Kevin Drum - March 2012

Taking a Closer Look at Economic Insecurity

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 9:37 AM EST

Over the past few years Scott Winship has made a career out of scolding liberals for exaggerating the recent growth of economic insecurity, and I've learned a lot by reading his critiques. But I find that I always have a problem with his pieces: he simply pushes back too hard in the opposite direction. If there are different measures of some variable, he always picks the one that minimizes the problem. If there are alternate explanations for a trend, ditto. If different datasets say different things, ditto again. The right answer is always the one that makes the problem look the smallest.

I was reminded of this today while reading "Bogeyman Economics," a long piece in National Interest whose takeaway is that a careful examination of the data suggests that economic insecurity hasn't risen much at all in recent years. But Winship's thumb is invariably on the scale. In his look at income volatility, for example, he reviews some valuable criticisms of previous research. But he also dismisses the use of an alternate dataset without offering much of an explanation and insists that a proper look at the data — which measures the portion of working-age adults who experience a 25% year-to-year income decline — suggests very little change over the years. But look at his own chart:

The number of families with big income drops has "increased only slightly," he says, and even accounting for cyclical fluctuations "the claims of dramatically increased volatility simply don't stand up." But a simple look at the data says different. I added the green line going roughly through the middle of the data, and it shows the number of at-risk families rising from about 8% to 12%. That's a 50% increase, which is significant by any measure. What's more, if you look at the trend line going through the peaks, which correspond to economic recessions, the increase is even greater. In other words, the impact of recessions has become larger and larger over the past four decades — exactly the concern of those who write about economic insecurity.

Other examples litter the piece. Maybe some of the income drops in the chart above are voluntary, he suggests, without presenting any evidence that voluntary income losses have risen. He calls a joblessness increase of 3% to 6% between 1968 and 2007 "modest," even though it represents a doubling. Long-term unemployment is up a lot, he concedes, but hey — it's a small number of people in absolute terms. A 2% bankruptcy rate per year — up nearly 10x since 1980 — isn't very much. (And we should be suspicious of the number anyway, though Winship provides no data to suggest why.) Credit card debt has doubled, but that's OK because it's only among a minority of Americans. The ranks of those without health insurance has gone up by 12 million, but it's a small worry because it represents an increase of only 4 percentage points (which looks small on a chart that goes from 0 to 100). And throughout it all, virtually every statistic is tied to medians, even though we should expect that income insecurity has probably grown the most in the bottom third or fourth of the population.

I get what Winship is doing. He believes that horror stories of increased economic insecurity have been exaggerated for political effect, so he's fighting back. And he makes some good points along the way. But in the end, he just goes too far. His evidence seems so obviously cherry picked that I never know what to trust and what not to trust. After all, in a rich country economic insecurity will never affect more than a smallish portion of the country, which means that even substantial changes can almost always be dismissed as modest in absolute terms. (A 20% increase in a quarter of the population, for example, nets out to an overall increase of only 5%.) By this measure, a rise in unemployment from 6% to 10% — which only affects 4% of the population — is hardly worth noticing. But as we all know, this is actually a sign of a deep and major recession.

"If we are to effectively confront the fiscal and economic challenges of the 21st century," Winship concludes, "we will need to begin by seeing things as they really are." I agree. But that goes for both sides. Small but persistent rises in economic insecurity suggest serious problems, especially when they're happening in the midst of substantial economic growth and show few signs of slowing down. A fair look at the data is fine, but not one that seems to bend over backward time after time to minimize long-term trends that suggest very real problems and very real distress.

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Chart of the Day: What We Pay for Healthcare

| Sun Mar. 4, 2012 1:50 PM EST

Via Ezra Klein, who has interesting things to say about this, the chart below compares the cost of various medical procedures in the United States and several other countries. By a mile, we pay more for pretty much everything, and this is a big reason that our overall healthcare costs are the highest on the planet. As a bonus, I've highlighted Switzerland in purple. Aside from the U.S., they probably have the biggest free-market component to their healthcare system in the rich world, and guess what? They come in second or third on all but one of the procedures. You may draw your own conclusions.

Obama Asks AIPAC to Trust Him a Little While Longer

| Sun Mar. 4, 2012 1:15 PM EST

Barack Obama gave a speech to AIPAC this morning and once again announced that when the chips are down he has Israel's back. "I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," he told them to applause. "And as I've made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests." Nonetheless, Spencer Ackerman makes the case that Obama engaged in the absolute minimum level of pandering possible in his speech:

Obama made a case for Israel and AIPAC to trust him on international sanctions to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon while telling Iran not to think he won’t unholster his own guns. He did it without pretending to AIPAC that see the world the same way. Or to put it differently, Obama challenged AIPAC to see the world his way, while every other American politician who addresses this forum will say he sees the world their way. 

....He made a case against “loose talk of war,” and for his diplomatic leadership, which he accurately noted “allowed us to rally the international community as never before; to expose Iran’s intransigence; and to apply pressure that goes far beyond anything that the United States could do on our own.”....Are we closer to avoiding an Iran war? It seems like it. The onus is on Netanyahu now to respond to Obama. One can cynically suggest that one of Netanyahu’s targets in a strike on Iran is Obama’s presidency; I would not put anything past Netanyahu. But Netanyahu has to consider — and my understanding is his advisers are indeed considering this — that Obama may very well be reelected, and then Israel will have to deal with the consequences of defying him when he returns to the height of his political power. Obama’s speech to AIPAC threw down a gauntlet to multiple audiences, while challenging them to do things his way.

This is not really my bailiwick, but if Obama's speech really does represent the far reaches of Middle East non-militarism in the mainstream community — and I don't have any reason to doubt Spencer's word on that — then I'm not sure we're especially close to avoiding war at all. Obama has indeed been much more successful with sanctions than George Bush was, and he's certainly less bellicose than, say, John McCain. But let's face it: it's still unlikely that sanctions will ultimately slow down Iran's nuclear program. In other words, Iran is probably going to call Obama's bluff, the one he says he's serious about, and by the time they do the public will be well and truly whipped into a war frenzy.

What happens then? According to Obama, we start the bombing runs. At the moment, then, it sounds like the main difference between Obama and Netanyahu is that Obama would like to wait until his second term to give the Pentagon its marching orders.

In the meantime, here's a question: I've seen entire forests felled providing me with the inside story of what Obama and his advisors really thought and did during the economic crisis of 2009-10. But I've seen virtually nothing — actually, scratch that: I've seen nothing — providing me with an inside glimpse of what Obama really thinks about Iran and Israel. Why is that? Is the foreign policy team just a lot more tightlipped than the domestic guys?

"Return of the Jedi" is the Best Star Wars Movie of All Time

| Sat Mar. 3, 2012 7:05 PM EST

Have you ever had the experience of blurting out a secret shame and then discovering that other people shared your secret? None of them were willing to talk about it either, and you all thought you were alone. But it's not true. It turns out you have friends after all.

No, I'm not confessing to being a Justin Bieber fan. But I do think that Return of the Jedi is the best of the six Star Wars movies. Yesterday I tweeted this, and the torrent of abuse was immediate.  @AdamSerwer: "This is crazy. Empire is the best by leaps and bounds, even the Vader/Luke fight is better." @drgrist: "The world demands a @kdrum post justifying his absurd ranking of Return of the Jedi above Empire." @jbouie: "Empire is unquestionably the best film. Really, ROTJ? No way. No how." @ChrisWKelly: "For me, 'Jedi' was so awful that it kept me from even bothering with the prequels."

But I wasn't completely alone. "Are we tweeting about how Return of the Jedi is our favorite star wars movie?" asked @kombiz warily. "I agree, didn't know i could say it publicly."

Well, you can! Just because everyone has been telling you for years that The Empire Strikes Back was the best of the original trilogy doesn't mean you have to keep quiet and knuckle under to the mob. That's what Goebbels counted on, right? So say it proudly: Return of the Jedi is the best of the six Star Wars movies! Come out of the closet!

And now, in the spirit of all those counterintuitive essays that Slate is so famous for, here's why. But first, a bit of throat clearing. In any trilogy, the first and last episodes have a built-in advantage. The first episode gets to introduce the setting and it gets to introduce all the characters and all the themes. Learning about the Force for the first time is just unbeatable. And the last episode gets to wrap everything up. If you do a good job of it, that's unbeatable too. The middle piece, though, can be a real slog. We already know all the characters and we're not going to get a resolution. Just lots of exposition.

So the middle part is really hard. To borrow a phrase, it has a very high degree of difficulty. And if you count that, maybe Empire was a better movie than the others. We got a great new character in Yoda and a great new theme in the Luke/Vader relationship. Given the hurdles it had to overcome, it was a helluva good film.

But resolving an epic tale satisfyingly is pretty hard too, and on an absolute scale I still think Jedi is underrated. So now, with my throat clearing out of the way, let's dive right in and address the elephant in the film: Ewoks. You hate them. I hate them. Everyone hates them. But don't let that blind you. The truth is that there's less of them than you think. There are, basically, two extended Ewok sequences. The first, when the Ewoks capture Luke and Han, is inexcusable. I won't even try. But it's only ten minutes of a two-hour movie. The second sequence is the battle for the shield generator station, and in that one the Ewoks really don't matter. It's a set-piece fight, and the Ewoks are just the extras — small, furry extras, but still extras. Ignore them. If someone recut the film to excise most of the first, infuriating Ewok sequence, I honestly think a lot of people would see the rest of it in a whole different light.

So the Ewoks aren't enough to ruin the film. But what makes it great? For starters, there's the start. The introductory sequence where Darth Vader pays a visit to the new Death Star is riveting, and its closing line — "The emperor is not as forgiving as I am" — pitch-perfect and perfectly delivered by James Earl Jones — is one of the best of the entire trilogy. What a way to pull you in!

And then there's the extended opening sequence on Tatooine. This is just great filmmaking. It's fast-paced, it advances multiple story elements effortlessly, it provides plenty of surprises, and it does a superb job of showing off Luke's maturing talents. Anyone who isn't fully engaged in this film after its first half hour has no business being in the theater in the first place.

And there's more. Visually, Jedi is far and away the best of the Star Wars movies. Face it: Hoth and Dagobah and the Cloud City were kind of meh, visually. And in movies like this, that matters. But Jedi has stunning visuals everywhere. It might not be easy to remember at this late date, for example, but the speeder chase on the forest moon was pretty spectacular in 1983. Hell, it's not bad now. The Death Star is gorgeous, and the emperor's throne room is a masterpiece of lighting and set design. The night sequences in the tree city are beautiful. The whole movie is a visual feast.

The arc of the story is completely engaging too. There's the Luke story, the Han/Leia story, and, of course, the Darth Vader story. There are a hundred ways any of these could have been fucked up (cf. the entire prequel trilogy), but they weren't. Take the treetop scene between Luke, Leia, and Han. This had to happen. We all knew it was going to happen. Any false notes would have wrecked it, but there weren't any false notes. Mark Hamill, granted, is not filmdom's finest actor, but even so the whole sequence plays out fluidly and convincingly. When Luke tells Leia she's his sister, what should she say? The answer is: "I know. Somehow I've always known." And that's exactly right. Once she's said it, you know it's the only thing she could have said.

And then, finally, there's the finale. For all its Saturday matinee melodrama — and this is, after all, Star Wars' heritage — the confrontation between Luke, Vader, and the emperor in the emperor's throne room is, by a mile, the best extended sequence in any of the movies. The dialog is terrific, the pacing is near-perfect, the visuals are spectacular, and the final metamorphosis of both Luke and Vader — which, again, is really hard to pull off credibly and could have been fucked up in a hundred different ways — was instead pulled off flawlessly. And then, in a mirror image of the movie's start — a terrific short opening scene followed by a longer introductory sequence — the long final sequence in the throne room is capped off by a shorter final scene on the hangar deck between Luke and Vader. This was a genuinely poignant scene. Even the music was perfect.

And so many great lines in this movie! "This bounty hunter is my kind of scum: fearless and inventive." "So what I told you was true... from a certain point of view." "If you will not turn to the Dark Side... then perhaps she will." "You were right. You were right about me. Tell your sister... you were right." "Now witness the firepower of this fully ARMED and OPERATIONAL battle station!" "Many Bothans died to bring us this information." "Strong am I with the Force, but not that strong." "You want this, don't you?" "Now you will pay the price for your lack of vision." "Your overconfidence is your weakness....Your faith in your friends is yours."

All you have to do is watch Revenge of the Sith to understand just how ineptly a heroic space opera based on elemental clashes can be wrapped up. It's no mean feat to resolve a story like this in both a narratively convincing and emotionally compelling way, but Return of the Jedi does it, and does it without stinting on the action and without letting the wheels and pulleys show. This is much, much harder than it looks

So put aside your hate! (Of Ewoks.) Instead, do this. Relax. Empty your mind of all Ewok thoughts. Then watch the movie again. At about 1:07, click ahead three chapters. That's it. Aside from that one ten-minute sequence, the Ewoks are just furry extras, not nearly as annoying as you remember them. And while the first two parts of the original trilogy are great on their own merits, the remaining 117 minutes of Jedi — its visuals, its pacing, its character development, its resolution of all the trilogy's main themes — make it the best and most satisfying of the bunch.

Mitt Romney's True Believer Problem

| Sat Mar. 3, 2012 1:01 PM EST

Ed Kilgore comments on a New York Times piece highlighting Mitt Romney's willingness to do and say anything to win the Republican nomination:

If that's true, then Romney's efforts to pretend he's the "true conservative" in the campaign have been something of a waste of time. All he really needs to do is to prove he has absolutely no conscience or inhibitions about negative campaigning. Because that's what "base" activists want more than anything else, even more than victory: a holy war against Barack Obama to articulate their visceral hatred of the incumbent, with which they hope to infect persuadable voters. Mitt's well on his way to passing that most crucial test.

Well....maybe. There's no question that if/when Romney wins the nomination, everything will soon be forgiven and the base will rally around him as their sole salvation from another four years of Obama. The same thing is happening on the left, as Obama talks tougher and tosses out base catnip like phone calls to Sandra Fluke in order to win back the affection of his erstwhile admirers from 2008. Still, I suspect that Romney really does have a long-term problem here. Sound and fury aside, I think the lefty base is actually more willing to accept compromise in their leaders than the right-wing base is. These folks really do want a true believer, and if you aren't one it demonstrates a serious moral deficiency, not just an unfortunate weakness. Weakness can be accepted if push comes to shove; moral failure can't be.

So it's a problem for Mitt. Maybe it's a small one: only two or three percent of the Republican base. But in a close race, that could be a lot.

Quote of the Day: Romney on Rush

| Sat Mar. 3, 2012 12:45 PM EST

From Mitt Romney, missing out on his chance to use Rush Limbaugh's "slut" remarks as his very own Sister Souljah moment:

I'll just say this, which is it’s not the language I would have used.

And even that was only after dodging reporters all day before finally deciding he could risk expressing even this measured-to-the-nano-hair level of disapproval.

By the way: at the risk of belaboring the obvious, the problem here isn't really Rush Limbaugh. His schtick is to say outrageous stuff and then watch as liberals get into a lather over it. He's done it before, he'll do it again.

The real problem is that Rush is speaking for a big pool of people who agree with him. We're all acting as though we're shocked that the "religious freedom" argument was just a facade for a seething hostility toward contraceptives themselves, but what's to be shocked about? Rush knows his audience well, and for most of them insurance coverage of contraceptives has always been a sideshow. That's clear enough already if you're plugged into the email chains and church newsletters that form the backbone of social conservatism, and all Rush has done is drag it out from this netherworld and shine a national spotlight on their real concern: that unmarried women are having sex at all, and that easy access to contraceptives expresses a tacit endorsement of it. They really do disapprove of the pill and the free-love generation it ushered in, and they disapprove of the fact that modern society forces them all to pretend that this is OK. Because they don't think it's OK. They're afraid of it. They think it's bad for public morals, they think it leads to a breakdown of order, and they think it should be condemned. Maybe the hypocrisy of times past was nothing to be proud of, but it's still better than the chaos and self-indulgence of the if-it-feels-good-do-it generation.

I know we all know this. But sometimes it seems like we forget. The issue here isn't really Rush, it's public opinion. There's a big chunk of it that's still offended by the sexual revolution, and we either have to persuade them otherwise or else just steamroll them because we're in the majority. There's really no other option. There never has been. Rush is just a distraction.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 2 March 2012

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 3:27 PM EST

I fell down on the catblogging front this week, so today's pictures are last-minute snaps. On the bright side, this means you're getting a near-real time view of what the cats are up to right now. Which is: pretty much the same as always. Enjoy.

Oil and the Weak Dollar

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 3:23 PM EST

Responding to my post this morning about gasoline prices, several people have asked why I didn't say anything about the weakness of the dollar as a possible culprit. Answer: because the dollar isn't especially weak right now, and in any case, the value of the dollar has only a slight effect on the global price of oil. Obviously a weak dollar makes all imports more expensive, so it does play a role in domestic prices, but as you can see from the chart below — where the dollar value is inverted and rescaled to show the relationship more clearly — the strength of the dollar has very little relationship to the price of oil. In 2007-08, the price of oil spiked from $60 to $140 while the dollar weakened only slightly. The recent spike began in November, while the dollar was strengthening. After that the dollar weakened a bit, then strengthened last month. It's just not a big factor here.

Has Right-Wing Media Become an Albatross for the Right Wing?

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 2:39 PM EST

As you probably already know, Rush Limbaugh plumbed some new depths of loathsomeness a couple of days ago when he claimed that Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown student who's testified in favor of mandated contraceptive coverage in healthcare plans, was a slut:

What does it say....that she essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex, she can't afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? The pimps.

Tod Kelly mulls over the larger meaning of this:

In the late 90s through the early and mid 00s, the GOP found that it could increase both number of voters and voter passion by aligning itself with a media machine that was initially created to build ratings from shock value....The GOP found, much to its delight, that by using the segment of the media that it controlled, it could continually rally its base and win elections without dealing with the traditional difficulties of having to sell superior policy proposals....In a world as hard and difficult as politics, the GOP found a way to make everything easy.

But, as Terry Pratchett has oft said, the problem with the easy way is that eventually it makes everything so damn hard.

The media business model the Right chose to embrace was based on the shock-radio model. An inherent flaw with this type of model is that while it leads to quick ratings and advertising profits, it it can be difficult to sustain. If you spend one week calling the President a liar and an idiot, it’s not going to be long before calling him a lying idiot isn’t really all that shocking. You have to continually push just a little bit more as you go, or risk being irrelevant in the shock-media world.

....Somewhere along the line, however, this model has to break down — partly because you eventually reach a ceiling where the base that believes the ever-increasingly shocking claims is small enough to make the party you’re backing politically irrelevant, and partly because to those that aren’t part of the machine or the base you begin to look increasingly out of touch. Birtherism is a fairly good example of this ceiling being reached, as are the Death Panels and Obama/Hitler youth programs. Unfortunately for the Right, however, once you tie yourself and your success so inexorably to the machine it becomes almost impossible to untangle yourself from it.

Question #1 of the day: Is this true? Is the right being hurt by its media machine these days? Question #2: Are liberals in danger of going down the same road?

Who Should We Blame for High Gas Prices?

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 1:45 PM EST

This morning's topic was why gasoline prices have been rising. Today, the Washington Post essays a vastly more important topic: who are we blaming for rising gasoline prices? Here's the answer in colorful bar chart form:

What to think of this? The primary correct answer is "supply and demand," which isn't on the list, and the secondary correct answer is tension in the Middle East, which garners 11% of the answers. "Other mentions" gets the most votes, but just what are these other things that people are blaming? The answer, it turns out, is: government, speculators, Congress, gas guzzlers, rising global demand, George Bush (!), the economy, OPEC, greed, Democrats, Republicans, and (my favorite) everybody/everything.

If you put the answers in a different set of buckets, it looks something like this:

  • 31% — The government in one way or another
  • 19% — Greedy corporate gits in one form or another
  • 11% — Tension in the Middle East
  • 10% — Supply and demand in one way or another
  • 10% — Something else
  • 24% — Don't know

(Don't blame me that this adds up to 105%. Apparently some people gave more than one answer.)

Ezra Klein thinks this poll demonstrates an improvement of sorts, since 28% of Americans blamed Bush for rising gas prices after Katrina but only 18% are blaming Obama for the current rise. Maybe. But if I had to guess, I'd put this down to two things. First, Obama is just more popular than Bush was at the time. Everyone hated him after Katrina. Second, we've had a bunch of these price gyrations since 2005 and the public is getting used to them. It's harder to blame the president when this stuff happens every year or so no matter who's in office.

As for myself, I don't know. On the bright side, only 1% of Americans blame environmental restrictions on domestic drilling, despite a full-bore Republican campaign to convince them otherwise, so that's nice. On the other hand, I'd sure like to see a lot more people blaming supply and demand. Maybe 10% isn't bad, all things considered, but I was ve-r-r-r-r-y generous about what I put in that bucket. The vast majority of Americans still have no clue what's driving all this.