Kevin Drum - November 2012

Study: Hairless, Middle-Aged Apes Still Middle-Aged Apes

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 1:05 PM EST

Why is happiness U-shaped? In countries around the world, people tend to get less happy up through about age 50 or so, and then rebound and get happier as they age. The Los Angeles Times provides us with the usual explanation:

By midlife, youth's hot-blooded drive to mastery has driven off. Responsibilities abound. Decades of striving — to raise a family, to establish oneself in the community, to climb the professional ziggurat — have shown us the mountaintop and, with it, the limits of our reach and usefulness. A recognition of our mortality settles in. In the years after midlife, the theory goes, humans shoulder fewer burdens for the care of others. Their time horizons are shorter, prompting them to focus on people and activities that give pleasure and meaning to their lives. They regret less.

That's a very convincing narrative, and we humans love narratives, don't we? But guess what? It turns out that great apes, who feel none of these things, also experience U-shaped happiness:

When the composite well-being score for each ape was plotted according to his or her age, the result was the same distinctive U-shaped curve seen universally in humans. Around the ages of 28 and 35 — roughly the midpoint of the chimpanzees' and orangutans' expected life spans — moods sagged, animals became less socially engaged and they were less likely to persist in attaining the things they desired.

....For social scientists who saw shifts in happiness in strictly human terms, the findings were a forceful reminder that people have not evolved as far as we may think beyond the great apes, said Stacey Wood, a neuropsychologist at Scripps College in Claremont who wasn't involved in the study.

...."It pushes more toward the possibility that this is biological," added Arthur Stone, a professor of psychiatry at Stony Brook University in New York who was not involved with the study. Whether it's hormones, brain structure, neurochemicals or some other factor that causes the middle-aged psyche to power down will require further research, Stone said. But from now on, he said, social explanations alone will not suffice.

So free will takes another hit. But then, I would say that, wouldn't I?

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Presidential Incumbency Mostly Benefits Parties, Not People

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 12:12 PM EST

Matthew Dickinson points out that in the postwar era, incumbent presidents who have the chance normally serve two terms:

Why is it so difficult to defeat an incumbent president in the modern era? One likely reason is that the office is much more visible, so that presidents simply by virtue of carrying out their duties in a non-partisan way, such as providing disaster relief, can score political points. It may also be the case that in an era of nuclear weapons and other WMD’s, the presidents’ foreign policy role enhances their political standing. That is, as national security issues loom larger in voters’ calculations, the incumbent president’s foreign policy role is magnified. Moreover, despite the criticisms his comments entailed, Romney was right when noted — albeit perhaps not in the most diplomatic manner — that Presidents are relatively well situated to influence policies in ways that reward key voting blocs. All this is somewhat speculative, of course, but I am persuaded, in the absence of countervailing evidence, that modern incumbents generally run for reelection with advantages that their premodern forebears did not possess.

I'd push back on this. Ever since our current two-party system congealed after the Civil War, the key to American presidential politics is that parties normally get to serve at least two terms as president. Only after that do they lose. This goes back well before FDR to Harding/Coolidge/Hoover in the 20s, Wilson in the teens, McKinley/TR/Taft, in the aughts, and Grant/Hayes/Garfield/Arthur in the 1870s. Aside from Jimmy Carter, the only exception to this rule in the past 140 years has been the oddball Cleveland/Harrison/Cleveland years.

So there's nothing especially modern about this. Generally speaking, Americans are willing to give political parties two terms in the White House before they kick them out. Sometimes more. But almost never less than two.

The Media's Remarkably Credulous Reaction to the GOP's New "Moderation"

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 11:37 AM EST

Last night I was emailing with a friend about the post-election shadow dancing going on within the Republican Party. Practically every ambitious politician in the party is making soothing noises about being nicer to Hispanics, lightening up on social issues, and compromising on the fiscal cliff, but the thing is, it's all just talk. With only a couple of exceptions from some of the few actual moderates still left in the party, the Jindals and Walkers and Rubios are pretty transparently unwilling to change any actual policies. They're as hardnosed as ever on abortion and taxes and amnesty. They just think the party should sound a little less hardnosed.

This doesn't surprise me. What does surprise me—because I guess I never learn—is that a fair number of mainstream reporters seem to be taking these various statements at face value. Ed Kilgore brings the sarcasm:

Yes, years from now conservatives will sit around campfires and sing songs about the legendary internecine battles of late 2012, when father fought son and brother fought brother across a chasm of controversy as to whether 98% or 99% of abortions should be banned; whether undocumented workers should be branded and utilized as "guest workers," loaded onto cattle cars and shipped home, or simply immiserated; whether the New Deal/Great Society programs should be abolished in order to cut upper-income taxes or abolished in order to boost Pentagon spending. There's also a vicious, take-no-prisons fight over how quickly to return the role of the federal government in the economy to its pre-1930s role as handmaiden to industry. Blood will flow in the streets as Republicans battle over how to deal with health care after Obamacare is repealed and 50 million or people lose health insurance. Tax credits and risk pools or just "personal responsibility?"

As Ed says, "They are entitled to fight with each other all day long about how many zygotes could fit on the head of a pin, and how deeply the 47% have been corrupted into permanent serfdom. But the MSM really, really needs to show it understands this isn't a fight about any kind of fundamentals." No it's not. If the GOP endures another few years of losses, they'll start to moderate out of self-defense, but that's still a few years off. If they lose in 2016, my guess is that it will happen sometime around 2017. If they win in 2016, then God only knows.

Benghazi Coverup Goes Even Deeper Than Anyone Imagined

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 2:23 AM EST

All right, dammit, who was it that doctored those Benghazi talking points? Who was it that changed "terrorists" to "extremists"? It was somebody in the White House, wasn't it? Probably Barack "I killed bin Laden" Obama himself, who just couldn't bear to admit that terrorism still exists after four years of his glorious reign.

Then again, maybe not:

The intelligence community — not the White House, State Department or Justice Department — was responsible for the substantive changes made to the talking points distributed for government officials who spoke publicly about the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, the spokesman for the director of national intelligence said Monday.

....The initial version included information linking individuals involved in the attack to al Qaeda, according to a senior U.S. official familiar with the drafting of the talking points. But when the document was sent to the rest of the intelligence community for review, there was a decision to change "al Qaeda" to "extremists." The official said the change was made for legitimate intelligence and legal reasons, not for political purposes.

"First, the information about individuals linked to al Qaeda was derived from classified sources," the official said. "Second, when links were so tenuous — as they still are — it makes sense to be cautious before pointing fingers so you don't set off a chain of circular and self-reinforcing assumptions. Third, it is important to be careful not to prejudice a criminal investigation in its early stages."

You'll be unsurprised to learn that Republicans weren't satisfied with this rather prosaic explanation. Their dissatisfaction stems, apparently, from the fact that last week witnesses told them they didn't know who changed the words. But this week, after further investigation, they suddenly do know. That simply makes no sense. No sense, I tell you! It's inexplicable that when they ask people questions and then give them time to investigate, those people return with with additional information.

Besides, it had to have been that rascally Obama. It just had to have been. After all, we all know that it was critical to his reelection effort that the American public believe it was "extremists" who killed our diplomats, not "terrorists." Why? Because....um, come on, that's just obvious. I don't have to spell it out for you, do I? This whole affair has Saul Alinsky written all over it.

Mitt Romney's Surprisingly Unbusinesslike Campaign

| Tue Nov. 20, 2012 1:22 AM EST

I've read several election postmortems that claim Mitt Romney paid a whole lot more for his TV ads than Barack Obama did. Today, Matt Lewis confirms this. His source tells him that Romney typically paid a big premium for non-preemptable ads even in early September, when ads are rarely preempted. Why?

According to our source, Team Obama simply did the “due diligence to find where the lowest unit rate was,” a tedious process which “takes manpower.” Conversely, it appears Team Romney simply didn’t want bother with the hassle. So they threw money at the problem — and walked away.

In other words, Obama ran his campaign like a business, outsourcing specialized tasks like media buys to outside firms and keeping a tight rein on costs. Conversely, Romney ran his campaign like a millionaire's personal fiefdom, figuring that his buddies could do the job as well as anyone else. But although they were pretty deft at making excuses for their inefficiency, it turned out they couldn't. What's more, outside the world of TV ads, he directed a tremendous amount of campaign money to his friends:

Mitt Romney's campaign has directed $134.2 million to political firms with business ties to his senior staff, spotlighting the tightknit nature of his second presidential bid and the staggering sums being spent in this election....Ryan Williams, a Romney spokesman, said payments to firms with connections to staff members were not only for consulting, but also were used to purchase a variety of services, including "polling, video production, political mail, get-out-the-vote phones, online advertising, website development, and budget and compliance management, among other things."

His longtime business cronies did well out of the campaign, but Romney apparently didn't know how to manage them very well (cf. Orca, failure of). This isn't surprising. Romney portrays himself as a successful manager, but there's a big difference between heading up a private equity firm and heading up an actual business. Live and learn.

Kevin's Handy Tax Table for Innumerate Rich People

| Mon Nov. 19, 2012 10:47 PM EST

Dave Weigel complains today that too many rich people have no idea how income taxes work. They've heard that Obama wants to raise tax rates on people who make more than $250,000, so they're working on ways to keep their income right at $249,000. After all, if they go over the threshold, they'd suddenly have to pay the higher rate, and it would be a net loss.

This isn't true, of course. Obama is only proposing to raise tax rates on income over $250,000, so if your income goes up to $251,000, you only pay the higher rate on the extra $1,000. The tax bill on your first $250,000 stays exactly the same.

But that's hard to explain, and we're all about solutions here, not petty griping. So I have the answer: an EZ-to-Read table that compares total taxes paid under the old Bush rates and the proposed Obama rates. It starts at $241,900 because that's $250,000 minus the standard deduction, and it's for married couples filing jointly.

Example: under the current Bush tax rates, a couple making $300,000 pays $75,802, or 25.27% of their total income. Under Obama's plan, the rate goes up on the amount over $241,900, so they pay a whopping $2,000 more, or 25.85% of total income. Millionaires will pay $32,000 more. Raw data here. Share this with all your rich friends!

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Campaign Coverage 2012: It's All About the Horse Race, Baby

| Mon Nov. 19, 2012 6:39 PM EST

Pew Research has some great news for those of you who loathe mainstream media campaign coverage. In their study of how the press reported on the 2012 presidential campaign, they say that Obama's media coverage turned around dramatically during the final week of the campaign, moving from a net 13 points negative to a net 10 points positive. It must have been Hurricane Sandy, right? Guess again:

Much of that surge in positive coverage, the data suggest, was tied to Obama's strategic position, including improving opinion polls and electoral math, rather than directly to positive assessments of Obama's response to Superstorm Sandy.

....When it came to mainstream news coverage, a leading cause of Obama's more upbeat narrative in the last week was that the horse-race coverage about his campaign-stories focused on strategy, polls and the question of who is winning-became more positive: 37% were clearly favorable in tone while 16% were unfavorable. That is considerably more upbeat than it had been for most of the final two months of the campaign....During the final week, 46% of all press coverage of the campaign focused on horse-race and strategy stories, larger than the 39% that was devoted to such issues throughout the entire race.

So there you have it. In the final week, the press finally figured out that Obama was leading in the polls, and the press always writes more glowingly of winners than losers. Yay press corps!

In other news, Pew also charted the coverage of Romney and Obama on Fox News and MSNBC. Their conclusion: both networks had favorites, but "in the final week of the campaign, both Fox News and MSNBC became even more extreme in how they differed from the rest of the press in coverage of the two candidates." Italics mine. Which network was the most extreme, though? Anyone who thinks that MSNBC hasn't yet become fully Foxified might be surprised at the answer, but Pew found that in the final week MSNBC aired precisely zero stories that were either positive about Romney or negative about Obama. Welcome to the 21st century news bubble.

Quote of the Day: "I'm Not a Scientist, Man."

| Mon Nov. 19, 2012 3:52 PM EST

From Sen. Marco Rubio, asked how old the Earth is:

I’m not a scientist, man.

Yeah, I think we knew that. Here's the rest of the quote:

I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.

As it happens, both Rubio's church and the secular god Google agree on this question, so there's not much excuse for him to pretend he doesn't know. Still, for the record, I have no objection to anything Rubio says here. I agree that the age of the Earth has nothing to do with economic growth and I agree that parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says. It would be nice if Rubio had added that science classes should teach kids science, but he managed to dodge that bullet—barely. Maybe next time someone will follow up on this.

Besides, all the fuss over this quote has obscured the real quote of the day from Rubio, about his love of hip hop:

The only guy that speaks at any sort of depth is, in my mind, Eminem.

Okey dokey. My favorite Eminem song, by the way, is "The Way I Am." I'll bet you're surprised I even have a favorite Eminem song, aren't you? So am I.

Public Service Announcement: What 10 Years Means

| Mon Nov. 19, 2012 2:35 PM EST

Whenever you hear tax or budget forecasts, they're (almost) always made over a 10-year timeframe. For example, letting the high-end Bush tax cuts expire will raise about $800 billion over ten years. Last year's debt ceiling deal reduces discretionary spending by $1.5 trillion over ten years. Etc.

But how big are these numbers? You can't get a sense for that unless you know how big the budget and the deficit are projected to be over ten years, and those aren't numbers most of us have at our fingertips. So here they are, courtesy of the CBO:

  • 10-Year Spending: $46 trillion.
  • 10-Year Deficit: $10 trillion

These numbers are based on CBO's "alternative fiscal scenario," which accounts for their best guess about what policies are likely to be in place over the next decade. Now you know.

(For the record: The CBO's alternative fiscal scenario assumes that the Bush tax cuts are extended; the payroll tax holiday expires; the AMT is indexed for inflation after 2011; Medicare payment rates for physicians’ services are held constant at their current level; and that Congress overturns the sequestration cuts that were part of the debt ceiling agreement last year.)

American Diplomats Should Not Work in Fortresses

| Mon Nov. 19, 2012 2:06 PM EST

Dan Drezner laments the increasing tendency for American diplomats in dangerous places to be cut off from the residents of their host countries. And he's afraid that the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi is just going to make it worse:

If U.S. diplomats have to do the bulk of their work behind fortresses, then pretty soon there will be no difference between their worldview and those of the four-star generals....Rather than the simple mantra of "never again" when reacting to the death of Ambassador Stevens, the life and mission he desired should be valorized a bit more. Stevens knew that the best way to advance U.S. interests in Libya was to be on the ground. Doing that from embassies that resemble Orwell's Ministry of Truth is a difficult task.

There is a tradeoff between protecting U.S. officials overseas and promoting their ability to advance the national interest. I fear the pendulum has swung way too far towards the protection side, and Stevens' death will only exacerbate that shift. The cruel irony is that Stevens, of all people, would have abhorred that shift. Better that we openly acknowledge the risk that foreign service officers face in overseas postings, recognize the bravery and loyalty that their service entails, and let them do their f***king jobs.

Roger that. And although not too many people want to reopen this conversation, it's still worth asking some hard questions about why we need these fortress embassies in the first place. The answer, obviously, is that a helluva lot of people, especially in the Middle East, hate us. Why? Well, just in the past couple of decades we've launched military operations against Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya—just to name the half-dozen most direct and overt cases. Sure, it's possible that residents of the Middle East don't really care much about this, but hate us for our freedoms instead, but what are the odds?