Kevin Drum - August 2009

Dealing With Corporate America

| Sun Aug. 9, 2009 1:47 PM EDT

Today I stormed the halls of corporate America.  And got my butt kicked.  Here's my sad but all-too-common tale.

My cell phone battery has slowly deteriorated into a state of decrepitude so pronounced that even I began to notice it.  Obvious solution: buy a replacement.  But then I got some junk mail from Verizon telling me that I had a $100 credit coming my way if I upgraded my phone.  Hurrah!  Why buy a new battery if I can get a whole new phone for free?

So I went to the Verizon store and picked one out.  Not much different from my current phone, but it had a couple of handy new features.  And since it retailed for $99.95, I'd get it for free!  Except, there's a problem:

I'm sorry, Mr. Drum, but you can't get that phone.

Why not?

It's only available if you're on a nationwide plan.

But I am on a nationwide plan.  I can call anywhere in the U.S. and Canada for one low monthly charge.

Sorry.  I didn't mean nationwide, I meant Nationwide™.

Oh.  Well, can I switch to a Nationwide™ plan?

Yes, but not like the one you currently have.  The cheapest Nationwide™ plan has more minutes than your current plan and costs $10 more per month.

So my free phone will actually cost me $240 over the life of the two-year contract?

Um, yeah.  Pretty much.

And why can't this new phone work on my existing plan?

Well, Verizon is really trying to get everyone to switch to the Nationwide™ plan.

Great.  I actually went into the store steeling myself for the fact that my "free" phone wouldn't actually be free.  There'd be a "transfer charge" or some alleged government waste disposal fee — or something — and I'd end up paying twenty or thirty bucks for one reason or another.  But $240?  My cynicism wasn't up to that.

So instead I got a cheap replacement phone.  No new features, just a slightly different shape.  A wee bit smaller and lighter.  Plastic case instead of metal, so it'll probably break before long.  But it works on my current plan, so it's really free.

Sort of.  Actually, it cost me $50.  Why?  It took me a while to decipher what the clerk was telling me, but even though it's a $79 phone (regular price, not any kind of special deal) and I had a $100 credit, I was required to pay $50 at the register and then send in my receipt to get a $50 mail-in rebate.  So now I have to do that.

What's really remarkable about all this is that I suspect most people don't even complain about it.  It's just the way corporations treat us these days and complaining about it is useless.  It's not as if any other cell phone company would have treated me any better, after all.  They make their money on people who buy high-minute plans and send lots of text messages and download tunes and upgrade to email and broadband.  I don't do any of that, so they don't really care about my business.  And why should they?

End of rant.  But since every post is required to have a political point of some kind these days, here it is for this one: there was nothing unusual about my experience.  Barely even anything to get upset about, really.  So if you wonder why I'm not bothered by the idea of government-funded healthcare, that's why.  Frankly, my dealings with the government, on average, are better than most of my dealings with corporations.  The government might sometimes provide poor customer service just because they lack the motivation to do better, but corporate America routinely provides crappy customer service as part of a deliberate and minutely planned strategy.  I'll take my chances with the feds.

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Robots in Our Future

| Sun Aug. 9, 2009 11:59 AM EDT

Gregory Clark says that although unskilled laborers have done relatively well for the past two centuries, that's about to change:

The economic problems of the future will not be about growth but about something more nettlesome: the ineluctable increase in the number of people with no marketable skills, and technology's role not as the antidote to social conflict, but as its instigator.

....[In] recent decades, when average U.S. incomes roughly doubled, there has been little gain in the real earnings of the unskilled. And, more darkly, computer advances suggest these redoubts of human skill will sooner or later fall to machines. We may have already reached the historical peak in the earning power of low-skilled workers, and may look back on the mid-20th century as the great era of the common man.

I recently carried out a complicated phone transaction with United Airlines but never once spoke to a human; my mechanical interlocutor seemed no less capable than the Indian call-center operatives it replaced. Outsourcing to India and China may be only a brief historical interlude before the great outsourcing yet to come — to machines. And as machines expand their domain, basic wages could easily fall so low that families cannot support themselves without public assistance.

With the march of technology, the size of a future American underclass dependent on public support for part of its livelihood is hard to predict: 10 million, 20 million, 100 million? We could imagine cities where entire neighborhoods are populated by people on state support.

Of course, this is roughly the argument people made in the 19th century too: if machines can spin cotton and mine coal and harvest crops, what's left for unskilled laborers to do?  The answer, of course, turned out to be: something else.  Productivity increased so dramatically during the Industrial Revolution, and with it the quantity of goods produced, that everyone stayed employed even though population increased and the labor content of most commodities went down.  The nature of the work changed, but 10% of a thousand, it turned out, kept as many people employed as 50% of two hundred.

So is Clark just engaged in neo-Ludditeism?  Maybe.  But there really does seem to a fundamental difference between machines that take the place of muscle power and machines that take the place of brain power — though it's hard to say for sure since we haven't really seen what computers can do yet.  Probably a lot more than most people think, though.  Clark's IVR transaction with United Airlines may seem trivial — an example of automated phone hell, in fact — but Thomas Newcomen's atmospheric engine seemed barely worth the trouble too at the time.

The only reason the Industrial Revolution didn't put millions of people out of work is that it created lots of new jobs that required just enough human judgment that they couldn't be done by machine.  But once computers can provide that judgment, then what's left?  According to Clark, high taxes on everyone else.  Don't anyone tell Newt Gingrich.

Netroots Nation

| Sun Aug. 9, 2009 12:09 AM EDT

Quick housekeeping note.  I'll be at Netroots Nation in Pittsburgh on Friday and Saturday of next week.  It's always nice to meet people who read the blog, so if you'll be there too and happen to see me wandering the hallways, be sure to stop me and say hi.

I'll also be moderating the noon keynote panel on Saturday, "Building a 21st Century Economy."  The panelists, who will be doing most of the actual talking, are Jon Corzine, governor of New Jersey; Anna Burger, chair of the Change to Win labor coalition; and Dean Baker, the economist who's been warning us about the housing bubble longer than just about anyone.  Should be a good session.  If you have any questions you'd like tossed at these guys, leave 'em in comments.

The DNI's Testimony

| Sat Aug. 8, 2009 1:55 PM EDT

I was browsing through the testimony of DNI Dennis Blair to the Senate Intelligence Committee last April and came across a question about the Afghan insurgency.  Specifically, how big would the Afghan army need to be to extend security throughout the country, and how much would it cost?  Here's the answer:

Answer: (U) The most recent edition of the U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Handbook suggests a ratio of 25 counterinsurgents to every 1,000 residents within an area of operations. The CIA World Factbook puts the 2009 estimated population of Afghanistan at 32,738,376.  Using this ratio leads to a need for roughly 818,000 security personnel to secure Afghanistan. However, most of the insurgents are in Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, and Pashtuns make up approximately 40% of the population — about 13 million.  Applying the 25-per-1,000 ratio to the Pashtun population equals roughly 325,000 security forces to extend security through the Pashtun areas.

(U) The Afghan defense operating budget (taken from the Afghanistan National Yearly Budget Report) for the Fiscal Year 2008 was projected at $242 million dollars.  Since there are currently 83,094 soldiers in the Army, we assume that this amount of $242 million equates to $2,912 dollars per soldier.  If the ANA were to increase the number of soldiers to 325,000, then Afghanistan would need to budget $946 million dollars per annum....

Really?  That's it?  I realize this is the unclassified version of his testimony.  I also realize that counterinsurgency is mostly the Pentagon's bailiwick, not the intelligence community's.  Still.  This is the level of analysis that a blogger might provide with about five minutes of googling.  Does the Senate really accept testimony this shallow from the DNI?  Is there really, literally, nothing more sophisticated they can offer up for unclassified public consumption?

Steven Aftergood adds that "some of the DNI’s statements are surprisingly flimsy."  For example, Blair claims that Russia prepared for a military exercise to disrupt U.S. satellites:

It turns out that the DNI’s statement was simply lifted, almost word for word, from a news story that appeared in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta on May 14, 2003.  (It was also picked up by the online Newsmax.com on May 18, 2003.)  The Russian story lazily attributed its claim regarding the anti-satellite exercise to “certain reports.” The DNI repeated the Nezavisimaya Gazeta item nearly verbatim, presenting it as an established fact, with no attribution at all.

In fairness, there were some interesting bits and pieces in Blair's testimony, too.  Still, even in an unclassified setting the intelligence community owes the American public better than this.

Birthers and Bill Clinton

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 5:37 PM EDT

Hey it's Laura, dropping off the latest Kevin and David Week in Review podcast. This week: When will the Birther insanity end? Where will Bill Clinton go next? Who will win the battle for August's health care reform town halls? Plus: Rush Limbaugh and Kevin's take on liberal vs. conservative derangement. Listen to the podcast here.
 
Laura McClure hosts podcasts, writes the MoJo Mix, and is the new media editor at Mother Jones. Read her investigative feature on lifehacking gurus in the latest issue of Mother Jones.

Friday Cat Blogging - 8 August 2009

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 1:59 PM EDT

On the left, Inkblot is pretending to be in kitty jail.  Pretty nicely decorated jail, though.  On the right, Domino is Queen of the Printer.

My new food rationing plan is working well, by the way.  It's way too early to know if anyone has lost any weight, of course, but my interim Metric for Success™ is that no one starts yowling in the middle of the night because they're hungry and want me to come downstairs and feed them.  I never do, but in the past that hasn't stopped the yowling if they're feeling mistreated.  So far, though, half a cup of dry food before bedtime is enough to last them through the night until I wake up naturally.  Peace reigns throughout the house.

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Bill Bratton's Future

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 1:34 PM EDT

Superstar police chief Bill Bratton has announced he'll be leaving the LAPD at the end of October.  Mark Kleiman would like to see him move up in the world:

As for Bratton's own future, here's hoping that his move to Altegrity is a just a quick cash-in on his way back to public service. The FBI would be a stretch: agents aren't really cops, counter-terrorism isn't policing, and any fight to change Hooverville would run into serious resistance from the Ba'athist dead-enders at on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue. So I wouldn't put the same sort of odds-on bet on Bratton's success at the Bureau that I would if he took over another police department. Still, given the stakes, it's a gamble I'd like to see happen.

Well, Mueller's term is up in 2011, so that would give Bratton a couple of years to earn some private sector dough before returning to the trenches.  He'd certainly be an interesting choice.

Quote of the Day

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 12:31 PM EDT

From Andrew Sullivan:

Killing the leader of the group that protected bin Laden seems like a big deal to me. Think for a minute about the attempt to paint Obama as Carter. Now think of three real-time operations — the killing of the Somali pirates, the release of the NoKo hostages, and now the targeted killing of the Taliban's leader. Does that sound like Jimmy Carter to you? Now how about getting Osama? Wouldn't that be a coup? I suspect he's working hard on it.

Hmmm.  I hadn't quite thought of it that way.  But it's an interesting point.  Obama hasn't yet had a substantive foreign policy success on the scale of Jimmy Carter's Camp David Accords (or even on the scale of returning the Panama Canal, for that matter), but on the little things he's been remarkably successful.  Or remarkably lucky.  Or both.  Either way, though, these little successes breed a sense of competence and self-possession that can help make things go better on the larger stage too.  Maybe Obama really does lead a charmed life.

Permanently Unemployed?

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 12:09 PM EDT

Today's unemployment news was generally good: we're still losing jobs, but we're not losing them as fast as we have been.  For now, at least, it looks like the stimulus is having an effect and the economy might be getting ready to improve.

But there are still some disturbing signs, and CBPP shows one of them in the chart on the right: job losses may be slowing, but the number of long-term unemployed is at a record high, way above even the peak it hit during the 1981 recession.

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this, but for some reason it reminded me of this article on the front page of the New York Times today:

Digging out of debt keeps getting harder for the unemployed as more companies use detailed credit checks to screen job prospects.

....Once reserved for government jobs or payroll positions that could involve significant sums of money, credit checks are now fast, cheap and used for all manner of work. Employers, often winnowing a big pool of job applicants in days of nearly 10 percent unemployment, view the credit check as a valuable tool for assessing someone’s judgment.

But job counselors worry that the practice of shunning those with poor credit may be unfair and trap the unemployed — who may be battling foreclosure, living off credit cards and confronting personal bankruptcy — in a financial death spiral: the worse their debts, the harder it is to get a job to pay them off.

This is, admittedly, the equivalent of a single anecdote in the broader economic picture, but I continue to worry that a cluster of trends are converging to produce a larger class of the permanently unemployed than we've had in the past.  It's possible that I'm just worrying too much.  But this recession has affected the poorly educated way worse than high school and college grads; it's hit men worse than women; things like poor credit or a felony conviction seem to have become nearly permanent black marks; and unskilled jobs are continuing to dwindle despite a big drop in the illegal immigrant population.

I don't want to push this theme too far because I haven't yet done the work to really get a reliable sense of what's going on.  But I wonder, when this recession is finally over, if we're going to find ourselves in a European-esque mode with a large and growing population that's almost continually unemployed or, at best, underemployed.  More later.

The Lies of August

| Fri Aug. 7, 2009 11:37 AM EDT

Hey, I thought MSM columnists weren't allowed to use the word "lie"?  Either (a) Steven Pearlstein didn't get the memo, (b) the rules are different for Pulitzer Prize winners, or (c) Republican lies about healthcare reform have caused his brain to explode:

There is no credible way to look at what has been proposed by the president or any congressional committee and conclude that these will result in a government takeover of the health-care system. That is a flat-out lie

....Health reform will cost taxpayers at least a trillion dollars. Another lie.

....The Republican lies about the economics of health reform are also heavily laced with hypocrisy. While holding themselves out as paragons of fiscal rectitude, Republicans grandstand against just about every idea to reduce the amount of health care people consume or the prices paid to health-care providers.

And he didn't even get around to mentioning the "Democrats want to kill granny" meme or the "Obama wants you to snitch on your neighbor" meme or the "liberals want to provide spa vacations to illegal immigrants" meme.  I guess his column wasn't long enough.