• Barack Obama Has Been Mysteriously Apathetic About Nominating Judges


    Jonathan Bernstein points me to Jeffrey Toobin, who writes that although Republican obstruction of President Obama’s judicial appointments has been unprecedented, it’s also true that Obama hasn’t nominated many judges in the first place. “The Senate cannot confirm judges who were never nominated in the first place,” he points out. And there’s more:

    The President’s lethargy on the matter of judicial nominations is inexplicable. So is his silence on the subject. George W. Bush complained loudly when he felt Democrats in the Senate had delayed or obstructed his judicial nominees. Obama has said little. Indeed, Bush had a public judicial philosophy as President, frequently calling on judges to “strictly apply the Constitution and laws, not legislate from the bench.” As a former president of the Harvard Law Review and long-time lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, Obama has a great deal of familiarity with legal issues but hardly ever talks about them. His legal philosophy, if he has one, is unknown.

    I find many of the liberal complaints about Obama unconvincing, mainly because I viewed him from the very start as a rather cautious, mainstream Democrat. I didn’t expect the second coming of FDR. But there are some areas where I’ve nonetheless found Obama inexplicably disappointing. Housing policy, for example. National security and civil liberties policy. And judicial nominations.

    In fact, that last one is the most inexplicable of all. The first two at least have the excuse of considerable political opposition. But judicial nominations don’t. Republicans can be blamed for obstructing, but Obama is solely to blame for not mustering the energy to vet and nominate candidates for every open seat — or being willing to fight for them in the court of public opinion. At a bare minimum, if his legal team had done this in the first half of 2009, he would have had plenty of candidates to muscle through during the few months he commanded a filibuster-proof majority.

    So why didn’t he? It’s a helluva mystery.

  • Does Algebra Help You Think Better?


    A couple of days ago Andrew Hacker wrote a New York Times op-ed asking “Is Algebra Necessary?” It was prompted by the growing trend to require a passing grade in algebra as a condition for graduating from high school, and Hacker argues that this trend is doing a lot of damage, helping to make dropouts out of kids who are perfectly adequate in every way except their ability to manipulate abstract symbols. Eugene Volokh, however, suggests that Hacker is wrong:

    Though I’m not certain of this, I suspect that algebraic problem-solving teaches useful mental habits that both open up possible future careers and also help train people’s general problem-solving abilities.

    I’m not picking on Eugene here. I just had his post handy as an example of an argument that I’ve seen frequently in response to Hacker’s piece. So I’m curious: is there any evidence at all that knowledge of algebra (not arithmetic, algebra) teaches useful mental habits or improves people’s general problem-solving abilities? Obviously algebra is useful if you plan to learn more math in order to pursue a science or engineering career. But for your garden variety high-school grad, does knowledge of algebra truly instill an ability to reason better? I have to say that my personal experience is that it doesn’t: people with a strong math background don’t seem to reason any better than anyone else. I suspect that those of us who are good at algebra tend to vastly overestimate its impact on our mental habits.

    Just to be absolutely clear here: General numeracy is useful, and it’s especially useful for understanding numerical problems. (Duh.) That’s not what I’m asking about. What I’m asking is whether mere knowledge of algebra produces better mental habits in other areas of life. It might! But is there any actual evidence to back this up?

  • I Have a Solution That Will Allow Florida to Ban Doctors From Asking About Guns


    Via Ed Kilgore, I see that Florida recently passed a law making it illegal for doctors to ask their patients about gun ownership. A federal judge blocked the law a few weeks ago because — duh — it’s an obvious violation of the First Amendment. If this case ever makes it to the Supreme Court, I have no doubt that it will be overturned 9-0. It’s a no-brainer no matter how gun-friendly a judge you are.

    But I have a solution! I’m pretty sure that Florida can issue guidelines to its own employees, and those guidelines could include rules about whether its employees are allowed to ask about gun ownership. So Florida’s law would probably pass constitutional muster if their doctors all worked for the state.

    Do you see where I’m going with this? If Florida were to implement true, NHS-style socialized healthcare, they could tell their doctors to zip it on the gun questions. And surely the NRA would support this, since any and all gun rights laws, symbolic or otherwise, are always more important than any other law.

    Too bad Obama and the Democratic Party didn’t sniff this out earlier. If they had just included a provision in Obamacare that restricted any doctor receiving federal money from asking about gun ownership, they could have had a way stronger bill and passed it 100-0. Maybe next time.

  • Working Class Men’s Wages Have Plummeted Over the Past 40 Years


    Dylan Matthews says a bit more today about something I mentioned briefly a couple of weeks ago: among men, wages haven’t just stagnated over the past few decades. They’ve plummeted:

    As you can see on the black line in the above graph, median earnings for men in 2009 were lower than they were in the early 1970s. And it gets worse. The decline shown above is actually too mild, because it doesn’t take into account the massive exodus from the workforce of men since that period. Between 1960 and 2009, the share of men working fulltime fell from 83 percent to 66 percent, and the share not making formal wages tripled from 6 percent to 18 percent. When you take all men, not just those working fulltime, into account, the slight decline in the above graph becomes a plummet of 28 percent in median real wages from 1969 to 2009.

    ….High school dropouts’ earnings have fallen 66 percent since 1969, and people with some college – the median level of education in the US – have seen earnings fall by a third. Reasonable people can disagree about what caused this massive decline and what should be done to fix it. But it’s a major crisis….

    This decline in both male employment and male wages has been going on for 40 years now, and as Dylan mentions, it’s far worse at the bottom of the ladder than at the top. Male high school grads working full time earn 25% less than they used to, and if you account for those not working or working only part time, aggregate wages are down by nearly half.

    Half! And that’s for high school grads, not dropouts. (And the picture changes only modestly if you add health benefits to the wage picture.) These are men who basically played by the rules, got their diploma, and then went into the workforce. Or tried to, anyway. But they’re finding it far harder to find steady, full-time work than their fathers did, and when they do they earn dramatically less than their fathers did. So I’ll repeat what I said the last time I wrote about this: if you want to understand why marriage has declined among the working and lower middle classes, you have to understand what’s happened to male wages. It’s not the whole answer, but there’s simply no way that it’s not a big factor.

  • A Lesson From the Senate in How Not to Stop Leaks


    California senator Dianne Feinstein has introduced a bill that would ban background briefings by analysts who work for intelligence agencies:

    Under the Senate bill, only the director, deputy director and designated public affairs officials of intelligence agencies would be allowed “to provide background or off-the-record information regarding intelligence activities to the media.”

    The term “background” typically means that a source can be identified broadly by his or her government position but not by name. The bill would not prevent analysts from speaking on the record, but they are rarely allowed to be identified because of security concerns.

    The provision is part of a series of anti-leak measures included in an authorization bill approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. The crackdown is fueled by frustration over recent articles that disclosed details of U.S. counterterrorism operations and cyber-penetrations of Iran.

    Feinstein acknowledged that she knew of no evidence tying those leaks or others to background sessions, which generally deal broadly with analysts’ interpretations of developments overseas and avoid discussions of the operations of the CIA or other spy services.

    This is, as Reuters foreign correspondent Missy Ryan tweeted, “ominous.” And it’s ominous for a variety of reasons. First, nobody gets leaks from background briefings. Second, it’s a dumb overreaction to a problem that’s been around forever. Third, it will likely do nothing to slow down national security leaks. And fourth, it suggests that Feinstein and others are perfectly happy to ignore the real problem in favor of vapid showboating.

    In other words, it’s the United States Senate at work. It’s good to see that some traditions never die.

  • Mitt Romney’s Palestinian Pander


    As we all know, Mitt Romney said this yesterday:

    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney angered Palestinian leaders on Monday when he suggested here that the Israeli economy has outpaced that of the Palestinian territories in part because of advantages of “culture.”

    ….Romney said he had studied a book called “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” searching for a reason why two neighboring places could have such disparate prosperity.

    “Culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said, repeating the conclusion he drew from the book, by David Landes. “And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”

    Can I just point out the obvious here? This wasn’t a gaffe. This was a deliberate pander to the conservative base in the U.S., which pretty strongly believes that Palestinian culture is indeed corrupt, indolent, and sullen. Romney knows this perfectly well. He was demonstrating once again, in a very concrete way, that he’s no RINO. He really, truly feels tea-party style conservatism in his bones. It wasn’t just an offhand mistake.

  • Can We All Please Stop Whining About the Olympics Being Tape Delayed? Thank You.


    Apologies in advance for the rant, but I just have to ask: am I the only one who’s well and truly sick of the endless whinging about the fact that NBC is tape delaying their Olympics coverage so that it mostly appears in prime time? Seriously, folks: this is how the Olympics have been televised for — what? 20 years or so now? It’s time to get over it. This particular complaint isn’t cutting edge or original or even very interesting anymore.

    Besides, we all know why this is done: because NBC pays a ton of money for television rights, and the only way to make back their investment is by getting people to watch during prime time. That’s life. We also know that the vast majority of people couldn’t watch any of the events live anyway. They’re at work, and since the games last two weeks, it’s not like they can just take a day off if they’re Olympics junkies. Most people prefer that the games be tape delayed so they can actually see them.

    In fact, here’s my guess: most of the griping comes from self-absorbed journalists, with the balance coming from people who are either students or else lucky enough to have jobs that allow them to watch TV whenever they want — and haven’t quite figured out that this doesn’t describe everyone in the country. I say: get over yourselves. Try an 8-to-5 factory job that gets you home at 6 and done with dinner by 7. Then tell me if you still think it’s ridiculous that the Olympics are tape delayed.

    UPDATE: If you want to whine about the editing or the commentary or NBC’s promo mistakes, feel free. I won’t get in your way. But I’ve seen a lot of whining about the mere fact of tape delay, and I think it’s time to get over that.

    In comments and Twitter, the most common response to my whining about the whining has been: why not both? Why not stream/televise live and do a prime time show? Answer: I don’t know. But when questions like this come up, my usual starting point is that the people involved probably aren’t idiots. They might be wrong, of course. Anyone can be wrong. But they’re not idiots, and they know their business. They also know all about social media and smartphones and the fact that many of you know all the results in real time. So there’s probably a reason NBC doesn’t do both. Most likely it’s because it would be a money loser, but there might be other reasons too. In any case, I’ll bet there’s a pretty sensible reason. It’s not just sheer ignorant cussedness.

    UPDATE 2: OK, hold on a second. I didn’t realize that NBC is live streaming every event. But they are. So now I really want to know what all the whining is about.

  • If You Want to Reform Social Security, Your Target Should be Republicans


    Bill Keller wants Democrats to stop “recoiling” from entitlement reform and instead start endorsing some common sense ways of bringing Social Security into balance. He specifically mentions three proposals:

    They include (1) gradually raising the retirement age to compensate for the fact that we now live, on average, 14 years longer than when F.D.R. signed Social Security into law. They include (2) obliging those of us who can really afford it to pay a larger share. They also include (3) technical fixes like aligning the automatic cost-of-living formula with reality.

    If Bill Keller wants to reduce Social Security payouts, fine. But let’s at least get our facts straight:

    1. For the purposes of Social Security, it doesn’t matter how much overall life expectancy has changed since 1940. What matters is how much life expectancy has increased for those who turn 65. Answer: for men, it’s gone up from 12.7 years to 17 years. That’s an increase of 4.3 years. However, the retirement age has also gone up, from 65 to 67. That’s an increase of two years. The truth is that retirement age has very nearly kept up with the increase in life expectancy since FDR’s time.
    2. I’m not sure what this one means. If Keller means raising the cap on Social Security taxes, that would probably help. The share of earnings covered by Social Security used to be about 90%. Today it’s fallen to 83%. If this were raised back to its old level, it would solve somewhere between a sixth and a third of Social Security’s shortfall, depending on how and when it was phased in. However, Republicans are opposed to this since it would raise tax rates on the well-off.
    3. This is no mere “technical” fix. If you reduce Social Security’s inflation calculation, then you’re reducing Social Security payouts. It’s exactly the same as just cutting benefits. Matt Yglesias explains this well here. It’s also worth noting that if we truly think that “chained CPI” is a better measure of inflation than the one we use currently, then we should use chained CPI for all our inflation calculations. However, conservatives are opposed to this because it would it would affect the way tax brackets are calculated, which would effectively raise taxes on the rich. It’s Republicans who are the problem here, not Democrats.

    I don’t want to pretend that Democrats are saints when it comes to entitlements. Generally speaking, though, there are a lot of Democrats who are open to the idea of a balanced set of Social Security reforms that cut benefits modestly and raise revenues. It’s Republicans who are dead set against this: they want privatization or nothing. And they especially don’t want anything that raises taxes on the rich. But without any hope of compromise, Democrats have little incentive to support unpopular entitlement changes on their own. They did this with Obamacare’s Medicare reforms and got buried in Republican attack ads in 2010.

    There’s simply no real equivalency here. Sure, maybe Democrats should be a little more courageous about this stuff. But the real problem is Republicans. They just flatly reject compromise and promise to relentlessly attack Democrats if they do anything on their own. If you really want entitlement reform, it’s not Democrats that should be your target. It’s the GOP.

  • Real Obama vs. Fantasy Obama


    I’ve long had my issues with Drew Westen, and they’re on striking display in an op-ed he wrote a few days ago for the Washington Post. He says Barack Obama made “three crucial errors” after he took office:

    Obama’s first mistake was inviting the Republicans to the table. The GOP had just decimated the economy and had been repudiated by voters to such an extent that few Americans wanted to admit that they were registered Republicans. Yet Obama, with his penchant for unilateral bipartisanship, refused to speak ill of what they had done.

    ….The second mistake was squandering the goodwill that Americans felt toward the new president and their anxiety about an economy hemorrhaging three-quarters of a million jobs a month….Instead of designing a stimulus that reflected the thinking of the country’s best economic minds, he cut their recommended numbers by a third and turned another third into inert tax cuts designed to appease Republican legislators.

    ….The third way the administration created opportunities for Republican obstructionism will someday become a business-school case study: It let a popular idea — a family doctor for every family — be recast as a losing ideological battle between intrusive government and freedom. In the 2008 election, the American people were convinced that families should never have to choose between putting food on the table and taking the kids to the doctor. They were adamant that neither they nor their aging parents should have to choose between their medicine and their mortgage.

    This kind of thing is intensely frustrating. I actually agree with Westen’s broad point that Obama should have been more aggressive than he was. And yet, these three “errors” are so ahistorical that they make me crazy. First: Obama had to invite Republicans to the table. When he took office Democrats didn’t have a filibuster-proof majority. Second: Obama couldn’t get a bigger stimulus. The evidence on this score is voluminous. Whether he wanted a bigger stimulus is an open question, but it’s also moot. He just didn’t have the votes. Third: universal healthcare wasn’t an especially popular idea and the American public was far from adamant that they wanted it. Oh, it polls decently in the abstract, getting roughly 60% support over the past decade, but that’s nothing special. It’s the worst kind of poll literalism to think this represents a genuine, intensely-held groundswell of support for national healthcare. In reality, it’s a tenuous majority.

    I really don’t understand why people like Westen can’t make their critiques of Obama’s leadership in a way that takes into account obvious political realities. Not that it would be an easy critique. If you look at past presidents who made big changes, they were mostly surfing on waves that were already cresting: FDR and the New Deal, LBJ and civil rights, Reagan and taxes. Obama just didn’t have that kind of wave to ride. It’s an open question why he didn’t have that — one that I tried to tackle here — but one way or another, he didn’t. And while I think Obama has done a poor job as leader of his party, I say that tentatively. The fact is that modern presidents simply don’t have the party leverage that some past presidents have had, and Obama in particular simply didn’t have a big enough majority to get his way.

    As it happens, I think Obama could have done better, and in particular he should have continued pushing for more stimulus in 2009 and 2010 in the form of jobs bills, housing legislation, and less pivoting to the deficit. Still, life in the White House is pretty difficult when you have to constantly concern yourself with getting a couple of Republican votes, or, at best, the 60th most liberal Democrat — especially when the 60th most liberal Democrat is a self-righteous showboat like Joe Lieberman or a Nebraska pol like Ben Nelson. Obama probably had leverage he could have used better, but if that’s your criticism, then you need to explain exactly what he did wrong dealing with Congress, not whether he gave precisely the right kind of speeches.

  • Mitt Romney Praises Socialized Health Care, As Long As It’s Not American


    Over the weekend, as I was watching Mitt Romney extol the virtues of Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit, I tweeted sarcastically, “Wikipedia tells me that top marginal Israeli tax rate is 48% on income over $125,000. I wonder if Romney knows that?” Apparently not. Here’s Romney at a fundraiser in Jerusalem on Monday:

    Do you realize what health care spending is as a percentage of the G.D.P. in Israel? Eight percent. You spend eight percent of G.D.P. on health care. You’re a pretty healthy nation. We spend 18 percent of our G.D.P. on health care, 10 percentage points more…We have to find ways—not just to provide health care to more people, but to find ways to fund and manage our health care costs.

    It kind of makes you wonder if Romney actually knows anything about Israel aside from the fact that they fight Arabs and Persians now and again. I mean, he does know that Israel has historically been a socialist state, right? And they have universal health care. ThinkProgress tweaks Romney by suggesting that he was praising a system that includes an individual mandate, but really, they’re giving him too much credit. Yeah, there’s a mandate, but it’s a mandate to choose which of four free systems you want to sign up with. What Israel has isn’t really a mandate in the same way Obamacare has a mandate, it’s the full-blown lefty dream of free, universal healthcare funded through the tax system. Properly speaking, Romney ought to be appalled with their health care system.

    And wouldn’t that have been great? After visiting London and questioning whether they’d manage to pull off their Olympics, maybe he should have gone to Israel and chastised them for their socialist health care system. I’m not sure what that would leave for Poland, but I’m sure something will present itself. Maybe he could attend a concert and then muse afterward about how he’s always thought Chopin was overrated.

    POSTSCRIPT: By the way, speaking of Israel and health care, I heard an interesting story a few weeks ago. It turns out that among end-of-life patients in hospitals, CPR is essentially useless. In America, we don’t care. When a patient goes into cardiac arrest, we call a code and rush to their bedside anyway. In Israel, they don’t. They deliberately respond slowly, essentially letting the patient die if he or she is near death anyway. In other words, in Israel they really do have death panels.

    I wonder if Romney knows that? Probably not. Also: I’d love to hear either confirmation or otherwise about this policy. Is this really common practice in Israeli hospitals? Or did I hear some kind of garbled old wives’ tale?