Kevin Drum - April 2012

Chart of the Day: Voters and the Culture Wars

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 5:54 PM EDT

Dave Weigel looks at the latest Pew poll asking voters which issues they care about, and concludes that Mitch Daniels was right: Republicans need to declare a truce on social issues and focus instead on the economy.

Republicans won in 2010 because voters focused on economics. Mitt Romney got himself declared "electable" because he focused on economics and auto-penned the social issues pledges when he needed to. And Romney swears that the new social issue/abortion/contraception flare-ups — brought on, typically, by Republican legislators — are distractions. They certainly look that way. They distract from the issues he can win on.

Of course, candidates don't always get to decide which issues the rest of the country is going to focus on. My guess is that Romney wishes all the contraception and related "mommy war" issues had never cropped up in the first place, but that wasn't his call to make. And once the issue was in play, he had little choice but to take the kinds of positions that please the most militant members of his tea party base.

On the bright side for Romney, though, just because voters say they don't care about social issues this year doesn't mean they really don't care. And not every culture war issue will necessarily end up benefiting the Democrats, as the contraception debate seems to have. They won't seem like distractions anymore if the next eruption turns into something that actively helps the Romney campaign.

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Microsoft Scores Big Win in Patent Wars

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 2:26 PM EDT

The decadence of the modern high-tech industry is on full display today:

Microsoft, which just bought patents from AOL for more than $1 billion, is now selling most of them to Facebook for $550 million. The two companies said Monday that Facebook is buying about 650 of the 925 patents and patent applications. Facebook will get a license to use the rest of the patents. Microsoft will also get a license to use the patents that Facebook is buying.

So there you have it. Each patent is worth about a million bucks, or one one-thousandth of an Instagram. This means that these patents are either ridiculously expensive or else ridiculously cheap. I can't quite figure out which.

The Illusion of Free Will, Google Version

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 12:36 PM EDT

From Andrew Sullivan:

Fear not. The Dish will not succumb to SEOs. I'm still too enthralled with the immediate unfiltered reader-writer experience that blogging alone allows.

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, the dark art of writing blog posts or news articles that will rise to the top of Google search pages. But although Andrew may not be SEO-ing his own site, he's already succumbed to SEO. After all, the article he links to in the post above is a week-old review by Sean Gallagher of a tool called InboundWriter, which is designed to help you write Google-friendly prose:

To get a feel for what SEO experts think determines a "high-quality" page from the standpoint of a search engine, I used InboundWriter to search-optimize this story. I'll let you be the judge of the outcome; InboundWriter gave it a score of 99 out of a possible 100.

In other words, Andrew may think that he wrote about SEO today of his own free will. But free will is an illusion. In reality, he wrote about it because Gallagher's article had been honed to perfection and thus gotten lots of attention. I blindly followed along. Resistance is futile.

Mitt Romney Will Try to Tap Dance Around Healthcare This Year

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 11:29 AM EDT

Republicans have been chanting "Repeal and Replace" for a long time now, and there's no question that they're dead serious about repealing Obamacare. But what do they want to replace it with? That's been a wee bit fuzzier. Today, though, Noam Levey writes in the LA Times that Mitt Romney's plan is slowly starting to take shape:

His public statements and interviews with advisors make clear that Romney has embraced a strategy that in crucial ways is more revolutionary — and potentially more disruptive — than the law Obama signed two years ago. The centerpiece of Romney's plan would overhaul the way most Americans get their health coverage: at work. He would do so by giving Americans a tax break to buy their own health plans. That would give consumers more choices, but also more risk.

....Unlike Obama's healthcare law, Romney's plan could fundamentally change the rules for the more than 150 million Americans who get insurance through their employers. These workers get a large tax break because their health benefits are not taxed. Businesses that provide insurance also get a break because their contributions to their employees' health plans aren't taxed.

In place of that system, Romney would give Americans a tax break to buy their own health plans, regardless of whether their employers offered coverage.

As near as I can tell, Team Obama isn't eager to make healthcare a central topic of the upcoming campaign. Given the continued lukewarm approval ratings of Obamacare, I guess that's understandable. And yet, if Romney unveils the kind of plan Levey suggests, it's hard not to think it could be a winning issue. I mean, Romney would be offering a plan that would:

  • Motivate lots of employers to drop health coverage.
  • Give dropped families a tax credit that wouldn't come close to covering the cost of buying health coverage on their own. So most families would end up paying a lot more for health insurance than they do now.
  • Almost certainly increase the federal deficit, probably by a lot.

That's bad enough. But there's more! A plan like this plainly doesn't work unless insurance companies are required to take all comers. After all, you can hardly give employers an incentive to drop group coverage and then just sit back and do nothing while insurance companies refuse to offer policies to half the people who have been dropped. But if you're going to require insurance companies to take all comers, you also have to regulate the price they can charge. Otherwise they'll just jack up the price on anyone they don't want to cover, effectively denying them insurance. But if you do that, then you really need to have some kind of insurance mandate too. Otherwise all the sick people will sign up and the healthy people will remain uninsured, most of them figuring there's always an emergency room that will take care of them if something goes really wrong. This would decimate the insurance industry.

And of course poor people will require subsidies of some kind. We're not barbarians, right?

Is this all sounding familiar? It should. It's not really a whole lot different than Obamacare. If you omit any of it, it really doesn't work. The reason is that there are some fundamental underpinnings of the health insurance market that just don't change no matter how liberal or conservative you are. If your plan is based on insurance, then it has to be based on large, inclusive pools of applicants. One way or another, you have to group together random parts of the population in order to provide insurance companies with big, actuarially predictable pools of customers. There's no way around this unless you're willing to (a) essentially put insurance companies out of business, or (b) allow lots and lots of people to lose health coverage. Trying to do anything else is like trying to square a circle. It just won't work.

Romney will do his best to fudge this, and it might work if the Obama campaign decides not to press the issue. That might not be wise. No matter how clever Romney is, there are going to be cracks in his plan that can be exploited. They should be.

The Brain Teaser Route to World Domination

| Mon Apr. 23, 2012 10:33 AM EDT

Over at the Observer, Leo Benedictus reviews William Poundstone's Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?

Some way into this book, you realise something, or at least I did. Only the first 136 pages have anything to do with Google's interview technique. The rest, for almost as many pages, is consumed by "answers" to the many questions that we find along the way....Might I have preferred to settle down with a book that didn't bother trying to be a practical, topical and revealing guide to hi-tech job interviews, but instead just called itself "101 Great Maths and Logic Puzzles"?

....You will get to ponder things like this: "You're playing football on a desert island and want to toss a coin to decide the advantage. Unfortunately, the only coin on the island is bent and is seriously biased. How can you use the biased coin to make a fair decision?"....There is quite a lot of sucking up to Google, actually, even though the effectiveness of the company's methods is far from proven.

Indeed. First Microsoft, and then all of Silicon Valley, became famous for subjecting potential hires to questions like the one above, or queries about how many gas stations there are in the United States. But has anybody ever produced even halfway persuasive evidence that this is a great way of hiring brilliant employees? My own suspicion is that it isn't. It rewards a certain kind of shallow cleverness that might well be useful in certain roles at high-tech companies, but I'd be surprised if it were anything more. In fact, putting together an entire company characterized by shallow cleverness might well be sowing the seeds of one's own destruction. It's a mental trait that I suspect is organizationally useful is modest quantities, but might very well be actively harmful in larger quantities. Even in the high-tech world, producing clever coding hacks is only a tiny part of success.

But then, I have no proof of that either. All I know is that I'd probably be reluctant to work for a company that even asked questions like this in the first place. It's a fad, and a lazy way of convincing yourself that you've figured out a shortcut to assembling a world-class staff. But there are no shortcuts. Not even in Silicon Valley.

Quote of the Day: "Pineapples Don't Have Sleeves"

| Sun Apr. 22, 2012 4:45 PM EDT

The New York Times reports this weekend that the state of New York is in a meltdown over a recent piece of alleged standardized test idiocy. Here's the nickel version: It's about a short story on the 8th grade reading test. In the story, a pineapple (yes, a pineapple) challenges a hare to a race. The hare accepts. The pineapple insists it can win. But how? A nearby moose says the pineapple must have something up its sleeve. "Pineapples don't have sleeves," says the owl. Then the race starts, and the pineapple just stands there. A little while later the hare loops around to the finish line and the pineapple is still standing still. So the animals all eat the pineapple. The End.

This is obviously a nonsense story. Is that kosher for an 8th grade reading test, even if the kids all think it's weird? Seems OK to me. But the real issue, apparently, is that two of the questions about the story have been judged too ambiguous. The kids were confused. This is something I'm normally sympathetic to, since I often see answers on standardized tests that strike me as tricky to judge even though I'm a whole lot smarter than your average 8th grader.

But this time I don't see it. The story and the questions are here. The allegedly tricky questions are 7 and 8. But despite the nonsensical nature of the story, the answers seem pretty clear to me.

Nonetheless, "Pineapples don't have sleeves," has apparently taken on iconic stature in New York, and the state education commissioner has decreed that the questions won't be counted in final scores. A victory for common sense!

So your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to read the story (it's very short) and then look at the questions. Do they seem unfair? They don't to me, but maybe I'm missing something.

UPDATE: A couple of specialists have emailed to say that on high-stakes tests like this one, the general rule is to allow very little ambiguity at all. The right answer should be extremely clear. If that's the case, then I agree that this story and these questions should have been ditched. I don't think the answers were all that ambiguous, but there was certainly some ambiguity.

That said, I guess I don't understand why anything like this would have been invented in the first place. Is there really any need for creativity in tests like this? Or even a need to buy passages from published authors? Just construct a short piece, either fiction or nonfiction, and ask some straightforward questions about it. What's so hard?

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Vacation Bleg: Copenhagen & Rome

| Sat Apr. 21, 2012 1:35 PM EDT

Guess what? It's vacation time again! This time it's a family affair, and we'll be spending a week in Copenhagen in the middle of May followed by a week in Rome during the last week of May. Anybody have some interesting suggestions? Stuff off the beaten path that we should be sure to see? Let me know in comments.

Friday Cat Blogging - 20 April 2012

| Fri Apr. 20, 2012 2:55 PM EDT

Today is outdoor portrait day! On the left, Inkblot is pretending that he's king of the jungle. On the right, Domino is favoring us all with her squinty look.

Need more cats? If you haven't yet seen Henrí the existential cat, you should. The original Henrí is here; the sequel is here. And my sister (aka Inkblot's Aunt) sends along news of Boo the doorstop thwanger, via the Daily Mail. Scroll to the bottom for the video.

The United States Has Not Abandoned Space. Really.

| Fri Apr. 20, 2012 2:33 PM EDT

Charles Krauthammer, it turns out, is a small-government conservative only as long as our small government keeps doing all the stuff that Charles Krauthammer gets a kick out of. Today he's unhappy about the end of the space shuttle program:

Is there a better symbol of willed American decline? The pity is not Discovery’s retirement — beautiful as it was, the shuttle proved too expensive and risky to operate — but that it died without a successor. The planned follow-on — the Constellation rocket-capsule program to take humans back into orbit and from there to the moon — was suddenly canceled in 2010. And with that, control of manned spaceflight was gratuitously ceded to Russia and China.

....There are always excuses for putting off strenuous national endeavors: deficits, joblessness, poverty, whatever. But they shall always be with us....NASA will tell you that it’s got a new program to go way beyond low-Earth orbit and, as per Obama’s instructions, land on an asteroid by the mid-2020s. Considering that Constellation did not last even five years between birth and cancellation, don’t hold your breath for the asteroid landing.

Nor for the private sector to get us back into orbit, as Obama assumes it will. True, hauling MREs up and trash back down could be done by private vehicles. But manned flight is infinitely more complex and risky, requiring massive redundancy and inevitably larger expenditures. Can private entities really handle that? And within the next lost decade or two?

Krauthammer agrees that the shuttle was a boondoggle, but he wants a replacement program anyway. He agrees that deficits are a problem, but apparently not a problem that should be solved by cutting programs he thinks are cool. And although he's normally the country's biggest fan of private enterprise, he doesn't think the private sector is up to this particular task. That's a mighty fair-weather version of conservatism, I'd say.

But the most annoying part of this column is that Krauthammer shamelessly sidles around the most important fact of all: the United States isn't retreating from space. We're only retreating from manned space flight. Our technology for boosting satellites and unmanned probes into space remains unmatched, and the technology that goes into those satellites and unmanned probes is phenomenal — and getting more phenomenal every year. They are marvels of advanced technology. If you want to insist that the federal government should spend gazillions of dollars making sure that there are always a few American citizens orbiting the earth, that's fine. But that's the argument you need to make. And when you make it, you need to keep in mind one of the oldest jokes about the shuttle program:

The purpose of the space shuttle is to take astronauts up to the space station. The purpose of the space station is to give the shuttle someplace to take the astronauts.

Personally, I wouldn't mind spending some boondogglish money on a manned space program. I'm not a big fan, mind you, but I can think of worse things to flush our money away on. But I wonder if Krauthammer would agree to raise taxes on the wealthy in order to do it? That might tell us just how serious he really is about our supposedly "willed decline."

Quote of the Day: The Tornado of Idiocy That is American Politics

| Fri Apr. 20, 2012 12:53 PM EDT

From Ezra Klein, after learning that conservatives are attacking President Obama for eating dog meat when he was a seven-year-old growing up in Indonesia:

After I learned the story, I felt a little worse about myself for being in any way involved in the tornado of idiocy that is American politics.

Ezra points to a recent handful of especially idiotic silly-season incidents, and I just want to point out that, unlike Ezra, I heard about all of these things in real time. That's what being a pro is all about, boys and girls. No need to thank me.