Kevin Drum - August 2012

Lots of Romney Supporters Aren't Really Sure He Can Win

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 2:59 PM EDT

No real point to make here. This is just an interesting comparison. Apparently, about a fifth of Romney supporters don't think he really has much chance to win.

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Civil Engineering in America Is the Most Expensive in the World

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 1:42 PM EDT

California's high-speed rail line from LA to San Francisco is estimated to cost nearly $100 billion. New York City's Second Avenue subway will cost $5 billion just for the first two miles. And New York's Water Tunnel No. 3 will not only cost more than $6 billion, but take nearly half a century to complete. What's going on here? Why do big civil engineering projects in the United States cost so damn much?

I've often wondered about this, so I was interested in Stephen Smith's Bloomberg column today on just this subject. Other advanced countries, he says, build big projects for a lot less than we do. What's their secret?

Comparing American transit-construction practices with those abroad yields a number of lessons. Spain has the most dynamic tunneling industry in the world and the lowest costs. In 2003, Metro de Madrid Chief Executive Officer Manuel Melis Maynar wrote a list describing the practices he used to design the system’s latest expansion. The don’t-do list, unfortunately, reads like a winning U.S. transit-construction bingo card.

…Melis [] warned against "consultants who consultant with consultants and advisers who advise advisers," something American planners would do well to learn. He said he didn't hire any "large firm of consulting engineers" as general project managers for his Metro de Madrid expansions, and that designers weren't allowed to interfere with, or bid for, their own construction contracts.

Not so in the U.S. Parsons Brinckerhoff, perhaps the biggest name in the nation’s transit construction industry, is both the lead-design contractor and project manager for California's planned high-speed rail line, and the company stands a good chance of winning construction contracts for its own designs.

Okay. Better control of projects, no architectural flights of fancy, and a clean division between the designers and the builders. What else?

Larry Littlefield, who has worked in logistics and as a budget analyst at New York City Transit, also suggests the U.S. legal system is an obstacle to designing and building affordable infrastructure…New York government agencies are saddled by procurement rules dating back generations, Littlefield says, when corruption in infrastructure projects was endemic. Reformers demanded objective and easily policeable standards, which often meant lowest-price bidding rules. Bidders compete mostly on price, not quality.

…Littlefield also argues that judges in New York routinely side with contractors in disputes with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "In the private sector, if you rob your customer, you will suffer a hit to your reputation and possible losses in the courts," he said in an interview. "Not so if you rob an agency like the MTA. Then it's all rights and no responsibilities."

The MTA must continue to award contracts to the lowest- price bidder, and without the ability to hold bad contractors accountable, Littlefield said, the agency turns to "writing longer and longer and longer contracts, expressly prohibiting every way it has been ripped off in the past." The byzantine contracts that come out of this process drive entrants away, limiting competition and pushing up costs.

I'll confess that this doesn't seem like quite enough. But maybe it is. Maybe small government obsession, kowtowing to private contractors, and excessive environmental and legal obstacles really are the big problems for American transportation projects. In any case, this is interesting stuff. At least it's a start toward understanding the problems we face getting big projects built.

Paul Ryan May Have Produced a Bounce for Romney After All

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 1:12 PM EDT

Did Mitt Romney get an electoral bounce from his choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate? Generally speaking, it hasn't seemed so, but Sam Wang thinks otherwise. His model suggests that the Ryan pick did indeed help out Romney for a couple of weeks:

One week after the August 11 VP announcement, I pinpointed the size of the bounce at 1-2 points of swing in opinion. At the two-week mark, the swing has grown to 3-4 points. At the end is an uptick back towards Obama, which suggests that the post-Ryan bounce may have peaked.

In terms of EV, Sam pegs the Ryan bounce at about 40-50 electoral votes. However, "swings in the race are not predictive of the final outcome until the end of September. So the Bain- and Ryan-driven events are of only momentary interest."

I mention this mainly as a counterpoint to people (like me!) who have suggested that the past few weeks have been pretty abysmal for Romney. If Sam is right, that's true, but only until the Ryan announcement, at which point Romney started gaining back some of his earlier losses. Next up are the conventions, which usually produce temporary bounces, and then finally the real campaign. A month from now these temporary shifts in the polls will start to have a lot more meaning.

By the way, Sam says his long-term outlook still has President Obama’s re-elect probability at 88% with a likely electoral outcome of 283-353 EV. So his model overall is more Obama-friendly than most of the others out there.

The Racial Tone of Campaign 2012 May Be the New Normal

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 12:09 PM EDT

Tom Edsall is explicit today about the Romney campaign's effort to make this year's election into one that hinges on race:

The Republican ticket is flooding the airwaves with commercials that develop two themes designed to turn the presidential contest into a racially freighted resource competition pitting middle class white voters against the minority poor.

Ads that accuse President Obama of gutting the work requirements enacted in the 1996 welfare reform legislation present the first theme....Sharp criticism has done nothing to hold back the Romney campaign from continuing its offensive — in speeches and on the air — because the accuracy of the ads is irrelevant as far as the Republican presidential ticket is concerned. The goal is not to make a legitimate critique, but to portray Obama as willing to give the “undeserving” poor government handouts at the expense of hardworking taxpayers.

....The racial overtones of Romney’s welfare ads are relatively explicit. Romney’s Medicare ads are a bit more subtle....In essence, the ad is telling senior voters that the money they paid to insure their own access to Medicare after they turn 65 is going, instead, to pay for free health care for poor people who are younger than 65.

....The Romney campaign is willing to disregard criticism concerning accuracy and veracity in favor of “blowing the dog whistle of racism” — resorting to a campaign appealing to racial symbols, images and issues in its bid to break the frustratingly persistent Obama lead in the polls, which has lasted for the past 10 months.

Why is Romney doing this? I think the answer is largely that he learned a lesson from 2008. John McCain, to his credit, really did insist that his campaign avoid anything that smacked of racial dog whistling. And he lost big. Romney, I think, has decided that McCain was intimidated by the Obama campaign, and he's not going to let the same thing happen to him. So he's going to skate as close to the race line as he can while still retaining at least a smidgen of deniability about what he's doing.

This, by the way, is the background behind Romney's birther "joke" a few days ago. Under other circumstances, it might have been shrugged off. But Romney's appeals to racial animus have been so obvious in other contexts that it's pretty hard to watch the video and decide that this was truly an off-the-cuff remark that went awry. Go ahead and watch yourself and see what you think.

Of course, the real danger here is that this kind of thing may become the new normal. Obviously racially-coded attacks are especially effective when you're running against a black incumbent, but the truth is that the Democratic and Republican parties are becoming ever more split along racial lines regardless of who's running. As this split becomes more pronounced, Democratic appeals to minorities will inevitably become more important to their fortunes while Republican appeals to white resentment will become more important to theirs. In policy terms, this will mean things like voter ID laws and increasing resistance to immigration reform of all kinds. In campaign terms, it will mean ads about gutting welfare reform and giving your Medicare dollars to people who "aren't you." Welcome to 2016.

University of California Offers Pretty Good Bang for the Buck -- For Now

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 11:15 AM EDT

Several years ago the Washington Monthly decided to start up a new kind of college ranking, this one based on the actual social value of universities across the country. You can read the rationale for the rankings here, but I was struck by Paul Glastris's introduction today:

Only one of U.S. News' top ten schools, Stanford, makes the Washington Monthly's top ten. Yale fails even to crack our top 40....Instead, the University of California - San Diego is our number one national university for the third year in a row, a testament to its commitment to educating an economically diverse student body while supporting world-class research. Six of our top 20 universities hail from the UC system.

This has been true ever since the Monthly started compiling its list, and the UC did especially well this year. And it kills me to read it. Not because the University of California earns such high scores, but because it's doing it by living off its past glory. In the past, the UC was well funded and offered a top notch education that was affordable for practically anyone. The usual way to describe it was as a "jewel." But that was decades ago. These days, it's underfunded, not highly valued either by legislators or voters, less and less competitive at hiring the best faculty, and increasingly expensive. The fact that it still does so well in the Monthly's ranking is a testament both to inertia and to the fact that public higher education is declining in the rest of the country too.

But that won't last forever. The UC is still pretty good, but that's only because it takes a long time for a great institution to crumble. It's just damn sad to watch it.

Making Sense of the Great Apple vs. Samsung Patent Battle

| Mon Aug. 27, 2012 12:26 AM EDT

What exactly was covered in the great Patent Trial of the Century between Apple and Samsung? I've had a surprisingly hard time figuring this out. However, after reading the verdict, the patents themselves, and a bunch of news summaries, it seems to me that there may be less than meets the eye here. As near as I can tell, the jury found Samsung guilty of violating the following Apple patents:

  • Patent 381, which covers inertial scrolling (the faster you move your finger, the faster a list scrolls) and the "bounce," or "rubber band" effect when you reach the end of a list.
  • Patent 163, which covers tap-to-zoom (on an iPhone, if you double tap a document, that section of the document is zoomed and centered).
  • Patent 915, which covers a programming interface for responding to finger scrolls and gestures.
  • Several design patents that cover the exact physical look of the iPhone and iPad (rounded corners etc.) and the exact look and feel of the icon layout on the home page.

That's it. The design patents (generically known as "trade dress") actually seem the least important here, since even Apple admits that many other manufacturers of touch devices have both physical and home page designs that don't infringe Apple's patents. Apple's complaint against Samsung was more about the totality of Samsung's designs than about specific individual infringements, and it's possible that Samsung really did go too far in slavishly copying Apple's look and feel. Still, even if they did, that doesn't affect the rest of the world much. 

As for the others (generically known as "utility patents"), they're pretty limited. It's not clear if Samsung violated patents for both inertial scrolling and scroll bounce (the jury verdict just says Samsung violated a particular listed claim that includes both), but I doubt that inertial scrolling is off limits to the rest of the world now. It's just too obvious to patent. As for the bounce effect, this story suggests that Steve Jobs thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread, but I suspect we'll all survive just fine even if no one else is allowed to use it.

Tap-to-zoom is a nice feature, and it would be unfortunate if Apple truly owns something like this. At the same time, it's not that big a deal if other manufacturers have to figure out a different way to zoom and center things.

Finally, the API patent just puzzles me. I guess I'm not smart enough to figure out what it really covers. My reading of Claim 8, which is the one covered by the verdict, is that it's nothing more than a generic description of how an API works. It does suggest that the operating system should respond differently to single-finger and multi-finger inputs, and that multi-finger gestures can be used for scaling. Does this mean that Apple now has a patent on using two fingers to zoom in and out or to rotate a document? I can't quite tell.

On that last point, I would very much like to read something really authoritative. But I haven't quite found anything. Jon Brodkin's coverage of the trial doesn't seem to mention anything about pinch-to-zoom or rotation, but that's not dispositive. If anyone can point me to a truly expert analysis, I'd appreciate it.

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The Great YouTube Blackout Spreads

| Sun Aug. 26, 2012 12:20 PM EDT

I was over at my mother's house for our family's annual Summer Turkey Day, and it turns out that she can no longer play YouTube videos on her computer. This is the damnedest problem. It's the exact same thing that happened to me a few weeks ago. In my case, I can't play them on Opera, so I have to open Firefox whenever I want to watch a YouTube video. In her case, she can't play them on Firefox, so she has to open IE to watch them. I reinstalled Flash and updated Firefox while I was over, but it didn't do any good — just as it didn't do me any good when I did the same thing on my machine.

I just can't figure this out. Is it some kind of weird malware? But that doesn't even make sense. What kind of malware would dick around with YouTube, but only on your primary browser? Is it possibly related to antivirus software? I'm completely stumped. Has anyone else encountered the same thing? Or is this literally a problem restricted to members of the Drum family?

No, Obama Didn't Steal Money From the Medicare Trust Fund

| Sat Aug. 25, 2012 5:39 PM EDT

Bob Somerby says I've failed him. Yesterday I wrote about Mitt Romney's claim that Obamacare had cut Medicare spending by $716 billion over the next decade, but I failed to answer these two questions:

  1. Did Obama steal, rob, siphon, take or remove $716 billion from the Medicare trust fund?
  2. After stealing that money, did he spend it on Obamacare?

Question #1 is pretty easy: No he didn't. Mitt Romney has been peddling this wacky charge for the past week, and it's a strikingly ignorant claim.

Slightly longer answer: Money that's paid into the Medicare system — which comes mainly from payroll taxes, premiums, and general revenue — goes into Medicare's two trust funds. Money that's paid out to doctors and hospitals comes out of the trust funds. So there are only two ways you could "rob" money from the trust funds: you could reduce taxes going in or you could increase money being paid out. Obamacare does neither of these things. In fact, it reduces reimbursement rates to hospitals, which means that it improves the financial health of the trust funds because less money is flowing out. In particular, after Obamacare was signed into law in 2010, the Medicare trustees estimated that it had extended the life of the HI trust fund by 12 years.

So why is Romney saying this? Beats me. I guess his team decided that "taking money from the Medicare trust fund" sounded more heinous than "reducing spending on Medicare." The latter actually has the virtue of being true, but that doesn't count for much these days.

Question #2 is actually a little trickier. It's unquestionably true that Obamacare reduces spending on Medicare, which allows us to spend more on Obamacare without changing our overall budget level. But does that mean we're taking money from Medicare to spend on Obamacare?

Here's an analogy. Suppose I have income of $100 per month, and I normally spend $50 on rent and $50 on food. Then I negotiate a lower rent with my landlord. Now I spend $45 on rent and $55 on food. Did I take money from the rent to spend on food?

I'd say no: I still have the same apartment, after all, and it's not as if I'm going to be short when the rent comes due this month. On the other hand, I'm definitely not using my newfound savings on my apartment. I'm using it to buy bananas and ham sandwiches. I guess you can make up your own mind what you'd call that.

Can Someone Please Beg Google to Make Their Search Engine Useful Again?

| Sat Aug. 25, 2012 1:01 PM EDT

This morning, James Joyner wanted to check up on Mitt Romney's claim that he's always forthrightly repudiated birther claims:

Alas, with Google, Bing, and Yahoo all having switched their algorithms to prioritize recent pages, all my searches for “Romney: Obama born in America” turned up page after pages of stories about the present controversy. That frankly makes no sense; if I wanted that, I’d search Google News rather than the main search engine.

I suppose that complaining about this does no good. The algorithms are tweaked to maximize advertising revenue, and returning lots of recent hits is what does that. But it sure does make Google nearly worthless for non-news searches.

Programmers almost unanimously seem to hate "switches," the ability to turn features on and off. That goes double for complicated features, like the age weighting in a search algorithm. The reason for this dislike, generally speaking, is that switches are ugly and prone to proliferation. Marketing yahoos like me are always begging for them because some customer or another is bending our ear about it, and if you give in, then before long you have a UI that's a mile-long collection of checkboxes and radio buttons. Designers prefer more elegant UI solutions, and I don't blame them.

And yet....can someone please beg Google for a switch to turn off the preference for recent results? Hell, the Advanced Search page lets me choose things like reading level and file type. Why not add some kind of slider similar to the Safe Search option that allows me to weight results by how recent they are? Or maybe tweak the "Last Update" so you can exclude new results as well as old ones. As things stand now, Google becomes close to useless whenever a new event swamps their results.

As for Romney, who cares? Sure, he's not a birther himself. He's just willing to pander to them. Is anyone surprised?

Friday Cat Blogging - 24 August 2012

| Fri Aug. 24, 2012 2:41 PM EDT

Mitt Romney made a dumb birther joke today, but Domino doesn't care. Partly that's because this picture was taken three days ago, and partly because she's a cat. In this picture taken on Tuesday, she's showing off the essential dumbness of her species: despite the fact that it was over 90 in the house, she made a beeline for the nearest sunny patch. I guess when the neurons fire, the neurons fire. What's a cat to do?