Kevin Drum - January 2011

Turning It Down a Notch

| Tue Jan. 11, 2011 12:28 PM EST

For the next few days I guess we're going to be talking about political rhetoric and how toxic it's become. And it has! But the problem is still with specifics. Here's First Read, for example:

What was particularly striking to us is how activists, especially on the right, were playing the victim when there are so many actual victims — the deceased, the wounded, the grieving — in Arizona. And here’s our point from yesterday: Although it appears that Jared Lee Loughner had nothing to do with mainstream conservatism or liberalism, can’t we all agree to condemn violent, de-humanizing, or de-legitimizing rhetoric — “2nd Amendment remedies,” “Don’t retreat, instead reload,” “Gather your armies” "facism/socialism," etc. — aimed at our politicians and government institutions?

How many of those examples do you agree are violent or de-humanizing? I'd go along with the first: "2nd Amendment remedies" has a pretty obviously violent connotation. But the second is, to me, just a garden variety political metaphor. The third is even softer. I could imagine it being part of not only a standard stemwinder on the stump, I could imagine it being part of a Sunday sermon. And the fourth? It's stupid, perhaps, but the American right has been calling liberals socialists forever. It's not really de-humanizing or even de-legitimizing. It's just kind of dumb.

So where's the line? It's easy to say that the overall tone of political rhetoric is pretty toxic these days, but it's the sum total of the frenzy that's really the problem, and that's hard to pin down. Sure, specific imagery that uses nooses, guns, knives etc. aimed specifically at a campaign opponent ought to be out of bounds, but even if we got rid of all that it wouldn't change the overall atmosphere more than a trace. Frankly, I think the best advice any of us can give is: don't be an asshole. But that's pretty good advice for all walks of life, and it doesn't seem to do much good, does it?

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Unlimited Bonuses for British Banks

| Tue Jan. 11, 2011 2:42 AM EST

News from across the pond:

Britain's banks were given the go-ahead tonight to pay unlimited bonuses, drawing to a close a two-year political battle to rein in the City....Ministers are instead hoping for a face-saving deal in which the banks agree to lending targets and improve the way they disclose their pay deals. One of the options being discussed is releasing information on the five highest paid individuals at each bank.

Britain's banks, of course, received even more taxpayer bailout dough than American banks. But that made no difference. The finance industry is simply unstoppable.

In the meantime, it looks like Portugal is next on the euro-chopping block. Needless to say, the cost of its bailout will be borne by taxpayers, not the finance industry. See above for the reason.

The War Against Public Sector Unions

| Mon Jan. 10, 2011 6:44 PM EST

James Surowiecki writes about the growing resentment toward public sector unions:

There are a couple of reasons for this. In the past, a sizable percentage of American workers belonged to unions, or had family members who did. Then, too, even people who didn’t belong to unions often reaped some benefit from them, because of what economists call the “threat effect”: in heavily unionized industries, non-union employers had to pay their workers better in order to fend off unionization. Finally, benefits that union members won for themselves—like the eight-hour day, or weekends off—often ended up percolating down to other workers. These days, none of those things are true.

....Even though unions remain the loudest political voice for workers’ interests, resentment has replaced solidarity, which helps explain why the bailout of General Motors was almost as unpopular as the bailouts of Wall Street banks. And, at a time when labor is already struggling to organize new workers, this is grim news. In a landmark 1984 study, the economists Richard Freeman and James Medoff showed that there was a strong connection between the public image of unions and how workers voted in union elections: the less popular unions were generally, the harder it was for them to organize. Labor, in other words, may be caught in a vicious cycle, becoming progressively less influential and more unpopular. The Great Depression invigorated the modern American labor movement. The Great Recession has crippled it.

And Felix Salmon asks:

I can’t envisage unions ever getting their mojo back in the US private sector. At the same time, however, I can envisage a world in which the pendulum of power starts swinging back towards labor and away from capital. What I’m very unclear about is how that’s going to happen....If the era of the union is over, as it seems to be, what other countervailing force will work to preserve the value of labor?

Good question! And one that's very much on my mind lately. But not one that I have any answer to.

In any case, the growing Republican crusade against public sector unions bears a very strong resemblance to the tort reform crusade of the 90s. It was a twofer for Republicans: tort reform was already a natural Republican Party issue thanks to its support in the business community, but it only became a big issue when Republicans realized that things like damage caps and mandatory arbitration would seriously eat into the income of trial lawyers, who are big contributors to the Democratic Party. As Grover Norquist put it, "The political implications of defunding the trial lawyers would be staggering."

Public sector unions are a lot like that: conservatives don't like them in the first place, and crippling them would also seriously cut into a major funding source for the Democratic Party. It's another twofer. And as Surowiecki notes, they're a ripe target right now. Conservatives succeeded spectacularly over the past few decades in destroying private sector unions (and doing considerable damage to the Democratic Party in the process), and this means that most people no longer belong to a union or even know anyone who does. Unionism in general, then, simply has very little public support these days. With that as background, it's pretty easy to understand how a recession would fuel growing taxpayer resentment toward public sector union benefits they're paying for. The next few years are going to be rough ones for public sector workers.

Your Government and You

| Mon Jan. 10, 2011 2:21 PM EST

Reading Glenn Greenwald is bad for my health. Here he is on the American government's ongoing campaign to terrorize anyone associated with WikiLeaks:

Jacob Appelbaum was first identified as a WikiLeaks volunteer in the middle of 2010. Almost immediately thereafter, he was subjected to serious harassment and intimidation when, while re-entering the U.S. from a foreign trip, he was detained and interrogated for hours by Homeland Security agents, and had his laptop and cellphones seized — all without a warrant. He was told he'd be subjected to the same treatment every time he tried to re-enter the country.

....Anyone connected to WikiLeaks — even American citizens — are now routinely detained at the airport and have their property seized, their laptops and cellphones taken and searched and retained without a shred of judicial oversight or due process.

I don't always agree with Glenn. He's simply more hardcore on civil liberties than I am and — in my opinion — too unwilling to concede some of the legitimate messiness of trying to deal with modern threats. But anyone who doesn't read him anyway is simply not facing up to the loathesomeness of what our national security state has become. The kind of harassment Appelbaum has received is hardly new, but it's become far more common and far more punitive over the past two decades. Barack Obama should be ashamed of himself for not doing more to hit the reset button on this stuff.

Autism and Birth Order

| Mon Jan. 10, 2011 1:13 PM EST

Here's the conclusion of a new study on the causes of autism:

In a cohort of more than 600,000 sibling pairs, the risk of the second child developing autism was significantly higher if there were fewer than 36 months between the pregnancies, according to Keely Cheslack-Postava, PhD, and colleagues at Columbia University in New York City. The highest risk was associated with pregnancies less than a year apart, Cheslack-Postava and colleagues reported in the February issue of Pediatrics.

Hmmm. I was born 32 months after my sister, right on the edge of the danger zone. I wonder if that explains anything?

The Wages of Sin Are....Nothing Much

| Mon Jan. 10, 2011 1:04 PM EST

Generally speaking, prosecutors are protected from lawsuits even if they break the rules. And generally speaking, this is probably a good thing. The level of prosecutorial abuse that judges routinely tolerate is outrageous, but still, a wave of lawsuits against prosecutors from everyone ever jailed wrongly probably isn't something we need.

But certainly there are limits. How about this, for example?

Prosecutors in the New Orleans district attorney's office had intentionally hidden a blood test that would have unraveled the criminal case against [John] Thompson. By a stroke of luck, a young investigator scouring the crime lab files found a microfiche copy of it. Thompson's blood type did not match. That single piece of evidence led eventually to Thompson being declared innocent of murder.

This came after 14 years on death row and one month before Thompson was scheduled to be executed. A New Orleans jury awarded him $14 million when he sued, but the case was appealed to the Supreme Court. So how did things go?

But oral arguments at the Supreme Court in the fall suggest he may not see a nickel of it. The high court has taken a dim view of suing prosecutors, and in Thompson's case, the court's conservatives led by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. questioned whether the district attorney's office should be held responsible for the misdeeds of a few prosecutors.

This isn't even fancy DNA evidence. Prosecutors deliberately withheld evidence that Thompson had the wrong blood type and blithely sent him to death row. And yet Sam Alito is disturbed at the idea that the district attorney's office should be held responsible for the misdeeds of a few prosecutors. Jesus Christ.

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Why He Did It

| Mon Jan. 10, 2011 12:21 PM EST

Why did Jared Lee Loughner target Gabrielle Giffords for assassination? Nick Bauman talked today to a friend of Loughner's, Bryce Tierney, who says that Loughner held a bizarre grudge against her:

He [] describes Loughner as being obsessed with "lucid dreaming"—that is, the idea that conscious dreams are an alternative reality that a person can inhabit and control—and says Loughner became "more interested in this world than our reality."

....Tierney, who's also 22, recalls Loughner complaining about a Giffords event he attended during that period...."He told me that she opened up the floor for questions and he asked a question. The question was, 'What is government if words have no meaning?'" Giffords' answer, whatever it was, didn't satisfy Loughner. "He said, 'Can you believe it, they wouldn't answer my question,' and I told him, 'Dude, no one's going to answer that,'" Tierney recalls. "Ever since that, he thought she was fake, he had something against her."

Read the whole thing for more.

Who's Afraid of Glenn Beck?

| Mon Jan. 10, 2011 12:08 PM EST

I was busy this weekend writing the third draft of a piece for the next issue of the magazine, so thankfully I had a pretty good excuse for not joining the blogging/twittering/cable frenzy over the meaning of the assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords. For the record, though, I think the attacks on Sarah Palin have been completely ridiculous — and I can't tell you how much it pisses me off that I feel forced to say that. But come on, folks. "Targeting" political candidates for defeat is so common a metaphor that we could barely even hold elections anymore if we didn't use it. Give it a rest.

That aside, though, I'd say Andrew Sullivan had the sharpest observation of the day. Have we really gotten to the point where a "senior Republican senator" has to ask for anonymity in order to say this?

“There is a need for some reflection here — what is too far now?” said the senator. “What was too far when Oklahoma City happened is accepted now. There’s been a desensitizing. These town halls and cable TV and talk radio, everybody’s trying to outdo each other.”

Good God. Is he really that afraid of the wrath of Glenn Beck?1

1And having listened to Beck now and again, I'd say that if you're really looking for someone to censure on the rhetoric front, he's a way better target than Sarah Palin. A campaign poster like Palin's that uses a bunch of bullseyes to represent "targeted" candidates is pretty unlikely to send some mentally unbalanced nutcase over the edge, but frankly, I'm surprised Beck hasn't already inspired a couple of Jonestown-like mass homicide waves.

A Wee Question — Answered!

| Sat Jan. 8, 2011 1:32 PM EST

Yesterday I asked a question about money. Nobody in comments guessed why I asked it, but before I tell you the answer I'll repeat the question. Here it is: Suppose that you lead a comfortable middle-class life. Let's say that you're in your 30s, married, two children, and you make $100,000 per year. I offer you a fair coin flip with the following possible outcomes:

  • Heads: You will be stripped of most of your assets and will earn $30,000 per year for the rest of your life. That's all you get, and neither friends nor family can top it up for you.
  • Tails: You will earn $1 million per year for the rest of your life.

Would you take me up on my offer to flip the coin?

Before I explain further, a caveat: this isn't meant to be a scientific experiment. It doesn't prove anything. There are dozens of reasons why the results are meaningless. But there's no need to dwell too much on that. This is just a (possibly) provocative data point to mull over.

So here's why I asked: I'm writing a piece about income inequality and other things for the next issue of the magazine, and in an email conversation with my editor she suggested that one point worth making is that in America today, "someone making $100K has a lot more in common with someone making $30K than someone making $100 million." Now, there's an obvious sense in which that's true, but I suspect that there's a more important sense in which it's not. Yes, the zillionaire jets around the world and owns a bunch of mansions and has a staff of aides and servants to take care of things. That's really, really nice. But our $100K wage slave also has a comfortable house, gets to fly around the world now and again, probably employs a gardener and cleaning service, has a pretty stable life, etc. etc. Also nice. On the other hand, a household earning $30,000 — which is well above the poverty line — lives a pretty precarious life on a variety of measures.

So how to get at the difference? Well, I figured one possible way is this: if you really were a fairly ordinary upper middle class wage earner making $100K per year, and you had a 50-50 chance of either joining the ranks of the elite or falling down to the bottom of the working class, which seems further away to you? The answer from comments was loud and clear: the bottom of the working class. I didn't count, but I'd say only about 10% of commenters were willing to take the coin flip. The other 90% would stick with their $100K lifestyle.1

So what does this mean? Probably not much. But it's suggestive that in terms of lifestyle, if not political goals, a $100K wage earner actually feels somewhat closer to the zillionaires than to someone barely scraping by. We intuit, correctly I think, that life at the bottom of the working class is pretty damn tough, while life at the tippy top is more exciting, but perhaps not fundamentally different from life in the upper middle class.

So that's that. Politically, I think it's quite possible that our $100K earner has more in common with the $30K earner than the millionaire — though they often don't know it. But in terms of lifestyle, I'm not so sure. How many gold plated bathroom sinks do you need, after all?

1Quite a few people thought that I asked my question in order to make a Kahneman-esque point about loss aversion. Not really. It's true, as Kahneman and Tversky discovered several decades ago, that people generally value losses more strongly than gains. Outside of artificial environments like casinos, if you offer people a fair coin flip where they win or lose $100, they won't take the flip. The fear of losing $100 outweighs the possible pleasure of gaining $100.

But here's the thing: Kahneman and Tversky found that the effect of loss aversion is about 2:1. That is, if you offer people a fair coin flip where they lose $100 on heads but win $200 on tails, they'll take the flip. In my question, however, we're way, way past that: you lose $70,000 on heads but gain $900,000 on tails. That's a ratio of more than 10:1. Obviously it matters that the relative loss is large in my question (70% of your income), but on conventional risk aversion grounds the ratio still should have been high enough to get at least half of you to take the chance. The fact that you didn't suggests to me the marginal utility of money really does decline quite rapidly once you get into upper middle class territory. On a variety of levels, this has a big impact on questions of political economy.

Friday Cat Blogging - 7 January 2011

| Fri Jan. 7, 2011 4:05 PM EST

The first week of the new decade is finally over. Hooray! And that means the first Friday catblogging of the new decade is here. Hooray again! To start off the new year, Domino is back up on the fence and obviously keeping a keen eye out for an inattentive bird. Sadly for her, birds around here are plenty attentive, and she has no front claws to hunt them down with in any case. On the right, Inkblot, well aware that birds are out of his weight class, is protecting the house from malevolent laser pointers instead. All for the best, I think.