Kevin Drum - May 2010

Using Your Ear(s)

| Sun May 16, 2010 9:02 PM EDT

A new study suggests that cell phone use probably doesn't have any link to brain cancer:

But the leaders of the project acknowledged that the study had flaws. They said one source of possible inaccuracies was the fact that participants were asked to remember how much and on which ear they used their mobiles over the past decade.

This reminds me of something. In movies, characters are endlessly picking up a phone, putting it to their right ear, and then hastily switching it to their left ear so they can pick up a pad to write a note. I never do this. I always use my left ear. Always. My right ear works fine in general, but I can't talk on the phone with it any more than I can use my left hand to write. Which is to say, I can do it, but it feels clumsy and I have a hard time following the conversation.

Is this unusual? Or is ambi-aurality (or whatever) just a movie affectation and most people prefer one ear over the other just like I do? What sayeth the hive mind?

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Immigration and the Economy

| Sun May 16, 2010 7:13 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias recommends a recent FactCheck.org piece that looks at the economic impact of immigration and concludes that "study after study has shown that immigrants grow the economy, expanding demand for goods and services that the foreign-born workers and their families consume, and thereby creating jobs." This is true. Most research shows that increased immigration — legal or illegal — has at most a small negative effect on low-skill workers who lack a high school education and has a positive effect overall. Matt comments:

But of course when you look at the politics of this issue, none of this is reflected. The people clamoring to “control the border” aren’t recent low-skill immigrants from Mexico. It’s very rarely native born high-school dropouts either. Rather, the people upset about immigration tend to be white high school graduates, a group that has a lot of conservative opinions about many issues but generally benefits from high levels of immigration.

This suggests, of course, that opposition to immigration is rooted less in economic concerns and more in cultural resentment and language angst. All of which gives me an excuse to link to a Chris Hayes piece from 2006 about John Tanton, the founder of FAIR, the nation’s oldest and most influential immigration restriction group. For years, Tanton tried to preach an anti-immigration message based on economic and conservation grounds. But it didn't work. Chris tells us what did work:

Crisscrossing the country, Tanton found little interest in his conservation-based arguments for reduced immigration, but kept hearing the same complaint. “‘I tell you what pisses me off,’” Tanton recalls people saying. “‘It’s going into a ballot box and finding a ballot in a language I can’t read.’ So it became clear that the language question had a lot more emotional power than the immigration question.”

Tanton tried to persuade FAIR to harness this “emotional power,” but the board declined. So in 1983, Tanton sent out a fundraising letter on behalf of a new group he created called U.S. English. Typically, Tanton says, direct mail garners a contribution from around 1 percent of recipients. “The very first mailing we ever did for U.S. English got almost a 10 percent return,” he says. “That’s unheard of.” John Tanton had discovered the power of the culture war.

The success of U.S. English taught Tanton a crucial lesson. If the immigration restriction movement was to succeed, it would have to be rooted in an emotional appeal to those who felt that their country, their language, their very identity was under assault. “Feelings,” Tanton says in a tone reminiscent of Spock sharing some hard-won insight on human behavior, “trump facts.”

And part of that emotional appeal? Beyond language and culture, it's the fear that Hispanic immigrants are responsible for an "illegal alien crime wave." But that, it turns out, probably isn't true either.

Democracy in the Air

| Sun May 16, 2010 5:47 PM EDT

Corporate America — with the eager backing of the Republican Party — has spent the past several years fighting "card check," a procedure that would allow unions to win representation merely by getting a majority of workers to sign a card. No secret election needed. The basic argument against card check is that it's undemocratic: when we want to decide things in America, we use elections. And we keep votes secret so that neither side can intimidate voters.

Fine. I think card check would work perfectly well (details here if you're interested), but at least the reasoning of its opponents is coherent enough. But guess what? The airline industry has been governed since 1936 by the Railway Labor Act, and when the National Mediation Board proposed a change to RLA elections that would make them more democratic, the same folks didn't like that either:

Before today, under the RLA, workers who did not vote in a union organizing campaign — including workers on furlough, military leave and extended medical leave — were counted as “no” votes. So in order to form a union, workers had to gain a majority of all workers, instead of a majority of voting members. It was as if people who did not vote in a Presidential campaign were recorded as voting for one party or the other.

The NMB’s rule-change — which it first sought comment on back in November — states that workers who do not vote in an election simply won’t be counted (just like in political campaigns). This would bring the RLA in line with the other major piece of legislation governing unionization, the National Labor Relations Act.

Makes sense! But corporations are dead set against it and so are Republicans.

So where did the original interpretation come from, anyway? The Railway Labor Act merely says that "The majority of any craft or class of employees shall have the right to determine who shall be the representative of the craft or class for the purposes of this chapter." The plain meaning of "majority" has always been "majority of those voting" unless there's specific language saying otherwise, but for obscure administrative reasons the NMB decided otherwise back in the 40s. It's not clear to me if anyone actually knows why anymore.

In any case, requiring a majority only of those who actually cast a vote is pretty plainly consistent with the statutory language, and certainly more in line with customary voting practice. Which is to say, more in line with the customary voting practice that corporations and Republicans defend so zealously when it comes to card check in NLRB elections. But in this case they don't like it. It's almost as if they don't really care about democratic procedure at all. They just support whatever makes it hardest for unions to organize. But that can't be it, can it?

Obama and Civil Liberties

| Sun May 16, 2010 1:14 PM EDT

I should have linked to this a couple of days ago, but better late than never. Here is Glenn Greenwald noting that recent anti-terrorist measures — some directly from President Obama and others not, but mostly with bipartisan support in Congress in either case — go well beyond what the Bush/Cheney administration ever proposed. Instead of merely targeting foreign nationals, these new proposal are aimed directly at American citizens:

A bipartisan group from Congress sponsors legislation to strip Americans of their citizenship based on Terrorism accusations. Barack Obama claims the right to assassinate Americans far from any battlefield and with no due process of any kind. The Obama administration begins covertly abandoning long-standing Miranda protections for American suspects by vastly expanding what had long been a very narrow "public safety" exception, and now Eric Holder explicitly advocates legislation to codify that erosion. John McCain and Joe Lieberman introduce legislation to bar all Terrorism suspects, including Americans arrested on U.S. soil, from being tried in civilian courts.

....There is, of course, no moral difference between subjecting citizens and non-citizens to abusive or tyrannical treatment. But as a practical matter, the dangers intensify when the denial of rights is aimed at a government's own population. The ultimate check on any government is its own citizenry; vesting political leaders with oppressive domestic authority uniquely empowers them to avoid accountability and deter dissent.

Aside from war and occupation, governments have far more coercive power against their own citizens than they do against residents of other countries. There are natural limits to what the U.S. government can do, say, to Chinese or French nationals in their own countries. But within the United States itself, the only restrictions on state power are largely legal, and without those legal limitations the federal government has an almost unlimited ability to exercise its coercive authority over anyone it chooses to. This is why the distinction between citizens and non-citizens is so important.

I am, fundamentally, an admirer of Barack Obama. I like his temperament, I like his worldview, and I like his management style. As I've said before, he has a habit of disappointing me just a little bit on an almost routine basis, but most of the time that doesn't interfere with my basic admiration. The one exception has been his attitude toward civil liberties and terrorism. His early ban on torture was profoundly welcome, but aside from that he's mostly continued Bush-era policies with only minor changes and then added to them things that Bush and Cheney could only have dreamed of. In this one area, I feel betrayed.

For a couple of reasons it's funny that I feel this way. First, this is really nothing new. Democrats have been only marginally better than Republicans on these issues for years. The Clinton era was hardly a golden age of civil liberties, after all, and after 9/11 most of Bush's infingements on civil liberties were supported — sometimes publicly, sometimes merely implicitly — by plenty of Democrats. Obama was one of those Democrats while he was a senator, and he's still one of them now.

Second, unlike Glenn, I'm not a hardcore defender of civil liberties in every conceivable circumstance. Global terrorism really does blur the lines between traditional battlefields and domestic policing in ways that are tricky to resolve. Guantanamo and the broader issue of enemy combatants is, as I said several times while Bush was still in office, an excruciatingly difficult one. Even the operation of broad surveillance networks poses some genuinely complicated problems thanks to the technical architecture of modern communications systems.

But as difficult as a lot of these problems are generally, once the U.S. government starts targeting U.S. citizens without warrants or due process, we've crossed a bright line that's dangerously corrosive. That includes the warrantless wiretapping and non-appealable no-fly lists of the Bush administration, and it includes assassinating Americans and removing Miranda protections under the Obama administration. They're outrageous and dangerous transgressions no matter who's doing them, and Obama needs to take a long, deep breath and reconsider how he's handling these issues. In most things, Obama is famous for taking the long view and not letting day-to-day political considerations force his hand. He needs to start doing the same thing here.

The Senate Tackles Debit Cards

| Sat May 15, 2010 5:10 PM EDT

Hey, the good guys won a vote last night. Debit card companies charge merchants an outrageously high "interchange fee" every time you use one of their cards — a fee that's passed directly on to you, of course — and the Senate finally decided to put a stop to it:

Sixty-four senators, including 17 Republicans, agreed to impose price controls on debit transactions over the furious objections of the beleaguered banking industry....Last year businesses paid Visa and MasterCard $19.71 billion on debit card transactions, according to The Nilson Report, a trade magazine that is regarded as the best source of data on the industry. Visa and MasterCard in turn passed about 80 percent of the money, roughly $15.8 billion, to the banks that issued the cards.

So what are banks going to be forced to do in order to make up their lost profits?

Some experts warned that lower profit margins could lead banks to curtail bank card reward programs.

Ouch! No more reward programs. I think I can live with that. But if your life got a whole lot grimmer when you heard this, consider that what it really means is that for the past decade you've been paying about 1% extra on every single debit card purchase you've made so that banks could then rebate about half that amount back to you in the form of "rewards." Anyone who thinks that's a good deal, raise your hands. (No, not you bankers in the back. We already know it's a good deal for you.)

Still not convinced? Well, Europe mandates fees about one-quarter ours and somehow manages to support a thriving debit card business anyway. And if even that doesn't convince you, go back and read this post about how debit cards used to be essentially free until Visa barged into the market and deliberately set out to force merchants into a higher-cost program, and then after they'd succeeded, raised fees on the lower cost program too. Not because either of these programs actually cost anything to run, but just because they could. If it doesn't make your blood boil, then nothing will.

Yet More on Atheism and Death

| Sat May 15, 2010 2:47 PM EDT

I promise not to blather forever on the death and atheism meme, but I think I'll do one more post on the subject just to finish things up. I wrote a few days ago that although knowledge of our inevitable death is unique to humans, it doesn't define what it means to be human any more than a hundred other things that are unique to humans. Andrew Sullivan disagrees:

I find Kevin's final statement unpersuasive. To be human is to be aware of our own finitude, and to wonder at that. Montaigne argued that to philosophize is to learn how to die. Camus put it differently: men die and they are not happy. For me, this last thing is our first thing as humans. It is our defining characteristic, even though some animals may experience this in a different way.

And our ability to think about this casts us between angels and beasts. It is our reality. Facing it is our life's task.

I think I hardly have to say that this subject is light years outside my usual wheelhouse. So I don't have a lot to say about it. But this attitude toward death surely sums up a vast chasm between the religious and the nonreligious. "Facing it is our life's task"? I can't even conceive of that. I think about death sometimes, just like everyone, and sometimes these thoughts bother me more than other times. But thinking about it all the time? Casting it as uniquely central to the human condition? That's almost incomprehensible to me. Wondering about our own finitude is one thing — I imagine we all do that from time to time — but why should this be elevated above the human ability to create art, science, mathematics, love, war, poetry, trade, government, or ethics — or the ability to wonder in the first place? Why is learning how to deal with our eventual death the defining characteristic of being human? Not just because Montaigne said so, certainly.

There's no answer, of course. Andrew thinks it is and I don't. But I confess that even on an intellectual basis I have a hard time grasping this. Still, we can't just let things rest there, can we? So instead, in an audacious effort to wrest this question away from the high-minded philosophers and transform it back into the kind of research and policy drudgery this blog excels at, here's an odd and seemingly unrelated thought: are autistics less religious than the rest of us? In general, as you go further along the Asperger's/autism spectrum are you less likely to believe in God and be concerned about death? And vice versa for those at the other end of the spectrum? I'm not sure why this conversation caused this particular question to pop into my head, but it did. Does anyone know if there's any research on this subject?

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Iraq Election Update

| Sat May 15, 2010 1:37 PM EDT

Two months after their parliamentary elections, the Iraqis have finally finished their recount and our pal Nouri al-Maliki didn't get the results he wanted:

In an embarrassing rejection of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's efforts to overturn his rival's lead in Iraq's inconclusive parliamentary election, a laborious manual recount of votes in Baghdad has turned up no evidence of electoral fraud and will not change the final outcome, officials said Friday....Had the allegations been upheld, the recount could have eroded the two-seat lead of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's faction. Allawi, a secular Shiite supported by Sunni Arabs, is claiming the right to form the next government as the head of the largest, if not majority, bloc in parliament.

....The delay in issuing final results has in turn deferred serious negotiations on the formation of a new coalition government....[Maliki's] coalition is locked in talks over who should be the next prime minister with the third largest winner, a Shiite bloc with 70 seats that is staunchly opposed to Maliki's candidacy and would like to see one of its own members get the job.

But wait! It turns out the Sadrist bloc has decided that maybe Maliki is acceptable after all:

A spokesman for radical, anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr told AFP the movement would drop a veto against Maliki seeking a new term as premier as long as he met its condition that around 2,000 Sadrist prisoners be freed....Saturday's conciliatory statement, which followed discussions between the two sides in the past 48 hours, would eliminate Maliki's biggest hurdle.

Meanwhile, the "war minister" for al Qaeda in Iraq is warning of "dark days colored in blood," and violence has increased as the political stalemate continues:

"Sunnis will be very frustrated if (Allawi's) list is sidelined in the new government," said Omar al-Bayati, from Baghdad's Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah. "Many Sunnis think the formula of the current government should be changed; otherwise, the country is heading to the worst."

...."It is clear that al-Qaida is trying to ignite the sectarian war in this country and with the latest attacks, I think that the civil war is a possibility," said Alaa Mohammed, of the city of Hillah, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of Baghdad, scene of some of the worst bombings Monday.

Stay tuned.

Friday Newsletter: COIN in Afghanistan

| Sat May 15, 2010 12:52 PM EDT

Every week I write a short blog post that goes into a weekly newsletter that MoJo sends out via email each Friday. I've never reposted them here because I write these things on Wednesday night, and by Saturday they already feel ancient. But that's a little silly, no? So I think I'll start putting them up on the blog on Saturday morning so that people can comment on them if they want. Here's yesterday's edition.

Last week I was talking to a friend whose son is currently stationed in Afghanistan. He was pretty scathing about how the war is being prosecuted. We're supposed to be engaged in a counterinsurgency campaign there, he told me, which means getting soldiers out from their camps and into the towns and cities. They should be patrolling continuously, making their presence felt, and engaging with local leaders. But his son reported that none of that was happening.

That's only one unit, of course, and enlisted men are rarely privy to the bigger picture.  Maybe there's a reason this particular unit is twiddling its thumbs for the moment. Unfortunately, there's reason to suspect that the problem runs deeper and wider than that. And even more disturbingly, there's pretty good reason to think that even if the Army steps up its game, it won't do any good. Gen. Stanley McChrystal is currently planning a make-or-break offensive in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, but a source there who's a firm believer in counterinsurgency doctrine has recently become profoundly disillusioned. In "A Counterproductive Counterinsurgency," a memo currently wending its way through official channels in Afghanistan, he says:

The idea of “counterinsurgency” appears to be a viable way for success on paper. Military units, along with NGO’s [non-governmental organizations], the Department of State, GIRoA [the Afghanistan government], and other government agencies work together to emplace the clear, hold, build strategy in key areas of the battlefield. Like communism, however, counterinsurgency methods are not proving to be effective in practice.

The history of foreign powers mounting successful counterinsurgencies is bleak. Too little force and you can't protect the local population. Too much force and you risk enough civilian damage to push them into the hands of the insurgents. It is, in T.E. Lawrence's famous phrase, like eating soup with a knife, and most practitioners can point to only one significant success in the modern era: the Malayan Emergency of the late 40s and 50s. Plus, of course, Gen. David Petraeus's famous victory in Iraq in 2007. But even that should give pause for thought. For starters, it's not clear yet that counterinsurgency has actually worked in Iraq: the government is less stable now than ever and violence is again on the rise. Beyond that, though, the success in Iraq was due not just to Petraeus's surge, but to what I call the Four Esses. The Surge was one of them, but it wouldn't have worked without the other three: the Sunni Awakening that turned tribal leaders against al-Qaeda in Iraq; the sectarian cleansing that displaced millions of Iraqis and purged mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad; and Muqtada al-Sadr, who declared a cease fire long before Petraeus arrived and, against all odds, stuck to it.

None of those things is present in Afghanistan, and so far the evidence suggests that without them we have little chance of replicating even the contingent success we had in Iraq. This is something that the Pentagon seems to be belatedly recognizing as it tries to downsize future operations. Counterinsurgency, says Andrew Exum, a fellow with the Center for a New American Security, "is a good way to get out of a situation gone bad," but it's not the best way to use combat forces. Afghanistan, unfortunately, is starting to look like the graveyard of empires once again.

Chart of the Day: Drill, Baby, Drill

| Sat May 15, 2010 12:35 PM EDT

This chart comes from Glen Sweetnam of the Department of Energy (he's the director of the EIA's International, Economic and Greenhouse Gas division). The black line represents the year 2011. After that, oil production diverges sharply from projected demand, and no one knows how we're going to make up the difference.

Sweetnam, by the way, is not talking about peak oil here. DOE subscribes to an "undulating plateau" theory, where oil production peaks and then stays more or less flat for a decade or so. Rather, Sweetnam attributes the production decline to a lack of investment. However, since new projects take years to come on line after they're funded, this is a fairly thin distinction in the medium run. If investment is lacking today, then Sweetnam's chart is probably accurate for at least the next few years.

What can be done? The possibilities are: (a) much higher oil prices to suppress demand, (b) a continuing recession to suppress demand, (c) amped up conservation and efficiency measures to suppress demand, (d) an increase in renewable sources of electricity along with an electrification of our transportation infrastructure, (e) biofuels, or (f) a switch to natural gas in place of oil — though I think the natural gas bonanza has been oversold, and in any case even if things go well it will take years for natural gas to seriously eat into oil consumption. I'm probably missing a few things, but this is basically the shape of the river. And all of them come with significant problems that I probably don't have to go into.

Just thought I'd share. (Via ClimateProgress.)

Sarkozy Threatens to Leave the Euro

| Sat May 15, 2010 10:25 AM EDT

Megan McArdle passed along an El Pais story yesterday saying that French president Nicolas Sarkozy threatened a week ago to abandon the euro unless Germany agreed to a French plan to rescue Greece. This didn't seem to pass the smell test to me, so I skipped past it. But today the Guardian confirms it:

Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to abandon the euro unless Angela Merkel dropped her hostility to the EU's €750bn safety net for the single currency, sources in Brussels and European capitals said yesterday...."It was a standup argument. He was shouting and bawling," said one official in Brussels. "It was Sarkozy on steroids," said a European diplomat. "He's always very energetic. This time he was very emotional, too."

....Diplomats at the time reported that the summit was going very badly and would continue through the night. But it ended half an hour later after Sarkozy abruptly announced he was leaving. "Sarko said: 'For me it's over. I'm stopping this if we can't agree,' " said a diplomat.

I doubt that Sarkozy was even nominally serious about this, but as Megan says, this is a big deal anyway. It shows both that dissolution of the euro isn't entirely unmentionable and that Germany's opposition to the Greek bailout was stronger than anyone thought. The former, I suppose, was inevitable, and the latter actually makes it more likely. As Paul Krugman says, it's hard to think of any other solution to Europe's problems. Even defaulting completely on its debt wouldn't really help Greece much at this point.

Question: is there any way to artificially "adjust" a country's exchange rate in the eurozone? I don't see how, but maybe there's some clever synthetic way of accomplishing the same thing as a currency devaluation without leaving the euro. Has anyone heard of such a thing?