Kevin Drum - August 2012

Chart of the Day: War is Still a Booming Business

| Wed Aug. 29, 2012 9:39 AM EDT

From my colleague Asawin Suebsaeng, arms transfers to developing countries skyrocketed last year, primarily due to a $33 billion agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia. More detail at the link.

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LA Times Gets It Right on Welfare Attack

| Tue Aug. 28, 2012 10:41 PM EDT

I don't know yet if this headline from the LA Times will show up in their print edition tomorrow, but it's about time reporters and copy editors started putting this stuff front and center. It won't stop until politicians start paying a very visible price for spouting these lies.

Ann Romney and Chris Christie Fight Over Love

| Tue Aug. 28, 2012 10:29 PM EDT

Ann Romney at the Republican National Convention tonight:

Tonight I want to talk to you about love. I want to talk to you about the deep and abiding love I have for a man I met at a dance many years ago. And the profound love I have, and I know we share, for this country. I want to talk to you about that love so deep only a mother can fathom it — the love we have for our children and our children's children.

....It's the moms of this nation — single, married, widowed — who really hold this country together. We're the mothers, we're the wives, we're the grandmothers, we're the big sisters, we're the little sisters, we're the daughters.

Chris Christie, 20 minutes later:

The greatest lesson Mom ever taught me, though, was this one: she told me there would be times in your life when you have to choose between being loved and being respected. She said to always pick being respected, that love without respect was always fleeting — but that respect could grow into real, lasting love.

Now, of course, she was talking about women. [Rimshot!]

But I have learned over time that it applies just as much to leadership. In fact, I think that advice applies to America today more than ever. I believe we have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved.

According to Ann Romney, it's all about love and all about our nation's great women. According to Christie, love has paralyzed us and, anyway, it's only for the womenfolk. Is it any wonder that Ann Romney looked distinctly frosty throughout Christie's speech?

On a more substantive note, did anyone else notice that even Ann Romney was almost entirely unable to humanize Mitt? She talked about the things he had done, but hardly at all about the kind of person he is. There was a brief reference to Mitt being "warm and loving and patient" — and helpful to friends in trouble — but after that it was all about Mitt being hardworking and successful. In other words, pretty much the corporate drone we all think he is. I doubt very much that this really helped the Republican cause with women much.

Republicans are Responsible for our Soaring National Debt

| Tue Aug. 28, 2012 6:12 PM EDT

There's no special reason to display this graphic yet again — except maybe for the fact that (a) Jeb Bush is once more begging us to stop blaming stuff on his brother, (b) the Republican Party is about to embark on yet another nonstop yakathon about how the budget deficit is going to doom us all, and (c) the doom-monger in chief, Paul Ryan, will be speaking in prime time tomorrow.

Plus Ezra Klein reminded me of this today. Click the link if you want more detail, but I think the chart pretty much speaks for itself. Nearly every single thing driving the current increase in public debt — tax cuts, wars, the recession, and measures to fight the recession — was a result of Bush-era policies that were enthusiastically supported by nearly every single Republican currently hanging out in Tampa. They only got religion after a Democrat won the White House and had to clean up the mess they left behind.

Their success at convincing half the country that Barack Obama is responsible for our soaring debt is surely one of the greatest political propaganda victories of all time.

Televising Ann Romney

| Tue Aug. 28, 2012 2:19 PM EDT

Over the weekend, the broadcast networks made it clear that they were going to air only three hours of live convention coverage. That meant skipping Ann Romney's speech on Monday, a decision that produced some backlash. Alyssa Rosenberg pushes back:

Is it really so terrible that, in covering a highly staged event, the networks would exercise some level of discretion over what's newsworthy? If the news divisions think that Ann Romney's speech will merely recapitulate well-worn talking points and retell oft-relayed stories, they're perfectly justified in cutting her. In fact, that should be their job.

....Predictability is what makes it entirely justifiable to not air Ann Romney's speech. It's hard to imagine that Mrs. Romney is going to attempt to sell audiences on a significantly revised portrait of her husband, or make any news. Given that the conventions are staged campaign events rather than places where events are actually decided, it makes sense that the networks (and the rest of the media, for that matter) should exert judgment.

I don't think this holds water. All of the speeches are predictable and staged. Ann Romney's is no more predictable than anyone else's. Do you seriously think that Paul Ryan is going to mount the stage and say something that any of us will find surprising?

More to the point, I think we political junkie types misjudge these things. Ann Romney has no policymaking authority, so we're uninterested in her. Bring on the wonks! I used to feel that way too. But then I got married and discovered that my wife is intensely interested in getting a look at candidates' wives. Not because they're going to say anything about policy, but just because. She wants to get a sense of what kind of people they are, and how they present themselves.

I no longer doubt for a second that there are millions more who feel exactly the same way. The truth, I now think, is exactly the opposite of what Rosenberg suggests. The other convention speeches are all from folks we've seen a thousand times before. We know exactly what they're like and what they'll say. But Ann Romney? She may not make any news on the policy front, but for millions of people this is going to be their first extended look at her, and they may find themselves surprised at what they see. In that sense, she's the least predictable person who will take the stage all week.

Do Americans Care About Civilian Deaths in Drone Attacks?

| Tue Aug. 28, 2012 12:46 PM EDT

Over at the Monkey Cage, James Igoe Walsh has an interesting post about American support for drone attacks overseas. Walsh is interested in what kinds of things might reduce that support.

To figure this out, he performed an internet survey split into four groups. The first group was given a simple description of a drone attack. The other three groups got the same description but with one change:

  • Group 1: Drone attack is described as unlikely to succeed.
  • Group 2: Drone attack will produce about 25 American casualties.
  • Group 3: Drone attack will cause civilian deaths.

The startling results are on the right: the prospect of civilian deaths reduced support more than the prospect of American casualties. "This is a real surprise," Walsh says, "since it means that respondents attach as much or more value on the lives of foreign civilians as they do on US military personnel."

There's a huge caveat to this survey: it's an internet panel, not a random sample. And, of course, it's only one survey anyway. The results might be highly sensitive to question wording and external events. But it certainly suggests that further research on this subject could be fruitful. If it's really true that civilian casualties substantially reduce support for drone strikes, it would certainly explain why the Obama administration is so determined to insist that anyone killed by drones is, almost by definition, not a civilian.

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2016: Not As Scary As You Might Think

| Tue Aug. 28, 2012 11:50 AM EDT

Yesterday I did some field research on the modern conservative movement by taking the afternoon off and seeing the right-wing horror flick, 2016: Obama's America. This is what I do for you people. I hope you appreciate it.

The audience was huge for a weekday matinee: probably a couple hundred people. Most were elderly, but that may be just because the theater I went to was near a big retirement community around here. Luckily for research purposes, elderly moviegoers tend to chat with each other fairly loudly during movies, so I can report that it was pretty well received — no surprise, I suppose, since you don't go see a movie like this unless you're pretty receptive to its message in the first place.

So what did I think? Obviously I was never going to buy the film's central premise that Obama hates America because he inherited a raging sense of anti-colonialism from his father, but I was still surprised at how thin it was. I figured it would at least be good agit-prop, but it didn't strike me as all that effective. True believers will lap it up, I suppose, but it's unlikely anyone else will.

The film stars Dinesh D'Souza and is based on his book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage. But it's weirdly unconvincing. D'Souza travels to Indonesia, Hawaii, and Kenya, but doesn't have much luck getting damning quotes from his handful of interview subjects. There's footage of D'Souza on a bus; there's footage of D'Souza on a plane; there's footage of D'Souza on a motorcycle; and there's footage of D'Souza on a boat. And there's lots and lots of footage of Obama's father's grave in Kenya. But there's not much footage that tells us anything about Obama. There's an interview with a professor who worked with Obama's mother, but D'Souza only manages to get her to agree with a leading question about how maybe Obama was taught that his father was a great man. There's an interview with George Obama, who stubbornly refuses to blame Obama for not helping him out. There's an attempted interview with Obama's grandmother, but D'Souza gets kicked out before the interview goes anywhere. There's an interview with a random guy who once knew Obama's father and thinks President Obama is a lot like him. There's an interview with a psychologist who says that a child would normally rebel against the worldview of an absent father, but then kinda sorta agrees that maybe it could happen the other way around too. I can only imagine D'Souza and his co-director banging their heads against the wall in frustration when they got home, wondering how they were going to splice all these dry wells into a gusher of anti-Obama fearmongering.

The only interviews that go well are the ones with committed conservatives who are obviously willing to go along with D'Souza's fantasies in the first place. These include Paul Kengor, who confirms that one of Obama's childhood mentors was a committed communist, and Daniel Pipes, who thinks Obama hangs out with Israel-haters and would show his true anti-Zionist colors if he were reelected.

Beyond that, it's just the usual conspiracy theory melange of Bill Ayers/Edward Said/Jeremiah Wright/etc., paired up with a scary-looking map in which all the Muslim countries are painted green and (somehow) become the United States of Islam. This is Glenn Beck's "caliphate" obsession rewritten for the big screen, but with the added fillip that Obama will make us defenseless against this threat by getting rid of all our nuclear weapons. (Seriously.) The end of the film finally brings the big payoff: D'Souza explains a series of supposedly inexplicable Obama decisions in light of what we now know about his hatred of America. None of it makes sense if you're paying even minimal attention, and Dave Weigel does a good job taking them down here.

So: The film's interviews were mostly weak; the conspiracy mongering was unconvincing; and it's full of non sequiturs, where D'Souza makes bald assertions that aren't backed up by anything that came before. D'Souza himself slouches through the film, looking out of place almost everywhere he goes, and his innocent abroad act really doesn't work.

But that's just little old coastal liberal elite me. The lady sitting next to me, on the other hand, turned to her neighbor after the film was over and said "That's scary." She was convinced. And the audience, tentatively at first but then with gusto, applauded while the credits were running. For true believers, I guess the film works just fine.

Facts? Who Cares About Facts?

| Tue Aug. 28, 2012 10:54 AM EDT

Greg Sargent draws our attention to two quotes today. The first is from Mitt Romney a couple of weeks ago: "You know, the various fact checkers look at some of these charges in the Obama ads and they say that they’re wrong, and inaccurate, and yet he just keeps on running them."

And then there's this one from a Romney strategist today about the "gutting welfare reform" ad that every fact checker on the planet has said is a flat-out lie: "Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers."

More here from Greg.

For Now, Apple Has Exclusive Rights to Pinch-to-Zoom

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 10:48 PM EDT

This is the top story at the Washington Post right now:

If the swipe is the essential gesture of the smartphone revolution, the pinch is a close second....Friday’s $1 billion court ruling for Apple, which upheld patents for what manufacturers call “pinch to zoom,” among other popular features, has clouded the future of the gesture for anyone inclined to buy mobile devices from other companies. Apple made clear its determination to press its advantage Monday, announcing plans to seek preliminary injunctions on eight phones made by Samsung, the loser in the case.

The ruling has sparked searches for possible alternatives to the pinch — some have suggested finger taps, circles, wiggles — while also highlighting questions about whether a company should be able to patent how humans interact with their machines once those interactions become standardized.

Last night I was asking whether pinch-to-zoom was really part of the verdict in the Apple vs. Samsung patent case, and apparently it was. Everyone seems to think so, anyway, and it turns out that there was testimony in the trial about this (something I was unclear on). In fact, Samsung argued that Mitsubishi had demonstrated prior art in its DiamondTouch display table. Juror Manuel Ilagan confirms that it was discussed during deliberations:

We were debating heavily, especially about the patents on bounce-back and pinch-to-zoom. Apple said they owned patents, but we were debating about the prior art....[Velvin] Hogan was jury foreman. He had experience. He owned patents himself...so he took us through his experience. After that it was easier.

I still don't really understand exactly where this shows up in the patent claims, but I guess that's because I'm not a patent attorney. In any case, it looks like pinch-to-zoom was indeed part of the case, and Apple was the victor, more's the pity.

If You Win a Charter School Lottery, You're Happy. But What About the Losers?

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 3:46 PM EDT

How do we know if charter schools really do a better job of educating students? After all, maybe it's just that better students apply to charters in the first place. The usual way of controlling for this is to examine charter schools that select students by lottery. It's entirely random who gets in and who doesn't, so if the charter kids do better then it probably really is due to the school itself.

Last year, however, I tossed out a reason for skepticism:

Ever since seeing Waiting for Superman, I've had a nagging question about this. That documentary, if it's accurate, made it clear that parents who apply to charter schools are almost desperately anxious for their kids to get in. In fact, many of them view it as practically their only chance to escape their local schools and get their kids a real education. The ones who lose the lottery are profoundly deflated.

So here's my question: is it possible that the mere act of losing out in a charter school lottery changes some parents' behavior? With their hopes dashed, do they give up? Do they gradually stop taking an interest in their child's education? Do they become fatalistic about the prospect of success and stop prodding their kids to do their homework, behave in class, and get to school on time? And if some substantial fraction of them do, how much overall impact does this have on the aggregate test scores of the lottery-losing children?

Last night, Adam Ozimek blogged about a new NBER study that takes a crack at answering this question. All the usual caveats apply: It's only one study. A variety of techniques were used to select only about 4,000 students out of the original sample of 16,000. The study covers only a single semester, which might not be enough time to see a substantial "loser effect." And the specific variable that they studied is fairly limited.

That said, the study is interesting! The authors took a look at truancy rates as a proxy for motivation levels before and after the lottery results were announced. This is pretty clever. And since lottery results were announced in the middle of the school year, they were able to look at truancy rates after the lottery results were announced but before the winners entered the charter school. For a single semester, both the winners and losers were still attending their old schools. The only difference was that some knew they had won the lottery and would be moving on, while others knew they had lost the lottery and would be staying at their old school.

The chart on the right shows the basic results. Among girls, the effect was small and there was very little difference between lottery winners and losers. Among boys, however, lottery winners showed a big drop in truancy compared to the broad student body, while lottery losers showed essentially no change at all. So the mere act of winning the lottery apparently had a big positive impact on winners, but didn't have a big negative impact on losers. Here's what the researchers conclude about this:

We interpret this as students exerting more effort towards academics at their current school due to an increase in intrinsic motivation from knowing that they will be able to attend a school of their choice in the subsequent school year. To our knowledge, this is the first paper to separately identify this important channel through which NCLB school choice provisions may positively affect academic achievement among low-income and minority students.

Adam points out that these results are a double-edged sword for charter proponents. On the one hand, they show that better student performance at charter schools might not be entirely due to the schools themselves. Some of it may be due to the simple excitment of being accepted at the school in the first place. On the other hand, who cares? "It just highlights a previously underappreciated mechanism through which choice increases performance. As the authors of the study point out, this is consistent with the growing literature from Heckman and others showing that non-cognitive skills affect outcomes. It should not be surprising that the students who most wish to leave a school and attend another will be motivated by their ability to do so."

I'll repeat that all the caveats above apply. Truancy is an interesting proxy, but it hardly tells the whole story of student/parent motivation. And if there is a negative effect on motivation from losing a lottery, it might well take more than a few months for it to show up.

However, to the extent that this study tells us something, what it tells us is that losing a lottery doesn't seem to make kids any worse off or any less motivated. The effect is purely a positive one for the winners.