Kevin Drum - 2012

In Which I Finally Learn What Women are For

| Mon Feb. 20, 2012 6:53 PM EST

A few days ago James Poulos wrote an essay in the Daily Caller titled "What Are Women For?" After I saw it linked for the tenth or twelfth time I finally clicked through to see what all the clamor was about, and I'm not being snarky when I say that I simply couldn't figure out what he was getting at. The writing was so circuitous and so pseudo-academic that it was inscrutable. Then, a followup essay declared that "The wave of anger and condemnation that has come from some quarters is dramatic evidence that the column’s central contention is right." I sort of doubt that, but in any case there's no way of judging this until we know what the column's central contention is.

Luckily for me, Rich Yeselson has better antennae than I do, and he doped it out:

Poulos is actually up to something at once deeply derivative and banal, yet astonishing in the residual, reactionary power he brings to it....[The argument] comes down to this: he thinks that women are closer to nature because they are able to give birth, i.e they have a “privileged relationship to the natural world.” And, therefore, “what they are for”, as he argues in the second essay (which is actually the more lucid of the two) is to civilize those who “fill up the world with stuff — machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on — that often objectifies and instrumentalizes people, and often distracts us from its own sterility as regards fruitful human living.” That would be men.

Aha! The role of women is to civilize men! Apparently that's the meaning of this sentence: "I’m not alone in thinking that women are uniquely able to help humanity avoid becoming enthralled to the more sterile cultural creations of men" — with sterile creations being "machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on."

That is a musty trope, isn't it? Yeesh. So I owe Rich thanks twice over. First, for letting me know that I wasn't the only one to find these essays all but impenetrable. And second, for explaining what it was all about. For more on the illustrious history behind this, just click the link.

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Choosing the Right Article is Sometimes Harder Than You'd Think

| Mon Feb. 20, 2012 6:16 PM EST

Suzy Khimm asks:

Should we have a FDA for financial products?

You'll have to click the link to get Suzy's take on this question. My question is different: should it be "a FDA" or "an FDA"? If you mentally spell out the acronym, it's properly "a Food and Drug Administration." But if you mentally just sound out the letters, it's properly "an Eff Dee Ay."

This is even trickier with an acronym like, say, SAC. Even if you don't mentally spell out the whole acronym, it's still the case that sometimes this is pronounced "sack" and sometimes "Ess Ay Cee." So you might say "a SAC bomber" or "an SAC bomber." Which should it be?

This is one of those urgent Presidents Day questions. Speaking of which, is it Presidents Day or Presidents' Day? Who decides these things, anyway?

Rick Santorum Thinks Prenatal Testing Is a Liberal Plot to "Cull the Ranks of the Disabled"

| Mon Feb. 20, 2012 2:14 PM EST

Harold Pollack is no longer amused by Rick Santorum. Here is Santorum this weekend:

One of the things that you don't know about ObamaCare in one of the mandates is they require free prenatal testing. Why? Because free prenatal testing ends up in more abortions and, therefore, less care that has to be done, because we cull the ranks of the disabled in our society. That too is part of ObamaCare — another hidden message as to what president Obama thinks of those who are less able than the elites who want to govern our country.

Even for Santorum, this is just remarkably odious. Here's Harold:

I’m writing these words with my smiling brother-in-law Vincent sitting next to me, admiring the green lunchbox that we just bought him. Vincent lives with intellectual disabilities caused by fragile X syndrome. I find the above comments indescribably insulting.

Santorum’s comments are only made uglier by their utter lack of foundation…I’ve never heard any liberal health policy wonk promote genetic technologies to “cull the ranks of the disabled” or as part of any cost-cutting plan. That ugly meme is completely made up.

…Certainly liberals are willing to spend more money on disability services. I’ve published analyses showing that states’ 2008 voting share for John McCain was strongly correlated with reductions in state expenditures for intellectual disability services during the current recession. Most of the major disability organizations supported ACA for the obvious reasons. Preexisting condition clauses, essential health benefits, health insurance for young adults, etc. are specifically pertinent for people living with physical and mental disabilities.

The chart on the right is the one Harold is talking about. As states get bluer, they spend proportionately more on intellectual and developmental disability (I/DD) programs. As they get redder they spend less. And when the recession hit, the redder the state, the more they cut back on I/DD spending. You can draw whatever conclusion you want from this. If you're as vile as Santorum, you might conclude that conservatives hate the disabled. If you're not, you might conclude that redder states tend to be poorer than bluer states and simply can't afford as much.

But you certainly can't conclude that either blue states or liberals in general are trying to rid the nation of the disabled. The kind of person who thinks that has no place in a presidential race.

Not Every Lapse in Judgment Deserves the Death Penalty

| Mon Feb. 20, 2012 1:48 PM EST

Courtesy of the Daily News, the poor schmoe who wrote last week's Headline of the Century explains himself:

The ESPN editor fired Sunday for using "chink in the armor" in a headline about Knicks phenom Jeremy Lin said the racial slur never crossed his mind — and he was devastated when he realized his mistake. "This had nothing to do with me being cute or punny," Anthony Federico told the Daily News. "I'm so sorry that I offended people. I'm so sorry if I offended Jeremy."

....Federico, 28, said he understands why he was axed. "ESPN did what they had to do," he said. He said he has used the phrase "at least 100 times" in headlines over the years and thought nothing of it when he slapped it on the Lin story.

Really? A hundred times? I'm notoriously poor at writing headlines, but even I don't recycle the same cliches a dozen times a year.

That aside, what are we to think of the firestorm surrounding all this? Option A: Deliberate or not, Federico's headline was acutely hurtful and offensive and ESPN had no alternative. An abject apology followed by Federico's firing was really their only choice. Option B: It was a momentary and inadvertent lapse that was removed within half an hour and immediately apologized for. It deserved a reprimand and a game plan to avoid similar problems in the future, not the death penalty.

I vote for Option B. We need to reserve the serious ordnance for real acts of malicious racism, not minor lapses of judgment. Not only is it the right thing to do, but real racism gets trivialized when stuff like this sucks up so much oxygen. A little generosity of spirit could go a long way here.

My Crystal Ball Says the Keystone XL Pipeline Will Be Approved in 2013

| Mon Feb. 20, 2012 12:53 PM EST

The LA Times reports that Canadians are getting uncharacteristically pissed off at us American types:

The prime minister is talking about being "held hostage" by U.S. interests. Radio ads blare, "Stand up to this foreign bully." A Twitter account tells of a "secret plan to target Canada: exposed!"....Canada's recent push for the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta to the nation's West Coast, where it would be sent to China, has been marked by uncharacteristic defiance.

....In January, President Obama abruptly vetoed a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, Canada's $7-billion project to deliver oil across the U.S. Midwest to the Texas Gulf Coast, which environmentalists have long opposed.

Mix in a touch of nationalism, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's view that Canada needs to hedge its oil bets by diversifying its export markets, and the fight was on — not only with the neighbor to the south, but also among Canadians.

My advice to the Times: this is hardly the first trade dispute between Canada and the U.S. that's spurred some heated rhetoric. That might have been worth a mention.

My advice to Canadians: settle down. It's an election year down here. In 2013, either Barack Obama will be starting his second term and he'll reverse course and approve Keystone XL because he doesn't have to care about the environmentalists anymore, or else some Republican will be president and he'll approve Keystone XL because he never cared about the environmentalists in the first place. Either way, Keystone XL will be approved after a few minor routing changes that allows everyone to save face.

Do I sound cynical about this? Well, I am.

Chart of the Day: The Surprisingly Stable Cost of Presidential Elections

| Mon Feb. 20, 2012 12:02 PM EST

This is a pretty fascinating chart from the latest issue of the magazine. (At least that's where I assume it comes from. It looks too professionally done for anything but print.) What's fascinating, to me, isn't that the costs of presidential campaigns have skyrocketed so much, but that they haven't. Until very, very recently, that is. From 1964 all the way through 2000, the cost of presidential campaigns was pretty stable, ranging around $300-600 million in inflation-adjusted terms. It was only in 2004 and 2008 that costs suddenly went through the roof.

I wouldn't have guessed that. I always figured that campaign costs had been rising inexorably for decades. But apparently not. They've only been rising inexorably for the past eight years.

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My Memory is a Hazy Fog. How About Yours?

| Mon Feb. 20, 2012 12:54 AM EST

I desperately need a shot of PKMzeta, an enzyme that mediates long-term memory:

What does PKMzeta do? The molecule’s crucial trick is that it increases the density of a particular type of sensor called an AMPA receptor on the outside of a neuron....This process requires constant upkeep—every long-term memory is always on the verge of vanishing. As a result, even a brief interruption of PKMzeta activity can dismantle the function of a steadfast circuit.

If the genetic expression of PKMzeta is amped up—by, say, genetically engineering rats to overproduce the stuff—they become mnemonic freaks, able to convert even the most mundane events into long-term memory. (Their performance on a standard test of recall is nearly double that of normal animals.)

My memory has always been terrible. My mother is nearly 80 and still remembers classmates from her kindergarten days. I barely even remember going to kindergarten. Actually, that's too charitable: I don't remember going to kindergarten. Or first grade. Or fifth grade. Or high school. Or college. Or, for that matter, stuff I did two years ago.

Is this an exaggeration? Only barely. I remember occasional shreds from years past, but that's about it. On the bright side, this means that if I had a nasty fight with you a few years ago, there's a good chance I have no memory of it. On the not-so-bright side, it means that if we were close friends in high school, I might or might not even remember knowing you, let alone remember anything substantive about what we did together.

So which are you? Is the past just a hazy fog, as it is for me? Or do you have sharp memories going all the way back to your third birthday? Or something in between?

Who's Afraid of a Little Inflation?

| Sun Feb. 19, 2012 2:37 PM EST

Dylan Matthews has a nice piece in the Washington Post today about Modern Monetary Theory, an economic model that, roughly speaking, says government deficits are always good unless there's a risk of runaway inflation. Jared Bernstein comments:

For me, I’m down with MMTs up to a point. I very much agree that deficit reduction has been deeply miscast as pure virtue, with little regard for its economic impact. As I’ve written many times here, the first question re fiscal policy, at least until we’re reliably headed toward full employment is not “how quickly does your deficit come down?” It’s: “is your deficit large enough to replace lost private sector demand?”

This emphasis on using the tools of government, including the ability to print money and run large budget deficits in times of market failure, is MMT’s most important contribution to the current debate.

Now this I don't get. Sure, MMT says we should run large budget deficits during severe recessions. But so does Old Keynesianism. And post-Keynesianism. And New Keynesianism. If that's really MMT's most important contribution, who needs it?

The more important side of MMT is its insistence that we should run substantial deficits even when the economy is in good shape. Only when inflation appears ready to run out of control should we use budget surpluses to rein things in. But MMT proponent Jamie Galbraith says that pretty much never happens:

Economists in the Modern Monetary camp concede that deficits can sometimes lead to inflation. But they argue that this can only happen when the economy is at full employment — when all who are able and willing to work are employed and no resources (labor, capital, etc.) are idle. No modern example of this problem comes to mind, Galbraith says.

“The last time we had what could be plausibly called a demand-driven, serious inflation problem was probably World War I,” Galbraith says. “It’s been a long time since this hypothetical possibility has actually been observed, and it was observed only under conditions that will never be repeated.”

In some sense, this all comes down to a question of how scared we should be of inflation. Mainstream economic opinion says that a strong focus on full employment will inevitably risk high inflation, just as our current obsession with low inflation produces generally high unemployment. If we were focused on, say, a target unemployment rate of 4%, we'd see some periods where unemployment fell below that rate and some where it rose above it. But as the chart on the right shows, that's not what we've had over the past few decades. Instead, because our economic policy has been focused strongly on low inflation, we see only a couple of brief periods in which unemployment barely got close to 4%, followed immediately by a recession that kicked it back above 6%.

So should we focus instead on a genuine target of 4% unemployment, reining in budget deficits only when we fall well below that? That depends a lot on what you think the productive capacity of the country really is, and the mainstream estimate of NAIRU, the highest unemployment rate consistent with stable inflation, is around 5.5% right now. If that's the right estimate, then you could argue that we've been doing OK for the past few decades. But if full employment is really more consistent with an unemployment rate of 4%, then we've been wasting an awful lot of productive capacity for nothing.

POSTSCRIPT: Of course, you might also want to consider MPT, or Modern Petro-Monetary Theory. Rather than asking what level of economic growth kicks off unacceptable inflation, it asks what level of economic growth kicks off an oil price spike that produces a recession and higher unemployment. I have to admit that I increasingly think of the economy in those terms these days.

JAMIE GALBRAITH RESPONDS: In comments, he says:

Your instinct on the oil price is on target, in my view. The inflation threat that we face doesn't come from deficits or high employment — it comes from the cost and price of energy. But managing this is not within the competence of the Federal Reserve.

I have been trying to call attention to this issue for years (it's in my 2008 book, The Predator State, and in articles written recently with Jing Chen, most recently in the Cambridge Journal of Economics, which contains the following paragraph:

Our central argument is that stimulus fell short — and would have fallen short even if the amounts had been greater — because increased demand under existing high-fixed cost structures drove, or would have driven, the price of resources too high, too quickly. The constraint on growth was not inflation generated by easy money, but the combination of the rising real marginal cost especially of energy, combined with monopoly control of and speculative instability in energy prices, which together act as a choke-chain on the return to full employment.

But the endless debate over deficits, debt and quantitative easing tends to obscure this issue — and in public discourse one cannot easily answer questions that are not being asked. So thanks for making the point, and keep digging at it.

Apparently I am a Galbraithian but just didn't know it.

LA Times Op-Ed Page Finds Common Ground: Liberals Are Pricks

| Sun Feb. 19, 2012 1:13 PM EST

Today the LA Times has a paired set of op-eds: Diana Wagman's "Why liberals can't talk to conservatives" (in blue!) is splashed across the page from Charlotte Allen's "Why conservatives can't talk to liberals" (in red!). And guess what? Ironically, it turns out that liberals and conservatives actually agree about this. It's because liberals are assholes.

Note to Times op-ed editor: The next time you hire someone to present the liberal side of things, please choose someone other than Wagman. I assure you she doesn't speak for all of us. Thanks.

Teen Pregnancy Is Higher in Red States Than in Blue States

| Sun Feb. 19, 2012 2:31 AM EST

Ross Douthat on teen pregnancy rates in blue states and red states:

If liberal social policies really led inexorably to fewer unplanned pregnancies and thus fewer abortions, you would expect "blue" regions of the country to have lower teen pregnancy rates and fewer abortions per capita than demographically similar "red" regions.

But that isn't what the data show. Instead, abortion rates are frequently higher in more liberal states, where access is often largely unrestricted, than in more conservative states, which are more likely to have parental consent laws, waiting periods, and so on. "Safe, legal and rare" is a nice slogan, but liberal policies don't always seem to deliver the "rare" part.

What’s more, another Guttmacher Institute study suggests that liberal states don’t necessarily do better than conservative ones at preventing teenagers from getting pregnant in the first place. Instead, the lower teenage birth rates in many blue states are mostly just a consequence of (again) their higher abortion rates. Liberal California, for instance, has a higher teen pregnancy rate than socially conservative Alabama; the Californian teenage birth rate is only lower because the Californian abortion rate is more than twice as high.

Are abortion rates lower in states that make it really hard to get an abortion? Of course. I'm not really clear on what, if anything, this is supposed to prove.

As for California and Alabama, that's mostly just a clever bit of cherry picking. The table below is reconstructed from Guttmacher Institute data, and it gives a better sense of the big picture. Douthat is right that there's not a sharp red-blue divide between states with the highest and lowest teen pregnancy rates. Still, the top 10 is pretty heavily dominated by red states and the bottom 10 is pretty heavily dominated by blue states. I think it's probably unwise to pretend that there are simple lessons to be derived from this, but at the same time it's deceptive to pretend that the divide isn't there. There really is a difference, and it's likely that social values play a role in it.