? why is it worth challenging people in power about questionable decisions?

KD: It's kabuki. Everyone knows the answer. It's happened forever. Earnest wasn't going to answer. Why waste the time?

JT: i guess i dont think trying to hold those in power accountable is a "waste of time." have a great day

Tapper's point is pretty easy to understand, and my colleague Nick Baumann agrees with him. There's a long tradition of rewarding big campaign contributors with cushy ambassadorial posts in spite their fairly visible lack of qualification. There's not much excuse for this, so why not demand to know why Obama is doing it?

But here's my point. This is yet another example of a bad habit that the White House press corps engages in constantly: faux confrontation over trivia that gets them camera time and kudos from late-night comedians, but is, in reality, completely pointless. Jonathan Karl knows perfectly well why these two folks were appointed. They raised lots of money for Obama. Josh Earnest knows it too. This stuff has been going on forever. But Karl knows something else: Earnest is a spokesman. He's flatly not allowed to fess up to political stuff like this, and he's just going to dance around it.

This is why I called it kabuki. If this were actually an important topic where there was some uncertainty about the answer, then confrontation would be great. I'd like to see more of it for truly important stuff. But is Karl's investigative reputation really enhanced by an inane kindergarten round of "let's pretend" with whatever poor schmoe happens to be at the press room podium? Is this truly an example of "holding those in power accountable"?

I really don't see it. Then again, maybe Karl is working on a whole segment about the ridiculous practice of rewarding supporters with cushy diplomatic posts in fashionable countries. Or maybe even a segment asking why countries even bother having ambassadors in high-profile capitals where they serve precious little purpose anymore. If that's the case, then maybe the questions made sense.

But purely as confrontation? Please. Dignifying this silliness as "challenging people in power" is like calling a mud fort an infrastructure project. It really doesn't deserve any props.

UPDATE: Hmmm. Apparently Tapper and some others interpreted my initial tweet as referring to the entire concept of the press briefing. So to some extent, this is a misunderstanding. Obviously I don't object to the general practice of holding briefings (though I wish reporters would boycott all the "background" briefings). I just object to the habit of peppering White House flacks with questions about trivial topics that everyone knows the answer to. It seems more designed to get YouTube kudos than to truly challenge anyone in power.

Some Fair and Balanced Race Baiting at Fox News

| Thu Dec. 4, 2014 10:58 AM EST

Andrew Sullivan is heartened that even most conservatives seem to be shocked by yesterday's grand jury decision not to return an indictment in the killing of Eric Garner. But "most" is not quite all:

The exception to all this was Fox News last night. Megyn Kelly’s coverage proved that there is almost no incident in which a black man is killed by cops that Fox cannot excuse or even defend. She bent over backwards to impugn protesters, to change the subject to Ferguson, to elide the crucial fact that the choke-hold was against police procedure, and to imply that Garner was strongly resisting arrest. Readers know I had very mixed feelings about Ferguson. I’m not usually inclined to slam something as overtly racist. But there was no way to interpret Kelly’s coverage as anything but the baldest racism I’ve seen in a while on cable news. Her idea of balance was to interview two, white, bald, bull-necked men to defend the cops, explain away any concerns about police treatment and to minimize the entire thing. Truly, deeply disgusting.

Jeez. A thinly veiled appeal to racist sentiment at Fox News? I am shocked, I tell you, shocked.

Quote of the Day: What Mysterious Force is Preventing Passage of a Roads Bill?

| Thu Dec. 4, 2014 10:33 AM EST

From Fred Smith, CEO of FedEx, at a meeting of the Business Roundtable with President Obama:

Why not, before the Congress goes home for December, just pass a bill that takes the two bipartisan bills that I just mentioned, up, and solves the problem?

Smith is referring to a couple of bills that would restore the gasoline tax to its old level and increase funding for transportation projects. He raises a good question. I suppose there could be several reasons it's hard to pass either of these bills:

  • Democrats are in thrall to labor unions, who are opposed to funding more infrastructure projects.
  • All our roads and bridges are in pretty good shape and we don't really need more money for them.
  • As a socialist, President Obama opposes these bills because they would increase the profits of billionaire construction company CEOs.
  • Vladimir Putin has threatened to invade Nova Scotia if we pass these bills.
  • Santa Claus is coming to town and we're all hoping we've been good enough to get the bridge repairs we asked him for.

Or, of course, it could be because Republicans are less afraid of letting our roads crumble into dust than they are of Grover Norquist saying mean things about them if they were to maintain the gasoline tax at historical levels. Because, you know, taxes.

Nah. That's ridiculous. It's probably the Putin thing.

Shale Gas May Not Be Quite As Revolutionary As We Think

| Thu Dec. 4, 2014 12:51 AM EST

If you have a good memory, you'll remember that I've written before that the shale oil revolution might be a bit less revolutionary than we think. The reason is that shale oil wells decline really fast, which means that total production could top out at little more than 3-4 million barrels per day and start declining as soon as 2020. Only time will tell.

Today brings similar news: the shale gas revolution might also be a bit less revolutionary than we think. A team at the University of Texas has spent the past three years in a minute examination of the four biggest shale gas plays in the US, and they've concluded that these fields probably contain less gas than previous estimates from the Energy Information Administration. Mason Inman explains in the current issue of Nature:

The main difference between the Texas and EIA forecasts may come down to how fine-grained each assessment is. The EIA breaks up each shale play by county, calculating an average well productivity for that area....The Texas team, by contrast, splits each play into blocks of one square mile (2.6 square kilometres) — a resolution at least 20 times finer than the EIA's.

Resolution matters because each play has sweet spots that yield a lot of gas, and large areas where wells are less productive. Companies try to target the sweet spots first, so wells drilled in the future may be less productive than current ones....The high resolution of the Texas studies allows their model to distinguish the sweet spots from the marginal areas. As a result, says study co-leader Scott Tinker, a geoscientist at the University of Texas at Austin, “we've been able to say, better than in the past, what a future well would look like”.

So what does this mean? The chart on the right tells the story. If the EIA is right, shale gas production in the Big Four fields will continue rising through 2025 before plateauing at around 300 billion cubic meters. But if the Texas team is right, production will peak in 2020 at around 250 bcm and then start declining rapidly.

Obviously we don't know if the Texas team's methodology is more accurate than the EIA's. As they say, more research is needed. For the moment, though, it's worth keeping an even keel about both shale oil and shale gas. It's possible that we've become a little too giddy about both.

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There Are Damn Few Shades of Gray in the Death of Eric Garner

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 6:42 PM EST

I may have mixed feelings about Ferguson, Ray Rice, and the UVA rape case, but God almighty, that's not a problem with the killing of Eric Garner, is it? We have a trivial offense, a minuscule level of "resisting arrest," a banned chokehold, five cops around, no life-threatening situation by any stretch of the imagination, and yet—one dead guy, who spent the last minute of his existence pleading for his life. But despite all that, along with a medical examiner's judgment of homicide by chokehold, there's no indictment of the police officer responsible.

This is not like Ferguson. Regardless of how you feel personally about what happened there, I think there was virtually no chance that officer Darren Wilson would ever have been convicted in the death of Michael Brown. The evidence was just too inconsistent and the standard for guilt too high. That makes it at least arguable that the grand jury did the right thing when it failed to indict.

Nothing like that can be said here. Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who applied the chokehold to Garner, might have won a trial, but he might have lost it too. That being the case, there's little excuse for not letting a jury do its job and make a finding of fact in this case. Instead, Garner's death was treated as little more than an annoyance to be swept away. If we needed any evidence that police officers can pretty much kill anyone they want with impunity, this is it.

April 23rd Is the Saddest Day of the Year

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 2:30 PM EST

According to Google—sort of—the saddest times of the year are spring and fall. Weird. Click here for the explanations, which seem a bit ad hoc to me. I mean, less light? Then why is winter such a happy time? Not to mention spring. "As it turns out," the article explains, "lengthening daylight may discombobulate people's chemical regulatory system." So....less light is bad. But more light can also be bad. And winter is OK even though it has the least light of all. This might all be true, but it's sure a bit of a chin scratcher.

And the unhappiest day of the year in 2014 was April 23. WTF? I could understand April 15. But what's the deal with the 23rd? Anybody got a theory? Am I missing something here?

The Problem With the Ferguson, Ray Rice, and UVA Rape Stories

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 1:36 PM EST

What do these three recent stories have in common?

  • Ferguson
  • Ray Rice
  • The University of Virginia gang rape

One thing they have in common is that I've written little or nothing about them. But they share two other attributes as well. Here they are:

  1. All three have spotlighted problems that are critically important and absolutely deserving of broader attention. Ferguson is all about racial disparities, police killings of unarmed civilians, the militarization of law enforcement, and other equally deserving issues. Ray Rice was about the scourge of domestic violence and its tacit acceptance within the culture of professional sports. The UVA rape story was about sexual assault on university campuses, fueled by alcohol, fraternities, and official lack of concern.
     
  2. However, the specific incidents in all three cases are, to say the least, less than ideal as poster children for these issues. We will never know for sure what happened to Michael Brown, but as evidence has dribbled out, the simple liberal narrative of a gentle teenager being gunned down while trying to surrender has seemed less and less credible. In the Ray Rice case, it's clear that Rice did something terrible—but as it turns out, the evidence suggests that the criminal justice system treated him fairly reasonably and that the NFL's actions were mostly a craven reaction to public opinion. Finally, in the UVA rape scandal, a number of credible questions have been raised about whether Rolling Stone's account of what happened was fair—or, in the worst case, even true.

If you're curious about why I've been relatively quiet about these stories, that's why. All of them spotlight issues that I think are well worth spotlighting, and I don't really relish the thought of doing or writing anything that might dilute their power. These are all things that I want people to pay more attention to, not less, and if you want the world to change you have to be willing to exploit the events you have, not the events you wish you had.

And yet, the specific fact patterns of each specific case are genuinely problematic. To pretend otherwise is to be intellectually dishonest.

I've dealt with this by not saying much. That's not exactly an act of moral courage, is it? And yet, with the facts as hazy as they are, I'm just not sure what else to do. Perhaps the answer is to stop worrying about it: Just accept that we live in a messy world and sometimes the events that have the most impact aren't clear cut. But you use the events anyway in an effort to grab public attention and improve the world a bit, even if that sometimes means a few individuals end up being treated unfairly in some way. Perhaps.

I don't know—though I'm struck that three such similar events have occurred in just the past few months. But I'm still not sure whether I should have reacted differently. I just don't know.

Tell Me, Chuck: What Should Dems Do To Win Back the Middle Class?

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 11:16 AM EST

A longtime reader writes: "Hope you'll weigh in on Edsall on Schumer and the Dems 'destroying' the party over Obamacare."

Well, OK. But I don't have an awful lot to say. Basically, Sen. Chuck Schumer thinks it was a mistake to focus on Obamacare in 2009. Instead, Democrats should have focused like a laser on the economy, and in particular, on helping the working and middle classes. Instead, Dems passed yet another social welfare program that mostly helps the poor, demonstrating yet again that they don't really care much about the middle class.

Yesterday, Tom Edsall weighed in on this. He didn't really take a political position of his own, but he did present a bunch of evidence that Schumer was substantively correct. That is, Obamacare really does help mainly the poor, and Democrats really have done very little for the middle class lately.

So what's my view? Well, I've written about this before, and I'd say that on a technical level Edsall is exactly right. On the upside, Obamacare does help the working and middle classes a bit, partly because its subsidies are available even to those with relatively high incomes and partly because of its other provisions. For example, its guarantee that you can get affordable coverage even if you have a preexisting condition is something that helps everyone. If you're middle class and you lose your job, that provision of Obamacare might be a lifesaver.

Still, there's no question that Obamacare helps the middle classes only at the margins. Most of them already have employer health coverage, and the ones that end up buying coverage through the exchanges get only small subsidies. I happen to think that Obamacare will eventually be the foundation for a program of universal health care that genuinely appeals to everyone, the same way that Social Security does, but that's in the future. It doesn't really help Democrats now.

So I agree with Edsall about the technical distribution of Obamacare benefits. And I also agree with Schumer that Democrats need to do more to appeal to the working and middle classes. So that means I agree with their basic critique. Right?

Nope. Not even slightly. You see, the core of the critique isn't merely that Democrats should do more for the middle class. It's specifically that Democrats should have done more in 2009 for the middle class. But this is the point at which everything suddenly gets hazy. What should Obama have done in lieu of Obamacare? Paul Krugman has it exactly right:

When people say that Obama should have “focused” on the economy, what, specifically, are they saying he should have done?....What do they mean? Obama should have gone around squinting and saying “I’m focused on the economy”? What would that have done?

Look, governing is not just theater. For sure the weakness of the recovery has hurt Democrats. But “focusing”, whatever that means, wouldn’t have delivered more job growth. What should Obama have done that he actually could have done in the face of scorched-earth Republican opposition? And how, if at all, did health reform stand in the way of doing whatever it is you’re saying he should have done?

In broad terms, I agree with Schumer's critique. Democrats need to do more to appeal to the working and middle classes, not just the poor. But Schumer is maddeningly vague about just what that means. And as it relates to 2009, in particular, he's full of hot air. In the first few months of the year, Obama passed a big stimulus. He rescued the auto industry. He cut everyone's payroll taxes.

Should Obama have done more? Oh my, yes. His pivot to the deficit in mid-2009 was dumb. And by far the biggest smoking gun of unfinished business was something to rescue underwater homeowners. But let's be serious: even if Obama had supported a broad rescue effort, it wouldn't have mattered. Congress wasn't on board, and I doubt very much that anything could have gotten them on board. The politics was just too toxic. Never forget that the mere prospect of maybe rescuing underwater homeowners was the issue that set off Rick Santelli's famous CNBC rant and led to the formation of the tea party movement. I wish things were otherwise, but bailing out underwater homeowners was simply never in the cards.

Beyond that, Democrats have a much bigger problem than even Schumer acknowledges. It's this: what can they do? That is, what big ticket items are left that would buy the loyalty of the middle class for another generation? We already have Social Security and Medicare. We have Obamacare. We have the mortgage interest deduction. What's left?

There are smallish things. Sometime people point to college loans. Or universal pre-K. I'm in favor of those things. But college loans are a stopgap, and the truth is that the rising price of college for the middle class is mainly a state issue, not a federal one. And universal pre-K simply doesn't yet have enough political support. (It's also something that would most likely benefit the poor much more than the middle class, but leave that aside for the moment.)

So I'll ask the same question I've asked before. I'm all in favor of using the power of government to help the middle classes. But what does that mean in terms of concrete political programs that (a) the middle class will associate with Democrats and help win them loyalty and votes, and (b) have even a snowball's chance of getting passed by Congress? Expansion of Social Security? Expansion of Medicare? Bigger subsidies for Obamacare? Universal pre-K? A massive infrastructure program? Let's get specific, and let's not nibble around the edges. Little programs here and there aren't going to make much difference to the Democrats' political fortunes. Nor will heroic but vague formulations about rescuing unions or raising taxes on the wealthy by a few points.

So tell me. What should they have done in 2009 that was actually feasible? What should they do now? Let's hear it.