Kevin Drum - January 2012

It Doesn't Matter if We Make It, Only Whether We Can Trade It

| Fri Jan. 27, 2012 3:49 PM EST

Matt Yglesias notes a tension in lefty thought today: the stuff we all support (better healthcare, more teachers, childcare, new infrastructure, etc.) is in the non-manufacturing sector, and yet we all cheer when President Obama calls for increased focus on manufacturing. So which do we want? More people working in manufacturing or more people working in service and construction industries? It's hard to have both, after all.

For the time being, let's put aside the question of whether we should take Obama seriously on this subject (I suspect not) and whether lefties are really all that committed to manufacturing in the first place (ditto). Instead, I'll repeat a point that I think Matt probably agrees with: the real issue isn't manufacturing per se, it's the tradable sector. That is, we really do have a long-term trade deficit problem, and weakening the dollar is unlikely to fix this all on its own. We also need to make stuff that other people want to buy from us, regardless of whether it comes from someone with a manufacturing NAICS code. So whether we like it or not, we really do need to have more workers in the tradable sector. In practice, this probably means more people working in manufacturing, since that accounts for a big chunk of the tradable sector, but maybe not.1

Either way, though, we can't import oil from Saudi Arabia and MacBooks from China forever unless we figure out something to sell back to them. We can't all be MRI techs, home nursing companions, and K-12 teachers.

1And just to get everyone riled up, I'll point out that the content industry (movies, TV shows, books, music, etc.) is one of the most important non-manufacturing components of the tradable sector. It's why every administration ever, both Democratic and Republican, has supported strong international IP protection. This, perhaps, suggests an even bigger tension in lefty thought than whether we really love manufacturing.

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Climate Change Goes Back to Square Zero

| Fri Jan. 27, 2012 2:15 PM EST

The Wall Street Journal has apparently tapped into the tea party id today and written the ur-text of modern-day climate denial we've all been waiting for. Ed Kilgore, from his new perch at my old perch, reads it so I don't have to:

In these turgid lines can be found a treasure trove of prevarications. You've got your impressive-sounding list of scientists agreeing with the Journal (with no corresponding list of those who disagree; the newsprint or bandwith necessary to publish those would bankrupt even the WSJ). You've got your quote marks around the term global warming. You've got your allusions to the silly "Climategate" kerfuffle. And you've got your unsubstantiated allegations of "persecution" of the brave "heretics" who dare stand with poor, puny Industry against the awesome power of academics.

Originally, climate denial went through three stages:

  1. The world isn't warming.
  2. OK, it's warming, but it's not man-made. It's just natural climate variability.
  3. Fine, people are responsible. But it's not economically worth it to do anything about it.

But conservatives have more recently backpedaled not just a single step in this process, but all the way back to the paleolithic era they're so fond of pretending to know more about than the folks who actually study it:

  1. Global warming is the biggest hoax ever put over on the American public.

This all fits in with the paranoia and conspiracy theorizing of the conservative base these days, which is pretty much identical to the paranoia and conspiracy theorizing of the far right since at least the 1930s. Climate change isn't merely wrong — that would be boring — it's an immense conspiracy being waged by a group of nerdy scientists (who want funding) and tree huggers (who are desperate to control everyone else's lives). And it's a damn successful conspiracy, too. Despite the fact that it requires thousands and thousands of participants from nearly every country in the world, with new collaborators earning PhDs every month, not a single one of them has broken the climate omerta yet and blown the whole thing open. But someone will, any day now. Just you wait.

The Bane of Animal Rescue Shelters

| Fri Jan. 27, 2012 1:04 PM EST

Emily Yoffe writes today about the Soup Nazi approach that modern animal rescue groups take toward deciding who is and who isn't fit to adopt one of their pets. As she says, this isn't just a dog thing:

You might think adopting a cat would be easier than getting a dog. After all, the solitary, self-sufficient feline is the perfect pet for the working person. But I heard from people who were turned down because of the curse of full-time employment—the cat may ignore you, but you should be home all day anyway. Others were told they need to accept a pair of cats or get nothing. And don’t even think about telling the rescue people your cat might go outside occasionally. Lisa wrote to say that she rescues strays that live in her house but are allowed outdoors. When she was looking for another cat and explained this to the person at the shelter, they turned her away.

For any species, the outside world is full of dangers, even potentially deadly ones. Maybe we all should stay inside (and avoid bathtubs and stairs). I have one cat I can’t budge off the couch with a forklift. But the other bolts from between our legs when the front door opens and would be miserable contained in the house. I’ve had successive sets of cats for more than 30 years and have concluded the risk of them going outside is worth their happiness—and they’ve lived to ripe ages. Is it really sensible to keep rescued cats out of loving homes from which they may take an occasional stroll? 

I was immensely pissed off at the rescue shelter that we last tried to adopt a cat from, though judging from what Yoffe says, they were pussycats (so to speak) compared to lots of others. I'm appalled that so many of these groups apparently prefer to keep hundreds of cats caged up and obviously unhappy forever rather than adopt them out to someone who they feel is, perhaps, ever so slightly unsuitable in some obscure way. "Perhaps you should try a kill shelter," we were finally told after two hours of cat surveying and form filling out, in a tone of voice normally reserved for child molesters and rapists.

In the end, we did go to our local municipal shelter, the same one that we adoped Inkblot from, and took home Domino. So I guess it all worked out in the end. But it left a sour taste in my mouth that I don't think I'll ever get rid of.

Quote of the Day: "Ron Paul is a Shrewd Businessman"

| Fri Jan. 27, 2012 12:33 PM EST

From Renae Hathway, Ron Paul's former secretary, on his famously racist and loony newsletters:

It was his newsletter, and it was under his name, so he always got to see the final product. . . . He would proof it.

This should surprise exactly no one, but it's still good to get it on the record. And there's more:

A person involved in Paul’s businesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid criticizing a former employer, said Paul and his associates decided in the late 1980s to try to increase sales by making the newsletters more provocative. They discussed adding controversial material, including racial statements, to help the business, the person said.

“It was playing on a growing racial tension, economic tension, fear of government,’’ said the person, who supports Paul’s economic policies but is not backing him for president. “I’m not saying Ron believed this stuff. It was good copy. Ron Paul is a shrewd businessman.’’

What a creep. All things considered, though, I guess I'm glad this came out today, not yesterday. Paul deserves all the grief he's gotten over this, and I'm delighted to see his phony teddy bear image permanently tossed in the dustbin of history where it belongs. Still, I'm not sorry that we didn't waste debate time on this nonsense. It might have taken valuable attention away from Newt's plan to turn the moon into the 51st state.

Your Questions Answered: Are the Debates Hurting Mitt Romney?

| Fri Jan. 27, 2012 12:19 PM EST

No one asked me, but I just want to briefly weigh in on the question of whether the increasingly brutal primary process will hurt Mitt Romney in the general election. No. It won't. Voters will forget the debates even happened about ten seconds after the last genuine competitor (i.e., everyone except Ron Paul) drops out. Intra-party feuding will stop about ten seconds after that, when everyone remembers that Barack Obama is Hitler. And the Obama campaign itself, though I'm sure they're enjoying the bloodletting, probably had better versions of all the anti-Romney attacks already prepped and ready to go before the first GOP primary even got started.

Any other questions?

The End of Privacy

| Fri Jan. 27, 2012 7:00 AM EST

A few days ago Google announced a new privacy policy: If you're signed into any Google service, the information that Google collects from you can be combined with information from every other Google service to build a gigantic profile of your activities and preferences. On Tuesday I wrote that I was pretty unhappy about this, and a lot of people wanted to know why. After all, Google says this new policy will mean a better computing experience for everyone:

Our recently launched personal search feature is a good example of the cool things Google can do when we combine information across products. Our search box now gives you great answers not just from the web, but your personal stuff too…But there's so much more that Google can do to help you by sharing more of your information with…well, you. We can make search better—figuring out what you really mean when you type in Apple, Jaguar or Pink. We can provide more relevant ads too. For example, it's January, but maybe you're not a gym person, so fitness ads aren't that useful to you. We can provide reminders that you're going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day.

So what's my problem? Easy. In that mass of good news, the real reason for Google's announcement was stuffed quietly into the middle: "We can provide more relevant ads too."

This is so obvious that no one even paid attention to it. Of course Google wants to target its ads better. That's where most of its revenue comes from. Yawn.

So again: What's my problem? Why do I care if Google serves up ads that are a little more suited to my tastes? The truth is that I don't. What I do care about, though, is the obvious corollary: Google's main purpose in life, as you'd expect from any big, public company, is making money. And the way they make money is by helping third parties sell you stuff. Here, then, is the nut of the thing, from the same blog post announcing the new privacy policy:

Finally, what we're not changing. We remain committed to data liberation, so if you want to take your information elsewhere you can. We don't sell your personal information, nor do we share it externally without your permission…

Do you find that reassuring? I decidedly don't. If Google can change its privacy policy today, it can change it tomorrow. And it will. No company is an unstoppable juggernaut forever, and Google is already showing signs of becoming an ordinary corporation that has to scrap for profits just like everyone else. This is what's motivating their policy change this week, and someday it's likely to motivate them to sell my personal information after all.

It won't be mandatory, of course. If I want to close my Google accounts, they'll let me. But if I use an Android smartphone—and this is plainly one of the primary targets of Google's new policy—that will be pretty hard. And after years of using Google products like Gmail and YouTube, it's not as easy as it sounds to simply export all your data and move to a new platform. In reality, very few people will do this. Google is counting on the fact that they'll grumble a bit, like I'm doing, and then get on with their lives.

And maybe I should too. That's certainly the primary advice I got after writing Tuesday's post. Perhaps, as David Brin has been telling us for years, traditional notions of privacy are going away whether we like it or not, so we might as well like it. Complaining about it won't do us any more good than complaining about the end of transatlantic ocean liners or old-time radio shows.

And yet…I'm just not there yet. It's bad enough that Google can build up a massive and—if we're honest, slightly scary—profile of my activities, but it will be a lot worse when Google and Facebook and Procter & Gamble all get together to merge these profiles into a single uber-database and then sell it off for a fee to anyone with a product to hawk. Or any government agency that thinks this kind of information might be pretty handy.

So that's why I'm unhappy. I don't believe for a second that Google's policy against selling personal information will last forever. Maybe I should just relax and accept that this is the direction the world is going, but for now I think I'll continue to fight it.

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Jacksonville Debate Roundup

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 11:15 PM EST

You know those basketball rematches where a team that got pummeled last time suddenly comes out totally on fire and wins by a mile? It's never clear quite why that happens, but it happened in the Republican debate tonight. I don't know what Romney ate for breakfast this morning, but he came alive and wiped the floor with Newt Gingrich in this debate. He went after Gingrich for his Freddie Mac connections and made it stick. He was outraged when Newt said he was anti-immigrant, and for once he actually sounded outraged. And when Newt tried to buy some anti-media cred by attacking Wolf Blitzer, he got pwned by both Blitzer and Romney:

BLITZER: Earlier this week, you said Governor Romney, after he released his taxes, you said that you were satisfied with the level of transparency of his personal finances when it comes to this. And I just want to reiterate and ask you, are you satisfied right now with the level of transparency as far as his personal finances?

GINGRICH: Wolf, you and I have a great relationship, it goes back a long way. I'm with him. This is a nonsense question. Look, how about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening, we'll actually talk about issues that relate to governing America?

BLITZER: But, Mr. Speaker, you made an issue of this, this week, when you said that, "He lives in a world of Swiss bank and Cayman Island bank accounts." I didn't say that. You did.

GINGRICH: I did. And I'm perfectly happy to say that on an interview on some TV show. But this is a national debate, where you have a chance to get the four of us to talk about a whole range of issues.

....ROMNEY: Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they weren't willing to defend here?

Ouch. Gingrich has tried that bit before about nasty attacks being OK when you're on some radio show or something but not when you're on national TV, and for some reason he's gotten away with it even though it's transparently self-serving and ridiculous. Tonight he didn't.

This was all in the first half hour, but by then the debate was over. Romney lost a bit of his mojo later on and reverted to the stuttering, stumbling Mitt that we've seen in the last two debates, but not enough to hurt him, especially after Newt was forced to endure ten minutes of attacks over his support for a lunar colony during the second hour. This attack from Romney was both brutal and effective:

ROMNEY: I spent 25 years in business. If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, "You're fired."

The idea that corporate America wants to go off to the moon and build a colony there, it may be a big idea, but it's not a good idea. And we have seen in politics -- we've seen politicians -- and Newt, you've been part of this -- go from state to state and promise exactly what that state wants to hear. The Speaker comes here to Florida, wants to spend untold amount of money having a colony on the moon. I know it's very exciting on the Space Coast.

In South Carolina, it was a new interstate highway, and dredging the port in Charleston. In New Hampshire, it was burying a power line coming in from Canada and building a new VHA hospital in New Hampshire so that people don't have to go to Boston.

Look, this idea of going state to state and promising what people want to hear, promising billions, hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy, that's what got us into the trouble we're in now. We've got to say no to this kind of spending.

Coming from a guy like Romney who's famous for his willingness to say pretty much anything to anybody, this was a great job of jiu jitsu. It was also true. Gingrich really has been pandering to state interests relentlessly, and nowhere more so than in Florida.

I don't know how much debates really matter compared to the tidal wave of advertising that's inundating Florida right now, but if they do matter then Romney won the Florida primary tonight, and almost certainly the nomination along with it. The punters on Intrade obviously agree: Romney's chances of winning shot up to 89% tonight and Gingrich's plummeted to 5%. Adios, Newt.

Voting Newt Off the Island Turns Out to be Surprisingly Hard

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 5:57 PM EST

It's sort of fascinating watching the Republican establishment finally go nuclear on Newt Gingrich. As near as I can tell, pretty much everyone who actually served with or alongside Newt in the 90s hates his guts. But as long as he was just writing books and doing think tanky stuff, they were willing to let bygones be bygones. Ditto for the period when he was supposedly running for president but, in reality, was just conducting an innovative new kind of book tour.

But now that he has millions of dollars of Sheldon Adelson's casino money and has even an outside chance of actually winning, the long knives are out. Bob Dole has a scorching attack here. The Drudge Report is now the We-Hate-Newt Report. Philip Klein launches a brutal broadside here. Suddenly everyone remembers the 90s again, and in particular how volcanically unstable Newt was.

All good fun. What's most ironically amusing about all this, though, is that underlying a lot of the attacks on Newt is the complaint that he's not conservative enough. Weirdly enough, there's some truth to this by modern GOP standards. Newt's tone and temperament are perfectly suited to the no-compromise-no-surrender spirit of the tea party-ized GOP, which is why he's so appealing to the base during debates. But the truth is that for all his bluster, Newt was perfectly willing to do deals during his time as Speaker. He likes to think of himself as a world-historical figure, and that means getting world-historical things done. Simple obstruction is not really his MO. That makes him doubly unreliable, since obstruction is the sine qua non of movement conservatism these days.

Conservatives think that listening to Newt is a hoot, and they love it when he gets the crowds wound up. The problem is that they never quite realized the crowd wasn't in on the con. The rank-and-file actually took Newt seriously, and now party leaders have to figure out how to suck the fetid air back out of the Gingrich-inspired fever swamps without losing their core audience of old people and the white working class, who are voting for their side because they're scared to death that Barack Obama is destroying western civilization. In the end, I don't think they'll have much trouble pulling this off, but in the meantime it makes the whole spectacle even better fun for us jeering liberals.

Newt Finally Fesses Up to Brazen Debate Lie

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 3:04 PM EST

One week ago today, CNN's John King asked Newt Gingrich if it was true that in 1999 he asked his then-wife Marianne Gingrich for an open marriage so that he could continue having an affair with his girlfriend Callista. On national TV, in front of a huge audience, here was his answer:

Now, let me be quite clear. Let me be quite clear. The story is false. Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period says the story was false. We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false. They [i.e., ABC] weren't interested, because they would like to attack any Republican.

This, it turns out, was a lie. Today, after a full week of badgering, Gingrich's campaign has finally admitted what ABC knew perfectly well all along: Gingrich hadn't suggested any personal friends to them at all. Nor, obviously, had they refused to interview any of these personal friends. They didn't exist.

There's an odd de facto standard for political lying: you can mislead people to almost any degree and it doesn't really count against you. It's he-said-she-said. But if there's a clear, smoking gun fact that you plainly misrepresent, no matter how trivial, then it's a scandal. By that standard, Newt ought to be in trouble. His dealings with ABC News may not be all that important in the cosmic scheme of things, but by DC standards this is a flat-out, premeditated fabrication and therefore a scandal. Gingrich told a bald-faced lied and he knew he was lying when he did it.

This all fits Newt's personality. He's always been more brazen than even your usual hardened politico because he knows that nobody really cares about fact checking. But he went over the line this time. I wonder if he'll pay a price?

Chart of the Day: The Great Depression Repeats Itself

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 12:56 PM EST

Via Paul Krugman, this is kind of fascinating. Jonathan Portes provides us with this chart, which shows the trajectory in Britain of both the Great Depression and the current Great Recession. The red and black lines at the bottom are the ones to look at:

Now, there's a bit of cherry picking going on here, I think, since Britain had a nasty recession following World War I and sluggish growth throughout the 1920s, which meant they simply didn't have as far to fall during the 30s as we did. Unemployment was also worse during the 30s than it is today. So take this with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, it's sobering: in Britain at least, the Great Recession of 2008 is, in some ways, arguably worse than the Great Depression was.