Kevin Drum - April 2012

Bread and Circuses on Capitol Hill

| Mon Apr. 16, 2012 9:57 AM EDT

Congress is all set to begin its show trial of Jeffrey Neely, the GSA nitwit who decided to spend nearly a million dollars for a Western Region conference in Las Vegas a couple of years ago:

Neely’s conduct as the organizer of a four-day team-building event that cost $823,000 will be under scrutiny on Capitol Hill starting Monday, when the first of four back-to-back congressional hearings is scheduled.

.... Transcripts provide evidence of a freewheeling spending culture in the offices of the four Pacific Rim states where Neely oversaw federal real estate and government purchasing. “What this guy did was try to use private business practices to justify spending that is out of line with the private sector,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), one of numerous lawmakers asking how things spun out of control with no oversight from Washington.

I suppose Neely deserves his chance to be publicly tarred and feathered on front pages around the country, but I wonder if I'm the only one who wishes Congress could summon up this same level of energy for things that actually matter. You know, global warming, drug policy, immigration rules, stuff like that. I enjoy a feeding frenzy as much as the next guy, but I feel a little sated lately. If Congress spent half the time on actual serious issues that it's spent on nonsense like Solyndra and Fast & Furious and the GSA and — starting soon I'm sure — Secret Service agents and their Colombian hookers, we might actually solve a problem or two. You never know.

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Ending the Ban on Bottled Water

| Sun Apr. 15, 2012 11:20 AM EDT

Kip Hawley, former head of the TSA, has some suggestions this weekend for making airport security screening more convenient without lowering safety standards. As it turns out, most of his suggestions would make life modestly easier for passengers, but not wildly so. (For that, you need Bruce Schneier.) In fact, "randomizing security," though it might be a good idea, would actually be a pain in the ass. I don't like taking my shoes off any more than the next guy, but frankly, I'd prefer to either do it or not. I'm a lot happier if I know the rules and can just follow them.

In any case, none of his suggestions involve shoes (still dangerous, he says), full-body scanners, pat-downs, or any of the things that do the most to piss us off. But there was this:

2. Allow all liquids: Simple checkpoint signage, a small software update and some traffic management are all that stand between you and bringing all your liquids on every U.S. flight. Really.

Say what? Here's the detail:

I was initially against a ban on liquids as well, because I thought that, with proper briefing, TSA officers could stop al Qaeda's new liquid bombs. Unfortunately, al Qaeda's advancing skill with hydrogen-peroxide-based bombs made a total liquid ban necessary for a brief period and a restriction on the amount of liquid one could carry on a plane necessary thereafter.

Existing scanners could allow passengers to carry on any amount of liquid they want, so long as they put it in the gray bins. The scanners have yet to be used in this way because of concern for the large number of false alarms and delays that they could cause. When I left TSA in 2009, the plan was to designate "liquid lanes" where waits might be longer but passengers could board with snow globes, beauty products or booze. That plan is still sitting on someone's desk.

This leaves me more puzzled than before. I've already heard about new scanners that supposedly read the molecular structure of liquids in order to distinguish baby formula from C4. But those are new devices. Hawley is suggesting that all our current scanners could also do this with "a small software update." So what exactly are the "traffic management" issues that have prevented this? Does liquid scanning work slowly? Is it unreliable? Or what? Inquiring minds want to know.

Friday Cat Blogging - 13 April 2012

| Fri Apr. 13, 2012 2:53 PM EDT

As promised, today's catblogging is done entirely from my iPad, a task that's fantastically more difficult than it should be thanks to the usual Apple attitude of walling off their products and insisting that everyone either do things the Apple way or no way at all. In particular, Apple has chosen not to expose any of the iPad file system in a standard way, which means that web browsers can't upload files to a remote site the way they can on any other platform. So I had to figure out some other way to get my cat photos from the iPad to the MoJo server. It's not impossible, but it sure is a major pain in the ass. Thanks, Apple!

(I like the iPad a lot. But this ubiquitous Apple attitude is the reason I consider it a starter tablet. More than likely, a year from now I'll trade it in for an Android or Windows 8 tablet, which will allow me to decide for myself how I want to conduct my online life.)

Still, at least I could upload photos, even if the process was a muddle. The other problem with catblogging from the iPad has to do with Photoshop Touch. In a word, it sucks. On today's photos, I attempted a grand total of three operations:

  • Resizing the images to fit the column.
  • Sharpening the reduced images.
  • Lightening Inkblot's eyes in the photo on the right.

Every single one of these operations worked poorly. The resizing produced the pixelated whiskers that you see in both pictures. Regular Photoshop doesn't, which means the Touch version has some kind of crappy, scaled-down resizing algorithm. Sharpening, which normally works fine, produces almost comically crude results on Touch, so I abandoned it. And lassoing an object to lighten it is tough going because fingers are crude pointing devices and Touch has a maximum zoom level of 400%, which doesn't make small objects big enough to work on.

So maybe I should try some other photo editing tool. There's always iPhoto, of course. Anyone have any other recommendations?

Oh yeah, and today's theme is cats in both the foreground and the background. Not sure why. It just turned out that way.

The Invisible Hand Cooks Dinner

| Fri Apr. 13, 2012 2:22 PM EDT

"I've been an economist for some 30 years," says Tyler Cowen. "In this time, I've learned that by applying some basic economics to my food choices, I can make nearly every meal count." Here are his six simple rules:

  1. At fancy restaurants, order what sounds the least appetizing.
  2. Avoid restaurants that are popular for their social scene.
  3. Look for good restaurants in the suburbs, where the rent is lower. Or, really, anyplace the rent is low.
  4. Ask other people for advice.
  5. Patronize family-run restaurants.
  6. Thai restaurants are becoming too Americanized, so try Vietnamese instead.

Hmmm. This might all be good advice, but as near as I can tell, only two of these items (#1 and #3) really have any economic content to speak of. The others are either common sense (#4), pieces of longstanding conventional wisdom (#2 and #5), or a matter of taste (#6). Has Tyler succumbed to the Freakonomics disease, where pretty much everything related to human action is now considered a subset of economics? Say it ain't so!

What Pollsters Ask vs. What Respondents Hear

| Fri Apr. 13, 2012 1:31 PM EDT

Do people really care about all the nano-controversies that constantly bubble up out of the politico-quantum vacuum and then disappear just as quickly? Dave Weigel points to the following poll question as evidence about the number of people who have an opinion about Obama's "hot mic" incident:

That's impressive! Apparently 96% of America has an opinion about this. The problem is that although the question above is the one that was presented to people, here's what I think they mostly heard:

blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah President Obama blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah Troubling or Not?

So if you're not an Obamanaut, you find his conduct troubling — whatever it is. But if you're a fan, it's no big deal. I suspect this dynamic accounts for the routinely implausible number of people in polls who claim to have heard of, or care about, some particular incident that we all know perfectly well most people know nothing about. Ditto for obscure policy issues. Everyone wants to have an opinion, even if they have no idea what they're supposed to have an opinion about.

The App Gap Has Replaced the Slang Gap

| Fri Apr. 13, 2012 12:55 PM EDT

Back in the day, fuddy-duddies like me could be identified by our ignorance of the latest teen lingo. Many a comedy skit has been built around this trope over the years. The slang gap is still with us, of course, but I think the app gap has become the real tribal marker these days. And the gap keeps getting bigger and bigger. For example, I learned about Instagram sometime late last year, which pegs me as modestly fuddy-duddy-ish. It could have been worse, after all! I could have been reading stories about their billion-dollar acquisition earlier this week with no clue about who they were.

Today, though, I learned about the latest photo-sharing site:

Pinterest, whose name combines "pin" and "interest," allows members to share images of products they like and create digital versions of homemade scrapbooks. There isn't much room for commentary, which analysts say can give it more appeal to advertisers than sites like Facebook and Twitter, which can be platforms for consumer discontent as much as commerce.

About 70% of Pinterest's users are women, who use the site to post images of their favorite fashions, housewares and food.

"Facebook is like being at a cocktail party, whereas Pinterest is almost like a Tupperware party," said Scot Wingo, chief executive of ChannelAdvisor, which advises companies on e-commerce. "People are not just chatting about anything — sports talk, or 'oh my god, my mom is sick,' or 'I love my cat' — it's already more commercial. It's people saying, 'I love this product.' "

The LA Times informs me that Pinterest has 23 million users and may well fetch two billion dollars if it's sold in the near future. Take that, Instagram!

I'm just baffled by this. Is photo sharing really that hard? It's not, is it? I mean, these photo sharing companies all seem to have about a dozen employees, so there can't be much to it. So what's their selling point? Instagram makes your pictures look like old, faded snapshots, something that strikes me as interesting for about two minutes. Pinterest's claim to fame, if the Times can be believed, is that "there isn't much room for commentary." So....just photos. And that makes them worth a couple of billion dollars?

Seriously? WTF is going on here? Are we in the middle of another dotcom bubble? Or a social media bubble? Or is it just a photo sharing bubble? Do our bubbles keep getting narrower and narrower over time? Or what? All I know is that I've sure turned into a dinosaur mighty fast.

UPDATE: Just to show that I'm really out of it, today I learned that Mother Jones has a Pinterest page and I didn't know it. It even has a catblogging pinboard. Click here to see it.

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Congress is Fiddling While America Crumbles

| Fri Apr. 13, 2012 11:47 AM EDT

Ezra Klein complains that tax jihadism is ruining us. Our inability to properly fund roads and highways is Exhibit A:

We used to have a straightforward way to fund infrastructure in this country: the federal gas tax. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower raised the tax from 1.5 cents a gallon to 3 cents to help pay for the creation of the interstate highway system. In 1959, he increased it from 3 cents to 4 cents. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan raised the gas tax to 9 cents. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush raised it to 14 cents, with half of the increase going to reduce the deficit. In 1993, President Bill Clinton raised it to 18.4 cents.

In other words, from 1956 to 1993, there was a bipartisan consensus on the federal gasoline tax: Both parties agreed that it occasionally needed to be raised in order to help pay for the nation’s infrastructure. But since 2000, there has been a bipartisan consensus against raising the federal gasoline tax.

In 2005, the Bush administration joined with congressional Republicans to support a big transportation bill. But rather than raise the gas tax, the law just exhausted the Highway Trust Fund. In 2009, that law expired. Since then, Republicans and Democrats have failed to pass nine — nine! — short-term extensions, in large part because they can’t agree on how to fund infrastructure. But they do agree on one thing: Neither party intends to raise the gas tax.

Actually, as bad as Ezra makes this sound, he still doesn't do it justice. It's not that we used to have a bipartisan consenus to occasionally raise the gasoline tax. We used to have a bipartisan consensus to keep it at the same level. The chart on the right shows the evolution of the gasoline tax adjusted for inflation: back in 1956 Eisenhower set it at 25 cents in current dollars. Since then it's bounced around within a few cents of that level all the way through the end of the 90s. And then it didn't. Adjusting for inflation now counts as "raising" taxes, so the gasoline tax has steadily drifted down to 18 cents. And there's no end in sight.

Recently, of course, this has been made even more acute by the fact that we're driving less, which means we have both less gasoline to tax and a lower tax rate. Thanks to the tax jihadists, we're not even willing to spend the same amount on infrastructure that we've spent for the past half century — through administrations both Republican and Democratic. We'd rather watch our country crumble away instead.

Baffled by Sleep

| Fri Apr. 13, 2012 10:41 AM EDT

Have you noticed that I've been posting a little earlier than usual for the past few weeks? For the past few months, even. Well, I have, and it's deeply, deeply weird. For over 30 years, I've been the world's biggest baby about waking up early. I get up naturally at 8 am, and being forced to wake up even an hour earlier has always felt like being dragged into the fourth circle of Hell.

But for the past year, I've been waking up occasionally at 7:30, or even 7:00, without anyone forcing me to. Then a few months ago that became routine. And a few weeks ago I started waking up way earlier. Yesterday I was up at 5 am. Today I was up at 6 am. And the really weird part is that it hasn't had much effect on me. Maybe a tiny bit more tiredness in the late afternoon, but that's it. I'm my usual low-energy self, but no lower than before, and I still fall asleep at midnight, same as always.

I've heard that sleep patterns get disrupted as you age, but I'm only 53. So what's going on? How could I require eight hours of sleep for my entire adult life, and then, within a matter of months, transition to seven or six or even five and not feel a difference? I'm baffled. I wonder if it will last?

Our Shiny New Shiny Object Economy

| Fri Apr. 13, 2012 10:21 AM EDT

A friend emails today to say that he sympathizes with my desire to avoid blogging too obsessively about the media's unending infatuation with shiny objects, but uses the Hilary Rosen flap as an example of the harm this stuff does:

Rosen's comments gave the opening, faux outrage was generated at extremely high levels, wallpaper on Fox. Apologies, explanations, distancing, Presidential condemnation, etc. — all ineffective.

Then the golden nugget, the reward the right was seeking lands today in an article in the WaPo by Tumulty. Regardless of the content of the article, the web-only headline was the power: "Firestorm over Stay At Home Moms Gives GOP Edge in War on Women." Then the article goes on to give one the impression that a careless remark has eliminated the ill will towards women caused by Republican and conservative commentator conduct. It's not hard to see that Tumulty was fed a lot of the conclusions, but this is their pocket victory. They'll take it, boil it to a soundbite and move forward.

It's frustrating because, I'm sure like you, I ignored this because I believed it would pass fairly quickly. But the call by the refs today tell me that this stupid event landed a punch. Sure it will pass, but these do add up. This is just the first in the general.

First Read says today that manufactured controversies are nothing new, but: "What is new, however, is how much faster and professionalized — due to Twitter and the drive to make something go viral — these manufactured controversies have become. Indeed, we’ve now seen three of them in the past 30 days: Etch A Sketch, hot mic, and Hilary Rosen."

Here's what I'd like to know: how much effect do these things really have? One of my personal touchstones for not worrying too much about them is my wife. Almost every time, if I happen to mention one of these nano-kerfuffles to Marian, she's never heard of it. Neither has my sister or my mother. In other words, non-political junkies simply don't hear about this stuff unless they stay up late to hear Leno or Jon Stewart making fun of it.

That doesn't mean they're harmless, of course. There are other avenues for influence besides direct contact. In fact, it's an article of faith among the politerati that high-attention voters have a big impact on their low-attention friends. And maybe so. But the high-attention folks are mostly pretty hardened partisans already, so I have my doubts that the constant stream of shiny objects really affects them very much in the first place, which in turn means the indirect effect of shiny objects on everyone else can't be all that high either. This is doubly true because, as First Read points out, these things have such microscopic lifespans these days. Just a couple of weeks ago we were all being assured that L'Affaire Etch A Sketch was no passing fancy, but would have a permanent effect on Mitt Romney's campaign. Then the Supreme Court heard oral argument on Obamacare, Romney won big victories in the April 3 primaries, Rick Santorum dropped out of the race, and Hilary Rosen provided everyone with a brand new shiny object. Sadly for the Ohio Art Company, Etch A Sketch is now just a dim memory.

Some of this stuff matters. The Al Gore internet meme ended up mattering. The Swift Boating of John Kerry mattered. But my guess is that about 98% of it has no material effect at all. It just gives writers something to write about, talking heads something to talk about, and the chattering class something to chatter about.

Obama Decides to Pander to the Haters

| Fri Apr. 13, 2012 12:50 AM EDT

Yesterday the Obama administration told gay rights advocates that it wouldn't be signing an executive order to ban LGBT discrimination among federal contractors. Today press secretary Jay Carney was peppered with questions about this, and eventually settled into an awkward set of rote talking points about Obama preferring to address LGBT discrimination via legislation rather than executive order. The Washington Post reports:

The dispute opened up an unexpected election-year rift between the president and a loyal political constituency that has scored historic victories from his White House — namely the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and the administration’s decision to stop advocating for the Defense of Marriage Act.

....In recent weeks activists began to worry that the White House might opt against approval. Democratic strategists are wary of any new policies that could be attacked by conservatives as anti-business, and stepping out on gay rights in the heat of an election campaign risks handing likely Republican nominee Mitt Romney a rallying point to energize the evangelicals he has thus far struggled to inspire.

Advocates were informed of Obama’s decision in a tense private meeting Wednesday with top aides Valerie Jarrett and Cecilia Munoz. The officials said the president would not sign the order “at this time” but was instead focused on pushing for passage of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, according to several attendees.

This is hard to make sense of. The administration's excuses for not signing the executive order are pretty transparently preposterous. They know perfectly well there's no chance of passing ENDA with Republicans in control of the House, so a legislative solution is off the table. And it's not likely they're seriously worried about lawsuits either.

This leaves only craven political calculation as an explanation. And that's puzzling too. Sure, it's an election year, and everyone gets craven during election years. But really, how many evangelicals are there who are (a) likely to get energized by an executive order banning LGBT discrimination but (b) haven't already been energized by Obama's repeal of DADT and his refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act? I guess there might be a few, but it's got to be damn few. If hating the gay is your hot button, you probably already loathe Obama about as much as you're ever going to.

So not just craven, but really, really craven. Obama probably risked losing literally dozens of votes over this. What a wuss.