Kevin Drum

How to Handle a Shortage of Workers

| Thu Nov. 25, 2010 12:27 PM EST

From the LA Times:

After an unwelcome reprieve caused by the global recession, employers in international trade again are growing concerned about whether there will be enough qualified candidates to fill the next generation of cargo and logistics jobs.

A spate of reports over the last two years has conjured up images of ships with too few seafarers to operate them, truck-ready freight with too few drivers to do the hauling and warehouse and distribution centers without enough qualified administrators to run them.

The worldwide shipping industry, which employs more than 1 million people to crew its technologically advanced vessels, is having trouble training enough seafarers, the International Maritime Organization said recently. It forecast a shortfall of 27,000 to 46,000 ships' officers in the near future.

The U.S. trucking industry will need to hire about 200,000 drivers this year and another 200,000 by the end of 2011 to keep up with expected growth as more and more drivers hang up their keys, according to the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals.

Hey, I have an idea! I know this violates the rules of modern American capitalism, but here it is: they could pay their workers more. I've heard rumors from economists for years of supply curves sloping upwards, and this seems like an ideal chance to test out their theory.

Yes, yes, this is radical advice for non-CEOs. But why not think outside the box?

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Hospitals Still Bad for Your Health

| Wed Nov. 24, 2010 11:52 PM EST

A study set to be published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine has found that hospitals are still doing a lousy job of taking care of their patients:

The study, conducted from 2002 to 2007 in 10 North Carolina hospitals, found that harm to patients was common and that the number of incidents did not decrease over time. The most common problems were complications from procedures or drugs and hospital-acquired infections.

....Dr. [Christopher] Landrigan’s team focused on North Carolina because its hospitals, compared with those in most states, have been more involved in programs to improve patient safety.

But instead of improvements, the researchers found a high rate of problems. About 18 percent of patients were harmed by medical care, some more than once, and 63.1 percent of the injuries were judged to be preventable. Most of the problems were temporary and treatable, but some were serious, and a few — 2.4 percent — caused or contributed to a patient’s death, the study found.

The worst part of this is that, as near as I can tell, a large number of these injuries wouldn't happen if hospitals simply got off their asses and put in place some well-known procedures that prevent them. But they don't. Sometimes it's because they cost money, but other times it's because they just can't be bothered. I really have no idea why we put up with this.

Who Loves Inflation?

| Wed Nov. 24, 2010 3:02 PM EST

Karl Smith:

Reihan Salam has written a bunch of stuff I have been meaning to respond to but haven’t. The only point I want to address because its real quick is that inflation does not erode savings. It only erodes cash and the value of long bonds taken out before the inflation set in. However, the Fed is buying long bonds and propping their value. The only thing that is eroded in this scenario is cash.

Back in days of old, poor farmers loved inflation because it allowed them to pay back their loans with cheaper money. Rich Wall Street bankers hated inflation for the same reason. From this came populist demands for free silver at 16:1, crucifying mankind on a cross of gold, etc. etc. But none of this really matters any longer because interest rates all react to inflation: in the long term interest rates generally move up and down with inflation expectations and in the short term they're keyed to LIBOR or the prime rate or some other inflation-sensitive variable.

But there's one exception: fixed-rate loans. In particular, fixed-rate home mortgage loans, of which there are still quite a few. So for existing homeowners with traditional 30-year fixed-rate mortgages, higher inflation would be great. And for the bankers and investors who hold those loans, it would suck. Inflation may not erode savings, but it does erode the value of a fixed-rate mortgage, which means this whole argument isn't quite a dead letter yet — and bankers and the common man are still on opposite sides. Right?

Quote of the Day: The Great Turkey Conspiracy

| Wed Nov. 24, 2010 2:02 PM EST

Peter Suderman tweets:

Oh sure, he'll pardon the turkey now. But what you don't know is that next week Obama will have it secretly assassinated.

You know, I'd really like to see the whole turkey pardoning thing go away. It was never really a very good schtick in the first place, and it's way outlived its sell-by date. But of course that's impossible now. If Barack Hussein Obama decided to end the tradition, it would be yet another sign that he hates everything that makes America great, despises our great Christian traditions, and wants to bring Sharia law to the United States. So thanks to Glenn Beck & Co., we're stuck with this dumb tradition for at least another six years. Thanks, guys.

Who's Making Money?

| Wed Nov. 24, 2010 1:51 PM EST

So what explains the crankiness of American business given the very high corporate profits they're raking in these days? Justin Fox crunches the BEA numbers and says the disconnect is simple: financial corporations are making loads of money but domestic nonfinancial corporations aren't:

So the reason that corporate profits are near their all-time highs would appear to be that financial corporations (mainly big financial corporations) and multinationals are making lots of money and paying less of it out in taxes. Hmmmm.

The corporate profit picture would seem to mirror what's been going on in the income distribution for individuals for the past few decades. The money is increasingly going to a select group at the very top of the economic food chain, who are able to reap the rewards of global growth, play the financial system astutely, and avoid taxes. You can spin this in a moderately positive way: these are very dynamic economic times, and the rewards are going to those companies and individuals who position themselves to take advantage of this dynamism. But there are an awful lot of negative ways you can spin it, too.

Something is odd here. Yesterday the Commerce Department emailed me a few charts about the economy, and one of them is over on the right. It's strictly domestic profits (i.e., it doesn't include overseas profits from multinationals), and although it doesn't say so, I assume it shows pretax profits, so it's not driven by differences in how companies play games with the tax code. And what it shows is a pretty similar trajectory for both financial and nonfinancial profits: they're both up sharply, and they're both just slightly below their 2006 peaks. There's no breakdown in the chart between big and small nonfinancial companies, but there's also no special reason to think the numbers are wildly different.

So....I'm not sure about this. Fox's analysis appeals to me, but I'm not sure the data supports it. More later if I get hold of some more detailed figures.

The Weird Hubris of the Columnist

| Wed Nov. 24, 2010 1:17 PM EST

Matt Bai on Obama's problems:

In this way, the “Don’t touch my junk” fiasco raises, yet again, what has become the central theme of Mr. Obama’s presidency: America’s faltering confidence in the ability of government to make things work. From stimulus spending and the health care law to the federal response to oil in the Gulf of Mexico, Mr. Obama has continually stumbled — blindly, it seems — into some version of the same debate, which is about whether we can trust federal bureaucracies to expand their reach without harming citizens or industry.

The conventional wisdom on display here is so lazy it probably wouldn't cross the room for another beer if it were thirsty. Seriously: does Bai really think that America is suddenly in the midst of a brand new national debate about the reach of the federal bureaucracy?

It's not. It's in the midst of a great national debate about the reach of specific pieces of the federal bureaucracy that Fox News doesn't like. Beyond that, it's the same old dislike of bureaucrats telling us what to do that we've been engaged in since forever. There is exactly nothing that's new here aside from the particular choice of topics that the Drudge/Rush/Fox axis happens to be focusing on.

Column writing is a peculiar business. Every week, Mother Jones asks me to write a semi-column that gets emailed out to subscribers on Friday morning and, lately, also gets published on the blog. It's a column because it's written in advance, so it's not just a standard news-reaction blog post, but it's a "semi" column because it's still written in the basic blog format. Point being, it's hard. You wouldn't think it would be considering the amount of ordinary blog copy I churn out weekly, but it is. Every week I struggle to find something to write about.

But it never occurs to me to just say the hell with it and skylark away about the great American psyche, as if I have any idea what that is. I might mention some poll results now and again, and I might talk about how I think the public will react to specific things here and there. But grand notions of what it's all about? I'm so keenly aware of my limited scope that I just wouldn't ever do it.

But columnists do this routinely, despite the fact that their scope is probably just about as limited as mine when it comes to these grand ideas. So what is it that gives them the hubris to do it? Especially when they almost always choose to ignore the more mundane things that explain their grand ideas? It is a mystery to me. Maybe a latter day Studs Terkel needs to interview a whole bunch of columnists and find out just how their minds tick.

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The $5 Golf Cart Ride

| Wed Nov. 24, 2010 12:52 PM EST

USC tailback Dillon Baxter hopped on a golf cart for a ride across campus a few days ago, but it turned out that the fellow student driving the cart is a certified agent with the NFL Players Assn. and an aspiring sports mogul. Punishment was duly meted out:

Baxter was ruled ineligible for last week's game at Oregon State because the ride was regarded as a prohibited extra benefit. USC reported the incident to the NCAA, and Baxter is expected to be reinstated this week after making a $5 donation to charity — the approximate value of the benefit he received.

I'm thinking today is probably going to be a slow news day, so I just thought I'd share.

Tea Partiers and Health Insurance

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 8:24 PM EST

The latest from Public Policy Polling:

Most Americans think incoming Congressmen who campaigned against the health care bill should put their money where their mouth is and decline government provided health care now that they're in office.

Excellent! What makes this especially cool is that Democrats are pretty tolerant of conservative congressmen getting their healthcare. It's conservatives and independents — by a 30-point margin — who think tea party congressmen should put their money where their mouths are.1 Tom Jensen comments:

This is an issue where Democrats really have the opportunity to create tension between the newly elected officials and the Tea Partiers who put them there by highlighting the disconnect between the freshmen Republicans' rhetoric and their actions. Their base clearly expects them to act in a way consistent with their stated opposition to government provided health care but given Andy Harris' recent outburst about his care not starting quickly enough it's not clear the new electeds are getting the message.

I dunno. I'd like this to be true. It would be terrific to hoist these guys on their own petards. But it's hard to see how liberals can gin this up into any kind of media firestorm. Without that, it won't generate any real pressure, and without that it will die off soon and the tea partiers will never think about it again. But it's a nice idea.

1And what makes it extra super duper cool is that a lot of the tea party conservatives who think tea party congressmen should forego their government health insurance are themselves probably on Medicare.

The Anti-Volt Jihad

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 6:34 PM EST

Given all the bizarre crusades that conservatives regularly gin up on TV and talk radio, it's hard to pick out any single one as the most bizarre. But for my money, one of the weirdest has been their obsession with the Chevy Volt. The Volt was conceived of years ago, has been in the works since well before 2008, and has nothing to do with the current occupant of the White House. But for some reason, conservatives are nonetheless convinced that the Volt is some kind of eco-chic, TARP-fueled bailout buggy that GM is selling solely because Commissar Obama has ordered them to. It's weird as hell. I mean, it's just a car. A pretty nifty car, in fact. (Nifty but pricey.)

Anyway, a little while ago Rush Limbaugh decided to extend his usual anti-Volt rants to Motor Trend magazine, which had named the Volt its Car of the Year. Last week Detroit Editor Todd Lassa decided to fight back:

Last time you ranted about the Volt, you got confused about the “range,” and said on the air that the car could be driven no more than 40 miles at a time, period. At least you stayed away from that issue this time, but you continue to attack it as the car only a tree hugging, Obama-supporting Government Motors customer would want.

....All the shouting from you or from electric car purists on the left can’t distort the fact that the Chevy Volt is, indeed, a technological breakthrough. And it’s more. It’s a technological breakthrough that many American families can use for gas-free daily commutes and well-planned vacation drives. It’s expensive for a Chevy, but many of those families will find the gasoline saved worth it. If you can stop shilling for your favorite political party long enough to go for a drive, you might really enjoy the Chevy Volt. I’m sure GM would be happy to lend you one for the weekend. Just remember: driving and Oxycontin don’t mix.

This really is one of those issues where there seems to be literally nothing involved except knee-jerk opposition to anything that the left might conceivably approve of. But I guess if you distort it enough you can convince your audience that it's all part of Barack Obama's state-planning paradise and a sign of socialism on the march. American ingenuity be damned, this is an opportunity to take a shot at Obama! Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to today's movement conservatism.

The Obama Business Environment

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 3:47 PM EST

Speaking of American businesses, both big and small, and whether a slightly higher personal tax rate will ruin them:

American businesses earned profits at an annual rate of $1.66 trillion in the third quarter, according to a Commerce Department report released Tuesday. That is the highest figure recorded since the government began keeping track over 60 years ago, at least in nominal or non-inflation-adjusted terms.

Corporate profits have been going gangbusters for a while. Since their cyclical low in the fourth quarter of 2008, profits have grown for seven consecutive quarters, at some of the fastest rates in history.

In fairness, I couldn't care less whether this is a record in nominal terms. But if it's a record in nominal terms, it's gotta be at least close to a record in real terms too, what with inflation being so subdued in recent years. That Obama character sure has been bad for business, hasn't he?