Kevin Drum - October 2010

The Passive Voice Strikes Again

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 10:49 AM EDT

Here is David Brooks this morning:

Obama came to be defined by his emergency responses to the fiscal crisis — by the things he had to do, not by the things he wanted to do. Then he got defined as an orthodox, big government liberal who lacks deep roots in American culture.

....Over the next two years, Obama will have to show that he is a traditionalist on social matters and a center-left pragmatist on political ones. Culturally, he will have to demonstrate that even though he comes from an unusual background, he is a fervent believer in the old-fashioned bourgeois virtues: order, self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility.

Italics mine. Reading this, you'd think it was just some freak of chance that Obama has come to be identified as someone who "lacks deep roots in American culture." You'd also think it might actually be true, since Brooks simply states it as fact. But perhaps we should bring some of that famous conservative concern for agency and responsibility to bear here. Why do so many people seem to believe that Obama lacks deep roots in American culture? Where does this story come from? Did Obama himself, who would risk being a near parody of old-fashioned bourgeois virtues if he were any more orderly, self-disciplined, punctual, and responsible, do anything to deserve it?

The answers here are pretty obvious. But you won't hear a peep about any of them from David Brooks this morning.

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Do the Rich Need Coddling?

| Fri Oct. 29, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

A couple of weeks ago I sort of vaguely intended to write a bit about the extreme sensitivity of the American business community. I had just read someone (I forget who) saying that he had been out in the world chatting with business folks and had fully expected their anger with Barack Obama to rate about an 8 out of 10. But no! It was 10 out of 10. They were in an absolute frenzy of combined rage (over what he was doing to them) and fear (over what he might say about them if they dared to criticize him publicly).

Needless to say, this seemed crazy to me. On a substantive front, after he took office Obama continued George Bush's rescue of the banking system, boosted the economy by passing a stimulus bill, and saved untold thousands of businesses by rescuing GM and Chrysler. His healthcare reform bill was so business friendly it's a wonder the industry didn't keel over in hypoglycemic shock after it was passed. On the rhetorical front, he's taken a few modest shots at the financial industry, but not much more. So what were they all so apoplectic about?

But then I stopped and decided there was no point. If I asked, business folks would say they were afraid to invest because of Obama's blizzard of new regulations. They'd say they were afraid he was going to raise their taxes. They'd say he had somehow screwed up the banking sector so that they could no longer get loans the way they used to. They'd say they were afraid of cap-and-trade and card check, which Obama supported even though they both went nowhere. Looking at the big picture, they'd claim the administration is squeezing them on all sides because its actions have resulted in slow hiring, higher taxes, impaired lending, and further limits to individuals' ability to deploy capital in business ventures (whether their own or other people's).

Or, as John Gapper put it earlier this week, quoting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Obama has "vilified industries while embarking on an ill-advised course of government expansion, major tax increases, massive deficits and job-destroying regulations." Gapper himself says there's some truth to this: "Mr Obama has failed to understand or communicate the role big business plays in remoulding the economy and creating highly skilled and highly-paid jobs. Unlike Bill Clinton, the previous Democratic president, he sounds as if he thinks multinationals do little but suck work out of the US."

And Gapper's evidence? As Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias point out, precisely one thing: Obama's criticism of large companies for using tax breaks to ship jobs overseas. That's it. Something that's virtually a staple of American politics. Obama is following in the footsteps of thousands when he complains about this, including plenty of Republicans when they're in a tight election campaign.

What's remarkable about all this is that Obama is, patently, not anti-business. All of the corporate complaints above, when you dig an inch below the surface, amount to lashing out at phantasms. However, although Obama isn't anti-business, it is fair to say that he's not especially business friendly. And after decades of almost literally getting their every heart's desire from Republican presidents and congresses, this has come as something as a shock to the corporate community. When Obama puts a tax break in the stimulus bill, it's aimed mainly at the middle class, not the rich. When he hires a labor secretary, it's someone who actually thinks labor laws should be enforced. When he says he wants to pass a healthcare reform bill, he actually does it. (Its impact on big business is close to zero, but no matter.) There's no evidence at all that Obama wants to punish big business, but at the same time it's quite plain that he cares much more about the middle class than he does about the rich.

And that's pretty hard for them to take. So they're apoplectic. On a scale of 1 to 10, he's a ten. Merely refusing to coddle the business community endlessly is all it takes these days.

Quote of the Day:

| Thu Oct. 28, 2010 11:11 PM EDT

From Charles Peters, founder of the Washington Monthly:

The lesson of history is that private enterprise can do great things, but you have to watch it like a hawk.

Words to live by.

Do Sugary Sodas Make You Fat?

| Thu Oct. 28, 2010 8:11 PM EDT

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Jonathan Adler writes:

Politicizing Soda Science

Today’s NYT reports on how New York City’s health commissioner pressured his staff to create a scary anti-obesity ad campaign, featuring this ad, even if it meant stretching the available scientific evidence on the potential health consequences of drinking a can of soda per day. In the end, they produced an ad that was “defensible” because, as one participant in the discussions put it, the ad’s language was “broad enough to get away with.”

Now, there are a bunch of things you might say about this right from the start. Maybe governments shouldn't be in the business of running nanny state ads about personal nutrition. Maybe this particular ad was disgusting and shouldn't have been released. Maybe obesity isn't really that big a deal in the first place. But those weren't the issues at stake. Rather, it was this single sentence in the ad:

Drinking 1 can of soda a day can make you 10 pounds fatter a year.

What, I thought, could be wrong with that? A can of sugared soda contains about 150 calories, and adding 150 calories a day to your diet would almost certainly produce a ten-pound weight gain over the course of a year or so. There are some caveats, of course:

  • If you cut out 150 calories elsewhere, you won't gain any weight.
  • If you exercise more, you won't gain any weight.
  • Your exact weight gain will depend on your age, current weight, etc.
  • If you have a miracle metabolism, you might not gain any weight at all.

This all seems pretty obvious, and while you'd probably mention it in a longer piece, it hardly seems necessary in a 30-second spot. But it turns out the scientists, especially Michael Rosenbaum of Columbia, seemed to think it should all be included. The ad, he said, was "misleading in that there is no reference to energy output changes."

So I'm curious: what do you all think of this? I'm open to argument here, but it seems crazy to me, less a politicization of science from the health commissioner than a case of geekdom run amok among the scientists. I mean, if you can't tell people that adding a bunch of calories to your diet will make you gain weight, what can you tell them?

POSTSCRIPT: And while I'm at this, can I complain once again about how journalistic conventions can ruin a story? It's actually hard to tell exactly what happened here because the reporter insisted on "adding value" by not relating things in a simple chronological fashion. Nor does she tell us what the original sentence they were arguing about was. It's a real mess.

UPDATE: Via comments, I do see one problem with this ad that I didn't notice before. The phrase "10 pounds fatter a year" might lead you to believe that you're going to gain ten pounds years after year. In fact, you'd gain (about) ten pounds and then just stay there.

This interpretation didn't occur to me when I saw the ad. However, it's a plausible one. Something like "10 pounds fatter in a year" might be better.

Chart of the Day: Texting

| Thu Oct. 28, 2010 3:56 PM EDT

Here's the latest on texting:

The Nielsen Company analyzed mobile usage data among teens in the United States for the second quarter of 2010 (April 2010 – June 2010). No one texts more than teens (age 13-17), especially teen females, who send and receive an average of 4,050 texts per month. Teen males also outpace other male age groups, sending and receiving an average of 2,539 texts.

I wonder how this really breaks down? The obvious headline result is that teen girls send a text every 6 minutes of every waking hour. But they probably don't. More likely, it comes in bursts: a couple of texts an hour most of the time, but 40 or 50 an hour during serious texting times.

That's my guess, anyway. What say you, parents of teenagers? Do your kids text constantly, or do they do it mostly in bursts? (Via Jon Mandle.)

Kill the Corporate Income Tax

| Thu Oct. 28, 2010 2:58 PM EDT

Megan McArdle thinks we should do away with the corporate income tax. I agree! Here is her most persuasive argument:

Without the corporate income tax, a lot of the incentive for lobbying would go away.  Not all of it, by any means — I am not trying to paint some halcyon future here. But an enormous amount of effort goes into lobbying for tax laws, and politicians often reward favored constituent businesses with little sweetheart fillips to the tax code. Conversely, apparently neutral changes to the tax code often turn out to be excellent ways to hamstring your competition, particularly small businesses who cannot afford a huge tax department.

And just think of all the corporate tax attorneys who'd be out of jobs.1 It's a win-win!

Seriously, though: I agree. The corporate tax code is by far the most popular way for politicians to reward favored interests without making those rewards too obvious. As long as it exists, even if the tax rate is low, it's a way to funnel money to one sector over another or one company over another. Just get rid of it.

The big question, though, is what to replace it with. Higher capital gains and dividend taxes are an obvious possibility. Higher top marginal income tax rates. A carbon tax. A financial transaction tax. There are lots of alternatives.

Of course, the business community would never support this. For starters, they like all the tax goodies they get, and they like the potential of getting more. And of course, businesses are run by rich people, and rich people would frankly prefer that taxes be high on their corporations than high on themselves. On a more substantive level, it would seriously raise the incentives for income shifting scams, so we'd have to amp up tax audits to catch that. So it'll never happen. But it's a nice idea.

1They wouldn't be entirely out of work, of course. There would still be state corporation taxes to worry about, and multinationals would have international tax issues. But it would sure cut down their ranks.

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Lying to Pollsters

| Thu Oct. 28, 2010 1:30 PM EDT

If you ever wanted evidence that Americans lie to pollsters with abandon, I'd say this is smoking gun proof:

That's from the latest Bloomberg poll. More here.

Quote of the Day: Rupert Murdoch

| Thu Oct. 28, 2010 12:59 PM EDT

From Conrad Black, once again a free man, writing about Rupert Murdoch:

I have long thought that his social philosophy was contained in his cartoon show, The Simpsons: all politicians and public officials are crooks, and the masses are a vast lumpen proletariat of deluded and exploitable blowhards.

Via E.D. Kain.

Interviewing the President

| Thu Oct. 28, 2010 12:44 PM EDT

Ryan Chittum takes a look at yesterday's sit-down between President Obama and five bloggers and concludes that the bloggers "didn’t exactly cover themselves with glory."

I guess that's true. But I wouldn't really blame the bloggers. Some of their questions were good, some were lame, and some were in between. But who's done better? Who can do better? Pretty much any big time politician — and Obama's as big time as they come — has heard every question before and knows exactly how to answer them. They filibuster, they distract, they offer up platitudes, and they move on. There's pretty much zero chance of anyone getting anything newsworthy out of a guy like Obama unless he feels like making news. This is just life in our modern media-saturated age.

More Stimulus, Please

| Thu Oct. 28, 2010 11:49 AM EDT

Like Matt Yglesias, I don't quite get Peter Orszag's opposition to further quantitative easing from the Fed. He'd like to see Congress pass further stimulus, but thinks that's less likely if the Fed eases monetary policy. Why? Because a stimulus package should only be passed if it has an accompanying medium-term deficit reduction package, "and that medium-term deficit reduction package is less likely to be enacted when interest rates on long-term government bonds are so low."

I don't really understand this. But who cares? As Orszag says, the Fed's anticipated QE2 package will probably have, at best, a modest effect. What the economy really needs is "more fiscal expansion (read: more stimulus) now." I helpfully added italics to that quote since that seemed to be his intent. And remember: Orszag was widely considered the moderate deficit hawk in the Obama administration. If he thinks Job 1 is additional stimulus, people really ought to be listening to him.