Kevin Drum

California's Choice

| Thu Nov. 19, 2009 3:23 PM EST

Here's the latest news from the world's biggest provider of penal services:

Caught between state funding cuts and rowdy student protests, a key committee of the University of California's Board of Regents on Wednesday reluctantly approved a two-step student fee increase that would raise undergraduate education costs more than $2,500, or 32%, by next fall.

...."I hate to say it, but if you have no choice, you have no choice," UC President Mark G. Yudof told reporters after the committee vote. He empathized with student anger, but said it would be better directed toward state lawmakers who have cut education funding.

....The regents' finance committee approved the new fees for UC's undergraduates 10 to 1, with only student Regent Jesse Bernal voting no. The full board is expected to endorse the change today, along with even higher increases for students in professional schools such as law and medicine.

Yudof is right: there's probably not much choice anymore.  Partly this is because of dumb tax and spending decisions in the past.  Partly it's because of the recession.  And partly it's because the prison guards union has spent the last 30 years scaring Californians into fits in order to build up the prison population.  The chart on the right shows an almost ghostly parallel: adjusted for inflation, UC tuition has gone up 5x since 1980.  During the same period, spending on corrections has also gone up 5x.  As we spend ever more on warehousing prisoners, we're forced to make students pay ever more for their education.  The two lines track almost exactly.

We used to have the world's greatest system of higher education and we thrived.  Now we have the world's biggest system of penal institutions and we're broke.  That's the decision Californians have made over the past 30 years: more prisons and better paid prison guards, but lower taxes and less education.  (And not just higher education, either.)  It's hard to think of a stupider allocation of resources.  But hey — at least our property taxes are capped!  Hooray!

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The Rest of the World

| Thu Nov. 19, 2009 2:20 PM EST

John Judis compares the coverage of Barack Obama's trip to South Korea in three different newspapers today:

Both the Post and the Times focus not on South Korea per se, but on Obama’s taking a “stern tone” toward North Korea in his discussions with the South Koreans.  The Post suggests that the two sides have agreed to a “new approach,” which will reject “endless, inconclusive disarmament negotiations” with the North. OK, pardon me if I yawn.

....Now let’s look at the Financial Times story by Christian Oliver and Edward Luce, which is about one-third the size of the other pieces....Here are the opening paragraphs:

When George Bush senior visited Seoul as US president 20 years ago, things were simple – the US was the undisputed main ally and trade partner. Astonishingly, there was only one weekly flight from South Korea to China, the communist foe. Barack Obama on Wednesday visits a South Korea where the US is no longer the only show in town. China is now the main trade partner, with 642 flights each week.

One flight versus 642 flights — that’s a small detail that tells a large story about South Korea and China....There’s more, too, about Obama making trade promises to South Korea that Congress is unlikely to let him keep. All in all, you get in one-third the length three times more interesting information than in the Times and Post articles, and it’s epitomized in the lead paragraphs comparing the number of flights that now run weekly between China and South Korea.

There are two things going on here.  First, the FT writes for a more sophisticated audience that's been following this story for a while and is actually interested in learning more about it.  Second, and related, the FT doesn't have to pretend that the only news that matters is whatever happens to be the current hot button in the United States.  American audiences tend to believe that pretty much every international issue revolves mainly around how it affect the United States, and that's the only angle they're interested in.

At least, that's what American newspapers assume.  They might find out different if they tried the FT's approach, but honestly, they probably know their audience pretty well.  Even most highly educated Americans just don't care much about the rest of the world except to the extent that it affects us.

Quote of the Day

| Thu Nov. 19, 2009 12:41 PM EST

From Jon Stewart, explaining what it's like to listen to Sarah Palin:

It's just a conservative boiler plate mad lib.

I think that nails it.  Yesterday I was thinking about how everything she says sounds like it's just plucked from the tea party talking points of the day, but Stewart comes closer to the truth.  They aren't just talking points, they're sort of bizarrely, syntactically mashed up talking points.

I wonder what really goes on inside her head?  Lots of politicians have mastered the art of speaking in talking points and never going off message, but mostly they at least try to sound like they know what they're talking about.  Palin doesn't.  She just spouts the sixth grade version of the talking points with an apparently total unawareness that she sounds like a child.

Virtually every political commenter — even the ones who like her! — concluded after the presidential campaign that she needed to study up on the issues, maybe pick one to make into her signature, and use that to increase her gravitas.  But obviously she hasn't.  She just doesn't care.  Or, perhaps, doesn't think there's any reason she needs to know about issues.  I mean, she beat that nerdy issue guy in the Alaska governor's race just by making fun of his book learning, didn't she?  Why change a winning game plan?

Controlling Healthcare

| Thu Nov. 19, 2009 12:13 PM EST

Ezra Klein on the cost control portions of the Senate healthcare bill:

If this piece of the bill was passed on its own, it would be the most important cost control bill ever considered by the United States Congress. But you could never have passed it on its own. You needed the coverage to make the grand bargain work. Republicans like to call this bill a trillion-dollar experiment to expand the health-care system, and in some ways, it is. But it's also a multitrillion-dollar experiment to cut costs in the health-care system, and it deserves credit for that, and support from fiscal conservatives. It's easy to talk about cutting costs, but this is the chance for people to actually do it.

This is a consistently underappreciated aspect of the current reform efforts in general and the Senate bill in particular.  Are they Rube Goldberg concoctions?  Sure.  Might they fail?  Sure.  But they are, by several miles, more ambitious attempts to rein in both Medicare costs, and healthcare costs generally, than anything ever done.  Nothing else even comes close. MedPAC, Medicare growth targets, excise taxes on Cadillac plans, givebacks from Pharma, a modest public option, delivery reforms — these are all pitifully inadequate to the task, but they're also the best prospects for healthcare cost control we've ever seen.

Right now Democrats are stuck.  For short-term political reasons, Republicans have decided to demagogue cost-control because it helps them gin up opposition to healthcare reform in general.  This means Dems can't really afford to do more on this front even if they wanted to.  But at least these bills set the stage.  They put in place both goals and programs that can be built on later if America's party of fiscal conservatism ever decides to stop throwing temper tantrums and instead join in seriously addressing America's long-term fiscal problems.  That probably won't be until after 2012, but if reform passes this year at least we will have gotten started by then.

Quote of the Day

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 7:51 PM EST

From Barack Obama, asked what he thinks about Afghan president Hamid Karzai:

He has some strengths, but he has some weaknesses

Obama went on to say, basically, that he didn't care much about Karzai anyway: "I'm less concerned about any individual than I am with a government as a whole that is having difficulty providing basic services to its people."  Not exactly a warm, personal relationship there, is it?

Concentrating Dynamically in Afghanistan

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 7:34 PM EST

Matt Yglesias on how we should distribute additional troops in Afghanistan:

Afghanistan is a big country. So in addition to the question of how many resources should be sent to Afghanistan, there’s the question of where they should go. Recently, the tendency has been to throw additional resources at the parts of the country where things are worse. In his latest Carnegie Endowment report “Fixing a Failed Strategy in Afghanistan”, Gilles Dorronsoro argues that this would be a big mistake. The resources being contemplated, he argues, aren’t enough to win the war in the South. Sending them there would merely guarantee that we also lose the war in the North and the East, without making much progress in the South.

Instead, he prefers to adopt a more defensive posture in the South—securing main cities where the Taliban is disliked—and focus our attention on winning what he regards as the more winnable struggles in the North and East where the Taliban is making gains but isn’t deeply intertwined with local communities.

Hmmm.  This reminds me of the crime fighting strategy Mark Kleiman outlines in When Brute Force Fails.  It's too complicated to explain the whole thing here, but basically the idea is to concentrate overwhelming force on a small fraction of the population, which then shapes up because they have zero chance of getting away with anything.  As they become better behaved, resources then move to other areas, and eventually the whole population is well behaved.

In other words, it's pretty much the crime equivalent of clear and hold, which is a counterinsurgency staple.  It's also (very roughly) what the surge did in Iraq.  The overall increase in troops from the surge was only about 20%, which seemed plainly inadequate to the task, but most of those troops were concentrated in Baghdad, and it turned out that this was enough to clean up the city.

Now, cleaning up petty crime among drug probationers is not the same thing as stabilizing Afghanistan, but some of the principles are the same.  And as I recall, whether "dynamic concentration" works depends a lot on how widespread violence is to begin with; how good your monitoring and response is; whether your resource level is high enough in the initial target areas; and how much time you have.  Those would all be excellent things to stuff into a game theoretical model to see if an additional 40,000 troops can really make a difference in Afghanistan.  As I've said before, I'm less interested in the argument over the number of troops we send there (which tends to get sterile pretty quickly) than I am in what the detailed strategy is to deploy those troops.  Still waiting on that, though.

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Sleazy Web Marketing

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 2:46 PM EST

Have you ever purchased something online, pressed the "Continue" button, and then, months later, discovered that you had signed yourself up for a membership program that was charging your credit card 20 bucks a month for something you had never heard of and never knew you were buying?  Well, guess what: these scams are a multi-billion dollar business, they're partnered with lots of brand name sites you'd think you could trust, and they do everything they can to sign you up for their "services" without you knowing about it.

More here from Felix Salmon, but make sure your blood pressure is in good shape before you click over to read about it.  Previous background about legal harrassment of a blogger who wrote about this a couple of months ago here.  (Note: blood pressure warning still applies.)

Fact Checking the Fact Checkers

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 2:10 PM EST

So how about that big 11-person fact-check that AP did of Sarah Palin's book?  Over at CJR, Greg Marx is unimpressed:

Leaving aside the issue of resource allocation, the question is: Did the fact check deliver?

Not so much — at least not if the phrase “fact check” is going to have any specific meaning....Even accepting all of the AP’s claims, several of the cases it mentions are as much matters of interpretation and analysis as factual accuracy. And in some, the Palin statements that it scrutinizes don’t even make factual claims — meaning that there’s not much to “check.”

....This sort of thing matters because, in an increasingly contested political landscape and wide-open media environment, there really is a need for fact checking....But for the idea of fact checking to have any weight — and any hope of broad credibility — it must mean something more specific than “contesting a statement that we disagree with.” When Sarah Palin talks about “Obama’s ‘death panel,’” she’s spreading misinformation that needs to be repudiated. When she talks about being beckoned by purpose, she’s being a politician. We need to recognize the difference.

I wasn't very impressed with AP's effort either, which is why I didn't blog about it at the time.  Somerby is pretty unthrilled too.  Better fact checking, please.

Collateral Damage

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 1:44 PM EST

Via Dan Drezner, Charli Carpenter tells us that although war crimes are down over the past couple of decades compared to historical averages, collateral damage is up.  Way up:

But collateral damage is not only increasing as a percentage of all civilian deaths. The number of collateral damage victims is also increasing over time in absolute terms. Between 1823 and 1900, 84 civilians per year on average were the victims of collateral damage. Since 1990, the number is 1688 per year — a twenty-fold increase.

Dan comments:

This finding, if it holds up, is surprising for two reasons.  First, the number of interstate wars has been trending downward for the last thirty years — so an increase in the absolute numbers of civilian collateral damage would not be expected.  Second, this bump in collateral damage also took place during a revolution in precision-guided munitions — which, in theory, was supposed to reduce the likelihood of collateral damage.

Note that these figures are only for interstate wars, not civil wars or local insurgencies.  And I wonder how much of it has to do, essentially, with reporting problems.  Intentional killing of civilians is far more vigorously condemned today than it was in the 19th century, which provides both individual soldiers and the military at large with enormous incentives to categorize all civilian deaths as "collateral."  Some of the decline in intentional murders is probably real — that widespread condemnation certainly has had some effect, after all — but probably not as much of it as we think.

Alternatively, this might just be an artifact of the time periods chosen for study.  The 1990s and beyond might have been an era of precision-guided bombs, but precision guided or not, they're still bombs, and bombs do a lot of collateral damage.  In the 19th century, it was all artillery and small arms, which are just fundamentally less likely to cause lots of collateral damage.  Still, the post-90s number is up even compared to the 1945-1989 period, so there's probably more to it than just that.

Other ideas?

The Bailout and the Future

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 1:22 PM EST

Paul Krugman writes about the knock-on effects of the government paying off all of AIG's obligations at 100 cents on the dollar:

Brad DeLong says that the loss of public trust due to the kid-gloves treatment of bankers has raised the probability of another Great Depression, because the public won’t support another round of bailouts even if it becomes desperately necessary. I agree — but I think the bigger cost is that we’ve greatly increased the chance of a Japanese-style lost decade, with I would now give roughly even odds of happening. Why? Because bank-friendly policies have squandered public trust in all government action: try talking to the general public about stimulus, and it’s all confounded in their minds with the deeply unpopular bailouts.

By itself, the AIG story would be damaging enough. But it’s part of a pattern — and that pattern has ended up undermining the economy’s prospects, big time.

It's surprisingly hard to disagree with this.  The most optimistic take, I suppose, is that the economy will continue to recover slowly, there won't be another big shock that requires extraordinary government action, and we'll get out of this OK.  And I suppose that's still the most likely scenario.  But public anger over the bank bailout, which was blazing earlier in the year, hasn't really abated.  Sure, the tea parties are mostly over, but anger over the bailout is still smoldering, and it's pretty likely to increase as we continue to see headline after headline about how happily Wall Street is recovering in the middle of a deep recession thanks to all those bailout dollars.  Congress could tamp down some of this anger if it enacted some serious regulatory reforms over the next few months, but what are the odds of that?  Call me a pessimist, but I don't think they're very good.