Kevin Drum - February 2011

Fighting Back Against the Noise Machine

| Tue Feb. 15, 2011 3:00 PM EST

Last year, as I'm sure you'll recall, Andrew Breitbart posted an edited videotape of a speech by Shirley Sherrod. He presented this video as proof positive that Sherrod, the USDA's Georgia Director of Rural Development, was herself a racist and, furthermore, executed her job in an overtly racist way. Needless to say, it showed nothing of the kind. In fact, it showed just the opposite.

So should Sherrod sue Breitbart for defamation? At the time, Mark Thompson thought such a suit was ill-advised, but now that Sherrod has indeed sued Breitbart and Thompson has seen the actual complaint, he's done a U-turn: "Having now reviewed some of the concrete allegations in her complaint and some other important factors, I’d like to walk that original assessment back a few miles. I have no idea how this case is ultimately going to play out, but Breitbart’s going to have a far tougher road to hoe on this than I anticipated."

bmaz has more, including the fact that Sherrod is being represented by a very big gun indeed:

Lastly, the complaint is telling for just who Shirley Sherrod’s attorneys are, and it is a very significant point. There are a team of four attorneys at the DC office of Kirkland & Ellis, Thomas Clare, Michael Jones and Beth Williams with the lead being one Thomas D. Yannucci. And who is Tom Yannucci? Glad you asked. He is, if not the preeminent, one of the most preeminent plaintiffs defamation attorneys in the United States....Yannucci is the attorney who embarrassed and gutted NBC’s Dateline on the fraudulent GM exploding gas tank story and who obtained a page one above the fold retraction from Gannett Newspapers and the Cincinnati Enquirer, and reportedly $18 million, in the Chiquita Brands story.

....Shirley Sherrod is quite a woman, and she has come to the dance locked and loaded and with a very compelling story. Andrew Breitbart better strap in, it could be a bumpy ride.

I can't think of a more deserving recipient of a bumpy ride.

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The Birthers Take Over

| Tue Feb. 15, 2011 1:47 PM EST

I was channel surfing last night when Inkblot jumped into my lap and trapped me on the couch. As a result I ended up watching most of Bill O'Reilly's show,1 one segment of which was dedicated to Bill flipping out over the nerve of NBC's David Gregory asking John Boehner to unequivocally denounce birtherism. To my surprise, Juan Williams disagreed (mildly) with O'Reilly, while Mary Katherine Ham, of course, egged him on. Only pinheads believe in the whole birther thing, Bill said. It was ridiculous to even bring up the subject.

I was reminded of O'Reilly this morning by the results of the latest PPP poll:

Birtherism is alive and well within the GOP ranks....Birthers make a majority among those voters who say they're likely to participate in a Republican primary next year. 51% say they don't think Barack Obama was born in the United States to just 28% who firmly believe that he was and 21% who are unsure.

And of course, that's not all. There's also this:

As state legislatures across the country begin their 2011 sessions, there is one lingering issue that simply won’t die. Conservative legislators in several states have already proposed more “birther bills” that allude to the conspiracy theory alleging that President Obama is foreign-born....In the last month, bills have appeared in Connecticut, Tennessee, Arizona, Indiana, Nebraska, Missouri and Montana that would all require anyone running for elected office to furnish a long-form birth certificate before being declared eligible as a candidate. Oklahoma, home to several attempts at pushing birther bills through the legislature, has no fewer than three birther bills currently under review....and still other states, including Texas, are carrying on discussions of birther bills from earlier legislative sessions.

To summarize: a majority of likely Republican voters think Barack Obama wasn't born in the United States and upwards of a dozen state legislatures are considering birther-inspired bills. But Bill O'Reilly thinks this is just a nothingburger that the liberal press is blowing all out of proportion. I wonder how big it has to get before he thinks it's legitimate news that the leaders of the Republican Party steadfastly refuse to denounce a lunatic theory that's literally sweeping through their own party?

1I know, I shouldn't blame this on poor Inkblot. But if it weren't for him, I wouldn't have watched.

Needed: The Fourth Big Invention

| Tue Feb. 15, 2011 12:41 PM EST

Ezra Klein:

Perhaps it's the mark of a good book that after you read it, you begin seeing evidence for its thesis in lots of different areas. Since reading Tyler Cowen's "The Great Stagnation," I've been seeing a lot of support for a claim that I'd initially resisted: the idea that the technological advances of the 19th and early 20th centuries were far more important to both the economy and quality of life than what's come since.

I myself never found this thesis hard to accept in the first place, but I'd toss in an additional aspect to ponder. Roughly speaking, I'd say there have only been three big GDP-busting inventions over the past few centuries: the steam engine, electrification, and the digital computer. There have been plenty of related spinoffs (internal combustion engines, the internet) and plenty of important but smaller inventions (penicillin, radio). But the big three are the big three.

So in some sense, the problem here is with our expectations. World-changing inventions just don't come around all that often, and when they do it takes a long and variable time for them to become integrated enough and advanced enough to have an explosive economic effect. Steam took the better part of a century, electrification took about half that, and computers — well, we don't really know yet. So far it's been about 60 years and obviously computers have had a huge impact on the world. But I suspect that even if you put the potential of AI to one side, we're barely halfway into the computer revolution yet. To a surprisingly large extent, we're still using computers to automate stuff we've always done instead of actually building the world around what computers can do.

In any case, regardless of how computerization unfolds in the future, it's hardly surprising that we haven't yet had a fourth great invention. They only come around once a century or so, after all. Give it time.

Open Season on Abortion Docs

| Tue Feb. 15, 2011 11:58 AM EST

This is lovely, isn't it?

A law under consideration in South Dakota would expand the definition of "justifiable homicide" to include killings that are intended to prevent harm to a fetus—a move that could make it legal to kill doctors who perform abortions. The Republican-backed legislation, House Bill 1171, has passed out of committee on a nine-to-three party-line vote, and is expected to face a floor vote in the state's GOP-dominated House of Representatives soon....If the bill passes, it could in theory allow a woman's father, mother, son, daughter, or husband to kill anyone who tried to provide that woman an abortion—even if she wanted one.

This is from Kate Sheppard, who reports that South Dakota already has no abortion providers and relies on a Planned Parenthood doctor who flies into a clinic once a week. Presumably that doctor is pretty well guarded, but still: if this law passes would you want to fly into South Dakota once a week knowing that every wannabe 007 in the state now feels like he has a license to kill? Nope. Which, of course, is the whole point.

UPDATE: The sponsor of the legislation says this is all a bunch of hooey. Greg Sargent:

I just had a spirited conversation with the bill's chief sponsor, State Representative Phil Jensen, and he defended the bill, arguing that it would not legalize the killing of abortion doctors. "It would if abortion was illegal," he told me. "This code only deals with illegal acts. Abortion is legal in this country. This has nothing to do with abortion." In other words, since abortion is not "homicide," the law could not apply.

....When I asked Jensen what the purpose of the law was, if its target isn't abortion providers, he provided the following example: "Say an ex-boyfriend who happens to be father of a baby doesn't want to pay child support for the next 18 years, and he beats on his ex-girfriend's abdomen in trying to abort her baby. If she did kill him, it would be justified. She is resisting an effort to murder her unborn child."

I report, you decide.

Does Obama Want to Cut Entitlements?

| Tue Feb. 15, 2011 11:24 AM EST

Andrew Sullivan is apoplectic about the cowardice of Obama's budget presentation yesterday:

I didn't spend eight years excoriating George "Deficits Don't Matter" Bush to provide excuses for Barack "Default Doesn't Matter" Obama. Like other fiscal conservatives, I'm just deeply disappointed by Obama's reprise of politics as usual - even as the fiscal crisis has worsened beyond measure in the last three years. My point is that actually being honest about the budget and what it will take to resolve its long-term crisis is not political suicide, as Chait says. It's statesmanship. It's what a president is for.

I'm just mystified here. Has any president, ever, used the annual budget as a springboard for a massive change to entitlement programs? Even if Obama wants such changes, this isn't the time or place he'd propose it. He'd propose it separately, as a major initiative completely divorced from the annual budgeting process.

Our budget deficit has skyrocketed over the past three years because of an unprecedented economic crisis. It will shrink as the economy starts to grow again, and it can be brought down to a nearly reasonable level merely by letting the Bush tax cuts expire. The rest will require changes to Medicare, since that's the source of nearly all our long-term problems. But last year's election campaign made it crystal clear that swinging changes to Medicare would be dead on arrival if Obama proposed them now, and deliberately setting forth a proposal doomed to failure would make future action less likely, not more.

I have no crystal ball. I don't know if Obama is truly interested in making historical changes to Medicare and/or Social Security later in his term. But if he is, he'd be a fool to propose them now. The annual budget is just an annual budget, and the process for getting it through the congressional committee process is laborious and well trod — and that laborious and well-trod path most definitely doesn't include the kind of big-time dealmaking necessary for some kind of grand bargain over taxes and entitlements. If you want entitlement reform to disappear without a trace, yesterday would have been a great time to propose it. If you want it for real, you'll wait.

Is a Grand Bargain In Our Future?

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 7:58 PM EST

Via Jon Chait, who's dubious about this since no one else breathed a word of it, here is Elizabeth Drew in the New York Review of Books claiming that underneath all the trash talk, Obama and the Republican leadership have already agreed to hammer out a bipartisan budget deal:

But despite all the confrontational rhetoric between the two parties about budget priorities, the White House and Republican congressional leaders, in private talks, have agreed on the need to try to reach a bipartisan “grand bargain” over the budget—a sweeping deal that could include entitlements and tax reforms as well as budget reduction. A Senate Republican leadership aide confirmed this, saying, “In fact, for anything to happen, it will require such a White House/congressional leadership bargain.” The preferred idea is that, just as they did late last year on the tax bill, they would reach an agreement and then unveil it to the public.

At the same time, a bipartisan group of leading senators have met in an effort to cut the deficit—which could become a part of the debt-reduction puzzle. The thinking is that the Tea Party allies might be brought along in the end, because their primary goal is to reduce the deficit. The details will be difficult, but a surprising sort of deficit-cutting fever has broken out on Capitol Hill, fueled in part by a fear that at some point the bond markets and foreign lenders will call in their loans, setting off a disastrous financial crisis. Right now, there’s a game of chicken going on over who will offer their proposals first, but this should be resolvable.

Another reason this is happening is that despite their occasional deference to Tea party demands, the Republican congressional leaders, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and Eric Cantor, are also realists. They may try to drive a hard bargain on the budget but they know that the issue must be resolved. Despite the baying of some Tea Party allies that the government should be shut down if the administration doesn’t offer enough concessions, these leaders understand that that would be a disastrous course for the Republicans—as it was when Newt Gingrich tried it in 1995.

Well, maybe. There's no telling who Drew's original source is for this, and her confirming source (a "Senate Republican leadership aide") isn't all that impressive. What's more, it ain't the case that the tea party movement's "primary goal" is reducing the deficit. Its primary goal is to reduce taxes and its secondary goal is to lift the intolerable burden of tyranny that Barack Obama has imposed on us. (Its tertiary goal is whatever bee happens to be up Glenn Beck's bonnet the week you ask them.) As for foreign lenders "calling in their loans," it's hard to parse what that's even supposed to mean.

So....I'm not sure about this. A "grand bargain" would, almost by definition, include tax increases, and my guess is that the GOP leadership's realism extends about as far as understanding that supporting a tax increase would pretty much spell the end of their political careers. Drew's report is interesting, but like Jon, I'll believe it when there's more than one reporter in all of Washington DC who's heard about this.

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American Schools Are Better Than 50 Years Ago

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 6:18 PM EST

Via Jay Mathews via Bob Somerby, today's chart of the day1 demonstrates vividly the long, slow decline of American education. Except wait. It doesn't show that at all. These figures come from Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, and they show how American kids have done on international math tests compared to kids from eleven other advanced countries. First, here's the raw data:

The circled numbers show how American students compared to the average of the entire dozen countries. In 1964, we were 0.35 standard deviations below the mean. In the most recent tests, we were only 0.06 and 0.18 standard deviations below the mean. In other words, our performance had improved. Here's Loveless on the notion that we once led the world in education and have since collapsed:

This is a myth. The United States never led the world. It was never number one and has never been close to number one on international math tests. Or on science tests, for that matter....[And] there has been no sharp decline—in either the short or long run. The United States performance on PISA has been flat to slightly up since the test’s inception, and it has improved on Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) since 1995.

Now, we're still below average among these dozen countries, so this is hardly a glorious result. But we aren't doing any worse than we did in the supposed glory days of the 50s and 60s. We're doing better. And as Mathews says, "If we have managed to be the world's most powerful country, politically, economically and militarily, for the last 47 years despite our less than impressive math and science scores, maybe that flaw is not as important as film documentaries and political party platforms claim. And if, after so many decades of being shown up by much of the rest of the developed world, we are improving, it might be time to be more supportive of what we already doing to fix our schools."

Maybe so. One thing that's pretty clear, though, is that America does a terrible job of educating low-income students. But even there, the comparative data is unclear (or at least, I've never seen clear data). Do our low-income kids score worse than other countries' low-income kids? Or do we simply have more low-income kids? Since income figures aren't routinely gathered for these tests, and international comparisons of income are problematic anyway, this isn't an easy question to answer.

I'm supportive of experimenting with education reforms. We'll never know for sure if there are better ways of educating our children unless we try lots of things and see what works. Still, the one metric that's always crystal clear, no matter who's doing the measuring, is that school performance plummets when the concentration of low-income kids gets above 50% or so. This suggests — though it doesn't prove — that the real problem is poverty, not terrible schools. Unfortunately, that's an even harder problem to solve than schools by themselves.

1Yes, yes, it's a table, not a chart. So sue me.

Winning the Future, Old School

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 2:11 PM EST

Ezra Klein:

The military made out quite nicely in the 2012 budget proposal. The administration is cutting $78 billion from the Defense Department's budget — known as "security discretionary spending" — over the next 10 years. That's a bit of a blow, but compare it to the $400 billion they're cutting from domestic discretionary spending — that's education, income security, food safety, environmental protection, etc. — over the next 10 years. And keep in mind that the domestic discretionary budget is only half as large as the military's budget. So if there were equal cuts, the military would be losing $800 billion.

Put another way, Obama has proposed cuts of about 1% from a defense budget that's already the largest in the world, versus cuts of about 10% from a domestic budget that's already one of the stingiest in the world. And that's moderate compared to what Republicans want to do. As Ezra says, this puts a little different spin on "winning" the future, doesn't it?

This is hardly our only option, though. Adam Weinstein has more on the defense budget here.

Don't Blame Facebook

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 1:21 PM EST

David Carr echoes a familiar lament today: we write the content, but it's the owners of social networks who are raking in the bucks:

Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Quora have been positioned as social networks, but each of them hosts timely content that can also be a backdrop for advertising, which makes them much more like a media company than, say, a phone utility.

....Perhaps content will remain bifurcated into professional and amateur streams, but as social networks eat away at media mindshare and the advertising base, I’m not so sure. If it happens, I’ll have no one but myself to blame. Last time I checked, I had written or shared over 11,000 items on Twitter. It’s a nice collection of short-form work, and I’ve been rewarded with lot of followers ... and exactly no money. If and when the folks at Twitter cash out, some tiny fraction of that value will have been created by me.

Actually, no, I think Facebook and Twitter are still more like phone companies than media companies. The phone company allows people to talk to each other, and charges a monthly fee for doing so. Each little conversation creates some tiny fraction of their value. In our modern age we've decided that actually paying overtly for such services is somehow unfair, so instead companies that facilitate conversation make their money via advertising and other related schemes. But they're still more like utilities than anything else. It's not advertising that makes a media company a media company, after all: Movies and books are media without advertising and billboards and direct mail are advertising without media.

All the kvetching about social media and people willing to write for nothing misses the point. Sure, blogs and Facebook and so forth provide free content. But there's always been free and nearly-free content around. The reason non-free content exists is because it's better than the amateur stuff: journalists dig up news better, La Scala presents opera better, and Broadway puts on shows better than your local community theater. As long as it stays better, people will still pay for it. Period.

Journalism isn't shrinking because of social networking, it's shrinking because the internet has made every news outlet available to everyone. American news operations don't have much in the way of foreign bureaus anymore, but that's because on a day-to-day basis they don't provide better content than we can already get from news media actually in foreign countries. Want to know what's happening in Britain? Surf over to the Guardian or the Telegraph. The Middle East? There's al-Jazeera. Ditto for just about every other place in the world, which has media of its own that can be mined for information a lot more cheaply than sending an American over to do it in person.

Likewise, American newspapers have declined because, really, how many newspapers do you need? You need one for local news, but for national and international news? Why bother? There are half a dozen really good sources available on the internet now, and that's all anyone needs. Why read the AP dispatches in the Detroit Free Press if you can just power up your browser and read the New York Times and McClatchy and the Wall Street Journal instead?

So blame the internet, which has made competition from other professionals far stiffer than in the past. But the amateurs chattering away on Facebook? Not so much.

Good Boehner, Bad Boehner

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 12:03 PM EST

What to think about John Boehner? On Meet the Press yesterday, David Gregory asked him about birthers who insist that Barack Obama wasn't born in the U.S.:

"As speaker of the House, as a leader, do you not think it's your responsibility to speak out against that kind of ignorance?" asked the host, David Gregory. "It's not my job to tell the American people what to think," Boehner said. "The American people have the right to think what they want to think."

Crikey. This is tea party pandering of the worst kind. But then Gregory asked him about Egypt:

House Speaker John A. Boehner said Sunday he thought the Obama administration handled "a very difficult situation" in Egypt about as well as possible, undercutting potential Republican presidential candidates who have charged that President Obama botched the U.S. response to a popular revolt against a key ally....The situation "surprised everyone," he said.

I have to say, that's pretty refreshing considering the mountains of transparently absurd criticism that Republicans have been heaping on Obama at CPAC and elsewhere. The fact is that Obama steered a middle course on Egypt that was pretty close to the best he could have done, and what's more, was probably nearly identical to the course George Bush would have followed if he'd been in office.

The hypocrisy and opportunism from conservative critics of Obama's handling of Egypt have been pretty far off the charts even by normal political standards. Obama's response was cautious but basically correct, he worked behind the scenes reasonably effectively considering the modest amount of leverage we had, and he largely avoided giving anyone an excuse to pretend that the protesters were just American stooges. There's stuff to criticize there if you're minded to, but it's stuff on the edges. There's just a limited amount that the United States can do in these circumstances and everyone is well aware of it. But you'd hardly know it from the apocalyptic rhetoric coming from Republicans over the past few days.

So good for Boehner for stating the obvious. Now about that birther stuff.....