Kevin Drum - October 2012

Groupthink and the Great Debate

| Mon Oct. 8, 2012 10:50 AM EDT

Dave Weigel chats up some Democrats in New Mexico:

ALBUQUERQUE — After spending a weekend talking to voters in a close state that's no longer really "swinging," the first presidential debate has come to remind me of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Democrats walked out of the theater/turned off the TV saying "huh, well, I wanted it to be better." After a few days of talking to friends, it changes from a disappointment into the worst piece of crap in human history.

Roger that. As near as I can tell, here's how things went. People who were polled during the debate thought it was about even. People polled after the debate thought Romney won. People polled a little later, after the media feeding frenzy, thought Romney crushed Obama in an epic rout. Robert Wright chalks it up to weirdly high expectations for Obama, who's never been more than a fair debater in the first place:

Rather than a tie being inflated into a Romney win, a clear Romney win — one that shouldn't have shocked anyone — was inflated into Hiroshima-level devastation. And so devastation is what happened — though, as with Hiroshima, much of the damage seems to have been done not by the blast itself, but by the after effects.

I promise not to keep droning on about this, but I remain puzzled. Even after rewatching parts of the debate and listening to several days of apocalyptic doomsaying from liberals and conservatives alike, my take remains about the same as it did on Wednesday: Romney chalked up a modest victory. That's about it.

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Quote of the Day: Software Patents and the End of Innovation

| Mon Oct. 8, 2012 12:35 AM EDT

From Nancy Heinen, Apple general counsel until 2006:

When patent lawyers become rock stars, it’s a bad sign for where an industry is heading.

Yes it is. And from the same article, here's your factoid of the day:

Last year, for the first time, spending by Apple and Google on patent lawsuits and unusually big-dollar patent purchases exceeded spending on research and development of new products, according to public filings.

The whole piece is worth a read.

Why We Need Mandatory Snitch Policies

| Sun Oct. 7, 2012 1:54 PM EDT

Lowry Heussler asks:

Have you ever heard the term “disruptive physician”?

Why no, I haven't. Please go on:

The term “disruptive” means doing things that would get you fired on the spot if you were a less exalted person than an M.D....When analysts began looking closely at negative patient outcomes, we were all astonished to learn that disruptive physicians were firmly linked to morbidity and mortality. Put in simplest terms, if Dr. Frankenstein has a habit of verbally abusing the ICU nurse who calls him in the middle of the night about a patient who is not doing well, sooner or later that nurse’s subconscious causes her to start taking a more rosy view of the patient’s symptoms. Dr. Frankenstein arrives fresh and rested in the morning, but the patient lost too much ground over the night, and oops! there you have it, a negative patient outcome, also called “death.”

So here’s how the problem was addressed. Malpractice insurance underwriters and accrediting bodies require hospitals to have disruptive physician policies that clearly define the prohibited behavior, and to train all staff – right down to the parking-lot attendants – every year about what the policy says. What makes it work is the mandatory-snitch rule. If said parking lot attendant happens to witness a physician in violation of the policy, the incident must be reported or the attendant’s job is on the line.

It sounds ridiculous: threaten to fire the victims of an abusive bastard if they are too intimidated to stand up for themselves? But on closer inspection it functions exactly as a good policy should....

Heussler suggests that hundreds of people might be unfairly behind bars in Massachusetts because of faked drug tests that would have been prevented with a mandatory snitch rule. If, like me, you've never heard of this before, the whole thing is worth a read.

2012 Election Pool Is Now Open!

| Sat Oct. 6, 2012 1:10 PM EDT

There's exactly one month left until the November election, and that means it's time for predictions. As usual in a presidential cycle, there are three categories this year:

  • Winner and total electoral votes for president.
  • Composition of the House. Current composition is 190 D, 240 R (5 vacancies).
  • Composition of the Senate. Current composition is 53 D/I, 47 R.

This year, instead of giving my own projections, I decided to provide an official line as forecast by Sam Wang, this blog's semi-official election forecaster (and winner of the 2008 election pool). Here it is:

The links take you to Sam's posts, which include error bars and other details. Can you do better than Sam? His presidential forecast sure seems optimistic to me. I'm thinking Obama wins something in the neighborhood of 300-310 electoral votes. In any case, put your guess in comments. The winner gets a one-year subscription to Mother Jones and the adulation of your peers.

The BLS Employment Figures May Have Been Unfairly Hurting Obama, Not Helping Him

| Sat Oct. 6, 2012 1:03 PM EDT

So I open up my LA Times this morning, and the front page of the business section greets me with this headline:

Steep drop in jobless rate has some Obama foes crying foul

And I thought: This is amazing. One tweet from Jack Welch sets off a wingnut firestorm that actually makes the front page of the Times. The power of these guys to set the news agenda is pretty spectacular.

But there may be an unappreciated irony at work here. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) didn't cook the unemployment books, there's no question that the headline number, which is derived from a telephone survey of households, can be fairly noisy from month to month. There was a big spike upward in September's employment figure, and that could be real or it could be a statistical outlier.

Or there might be a third option: In a little-noticed part of yesterday's report, BLS announced that it had systematically undercounted jobs by 386,000 from April 2011 through March 2012. So maybe it's continued to undercount jobs since then, as Karl Smith suggests here. If so, then not only is the September number accurate, it's making up for an undercount over the past six months. That's the shaded portion under the red line in the chart below, which is a simple trend line that runs through the revised March 2012 figure and extends it through September. It suggests that the September employment number is right where you'd expect it to be if the economy were continuing a steady but modest recovery — which seems like a reasonable bet.

So here's the irony: If BLS really has been undercounting, it means that the jobs picture has looked overly gloomy during the first half of the year, which is exactly when it hurt President Obama the worst. What this means is that the wingnuts might be more than merely wrong. They might have things 180 degrees backward. It's quite possible that far from being unfairly favorable toward Obama, the BLS numbers have been unfairly hurting him. September's spike corrected that, but probably too late to do him very much good.

Where it Counts, There's No Enthusiasm Gap

| Sat Oct. 6, 2012 11:03 AM EDT

Enthusiasm gap? What enthusiasm gap?

President Obama's campaign and Democratic allies raised a record $181 million in September, his campaign manager said today....The Obama campaign manager said the average donation was $53, with 98% of the contributions at $250 or less.

In the end, I wonder if the Republican focus on Super PACs will end up hurting them? Team Blue might be raising a bit less money overall than Team Red, but the Obama campaign is raising more than the Romney campaign. If you're Karl Rove, I suppose you might argue that Super PACs have more freedom to launch nasty (but effective) attack ads than the campaigns themselves, so it's a good thing that a big chunk of conservative money is going to Crossroads GPS and their ilk. If you're Jim Messina, you'll probably argue that, in the end, it's better to have most of your money under central control, where you can use it precisely the way you need to.

I have no idea which is the better argument. Either way, though, Obama certainly doesn't seem to be having any big problem raising money from the folks who supported him in 2008. I continue to think that Mitt Romney lost a real chance to eat into that support when he decided last spring that he had to continue placating the tea partiers instead of immediately moving to the center.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 5 October 2012

| Fri Oct. 5, 2012 3:04 PM EDT

In 1912 Marcel Duchamp painted "Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2." A century later, I have created a new classic for a new era, "Domino Heading for the Supper Dish No. 2,153." This is a bit of poetic license, though, since she was actually heading toward Marian, who was luring her into the living room with a shopping bag for her to crawl into. But I like my title better, and anyway, there's no telling if Duchamp's nude was really descending a staircase either, is there?

In other news, a team of Japanese researchers have proven that lolcats are good for the economy. The Daily Mail, your go-to site for cute animal journalism, reports that "Through three separate experiments a team of scientists found that people showed higher levels of concentration being shown pictures of puppies or kittens." Tell that to your boss the next time he gives you a hard time about checking out Friday Catblogging in the middle of the workday.

Mitt Romney's Social Security Plan

| Fri Oct. 5, 2012 2:35 PM EDT

This is nothing new, but a reader points out that Mitt Romney has explicitly endorsed raising the eligibility age for both Social Security and Medicare:

When it comes to Social Security, we will slowly raise the retirement age....We will gradually increase the Medicare eligibility age by one month each year.

The Social Security retirement age is already increasing by statute and will reach 67 in a few years. Apparently Romney wants it to go up to 69 or 70. The actual number he has in mind is unclear (surprise, surprise) but given that he plans to balance Social Security's books solely by raising the retirement age and slowing the growth of benefits for "those with higher incomes," I'd put my money on 70. Slowing benefit growth on high earners just doesn't do enough to let you get away with anything less.

So there you have it. If you're in your 30s or 40s, Mitt Romney thinks you should work until you're 70. That might be OK for bloggers and politicians, but I'm not sure how all the dockworkers and haircutters and grocery clerks are going to feel about that. Especially when you consider that life expectancy for these folks has gone up a paltry 1.3 years in the past three decades. It's the well-off who are living longer, not the lower half of the middle class.

The Liberal Conspiracy Is Now Officially Everywhere

| Fri Oct. 5, 2012 1:18 PM EDT

As I was browsing my RSS earlier today I came across a short blurb about former GE chairman Jack Welch. Apparently Neutron Jack has become a truther. Not a 9/11 truther or Kenyan birth truther: he's become, fittingly enough for a guy who got famous for his layoffs, an unemployment truther. "Unbelievable jobs numbers," he tweeted this morning. "These Chicago guys will do anything..can’t debate so change numbers."

I shook my head, figuring Welch had just gone senile or something, and plowed forward. Little did I know that Welch had apparently inspired a movement. Conservatives all over the place smell a rat. Benjy Sarlin has the details here. The wingers have gone from complaining about the liberal media to complaining about liberal Hollywood to complaining about liberal pollsters and now, finally, to complaining about liberal technocrats in the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The conspiracy is everywhere.

This is really sad. When do they finally get the intervention they so desperately need?

Mitt Romney's Head Fake to the Center

| Fri Oct. 5, 2012 12:37 PM EDT

I want to second this remark from Ed Kilgore:

Before it becomes a kind of Fact-Made-Fact-By-Repetition, I'd like to challenge the much-assumed idea that in the first presidential debate Mitt Romney "moved to the center" in a real, substantive way. This seems to be the conclusion of many Democrats, many in the MSM, and of those few Republicans who occasionally object to the endless rightward drift of the GOP.

Sure, his rhetoric sounded more moderate. But when you look at the details, nothing changed.

Ed provides chapter and verse in the rest of his post, which is worth a read. But I'd like to add a related thought: relatively speaking, Romney was never all that far to the right in the first place. Sure, he's adopted all the standard positions of the modern tea-party-ized GOP, but during the primaries he was always pretty careful not to go any further than that. On actual policy, he never tried to move to the right of Newt Gingrich or Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry.

What he did do was adopt a "severely conservative" rhetorical style, highlighted by his almost comically harsh attacks on Barack Obama. He was content to let the other candidates offer up redder meat than he did, but he always insisted on making sure that everyone knew his contempt for Obama was second to none. At the time, I figured this was deliberate: he didn't want to take any insane positions that might hurt him in the general election, but he still wanted to do something to show tea party voters that he was one of them in his heart. The way he did that was by never letting five minutes go by without launching yet another over-the-top verbal volley against Obama.

And it was a good strategy! It's easy to ditch attacks like that after the primary is over, and for the most part he has. Ever since spring, Romney's schtick has been an almost sorrowful acknowledgment that Obama is a good man, an honorable man, but in over his head. The harshness is mostly gone, and hardly anyone has even noticed that his attacks on Obama changed course rather abruptly as soon as he became the consensus nominee in April. And since then he's also solidified his standing with the tea party base strongly enough that he can get away with some rhetorical concessions on policy as well. This resonates more strongly with the pundit class, but Ed is right: on substance, Romney hasn't changed a thing. He still won't accept a dime in revenue increases; he still plans to cut taxes substantially on the rich while claiming he's doing no such thing; he still wants to voucherize both Medicare and education spending; he still wants to turn Medicaid over to the states and slash its funding; he still wants to increase the defense budget; he still wants to repeal both Obamacare and Dodd-Frank; and he still claims to be a deficit warrior even as he refuses to provide any details about just how he'd actually cut the deficit.

The new, more bipartisan Romney should be taken for what it is: a campaign stratagem, not a real change. He isn't moving to the center, he's just trying to sound like he's moving to the center. My guess is that it won't work, but given the obsession of the Washington press corps with optics and conflict, it might. You never know.