Kevin Drum - November 2010

The Weird Hubris of the Columnist

| Wed Nov. 24, 2010 12:17 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 11:52 AM 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 7:24 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 5:34 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 2:47 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?

Round 2 on the TSA Backlash

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 2:26 PM EST

Because I'm basically a coward, I'm reluctant to keep wading into the TSA screening debate. But that's not the only reason. It's also because this is not a subject where I have a lot of confidence that I'm right. Maybe it is all just useless security theater! All I can say is that when something like this turns into a feeding frenzy of almost universal scorn and mockery, largely driven by the Drudge/Fox noise machine, my BS radar starts clanging.

But various people brought up some good questions via blog, email and Twitter, and I thought it might be a good idea to respond. Obvously I'm not trying to defend everything TSA does (the "enhanced" patdowns strike me as fairly ridiculous, for example), and equally obviously, plenty of people outside the Drudge/Fox axis have been complaining about TSA protocols for a long time. So with that said, here we go:

Matt Yglesias: If you assume the existence of a person willing to die for Osama bin Laden’s war on America, located within the United States of America, and in possession of a working explosive or firearm, there’s basically nothing stopping him from blowing up the 4/5/6 platform at Union Square or the 54 bus in DC....[So] don’t ask yourself “what amount of hassle and expenditure is worth paying to prevent terrorist attacks,” ask yourself “what amount of hassle and expenditure is worth paying to shift terrorist attacks off airplanes and onto buses”?

Me: This is extremely logical. But it also seems to be wrong. For whatever reason, Islamic terrorists have a long and tenacious obsession with air travel. For the past decade it's been way harder to blow up an airplane than the 54 bus, but they keep trying to blow up airplanes anyway. That's just the reality we have to deal with.

Will Wilkinson: So do you think all this jazz actually has/does keep people from dying in/from planes?

Me: Well, yeah. Obviously this isn't something that I can prove geometrically, but that's baked into the cake of security issues like this where your goal is to prevent people from even trying to blow things up in the first place. Still, we've made it very, very hard to bring explosives onto airplanes, and I think it makes sense to believe that if we hadn't made it so hard more people would have tried it. For example, my guess is that the reason no one has tried a shoe bomb since Richard Reid's failed attempt is that everyone knows it won't work. Shoes are now x-rayed, so there's no point in trying.

randomsubu: OK *IF* backscatter images reliably destroyed/not photographs. Otherwise....

Me: I agree completely. Here's Peter Kant of Rapiscan on that subject:

The systems are designed without any capability of storing, saving or otherwise archiving any images or data that are taken from the checkpoint. Finally, we are releasing in the next few months ... a threat-recognition upgrade where the system never even uses an image. It just automatically detects any anomaly on the body and directs the [Transportation Security Administration] officer where on the body to ask the passenger, "What's in your back pocket?" or whatever. No image is ever created or used of the passenger — and that is only a couple of months away from being available.

The scans that were famously saved and distributed in Florida were not done by Rapiscan devices and have nothing to do with airport security.

Reader PJC via email: This also raises another potent issue -- TSA actions creating, rather than obviating, terrorist options. The more we have to strip down, pat down, stand in multiple lines for multiple machines, the longer and slower the lines get. Right now, the best option for a terrorist attack (and I'm surprised it hasn't happened already) is actually the security line into the terminal. You could easily enter a terminal with an automatic weapon or a bomb without anyone knowing since you will not have hit the security scanners yet. Then you blow up or shoot everyone waiting in line, hemmed in by the rope barriers so they can't easily escape. One backpack filled with C4 and nails. That's all it takes. What do we do then? Hide under the blankets? Will we randomly scan anyone within a mile of the airport?

Me: Again, this is perfectly logical, and a lot of people have made exactly this point before. But in real life this hasn't turned out to be a big target for terrorists. Not dramatic enough, I suppose. In any case, I've flown regularly since 9/11, and except for the first year, before airports had adjusted to the new protocols, lines don't seem to have gotten much longer. What's more, a bomb in a security line can only kill just so many people. Once you have 20 or 30 people lined up, you've pretty much exhausted the killing power of your basic backpack explosive device.

Melissa McEwan: Leaving aside my lack of enthusiasm for the calculation that we should give an inch's worth of encroachment into our civil liberties in order to stop the government taking a mile [...] there are practical and valid objections being made by people with disabilities, parents of children with disabilities, and survivors of sexual violence....Those millions of people are not just potentially "inconvenienced." Being triggered does not mean feeling hassled or being annoyed or having your feelings hurt or getting upset. It means experiencing a physical and/or emotional response to a survived trauma, having a significantly mood-altering bout of anxiety. Someone who is triggered may experience anything from a brief moment of dizziness, to a shortness of breath and a racing pulse, to a full-blown panic attack.

Me: I don't honestly have a good answer to this. I can't pretend that I understand what this is like for everyone. However, if anything, the backscatter machines ought to eventually reduce the number of patdowns. What's more, patdowns have been part of TSA security ever since 9/11, and as I said above, I very much doubt that the "enhanced" versions are justifiable. So unless I hear a pretty good argument from TSA about this, I'd be in favor of returning to the old patdown standards and trying to eliminate some of the pain Melissa is talking about.

Stephen Bainbridge: Everybody knows El Al security includes racial and ethnic profiling. So we can't use it in the USA because profiling would violate the civil liberties of those who get profiled. And that's how it should be, for both prudential and moral reasons. But instead we have a system that violates everybody's civil liberties. Excuse me for preferring a system in which nobody's civil liberties get violated.

Me: Part of me agrees with this. But look: there's a difference between something being annoying and something being a violation of civil liberties. At TSA checkpoints you are now required to take off your shoes. That's not a violation of civil liberties. You are required to take your laptop out of your bag. Ditto. You are limited to 3-ounce bottles of liquid. Ditto. Your carry-on luggage has to get x-rayed. Ditto. You are required to go through a scanner. Ditto. If you can't or won't go through the scanner, you have to, um.....OK, like I said, the super duper patdowns really do seem hard to justify, and if they aren't technically a violation of civil liberties they're pretty damn close. But with that exception, I have to say that I don't really see this stuff as a violation of civil liberties. I don't like it much, but that doesn't make it illegal or unconstitutional.

I guess that's enough. I'd add to this list that there are concerns about the radiation exposure from backscatter machines, and I think that deserves to be taken seriously. I can only give my sense from reading what various experts say, but it sounds to me like these concerns are overblown and mostly just tossed out to add another log to the anti-scanner bonfire. But I might be wrong about that. I'm completely in favor of making sure that these machines are thoroughly and independently tested.

I'm not really comfortable taking the side of this argument that I've ended up taking, and I'm wide open to changing my mind. But the plain fact is that Islamic terrorists really do have a long history of trying to blow up American airplanes, and all the evidence suggests that they're going to keep trying. Reacting to that makes sense. And for those who suggest a sort of cost-benefit analysis — if we reduce the security and simply accept a few dozen additional deaths each year we'll come out ahead — I think this is just wildly divorced from the way actual normal human beings react to attacks from other human beings. Maybe us hyperlogical types think that way (I certainly do), but most people just don't.

One final note: I was pretty surprised by the number of tweets and emails I got agreeing with my take on this. It wasn't a monstrous number, but frankly, I was expecting zero. It wasn't just mindless save me from the terrorists! stuff either. I suspect there might be more people out there who are OK with stiff airline security protocols than the talking heads are admitting right now.

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Paying an Arm and a Leg

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 12:59 PM EST

So many charts, so little blog. Which chart should I show you from yesterday's release of the latest global comparison of healthcare prices? How about the cost of hip replacements? Here it is:

The "average" number is a little hard to see, so here it is: $34,454. That's 2x what it costs in Germany, 3x what it costs in France, and 6x what it costs in Switzerland. WTF?

This goes a long way toward explaining why hip replacements are so popular in the United States: they're a huge profit center for doctors and hospitals. Keep this in mind the next time someone starts going on about how you never have to wait in line for a hip replacement in America. It's not because our healthcare system is super efficient, it's because doctors are super eager to perform them.

The full set of cost charts is here, and they're pretty instructive. You can, if you want, try to make the case that we perform better hip replacements or do better angioplasties than other countries. But appendectomies? CT scans? Normal deliveries? As Aaron Carroll says about the astonishing numbers for routine CT scans and MRIs:

Why does it cost so much more in the US? Does the radiation work better here? Are the scanners different? If you’re wondering, the CT scanner was invented in the UK, so it’s not like there’s some reason to believe our machines are better....Let’s be clear. I have no problem with things costing more when they are demonstrably better. Or, if you’re getting more of them for your money. But a scan is a scan is a scan. There had better be a good reason for it costing more here, and I can’t think of a good one.

This is one of the reasons healthcare costs so much in America. We aren't getting more for our money, we're just paying a lot more for the same stuff as everyone else.

POSTSCRIPT: One caveat: the report doesn't mention how they convert foreign prices into dollars, and it probably makes a difference whether they apply purchasing power parity adjustments. Not a huge difference, but it's possible that different methodologies would produce modestly different results.

Obama in 2012, Revisited

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 12:15 PM EST

On Sunday I noted that Ray Fair had released a projection of Obama's odds of winning reelection in 2012. His conclusion: Obama should win in a landslide. However, this depends not just on Fair's model being accurate, but on his rosy forecast of economic recovery being accurate too. Brendan Nyhan isn't quite so optimistic:

The Philadelphia Fed survey of professional forecasters revised its forecast of 2012 growth downward last week from 3.6% to 2.9% (somewhat lower than the Blue Chip 3.2% figure or CBO's 3.4%). If we plug that value into Alan Abramowitz's simple linear fit of second-quarter GDP in election years and presidential election performance, we find Obama right around where President Bush was in 2004.

The regression on the right is not the entire Abramowitz model and doesn't take into account the advantage of being an incumbent running for reelection. That's dealt with in his full model and adds a couple of points to the forecast for a four-year incumbent. For that reason, this chart almost certainly underestimates Obama's odds of winning in 2012. However, as Brendan points out, there's also a lot of uncertainty around that growth forecast of 2.9%. If the economy ends up at the low end of projections in early 2012, Obama will be in a precarious position. Still likely to win, I think, unless we slip back into a full-blown recession, but it might be a close run thing.

Taxing the Rich

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 11:39 AM EST

Jim Puzzanghera of the LA Times writes today about whether small businesses are likely to reduce hiring if tax rates are raised on people making more than $250,000 a year. As he points out, big companies normally pay taxes at the corporate level:

But companies can also file as S corporations or partnerships. The business income flows to the owners or partners and is reported on their individual returns, so profits are taxed only once.

....[Rick] Poore, whose DesignWear Inc. takes in about $2.25 million a year [...] supports the expiration of the top-level tax cuts, pointing out that the costs of employees and equipment, such as a new automatic garment press he is purchasing, reduce his taxable income...."That's how small business works. We reinvest in our businesses. We try to minimize the amount of taxable income we have," he said.

Some small-business groups, such as the Main Street Alliance, a national network of state-based small-business coalitions, also support letting the top-level tax cuts expire. "Its disingenuous for people to say this is going to have such a horrible affect on small business if they let these expire," Poore said. "Either they're honestly ignorant of how this really works or they're being intellectually dishonest."

There are unquestionably small businesses who would be affected by the tax increase. But aside from the fact that only a tiny number of small businesses would have to pay the higher rates — perhaps 1-2% — it's important to understand how this works. As Poore says, in an S corporation, business income is passed through to the owner. So a tax increase doesn't affect the revenue of the business at all, and doesn't affect its incentives to invest in equipment or additional workers. What it does affect is the amount of income passed through. In other words, it modestly affects personal income, just as you'd expect.

If you think that would be a disastrous thing, fine. I disagree. But it has a very limited impact on the incentive of the business qua business to expand its operations. Those incentives are driven almost entirely by whether there's likely to be higher demand for their products in the future. Right now, financial uncertainty is high, and that's why business expansion is low. It has very little to do with new healthcare regulations or higher personal tax rates.

No Mandate for Republicans

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 12:50 AM EST

You could hardly expect me not to post about this, could you?

A majority of Americans want the Congress to keep the new health care law or actually expand it, despite Republican claims that they have a mandate from the people to kill it, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll.

....The results signal a more complicated and challenging political landscape for Republicans in Congress than their sweeping midterm wins suggested. Party leaders call the election a mandate, and vow votes to repeal the health care law and to block an extension of middle-class tax cuts unless tax cuts for the wealthy also are extended.

"The political give and take is very different than public opinion," said Lee M. Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., which conducted the poll. "On health care, there is a wide gap between public opinion and the political community."

Unsurprisingly, the poll finds that most provisions of the healthcare reform bill are quite popular. The main exception is the individual mandate, but as we've discussed a million times, you can't keep all the popular stuff unless you have the mandate too.

In less good news, the public is evenly split on repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell. I've seen plenty of other polls showing broad support, so this might be an outlier. Alternatively, it might be that support for repeal drops once it become an immediate issue getting a lot of attention. We'll see.