Kevin Drum - February 2012

Quote of the Day: Romney Being Outplayed at His Own Game

| Tue Feb. 28, 2012 1:05 PM PST

From Mitt Romney, in a rare appearance before actual reporters who got to ask him questions:

It's very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments. We've seen throughout the campaign if you're willing to say really outrageous things that are accusative, attacking of President Obama, that you're going to jump up in the polls. I'm not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support. I am who I am.

Say what? I mean, Romney is basically right here, but he's talking about himself. His strategy from the first day has been to deflect questions about his conservative bona fides by quickly pivoting to the wildest, most over-the-top applause-line condemnations of President Obama imaginable. And it's a smart strategy: until recently it's allowed him to show the Republican base that he's one of them ("I hate Obama as much as you do!") without tacking so far right that he ruins his chances in the general election.

Of course, Romney has since seen that strategy fizzle. His whole apology tour schtick, his claims that Obama wants to turn America into China, his claims that America is on the edge of a socialist precipice — well, that was pretty good stuff in its day, but Rick Santorum has upped the ante. Obama has declared war on religion! Obama wants you to go to college in order to indoctrinate you! He supports prenatal testing because he wants to rid America of the disabled! Suddenly, if you want to prove that you really hate Obama, the stakes have gone up. Romney has been outplayed at his own game, and he's not happy about it.

UPDATE: Greg Sargent tells me to get my demagoguery straight: "Romney says Obama wants to turn America into Europe, not China." I guess that's right. Maybe I was thinking of something Newt Gingrich said? Or perhaps Romney's claim in the Sioux City debate: "This is a president who fundamentally believes that the next century is the post-American century. Perhaps it will be the Chinese century. He is wrong." Or maybe his WSJ op-ed claim: "President Obama came into office as a near supplicant to Beijing." I dunno. It really is hard to keep track.

By the way, Greg has a pretty good rundown of Romney's Big Lie strategy here. It's a couple months old, so there's a lot of more recent stuff missing, but it still gives you a pretty good sense of Romney's rhetorical method.

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Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

| Tue Feb. 28, 2012 11:49 AM PST

The Washington Post reports on another budding source of outrage:

On Tuesday, a new Defense Department review of the mortuary operations at Dover [Air Force Base] revealed that “several portions of remains” recovered from the Sept. 11 attacks at the Pentagon and at Shanksville [] ended up in a landfill. The review, led by retired Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, did not quantify how many human remains from Sept. 11 were disposed of in this manner. It said the remains “could not be tested or identified,” apparently because they were too small or charred to allow for DNA analysis.

Those remains were cremated first, but then handed over to a “biomedical waste disposal contractor”....for incineration. Dover mortuary officials assumed at the time that “after final incineration, nothing remained,” Abizaid’s report stated. In fact, there was still residual material left over from the incineration, which the contractor then took to a landfill.

The mortuary changed its policy in 2008 and since then has buried unclaimed or unidentified cremated remains at sea.

Can we please please please just collectively decide not to care about this? If I'm reading this right, we're talking about perhaps half a dozen "portions" so small they couldn't be analyzed. In other words, maybe an unidentifiable few grams or so? Which were cremated and then incinerated. And then taken to a landfill instead of being tossed over the side of a ship.

Let's all get a grip. This just isn't a big deal. All we have to do is decide not to pop a gasket and get on with our lives. We can do that. We can.

Are the Rich Bigger Pricks Than the Rest of Us?

| Tue Feb. 28, 2012 10:20 AM PST

A study that suggests the rich are bigger pricks than the poor got a lot of attention yesterday, and I agree with Tyler Cowen that we should all take it with a bigger grain of salt than we have. I wasn't wildly impressed with the quality of the results, though some are interesting and suggestive. But what's up with this?

Let’s view these results in light of the literature as a whole (I haven’t seen any journalistic source do this). Very often in studies the highest trust, lowest corruption societies in the world are the relatively wealthy Nordic countries, not poor countries. There is plenty of evidence that it is low and falling incomes — not wealth — which helped to explain voter support for fascism. Consumers are eager to buy products from companies such as Apple, and they regard the wealth of the shareholders, and the high profit margins, as a sign they will get a high quality product, not a reason to fear a rip-off.

Wait a second. We all love Apple products because Apple charges wildly high prices for them? Where did that come from? Wal-Mart and McDonald's are pretty big companies too, and obviously nobody buys from them because of their high margins and wealthy shareholders. We buy from all three companies because they sell highly standardized products/services and have a reputation for being customer-centric.

That said, I agree with Tyler's advice to read this study carefully. High-status people can afford to take more risks (like breaking traffic laws); they engage in negotiations more routinely and therefore come to consider them mostly amoral exercises; and they're accustomed to not being questioned — either because they're surrounded by people who work for them or because they're surrounded by people who want to sell them stuff. All of this is likely to make them more imperious, more demanding, and more likely to believe they won't get caught if they cheat (and more likely to get off if they are caught). What's more, the rich are certainly far more likely to get their way than the poor. All of this is common sense, and it makes us more likely to believe a study that confirms our intuitions about the rich. But the study relied an awful lot on simulations (i.e., games) and on asking people to "imagine" they were upper class. Neither of those necessarily maps well to what real people would do in real situations. Be careful with this one.

We Are All Gordon Gekko Now

| Tue Feb. 28, 2012 9:34 AM PST

Christine Negroni writes in the New York Times today about all the innovative ways that airlines plan to make money in the future since it's now obvious to them that they can't make money merely by flying people around. Matt Yglesias thinks the ideas all sound kind of dumb except this one:

Continental Airlines, which merged with United Airlines last year, is also taking business ideas from the world of finance. A year ago, it began selling options on ticket prices. The program, FareLock, lets would-be travelers freeze a ticket price for as many as seven days by paying a small fee which the airline keeps regardless of whether the customer ultimately makes the purchase. United will adopt the program next month, when its reservations system is merged with Continental’s.

“It’s a value to people like a stock option is a value,” said Jeff Smisek, the president and chief executive of United Continental Holdings. It lets you buy stock at a fixed price. Well, this is an option on a seat.”

So this is a....nonrefundable deposit? With a fancy new name to make it sound more like high finance? Give me a break. I agree that it's not necessarily a bad idea, but do we really have to adopt such an idiotic euphemism for a retail practice that was commonplace before I was born?

UPDATE: On a related subject, in comments Model62 says:

Just a nit, here, but the checked baggage fees the NY Times writer notes in the story's intro are not primarily a way to generate more cash flow. They are a tax avoidance scheme; airline FAA fees are calculated based on fares, not the various attached "fees." The more services the airline can strip out of the fare price and re-add as a fee, the less it pays to the government.

In a way the airlines have been acting like finance types for some time now; quants figuring out the most efficient ways to route traffic around the tax code.

Interesting! I didn't know that. Still, can't it be both: a cash flow generator and a tax avoidance scheme?

Credit Default Swaps Are Back in the News

| Tue Feb. 28, 2012 8:57 AM PST

Credit default swaps are in the news again:

An unidentified market participant has asked a committee of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association to rule on whether the passage of legislation approving collective-action clauses for Greek debt should trigger payouts on credit-default swaps tied to Greek sovereign bonds.

At stake are payouts from sellers of a net $3.2 billion of CDS on Greece currently outstanding, and the stigma associated with lending credence to an instrument policy makers have long reviled.

I hope the ISDA takes the case, and I hope they rule in favor of the CDS holders. I'm not a big fan of CDS, and I suspect the world would be a better place if CDS were banned outright, but for now they're legitimate contracts bought and sold in a legitimate way. So if Greece has defaulted, the contracts should pay out — and Greece has defaulted. The European claim that the haircut on Greek bonds is "voluntary" is the worst kind of sophistry, and allowing it to stand because of bullying from the EU would be a travesty. The ISDA shouldn't be a party to this fiction, and shouldn't encourage other governments to expect a continuing supply of get-out-of-jail-free cards in the future. That's moral hazard for you.

Default is part of the latest European deal. Part of the price of that deal is the cost of CDS payouts. Everybody should stop pretending otherwise.

Republicans Are Crazy, But That's Pretty Normal

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 10:56 PM PST

Ten years ago John Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote The Emerging Democratic Majority, which argued that a variety of demographic trends spelled doom for the Republican Party. Unfortunately for Judis and Teixeira, Republicans ignored their demographic doom and won a convincing victory in 2004. But hey, that was due to 9/11 and Iraq and the war on terror, and who could have predicted that? Then Democrats chalked up big wins in 2006 and 2008 (whew!), but in 2010 Republicans came roaring back. But hey, that was because of an epic recession, and who could have predicted that? Any day now, those demographics are going to kick in and Republicans will be doomed once and for all. Honest.

I am, obviously, being a smart-ass about this. In fact, as Jon Chait writes today in "2012 or Never," the demographic trends that Judis and Teixeira wrote about really are continuing apace. Smart Republicans are well aware of this, and they're especially well aware that one of the biggest demographic trends working against them is the growth of the Latino population. So a few years ago, as a way of peeling off some Latino votes from the Democrats, they took a stab at passing a moderate immigration bill. Unfortunately, their base went into a full-bore revolt and began demanding a harsher anti-immigrant policy instead of a more moderate one. As Jon says, this was about like publicly announcing an electoral suicide pact on national TV.

And it gets worse. At the same time that Republicans are deliberately adopting policies that spell long-term disaster, they've also adopted an uncompromising all-or-nothing political strategy that appeals to their existing base but has cost them dearly in the form of short-term Democratic victories. A more moderate party could have stopped or watered down health care reform, but instead they got Obamacare. A more moderate party could have struck a historic spending deal with Obama, but instead they got nothing. And like lemmings going over a cliff, virtually all of them voted for Paul Ryan's budget roadmap, which was extremely unpopular with most voters. What's going on?

The way to make sense of that foolhardiness is that the party has decided to bet everything on its one "last chance."…Grim though the long-term demography may be, it became apparent to Republicans almost immediately after Obama took office that political fate had handed them an impossibly lucky opportunity. Democrats had come to power almost concurrently with the deepest economic crisis in 80 years, and Republicans quickly seized the tactical advantage, in an effort to leverage the crisis to rewrite their own political fortunes.

…During the last midterm elections, the strategy succeeded brilliantly…In the long run, though, the GOP has done nothing at all to rehabilitate its deep unpopularity with the public as a whole, and has only further poisoned its standing with Hispanics. But by forswearing compromise, it opened the door to a single shot. The Republicans have gained the House and stand poised to win control of the Senate. If they can claw out a presidential win and hold on to Congress, they will have a glorious two-year window to restore the America they knew and loved, to lock in transformational change, or at least to wrench the status quo so far rightward that it will take Democrats a generation to wrench it back. The cost of any foregone legislative compromises on health care or the deficit would be trivial compared to the enormous gains available to a party in control of all three federal branches.

Jon doesn't actually offer any evidence that this is what's motivating Republicans, and likewise, I can't really marshal much evidence that he's wrong. But I have a hard time buying this. If I'm reading him correctly, he's saying that Republicans know they're doomed, and they're deliberately adopting a catastrophic long-term strategy in the hopes that one last hurrah will be enough to keep America conservative even if they do lose every election for the next 20 years.

But this simply doesn't pass the human-nature test. I can't peer into the souls of Republicans, but I don't get any sense that they believe themselves to be doomed. People just don't think that way. Rather, I get the sense that they're true believers who think that, deep in its heart, America agrees with them.

This also doesn't pass the common sense test. Even if Republicans do win control of all three branches, they aren't going to win 60 seats in the Senate. They aren't even going to come close. So if they try to roll back the New Deal, or whatever their plan is, Democrats will filibuster it. Republicans have already shown them how, after all. The GOP will certainly be able to move the dial a bit if they win in November, but there's no way anyone in the party thinks they can "lock in transformational change" over a two-year period with 52 votes in the Senate.

Basically, I just don't think there's a huge mystery to be solved here. When Democrats lost to Reagan, they nominated first Walter Mondale and then Michael Dukakis before finally tacking to the center and putting Bill Clinton in the White House. That was a 12-year stretch. Britain's Labour Party spent a decade moving left before they finally tacked back to the center after losing to Margaret Thatcher. It took them 18 years to finally regain power. Republicans have only been in the wilderness for either four or six years, depending on how you count. If it takes until 2016 for them to come to their senses, that would be a pretty normal progression.

Republicans don't think they have one last chance before the fat lady sings them off the stage. They're just reacting emotionally to a big defeat by convincing themselves that they were rejected because they hadn't been true enough to their principles. That happens all the time. They'll come around eventually.

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Creditmongering, Take 2

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 6:00 PM PST

I wasn't planning to revisit the creditmongering post I wrote earlier today, since I suspect that only a tiny fraction of my readership cares very much about it. But I've gotten a few responses to it that seem worth addressing, in particular this one from Aaron Carroll. So.....

When should you credit other people in your writing? For starters, I'd draw a sharp distinction between journalism, blogging, and academia. For lack of a better way of putting this, I'd also draw a sharp distinction between ideas and IDEAS.

Journalism first. I stick by my belief that being first with a garden-variety story by a few minutes or a few hours simply isn't worth crediting. The person who got there first thinks it's a big deal, but honestly, no one else does. Besides, journalism is a business. No one credits their competitors in other industries if they can help it, and I'm not sure why we expect journalists to be any different. So I guess my rule here is: If someone else breaks a genuinely big story, it's right and proper to credit them. If it's just a few-hour lead on a piece of commodity news, get a life. The warm glow of being first is all you're going to get out of it.

Next, blogging. After giving this some thought, I realized that I do follow some rough rules on linking and crediting. I've just never put them in writing. So here they are:

  • If I'm responding directly to someone, of course I link to them.
  • Even if I don't respond directly to someone, but only to a piece they linked to, I'll probably provide a link if they said something interesting.
  • If someone links to a common story that I would have seen anyway, I don't.
  • If someone links to a story I probably wouldn't have seen on my own, I usually give credit one way or another.
  • If the link comes from a link roundup, I'm less likely to bother giving credit. If my readers click through, I'm wasting their time.

Next, academia. This is a whole different culture with its own rules. Extensive endnotes are common. Literature reviews are customary. Credit to others is splashed all over the place not only because it's expected, but because it demonstrates a certain level of erudition on the part of the writer. Nothing else I've said here applies to academics.

Beyond that, though, several people have suggested that if you get an idea from someone, you should credit them regardless of any other linking/credit rules you might follow. This is where I'd make the distinction between ideas and IDEAS. The former is inspiration: if I read something that makes me want to dig into the plight of the long-term unemployed, I'm not likely to credit anyone. It's just a topic. Lots of people have addressed it, and the fact that I happened to get my inspiration from one person rather than another probably doesn't matter much.

But an IDEA is different: this is a very specific theory or model or explanation for something. Or maybe an original insight. If you mention an IDEA, or riff on it to produce one of your own, you should credit the originator.

One more thing. I think every blogger has had the experience of writing something, and then seeing someone else write something suspiciously similar a few hours later without giving credit. Be careful. I suspect that most of the time we're getting worked up over a coincidence. Most of our ideas aren't really as original as we think.

But that might just be my temperament speaking. I tend not to care much if I get credit for my ideas. Mainly, I just like to see them spread. If someone echoes me, then my ideas get broadcast into the ideasphere — and, truthfully, it's probably more effective if it looks like someone has independently had the same thought than it is if they're writing a post explicitly agreeing with me. So I'm happy either way. But I recognize that other people have different feelings about this and get a bigger kick than I do out of being the center of a new meme. So I guess maybe the overriding rule for credit is this: it doesn't cost anything and it can't hurt. If in doubt, give credit.

Obama Shuts Down NSA Cybersecurity Proposal

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 2:01 PM PST

Ellen Nakashima of the Washington Post reports that the NSA and the White House are at odds over a proposal to increase surveillance of "critical infrastructure systems" in order to prevent cyberattacks:

The most contentious issue was a legislative proposal last year that would have required hundreds of companies that provide critical services such as electricity generation to allow their Internet traffic be continuously scanned using computer threat data provided by the spy agency. The companies would have been expected to turn over evidence of potential cyberattacks to the government.

....The NSA proposal, called Tranche 2, sparked fierce debate within the administration. It would have required an estimated 300 to 500 firms with a role in critical infrastructure systems to allow their Internet carrier or some other private company to scan their computer networks for malicious software using government threat data....NSA officials say this process would have been automated, preventing intrusion into the personal privacy of ordinary users visiting Web sites or exchanging electronic messages with friends.

....But the White House and other agencies, including the departments of Justice and Commerce, said the proposal left open the possibility that the large Internet carriers themselves could be designated critical entities. This, they said, could have allowed scanning of virtually all Internet traffic for cyberthreats on behalf of the government, opening a newly extensive window into American behavior online.

The story leaves it unclear whether Tranche 2 is dead for good, or merely needs to be retooled to place clear limits on who's required to take part. Either way, given the intense interest in cybersecurity these days, I don't expect this proposal to go away.

On a political note, it's unclear how this will break down on party lines. Obviously the GOP base is inclined to think that anything Obama opposes must be good, and they certainly supported the increased surveillance powers that George Bush gave to NSA. On the other hand, tea partiers tend to be suspcious of this kind of Big Brotherish monitoring. So it's hard to say which way they'll jump. Probably against Obama is my guess.

Journalism's Unhealthy Obsession With Creditmongering

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 12:20 PM PST

A few days ago, MG Siegler unleashed an epic rant about the Wall Street Journal failing to give him proper credit for a piece he wrote. Here's a taste:

I broke the news that Apple acquired the app search/discovery platform Chomp at 4:01 PM today. At 6:06 PM — over two hours later — WSJ reported the story as well. But oddly, with no mention of my original story.

This was odd both because, again, I reported the same information two hours earlier. And because it was at the top of Techmeme, which everyone in the industry reads. And every single other publication linked to my story.

[Blah blah blah]

Spare me. If you report out a big story that no one else was working on, then credit is due when others follow up your trail. But guess what? If you report a simple fact and happen to get it two hours before the rest of the world, no one cares. Journalists continue to be unhealthily obsessed by whether they reported a piece of news 15 minutes before every other news outlet in the world, but no one else is. And that's doubly true when it's a minor piece of commodity news. Does Siegler seriously think that everyone who reports on the Chomp acquisition for the next month should give him mad props for being the first by a couple of hours? Get over yourself.

I didn't bother ranting back about this at the time, but Felix Salmon reminded me of it today, and he comes to roughly the same conclusion in much more measured tones and a couple thousand more words:

As for crediting the news organization which broke some piece of news, that’s more of a journalistic convention than a necessary service to readers. It’s important enough within the journalism world, at least in the US, that it’s probably a good idea to do it when you can. But most of the time it’s pretty inside-baseball stuff. And in the pantheon of journalistic sins, failing to do it is not a particularly big deal. What’s much more important is that your reader get as much information as possible, as efficiently as possible. Which means that if you’re writing about a document or report, you link to that document or report. Failure to do that is a much greater sin than failure to link to some other journalist.

So while sometimes the failure to link is unavoidable, I look forward to a time when journalists face much more criticism for not linking to primary documents than they do for not linking to some other news organization which got the news first.

Yep. Always link to primary sources if you can. Give credit for major stories. But commodity news? I guess Felix is right to say that it's "friendly and polite" to link to whoever put it up first, but I think that's about it. If you don't do it, it's no big deal.

POSTSCRIPT: I should mention that I'm probably an outlier on this issue at Mother Jones. Writers at smallish publications routinely get annoyed when big news outlets follow up on something they wrote but don't give any credit. I understand the annoyance if the big pub basically does nothing more than rewrite the original story, but not so much if they add their own original reporting. Ideas don't belong to anyone, and readers don't much care where the inspiration for a story came from. Once it's out there, it's out there.

Santorum Brings the Working Class into Campaign 2012

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 10:47 AM PST

Rick Santorum has been on a populist tear lately, a job made easier by running against the endlessly awkward Mitt Romney. But President Obama is his main target, and as we all know by now, he said this on Saturday:

Not all folks are gifted in the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands. Some people have incredible gifts and ... want to work out there making things. President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.

Set aside for a moment the fact that this isn't true. Obama, in fact, wants everyone to go to a university, a community college, a technical school, or a trade school. But the audience listening to Santorum didn't know that, and Dave Weigel reports that they're totally on Santorum's side:

Here in northern Michigan, I've found that Republican voters are 1) aware of the "controversy" and 2) totally sympatico. "I totally agree with Santorum," said Larry Copley, a retired state cop waiting for the candidate at the Streeter Center here. "College isn't for everyone."

"We see a lot of jobs going unfilled because people [aren't] being trained for them," chimed in Larry's wife, Margo. "Plumbing, construction, jobs like that."

I don't think it's hard to understand the sentiment here. Half a century ago, it's true that the working class didn't have a widespread disdain for college. In fact, it was common to hope for a better life for your kids, with college as the ticket out of the factory/coal mines/construction site. But it's also true that no one felt it was mandatory. It was something to aspire to, but if your kids weren't college material, there were plenty of other good jobs available to them. No one suggested that a kid without a degree was a loser.

But things are different today. If you're in the working class, college isn't something to aspire to because your kids probably aren't going to college. Universities are mostly the preserve of the middle class and above, and everyone in the lower half of the income spectrum knows it. And those good jobs available to high school grads? There's not so many of those anymore. And to top it all off, these days there really is a steady drumbeat from the Tom Friedmans of the world suggesting that America is doomed to be a global loser unless we all start upping our game and cranking out a lot more PhDs and college graduates. Obama himself may not be saying that explicitly, but he's part of an elite consensus that sure is. It's hardly any wonder that the working class feels besieged on all fronts lately.

The fact that Santorum is turning this into an attack on Obama is just campaign politics. No big deal, really. But the sentiment he's expressing here is real, and it's one we've heard more often from the left than the right in the past. Needless to say, I could do without Santorum's loopy stuff about Obama supporting college because it destroys religious faith (also not true, by the way), but the alienation and stagnation of the working class is real, and frankly, it's nice to hear someone on the right acknowledge this in an economic sense, not just the usual culture war sense. We could use more of this.