Kevin Drum - February 2011

Quote of the Day: Omar Suleiman

| Tue Feb. 8, 2011 12:04 PM EST

From the LA Times, on newly minted Egyptian vice president Omar Suleiman's dedication to democracy:

U.S. officials privately acknowledged that there is no guarantee that Suleiman, a former intelligence chief closely aligned with the military, is committed to substantial reforms.

Ya think?

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Is China's Crash Near?

| Tue Feb. 8, 2011 11:19 AM EST

China is still trying to get its bubblicious economy under control:

China staged its third interest rate increase since October on Tuesday, the latest sign of the authorities’ intensifying efforts to temper the blistering pace of economic growth and prevent already worrisome inflation levels from escalating further. The central bank in Beijing raised its benchmark one-year deposit rate by a quarter of a percentage point, to 3 percent.

....Data released by the National Bureau of Statistics on Jan. 20 put the pace of growth at 10.3 percent for 2010 — up from 9.2 percent in 2009 — significantly above what analysts had expected. Inflation came in at 4.6 percent for December — well above what the authorities are comfortable with — and could rise further, economists believe. As in many other emerging economies, rapid growth has combined with easy credit and inflows of cash from overseas to push up asset and consumer prices this year.

Plus there's this:

The state-run news media in China warned Monday that the country’s major agricultural regions were facing their worst drought in 60 years and said Tuesday that Shandong Province, a cornerstone of Chinese grain production, was bracing for its worst drought in 200 years unless substantial precipitation came by the end of this month.

World wheat prices are already surging and have been widely cited as one reason for protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. China has been essentially self-sufficient in grain for decades for national security reasons, and any move by China to import large quantities of food in response to the drought could drive international prices even higher, creating serious problems for less affluent countries that rely on imported food.

Obviously this could cause problem for other countries, as the Times notes. But I'm also working on the assumption that China's measures to control its economy are too little too late, which means that a shock to China might also be the catalyst that bursts China's bubble, and does it abruptly rather than gradually. Unfortunately, I continue to consider it likely that China in 2011 is similar to the United States in 2007, with disaster looming around the corner. We did too little to head it off then (though by 2007 it would have been too late even for more extreme measures to be effective), and I suspect China is doing too little to head it off now.

Yes, I know I'm wearing my pessimist hat this morning. Hopefully that's all there is to this.

Warning: Smurfs Can Be Bad For Your Bank Account

| Tue Feb. 8, 2011 12:56 AM EST

The Washington Post reports today on problems with an iPhone game for children called Smurfs' Village, which allows kids to "build a complete Smurfs village from scratch":

Over the winter break from school, 8-year-old Madison worked to dress up her simple mushroom home on the iPhone game Smurfs' Village. In doing so, she also amassed a $1,400 bill from Apple....But like a growing number of parents, Madison's mom, Stephanie Kay, was shocked to find very real charges from iTunes show up in her e-mail box days later.

....The practice is troubling parents and public interest groups, who say $99 for a wagon of Smurfberries or $19 for a bucket of snowflakes doesn't have any business in a children's game. Though a password is needed to make a purchase, critics say that the safeguards aren't strong enough and that there are loopholes.

Loopholes? You've got to be kidding. What possible justification can a game developer (Capcom in this case) have for charging real money for virtual objects under any circumstances? If you can sucker adults into doing this, that's one thing. But these are games for kids. Of course they think the charges are just play money. So would most parents. What person in his right mind would even consider the possibility that a corporation would charge a hundred real dollars for a wagon of virtual Smurfberries?

Come to think of it, this actually sounds fairly predatory even for adult games, though I suppose I'm being hopelessly naive and elderly on that score. But kids? Somebody please tell me I'm not crazy to be genuinely shocked over this.

Bad News for Charter Schools

| Tue Feb. 8, 2011 12:26 AM EST

The New York Times reports today that not everyone who graduates from high school in New York is ready for college. That's no surprise. But the news for charter schools was pretty grim:

Statewide, 77 percent of students graduate from high school....A state committee determined last year that a 75 on the English Regents and a 80 on the math Regents roughly predicted that students would get at least a C in a college-level course in the same subject. Scores below that meant students had to often take remediation classes before they could do college-level work. Only 41 percent of New York State graduates in 2009 achieved those scores.

....The data also cast new doubt on the ability of charter schools to outperform their traditional school peers. Statewide, only 10 percent of students at charters graduated in 2009 at college-ready standards, though 49 percent received diplomas.

Statewide in New York, about 50% of high school graduates are college ready. In charter schools, about 20% of graduates are college ready. This isn't an apples-to-apples comparison, since we don't know whether the charter schools had the same quality of incoming students as the public schools. Most likely they didn't, as the lower graduation rate shows. Still, that's a helluva gap. It's not good news for the charter school movement.

Gee, I Wonder Why People Think Obama Is a Muslim?

| Mon Feb. 7, 2011 11:00 PM EST

A tweet from the editor of National Review:

Wait a second. This can't possibly come as a surprise, can it? Has Lowry watched Fox or listened to some of his, um, less inhibited fellow righties at all lately? Hell, it's a miracle there are still a few conservatives left who don't believe Obama is a Muslim.

Both Lowry and Bill Kristol1 have gone after Glenn Beck for his nutball conspiracy theorizing over the past week about caliphates and the Muslim Brotherhood. That's good news, because someone on the right needs to do this. Now it's time for them to do the same to anyone who helps prolong the maybe-Obama-is-a-Muslim-maybe-he's-not-it's-kinda-hard-to-know meme. Then they can work up to disowning Sarah Palin.

1It was sort of amusing this afternoon to watch Beck take shots at Kristol on his show, immediately followed by a commercial break extolling the virtues of the Weekly Standard.

Quote of the Day: Please Cut Someone Else's Earmark

| Mon Feb. 7, 2011 6:20 PM EST

From Steve Tribble, the county judge executive of Kentucky's Christian County, where a planned road project is now at risk thanks to the tea party-inspired ban on earmarks:

I do agree we have to cut from somewhere. I am against some earmarks [But] not the good ones. I can promise you this is not a road to nowhere.

Well, yeah, nobody wants their earmarks cut, do they? As the story goes on to explain, "Scores of lawmakers are going to find themselves explaining to the people back home why their bridges will not be finished, their rape victim programs canceled before they started, their federal requirements ignored." Have fun, folks!

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Why Do Men Write All the Book Reviews?

| Mon Feb. 7, 2011 4:46 PM EST

VIDA informed us last week that most major magazines publish a lot more book reviews by men than by women, as well as a lot more reviews of books by men than by women. Why? Ruth Franklin tallied up the books published by a sample of major publishers and concluded that the problem probably isn't with the magazines themselves:

Only one of the houses we investigated—the boutique Penguin imprint Riverhead—came close to parity, with 55 percent of its books by men and 45 percent by women. Random House came in second, with 37 percent by women. It was downhill from there, with three publishers scoring around 30 percent—Norton, Little Brown, and Harper—and the rest 25 percent and below.

....I speculated that independents—more iconoclastic, publishing more work in translation, and perhaps less focused on the bottom line—would turn out to be more equitable than the big commercial houses. Boy, was I wrong....Graywolf, with 25 percent female authors, was our highest-scoring independent....Melville House came in at 20 percent....Verso was second-to-last at 11 percent.

....Now we can better understand why fewer books by women than men are getting reviewed. In fact, these numbers we found show that the magazines are reviewing female authors in something close to the proportion of books by women published each year. The question now becomes why more books by women are not getting published.

I remember a few years ago reading a piece by an op-ed page editor — Gail Collins? — saying that her submissions ran something like 10:1 in favor of men. She wanted to publish more stuff by women, she said, but just didn't have much to choose from. In the case of op-eds, one obvious answer is simply to try harder: solicit pieces from good women and try to improve the balance that way. This has a good chance of success, since op-eds only take a few hours to write. But I don't know enough about the industry to know if that would work in book publishing. Books, after all, need a lot more than a couple of phone calls to solicit. Any publishing pros care to weigh in on this?

Why Zombies Matter

| Mon Feb. 7, 2011 2:53 PM EST

MoJo copy editor Adam Weinstein on Daniel Drezner's Theories of International Politics and Zombies:

Drezner's real genius is that he's written a stinging postmodern critique of IR theorists themselves, applying the full force of their structured reasoning to topics as diverse as Michael Jackson's breakdancing zombies, Peter Jackson's lesser film canon (Dead Alive, a splendid Kiwi undead gorefest), and romantic zombie comedy flicks—"rom zom coms," as he puts it. It's both a pedagogical text and a lampoon of pedagogy.

TIPZ is a pretty good book. As Adam says, it's part mockery ("postmodern critique" wouldn't have occurred to me, but maybe it's that too) and part serious primer about the insights and weaknesses of various IR theories. If you're looking for something to get you up to speed for cocktail parties in an hour or two, this is just the ticket. If you like lame zombie jokes, so much the better.

Which reminds me: Personally speaking, this has been a remarkably good year for books so far. Looking over at my pile o' discarded books, I see that I've read eight so far and every single one of them has been pretty good. That's just coincidence, but it's a nice coincidence.

(Aside from TIPZ, this year's reading material so far has been: Robert A. Heinlein, by William Patterson, Supreme Conflict, by Jan Crawford Greenburg, Invisible Hands, by Kim Phillips-Fein, Capitalizing on Crisis, by Greta Krippner, Burr, by Gore Vidal, A Terrible Splendor, by Marshall Jon Fisher, and Our Hero: Superman on Earth, by Tom De Haven. All recommended if you happen to be interested in the subject material.)

Obama's Sucker Play for Republican Governors

| Mon Feb. 7, 2011 12:45 PM EST

OMB Director Jack Lew, speaking for the Obama administration, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times this weekend reiterating Obama's dedication to fiscal prudence and providing three examples of programs that Obama is willing to cut. All three are programs that benefit states, and Stan Collender thinks this isn't a coincidence:

The proposals are going to put a lot of Republican governors and mayors on the spot. I suspect the administration wants to force these GOP officials to be seen lobbying against the spending cut proposals. Look for them to be invited to some high profile meetings at the White House with heavy media coverage.

It's possible that Republican governors will decide not to take the bait, but Stan is certainly right that this is our first look at how the budget battles are going to unfold. Republicans are going to propose cuts to programs liberals like and Democrats are going to propose cuts to programs that include conservatives as at least part of their constituency. Then they can fight it out and decide not to cut all that much out of the federal budget after all. Should be loads of fun.

Why You Hate Air Travel Less Than You Think

| Mon Feb. 7, 2011 12:30 PM EST

How much technological progress have we made since 1973? I don't want to drive this question into the ground, but Matt Yglesias makes a point about air travel that bears scrutiny:

Today’s planes are, in fact, technologically superior to the planes of yore. But the travel experience has been made much worse by massive over-investment in airplane security. Inefficient pricing of runway space leads to lots of problems.

True. And yet, which would you take, 1973 or 2011? It's 2011 by a landslide. Fifty years ago, the technological improvement we all expected was faster airplanes. We didn't get that. What we got instead was way cheaper and more abundant flights thanks to deregulation and the computer revolution, which made capacity management far more effective than in the past. One of the results of all this has been crowded flights and crowded airports, and of course increased security has made the flying experience less pleasant too. Still, taken as a whole, I'd say that the airline industry has made tremendous progress since 1973. It just hasn't been where we expected it to be.

Also of interest: the contribution of the airline industry to GDP probably hasn't changed an awful lot since 1973. But its contribution to the increased wellbeing of the median person has increased tremendously. In 1973, the average schmoe simply never flew: it was too expensive and flights weren't always very convenient. Today, nearly anyone can afford to fly at least occasionally. So this is one area where pure measures of GDP probably understate the benefit to the median person. People who are already rich would prefer faster planes, but people who aren't would simply prefer planes they can afford. And that's what we got.