Kevin Drum - 2012

Public Libraries and the Digital Divide

| Sat Feb. 18, 2012 1:15 PM EST

Via David Ryan, a Metafilter comment on libraries and the digital divide. Here's a piece:

If you can take yourself out of your first world techie social media smart-shoes for a second then imagine this: you're 53 years old, you've been in prison from 20 to 26, you didn't finish high school, and you have a grandson who you're now supporting because your daughter is in jail. You're lucky, you have a job at the local Wendy's. You have to fill out a renewal form for government assistance which has just been moved online as a cost saving measure (this isn't hypothetical, more and more municipalities are doing this now). You have a very limited idea of how to use a computer, you don't have Internet access, and your survival (and the survival of your grandson) is contingent upon this form being filled out correctly.

Do you go to the local social services office? No, you don't. The overworked staff there says that due to budget cuts they can no longer do walk-in advising, and that there's a 2 week waiting list to get assistance with filling out forms. You call them up on the by-the-minute phone you're borrowing from your cousin (wasting 15 of her minutes on hold) and they say that they can't help, but you can go to your public library. OK, so you go to your public library after work.....

It's worth a few minutes of your time to read the whole thing from the beginning.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 17 February 2012

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 3:53 PM EST

Spring is approaching, and after a bit of rain last weekend the weather has been lovely here in Southern California. On the left, after rolling around in the sun for a while, Domino poses with one of our legion of concrete rabbits. On the right, Inkblot is eating....something. Marian told me what it was last night, but now I've forgotten. But to Inkblot it seemed like a nice snack.

As for me, I've finished our vacation planning. Hooray! It's a family affair scheduled for the second half of May, and we're going to spend a week in Copenhagen visiting friends and then a week in Rome visiting the ruins. It's the first long vacation Marian and I have taken since 2002, and my mother has never been to Rome. Should be fun.  

Barack Obama's Hardline Turn on Medical Marijuana Is a Mystery

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 3:08 PM EST

Over at Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson has a good piece about the Obama administration's sudden about-face on medical marijuana. Initially they made soothing noises and announced that they wouldn't target pot dispensaries that complied with state law. Then, last year, everything changed:

The reversal began at the Drug Enforcement Agency with Michele Leonhart, a holdover from the Bush administration who was renominated by Obama to head the DEA…Almost immediately, federal prosecutors went on the attack. Their first target: the city of Oakland, where local officials had moved to raise millions in taxes by licensing high-tech indoor facilities for growing medical marijuana…Two months later, federal prosecutors in Washington state went even further…In isolation, such moves might be seen as the work of overzealous U.S. attorneys, who operate with considerable autonomy. But last June, the Justice Department effectively declared that it was returning to the Bush administration's hard-line stance on medical marijuana. James Cole, who had replaced Ogden as deputy attorney general, wrote a memo revoking his predecessor's deference to states on the definition of "caregiver."…Pot dispensaries, in short, were once again prime federal targets, even if they were following state law to the letter.

As I was reading this piece I kept asking why this had happened. But it was all very mysterious. Finally Dickinson provided the best answer he could:

Supporters of medical marijuana are baffled by Obama's abrupt about-face on the issue. Some blame the federal crackdown not on the president, but on career drug warriors determined to go after medical pot…The White House, for its part, insists that its position on medical pot has been "clear and consistent."…But the official makes no attempt to explain why the administration has permitted a host of federal agencies to revive the Bush-era policy of targeting state-approved dispensaries.

…The administration's retreat on medical pot is certainly consistent with its broader election-year strategy of seeking to outflank Republicans on everything from free trade to offshore drilling…But the president could pay a steep price for his anti-pot crackdown this fall, particularly if it winds up alienating young voters in swing states like Colorado, where two-thirds of residents support medical marijuana…"Medical marijuana is twice as popular as Obama," notes [Rob] Kampia. "It doesn't make any political sense."

None of this makes much sense. Leonhart was a holdover. Nothing changed when she was reappointed. And US Attorneys don't report to DEA anyway. Nor do deputy attorney generals change policy on their own. It has to be approved higher up.

So obviously Obama and Eric Holder went along with this. But Kampia is right: medical marijuana is pretty popular. Some cities, like Los Angeles, have recently cracked down on it, but no one was really begging the federal government to get more involved. And it wasn't a wedge issue either. I don't think the tea party or anyone else on the right was making a big deal out of this. There was really no compelling political reason to change direction.

So why did Barack Obama suddenly decide that a benign attitude toward medical marijuana was a loser? It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

UPDATE: Tim Fernholz suggests an answer: when the Obama administration saw the results of its own policy, it got nervous and backed away:

As fear of federal prosecution lessened, more states began adopting or considering medical marijuana laws; where the practice was already legal (as it was in California), there was a boom in the marijuana trade. Operating in a grey market between the federal prohibition and untested state rules, dispensaries of all kinds operated without much supervision.

…Though law enforcement officials could not point to any commensurate increase in crime, all that activity made the federal government uneasy: It realized that tacitly allowing states to regulate medical marijuana had far-reaching consequences that it wasn’t entirely comfortable with…With local and state officials writing letters to their U.S. Attorneys, asking for their thoughts on various schemes to license marijuana growers and distributers, the federal government decided to take a tougher line.

More here.

Mitt Romney's Bank-Friendly Plan to Save Detroit

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 2:26 PM EST

Last year I took a long look at Mitt Romney's position on the auto bailout and concluded that he was kinda sorta right to say that Obama's eventual plan was close to the one he had previously recommended. Romney seems bound and determined to make me regret ever writing that, but so far I haven't had the energy to revisit the subject. Today, though, Steve Benen directs my attention to a piece by Tom Walsh in the Detroit Free Press. Romney swung by to talk to their editorial board and Walsh took notes:

To be specific about the editorial board discussion, Romney feigned surprise and outrage that anyone might conclude from his November, 2008 op-ed article in the New York Times, entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” that he would have allowed GM and Chrysler to be liquidated if he were president. “That is so absurd,” he said.

Rather, Romney insisted, citing the second-to-last sentence in his 2008 op-ed essay, he would have steered the companies into managed bankruptcy — but with loan and warranty guarantees, not tens of billions of dollars in bailout cash. [I think Romney is right on this point. He didn't write the headline for that NYT op-ed. –ed.]

And who would have made the big loans that Romney would have federally guaranteed? The private credit markets were frozen in the financial panic of late 2008 and early 2009, leading many experts to conclude that no private lender would have stepped up to finance bankruptcies as huge and risky as those of GM and Chrysler.

When I pressed Romney on this point, he insisted that if the U.S. Treasury issued bonds or guarantees, plenty of private lenders would have surfaced.

That's probably not true. But leave that aside for the moment. Why does Romney favor loan guarantees instead of direct federal loans in the first place? The way this works, taxpayers don't just risk taking a loss, they're practically guaranteed to take a loss. If the loans perform well, private lenders get all the profit. If they tank, Treasury pays the bill. And in the meantime, billions of dollars in scarce private loans are directed toward GM and Chrysler, making it even harder for other businesses to access the credit markets.

In what way is this a better deal than just making the loans directly? As with college loan guarantees, it's really nothing more than a way of ensuring private banks a surefire profit with no risk. Republicans need to find a new wheeze. This one is getting long in the tooth.

Quote of the Day: Negative Campaigning in Venezuela

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 1:46 PM EST

From Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, upon learning that his opponent in October's election will be Henrique Capriles Radonski:

Now we have the loser, welcome! We're going to pulverise you. You have a pig's tail, a pig's ears, you snort like a pig, you're a low-life pig. You're a pig, don't try and hide it....The only place you're going to govern is the land of Tarzan and his monkey Cheeta.

Via Dan Drezner, who points out that Chávez's allies have also tarred Capriles at various times as gay, Zionist, fascist, and bourgeois. And the race hasn't even heated up yet.

Why Can't Republicans Figure Out How to Hold a Primary Caucus?

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 1:31 PM EST

Adam Sorensen on the embarrassing spectacle of the Republican caucuses so far:

Sure it took a month to declare the actual winner of the Iowa caucuses, tallies from eight precincts were lost altogether and vote counting in Nevada dragged on for days, but you can’t really understand the depth of dysfunction in the caucus system until you behold the caricature of incompetence that is Maine.

A nickel summary of the Maine fiasco follows. So what's going on? I don't remember anything like this on either side in 2008. Is it just an artifact of a bunch of close contests? Are Republicans trying to prove that we need tougher election laws by holding lots of seemingly corrupt elections themselves? What the hell is going on?

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The Internet Is a Major Driver of the Growth of Cognitive Inequality

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 1:07 PM EST

Apropos of yesterday's post about using Google to convert joules to electron volts, a friend of mine emailed this morning to say that Wolfram Alpha would be an even better choice. It's one of his favorite time wasters, he said.

Well. I remember using Alpha back when it first came out, and then giving up because it didn't seem to live up to its hype. But I haven't used it in quite a while, so I headed over to try it out. But what to ask? Hmmm. How about asking it to check the price of a gallon of milk?1 So I did. Answer: $20 million gal, whatever that means, which converts to $4.62 billion cubic inches, whatever that means. If you ask for the price of a quart of milk, it tells you the milk production budget for the Quart region of Italy. Thanks, Wolfram Alpha!

But does Google do any better? Sort of. I typed in the same question, and one hit was from an elementary school class project telling me that a gallon of milk costs $2.99 in Bakersfield, along with conversions of that amount into pounds, lira, and punts. Which suggests this data might be a wee bit out of date.

Another hit was from Yahoo Answers, which informed me that the price of milk was "OUTRAGEOUSLY TOO HIGH," and then provided a range of prices from around the country. The "Best Answer," garnering two votes, was $3.50. That was in 2008. Ask.com provided answers for 1917, 1950, and 2007.

In a way, this is the internet in a nutshell. One site provides a very precise answer that's spectacularly wrong. Another site provides a fantastic wealth of answers, all of which are sort of wrong in various different ways. But if you're smart enough to reformulate your search as "usda milk price retail," as I eventually did, you'll get this extremely authoritative-looking document from the USDA that provides average retail whole milk prices in 30 different U.S. cities for January 2012. The average is $3.69 per gallon. Other reports are available for reduced fat milk, organic whole milk, and organic reduced fat milk.

Moral of the story: the internet makes dumb people dumber and smart people smarter. If you don't know how to use it, or don't have the background to ask the right questions, you'll end up with a head full of nonsense. But if you do know how to use it, it's an endless wealth of information. Just as globalization and de-unionization have been major drivers of the growth of income inequality over the past few decades, the internet is now a major driver of the growth of cognitive inequality. Caveat emptor.

1Yes, I know that's not really what Wolfram Alpha is for. No need to ruin an entertaining post over it, though.

UPDATE: Via comments, it turns out that if you type "How much does a gallon of milk cost?" into Wolfram Alpha you get the nonsense above. But if you type "price of milk" instead, you get a nice chart showing the price of milk. Live and learn.

Chart of the Day: Republicans Losing Ground on Their Beloved Tax Jihad

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 12:22 PM EST

The folks at Democracy Corps are practically giddy over the results of their latest polling:

The Republican brand is in a state of collapse — over 50 percent of voters give the Republican Party a cool, negative rating....Romney may be on the edge of political death....President Obama is now at the critical 50 percent mark on approval and is approaching 50 percent on the ballot....On the named Congressional ballot, Democrats continue to lead Republicans....Unmarried women, young voters, and minorities [...] have returned in a big way for Democrats....A drop in negative feelings about the direction of the country and the economy are major and are shaping the mood going into 2012.

What's more, as Lisa Mascaro writes in the LA Times this morning, as the fight over the payroll tax cut extension unfolded, "something damaging happened to the Republican Party's once-dominant position on tax policy." By opposing the payroll tax cut, they've allowed Obama to take the tax high ground:

The way the debate took shape has "certainly caused damage" to the GOP image, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Thursday. "It muddled the differences" between the two parties, he said.

Very sad. The chart below shows the damage to the Republican Party brand.

GOP Rhetoric vs. GOP Reality on Slashing the Safety Net

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 11:34 AM EST

Greg Sargent asks:

One of the central, driving questions in our politics is this: Why are people who are themselves reliant on government programs so prone to electing anti-government politicans who want to put them on the chopping block?

When we ask this question, I think you really have to distinguish between Social Security, Medicare, and everything else. Like it or not, most people simply don't think of Social Security and Medicare as "safety net" programs. They think of them as programs they've paid into all their lives and are now simply drawing down from. It's basically their own money being returned to them, not a "government program."

But there's another piece to this question that I think gets less discussion than it deserves: a lot of voters don't take seriously Republican bluster about cutting safety net programs, and they don't really trust Democrats to save them either. So from an electoral perspective, the contrast between the two parties isn't as great as it seems. The bottom line is that a lot of voters like the idea of talking tough about the safety net — it shows that your heart is in the right place, especially if you're talking about parts of the net for other people — but they don't really want the net slashed in real life. Republicans mostly deliver that combination. What's more, even if they get a little carried away, Democrats will stop them for purely partisan reasons. What's to get worked up about?

That may change if the tea-party wing of the GOP really takes over and a Republican president gets elected, but even then I suspect it won't change a lot. In fact, the recent deal over the payroll tax cut/doc fix/unemployment benefits bill suggests that even tea-party-ized Republicans can get chastened pretty quickly after a few weeks back home during an election year. They'll keep up the bluster, but they're not going to make any big cuts to the programs that their constituents truly want to keep. I think most of the people who vote for them understand this pretty well.

Who Actually Benefits From Federal Benefits?

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Roger Ippolito, a 74-year-old Korean War veteran, receives $450 a month in social security benefits.

Republican candidates have lately been parroting Charles Murray's argument that our "entitlement society" has created a nation of deadbeats who would rather live off government benefits than find a job. In response, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) released a study earlier this week showing the fraction of government benefits that go to able-bodied workers.

Their estimate is about 9 percent. I linked to the CBPP study on Monday, and since their methodology was fairly complex, I added a back-of-the-envelope version that simply added up the benefits of programs that don't serve the elderly, disabled, or working poor. I figured that would make the source of CBPP's number a little more understandable.

The next day I got an email from Arloc Sherman, one of the authors of the study. You can't just add up these programs, he told me, because even a lot of programs that people think of as "welfare" actually serve the elderly, disabled, and working poor too. Medicaid is the biggest example: Most of us think of Medicaid as a program for the poor, but more than half of all Medicaid spending actually goes to the elderly and the disabled.

So what percent of each program goes to the elderly, disabled, or working poor? The bulk of both Medicare and Social Security goes to the elderly and most of the balance goes to the disabled. The Earned Income Tax Credit goes almost entirely to the working poor. But what about the others? I was surprised when I saw the complete breakdown, and you might be too. Here it is:

Eighty-three percent of Medicaid goes to the elderly, disabled, or working poor. Seventy-nine percent of school lunches. Sixty-nine percent of unemployment compensation. Sixty-four percent of SNAP (food stamps). Even TANF, the classic "welfare" program, clocks in at 46 percent—and it's a very small program. The other 54 percent only amounts to about $6 billion, a minuscule fraction of federal benefits, and ever since the 1996 welfare reform bill those benefits have been temporary anyway. It's not really possible to become dependent on TANF any longer.

Overall, only about 9 percent of government benefits go to those who could be thought of as able-bodied workers who either can't or won't find a job. And as the study says:

Moreover, the vast bulk of that 9 percent goes for medical care, unemployment insurance benefits (which individuals must have a significant work history to receive), Social Security survivor benefits for the children and spouses of deceased workers, and Social Security benefits for retirees between ages 62 and 64. Seven out of the 9 percentage points go for one of these four purposes.

Sherman adds this:

Another point: Many of those who decry the growth of entitlement spending seem to forget the most basic of all facts about it: it continues to be driven overwhelmingly by the twin engines of an aging population and the rising cost of medical care. Neither of which has much to do with dependency among the working-age population.

This is especially true for medical care, I think. We spend a fair amount of money on health care services for the poor, but even theoretically that does nothing to make them less likely to work. They still need money for everything else, after all. All it does is provide them with a bare minimum of decent health care. We can afford that, can't we?

UPDATE: I mistakenly said that all of Medicare and nearly all of Social Security goes to the elderly. In fact, about 81% of Medicare and 77% of Social Security goes to people over the age of 65. However, the chart is correct: 100% of Medicare and 96% of Social Security goes to the elderly, disabled, and working poor. I've corrected the text.