Kevin Drum - March 2011

Rear-Facing Car Seats: Twice As Good As You Thought

| Mon Mar. 21, 2011 11:37 AM PDT

The American Academy of Pediatrics says children should stay in rear-facing car seats longer than we used to think:

Toddlers are usually switched from rear-facing to forward-facing car seats right after their first birthday — an event many parents may celebrate as a kind of milestone. But in a new policy statement, the nation’s leading pediatricians’ group says that is a year too soon.

....The academy’s previous policy, from 2002, said it was safest for infants and toddlers to ride facing the rear, and cited 12 months and 20 pounds as the minimum requirements for turning the car seat forward. But Ms. Baer, a certified child passenger safety technician, said parents tended to take that as a hard and fast rule.

“A lot of parents consider turning the car seat around as another developmental milestone that shows how brilliant and advanced their child is,” she said, “and they don’t realize that it’s making their child less safe.”

I don't have kids and my personality is kind of weird anyway, but I still have to ask: Really? Do parents really turn their kids around at age one because they think it shows how brilliant and advanced their child is?

Or do they do it because up until a few hours ago the American Academy of Pediatrics said it was OK to turn them around at age one? That actually seems more likely, doesn't it?

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Chart of the Day: The Collapse of Wind Power

| Mon Mar. 21, 2011 10:03 AM PDT

Stuart Staniford points out today that the pace of new wind power installations has cratered in the United States:

We need much more wind power. When wind power goes wrong, it kills the odd bird or maybe the occasional worker. Some people don't like the look of the towers. But we need power, and wind power doesn't destabilize the climate, and it doesn't irradiate hundreds of square miles of farmland. So this collapse in investment is terrible news.

I understand why the US congress and the Obama administration was not able to pass climate change legislation, but it's a terrible commentary on their energy/environmental policy that they weren't even able to maintain the pace of growth in wind installation.

What caused this? Wind projects have big capital requirements and long lead times, of course, so this could just be a delayed reaction from the 2008 financial crisis. If anybody out there can offer up a better explanation, I'm all ears.

The (Lack of) Power of Congress

| Mon Mar. 21, 2011 9:18 AM PDT

I'm a longtime advocate of the position that, cases of clear self-defense aside, Congress should issue a declaration of war before the president commits combat troops overseas. At the same time, I recognize that this virtually never happens anymore. At best we get vaguely worded "authorizations of force," at worst we get nothing at all. Every president since Roosevelt, and most of them before him, have operated this way. So I'm not especially put out that President Obama failed to get congressional approval before committing the United States to support the no-fly zone over Libya. He's just acting the way every president in recent memory has acted. Matt Yglesias offers up this explanation for our current state of affairs:

The main reason congress tends, in practice, not to use this authority is that congress rarely wants to. Congressional Democrats didn’t block the “surge” in Iraq, congressional Republicans didn’t block the air war in Kosovo, etc. And for congress, it’s quite convenient to be able to duck these issues. Handling Libya this way means that those members of congress who want to go on cable and complain about the president’s conduct are free to do so, but those who don’t want to talk about Libya can say nothing or stay vague. Nobody’s forced to take a vote that may look bad in retrospect, and nobody in congress needs to take responsibility for the success or failure of the mission. If things work out well in Libya, John McCain will say he presciently urged the White House to act. If things work out poorly in Libya, McCain will say he consistently criticized the White House’s fecklessness. Nobody needs to face a binary “I endorse what Obama’s doing / I oppose what Obama’s doing” choice.

I think there's something to this, but it also strikes me as incomplete. After all, on domestic policy, the same dynamic applies: why not just let the president do what he wants so that you remain free to criticize him without ever taking a firm stand? But that's not what Congress does.

Rather, there are certain specific areas where Congress has deliberately given up its authority. Warmaking is one. Monetary policy is another. Detailed federal rulemaking is a third. Each has a different justification. In the case of war, the theory is that an active executive needs to act quickly, free of congressional dithering and endless committee hearings. In the case of monetary policy, the theory is that politics will inevitably get in the way of decent policy, so Congress should voluntarily restrain itself. In the case of rulemaking, the theory is that there are simply too many rules and it's impossible in practice for Congress to consider them all.

Each of these theories has problems. With very rare exceptions, there's enough time for Congress to consider a declaration of war. They've shown they can act within a day or two if a situation is especially urgent. In the case of monetary policy, Congress could easily provide more specific direction to the Fed even if they don't intervene in day-to-day open market operations. And Congress, if it wished, could insist that federal rules be bundled into packages and passed only after an up-or-down vote in the House and Senate, no amendments allowed.1

Proposals to reform this stuff come up now and again, but it never happens. The War Powers Act was the last time Congress tried to assert some authority in the area of warmaking, and its practical effect was negligible. There's occasionally talk of making the Fed more accountable, but it never goes anywhere. And there's frequently talk of changing the rulemaking process, but it also goes nowhere.

So why these three areas, plus a few others, but nothing else? Is it just inertia and tradition? Or is there something special about them? My vote is mostly for inertia and tradition. There's no really persuasive reason why Congress should have decided to abdicate its authority in these areas but not others, but they have. And once power is abdicated, it's rarely regained.

1There are legal obstacles to all of these things. However, as near as I can tell, they could mostly be overcome if Congress truly asserted itself.

The Last Chapter Problem

| Mon Mar. 21, 2011 8:43 AM PDT

In the New York Times this weekend, David Greenberg takes on the dreaded Last Chapter problem, which curses nearly every book that analyzes a social or political problem:

Practically every example of that genre, no matter how shrewd or rich its survey of the question at hand, finishes with an obligatory prescription that is utopian, banal, unhelpful or out of tune with the rest of the book. When it comes to social criticism, no one, it seems, has an exit strategy.

Consider a few cases of hard-headed criticism yielding suddenly to unwarranted optimism.....[Examples duly given.]

Greenberg's analysis of why last chapters nearly alway disappoint is the obvious one: any social or political problem that's hard enough to be interesting is also hard enough to have no obvious solutions. In fact, most of them are hard enough not to have any short-term solutions at all, obvious or not.

So how do things work out if you abandon the last chapter and don't offer up any solutions to the problem you described? Judge for yourself. When my editors initially asked me to write my recent article about the decline of unions and how that affected the liberal project, I told them I was reluctant because I didn't have any solutions to offer up. No problem, they said. So I went ahead. Here's the original ending:

And yet: The heart and soul of liberalism is economic egalitarianism. Without it, Wall Street will continue to extract ever vaster sums from the American economy, the middle class will continue to stagnate, and the left will continue to lack the powerful political and cultural energy necessary for a sustained period of liberal reform. For this to change, America needs a countervailing power as big, crude, and uncompromising as organized labor used to be.

But what?

Now that, I figured, made it crystal clear that I wasn't offering up any solutions. I liked it. But it was just a wee bit too blunt, so eventually I agreed to add one more paragraph:

Over the past 40 years, the American left has built an enormous institutional infrastructure dedicated to mobilizing money, votes, and public opinion on social issues, and this has paid off with huge strides in civil rights, feminism, gay rights, environmental policy, and more. But the past two years have demonstrated that that isn't enough. If the left ever wants to regain the vigor that powered earlier eras of liberal reform, it needs to rebuild the infrastructure of economic populism that we've ignored for too long. Figuring out how to do that is the central task of the new decade.

This doesn't offer up any solutions either, but it's slightly less bleak. At least it lays out an action program for the next decade: figure out how to replace the working class institutional muscle that unions used to offer the progressive movement.

So here's the question: what do you think? Those of you who read the piece: did it strike you as disappointing that after wading through 4,000 words you didn't really get any words of hope and encouragement? Even if it had been a little weak, do you think the whole thing would have gone down better if I'd tacked on a few paragraphs of possible solutions? Or was it better left this way?

Touchpad Bleg

| Sun Mar. 20, 2011 10:29 PM PDT

I'm thinking about replacing the mouse on my desktop Windows PC with a touchpad. It doesn't have to have a ton of features, but I'd like to get one that's reliable and well made. Wireless would be nice, but USB is fine too. Anyone have any experience with an add-on touchpad that they really like? 

The Arab League and the No-Fly Zone

| Sun Mar. 20, 2011 10:21 PM PDT

After a mere 24 hours, the Arab League is already reconsidering its support for a no-fly zone over Libya:

The Arab League secretary general, Amr Moussa, deplored the broad scope of the U.S.-European bombing campaign in Libya and said Sunday that he would call a league meeting to reconsider Arab approval of the Western military intervention.

Moussa said the Arab League’s approval of a no-fly zone on March 12 was based on a desire to prevent Moammar Gaddafi’s air force from attacking civilians and was not designed to endorse the intense bombing and missile attacks — including on Tripoli, the capital, and on Libyan ground forces — whose images have filled Arab television screens for two days.

Most of the commentary I've seen about this has basically consisted of derision: either of the Arab League itself, for doing a U-turn so fast, or of the Obama adminstration, for believing that the Arab League was ever likely to maintain its support in the face of a genuine military effort.

But I'd rein in the mockery a bit. Moussa is right, after all: aside from taking out Libya's anti-aircraft capability, Operation Odyssey Dawn has turned out to be a major assault anchored by dozens of ships, B-2 stealth bombers, Marine Harrier jets, Tomahawk cruise-missile strikes, and attacks by French and British fighters. This may or may not be necessary to accomplish whatever it is that the coalition is trying to accomplish (that's less than clear at the moment), but it really does go pretty far beyond what the Arab League thought it was signing up for.

For more on all things Libya, see our continually updated Libya explainer here.

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Defending the Ridiculous

| Sun Mar. 20, 2011 9:54 PM PDT

One of the most impressive accomplishments of the modern right is its ability to generate plausible technical papers to justify conservative tropes that are basically ridiculous. For example, during last year's campaign it was popular to claim that our economy was weak because of regulatory uncertainty. This made no real sense at all. Our economy is weak because of economic uncertainty: businesses don't have enough customers to make it worth investing in new capacity or hiring new workers, and they aren't sure when or if new customers will appear in the future. Unfortunately, that didn't make for very good campaign trail bashing. Republicans wanted to convince people that the economy was weak because President Obama and congressional Democrats kept passing onerous new regulations that had businesses scared to death, so that's the story they kept repeating ad nauseam.

It never really caught on outside of campaign stump speeches, though, because — well, because it was ridiculous. What to do? Answer: find someone to write a technical paper demonstrating that regulatory uncertainty really is holding back the economy. But who could they get for this job?

Paul Krugman provides the answer: none other than Alan Greenspan. Krugman's comment after reading the paper:

I could go through the weak reasoning, the shoddy econometrics that ignores a large literature on business investment and ignores simultaneity problems, etc., etc.. But never mind; just consider the tone.

Greenspan writes in characteristic form: other people may have their models, but he’s the wise oracle who knows the deep mysteries of human behavior, who can discern patterns based on his ineffable knowledge of economic psychology and history.

Sorry, but he doesn’t get to do that any more. 2011 is not 2006. Greenspan is an ex-Maestro; his reputation is pushing up the daisies, it’s gone to meet its maker, it’s joined the choir invisible.

Yep. Brad DeLong does the dreary work of taking down Greenspan in detail here. Past posts on this site about the uncertainty meme are here, here, and here. Conservative economists piling on the uncertainty bandwagon here. And the chart below shows what small businesses are really afraid of right now: low sales, not the specter of the federal jackboot.

But all that aside — which is to say, aside from the actual truth of the uncertainty meme — it's impressive, as usual, that the conservative movement managed to find such a big name to put his name to defending the indefensible. After all, news reporters almost have to take the uncertainty meme seriously now, and that's really all that matters. Mission accomplished!

Supermoon!

| Sat Mar. 19, 2011 9:31 PM PDT

Here it is, tonight's supermoon as seen from my backyard. How super was it for you?

Friday Cat Blogging - 18 March 2011

| Fri Mar. 18, 2011 11:53 AM PDT

The timestamp on this photo says it was taken Monday at 4:59 pm. That sounds right. This is pretty much what things look like around here between 4:30 and 5:00 every day: both cats in the living room staring greedily at us until we give in and feed them. Really, their internal clocks are amazing. And the staring always works, eventually.

I was going to write one more post today about Libya, but I gave up. I don't know what's going to happen next, I don't know how things are going to turn out, and I don't really know if we're doing the right thing. As Matt Yglesias says, in this case "you have everything done right—a UN Security Council resolution, backing from the Arab League and the OIC, and a bad guy who is, loosely speaking, adequately nuts to seemingly put everyone off." But I'm still not sure we really know what our endgame is here. For more, check out Josh Rogin, Peter Feaver, James Joyner, and Marc Lynch.

In the meantime, though, enjoy the cats. They are blissfully free of any concern beyond their next feeding time.

Understanding Paul Krugman

| Fri Mar. 18, 2011 10:54 AM PDT

Is economics a science? Do economists try to don the mantle of scientists as a way of groundlessly asserting their authority? Karl Smith thinks not, and proposes the following model of Paul Krugman as evidence:

Conservatives will no doubt have noticed that one of Krugman’s major themes is that their point of view is stupid. One might be inclined to think that this is a rude way of saying “you do not have access to the scientific knowledge that I do.”

It is not. It is a statement about what he thinks of your intelligence and ability to draw well formed conclusions.

He is not saying, I have such a deep understanding into the nature of the economy that everyone should listen to me. He is quite literally saying that the statements of conservatives convey such a shallow and imbecilic understanding of the economy that no one should consider listening to them.

He is not claiming the mantle of science, he is claiming the mantle of not being a moron.

I agree: Paul Krugman is not a moron. But then, I'm not sure his critics are either. Perhaps they're actually smart people who are just responding to a lot of bad incentives? I'm not sure if that's a more or less charitable view, though.

UPDATE: Tyler Cowen weighs in:

Economics is most like a science when people do not care about the outcome of the argument.

Yep. That's a little more evenhanded way of saying what I said.