Kevin Drum

Wakey, Wakey! Your Life Is Wasting Away.

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 10:33 AM EST

Melissa Dahl points us to a Reddit conversation with Dan Ariely, a Duke professor who's an expert on time management:

Ariely: One of the saddest mistakes in time management is the propensity of people to spend the two most productive hours of their day on things that don't require high cognitive capacity (like social media). If we could salvage those precious hours, most of us would be much more successful in accomplishing what we truly want.

Q: What are those hours? I must know.

Ariely: Generally people are most productive in the morning. The two hours after becoming fully awake are likely to be the best.

That's a hell of a thing, isn't it? If Ariely is right, then almost by definition most of us waste the best hours of our lives. After all, by the time we eat breakfast, shower, get dressed, and commute to work, we've probably blown away the first 60-90 minutes of the day. And then, as Ariely says, we waste the next half hour chatting or checking email or working at some other low-priority task.

But not me! Mostly for time zone reasons, my habit for a while has been to wake up and come straight to the computer. After I get caught up on the news and write my first post, I eat a quick breakfast. Then I come back and keep blogging. My first two hours are consumed almost entirely by work.

So does that mean that my first two or three posts of the day are generally my best ones? I've never thought so. In fact, they're usually fairly short items. Later, as I engage more fully with the news of the day and the reactions of other bloggers, I start to write more substantive stuff. That's how it's always seemed, anyway. But maybe I'm wrong. What says the hive mind?

In any case, I have a doctor's appointment this morning (chemo round 4, only 12 to go!), so I shall sadly be wasting my most productive hours. On the bright side, the medical staff will presumably be at its peak. That's not a bad tradeoff, I guess. See you on the other side.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

A Wee Caution About the Success of the Renewable Energy Loan Program

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 1:48 AM EST

This dispatch from Bloomberg got a lot of attention yesterday:

The U.S. government expects to earn $5 billion to $6 billion from the renewable-energy loan program that funded flops including Solyndra LLC, supporting President Barack Obama’s decision to back low-carbon technologies.

The Department of Energy has disbursed about half of $32.4 billion allocated to spur innovation, and the expected return will be detailed in a report due to be released as soon as tomorrow, according to an official who helped put together the data.

The results contradict the widely held view that the U.S. has wasted taxpayer money funding failures including Solyndra, which closed its doors in 2011 after receiving $528 million in government backing. That adds to Obama’s credibility as he seeks to make climate change a bigger priority after announcing a historic emissions deal with China.

I think the gist of this report is almost certainly correct. The faux outrage over Solyndra back in 2011 was entirely manufactured for partisan reasons, and there was never any real reason to think that Solyndra's bankruptcy represented a broader failure of the loan program. Quite the opposite. Any loan guarantee program is not only going to have failures, it's going to expect failures. Solyndra just happened to be one of them.

And yet....I'd still remain a bit cautious about the overall success of the program. Out of its $32 billion in approved loans, half represent loan guarantees to nuclear power plant developers and Ford Motor. These are not exactly risky, innovative startups. They're huge companies that could very easily have raised money without government help, and which represented virtually zero danger of default. If DOE is including returns from those loans in its forecast, color me unimpressed.

The genuinely risky half of the loan program is called Section 1705, and it includes everything that most of us think of as real renewable energy projects (wind, solar, biofuel, etc.). DOE hasn't broken that out separately, saying in its press release that "The best perspective for assessing LPO’s financial performance is to look at the portfolio in its entirety." Maybe so. But before I declare success, I'd still like to see how well the 1705 program is doing on its own. That would be a fairer representation of how well things are going in the piece of this program that's truly dedicated to risky new renewable energy projects.

Elizabeth Warren Gets a Promotion -- Or Does She?

| Thu Nov. 13, 2014 4:51 PM EST

Elizabeth Warren is getting a promotion:

Seeking ideological and regional balance, a chastened Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) expanded his leadership team Thursday, including the addition of liberal icon Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), to beat back internal critics.....Expanding the leadership table — Warren's position was created specifically for her — is a way to answer the critics who think that Reid's team became insulated in recent years, according to senior Democratic aides.

I'm curious: Am I the only person who thinks this is probably not a great move for Warren? She's now officially part of the Democratic leadership, which makes her implicitly responsible for party policy and implicitly loyal to the existing leadership. And what is she getting in return? Unless I'm missing something, a made-up leadership position with no actual authority.

Is this a good trade? I'm not so sure.

Democrats Take Careful Aim at Feet, Prepare Both Barrels For Firing

| Thu Nov. 13, 2014 1:29 PM EST

Sen. Mary Landrieu has a tough runoff election next month, and energy policy is a big deal in Louisiana. So Senate Democrats are planning to help her out a bit by holding a vote on the Keystone XL pipeline. Paul Waldman calls this one right:

The current Democratic effort to help Mary Landrieu win her runoff election by scheduling a quick vote on the Keystone XL pipeline has to be one of the most politically idiotic moves in recent history. As I argued yesterday, not only is it guaranteed to fail in its goal of helping Landrieu, it gives Republicans a huge policy victory while getting nothing in return. Runoff elections have extremely low turnout, and the only way Landrieu stands a chance is if she can convince lots of Louisiana Democrats to go to the polls to save her. This kind of me-too policymaking—I'm just as pro-oil as Republicans are!—is about the last thing that'll pump up Democratic enthusiasm.

Keystone XL isn't really one of my hot buttons. I figure that all that oil is getting to market one way or another, and blocking the pipeline won't really make much difference. I know that's probably a little too fatalistic, but we all have issues that strike us that way. Keystone XL is one of mine.

That said, Waldman is right. There's simply zero chance that this is going to help Landrieu. There's not a person in Louisiana who doesn't know that she supports the oil industry and hates hates hates President Obama's energy policy. She's made that crystal clear, and everyone who's persuadable has already been persuaded. A Keystone XL vote just won't move the needle.

So Democrats would be giving something away and getting literally nothing in return. In fact, since this would outrage all the people who do care about Keystone XL, Democrats would probably be giving something away and losing support from key supporters at the same time. It's crazy.

These are the same guys who whine endlessly about President Obama's lousy negotiating skills. Someone just shoot me.

Can We Talk? Here's Why the White Working Class Hates Democrats

| Thu Nov. 13, 2014 12:27 PM EST

Noam Scheiber takes on one of the lessons du jour that always crop up after a party gets shellacked at the polls: how do we appeal to demographic group X that voted so heavily against us? In this case, the party is the Democrats, and the demographic group is the infamous white working class, which voted Republican by a 30-point margin last week:

At first blush, the white working class would appear to pose a real dilemma. The set of issues on which the Democratic Party is most coherent these days is social progressivism....But while these issues unite college-educated voters and working-class minority voters, they’ve historically alienated the white working class.

....How to square this circle? Well, it turns out we don’t really have to, since the analysis is outdated. The white working class is increasingly open to social liberalism, or at least not put off by it. As Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin observed this summer, 54 percent of the white working class born after 1980 think gays and lesbians should have the right to marry, according to data assembled from the 2012 election.

....Long story short, there’s a coalition available to Democrats that knits together working class minorities and college-educated voters and slices heavily into the GOP’s margins among the white working class....The basis of the coalition isn’t a retreat from social progressivism, but making economic populism the party’s centerpiece....The politics of this approach work not just because populism is a “message” that a majority of voters want to hear. But because, unlike the status quo, it can actually improve their economic prospects, as Harold Meyerson recently pointed out.

I'd like to offer a different interpretation. I don't have a bunch of poll data readily at hand to back this up, so it's possible I'm way off base. But I don't think so, and at the very least I welcome pushback since it might clarify some things that need clarifying.

Here it is: I agree that social liberalism isn't quite the deal killer it used to be. Scheiber and Teixeira are right about that. It's still an issue—especially gun control, which remains more potent than a lot of liberals like to acknowledge—but it's fading somewhat in areas like abortion and gay marriage. There are still plenty of Fox-watching members of the WWC who are as socially conservative as ever, but I think it's safe to say that at the margins social issues are becoming a little less divisive among the WWC than they have been over the past few decades.

But if that's the case, why does the WWC continue to loathe Democrats so badly? I think the answer is as old as the discussion itself: They hate welfare. There was a hope among some Democrats that Bill Clinton's 1996 welfare reform would remove this millstone from around Democrats' necks, and for a few years during the dotcom boom it probably did. The combination of tougher work rules and a booming economy made it a less contentious topic.

But when the economy stagnates and life gets harder, people get meaner. That's just human nature. And the economy has been stagnating for the working class for well over a decade—and then practically collapsing ever since 2008.

So who does the WWC take out its anger on? Largely, the answer is the poor. In particular, the undeserving poor. Liberals may hate this distinction, but it doesn't matter if we hate it. Lots of ordinary people make this distinction as a matter of simple common sense, and the WWC makes it more than any. That's because they're closer to it. For them, the poor aren't merely a set of statistics or a cause to be championed. They're the folks next door who don't do a lick of work but somehow keep getting government checks paid for by their tax dollars. For a lot of members of the WWC, this is personal in a way it just isn't for the kind of people who read this blog.

And who is it that's responsible for this infuriating flow of government money to the shiftless? Democrats. We fight to save food stamps. We fight for WIC. We fight for Medicaid expansion. We fight for Obamacare. We fight to move poor families into nearby housing.

This is a big problem because these are all things that benefit the poor but barely touch the working class. Does it matter that the working class barely pays for most of these programs in the first place, since their federal income taxes tend to be pretty low? Nope. They're still paying taxes, and it seems like they never get anything for it. It's always someone else.

It's pointless to argue that this perception is wrong. Maybe it is, maybe it's not. But it's there. And although it's bound up with plenty of other grievances—many of them frankly racial, but also cultural, religious, and geographic1—at its core you have a group of people who are struggling and need help, but instead feel like they simply get taxed and taxed for the benefit of someone else. Always someone else. If this were you, you wouldn't vote for Democrats either.

I hate to end this with the usual cliche that I don't know what to do about it, but I don't. Helping the poor is one of the great causes of liberalism, and we forfeit our souls if we give up on it. And yet, as a whole bunch of people have acknowledged lately, the Democratic Party simply doesn't do much for either the working or middle classes these days. Republicans, by contrast, offer both the concrete—tax cuts—and the emotional—an inchoate but still intense rage against a government that seems not to care about them.

So sure: full-throated economic populism? That might work, though everyone seems to have a different idea of what it means. But here's one thing it better mean: policies that are aimed at the working and middle classes and that actually appeal to them. That is, policies that are simple, concrete, and offer benefits which are clear and compelling.

This is going to require policy wonks to swallow hard. Remember Cash 4 Clunkers? Economically, that was probably a dumb program that accomplished little. But it didn't do any harm, and people sure loved it. Multiply that by a hundred and you're on the right track.

1The Democrats' problem with the white working class is far worse in the South than anywhere else. Nonetheless, I think we're kidding ourselves if we crunch a bunch of numbers and somehow conclude that it's not a problem elsewhere. It's not as big a problem, but in an electorate that continues to be balanced on a tightrope, five or ten percentage points among a sizeable group of people is still a pretty big problem.

Ebola Panic Mysteriously Disappeared Last Tuesday

| Thu Nov. 13, 2014 10:49 AM EST

This is from the LA Times yesterday, but I forgot to mention it. It's worth a quick read:

A few short weeks ago, Ebola was public enemy No. 1.

About 1,000 people were being monitored by health officials. Several schools in Texas and Ohio shut down because of a single patient who boarded a plane. A cruise ship was refused permission to dock in Cozumel, off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. President Obama appointed an Ebola "czar." Polls showed a majority of Americans were concerned that Ebola would spread out of control in the U.S.

On Tuesday, a fully recovered Dr. Craig Spencer was released from Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan. The U.S. was now Ebola-free for the first time since Sept. 5 — a milestone that barely seemed to register with a once-frenzied public.

How did we get here from there?

How indeed?

"October was a rough month for stigma and fear," said Doug Henry, a medical anthropologist at the University of North Texas in Denton. "The cruise ship that was denied entry into a port, kids who weren't welcome at school, parents who kept their own kids home — things got really bad here in Dallas." To further complicate matters, the crisis occurred in the home stretch of the midterm election campaign. Some Democrats accused Republicans of stoking Ebola fears for political advantage.

Yep, it's quite the mystery.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Pew: Republicans Don't Really Care About "Getting Things Done" in Washington

| Wed Nov. 12, 2014 10:19 PM EST

Here's the latest from Pew. It's offered as a wee course correction for every pundit who somehow thinks the GOP leadership will be more motivated to work with President Obama this year than they were after the 2010 election. Survey says: screw that stuff. Let the eye poking begin.

Jonathan Gruber Says Nothing New, Gets Hammered For It

| Wed Nov. 12, 2014 6:54 PM EST

Jonathan Gruber is one of the intellectual godfathers of Obamacare. Here's what he said last year about it:

"This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score the mandate as taxes," he said during a panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania in October, 2013. "Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the 'stupidity of the American voter' or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass.”

...."In terms of risk-rated subsidies, if you had a law which explicitly said that healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it would not have passed," he said. "You can't do it politically, you just literally cannot do it. It's not only transparent financing but also transparent spending."

I gather this has created a mini-firestorm, and obviously I understand why. If you imply that a bill was structured to take advantage of the "stupidity" of the American voter, that's just bound to come back to haunt you. So the radio yammerheads are having a field day, and I guess I don't blame them.

But if we can take just a half step up from radio yammerhead land, did Gruber say anything that isn't common knowledge? I'm not playing faux naive here. I'm serious. Basically, Gruber said two things.

First, he noted that it was important to make sure the mandate wasn't scored as a tax by the CBO. Indeed it was, and this was a topic of frequent discussion while the bill was being debated. We can all argue about whether this was an example of the CBO scoring process being gamed, but it has nothing to do with the American voter. Rather, it has everything to do with the American congressman, who's afraid to vote for anything unless it comes packaged with a nice, neat bow bearing an arbitrary, predetermined price tag.

As for risk-rated subsidies, I don't even know what Gruber is talking about here. Of course healthy people pay in and sick people get money. It's health insurance. That's how it works. Once again, this was a common topic of discussion while the bill was being debated—in fact, one that opponents of the bill talked about constantly. They complained endlessly that healthy young people would pay relatively higher rates than they deserved, while older, sicker people would get a relative break on their premiums. This was no big secret, but the bill passed anyway.

It's true that the average Joe didn't know anything about this, but not because the average Joe is stupid. It's because most people simply don't pay attention to this stuff even slightly. The fraction of the electorate that cares about the minutiae of policymaking could be stored in a pickle jar. That's just life.

So basically, Gruber foolishly made a comment about the stupidity of the American voter—a comment that wasn't even right, I think. But that's it. Everything else he said was common knowledge during 2009 and 2010 among the pickle jar set. If you cared about policy, you knew this stuff. If you didn't, you didn't. But that's true of everything, isn't it?

Obama Takes a Good Half Step Toward an Unequivocal Ban on Torture

| Wed Nov. 12, 2014 4:42 PM EST

It's worth mentioning that the Obama administration has finally decided to take a more expansive view of where torture and "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" are banned:

The Obama administration, after an internal debate that has drawn global scrutiny, is taking the view that the cruelty ban applies wherever the United States exercises governmental authority, according to officials familiar with the deliberations. That definition, they said, includes the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and American-flagged ships and aircraft in international waters and airspace.

But the administration’s definition still appears to exclude places like the former “black site” prisons where the C.I.A. tortured terrorism suspects during the Bush years, as well as American military detention camps in Afghanistan and Iraq during the wars there. Those prisons were on the sovereign territory of other governments; the government of Cuba exercises no control over Guantánamo.

Why exclude black sites? Administration officials apparently say this is just a "technical matter of interpretation, underlined by concerns that changing the jurisdictional scope could have unintended consequences, like increasing the risk of lawsuits by overseas detainees or making it harder to say that unrelated treaties with similar jurisdictional language did not apply in the same places."

I can....almost buy that. Lawyers and diplomats get pretty hung up on stuff like this. Nonetheless, I'd be a lot happier if Obama could be a little more Bush-like here, and simply overrule the legal eagles and insist on a clear and unequivocal policy. It's hard to believe there isn't a way to do that which wouldn't somehow wreck a bunch of other treaties at the same time.

So two cheers for doing the right thing. But not three.

The Case Against Postal Banking

| Wed Nov. 12, 2014 3:23 PM EST

Dean Baker thinks the Washington Post is wrong to imply that the postal service hasn't been aggressive about improving its productivity. Agreed. Then this:

The other point is that the Postal Service could improve its finances by expanding rather than contracting. Specifically, it can return to providing basic banking services, as it did in the past and many other postal systems still do. This course has been suggested by the Postal Service's Inspector General.

This route takes advantage of the fact that the Postal Service has buildings in nearly every neighborhood in the country. These offices can be used to provide basic services to a large unbanked population that often can't afford fees associated with low balance accounts. As a result they often end up paying exorbitant fees to check cashing services, pay day lenders and other non-bank providers of financial services.

Color me skeptical. I know this sounds like a terrific, populist idea, but I can think of several reasons to be very cautious about expansive claims that the USPS is uniquely situated to provide basic banking services. Here are a few:

  • What's the core competency that would allow USPS to excel at banking? The Inspector General says that "the first and possibly most important factor is the sheer ubiquity of the Postal Service." In other words, they have lots of locations: 35,000 to be exact. But who cares? Physical real estate is the least compelling reason imaginable to think an organization would be great at basic banking. After all, you know who else has lots of branches? Banks. Even after years of downsizing, there are nearly 100,000 branch banks in the United States.
  • What else? The Inspector General suggests "trust and familiarity with the postal 'brand.'" Meh. Americans trust McDonald's too. That doesn't mean they'd flock to do their banking there. This kind of thing reminds me of hundreds of really bad marketing presentations I've attended in my lifetime.
  • When you say "postal banking," most people think about small mom-and-pop savings accounts. But that's not really what the postal service has in mind. The IG report focuses more on (1) payment mechanisms (i.e., electronic money orders), (2) products to encourage savings, and (3) reloadable prepaid cards. The first is fine, but not really "postal banking." The second is problematic since even the IG concedes that the reason poor people tend not to save is "largely due to a lack of disposable income among the underserved." That's quite an understatement, and it's not clear what unique incentives the postal service can offer to encourage savings among people who have no money to save. That leaves prepaid cards—and maybe a good, basic prepaid card sponsored by the federal government is a worthwhile idea. But that's really all we have here.
  • Finally, there's the prospect of providing very small loans. But as much as we all loathe payday lenders, there's a reason they charge such high rates: they also have high rates of default. The postal service can charge less only by (a) losing money or (b) providing loans only to relatively good customers. If you read the IG report, they basically recommend the latter. It's not clear to me that this is truly an underserved niche.
  • Yes, other countries have postal banking services. But these were mostly established long ago, before commercial banking became ubiquitous. It may have been a good idea half a century ago, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea now.

If the government wants to provide basic banking services for the poor, it's not clear to me why USPS should do it. They have literally no special competence at this, and the motivation behind it is to provide a revenue stream that offsets losses from mail services. That's just dumb. Why on earth should public banking services subsidize public mail services? They have nothing to do with each other.

If we really want some kind of government-sponsored basic banking service, we should simply create one and partner with commercial banks to offer it. If this is truly profitable, banks will bid to host these accounts. If it's not, the subsidies will show up directly in the annual budget accounts. That's the way it should be.

I'm not yet convinced that this is a good idea to begin with, but I could be persuaded. However, if it is a good idea, there's honestly no reason to get the postal service involved in this. We already have a Treasury Department, and we already have a commercial banking industry. They truly do have core competencies in offering financial services. Why not use them instead?