Kevin Drum - August 2011

Friday Cat Blogging - 19 August 2011

| Fri Aug. 19, 2011 2:23 PM EDT

I have some worrying news to report. Based on the picture on the left—and believe me, this is just one of many—Inkblot's senior campaign staff is beginning to wonder if we have a Newt Gingrich problem on our hands. Inkblot insists that he's "developing new approaches and new ideas" that are "fundamentally different from anything you've seen," but it looks an awful lot like plain old snoozing to us. What's more, his repeated insistence that he's just "resting up for the campaign" is starting to wear thin. And needless to say, his sister isn't helping things any. There's just a serious lack of energy that's pervading campaign headquarters these days. Clearly, something needs to change.

In related news, Inkblot is also suffering from a lack of national exposure. I wonder if I could fix this by learning how to take "magazine cover" pictures of his majesty presidency? Seems like a bargain for only 25 cents, especially considering its promise to teach me "cat psychology." This could be just the ticket!

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Chart of the Day: Unemployment in and Around Texas

| Fri Aug. 19, 2011 2:10 PM EDT

Here's another look at Rick Perry's Texas Miracle. It shows the unemployment rate in Texas and in the 11 states immediately surrounding it in the Sunbelt and the lower Midwest. Bottom line: It's doing better than four of them and worse than seven. I don't know about you, but in my church we have a higher bar for miracles than that.

Quote of the Day: The Price of Progress

| Fri Aug. 19, 2011 12:22 PM EDT

From the Congressional Research Service, in a report on the cost of new EPA regulations that will shut down some of the worst polluting coal plants in the country:

The costs of the rules may be large, but, in most cases, the benefits are larger.

The full report is here. Brad Plumer has the user-friendly summary here. Bottom line: The cost of the new EPA regs is almost certainly being hugely overestimated by the power industry (surprise!), and the benefits in public health will almost certainly be far greater than the price tag for replacing our most antiquated coal plants — which are mostly near the end of their life anyway — by more efficient combined cycle natural gas plants.

Power Without Responsibility

| Fri Aug. 19, 2011 11:56 AM EDT

Last week, Joshua Tucker suggested that parliamentary systems might generally sustain higher debt ratings than countries with presidential systems. Temple University professor Christopher Wlezien responds:

Madisonian presidential systems are more responsive to changing public opinion. That is, it may be that, in being more responsive to the public, these presidential systems are less responsive to the demands of financial authorities? Or, put differently, governments in parliamentary systems have greater discretion. There is reason to think that electoral system and party polarization will matter too, the idea here being that the level of fragmentation and division may influence what ratings agencies think about prospects for agreement.

On the specific question about debt ratings, I'm agnostic. But I'd make a further point here, one that I alluded to a couple of weeks ago. One of the features of a parliamentary system — you can decide for yourself whether it's a feature or a bug — is that the ruling party is fully in charge. The opposition party can kibbitz, but that's all.

In other words, just like a president, members of the ruling party have an obligation of responsibility that forces them to act conscientiously. They don't stop being politicians, but there are sharp limits on just how political they can be. People with ultimate responsibility simply don't have the luxury of demagoguery and populist bluster when things go sour. Perhaps this means less immediate responsiveness toward public opinion, but it also means a greater willingness to take necessary but unpopular steps.

In a presidential system, conversely, a minority party can bluster and obstruct all they want because they don't have an obligation of responsibility. They're just the minority party! As Republicans made relentlessly clear during the debt ceiling debate, they knew perfectly well that President Obama was ultimately accountable for the state of the economy and for running the government. That forced him to act responsibly, but it put no such restriction on anyone else.

The obligation of responsibility motivates political leaders to look for real solutions. It doesn't guarantee good solutions, but it does generally guarantee a moderately low level of complete buffoonery. They just can't afford it when they're the ones holding the bag. In a parliamentary system, that sort of thing can be safely left to the opposition party, which can bluster endlessly precisely because they have no real power.

But power without responsibility? That's a toxic combination, and that's what presidential systems can give you sometimes. I very much doubt that Madison would remain an enthusiast for his own invention if he saw us trying to keep it creaking along even with the strong party discipline that's typical today. Jemmy was a smart cookie, and he understood that strong party systems require political machinery designed to accommodate them. But he didn't want parties, so he wasn't interested in the machinery. For better or worse, though, that's no longer true. We now have a de facto parliamentary party system without the parliamentary rules and norms to make it work. So much the worse for all of us.

On the Proper Display of Panic

| Fri Aug. 19, 2011 11:26 AM EDT

Ryan Avent responds to my gloomy take on the economy last night:

As a writer, it's difficult to know how to approach these situations. Is it time to panic? No, it's not. Is it time to develop a serious sense of urgency about looming crises, the better to protect against expected pain and insure against the possibility of real disasters? Absolutely. The problem is in trying to convey urgency in an appropriately sober way.

Quite so. I shall try to panic in more sober tones in the future.

Huntsman 2016!

| Fri Aug. 19, 2011 11:01 AM EDT

I've long believed that Jon Huntsman is running to position himself for 2016, not because he thinks he has any chance of winning this year. James Fallows says there's now proof positive of this. Here's what Huntsman tweeted yesterday after Rick Perry said global warming was a hoax and evolution was just a theory:

Fallows comments:

Good to see this "what the hell, I might as well keep my dignity" spirit taking hold on Team Huntsman! I hope it will still prevail the next time he's asked to raise his hand, along with everyone else in the race, and promise to reject a budget deal skewed 10-to-1 in favor of spending cuts rather than revenue increases. He could be the one who stands alone and says:

"I believe in a balanced approach, just like Ronald Reagan did. Call me crazy."

Maybe "Call me crazy" will become Huntsman's new campaign slogan.

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Why Did World War II End?

| Fri Aug. 19, 2011 5:00 AM EDT
The atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

There has long been a scholarly debate about whether it was necessary for the United States to use atomic weapons to bring World War II to an end. Traditionalists say yes: If not for Fat Man and Little Boy, Japan would have fought to the last man. But revisionists argue that by August of 1945: (a) Japan's situation was catastrophically hopeless; (b) they knew it and were ready to surrender; and (c) thanks to decoded Japanese diplomatic messages, Harry Truman and other American leaders knew they were ready. A Japanese surrender could have been negotiated in fairly short order with or without the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For various reasons I've always found the revisionist view unsatisfactory. After all, even after the Hiroshima bomb was dropped, we know there was still considerable debate within the Japanese war cabinet over their next step. Surely if Japan had already been close to unconditional surrender in early August—and for better or worse, unconditional surrender was an American requirement—the atomic demonstration of August 6 would have been more than enough to tip them over the edge. But it didn't. It was only after the second bomb was dropped that Japan ultimately agreed to surrender.

But although the revisionist view has never persuaded me, a new revisionist view has been swirling around the academic community for several years—and this one seems much more interesting. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, a trilingual English/Russian/Japanese historian, reminds us that the actual timeline of Japanese surrender went like this:

August 6: Hiroshima bomb dropped.

August 8: Soviet Union declares war on Japan and invades Manchuria.

August 9: Nagasaki bomb dropped.

August 10: Emperor Hirohito breaks the cabinet deadlock and decides that Japan must surrender.

So what really caused the Japanese to finally give up? Was it America's atomic bombs, or was it the Soviet Union's entrance into the Pacific war? Hasegawa, based on meticulous research into primary sources, argues that it was probably the latter. Gareth Cook summarizes Hasegawa's argument in the Boston Globe:

According to his close examination of the evidence, Japan was not poised to surrender before Hiroshima, as the revisionists argued, nor was it ready to give in immediately after the atomic bomb, as traditionalists have always seen it.…Americans, then and today, have tended to assume that Japan's leaders were simply blinded by their own fanaticism, forcing a catastrophic showdown for no reason other than their refusal to acknowledge defeat.…But Hasegawa and other historians have shown that Japan's leaders were in fact quite savvy, well aware of their difficult position, and holding out for strategic reasons.

Their concern was not so much whether to end the conflict, but how to end it while holding onto territory, avoiding war crimes trials, and preserving the imperial system. The Japanese could still inflict heavy casualties on any invader, and they hoped to convince the Soviet Union, still neutral in the Asian theater, to mediate a settlement with the Americans. Stalin, they calculated, might negotiate more favorable terms in exchange for territory in Asia. It was a long shot, but it made strategic sense.

On Aug. 6, the American bomber Enola Gay dropped its payload on Hiroshima.…As Hasegawa writes in his book "Racing the Enemy," the Japanese leadership reacted with concern, but not panic.…Very late the next night, however, something happened that did change the plan. The Soviet Union declared war and launched a broad surprise attack on Japanese forces in Manchuria. In that instant, Japan's strategy was ruined. Stalin would not be extracting concessions from the Americans. And the approaching Red Army brought new concerns: The military position was more dire, and it was hard to imagine occupying communists allowing Japan's traditional imperial system to continue. Better to surrender to Washington than to Moscow.

In some sense, the real answer here is probably unknowable. Two events happened at nearly the same time, and they were closely followed by a third. Figuring out conclusively what caused what may simply not be possible. Probably they both played a role. Still, aside from the documentary evidence that Hasegawa amasses, his theory accounts for other aspects of the war. Like the dog that didn't bark in the night, Japan didn't give up after the fire bombing of Tokyo. Nor did Germany surrender after the fire bombing of Dresden. And although it's undeniably true that atomic bombs are a more dramatic way of destroying a city than conventional weaponry, it's also undeniably true that simply destroying a city was never enough to produce a surrender. So why would destroying a city with an atomic bomb be that much different?

This is fascinating stuff. At the same time, I think that Cook takes a step too far when he suggests that Hasegawa's research, if true, should fundamentally change our view of atomic weapons. "If the atomic bomb alone could not compel the Japanese to submit," he writes, "then perhaps the nuclear deterrent is not as strong as it seems." But that hardly follows. America in 1945 had an air force capable of leveling cities with conventional weaponry. We still do—though barely—but no other country in the world comes close. With an atomic bomb and a delivery vehicle, North Korea can threaten to destroy Seoul. Without it, they can't. And larger atomic states, like the US, India, Pakistan, and Russia, have the capacity to do more than just level a city or two. They can level entire countries.

So, no: Hasegawa's research is fascinating for what it tells us about a key event in history. But should it change our view of atomic weaponry or atomic deterrence? I doubt it. It's not 1945 anymore.

Watching Armageddon From an Armchair

| Thu Aug. 18, 2011 11:18 PM EDT

Watching the world slide slowly back into recession without a fight, even though we know perfectly well how to prevent it, is just depressing beyond words. Our descendents will view the grasping politicians and cowardly bankers responsible for this about as uncomprehendingly as we now view the world leaders who cavalierly allowed World War I to unfold even though they could have stopped it at any time.

That is all. I just wanted to get this off my chest yet again.

The Itsy Bitsy Primaries of Texas

| Thu Aug. 18, 2011 10:08 PM EDT

In Texas, the Democratic Party is so weak that the only election that really matters is the Republican primary. But:

In the 2002, 2006, and 2010 votes in which [Rick] Perry was elected governor, only around 4 percent of the voting-age population turned out for the Republican primary.

That's....stupefying. But basically right, according to the Texas Secretary of State. In the 2000 Republican primary runoff (Perry's first gubernatorial race), 1.55% of the eligible population voted. In the 2002 primary, it was 4.01%. In the 2006 primary it was 3.94%. In the 2010 primary, turnout skyrocketed to 8.0%.

How unusual is this? I'm not sure, but I went ahead and looked up the primary turnout numbers for my state, California. We turn out about 24% of the eligible population in our gubernatorial primary elections, which are held on the same schedule as Texas. That's for both parties, so figure that's about 14% for the dominant party (Democrats, in our case), more than 3x the typical Texas turnout for their dominant party.

I don't really know what to make of this. At first I thought maybe it was because Perry was an incumbent for most of those elections, so the primary just didn't generate much excitement. But the turnout in 2000 was only 1.55%, and the turnout in the 1994 primary, when George Bush first ran, was 1.54%. Or maybe it's ballot initiatives that make the difference: we had lots of 'em and Texas didn't in those elections. But whatever the reason, Texas Republicans just don't vote much in their primaries.

Kinda weird. Harvey Tucker, professor of political science at Texas A&M, explains:

In Texas, the “people who vote in primary elections are unusual people,” Tucker stressed to me. “They are more extreme, further to the right.” In other words, Perry was able to repeatedly vault himself to the governorship largely not because he was a persuasive campaigner, but because he catered to the extreme views of a minority of die-hard conservatives.

Well, primary voters everywhere tend to be more extreme than the general population. But Texas does everything bigger, and I guess they do that bigger too. I wonder if Perry will figure that out in time?

NPR's Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy

| Thu Aug. 18, 2011 6:19 PM EDT

Patrick Cahalan comments on NPR's list of the Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books:

The top twenty is not bad, slightly adjusted.....[Some adjustments duly made, opening up a few spots]....Both Jules Verne and H.G. deserve to be much higher than they’re ranked on this list, I’d probably push both The Time Machine and 20,000 into these spots.

For the record, these two are ranked 36th and 37th on NPR's list (which was the result of a listener poll). By coincidence, I read The Time Machine for the first time just a few weeks ago. So here's my question: does a book like this deserve to make a Top X list simply by virtue of being historically important? Because come on folks: unlike, say, Hamlet or Crime and Punishment, this is not a book that ages well. By contemporary standards it's sort of a toy piece of SF. It wouldn't make it off an editor's slush pile if it came in over the transom.

(On the other hand, it's short and the writing is perfectly sprightly. It's well worth reading solely for its historical importance. Still, that doesn't make it a great book.)

Anyway, as you can guess, this post isn't really here to piss off lovers of The Time Machine. That's just a bonus. Mostly it's an excuse to link to the list so everyone can argue about it. So then, a few comments. I was a little surprised that Lord of the Rings made the #1 spot but The Hobbit couldn't even break into the top 100. And Ender's Game at #3? Yeesh. I'm not a hater — I enjoyed the book a lot — but it just isn't top ten material.

What else? There's no Frederik Pohl on the list. That's a serious omission. Nor any Bester or Delany. No David Brin either, which is a little less surprising, but still doesn't seem quite right. And unless I missed something, there are precisely two novels on the list written between 1900 and 1940. That's quite a desert.