Kevin Drum - October 2011

Sunday Tech Talk

| Sun Oct. 16, 2011 8:40 AM PDT

I have three questions for the hive mind:

  1. What's the best service out there for syncing up folders? DropBox? SugarSync? Or, since I'm a Windows-only user and only have a few gigabytes of stuff that I care about, should I just use Microsoft's free service? Are there nonobvious pitfalls to watch out for?
  2. What's the best travel site these days? I'm embarrassed to admit that I still creak along with Expedia. What things do other sites do better?
  3. For all you Gmail users: what client do you use? Does everyone just use Gmail's web client, or is there something better out there?

And finally, a tech success story, just because they seem so rare these days. A couple of weeks ago the power went out here, and when it came back up my email database had been corrupted. After diddling around a bit I gave up and figured I'd take another run at it later in the day. But when I got back from lunch, there was an alert on my computer telling me that my RAID drive had finished repairing itself. Sure enough, I rebooted and everything was fine. So the extra few dollars I spent getting a RAID array when I bought my new box a couple of years ago actually paid off. And it worked completely automatically in the background, just like it's supposed to. I guess it says something about modern computing that I'm a little shocked at this.

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Reality Has Changed; Reporting Should Change Too

| Sat Oct. 15, 2011 6:28 PM PDT

James Fallows is once again unhappy over the media's reporting of Senate dysfunction. Today's target is a story (and a headline) about the recent jobs bill that, instead of focusing on the fact that all 47 Republicans voted against it, focuses on the fact that a grand total of two (2) Democrats voted against it. There's unquestionably a fairy tale quality to the piece, especially its fantastical suggestion that those Democratic defections somehow gave cover to wavering Republicans who were unsure how they were going to vote. That's just laughable. However, Fallows also registers this complaint about the story:

It reflects so thorough an absorption of the idea that the filibuster-threat is normal business that it describes the latest cloture vote as a vote on the bill itself: "Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Jon Tester (Mont.), who are both up for reelection next year, took to the Senate floor and delivered a sizeable blow to the bill's prospects by voting against it." No, they voted against the cloture measure, which they knew had zero chance of getting the necessary 60 votes.

Here, I'm on the Post's side. Like it or not, the reality of congressional politics has changed. The Senate is now a 60-vote body, and it's the vote on a cloture motion that's the important vote. For all practical purposes, the cloture vote is the vote on the bill. So my complaint would be just the opposite of Fallows's. Instead of insisting on a Schoolhouse Rock version of reporting, I'd prefer it if the media routinely reported on the actual reality of legislation today. If you want to report accurately, you should (a) report the cloture vote as a vote on the bill itself, (b) you should make clear that 60 votes are required to pass a bill, and (c) you should report the partisan breakdown of the voting — something that used to be routine but now only occasionally appears in reports of legislative activity.

Bottom line: The real-life practice of politics in America has changed over the past decade. Reporting should change along with it.

Backyard Rose Blogging

| Sat Oct. 15, 2011 11:23 AM PDT

I have no real excuse for posting this picture. But it's pretty, isn't it, and that's excuse enough. Besides, maybe it will help to relieve the stench of the post just below.

Quote of the Day: Obama Wants to "Wipe Out Christians"

| Sat Oct. 15, 2011 11:15 AM PDT

From Rush Limbaugh, shortly after his berserk hatred of Barack Obama led him to publicly accuse the president of sending troops to Uganda to "wipe out Christians":

Is that right? The Lord's Resistance Army is being accused of really bad stuff? Child kidnapping, torture, murder, that kind of stuff? Well, we just found out about this today. We're gonna do, of course, our due diligence research on it. But nevertheless we got a hundred troops being sent over there to fight these guys — and they claim to be Christians.

Due diligence? A quick scan of Wikipedia would have been plenty. The character of the LRA is not exactly a state secret. In fact, it's so not a state secret that the Bush administration declared them a terrorist organization in 2001 and the hyperpartisan 111th Congress passed the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act unanimously last year. That is, unanimously in both houses. Every single Democrat and every single Republican, moderates and tea partiers alike, supported it in both the House and the Senate. Every single one. Jesus.

The CLASS Act and Good Government

| Sat Oct. 15, 2011 8:55 AM PDT

Yesterday the Obama administration finally abandoned the CLASS Act, a program to subsidize long-term elderly care that was part of the healthcare reform bill. Conservatives are in full war whoop mode over this, and I suppose I don't blame them. The budget forecasts for CLASS were always dodgy, and conservative concerns about this have now been vindicated.

But they should contain themselves anyway. What happened here is that government worked exactly the way it ought to. The CLASS Act was passed in a fog of rosy estimates and emotional appeals (it was one of Ted Kennedy's longstanding priorities), and the Department of Health and Human Services immediately began the detailed work of writing the implementing regulations to get it up and running. And guess what? They did their work honestly and conscientiously. Even though it was a liberal program promoted by a longtime liberal icon, HHS analysts eventually concluded that its conservative critics were right and the program as passed was flawed. So they killed it. And most of the liberal healthcare wonks that I read seem to agree that, unfortunately, HHS was right.

This is how we all want government to work. And it turns out that Obama agrees. This is apparently how he wants government to work too, and it's a pretty clear demonstration that Obama isn't the kind of hyperpartisan extreme lefty that conservatives like to paint him as. He's a guy who wants government to function well and honestly, and if it doesn't, he's willing to shut down a program that doesn't work even though it upsets his own party and provides campaign fodder to his opponents. When was the last time a Republican president did anything like that?

Friday Cat Blogging - 14 October 2011

| Fri Oct. 14, 2011 12:05 PM PDT

Inkblot has been monopolizing cat blogging lately, so this week is Domino's turn. Today, she expresses her level of excitement over Inkblot's run for the presidency. She's pretty unimpressed, and this might be having an effect: Inkblot's swagger seems to be going the way of Rick Perry's. He usually makes a mad dash for the food bowl when dinner time rolls around and gets first crack at the kibble through sheer momentum. But this week he's been…a little more hesitant. And Domino has actually eaten first a couple of times. Is he losing his edge? Or just afraid that oppo researchers will tar him as greedy and selfish if they get video of his usual performance?

Hard to say. And Domino doesn't care. We're getting our last warm spell of the season around here, and right now that's all that's on her mind. Enjoy the weekend, everyone.

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The Famous Village of Ytterby

| Fri Oct. 14, 2011 11:52 AM PDT

A public service announcement from the DC-based blogging community:

This is indeed true, but on the other hand, actual usable deposits of rare earths aren't super common either. More here in the Brad Plumer post that Ezra links above.

Far more fascinating, though, is that not one, not two, not three, but four rare earth elements are named in various fashion after the tiny Swedish village of Ytterby. Even famous scientists and Greek gods don't have so many elements named after them. More here. Local weather in Ytterby is here. It looks like it's starting to get chilly there.

When is a Jobs Plan Not a Jobs Plan?

| Fri Oct. 14, 2011 11:31 AM PDT

When President Obama released his jobs bill a few weeks ago, Moody's analyzed it and concluded that it would boost GDP and help employment. So what do they think about the Republican jobs plan released yesterday? Greg Sargent picks up the phone and asks:

“I don’t have enough detail to evaluate how many jobs this would create,” Gus Faucher, the director of macroeconomics at Moody’s Analytics, told me. “I could say, `My plan is to do nothing, and it will create five million jobs.’ And it could work, particularly if I don’t say over what time period.”

....“Should we look at regulations and make sure they make sense from a cost benefit standpoint? Certainly. Should we reduce the budget deficit over the long run? Certainly,” Faucher said. “But in the short term, demand is weak, businesses aren’t hiring, and consumers aren’t spending. That’s the cause of the current weakness — and Republican Senate proposals aren’t going to address that in the short term.”

It's yet more government via slogans, a favorite of the GOP these days. They release an endless stream of white papers and bulleted PowerPoints, but none of them ever have enough actual detail to be scored by either the CBO or private analysts.

Why? Because they know perfectly well what the score would be if they included all the details: zero. Or maybe worse. As always, it's better to stick to slogans, which sound plausible and will get reported on the evening news regardless of what a bunch of wonky economists think, than to let the wonky economists actually speak up and ruin things.

Why They Filibuster

| Fri Oct. 14, 2011 10:31 AM PDT

James Fallows continues to be gloomy about both the state of American democracy and the ability of the American media to describe it:

Main problem: the decision by Mitch McConnell's GOP Senate minority, once they lost their majority status in the 2006 elections, to filibuster nearly every item of public business....De facto, the Constitution has been amended to change the Senate from a majority-rule body to one requiring a 60-vote "supermajority."

....'Enabler' problem: The reluctance of the mainstream media to call this what it is, and instead to talk about "partisanship" and "logjam" and "dysfunction."....We had illustrations in the past few days from the NYT and, in jaw-dropping fashion, yesterday from the WaPo. And earlier this morning I was listening to a political "analysis" show on the radio that was all about this sad modern predicament of Congressional gridlock. The word "filibuster" was not used in that hour, unless it was during the minute I was plunging my head into the toilet tank in despair.

I don't feel like slitting my wrists today, so I'll just make a couple of related notes. First, keep in mind that dysfunction really is the goal here. Republicans filibuster even measures they support, and they do it solely to suck up calendar time. In these cases, the goal isn't to defeat legislation, it's explicitly to make sure that the Senate simply can't conduct very much business.

Second, it might seem odd that Senate Republicans are keeping this up. After all, the House is in GOP hands these days, so they don't really need to filibuster legislation anymore. If they wanted to, they could just shrug, let the Democrats pass whatever they want, and then let it all pile up and die in the House. But they don't. They don't even want to allow Dems a vote on legislation. Why?

Well, partly it's because the Senate is still solely responsible for confirming presidential nominations, and tying up the Senate calendar on procedural votes helps prevent a lot of nominees from being confirmed. But mainly it's because of how the press treats this. If the Senate holds only a cloture vote, and it fails, the press doesn't report it as a vote on the bill itself. It's a "procedural motion" or some such. This means Democrats don't get any public credit for voting Yes on a popular bill and Republicans don't get any public blame for voting No.

So how should the press handle this? In practice, cloture votes are now votes on bills. So maybe the press should simply report them that way. But they won't, because that's not quite accurate. Besides, it would also require headlines like "Bill Fails, 56-44." That would be accurate, but it seems sort of ridiculous and I imagine that copy desks don't like it. So the American public is shielded from just how ridiculous it is. Basically, the pathologies of the American press work entirely in the GOP's favor on this particular topic, and they take full advantage of it.

Credit Troubles in China's Boomtowns

| Fri Oct. 14, 2011 9:21 AM PDT

I'm never quite sure how seriously to take stories like this, but today the LA Times writes about the woes of Wenzhou, a high-flying coastal city in China, which boomed over the past decade and is now beginning to suffer from a bust:

"This whole situation is very serious right now," said businessman Huang Fajing, owner of a cigarette lighter factory who has had to scale back his business for lack of credit. "I think the crisis is just starting."

The troubles stem from inequities in China's banking system, where most loans go to big state-run companies. Small fry depend largely on informal lending pools charging annual interest rates as high as 60%.

Although some of those funds are provided by loan sharks with criminal ties, much of it comes from households and businesspeople looking for better returns than those paid on savings accounts in China's government-controlled banks. An estimated 90% of all households in Wenzhou and 60% of its firms participate in lending pools, according to the country's central bank.

....But pressure started to build late last year when the central government decided to hike interest rates and restrict bank lending over worries about inflation and a growing real estate bubble. That credit squeeze soon rippled through the informal market. Thousands of small Wenzhou companies have closed their doors for lack of funding, according to state media.

Maybe this is a sign of trouble to come, maybe not. It seemed worth passing along. But the truth is that it's really just an excuse to post the last paragraph of this story. Wenzhou is famous throughout China for its ostentatious displays of wealth, and this has prompted outrage over the idea that the central government might bail them out. This produced the following reaction from one of Wenzhou's business owners:

Guan, the importer of wine and scrape metal, said outsiders don't understand. "Those people against a bailout probably don't work hard and just hate rich people," said Guan, who said he owns property in every city in which he does business. "Wenzhou people take initiative. But sometimes, like in a family, children make mistakes. So the government should come in and help their kids to resolve this difficult situation."

Class warfare! This guy could come to New York and join the ranks of Wall Street titans without skipping a beat. Mr. Guan seems to have the perfect combination of arrogant condescension, congenital paranoia, casual arrogance, and an unquestioned sense of entitlement. He even has the kind of resentment of the little people that the Wall Street Journal editorial page specializes in. He'd fit right in.