Kevin Drum - March 2012

Is Algae Coming to a Gas Pump Near You?

| Thu Mar. 22, 2012 10:05 AM PDT

Republicans have so many dumb inside jokes and weird paranoid theories that it's hard to keep track of them. There's the teleprompter jokes, a never-ending source of inane merriment. There's the dustup over dust. Lately there's been some weird uproar over kids working on family farms. And of course, there's Newt Gingrich mocking President Obama's idea of getting fuel from algae.

There aren't enough hours in the day to look into all this stuff. I mean, 90% of these things turn out to be a crock, so the ROI on devoting time to checking them out is pretty low. In particular, I've just been too lazy to check into the whole algae thing. I mean, it's not as if biofuels in general are some kind of outlandish science fiction pipe dream, but algae? Beats me.

Luckily, our own James West has a quick five-minute video that will get you up to speed. Aside from learning that Australians apparently pronouce algae with a hard g, I also now know whether algae is coming to a gas pump near you anytime soon. Click the link and you'll know too.

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Tim Geithner for World Bank President!

| Thu Mar. 22, 2012 9:24 AM PDT

Thanks to the fact that we won World War II, the United States traditionally gets to pick the president of the World Bank. The deadline for nominations is Friday, and one question on everyone's mind is whether Obama will nominate a non-American for the first time ever. Via Ezra Klein, Nancy Birdsall explained last month why this is unlikely even though there are some pretty good non-American candidates available:

Can the Obama White House in an election year, facing a Congress suspicious of a globally honored president, eschew pushing through its own American candidate? And anyway would a non-American at the helm in the World Bank be able to raise the resources on Capitol Hill that have already been committed in principle by the United States for the next several years? The election year timing puts the White House in an especially unenviable position. There is a risk that the World Bank could become a highly partisan, U.S. hot-button issue, as the UN has too often been.

Fine. But Hillary Clinton and John Kerry don't want the job. Everyone thinks Larry Summers would be a disaster. The White House doesn't like Jeffrey Sachs. Susan Rice doesn't have a high enough profile. So who?

I recommend Tim Geithner. He's got a high profile. He's accustomed to inside politicking. Obama likes him. And it would get him out of the Treasury Department. What's not to like?

Supreme Court Enters the 21st Century....Barely

| Thu Mar. 22, 2012 8:49 AM PDT

Conservative Supreme Court justices really, really hate the idea that we live in the 21st century:

Defendants in criminal cases have a constitutional right to a competent lawyer's advice when deciding whether to accept a plea bargain, the Supreme Court ruled, providing a significant expansion of rights that could have a broad impact on the justice system.

"Ours for the most part is a system of pleas, not a system of trials," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said for the majority in a pair of 5-4 decisions. Noting that about 97% of federal convictions and 94% of state convictions result from guilty pleas, Kennedy wrote that "in today's criminal justice system, the negotiation of a plea bargain, rather than the unfolding of a trial, is almost always the critical point for the defendant."

The ruling drew a sharply worded dissent from Justice Antonin Scalia, who took the unusual step of expressing his disagreement in the courtroom...."Until today, no one has thought that there is a constitutional right to a plea bargain," Scalia [said].

Well, there's still no constitutional right to a plea bargain. It's at the discretion of the prosecutor, the same as it's always been. But Kennedy has this one right: in 1787, the "criminal prosecutions" mentioned in the Sixth Amendment were all jury trials. In 2012, virtually all criminal prosecutions are plea bargains. Like it or not, times have changed, and for the vast majority of defendants it's the plea bargain that's effectively their trial.

What's more, this case sets a pretty low bar for "competent" representation. Reading further in the LA Times piece, I see that in one case a guy turned down a plea deal because his lawyer told him he couldn't be convicted of attempted murder since he had shot below the waist. That's the kind of thing that might be a funny line if it were delivered by a breezy Bill Murray in a lawyer version of Stripes, but not so funny when it's real life and puts a guy in prison for 30 years.

This case really seems to capture the bankruptcy of judicial originalism in a nutshell. Scalia and his fellow conservatives just can't stand the idea that constitutional rights are necessarily going to evolve as the nature of society evolves. So they stamp their feet and pound their fists and insist that, by God, a trial is a trial even if only 3% of modern-day defendants ever actually get one. Their starry-eyed attachment to a gauzy vision of 18th-century virtue is puerile at best and actively malign at worst.

Twitter Set to Get More Annoying

| Thu Mar. 22, 2012 7:45 AM PDT

Felix Salmon says Twitter is going to get more annoying:

During SXSW, for instance, there was a steady drumbeat of people on my timeline complaining about all the tweets from SXSW. (I was there, and even I got annoyed by the endless banal SXSW tweets; I’m sympathetic to their plight.)

We’re going to have to live with many more annoying tweets going forwards, if things like Amex’s “tweet your way to savings” campaign take off. The VentureBeat headline is “American Express transforms Twitter hashtags into savings for cardholders,” but another way to put it is that American Express is trying to make money by getting people to spam their friends with hashtags like #AmexWholeFoods which have no value to the reader whatsoever.

And then there are people like Porter Versfelt III, who will get annoyed if I dare to express a personal opinion on Twitter. For Mr Versfelt, I have a “core purpose” on Twitter, which is to provide him with financial news, and anything I do outside that purpose is annoying.

Meh. The same thing happened to blogs too. When I post anything less-than-totally-serious, I routinely get complaints that I'm ignoring world poverty in favor of fluff. Other bloggers routinely get complaints that they post way too much on some hobbyhorse or another. And the world is full of comment spam and cyborg-like corporate blogs.

To a large extent, I think this is inevitable for any platform, and demonstrates less that a platform has gotten annoying and more that the rest of us take the complainers more seriously than we should. Felix probably finds Porter Versfelt III annoying. I would too. But really, who cares? He's one guy. He doesn't like something. Big deal. And yet, for some reason people who say annoying things stick with us more than their sheer numbers justify. I'm don't know why. I'm sure there's some nifty ev psych explanation related to survival on the veldt.

Here's my suspicion about Twitter: as it matures, we're all going to start following fewer people, not more. I'm already pretty astounded at the fact that people routinely follow 200, 500, sometimes a thousand or more feeds. That's crazy. I follow 171 feeds at latest count, and even at that I can only dip into my Twitter feed now and then to see what's going on. I can't even make a pretense that I'm truly paying attention to everyone I follow. If I were smart, I'd probably try to keep myself limited to no more than a hundred feeds, and rotate 20 or 30 of them out on a regular basis.

This, again, is similar to the evolution of political blogs, I think. Back in the day, lots of early adopters followed dozens of bloggers. As time went on, and as content got a little more homogenized, that number went down. Today, I suspect that outside of a small hardcore set of readers, most people have settled down to three or four favorite political blogs. If you pick the right ones, you won't miss much.

This is just a guess. Maybe I should put my money where my mouth is and prune down my Twitter feed list today. If I do, don't take offense if I unfollow you. It's all in the cause of science.

Mitt Romney's Dog is 2012's Earth Tones

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 9:15 PM PDT

As you know if you haven't been vacationing on Mars over the past year, in 1983 the Romney family took a car trip to Canada with the family dog, Seamus, riding in a pet carrier on the roof. Romney planned out the trip and made only a limited number of stops, but at some point on the trip Seamus became incontinent, forcing Romney to take an unscheduled break to hose Seamus down.

Walter Shapiro writes today that he sees "no larger presidential significance in Romney's actual treatment of Seamus." And yet:

What gives the Seamus story legs (four) is the inadvertent glimpse it offers of Romney's rigidity. For all the natural parental annoyance with the constant are-we-there-yet demands and the bodily needs of five boys on the trek to Canada, it is a rare father who would so zealously limit bathroom and food stops. Remember: The Romneys were not exactly desperate refugees racing to get across the Canadian border before they were stopped by the authorities. They were an affluent American family on vacation, but with all the spontaneous joy of an automotive assembly line. Seamus was collateral damage. What matters is the suck-it-up discipline that Mitt Romney tried to impose on his family.

People are not cyborgs—they have human needs, including a propensity for rest stops and, in politics, healthy egos. But an awareness of these personal factors does not seem to be part of the Romney repertoire.

Give me a break. I would guess that nearly every family that's ever taken a long road trip has tried to stick to a schedule and keep stops to a minimum. Was Romney a little stricter than average? Maybe. Does this offer a glimpse of Romney's "rigidity"? Please. The Seamus story came from Tagg Romney, and he doesn't suggest that any of the Romney kids felt especially downtrodden during the ride. Romney was just an ordinary guy trying to cram a 12-hour trip into a single day and he didn't want it to turn into a 14-hour trip. Shapiro had it right when he said this story has "no larger presidential significance." He should have stopped right there.

I wish we could give stuff like this a rest. I know we won't, but I can dream, can't I?

Quote of the Day: Romney Gaffe Demonstrates That Romney is Unbeatable

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 4:20 PM PDT

From Erik Fehrnstrom, a top aide to Mitt Romney, on whether his guy has tacked too far to the right to beat Obama in November:

Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch — you can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.

Here's the interesting thing about this comment. It's provoked loads of mockery from liberals. It's provoked a bunch of attacks from the other candidates. But among the conservative commentariat, it's mostly just been sighs. I haven't seen much outrage along the lines of "This just goes to show what a fake Romney is." It's mostly been disbelief that Fehrnstrom could say something so dumb; wan defenses that he wasn't really saying anything we didn't know already; and explanations that obviously Fehrnstrom was talking about campaign mechanics, not issues.

Conclusion: we are finally at the point where nobody on the right really wants to say anything bad about Romney. He's got the nomination sewn up, and it's time to start circling the wagons.

In other words: It's over, Rick. Time to pack it up.

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Can We Please Stop Making Excuses for Paul Ryan?

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 12:14 PM PDT

Ezra Klein writes this today about Paul Ryan's budget roadmap:

I don't think Paul Ryan intended to write a budget that concentrated its cuts on the poorest Americans. Similarly, I don't think Mitt Romney intended to write a budget that concentrated its cuts on the poorest Americans. But there's a reason their budgets turned out so similar…

Really, let's just stop right there. Ryan's budget didn't spring forth immaculately from the forehead of Zeus. It's pretty much the same as his 2011 budget. Which in turn is pretty much the same as his 2010 budget. Which in turn is just a nicely formatted version of everything he's been saying for the past decade.

I'm so tired of Paul Ryan I could scream. Every year we get a slightly different version of the same old thing, and every year we have to waste entire man-years of analysis in order to make the same exact points about it. And the biggest point is that his budget would force enormous, swinging cuts in virtually every domestic program, especially those for the poor. If this bothers Ryan, he's had plenty of time to revise his budget roadmap to address it.

But he hasn't. He knows perfectly well that his budget concentrates its cuts on the poorest Americans. It's been pointed out hundreds of times, after all. If he found that troublesome he'd change it. Since he hasn't, the only reasonable conclusion is that this is exactly what he intends. Let's stop pretending otherwise.

Healthcare Might be in Healthier Shape Than We Think

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 10:47 AM PDT

Austin Frakt posts a chart today showing that productivity growth in the healthcare sector sucks. In the durable goods sector, for example, productivity doubled between 1995-2005. In the healthcare sector, it went down by a few percent. In the middle of an economic boom, healthcare actually got less productive.

But wait. What does this mean? If I run a widget factory, measuring productivity is straightforward. If I make twice as many widgets with the same amount of labor and capital, my productivity has doubled. Hooray! But what does healthcare produce? What precisely needs to double to say that healthcare productivity has doubled?

Austin links to a paper by David Cutler, who admits that "Productivity growth is notoriously difficult to measure in health care." Why? Because "Accurate productivity assessment requires a good output measure." Official figures put productivity growth in the healthcare sector at -0.2% per year, but:

Other studies have looked more closely at health care costs and output, and can be used to assess the productivity of medical care over time. Figure 2 shows the cost per additional year of life attributable to medical care between 1960 and 2000.

The value of a year of life is generally taken to be about $100,000 (Cutler, 2004). Thus, costs per year of life below this amount are generally considered to be good value, while costs above this amount are considered to be poor value. Most of the estimates of cost per year of life are below $100,000. Thus, medical care on average is giving good value for the dollar. But the trend is adverse. Cost per year of additional life was lower in the 1960s and 1970s than in the 1980s and 1990s.

I just flatly don't get this. For one thing, it makes sense that people will value their lives more highly as they get richer. America is a much richer country than it was in the 60s, and it's hardly surprising that we're willing to spend a lot more to extend our lives by a year than we were then. This is more a reflection of spending priorities than it is of productivity.

More importantly, though, this just seems like a terrible measure. Even though everyone acknowledges that lifespan isn't a very good way of measuring the quality of healthcare, we keep on using it anyway. But that's like looking for your keys under the streetlight just because the light is better there. You end up missing enormous strides that have nothing to with lifespan. Lasik surgery doesn't extend your life, but a lot of people sure get a lot of benefit from it. When I tore a meniscus in my knee, I recovered fully and quickly thanks to arthroscopic surgery. I thought that was great, but it didn't extend my lifespan by a single day. Asthma inhalers save lives, but they also dramatically improve quality of life above and beyond that. The list of advances like this is endless.

I don't know how you measure that. Maybe it's impossible. But I halfway wonder if we should just admit that we have no good measure of healthcare productivity and give up on pretending otherwise. Just treat it like a gigantic productivity black hole, and concentrate our attention instead on simple efficiency, where we do at least have decent comparative measures. Some regions, and some practices, really do produce similar outcomes with less spending than other areas and practices, and that's worth looking at. But I'm not sure how you translate that into a traditional productivity measure.

We spend a lot of useless money on medicine. No argument there. But that's as much a value statement as it is an objective measure of productivity. I might think it's a waste to spend $100,000 keeping an 80-year-old man barely alive in a hospital bed for an extra six months, but if the man is your grandfather, you might disagree. And if that happens more today than it used to, it's just because we all have a lot more money to spend on this stuff, not because medicine has gotten less productive.

However, I'll be curious to see further posts on this subject from Austin and the gang. Are there better measures of healthcare productivity out there? I'd be interested in hearing about them.

Wall Street Rolls Merrily Along

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 9:22 AM PDT

Felix Salmon writes something peculiar today. He's not too keen on the JOBS Act, a bill designed to loosen securities regulations on small businesses, and yet it's gotten wide bipartisan support anyway:

I don’t fully understand the political dynamics here. A bill which was essentially drafted by a small group of bankers and financiers has managed to get itself widespread bipartisan support, even as it rolls back decades of investor protections. That wouldn’t have been possible a couple of years ago, and I’m unclear what has changed.

Felix! What's unclear here? Dodd-Frank is the exception, not the rule, and even Dodd-Frank's very modest rules are currently in the process of being eviscerated by human waves of Wall Street attorneys. Besides, a bill like the JOBS Act would have been eminently possible two years ago. In fact, in April 2009, a mere few months after the Great Meltdown, big banks successfully gutted a "cramdown" bill that would have allowed bankruptcy judges to reduce the principal owed on mortgages. And not only did they gut it, but they even got Congress to hand over billions in new bailout money at the same time. I guess they figured they were owed something for all the time and money they'd spent lobbying.

Long story short, nothing has changed. And that's the problem.

Chart of the Day: Fox News and Trayvon Martin

| Wed Mar. 21, 2012 8:22 AM PDT

I've noted on several occasions that Fox News spent pretty much the entire summer of 2010 fanning the flames of xenophobia and racial resentment, and a few days ago I wondered if the ridiculous Derrick Bell incident foreshadowed a reprise during this year's election summer. We'll have to wait for summer to find out, but ThinkProgress reminds us today that there are two sides to this kind of thing: there's the wildly overwrought coverage of stories that keep the frenzy alive, but there's also the wildly understated coverage of stories that contradict the favored narrative of white culture under assault.

The Trayvon Martin story is just that. Adam Weinstein has a quick explainer here if you need to get up to speed on the story of a black kid in Florida who got shot by a white neighborhood watch patrolman for no apparent reason. The neighborhood watch guy was barely even questioned after the incident, which was apparently written off by the local police force as just one of those things. It's been a big story. And how has the news channel of conservative white folks covered it? ThinkProgress has the answer below. Apparently Trayvon Martin just doesn't fit into the Fox agenda.

Via Julian Sanchez.