Kevin Drum - February 2011

Subsidizing the Arts

| Fri Feb. 11, 2011 11:33 AM EST

Conservatives want to slash federal arts subsidies and NPR funding, but Matt Yglesias points out that these costs are probably peanuts compared to the federal boost to the arts from the tax code:

I don’t know which way this cuts, but it’s worth pointing out that for all the sporadic hubub over the NEA, by far the biggest federal subsidy to the arts comes in the form of the federal income tax deduction for charitable contributions [amounting to about $50 billion per year]. This costs a ton of money, a lot of charitable donations go directly to the arts (museums, ballets, opera, etc.) and another large chunk goes to universities that, in turn, spend money on the arts. The huge advantage of subsidizing the arts this way is it lets you hide the ball. You never hear people getting mad over the fact that tax-exempt contributions are going to fund controversial or offensive art. It’s a pretty good model, and yet nobody ever talks about it, in part because it works precisely through the mechanism of people not talking about it.

I think this partly misses the point. Sure, one of the reasons conservatives are OK with this is because it's a tax break, but they're also OK with it because it fundamentally leaves the choice of what art to subsidize in private hands. There's no sense in which a federal bureaucrat is choosing which art to fund and there's no sense in which the federal government is actively approving or disapproving of certain kinds of art.

For what it's worth, I'd actually be happy to get rid of both the tax deduction for charitable contributions and federal subsidies for the arts. On the former, an awful lot of charitable contributions seem to me like "charity" only in the most technical sense, and I don't especially see why you should get a tax break for, say, contributing money to your own church or giving money to your alma mater for a new basketball arena to be named after you. Besides, I suspect that if this tax break were done away with, we'd reach a new equilibrium fairly quickly in which charitable donations weren't affected very much.

As for direct federal subsidies to the arts, I agree with Jon Chait that there really isn't much of a market breakdown here: the current market for art, broadcasting, and entertainment seems pretty robust to me without government help. The United States isn't the Florence of the Medicis, after all. I'm going to annoy my sister for repeating this, but direct spending on the arts is mostly a subsidy to the upper middle class and CPB funding is mainly a way for the upper middle class to avoid the indignity of having to listen to ads. I'm not sure that's a group that really needs this special treatment. The money could be better spent elsewhere.

But I should add that I'm pretty open to argument on both these points. These aren't deeply held sentiments or anything.

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Standing Up To Glenn Beck

| Fri Feb. 11, 2011 6:00 AM EST

Glenn Beck is, for a liberal like me, far more entertaining to watch than, say, Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly. The latter are garden variety blowhards and their subject matter is predictable. But Beck? He's crazy! He thinks the Muslim Brotherhood is going to take over the entire Mediterranean! Fabian socialists are a fifth column working to subvert everything that makes America great! (But slowly. Sneakily.) The Tides Foundation is on a mission to "warp your children's brains"! And Obama the secret Marxist is behind it all! It all fits together!

This is actually sort of entertaining in small doses. But in bigger doses, not so much. Conor Friedersdorf:

As I've said before, lots of Glenn Beck listeners aren't in on the joke. Unlike Roger Ailes, Jonah Goldberg, and every staffer at the Heritage Foundation happy hour, they don't realize that the Fox News Channel puts this man on the air fully understanding that large parts of his program are uninformed nonsense mixed with brazen bullshit.

....Conjure in your mind a retired grandfather. He served in World War II, voted twice for Ronald Reagan, and supports the Tea Party. Awhile back, he started watching Glenn Beck....

Actually, we don't have to conjure this. Richmond Ramsey has done it for us. I've mentioned before that lots of Fox viewers have the channel on all day long, basically as background noise, and Ramsey says he's noticed this too. His piece is called "Fox Geezer Syndrome":

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been keeping track of a trend among friends around my age (late thirties to mid-forties). Eight of us (so far) share something in common besides our conservatism: a deep frustration over how our parents have become impossible to take on the subject of politics. Without fail, it turns out that our folks have all been sitting at home watching Fox News Channel all day — especially Glenn Beck’s program.

....I asked my father privately why Mom, who as far as I know never before had a political thought, was so worked up about Obama all the time. "She's been like that ever since she started watching Glenn Beck," Dad said.

....Then I flew out for a visit, and observed that their television was on all day long, even if no one was watching it. What channel was playing? Fox. Spending a few days in the company of the channel—especially Glenn Beck—it all became clear to me. If Fox was the window through which I saw the wider world, for hours every day, I'd be perpetually pissed off too.

....Back home, I mentioned to a friend over beers how much Fox my mom and dad watched, and how angry they now were about politics. “Yours too?!” he said. “I’ve noticed the same thing with mine. They weren’t always like this, but since they retired, they’ve gotten into Fox, and you can’t even talk to them anymore without hearing them read the riot act about Obama.”

And that's from a conservative. It's all entertaining enough until you come face to face with the consequences. Sure, Beck's audience is relatively small: a few million, probably no more than one or two percent of the adult population of the country. But that's misleading. These are the shock troops, the true believers, the ones who have turned our politics so toxic. And worse, they're being deliberately conned by Roger Ailes and his pals, who know perfectly well that this stuff is nonsense. And it's all in the service of selling yet another con, getting the geezers to invest their money in endless gold scams.

I know this is whistling into the wind, but it's long past time for the adults in the Republican Party to speak up about this. Glenn Beck is the Father Coughlin and the Robert Welch of his generation rolled into one, and his brand of noxious conspiracy theorizing isn't something to be tolerated just because it produces a few useful idiots. It's time for this to end.

Front page image: Al Grillo/Zumapress.com

Hating on Texas

| Thu Feb. 10, 2011 11:39 PM EST

Recently we learned that the "Texas Miracle" had not been so miraculous after all. Texas seemed to be doing OK over the past two years, but it was only because they had a two-year budgeting cycle and had been able to eke through it thanks to stimulus money from the federal government. When a new budget cycle started up, Texas turned out to be $25 billion in the hole. Oops.

And now comes yet another insult. Amazon has decided to close their fulfillment center in Irving and cancel their expansion plans in the state:

In an email to staff, Dave Clark, the company's operations chief for North America, said the state's "unfavorable regulatory climate" prompted the decision....In the email, Mr. Clark said Amazon's now-cancelled expansion plans would have brought more than 1,000 new jobs to Texas, as well as tens of millions of dollars in investment.

Now, it so happens that I think Texas has the right of this. Their insistence on collecting sales taxes seems perfectly reasonable to me, and I think every state should demand the same. Still, "unfavorable regulatory climate" has gotta sting. That's Texas you're talking about, Dave!

Lowest. Inflation. Ever.

| Thu Feb. 10, 2011 3:09 PM EST

Inspired by David Leonhardt, here's the graph to show any of your friends who think that inflation might be a problem thanks to Fed monetary policy or deficit spending. It shows core inflation (inflation minus food and energy) over the past 50 years, which is a good way of visualizing basic inflationary trends in the economy without getting distracted by normal swings in volatile commodity prices. Right now, core inflation has been trending down steadily for four years and is as low as it's been since the end of World War II. There's no evidence that food and energy prices are feeding through to core inflation, and no evidence that there's even a trace of broad inflationary pressure in the economy. It's just not there. Employment and growth are our problems, not inflation.

Bachmann: Democrats Want 75% of Your Money

| Thu Feb. 10, 2011 12:31 PM EST

Apparently, Michele Bachmann (R–Minn.) is a uniter, not a divider. She hates liberal fiscal policy, liberal social policy, and liberal foreign policy! Suzy Khimm reports on her pitch to the faithful today at CPAC:

That being said, Bachmann devoted the bulk of her speech to fiscal concerns, railing against Obama's "socialism" and "evil bureaucrats" and warning the college students in the crowd that the government could end up taking away "75 percent" of their income in taxes. She paid only the briefest lip service to social issues and national security, focusing instead on the political goalposts of retaking the White House and gaining control of the Senate. In line with the new tea party slant of the GOP, she roused the crowd by chanting the New Hampshire state slogan: "Live Free or Die! Live Free or Die!"

Wow. 75%. That sounds grim. And yet totally plausible! I'm sure it will end up on Fox News shortly.

Just for the record, I'm all in favor of Bachmann running for president. Basically, I'm in favor of anything that helps expose the wingnuttiest hidey-holes of the Republican Party to the gimlet eye of the American people. Besides, she's good copy.

Understanding California in One Easy Lesson

| Thu Feb. 10, 2011 11:55 AM EST

Here in California, Gov. Jerry Brown wants the legislature to put a measure on the June ballot that would give residents an up-or-down vote on a tax increase to help balance the state budget. But that takes a two-thirds vote of both houses, so Brown needs a few Republicans to sign on. So far — surprise! — they haven't.

George Skelton, longtime state political reporter for the LA Times, says Brown should give them a few more weeks to sign on. If they don't, then he should unilaterally break his word to put it to a vote and simply sign the tax increase into law himself. But wait. Doesn't that take a two-thirds vote of the legislature too? Yes it does. But Skelton thinks it might work anyway:

Why would Republican lawmakers vote for a tax bill to send the governor if they're not even willing to let the public decide the issue? Here's why, if they thought about it for half a second: It would force the Democrat into a tight spot where they could gleefully watch him squirm while breaking his solemn word.

And they could tell their anti-tax constituents: Look, voting for a special election on taxes is really the same as voting to raise them. The unions would spend enough to make sure they passed anyway. This way we save the $60 million cost of an election while squeezing some pro-business goodies out of Democrats.

I don't really have any good reason for highlighting this, except to point out how California politics can drive even normally sane reporters into dementia. If you think this is crazy, that California Republicans would never agree to this, not even for the pleasure of watching Jerry Brown squirm, you're right. California Republicans basically see our budget squeeze not as a problem, but as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to destroy as many programs that help out poor people as possible. It's remotely possible that a few of them will vote for the ballot measure — democracy is good! — but exactly zero chance that any of them will vote flat out for a tax increase. They'd be flayed alive if they did and their political careers would be over.

Here's your simple heuristic for counting noses in California: If it's good for rich people, Republicans are for it. If it's good for poor people, Republicans are against it. In other words, pretty much the same as it is at the national level, except squared or cubed. It's pretty easy to understand.

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AP: Mubarak Ready To Step Down

| Thu Feb. 10, 2011 11:15 AM EST

It looks like Hosni Mubarak is about to step down:

President Hosni Mubarak will meet the demands of protesters, military and ruling party officials, the Associated Press reported Thursday, in the strongest indication yet that Egypt's longtime president may be about to give up power....The military's supreme council was meeting Thursday, without Mubarak, its commander in chief.

But then there's this:

Egypt’s armed forces on Thursday announced that they had begun to take "necessary measures to protect the nation and support the legitimate demands of the people,” a step that suggested the military intends to take a commanding role in administrating the strife-torn nation.

There was no immediate confirmation that the army intended to replace the government named by President Hosni Mubarak, but protesters gathered in Tahrir Square appeared to welcome reports that the military had replaced the civilian government they have steadfastly opposed.

I'm not dumb enough to make any predictions about how this is going to end, but historically, when a country's military announces that it's taking over in order to "support the legitimate demands of the people," that doesn't bode well for the legitimate demands of the people. It may be good for stability, but count me skeptical that this is going to turn out well for democracy.

UPDATE: Here's a quick tutorial on Egypt's military from Daniel Williams, a Human Rights Watch researcher who was recently arrested by security forces in Cairo:

What's at stake in the current struggle playing out in Tahrir Square and across Egypt is not only Mubarak's fate but also the prerogatives of the Egyptian military within a system it created. Since the 1952 coup that overthrew the monarchy, military men — Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak — have held Egypt's supreme lever of power: the presidency. Until 2005, presidential elections were one-candidate referendums. In 2005, when multiple candidates were permitted, the second-place finisher, Ayman Nour, was hustled into four years' imprisonment on trumped-up fraud charges shortly after the vote. All governorships in Egypt are held by current or former military officers. Omar Suleiman, the new vice president, is a general. Ahmed Shafik, the new prime minister, is a retired air marshal.

In Egypt, the military is not a profession; it's a ruling caste.

The 300% Loan

| Thu Feb. 10, 2011 1:16 AM EST

The Wall Street Journal reports today that payday lenders are increasingly incorporating not in states with lax lending laws, but with American Indian tribes:

Because of the sovereign immunity granted to tribes by the U.S. government, they are shielded from interest-rate caps and other payday-loan regulations. Tribal lenders can even lend in the 12 U.S. states where lawmakers have kicked out the rest of the payday-loan industry.

....All it takes to make a deal are a willing tribe and an eager payday lender. The lender usually incorporates on tribal land, agreeing to pay the chief a salary of a few thousand dollars a month, according to people familiar with the agreements. Such payments can balloon if the tribe has relationships with more than one lender, a common practice.

Most payday lenders have no physical presence on tribal land. To go into business with a tribe, they typically start making loans in the tribe's name from the lender's existing call center, according to industry consultants.

In October, Peg Calvird of Suffolk, Va., got a payday loan for $600 from American Web Loan Inc....The loan's interest rate was 300%, far above Virginia's legal limit of 36%.

For now, I'll assume that credit card companies can't do this, since if they could they already would have. Let's just hope that the financial reform law didn't accidentally open up a loophole that makes it possible.

But here's a serious question: if you take out a payday loan from one of these guys, and then fail to pay it back, what can they do to you? I suppose they can still wreck your credit rating, but what else? Aside from harassment, what enforcement mechanism is available to them to get their money back?

Yes, Aspirin is a Pain Reliever!

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 10:47 PM EST

Lately I've noticed an increasing number of TV commercials that seem....off kilter. Not dumb or offensive or annoying. Just ads that seem to have a really weird underlying premise. Here's an example:

Guy on airplane: Do you have something for pain?

(Flight attendant hands him a couple of aspirin.)

Guy: Bayer aspirin. Oh, no, no, I'm not having a heart attack. It's my back.

Flight Attendant: Trust me, it works great for pain.

(Later, feeling chipper.)

Guy: Thanks for the tip.

What's the deal here? Are there really full-grown adults around who don't know that aspirin is a pain reliever? Has Bayer done such a stupendous PR job selling its product as protection against heart attacks that there are now a significant number of people who no longer realize its primary function? Or is there something else going on here? I haven't been transported to an alternate universe accidentally, have I?

(Though that would actually explain a lot. Maybe I should look into this.)

Our Coming Robot Revolution

| Wed Feb. 9, 2011 6:20 PM EST

Is the Atlantic becoming the National Enquirer? This month, the cover blares, "Why Machines Will Never Beat the Human Mind," which sounded pretty fishy to me. But potentially interesting! So I read the cover story, which turns out to be a fairly modest piece about a guy who took part in this year's Loebner Prize competition, which is designed to find a computer that can carry on a five-minute conversation so realistic that a panel of judges (or 30% of them, anyway) think they're actually talking to a human being.

OK fine. So far no computer program has ever won, and last year the computers lost yet again. But why does this mean machines will never beat the human mind? Brian Christian is the author, and after 8,000 words of saying nothing at all on this subject, he finally says this:

When the world-champion chess player Garry Kasparov defeated Deep Blue, rather convincingly, in their first encounter in 1996, he and IBM readily agreed to return the next year for a rematch. When Deep Blue beat Kasparov (rather less convincingly) in ’97, Kasparov proposed another rematch for ’98, but IBM would have none of it. The company dismantled Deep Blue, which never played chess again.

The apparent implication is that—because technological evolution seems to occur so much faster than biological evolution (measured in years rather than millennia)—once the Homo sapiens species is overtaken, it won’t be able to catch up. Simply put: the Turing Test, once passed, is passed forever. I don’t buy it.

Rather, IBM’s odd anxiousness to get out of Dodge after the ’97 match suggests a kind of insecurity on its part that I think proves my point. The fact is, the human race got to where it is by being the most adaptive, flexible, innovative, and quick-learning species on the planet. We’re not going to take defeat lying down.

No, I think that, while the first year that computers pass the Turing Test will certainly be a historic one, it will not mark the end of the story. Indeed, the next year’s Turing Test will truly be the one to watch—the one where we humans, knocked to the canvas, must pull ourselves up; the one where we learn how to be better friends, artists, teachers, parents, lovers; the one where we come back. More human than ever.

Seriously? That's it? That's what the cover headline is based on? Surely a better answer is that IBM built Deep Blue solely for its PR value, and once IBM won they had gotten all the PR out of it that they ever would. Win or lose, there was no point in continuing.

Plus there's the fact that computers have gotten better since 1997. Hell, there are mobile phones that play grandmaster-level chess these days.

What a letdown. I was hoping the piece would actually have something interesting to say about AI, but it didn't. This is especially disappointing because I'm so thoroughly convinced that human-level AI is not just possible, but inevitable. I figure all we need is hardware about a million times more powerful than we have now (current hardware doesn't allow us to come anywhere close to human-level AI because current hardware has about the same processing power as an earthworm) plus another few decades of software development. But I might be wrong! And I'd like to hear a good argument from anyone who thinks I am.

I often think that the reason I'm so bullish on artificial intelligence isn't because I have such a high regard for AI, but because I have such a low regard for biologic intelligence. Christian argues that computers are good at analytic, left-brain stuff, but humans will fight back with our awesomely passionate right-brain abilities (i.e., we'll "learn how to be better friends, artists, teachers, parents, lovers.") But you know what? I've watched The Bachelor, and it mostly proves that love can be cynically engineered just as well as any suspension bridge.1 Human emotions, as near as I can tell, are just as much the result of prosaic neurochemical reactions as anything else, and there's really no reason to think that computers won't eventually be able to emulate them just as well as they emulate anything else. Maybe better. After all, it's not emotion that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Human behavior just isn't as deep as we like to think.

But like I said, maybe I'm wrong. Christian's piece sure didn't make much of a stab at persuading me, though.

1I'm serious about this, which makes me sort of gobsmacked at the show's popularity. Don't viewers realize that the real moral of the show is that you can pretty much guarantee to produce — real! honest! heartfelt! —  love if you simply follow a fairly simple set of cookbook steps? Why would anyone want to have that lesson pounded home season after season?