Kevin Drum - November 2010

Quote of the Day: Persian Hospitality

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 12:39 AM EST

From Keith Humphreys, quoting a friend on Persian cultural norms of hospitality:

Iran is a place where if you walk up to a street demonstrator who is holding up a sign reading “death to the west” and ask for directions to a particular restaurant, you may well get the response “Oh, that place isn’t very good. And anyway, I want you to meet my family and have a proper Iranian dinner. I’ll be done here in a sec, as soon as the cameras leave — do you mind if we walk, it’s only a few blocks, but I can get us a ride, if you are tired.... 

This introduces a post that questions whether high levels of personal hospitality are in fundamental conflict with high levels of customer service in the commercial sector. He thinks they probably are.

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My TSA Anti-Rant

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 9:09 PM EST

I am so going to regret writing this post. For those of you who used to respect me, please just chalk it up to food poisoning or early onset Alzheimer's or whatever. But here goes.

I hate the TSA screening process. Everyone hates the TSA screening process. You'd be crazy not to. It's intrusive, annoying, and time-wasting. It treats us all like common criminals even though most of us are just ordinary schlubs trying to get on a plane and go somewhere.

But guess what? The fact that you personally are annoyed — you! an educated white-collar professional! — doesn't mean that the process is idiotic. I've heard it called "security theater" so many times I'd be rich if I had a nickel for each time it popped up in my browser, but although the anti-TSA rants are often cathartic and amusing, they've never made much sense to me. All the crap that TSA goes through actually seems pretty clearly directed at improving the security of air travel. So here we go, a brief Q&A session about TSA procedures:

Q: Why do we have to take our shoes off?
A: To prevent terrorists from packing explosives into their shoes and bringing down an airplane.

Q: Why do we have to go through those new body scanners?
A: To prevent terrorists from packing explosives around their bodies and bringing down an airplane.

Q: Why the 3-ounce limit on liquids?
A: To prevent terrorists from bringing liquid explosive precursors through the gate, mixing them together in the onboard lav, and bringing down an airplane.

Q: Nobody's ever brought down an airplane this way. Why worry about it?
A: Nobody thought a bank could bring down the entire global economy before 2008, but guess what? Banks kept trying and eventually they figured out how to do it. Ditto for terrorists, who learn from their mistakes. Maybe next time they'll try a slightly bigger shoe. Or a better explosive. Or a more efficient trigger. And then the plane comes down. Do you really want to risk your life on the proposition that terrorists will never figure out how to make this stuff work even if we give them enough chances?

Q: But other countries don't do all this stuff.
A: That's because Islamic terrorists mostly target American planes. It's fine for Switzerland to be a little less cautious, not so fine for us.

Q: The Israelis don't do all this stuff either. Why not adopt their methods?
A: Because even experts don't think we could scale up the Israeli system for use in the United States. What's more, the Israeli system is only convenient for Israeli Jews. It's a huge pain in the ass for everyone else.

Q: Shouldn't we focus more on intelligence and less on physical security?
A: Sure. But I'd guess that our intelligence just isn't good enough to rely on it exclusively.

I'm not trying to defend everything TSA has put in place. Some of the stuff they do, like the penknife and nail clipper bans, really is stupid. And maybe backscatter scanners don't work. I'm certainly open to the idea. But honestly, most of what they do is pretty easy to understand: they're trying to make it so hard to get weapons and explosives on board airplanes that no one bothers trying — and the few who do can't pack a big enough punch to do any damage. For the most part, it seems to be working. The price we pay for this is plenty of annoyance, but again: do you really want to get rid of the annoyance and bet your life that terrorists will never figure out how to make a better shoe/underwear/liquid bomb? I'm not so sure I do.

And now for a political note: this is GOP catnip. For seven years, Republicans insisted that every security procedure ever conceived was absolutely essential to keeping the American public safe, and anyone who disagreed was practically rooting for an al-Qaeda victory. Now a Democrat is in office and suddenly they're outraged over some new scanners. Helluva coincidence, no? But this is no surprise: this issue works for them on every possible level. In the short term, it gives them something to pound Obama about. In the medium term, it gets the chattering classes chattering about something other than the fact that Republicans have no remotely plausible plan for improving the economy. And in the long term, if a plane does come down, they will absolutely crucify the Obama administration for its abysmal and cavalier approach to national security. (Remember the dry run that Drudge and Fox News conducted over the underwear bomber?) And if you think we can fight back by reminding them that security was reduced because of their outcry, you are sadly delusional. That argument won't get two seconds of air time.

But what about our civil liberties? Maybe you think that even if TSA's procedures are slightly useful, they aren't useful enough to justify all the intrusion. Instead, we should just accept the risk of an occasional plane falling out of the sky. Think again: if a plane comes down, you can just kiss your civil liberties goodbye. Today's TSA procedures will seem positively genial compared to what takes their place with the full and eager support of the American public. Given that reality, if you're really worried about civil liberties you should welcome nearly anything legal that protects air travel from explosives, even the things that are really annoying and only modestly useful.

So that's that. I know that pretty much everyone in the universe disagrees with me about this. And obviously I'm not averse to pruning away some of TSA's dumber policies, making the security lines quicker and more efficient, and trying to get better at the largely invisible policing stuff that everyone agrees is essential. At the same time, while TSA's security procedures might have plenty of problems, they really do seem quite sensibly oriented toward the quite sensible goal of keeping explosives off of airplanes. I'm really not sure why everyone thinks this is nothing more than security theater.

Obama in 2012

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 3:26 PM EST

Josh Marshall on Obama's chances in 2012:

People simply don't appreciate how seldom elected presidents get denied reelection. By my count, it's only happened three times in the last century. Carter, the first President Bush and Herbert Hoover. (If you come up with someone I'm missing I'll be terribly embarrassed. But please let me know.)

Actually, Josh is understating things. In general, Americans don't turf out parties from the White House in less than eight years. Hoover and Bush Sr. were both voted out after their party had held the presidency for 12 years.

The only exception to this rule in the past century is Jimmy Carter. There have been a couple of other close calls (Wilson in 1916, Bush Jr. in 2004), but that's it. 1980 is the only year in which a party got thrown out of the White House after only four years.

If the economy is in decent shape, Obama will win reelection. If it sucks, he's vulnerable. That's pretty much the shape of things.

Help!

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 2:25 PM EST

I've lost two blog posts today. The first one was because I did something stupid. The second was because MoJo's blog software ate it. I'm tired of this.

So this is a plea for help. Can anyone recommend a good, simple Windows key logger? I don't need anything fancy, and I don't need to monitor other people's computers. Just my own. All I want is something that logs keystrokes to a file so that if I do something dumb, or the power goes out, or Drupal goes crazy, all I have to do is retrieve what I wrote from the log file and reconstruct it.

Any recommendations?

UPDATE: OK, I guess we can skip this. I'm already aware that writing in a different window would solve most of my problems with lost posts. For various reasons I prefer not to do this, but obviously it's an option.

Tab Mania

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 1:45 PM EST

Dave Roberts tweets:

My great accomplishment yesterday was reducing the number of open tabs in my browser from 168 to 92.

I've read a lot of tab complaints like this over the years, but I've never quite understood them. Once you open up more than 20 or 30 tabs, there's not enough screen space to identify them even with a tiny icon (see below). So they're completely blank. Do people keep opening up tabs anyway, even though they're just tiny slivers that are totally unidentifiable? Or do they use add-ins of some kind that allow you to open lots of tabs but still retain some kind of minimal ID?

Just curious. Somehow I always feel like I'm missing something obvious when I read someone blogging or tweeting about this.

Living in Matt Drudge's World

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 1:04 PM EST

Ben Smith on the TSA backlash:

There's no doubt about who won on this issue: Matt Drudge chose it and drove it, illustrating both his continued power and his great sense of the public mood, and it now seems a matter of time until he gets results. But the moment is also, a smart Democrat notes, representative of how this administration (and to be fair, everyone in public life) continues to wrestle with "populism as narrated by the Drudge Report." There are some echoes of the Shirley Sherrod mess in the panicked, mixed reactions.

I know I'm totally off the reservation on this, which is a little weird since I'm usually a bit of a privacy crank. But I think liberals have been badly rolled on this. We're usually better about letting ourselves get sucked into the Drudge vortex.

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Quote of the Day: Externalities

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 12:02 PM EST

From Tyler Cowen, on whether the TSA's new full body scanners are worth it:

Keep in mind there are significant negative externalities from exploding airplanes.

Don't you just love reading economist bloggers? In any case, there's more at the link, and Tyler suggests that if Americans really want to get outraged over something air related, they should get outraged over the "lack of markets in allocating scarce resources," and "airlines which ruthlessly screw you over, repeatedly, and lie to you and mistreat you." Roger that.

Blood in the Streets

| Mon Nov. 22, 2010 1:47 AM EST

Paul Krugman writes today about Alan Simpson's eagerness for a "bloodbath" when Republicans try to shut down the government next year:

How does this end? Mr. Obama is still talking about bipartisan outreach, and maybe if he caves in sufficiently he can avoid a federal shutdown this spring. But any respite would be only temporary; again, the G.O.P. is just not interested in helping a Democrat govern.

My sense is that most Americans still don’t understand this reality. They still imagine that when push comes to shove, our politicians will come together to do what’s necessary. But that was another country.

It’s hard to see how this situation is resolved without a major crisis of some kind. Mr. Simpson may or may not get the blood bath he craves this April, but there will be blood sooner or later. And we can only hope that the nation that emerges from that blood bath is still one we recognize.

Forecasting 2012

| Sun Nov. 21, 2010 12:00 PM EST

Good news for Barack Obama today! Um, sort of. Ray Fair has released a forecast of the 2012 presidential race based on his well-known political/econometric model, and he says Obama will win in a landslide.

That is, he'll win in a landslide if Ray Fair is also good at forecasting future economic growth:

It thus comes down to what the economy will be in the next two years, which is, of course, what the equations are all about. If the recovery is robust, which my economic model predicts will begin to happen in the middle of 2011, Obama wins easily. If the recovery is only modest, the election will be close, with an edge for the Republicans. If there is a double dip recession, Obama loses by a fairly large amount.

His topline forecast is that Obama wins 55.88% of the popular vote, which sounds reasonable for an incumbent president presiding over a robust economy. But if recovery is fairly flat, which is hardly out of the question, suddenly Republicans are favored to win the White House.

With that in mind, then, what was it we were saying yesterday about Republican incentives relative to the economy? Mitch McConnell made their priorities clear a few weeks ago, after all: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." If Ray Fair is to be believed, there's only one way for that to happen.

Seething Over the Economy

| Sat Nov. 20, 2010 6:03 PM EST

Dean Baker writes today about "several center-left blogger/columnists" — that's me! — who have suggested that "progressives should be happy to cut a deal now on Social Security and other issues related to the budget." But he says that's wrong. The real problem is that we need to rescue the economy today:

More than 25 million people are unemployed, underemployed, or have given up looking for work altogether. For most of these people, every day is a struggle to support their family and hold onto their home. The projections do not show any substantial improvement in this situation for years.

The priority for policy must be getting people back to work....Remember, these people are unemployed not because they did anything wrong, but because people like Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke and others in policymaking positions messed up on their jobs.

Following directly off this point, it is amazing how right in front of our own eyes, the Wall Street gang has managed to divert the public's attention from the wreckage caused by their greed and incompetence to the "entitlement problem" (i.e. Social Security and Medicare). This is the moment where we should be looking to restructure and downsize the financial industry.

I agree almost entirely. My main disagreement is over Social Security, where I wish I could persuade progressives that a deal to shore up its finances now — while privatization is largely off the table — would be good both for Social Security itself and for the liberal project more generally. But in today's atmosphere I can understand why that's a hard sell.

But here's the thing on Dean's broader point. I've been a registered Democrat since I was 18. And I completely agree that our economic priority right now ought to be a huge dose of fiscal stimulus. Unfortunately, it seems pointless to waste my breath on that argument. We have a Democrat in the White House and he's not making that argument. The Democratic leadership in Congress isn't making it either. If they were, the Blue Dogs in my party wouldn't support higher spending anyway and it would die. And even if the Blue Dogs came around, Republicans would block it.

So should I keep screaming into the void about fiscal stimulus even though it's obviously not going to happen? Probably. But without help from anyone in the party I call home, it's pretty hard to maintain the energy for endless amounts of quixotic blogging.

In other words, I'm frustrated. No. That's not nearly strong enough. I spend most of my time just seething whenever I think about this. Especially because of what Dean says in the final paragraph I quoted: we're where we are because Republicans put us here. But no one cares. We're still letting them call the shots.

The facts of the past decade are pretty clear, after all. George Bush inherited an uncommonly vigorous economy from Bill Clinton: growth was high, business was booming, wages were growing, and the federal government was running a surplus. This ended in 2001, but it ended with one of the mildest and shortest recessions on record and provided Bush with a chance to fully apply Republican orthodoxy to the economy: multiple rounds of tax cuts, light regulation, and the most business friendly atmosphere from the White House imaginable. The result was catastrophic. The Republican expansion from 2001 through 2007 was the weakest since World War II: productivity and GDP gains were mediocre, employment growth was weak, and wages were stagnant. Only corporate profits prospered. And this period of historically weak growth was ended by a financial disaster worse than any since the Great Depression. That's the Republican legacy of the aughts: a strong economy turned first anemic and then completely crippled. Welcome to Washington, President Obama.

It simply beggars imagination that Republicans and the business community have managed to make everyone forget this so soon. But they have. And so instead of talking about how big a stimulus package we should pass, we're talking about cutting off unemployment benefits, reducing federal spending, insisting that states tighten their belts, retaining tax cuts for the rich, and halting the scourge of "regulatory uncertainty." It's just mind boggling.

And yet, that's where we are. And I'm really not sure what to do about it.