Kevin Drum - September 2008

Joe Biden Speaks

| Mon Sep. 15, 2008 5:20 PM EDT

JOE BIDEN SPEAKS....Here's something interesting. A couple of days ago I was noodling, as we political junkies are wont to do, about what kind of ads Barack Obama ought to be running. I didn't bother posting about it, though, because we amateurs are forever thinking we have brilliant ideas along these lines and we amateurs are almost always wrong.

So imagine my surprise when I saw my imaginary ad basically being narrated by Joe Biden in a speech this morning at St. Clair Shores, Michigan:

Eight years ago, a man ran for President who claimed he was different, not a typical Republican. He called himself a reformer. He admitted that his Party, the Republican Party, had been wrong about things from time to time. He promised to work with Democrats and said he'd been doing that for a long time.

That candidate was George W. Bush. Remember that? Remember the promise to reach across the aisle? To change the tone? To restore honor and dignity to the White House?

....Eight years later, we have another Republican nominee who's telling us the exact same thing: This time it will be different, it really will. This time he's going to put country before party, to change the tone, reach across the aisle, change the Republican Party, change the way Washington works.

We've seen this movie before, folks. But as everyone knows, the sequel is always worse than the original.

The fact that this approach seems effective to me is probably a bad sign. Still: this approach seems effective to me. Basically, you run an ad that uses lots of hot button imagery to plausibly pin the blame for some problem or another (economic meltdown, Jack Abramoff, Katrina, our inability to capture Osama bin Laden, etc.) on "the usual Republican approach" or some such, and then close with, "Now John McCain is running for president. He says he's a different kind of Republican. Do you believe him?" Add creepy music, grainy black-and-white images, or whatever else the current state of the art in attack ads calls for, and you're off to the races.

Eh. Probably wouldn't focus group well or something, I suppose, and besides, it might piss off too many moderate Republicans who might otherwise vote for Obama. Plus it's pretty ordinary stuff that wouldn't generate any media outrage. In the end, who knows? We all think we're marketing geniuses, don't we?

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The Backfire Effect

| Mon Sep. 15, 2008 2:22 PM EDT

THE BACKFIRE EFFECT....What happens when you tell people that someone has made a false claim? Shankar Vedantam reports:

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration's prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation -- the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration's claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.

A similar "backfire effect" also influenced conservatives told about Bush administration assertions that tax cuts increase federal revenue. One group was offered a refutation by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it; 67 percent of those provided with both assertion and refutation believed that tax cuts increase revenue.

Italics mine. Nyhan and Reifler found this "backfire" effect only among conservatives. Refutations had little effect on liberals, but it didn't cause them to actively believe the misleading information even more strongly.

Why? Reifler suggests it's because conservatives are more rigid than liberals. Maybe so. If I had to guess, though, I'd say it's because right-wing talkers have spent so many years deriding "so-called experts" that they now have negative credibility with many conservatives. The very fact that an expert says a conservative claim is wrong is taken as a good reason to believe the claim. This could probably be tested by doing a study of factual information outside the realm of politics and seeing if conservatives react the same way. If they do, maybe that's support for the generic rigidity theory. If not, it's support for the theory that conservatives simply distrust political elites.

For more, here is Reifler's online Q&A at the Washington Post this morning.

UPDATE: I should add that these weren't the only two questions Nyhan and Reifler asked. They also asked a question about stem cell research in which it was liberals who might be expected to resist the truth. They didn't find any backfire effect there either, though.

UPDATE: The full paper is here. Via email, Nyhan tells me that they tried to test my proposition that conservatives don't trust elite experts by varying the source of the refutations. Sometimes it was the New York Times, other times it was Fox News. "Surprisingly," he says, "it had little effect."

Lovely Sarah

| Mon Sep. 15, 2008 1:57 PM EDT

LOVELY SARAH....Tyler Cowen says lots of peculiar but interesting things. That's why I like reading him. Today he suggests that, Cleopatra-like, Sarah Palin has a lot of conservative men thinking with their gonads instead of their brains:

Andrew Sullivan is calling Sarah Palin "Rovian." Maybe, but her first order of business has been to fool the Republican establishment, not the American people....Which narrative do you find more plausible?:

"Lovely Sarah, she's saying and doing everything we want her to. What a quick learner. How pliable she is. Remember Descartes on tabula rasa?"

"Once John and I are elected, they'll need me more than I need them."

The people who are right now the happiest may end up the most concerned. For better or worse, they're about to lose control of their movement.

This is both peculiar and interesting. But is it right? My own guess is that McCain doesn't need her at all once the election is over. If he wins in November, Palin will be sent overseas to funerals and into the heartland for occasional speeches to the moral values crowd, and that's about it. She'll beaver away on a "special needs portfolio" or some such, while the big boys worry about which country to yell at next.

On the other hand, if John McCain loses, Palin might well be in line to be the GOP's next star. (Assuming she avoids some kind of career ending catastrophe on the trail, of course.) In other words, if she were really smart and devious, maybe she'd be slyly working to ensure McCain's defeat, not his victory. So maybe Tyler is right, but just has the wrong timeframe.

Kazakhstan-onomics

| Mon Sep. 15, 2008 1:08 PM EDT

KAZAKHSTAN-ONOMICS....Felix Salmon on our brave new world:

The "shadow banking system" is now so big and so global that for all we know a series of bad decisions by a mid-level technocrat in Kazakhstan could precipitate cataclysm across America and the world.

That's true, but only if the financial system is fundamentally unbalanced to begin with — and it's the job of governments and central banks to regulate the financial system to keep that from happening. They don't regulate in order to produce the results they want, or to prevent people from making money, but to keep the financial system within at least the very broad boundaries of basic stability.

Alternatively, you can let the unfettered market have its way and then clean up the messes afterward. This is pretty orthodox Republican thinking, shared by Hoover in 1930, Reagan and Bush during the S&L crisis, and now Alan Greenspan and George Bush during the housing bubble. This ends up hurting lots of little guys, of course, but the irony is that it ends up hurting lots of big guys too. Frankly, they'd do better — in fact, they do do better — with Democrats running the show. They never really seem to figure that out, though.

The Republican Mess

| Mon Sep. 15, 2008 11:50 AM EDT

THE REPUBLICAN MESS....Obama on the financial crisis:

I certainly don't fault Senator McCain for these problems, but I do fault the economic philosophy he subscribes to. It's a philosophy we've had for the last eight years....It's a philosophy that says even common-sense regulations are unnecessary and unwise, and one that says we should just stick our heads in the sand and ignore economic problems until they spiral into crises....This country can't afford another four years of this failed philosophy.

I dunno. Do Mr. and Mrs. Heartland really respond to complaints about failed "philosophies"? I continue to be a little puzzled by Obama's unwillingness to plainly brand this as a failure of the Republican Party. People may or may not understand nebulous philosophies, but they can pretty easily be convinced that DC Republicans are basically shills for Wall Street and the rich and should therefore get 100% of the blame for this mess. At least, they could be convinced if Obama just went ahead and said it. After all, if the tables were turned do you think McCain would be so chary about blaming it on Democrats? I don't think so either.

Proof That the Economy is in Bad Shape

| Mon Sep. 15, 2008 11:33 AM EDT

PROOF THAT THE ECONOMY IS IN BAD SHAPE....Like Matt Yglesias, I too don't understand why the Washington Post would publish a piece on the state of the economy by Donald Luskin. It's not just that Luskin is a hair-on-fire conservative idealogue. So is Charles Krauthammer, and despite the fact that I think the Post would be better off without him, I understand that Krauthammer carries a certain amount of intellectual heft and appeals to a certain crowd. The same really can't be said of Luskin, who routinely makes mistakes like not accounting for inflation or discarding data points for no reason except that it helps prove some theory or other he wants to peddle. It's sort of kindergarten hackishness compared to Krauthammer's grad school hackishness.

So here's my guess: the Post wanted to run a "balancing" piece in the Outlook section arguing that the economy was basically OK and Bush had done a good job running it. Apparently no one smarter or more intellectually honest than Luskin — which includes just about everyone — was willing to do it. Which should tell you something.

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Economic Meltdown Update

| Mon Sep. 15, 2008 1:22 AM EDT

ECONOMIC MELTDOWN UPDATE....Here in the U.S., we've now seen the collapse of Bear Stearns, IndyMac, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Lehman Brothers, as well as the more-or-less-collapse of Countrywide and Merrill Lynch. In addition, AIG and WaMu are teetering, and perhaps Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs too. Current conventional wisdom, speaking in that scarily even tone that airplane pilots assume when both their engines have flamed out, suggests that the U.S. financial system might melt down completely this week. Conversely, the cheery optimists think it might avoid it — for the next few days anyway. I'd guess the optimists are right, but it's not as if I'd be willing to put any money behind that bet.

But here's a question for one of the serious econ-bloggers out there: Have lots of big non-U.S. banks collapsed? There was Northern Rock, but anyone else? Are any European financial systems in danger of meltdown? Why not?

The Republican Brand

| Sun Sep. 14, 2008 8:29 PM EDT

THE REPUBLICAN BRAND....Barack Obama is spending an awful lot of time these days trying to associate John McCain with George Bush. And why not? McCain has pretty thoroughly embraced Bush's ideas and Bush's approval ratings are in the tank, so why shouldn't he?

But here's a thought. Why is it that Obama's ads don't try to play off the brand of the Republican Party instead? Claiming that McCain is just a shadow of Bush, whether it's true or not, is a tough sell. (All those years as a maverick, you know.) But claiming that McCain is a Republican is an easy sell. And the Republican brand is in the tank right now every bit as badly as George Bush's.

And yet, unless I'm mistaken, Obama's ads never mention "failed Republican policies" or suchlike. Why is that? Is there some legal hangup? Is it because he's trying to be post-partisan? Is he doing it and I just haven't noticed (always a possibility)? Or what?

Selling His Soul

| Sun Sep. 14, 2008 2:04 PM EDT

SELLING HIS SOUL....Tom Friedman is still pissed off at John McCain campaign:

It's a campaign now built on turning everything possible into a cultural wedge issue — including even energy policy, no matter how stupid it makes the voters and no matter how much it might weaken America.

I respected McCain's willingness to support the troop surge in Iraq, even if it was going to cost him the Republican nomination. Now the same guy, who would not sell his soul to win his party's nomination, is ready to sell every piece of his soul to win the presidency.

So why is McCain doing this? Obvious answer #1: he's just running a standard Republican campaign. Nobody should really be surprised by this. Obvious answer #2: This is hardly the first time McCain has sold his soul. He'll regret it later, of course, but this is just who he is, despite the layers of maverickiness he's managed to cover himself in over the years.

But there's another piece to this. As near as I can tell, McCain, deep in his gut, has convinced himself that Barack Obama is flatly unfit to the president. He's too inexperienced, he's an empty suit, he's naive, and he'll end up surrendering a weakened and declining America to Islamic extremism without a fight. The campaign corollary to this is obvious: the truly honorable course if you love your country is to do whatever it takes to make sure Obama never gets near the Oval Office. If that means running a campaign that sullies your own reputation — well, you just have to suck it up and pay that price. History will eventually exonerate you. In McCain's mind, the fact that he's willing to sacrifice his own reputation is a sign of just how deeply he loves his country.

This is ironic, of course, since it's something of a Messiah complex, exactly the label he's tried to hang around Obama's neck. Less ironic, but a lot scarier, is that it's McCain who would almost certainly accelerate America's Bush-induced decline if he were elected.

His economic policy, after all, is essentially Bush's. Actually, a bit worse than Bush's. And that economic policy has been a disaster of epic proportions: eight years of weak GDP growth; a fantastic increase in the national debt; anemic employment numbers; declining median wages; and a skyrocketing current account deficit. Eight more years of this and America will be the world's biggest banana republic.

And the picture is pretty similar on national security. McCain is almost certain to continue George Bush's policies there too: relentless militarization of the war on terror as a substitute for a long-term strategy of victory; toxic growth in worldwide levels of anti-Americanism; a gut level belief that the mere act of negotiation is a sign of weakness; a belief in bluster as a primary weapon of state; a vast overextension and weakening of our military; a distrust of international institutions so deep that he's unable to even conceive of how to leverage them effectively; and a flat inability to understand the basic nature of the fight against terror. McCain seems to be convinced that we're refighting Vietnam or the Cold War, not something completely new and different that won't primarily be defeated from the deck of an aircraft carrier. We're in bad shape on this front already; keep it up for another eight years and we'll be in a hole so deep that we might not ever get out.

In fact, America is weaker on almost all fronts today than we were eight years ago. I can't tell if McCain understands this or not, but I assume not since he doesn't propose to substantially change either the policies or the worldview that have gotten us here. However, I think McCain does realize that the American public understands this, which is why he's doing everything possible to distract them from it. Look over there! Barack Obama wants to teach your kindergarteners about sex!

And it might work. It has before, after all. But I continue to think that it won't this time. The public doesn't seem to have made up its mind yet about whether Obama can truly bring about serious change, but once the ur-distraction of Sarah Palin wears off they're almost certain to realize that McCain definitely won't. He's another Herbert Hoover, a once well-meaning man who never fully understood what he was up against — and when this election is over I wouldn't be surprised to see McCain suffer the same fate: lost to history as a symbol of a previous era, and ending his career with increasingly bitter denunciations of a public mood and a changing world that he can barely comprehend.

The Lottery and the Poor

| Sat Sep. 13, 2008 12:28 PM EDT

THE LOTTERY AND THE POOR....Poor people spend a much larger chunk of their income on lottery tickets than rich people. Why? Because they're dumb and don't realize the odds are bad? Because they're desperate and therefore more willing to take a chance on a big payback? Because they're too poor to afford better forms of entertainment?

Maybe. But apparently the mere feeling of being poor, as opposed to any objective result of actually being poor, is also enough to get people buy lottery tickets. George Loewenstein, a neuroeconomist at Carnegie Mellon University, performed a study of low-income riders at a Greyhound bus station in Pittsburgh. Each person was given $5 to participate in a survey, and then told they could take some or all of the money in lottery tickets. But not everyone was given exactly the same survey:

We randomly assigned subjects to either feel relatively poor or relatively rich by having them complete demographic questions that included an item on annual income. The group made to feel poor was asked to provide its income on a scale that began at "less than $100,000" and went up from there, ensuring that most respondents would be in the lowest income tier. The group made to feel subjectively wealthier was asked to report income on a scale that began with "less than $10,000" and increased in $10,000 increments, leading most respondents to be in a middle tier. The group made to feel poor purchased twice as many lottery tickets (an average of 1.27) than those made to feel relatively wealthier (0.67 tickets, on average).

What this means is that lottery marketers — i.e., state governments — have a big incentive to make people feel poor because this helps them sell more tickets. Do you think they succeed? Do the lottery ads in your state make you feel poor? Is this a problem?

Via Mark Thoma, who doesn't think the state should have any role in lotteries at all aside from regulating private operators.