Kevin Drum - April 2012

China Has the Rare Earths, So That's Where Apple Makes Its iPads

| Thu Apr. 26, 2012 2:06 PM EDT

Why are iPads made in China? Cheap labor is the obvious answer, but labor is such a small part of the iPad's total cost that this probably isn't the real reason. A more compelling argument is that China simply has a far more efficient high-tech manufacturing sector than America does these days. It's China's "flexibility, diligence and industrial skills" that make it so attractive. This is probably most of the answer, but Elizabeth Chamberlain suggests that China's near-monopoly on rare earth elements might play a role too:

Cambridge engineering professor Dr. Tim Coombs guesses that there may be lanthanum in the iPad’s lithium-ion polymer battery, as well as “a range of rare earths to produce the different colours” in the display....Electronics glass is often polished with cerium oxide. According to a Congressional Research Service report, worldwide demand for rare earths was 136,100 tons in 2010, 45-percent of which was for magnets, glass, and polishing.

Why is all this rare earth consumption a problem? China currently controls 95-97% of the world’s supply of rare earths and has repeatedly cut export quotas, sending already-high prices skyrocketing.

....Today, an American electronics company can only be exempt from China’s rare earth export quotas by manufacturing within China. So that’s what most companies, including Apple, are doing. The only other solution is for us to stop consuming so much—an option that people rarely find appealing. Not as appealing as a retina display, at least.

Interesting suggestion. More on rare earths here.

(Via Felix Salmon.)

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Marc Andreessen Thinks You're a Patsy

| Thu Apr. 26, 2012 12:49 PM EDT

Felix Salmon pushes back against the canonization of Marc Andreessen in the current issue of Wired:

When you look at Marc the capitalist, rather than at Marc the ideas guy, the hero-worship becomes a bit more difficult....A lot of my own Wired story, last month, can be read as a push back against the IPO culture which Andreessen, almost more than anybody else, has managed to create.

“Silicon Valley is full of venture capitalists who have become dynastically wealthy off the backs of companies that no longer exist,” I wrote in that piece, and Andreessen is Exhibit A if you want to look for such a person. His first company, Netscape, lost the Browser Wars and ended up getting sold to AOL. His second company, Loudcloud, was (to be charitable) too far ahead of its time, so it “pivoted” into something called Opsware; eventually Andreessen managed to sell it off to HP. His third company, Ning, was even less successful, and ended up buried somewhere in Glam Media. None of them exist today in any recognizable form; none of them ever made much money; and none of them even really made it as far as building anything approaching a permanent income stream.

....While Andreessen is very good at making money, then, he’s much less good at creating lasting value for the long-term shareholders of his companies. In his world, buy-and-hold public shareholders are the patsies, the people left holding the bag when the fast money has long since departed. He’s smart; the rest of us are chumps. I guess it makes perfect sense that he’s recruited Larry Summers as a Special Advisor.

During the 90s I worked for a software company that, although modestly successful, never seemed all that successful compared to the dotcom frenzy that surrounded everything we did. Still, I always liked to joke that at least we made more money than Netscape. Which is to say, we made money.

I've got nothing against Andreessen. He's obviously a pretty brilliant guy who saw the potential of the web before most of us. But Wired also gives him credit for cloud computing, which is kind of silly, and for social networking, which is even sillier. And the idea that somehow Andreessen deserves credit for pioneering the idea that software is going to become hyperintelligent in the near future? Crikey. Is there anyone in the past decade who hasn't predicted that at one time or another?

And even the idea of web browsers as replacements for operating systems, which Andreessen can certainly take a lot of credit for, is happening largely because browsers are becoming nearly as big and complex and buggy as the operating systems they're supplanting. All those thin clients we used to talk about are putting on weight. What's more, yet another buzzy new name doesn't change the fact that cloud computing has the same pros and cons that similar technologies have always had, ever since IBM first offered its customers centralized hosting services about a million years ago. As bandwidth and computing power grows, more stuff can be successfully hosted remotely, and from an IT viewpoint this offers huge advantages in terms of control over your user base. For the same reason, of course, the user base often hates it because it takes away their control. If you don't feel like upgrading Microsoft Word whenever Redmond pumps out a new version, you don't have to. But Google Docs? You upgrade when Google tells you to. The war between the competing needs of centralized IT and unruly users hasn't produced a victor yet.

In any case, no matter how much bandwidth and computing power we have in the cloud, there will always be more locally. And apps will almost certainly expand to take advantage of as much bandwidth as technology can provide. So sure, we'll all live in the cloud in the future, but I don't think we'll live completely in the cloud. It's going to be a lot messier than that.

Samuel L. Jackson Not Really the Highest Grossing Actor Ever

| Thu Apr. 26, 2012 12:10 PM EDT

I love me some Samuel L. Jackson, but this nonsense bugs me:

It’s all but impossible to turn on a TV set any night of the week without happening on one of his movies (and sometimes two or three). Hence his anointment by Guinness World Records as “the highest-grossing film actor” of all time.

Yeah, yeah. His films have grossed $7.4 billion. But more than a third of that, $2.5 billion, was thanks to an essentially bit part in the three Star Wars sequels. And do those Nick Fury cameos count too? Give me a break. Jackson's a great actor, but he just doesn't drive box office grosses the way this factoid suggests. Profile writers should drop it.

Barack Obama = One Hip Dude (Wink Wink)

| Thu Apr. 26, 2012 11:00 AM EDT

Here's the latest anti-Obama ad from Karl Rove & Co. The actual policy content is short and pro forma, so no need to pay attention to that. Mainly, it's just a reminder that Obama is awfully, um, hip. He's, you know, young and savvy....in an....urban kind of way. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I assume this is all just part of the mud-against-the-wall phase of the campaign, as the Rovesters try to get a bead on exactly which message makes Obama the least palatable to their heartland target audience. Unfortunately for them, this one makes Obama look a little too much like Will Smith, and I don't think the heartland really has anything against Will Smith. But I'm sure they'll learn from this and do better by the time summer rolls around.

Obama's Honeymoon Lasted Zero Days

| Thu Apr. 26, 2012 9:36 AM EDT

In Do Not Ask What Good We Do, Robert Draper reports on a long dinner in which Republicans mapped out their campaign strategy against President Obama:

The dinner lasted nearly four hours. They parted company almost giddily. The Republicans had agreed on a way forward:

Go after Geithner.....Show united and unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies....Begin attacking vulnerable Democrats on the airwaves.

This sounds unremarkable except for one thing: it took place on Inauguration Day, 2009. That's how long the Obama honeymoon lasted: zero days. Most of the Republican leadership was dead set against compromising in any way from the very first day.

By now that's not exactly news. But it certainly belies the Republican claim that they were willing to work with Obama but he simply never made the effort. They weren't.

Rearranging the Deck Chairs at the Postal Service

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 10:23 PM EDT

Hooray! Today the Senate passed a bipartisan bill to save the postal service. After plowing through half a dozen separate reports about what the bill does, I've compiled a comprehensive list. Take a deep breath:

  • Allows USPS to recoup more than $11 billion that it had overpaid into one of its pension funds. 
  • Provides early retirement incentives for nearly 100,000 USPS workers.
  • Restructures payments to a health benefits fund for future retirees.
  • Frees up USPS to offer a broader range of services like delivering beer and wine for retailers.
  • Creates a USPS chief innovation officer.
  • Halts the immediate closing of up to 252 mail-processing centers and 3,700 post offices.
  • Forces USPS to preserve overnight delivery of mail sent to nearby communities.
  • Forbids USPS from closing a rural post office unless the next-nearest location is no more than 10 miles away.
  • Places a one-year moratorium on closing rural post offices and then requires the mail agency to take rural issues into special consideration.
  • Prevents USPS from cutting Saturday delivery for two years, until the agency can prove such a cut is needed as a "last resort."
  • Transitions from door-to-door delivery to curbside delivery in some areas, such as suburban neighborhoods.
  • Strengthens the appeals process for customers opposed to closing a post office.
  • Caps bonuses and pay for USPS executives.
  • Forces USPS to wait until after Election Day to close postal facilities in states that permit voting by mail.
  • Permits USPS to co-locate post offices in government-owned buildings.

Hmmm. Do you notice anything missing? Let me think.

Oh yeah: there's nothing in there about allowing the postal service to increase postal rates. This is crazy. Take a look at countries around the world that have smaller volumes of mail than us: they all charge higher postage rates. They have to. And as volumes keep declining in America, we're going to need higher rates here too. Right now, a first-class equivalent stamp runs 75¢ in Germany, 72¢ in Britain, 82¢ in France, 98¢ in Switzerland, 97¢ in Belgium, and 63¢ in the Netherlands. There's no way that we can stay at 45¢ as volumes decline and pretend that somehow everything will be hunky-dory.

But allowing the price of a stamp to go up is apparently even more of a political taboo than closing rural post offices. I suppose Democrats are afraid of annoying granny and Republicans are so intent on busting the postal carriers union that they don't like the idea of anything that brings in more revenue. We are ruled by idiots.

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We Are Having an Epidemic of Tonsillectomies

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 4:03 PM EDT

This is strange. Just the other day, for no apparent reason, it occurred to me that no one ever has their tonsils removed anymore. It seems like that used to be a pretty common procedure, and then it just fell off the map.

But I was thinking about adults, and that was a big mistake. Sarah Kliff reports today that I wasn't just wrong about this, but wildly, totally, 180 degrees wrong:

It turns out we’re in the middle of an epidemic — a tonsillectomy epidemic, to be more specific. Tonsillectomies are the most common procedure, for children, requiring anesthesia. And we’re doing more of them: The number of tonsillectomies performed spiked by 74 percent between 1996 and 2006. In 2006 alone, more than a half-million children in the United States got their tonsils removed. The only problem is there’s no evidence they work for most children.

The procedure does show some benefits for those with really serious symptoms — very sore throats, fevers and other symptoms at least seven times in the past year — but no improvement for those whose indications are milder.

So why do we keep doing them? Tonsillectomies aren't big moneymakers. Parents aren't demanding them. There are no government guidelines that encourage them. Apparently it's basically just inertia. Doctors have been doing tonsillectomies for a long time, so they just keep on doing them even though there's little evidence that they work in most cases. It's much like life itself.

Time to Put "Only in America" Out of Its Misery

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 1:35 PM EDT

After listening to Mitt Romney's victory speech last night, Paul Waldman channels one of my pet peeves:

Can we just put aside the "only in America" schtick?....Let's be honest about this. America does indeed offer enormous opportunities for all kinds of people, despite our huge and growing inequality. The attraction it has always held for immigrants made this country what it is. For a long time, the kinds of opportunities available here were a rarity among nations, when in so many places class lines were much more rigid. But that's not true anymore. There are lots of places where somebody can come from modest circumstances and achieve wealth and/or power.

This whole routine usually just makes me laugh. To listen to America's politicians, you'd think that we live in the only country in the world where you can listen to whatever music you want, work in whatever job you want, eat whatever food you want, go to a hospital whenever you get sick, root for any sports team you want to, and elect the nitwit of your choice to high office. What really gets me, though, is how often this isn't just a mindless trope, but based instead on the apparent belief that Western Europe is some kind of impoverished, dystopian hellhole filled with sallow-faced drones who live lives of misery and angst.

Like most pet peeves, this one is basically innocuous, just a lazy way of demonstrating that you think America is great. No harm done, really. But it does grate now and then.

The Yellow Rose of Southern California

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 12:10 PM EDT

It's spring, so here's a picture of a blooming yellow rose from our garden. I don't really need an excuse to post this, do I?

And speaking of yellow roses, did you know that most of Emily Dickinson's poems can be sung to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas"? It's true! Go ahead and give it a try.

Congress Already Has the Power to Make Us Buy Things We Don't Want

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 11:56 AM EDT

We're probably all tired of arguments about whether the individual mandate is constitutional, right? I mean, the arguments have been made and someone on the Supreme Court is already busily at work writing a majority opinion telling us whether it is or isn't. But Andrew Sprung hasn't given up talking about it, and today he riffs off a song that contains the line, "But the car that you are driving doesn't really belong to you." And that reminds me of something.

Andrew uses this to segue into a discussion of the nature of insurance mandates, but I've long thought that cars can teach us a different lesson about the power of the federal government to make us buy things even if we don't want them. When I bought my last car, for example, I was forced by federal law to also buy seat belts and air bags — and as far as I know, no court has ever suggested the federal government lacks this power. Why?

Technically, of course, the government isn't forcing me to buy these things. I could, if I wanted, forego the purchase of a car. This isn't very practical where I live, serviced as I am by a single bus line that comes by once an hour, but I could do it. I could also move someplace with better transit. I'm not absolutely mandated to own seat belts and airbags.

But in real life, the fact is that most of us need a car. It's only an option in the most hyperlegalistic sense, which means that for all practical purposes the federal government has mandated that I buy seat belts and airbags. And they've done that on the theory that even if I don't care about my own safety, other people might ride in my car and they deserve protection. What's more, taxpayers could end up on the hook for medical care if I injure myself and my passengers. So seat belts and airbags are the law.

Practically speaking, then, what's the difference between this and an insurance mandate? In both cases the federal government is forcing me to buy something I might not want. The cost of complying with both mandates is substantial. You can be fined for disabling airbags or removing seat belts, just as Obamacare fines you for not buying health insurance. They're pretty damn similar.

I understand that it's possible to draw a distinction between airbag mandates and health insurance mandates. It's possible to draw a distinction between anything if you put your mind to it. But in real-life terms, what's really the difference? Not much, it seems to me. Unless you live the life of a hermit, Congress already regulates inactivity heavily and extensively. There's stuff you have to buy whether you like it or not. Welcome to the modern world.