Transit of Venus Blogging

Here it is, the last transit of Venus in our lifetimes (assuming we don't figure out how to download ourselves into cyberspace sometime soon, that is):

Ah, just kidding. I photoshopped that little black dot in. But if I had been able to get a picture of the transit, it would have looked something like that. Probably.

Actually, I'm not sure why I didn't see anything. I didn't have any special filters, so I had to wait until sunset to get a picture. Still, Venus should have been near the edge of the disk but not gone by then, and it's big enough that it should have shown up even with my little camera. But no. There was nothing there. I'm not sure why. But it was a very clear day, so maybe the sun was still too bright for my camera's sensors and Venus just got washed out. Nonetheless, according to the LA Times, if I'd been able to see anything, Venus would have been about where I put it.

Should Barack Obama Be More Like LBJ?

I'm catching up on stuff that I missed while I was on vacation, and today I read the big New York Times piece on Barack Obama's terrorist "kill list." I'll have more on that later — I'm still digesting it at the moment — but in the meantime one sentence of the story caught my attention for an entirely unrelated reason:

When the administration floated a plan to transfer from Guantánamo to Northern Virginia two Uighurs, members of a largely Muslim ethnic minority from China who are considered no threat to the United States, Virginia Republicans led by Representative Frank R. Wolf denounced the idea. The administration backed down.

That show of weakness doomed the effort to close Guantánamo, the same administration official said. “Lyndon Johnson would have steamrolled the guy,” he said. “That’s not what happened. It’s like a boxing match where a cut opens over a guy’s eye.”

Like thousands of other people, I just finished reading the fourth volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson and it made me even more impatient with people who are constantly complaining about Barack Obama's wimpiness compared to LBJ. The second half of Caro's book is about the first few months of Johnson's presidency, and legislatively it's primarily about how he won passage of two big bills: a major tax cut and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. So let's go down the list of things LBJ did:

  • Category 1 might be called straight-up corruption: threatening to sic the FBI on someone, or holding up FDIC approval for a bank merger. I think we can all agree that even if these levers of power were still open to Obama, we wouldn't want him to use them.
  • Category 2 is legal but toughminded political bullying: threatening to close a military base in someone's district, or telling NASA to direct spending to someone's pet program. For better or worse, though, this kind of leverage is simply far less open to presidents today than it was 60 years ago.
  • Category 3 is personal relationships with senators, which Johnson had plenty of. But there's no way for Obama to invent that kind of thing. He could schmooze more than he does, but he just doesn't have multi-decade father-son relationships with the old bulls of the Senate and there's no way he can invent them out of whole cloth. What's more, Caro's book makes it clear that, in the end, those relationships were of minor importance anyway.
  • Category 4 is ordinary horse-trading. To get the tax bill passed, for example, LBJ had to agree to Harry Byrd's demand that the federal budget be kept under $100 billion. (His close relationship with Byrd did exactly nothing to soften Byrd on this point.) Obama can do this kind of thing too, of course, and he has. If anything, in fact, the big liberal complaint about Obama is that he does too much of it.
  • Category 5 is coaxing/cajoling/flattering Republicans. Obama has tried this plenty, though, and has even succeeded a bit. It was two or three Republican votes that ended up passing the stimulus bill, the financial reform bill, and the Lilly Ledbetter Act. Ditto for most of the pieces of the lame duck session at the end of 2010. But I don't think anyone will disagree much if I say that this avenue is basically closed off. Modern Republicans are just not willing to compromise these days, and nothing Barack Obama does or says will change this. He simply doesn't have any leverage over them.
  • Category 6 is an intimate knowledge of Senate procedure. However, it's not clear how much this really helped Johnson, nor is it clear that Obama has ever suffered from its lack. I don't think there are any secret levers of procedural power in the Senate that he could have used but hasn't.

None of this is to say that Obama has used every bit of clout he has, or that a little more hard-nosed bargaining might not have done him some good here and there. Nor is to deny that LBJ had a natural instinct for finding pressure points he could exploit. But for the most part, the tools that LBJ used just flatly aren't available to Obama. And of the ones that are, he's used them.

So can we stop hearing about how much more Obama could have gotten done if only he'd been more willing to really use the power of the presidency, like LBJ did? There's no more than the tiniest grain of truth to it. Washington DC is a far different place today than it was in 1964, and Obama has to deal with his Washington, not LBJ's.

Fighting Back Against Big Water

Regular readers know that one of my pet peeves is the notion that everyone should drink eight glasses of water a day. And that's water and only water. Coffee, tea and Diet Coke don't count.

It's nonsense. There was never any science behind this in the first place, and the food you eat contains much of the water you need to stay healthy in the first place. Basically, if you're thirsty, drink something. That's pretty much it. Today, Spero Tsindos of La Trobe University joins the fight in an editorial in the June issue of Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health:

Mr Tsindos believes that encouraging people to drink more water is driven by vested interests, rather than a need for better health. "Thirty years ago you didn't see a plastic water bottle anywhere, now they appear as fashion accessories."....He also discusses the role of water in our constant quest for weight loss. "Drinking large amounts of water does not alone cause weight loss. A low-calorie diet is also required."

"Research has also revealed that water in food eaten has a greater benefit in weight reduction than avoiding foods altogether. We should be telling people that beverages like tea and coffee contribute to a person's fluid needs and despite their caffeine content, do not lead to dehydration."

Good luck, Spero! The 2-liter myth never seems to die no matter how many people go after it, though. But I think Mother Jones readers are too smart to fall for it. If you like bottled water, fine. But you don't need it. Tap water is fine. Juice is fine. Coffee is fine. Colas are fine. And you only need them when you're thirsty. There's no need — or benefit — to guzzling vast quantities of water just to meet some arbitrary quota. More details here if you don't believe me.

UPDATE: A med student tweets a response:

You wouldn't believe how many people come to the doctor's office complaining of "headaches" that are nearly always dehydration....Part of it is that I live in Arizona, but the point being: the 2-liter myth is very useful in counseling those patients to drink more.

Up above, I said, "If you're thirsty, drink something." But there's actually a second part to this advice: "Don't be an idiot." That's sort of the unvoiced second part to all advice, though, isn't it? In this case, it basically means that if it's 90 degrees in the shade and you're working in the garden or touring a city or something like that, drink plenty of water. When I was schlepping around Rome last week, I was careful to drink plenty of water even when I wasn't feeling especially thirsty.

But now we get into a philosophical debate. Cynics will argue that, like it or not, there are plenty of idiots in the world. And if the 2-liter myth helps them out, why not spread it around? I won't pretend that I have a gigantic problem with that, but I do think you still need to be careful. These myths have downsides too, especially when a steady stream of people hear them from practicing physicians and think of them as medical facts. So while it might make clinic life a little harder, I'd still recommend telling the truth instead. At the very least, don't present the 2-liter myth as a firm rule. Just suggest it as a rough guideline on hot days for patients who apparently have a problem with their sense of thirst.

The Pew Research Center has released the latest version of its American Values Survey, and the headline result is that although the values gap hasn't changed much by age or gender or race or anything else, it has continued to increase by political affiliation. The differences between Democrats and Republicans remained steady throughout the late 80s and 90s, but since 2000 have gone up from 11 percentage points to 18 percentage points. And the gap is continuing to grow.

The most dramatic change is in environmental views. Take a look at the chart on the right. Back in 1987, there was hardly any daylight between Democrats and Republicans. Everyone agreed we needed strict environmental regs. But Republican support for environmental regulations dropped during the early 90s, and then, after ticking back up a bit, cratered completely during the Bush and Obama adminstrations, plummeting from 79% to 47% over the past decade. Some of this is probably due to the GOP's general move toward the right during that time, but I'd guess that it's mostly a response to global warming. Until 2003, the environment was a roughly bipartisan cause, but since then it's become overwhelmingly identified with climate change, which in turn has become a violently political issue. We'd need more detailed polling to confirm what Pew seems to show here, but what it seems to suggest is that the partisan war over climate change has poisoned Republican support for environmental regulations more generally.

In related news, Pew has put up an interactive database that allows you to scroll through the questions they've been asking since 1987 and view the trends by age, gender, party, etc. There's some interesting stuff there. For example, take a look at the question below, sorted by generation. Over the years, most of us have retained roughly the same view of whether the government is wasteful and inefficient. The postwar ("Silent") and Boomer generations hover around 65% and Gen X hovers around 55% — with very little change as members of those generations get older. But Millennials are different. In 2003 they were pretty optimistic about government-run programs, with only about 30% saying they were wasteful. Today, though, nearly 50% think that. In the course of only a decade, they've become far, far more cynical about government programs.

Why? Is this related to the Iraq War? To the Bush/Rove administration more generally? To the stimulus bill? (The numbers went way up between 2009 and 2011.) Or were they just unnaturally optimistic during their 20s and are now catching up to everyone else? Any guesses?

Matt Yglesias agrees that vehicles driving on city streets need to be regulated, but he's not happy about stringent regulations on low-cost commercial transport options like van-sharing services:

The problem arises not when vehicles are regulated, but when using a vehicle to transport other people for money is regulated much more stringently than using a passenger vehicle in a non-commercial manner. The problem, of course, is that few people can depend on friends and family to drive them around everywhere. So very stringent curbs on commerce in transportation means that people need to overwhelmingly depend on owning their own vehicle and then transporting themselves with it on a non-commercial basis. This is a huge problem for certain classes of people (the vision impaired, the elderly, the poor) and leads to a lot of avoidable traffic congestion and air pollution.

The solution, however, isn't to somehow stop regulating the practice of driving vehicles. It's to level the regulatory playing field between a guy driving a friend's stuff across town in a van to repay a favor and a guy driving five strangers across town in a van in exchange for money he's going to use to pay the rent.

This deserves some pushback, especially since Matt has previously made similar arguments about the regulation of restaurants and commercial food processing operations. The problem is that commercial operations are just fundamentally different from private ones: they serve a lot more people, thus producing more potential for disaster, and their economic incentives are aligned differently. As a private car owner, I have a fairly obvious incentive to drive safely and to keep my car in decent shape. It's not a perfect incentive, but at least it's there. I'd just as soon not kill myself, after all.

But in a commercial operation, I just want to make money. My incentive is to hire the cheapest driver I can find and to skimp on maintenance as much as I can. That's especially true for small-time operators who don't have national reputations to worry about and who can just disappear if something disastrous happens. Because of this, the case for stricter regulation of commercial enterprises is pretty obvious.

Matt's post is a riff on a longer post by Diana Lind, who addresses this tension pretty well:

There needs to be a middle ground between rolling death traps and a transportation system that is killing our economy. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer’s proposal of creating a clearly posted letter-grade system to identify the quality of Chinatown bus services is a great one; this model could be applied to other kinds of new transit providers that serve niche markets. Auctioning off transportation licenses or city-owned property to support infrastructure for alternative transportation modes could be a new source of revenue in other cash-strapped cities.

That sounds roughly right to me. We routinely exempt small businesses from certain kinds of regulations, and there's no reason why we can't do something similar here, providing small, low-cost transport operations with the option of following a less rigid set of regulations as long as this is clearly disclosed. But that regulation is still going to be different — and more stringent — than regulation of private vehicles.

For my California readers, a bit more on Prop 29 today. This is the initiative that raises taxes on cigarettes by a dollar a pack and earmarks the proceeds for cancer research. I said yesterday that I opposed it because I was generically opposed to ballot-box budgeting, but I probably wasn't clear about what was really objectionable here. However, Michael Hiltzik did it for me while I was off vacationing in Rome:

The real problem with Proposition 29 is its mandate to lock in a huge revenue stream for the narrow purpose of cancer research. That's a worthy endeavor, to be sure, but there are other pressing needs for the money.

Gov. Brown's latest budget proposal calls for cuts of $1.2 billion in Medi-Cal and $900 million in CalWorks (a relief program for families with children) and steep cuts in financial aid for college students and in court budgets. The University of California and Cal State systems are becoming crippled by 20 years of cutbacks in state funding, leading to soaring tuition charges. Tobacco-related illnesses create some of the burden on Medi-Cal and other public healthcare programs, yet a minimal portion of Proposition 29 revenue, if any, would go to helping taxpayers carry that burden.

With the overall state budget gap approaching $16 billion, how can anyone make the case for diverting a huge chunk of $800 million a year in new revenue to long-term scientific research, whether in California or not? Even if you believe that case can be made, the proper place to make it is in the Legislature, where all these demands on the budget can be weighed and balanced against one another — not at the ballot box, where the only choice is to spend it the way the initiative's drafters choose or not to raise it at all.

[Don] Perata rationalizes these provisions by arguing that this is the only way to get a tax measure passed in 21st century California. "I completely agree that the University [of California] is in real jeopardy of losing its reputation," he told me, "but the people who are interested in supporting a tax don't want it to be distributed by the Legislature." This attitude is "killing us," he agreed, but added, "you don't win any campaigns by telling the public they're wrong."

I'm not the world's biggest proponent of sin taxes. They tend to be regressive and, in any case, one man's sin is another man's pleasure. Still, within reason, I don't mind raising cigarette taxes, and if the initiative process is the only way to do it, I could probably hold my nose and vote for Prop 29.

But I'm not interested in earmarking nearly a billion dollars a year of state revenue for cancer research, and you shouldn't be either. In fact, you should be violently opposed. On a proper list of state priorities, it wouldn't rank in the top ten. Probably not in the top 50. Locking in a revenue stream like this forever, to be disbursed by a carefully selected board that's wide open to conflict of interest problems, is a travesty.

Or, as Hiltzik puts it: "The weighing of intention vs. result here is fairly straightforward. Raising $800 million a year for the state: Good. Discouraging smoking via a harsh tax: Great. Sequestering the money for a limited purpose: Bad. Really bad."

From Brad Plumer:

In the United States, coal, gas and nuclear plants account for roughly 40 percent of the nation’s freshwater use, drawing from rivers and lakes to prevent their turbines from overheating.

I did not know that. That's as much as the entire agricultural sector uses. Personal use accounts for about 14% of total freshwater consumption in the United States.

Steve Benen passes along a bit of raw data today about the kinds of ads that the Obama and Romney campaigns are running:

Perhaps now would be a good time for a quick reality check. Josh Green cited research from Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, which found that 63,793 presidential campaign ads have been broadcast since the start of the general election campaign on April 10. As Green noted, the data uncovered a noteworthy trend: "Democrats are running a largely positive campaign, while Republicans are running a mostly negative one."

That's....amazing. Not the fact that Democratic ads are 2:1 positive while Republican ads are 2:1 negative — exactly the opposite of the media spin you're likely to hear these days — but the fact that the two campaigns have run 63,793 ads in six weeks. That's 1,400 ads per day six months before the election. Yikes.

Tyler Cowen highlights a comment from Scott Sumner's blog:

It’s incredibly frustrating. The political and policy world falls into two camps:

  1. Those who believe no stimulus is necessary, everything is supply-side.
  2. Those who believe stimulus is necessary but only fiscal stimulus can or should supply it.

....I feel like to both the centre left and the right, Milton Friedman is too heretical now — too right-wing for the left obviously and too left-wing for the right. Consequently, everything about monetarism has been stripped out of the public consciousness and we are left with vulgar Keynesianism and vulgar Austrianism.

We truly live in a Dark Age of economics.

Statement #1 is correct. Nearly all modern conservatives believe that no stimulus, either fiscal or monetary, is appropriate right now. It's all about maximum pain and austerity. This truly is the equivalent of treating a patient with leeches.

But where does statement #2 come from? The liberal economists I read do indeed believe that we need fiscal stimulus, but unless I'm misreading them badly, they'd all welcome looser monetary policy as well in one form or another. That might be NGDP targeting (Sumner's policy preference), it might be further rounds of QE, it might be a higher tolerance for inflation, or it might be something else. Whatever their particular policy preferences, though, I can't think of a single liberal economist who hasn't criticized Ben Bernanke for not combating the recession more actively.

This is the kind of weird false equivalence that drives everyone on the left crazy.

Paul Krugman says that although Team Obama has been reluctant to complain about Republican obstructionism, they don't really have much choice anymore:

They can point with pride to some big economic achievements, above all the successful rescue of the auto industry, which is responsible for a large part of whatever job growth we are managing to get. But they’re not going to be able to sell a narrative of overall economic success. Their best bet, surely, is to do a Harry Truman, to run against the “do-nothing” Republican Congress that has, in reality, blocked proposals — for tax cuts as well as more spending — that would have made 2012 a much better year than it’s turning out to be.

As an empirical matter, this is true. Basically, the Republican strategy for the past three years has been this:

  1. Do everything humanly possible to prevent the economy from recovering.
  2. Wait for 2012.
  3. Run a campaign focused on the fact that the economy is lousy.

As a political matter, however, it's not likely that pointing this out will do Obama any good. Harry Truman and the do-nothing Congress may be the stuff of legend, but guess what? That probably had little to do with Truman's victory. Truman won because the economy was on a tear for the entire year before the 1948 election: Nominal GDP skyrocketed (chart below) and real GDP was growing at a pretty healthy clip too. Economically speaking, it was a terrific peacetime performance.

Obama doesn't have this. He's got about 3% nominal growth and 2% real growth. There might be justice in blaming this on Republicans, but probably not electoral victory.