Kevin Drum - January 2011

Building a Low-Carbon Infrastructure

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 1:11 PM EST

Although Ezra Klein likes the idea behind the all-electric Nissan Leaf, it's not for him:

But the Nissan Leaf wouldn't work for me at all, as I don't own a garage, and D.C's streets aren't outfitted with charging stations. Which gets to the difficulty these new technologies will have: We've sunk an enormous amount of money into the infrastructure that makes cars that run on refined oil products convenient to use as our primary modes of transportation.

....This is why pricing carbon always made sense: There's so much money and habit and infrastructure and culture working on behalf of the energy status quo right now, while the alternatives don't even get to see their advantages — low carbon emissions — reflected in their price.

I agree with all of this. Still, there's a disconnect here. On narrow grounds, the Leaf very much has its carbon footprint reflected in its price because it qualifies for a $7,000 federal subsidy. That's far more of a relative pricing advantage than it would get from any plausible carbon tax, which would probably add no more than 50 cents a gallon to the price of gasoline. On broader grounds, keep in mind that no car is designed to appeal to everyone. If Nissan sells a million copies of the Leaf they'll be ecstatic — and there are way more than a million people in America who do have garages and drive less than 100 miles per day. Once they start buying Leafs (Leaves?) and Chevy Volts and other electric cars, charging stations will start to appear the same way that gas stations slowly started to appear in the 1910s. That will increase the market for electric cars, which in turn will increase the demand for charging stations, rinse and repeat. Five years from now, maybe the Washington Post's parking garage will have charging stations available and Ezra will be able to buy a Leaf and charge it every day at work.

There's no question that carbon pricing would help all this along, but it's best to think of it as more of a tailwind than anything else. Electric cars will succeed or fail mostly based on other things, and they can succeed even without a carbon tax. But they — along with lots of other light carbon footprint technologies — would suceed a little bit faster if we had one.

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Symbolism on Capitol Hill

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 11:59 AM EST

Paul Kane of the Washington Post on Republican plans for the 112th Congress:

Almost as soon as they take control of the House at noon Wednesday, Republicans will embark on a 20-day plan aimed at undoing major aspects of President Obama's agenda as they seek to take advantage of the weeks before the Senate's return and the president's State of the Union address.

....Much of what Republicans do will be symbolic, given that Democrats still control the Senate and the White House. But the quick action will allow Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the incoming speaker, and House Republicans to follow through on campaign pledges and to try to establish their party as a bulwark against what they see as an out-of-control government.

That sure brings back memories, doesn't it? It's almost precisely what Newt Gingrich did in 1994: win election based on a bold-sounding Contract With America, ram it all through on quick party-line votes in the House as soon as the 104th Congress convened, and then let the whole thing die. But he followed through on his campaign pledges!

Davos Man Is Different From You and Me

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 2:52 AM EST

Chrystia Freeland has a piece in this month's Atlantic about the new "global elite" and the growing alienation of America's super-rich. Her article flits from one point to another with enough abandon that it's not always easy to figure out where she's going, but one interesting theme that runs throughout the narrative is that intense globalization goes a long way toward explaining why the super rich don't really seem to care much anymore about all the rest of us:

The U.S.-based CEO of one of the world’s largest hedge funds told me that his firm’s investment committee often discusses the question of who wins and who loses in today’s economy. In a recent internal debate, he said, one of his senior colleagues had argued that the hollowing-out of the American middle class didn’t really matter. “His point was that if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade,” the CEO recalled.

....Speaking at the [Aspen Ideas Festival], Thomas Wilson, CEO of Allstate, also lamented this global reality: “I can get [workers] anywhere in the world. It is a problem for America, but it is not necessarily a problem for American business ... American businesses will adapt.” Wilson’s distinction helps explain why many of America’s other business elites appear so removed from the continuing travails of the U.S. workforce and economy: the global “nation” in which they increasingly live and work is doing fine — indeed, it’s thriving.

The super rich, she writes, "are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home." Thus the fury of the financial elite at the suggestion that perhaps they were responsible for the crash of 2008 or that they owe it to the rest of the country to do anything about it:

When I asked one of Wall Street’s most successful investment-bank CEOs if he felt guilty for his firm’s role in creating the financial crisis, he told me with evident sincerity that he did not. The real culprit, he explained, was his feckless cousin, who owned three cars and a home he could not afford.

....A Wall Street investor who is a passionate Democrat recounted to me his bitter exchange with a Democratic leader in Congress who is involved in the tax-reform effort. “Screw you,” he told the lawmaker. “Even if you change the legislation, the government won’t get a single penny more from me in taxes. I’ll put my money into my foundation and spend it on good causes. My money isn’t going to be wasted in your deficit sinkhole.”

I don't know if this attitude is truly new. Maybe not as much as Freeland suggests. Still, it certainly feels as if America is dominated more and more by an elite class that cares less and less about the public good because they don't really feel like they have a stake in the public good anymore: they've never served in the Army or the Peace Corps, their kids never come within yelling distance of public schools, they donate their money exclusively to their own churches and their own global foundations, and they whine constantly about taxes even though their incomes have skyrocketed and tax rates have fallen dramatically over the past several decades. To them, taxes aren't part of a social contract, they're just pure welfare: they don't care about education or infrastructure or unemployment or healthcare because they don't have to. Within their own bubble, they don't need to rely on the public versions of any of that stuff. Felix Salmon adds this:

When it comes to US plutocrats, [] most of them are very similar to the Russian oligarchs who seized their country’s natural resources — they’re bankers and hedge-fund managers who seized their country’s financial resources. They produced no goods, and they created no jobs — quite the opposite. And so it makes sense for Americans who have lost their jobs and their hope to reclaim those financial resources, through mechanisms like a wealth tax or a financial transactions tax. The Silicon Valley elite would happily pay such things. And if the angry bankers went off to destabilize some other financial system, they wouldn’t actually be missed.

He's not optimistic about the prospect of the American public ever rebelling against our ruling elites, and he's probably right. Ever since the demise of organized labor, the working and middle classes simply haven't had the kind of energetic, institutional presence that allows them a serious voice in our political culture. The elites are winning because, at the moment, there's really nobody left to fight them.

Always Full Price

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 6:40 PM EST

I got a Borders gift card for Christmas, so last night I went online to buy a couple of books. And I discovered that, apparently, Borders doesn't discount books online at all. (Non-bestsellers, anyway.) But I had the gift card, so I went ahead and used it. I ended up paying $45.99 for a couple of books that would have cost $30.67 at Amazon or $32.57 at Barnes & Noble.

Needless to say, I'll never shop at Borders online again. Do you think perhaps this explains some of Borders' financial woes?

Where the Money Is

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 5:53 PM EST

Over at Free Exchange, A.S. asks, "Are the rich making you poor?" Apparently not:

Talented traders and portfolio managers do make an obscene amount of money while other traders just get rich....The winner-takes-all nature of finance explains the income disparity within the industry. But it does not mean a Wall Street fat cat is getting rich at the expense of a more naïve investor whose stock holdings are limited to the mutual fund his 401(k) is in. The only thing that naïve investor is betting on is that the American economy will continue to grow and that companies will be profitable in the long run. Speculators actually can do this naïve investor a service. They can eliminate mispricing, promote efficiency, and provide market liquidity; this can enhance growth in the long run.

Well then, I have to ask yet again: where is this tsunami of money coming from? If financiers receive a greater fraction of national income than they did in the past, somebody else is getting less. That somebody is almost certainly you and me, whose wages haven't kept up with economic growth, thus creating a huge and growing pool of extra money for the financiers to hoover up.

The only other alternative is that the modern financial sector is actually creating wealth that otherwise wouldn't be created. That is, their magic has caused the economy to grow faster, and they're merely reaping the benefits of growth they themselves are responsible for. I imagine this is a popular explanation among Wall Street bankers themselves, but does anyone else buy it? If it were true, surely it would show up in accelerated growth rates starting around 1980. Right?

Bowdlerizing Huck

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 3:25 PM EST

NewSouth Books plans to release an edition of Huckleberry Finn in which Mark Twain's 219 repetitions of the word "nigger" are replaced by "slave." Doug Mataconis is unhappy about this. Minor offensive scenes can be removed from movies that are aired on TV "without taking away from the central themes of the story," he says, but:

This is not the case with either Sawyer or Finn, both books are set in a time period when racial tensions were a central part of life and are based, to a large degree, on the racially prejudices that Twain himself encountered as a child growing up in Missouri. This is especially true of Huckleberry Finn where, despite the fact that “the n-word” appears 219 times, it’s fairly obvious that Twain is condemning racial prejudice and that one of the central themes of the book is the process by which Huck discovers that the things he’d been taught by society by blacks were wrong, and that his companion him was, in fact, an heroic figure. Twain’s use of a word that, even in his time, was meant to be insulting and demeaning, was deliberate and removing it because of “sensitivities” seems to me to detract significantly from the overall power of the novel.

I think I'd agree with Doug in nearly every other case. But the problem with Huckleberry Finn is that, like it or not, most high school teachers only have two choices these days: teach a bowdlerized version or don't teach it at all. It's simply no longer possible to assign a book to American high school kids that assaults them with the word nigger so relentlessly. As Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who led the bowdlerization effort, explained, “After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach [Tom Sawyer] and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.”

Given that choice, I guess I'd bowdlerize. After all, the original text will remain available, and teachers can explain the wording change to their classes if they want to. (Though even that's probably difficult.) And frankly, I doubt that the power of the novel is compromised all that much for 17-year-olds by doing this. In fact, given the difference in the level of offensiveness of the word nigger in 2010 vs. 1884, it's entirely possible that in 2010 the bowdlerized version more closely resembles the intended emotional impact of the book than the original version does. Twain may have meant to shock, but I don't think he ever intended for the word to completely swamp the reader's emotional reaction to the book. Today, though, that's exactly what it does.

In any case, the only realistic alternative is that Huckleberry Finn vanishes from high schools and becomes a book taught solely at the university level. Maybe that's better. But I doubt it.

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Guantanamo and Indefinite Detention

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 2:13 PM EST

Dafna Linzer at ProPublica reported yesterday that President Obama may be planning to challenge a provision in a military spending bill that makes it harder for him to shut down Guantanamo and transfer its prisoners elsewhere. This will be an interesting confrontation, but it's also a bit of a sideshow: the prisoners themselves, after all, have no real reason to care whether they're held forever in Cuba or Michigan. But that's pretty much what Obama intends to do. Amos Guiora and Laurie Blank take him to task for this in the LA Times today:

The Obama administration now intends to issue an executive order establishing indefinite detention without trial for detainees at Guantanamo Bay. This decision will formalize this violation of basic rights. Denying individual accountability will now be official U.S. policy and law.

....Those who argue that indefinite detention accords with the treatment of prisoners of war gloss over two key distinctions: POWs are held in protective custody and released at the end of hostilities, whereas post-9/11 detainees are held in de facto punitive detention and terrorism has no end to trigger release. Those who want to argue that we are at war with Al Qaeda and other terrorists fail to consider that the law of war and principles of morality in armed conflict do not countenance such an approach, where detainees face the prospect of generational, even lifetime, detention without charge or trial.

Indefinite detention completely undermines the basic notion of individual accountability, thus constituting a fundamental miscarriage of justice. The United States, uncertain whether the detainees are criminals or more akin to fighters in an armed conflict, must still grant them the basic right to a day in court. Without that, individual accountability is simply eliminated, effectively saying that the adjudication of individual liability is burdensome, perhaps even irrelevant.

A few days ago Adam Serwer wrote a pretty balanced explanation of Obama's plan, which you should read if you want to understand the details. But I sometimes wonder how much any of this matters in practice. After all, what happens to these detainees if they get a trial and are found not guilty? It would be political suicide to release them within the United States, and no president would ever try. But what other country would take them? For the vast majority of these detainees, my guess is: none of them. So even if they got a full and fair trial, and some of them failed to be convicted, they'd end up staying in prison anyway. It would be called something else, and possibly they'd be allowed more privileges than other detainees, but the odds are that they'd be locked up nonetheless.

I'm not making an argument for indefinite detention here. I'm just wondering what, in practice, happens if we eliminate it and give everyone trials. Would anything really change?

Do We Really Want Better Intelligence?

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 1:29 PM EST

Foreign Policy magazine is running a package called "Unconventional Wisdom," and Stephen Sestanovich's contribution is to tell us that conventional wisdom debunking isn't what it used to be. Anne Applebaum then proves his point with a piece about the ongoing idiocy of TSA and the Department of Homeland Security:

Terrorists have been stopped since 2001 and plots prevented, but always by other means. After the Nigerian "underwear bomber" of Christmas Day 2009 was foiled, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano claimed "the system worked" — but the bomber was caught by a passenger, not the feds. Richard Reid, the 2001 shoe bomber, was undone by an alert stewardess who smelled something funny. The 2006 Heathrow Airport plot was uncovered by an intelligence tip. Al Qaeda's recent attempt to explode cargo planes was caught by a human intelligence source, not an X-ray machine. Yet the TSA responds to these events by placing restrictions on shoes, liquids, and now perhaps printer cartridges.

Given this reality — and given that 9/11 was, above all, a massive intelligence failure — wouldn't we be safer if the vast budgets of TSA and its partners around the world were diverted away from confiscating nail scissors and toward creating better information systems and better intelligence? Imagine if security officers in Amsterdam had been made aware of the warnings the underwear bomber's father gave to the U.S. Embassy in Abuja. Or, for that matter, if consular officers had prevented him from receiving a visa in the first place.

This is conventional wisdom these days, as near as I can tell, so no points for originality. But it raises a question: we all hate TSA's physical security procedures, but the fact is that we don't much like the idea of tightening up TSA's non-physical operations either. Several years ago, Congress told TSA to screen passengers more tightly, and the result was expanded watch lists, expanded no-fly lists, and the proposed CAPPS system, which was designed to identify all passengers and cross reference them with government records and commercial databases to produce a "risk score" that indicated the appropriate screening level for each traveler. Needless to say, everyone screamed about this, so it was scrapped and replaced by a more modest system called Secure Flight.

But if physical security is mostly eliminated, it seems inevitable that it will be replaced with beefed up intelligence and surveillance operations, as well as beefed up tracking of individuals a la CAPPS. But if that's what we get, I wonder if we're going to like it any better?

Boehner and Healthcare Reform

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 12:54 PM EST

Austin Frakt on the scheduling of a vote to repeal healthcare reform in the House:

I think the January 12 scheduling is telling. It significantly ahead of the State of the Union address (Jan. 25 or so, I believe). That means that it’ll be old news by the time Obama gets to reset the message. What’s likely going on is that Boehner, knowing that repeal won’t go anywhere, that it is a symbolic vote, wants to send a signal to the GOP base without really getting in the way of more important business. In a sense, the schedule suggests to me that Boehner knows that the repeal vote is not itself very serious. If he wanted to make a bigger show of it, why not schedule it for a day or two before the State of the Union? Why not do it the day of the speech itself? That would be very confrontational.

This seems pretty obviously true to me. Boehner knows two things: (a) he has to schedule a repeal vote because the tea partiers will go into open revolt if he doesn't, and (b) it's a dead letter with nothing more than symbolic value. So he's scheduling a quick vote with no hearings and no CBO scoring just so he can say he's done it, after which he can move on to other business he actually cares about.

The only thing that puzzles me is why he's being so obvious about it. Is this a genuine signal to Obama that he's kinda sorta willing to work with him on future legislation? Is it a signal that Boehner is tired of the tea partiers already? Or what? It really does seem like he's giving tea partiers the back of his hand a little too obviously here.

Banana Monoculture and Its Discontents

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 1:18 AM EST

Felix Salmon on the blight threatening world banana production:

It turns out that the banana we all know and love — the Cavendish — is actually the second type of banana grown in enormous quantities and exported across Europe and North America. The first was the Gros Michel, which was wiped out by Tropical Race One; you might be saddened to hear that “to those who knew the Gros Michel the flavor of the Cavendish was lamentably bland.” Indeed, Chiquita was so sure that Americans would never switch to the Cavendish that they stuck with the Gros Michel for far too long, and lost dominance of the industry to Dole.

I asked my mother once if she remembered the bananas of her youth being better than the bananas of today, and she didn't. So maybe this whole banana blight thing is overrated. Then again, maybe not. Do I have any readers old enough to remember the taste of Gros Michel bananas? What were they like?

UPDATE: Commenter cld provides the dope:

The older bananas were tremendously better. They were larger and sweeter and rather creamier and the seeds within were longer and you could sort of taste them.

The texture of the Cavendish is more fibrous and not so even. On the other hand I think they keep a lot better than the Gros Michel, which would have spots all over it. (I mean on the inside).