Kevin Drum - 2012

Noise, Traffic, and Congestion

| Tue Feb. 14, 2012 10:24 AM PST

Ryan Avent wants to know why there are so many damn restrictions on putting up new buildings:

Our first question should be: is there some very compelling reason not to allow private actors to engage in mutually beneficial transactions? If a developer wants to buy a piece of land and erect a tall building on it, because he is confident that various tenants will be willing to pay him enough money to use the space to cover his costs, isn't that alone a good reason to start with the assumption that the deal should go forward?

....Of course, there are times when economists are prepared to say that a market equilibrium is not maximising social welfare. When private transactions generate costs or benefits for those not participating in the transaction—what economists call externalities—there is scope for government intervention. And in a dense urban environment, we'd expect to see lots of externalities. There are spillover costs; when a developer builds a large new building, he may disrupt existing views and add to local congestion. 

OK, let's stop right there, because I think this is the answer to the question. I don't care what you say your objection to a new building is, about 99% of the time the real objections are noise, congestion, and traffic. That's it. Everything else is just cover. It's not really about safety, or aesthetics, or neighborhood character, or the fact that George Washington once slept nearby. It's about noise, congestion, and traffic.

Which is fine. I'm certainly concerned about those things in my neighborhood, and I'd be unhappy if someone wanted to erect a 50-story skyscraper next door that turned the street outside my door into a seething, 24/7 stream of cars and weekend partiers. And unfortunately for prospective developers, that's an externality that's very difficult to mitigate. You can reduce it, maybe by paying for a street widening project or some such, but that's small beer. And in theory, you could simply pay off local residents. I might not like all the new traffic and noise, but if you paid me $5,000 a year to put up with it, maybe I'd mind it a lot less. But who do you have to pay? And how much?

These are all hard problems. I don't know the answers. Just keep in mind that you should ignore almost everything everyone says about new buildings going up nearby. The real issues are always noise, traffic, and congestion.

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The Republican Plan to Let Your Boss Control Your Life

| Tue Feb. 14, 2012 9:42 AM PST

Adam Serwer reports today on the latest GOP attempt to make hay out of the contraception controversy. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has introduced an amendment to Obamacare that would allow any employer or other healthcare provider to refrain from covering any medical service that is "contrary to the provider's religious beliefs or moral convictions":

If Republican leaders get their way and Blunt's bill becomes law, a boss who regarded overweight people and smokers with moral disgust could exclude coverage of obesity and tobacco screening from his employees' health plans. A Scientologist employer could deny its employees depression screening because Scientologists believe psychiatry is morally objectionable. A management team that thought HIV victims brought the disease upon themselves could excise HIV screening from its employees' insurance coverage. Your boss' personal prejudices, not science or medical expertise, would determine which procedures your insurance would cover for you and your kids.

This bill isn't going to pass, of course. As with most Republican legislation these days, it's designed to prove to the true-believer wing of the party that their representatives in Congress are true believers too. The clown show in Washington DC continues apace.

Should Idiots Be Allowed to Regulate the Internet?

| Tue Feb. 14, 2012 9:11 AM PST

Julian Sanchez is annoyed by people who keep self-righteously reminding us that the internet is not some special free-for-all zone that should remain exempt from all the normal rules we apply to normal life:

This is a fair point. But what about all these hippy-dippy Real World anarchists who think meatspace can remain immune to the rules any well-managed virtual community understands to be essential? How is it, for instance, that citizens are physically capable of injuring each other, regardless of whether they’ve opted in to player-versus-player? And what fool designed it so that my image is visible to all other users in the same city, even if we aren’t friends? You’ve even apparently got to jump through a bunch of hoops to get something called a “restraining order” just to implement a simple user block!

....Not everyone understands the intricate technical details of how the network functions, and not everyone needs to. But if you truly don’t comprehend that “closing down an illegal shop” is not actually the same as—and in every possible way a pretty awful metaphor for—“getting thousands of ISPs to implement DNS filtering at the domain level,” you should quietly recuse yourself from Internet policy debates. And if you find yourself suggesting that Google “helped overthrow the head of an entire country in a weekend,” and therefore must simply lack willpower when they say they can’t automatically screen out trademark and copyright violations, perhaps you should think twice about sitting on committees that vote on Internet legislation.

In all aspects of life, if you want to regulate something you first need to understand both the culture that produced the behavior you dislike as well as the purely technical impediments to regulating it. So point taken. If you don't understand the ill effects of DNS filtering — and the recent SOPA fiasco certainly proved that many members of Congress don't — you should be willing to listen to the people who do. This is not much different from suggesting that if you don't understand how Social Security funding works you might want to bone up a bit before you start ranting about it being a Ponzi scheme.

But there's another side to this, one that's well known to anyone who's ever worked in the tech industry: engineers positively love to snow their less technical colleagues whenever they're asked to do something they don't feel like doing. Suddenly tasks that seem like they're doable become gigantic obstacles that will require a minimum of a dozen programmers for 57 weeks, and your shipping schedule certainly can't accommodate that, can it? So sorry.

In other words, sometimes the opinions of the digerati should be taken with a grain of salt. Their routine pronouncements that something will "break the internet" might be true — so be careful! — but they might also be little more than a convenient way of justifying their ideological preferences and getting the meatspace morons off their backs.

On a related note, all of us, the technically literate included, probably ought to show a little more humility about what Sanchez calls the "annoyingly stubborn facts" of the technological world. He links to a much-discussed piece by Cory Doctorow (based on a speech he gave recently) in which he suggests that not only would any feasible form of digital copyright enforcement break the internet, but it would probably break the entire idea of a general purpose computer too. Shazam!

Now, maybe Doctorow is right. There's no question that the history of digital copyright enforcement has not exactly been a rip-roaring success so far. But neither has it been a total failure, and frankly, I don't see any reason to think that some smart people might come up with a form of general-purpose DRM in the future that actually works decently. Not 100% perfectly of course, but that's not the goal. And not entirely free of annoyance. That's not the goal either. Just something that's good enough to provide a measure of IP protection that works for the vast majority of non-supermen and isn't too unwieldy. Is that really any more unlikely than the invention of the internet itself? I'm not sure why.

This is not something you want to believe if, ideologically, you're opposed to IP protection because you think that digital content is fundamentally different from meatspace content on the grounds that making a digital copy of something doesn't reduce anyone else's ability to use their copy. But neither does copying a book. That's never been the point of IP law. It's always been about the income stream an author can get from selling copies of his or her work, and that's exactly the same in the digital world as it is in the physical world. The arguments in favor of IP protection are much the same in both domains.

You might not want to hear that, but just because you don't want to hear it doesn't mean it's not true. The truth is that IP protection in the digital world might very well be possible. We won't know until we try, making a whole lot of mistakes along the way. If you want to argue that IP protection is a bad idea, then fine. Make the argument. But don't pretend that your preferences are also technological certitudes. They aren't.

Republicans Learn a Lesson on Tax Cuts

| Mon Feb. 13, 2012 4:02 PM PST

Apparently the Republican leadership in Congress has decided they don't feel like playing chicken over the payroll tax extension again:

“Because the president and Senate Democratic leaders have not allowed their conferees to support a responsible bipartisan agreement, today House Republicans will introduce a backup plan that would simply extend the payroll tax holiday for the remainder of the year while the conference negotiations continue regarding offsets, unemployment insurance, and the ‘doc fix,’” said GOP leaders in an official statement Monday afternoon.

That’s a huge concession to legislative and political realities, and a tacit admission that Republican leaders desparately want to avoid another no-win fight over renewing a tax cut that overwhelmingly benefits the middle class.

The smartest option for the payroll tax extension has always been to simply not pay for it. What's more, that's always been how Republicans have dealt with other tax cuts. They certainly didn't demand offsets in 2001 or 2002 or 2003 or any of the other years they passed tax cuts when they were in power. It's only Democratic tax cuts they want to pay for.

But now they're learning the same lesson that Democrats learned during the Bush era: opposing tax cuts is just bad politics, full stop. The reason doesn't really matter. We liberals who thought the era of the tax revolt was finally over a few years ago were wrong: it's still rolling along as strong as ever. Maybe it will ease up when the economy is in better shape, but that's still a few years away.

Politically, the only interesting question left is whether John Boehner can get his troops to back him up on this. I think he probably can. Elections are coming up, members got an earful from their constituents during the winter break, and hey — it's a tax cut. Making life hard for Obama is, perhaps, Job 1 right now, but tax cuts are a close second and Democrats are refusing to budge this time. It's a cave-in, but it's a pretty small one. I suspect they'll go for it.

Conscience for Me, But Not for Thee

| Mon Feb. 13, 2012 11:29 AM PST

The world has long needed a Shorter John Holbo, and today Matt Yglesias provides it:

Start with the assumption that ObamaCare is repealed, in its entirety, tomorrow. The day after tomorrow Abdul Hussain, owner and CEO of a large private firm with 5,000 employees, announces that his firm will no longer offer employees health insurance that permits women to visit male doctors or male employees to be treated by female doctors. This is a newsworthy event, and the day after the day after tomorrow Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Attorney General Eric Holder both offer the opinion that this is a form of illegal discrimination and that if it's not already illegal it should be made illegal. Will Mitch McConnell and other congressional Republicans stand up for Hussain's "freedom of conscience" in this case? Will my conservative Twitter followers?

I'm going to guess no.

Yeah, that's my guess too. Likewise, if a hospital owned by a Muslim charity insisted that its patients all sign arbitration agreements that were governed by Sharia law, I think the conservative view of freedom of religion would take a sudden turn for the worse.

But I'm cynical that way. Perhaps some outspoken conservative will prove me wrong.

Rick Santorum Now the Great Conservative Hope

| Mon Feb. 13, 2012 11:08 AM PST

Back in January, before the South Carolina primary, I suggested there was still a sliver of hope for Rick Santorum. I probably meant to say that there were still slivers of hope for both Santorum and Gingrich, but my puny liberal brain just couldn't get its hands around the idea that there was any hope for Gingrich. So by process of elimination, that meant Santorum was the only remaining chance for the Anyone But Romney forces.

Well, guess what? Lots of negative ads and the usual Gingrichian meltdown — it's nice when people act exactly the way you think they're going to act, isn't it? — have, in fact, left Santorum as the last man standing whose last name doesn't start with R. The RCP poll average below shows Santorum surging after his primary wins last week, and the latest PPP poll shows him substantially ahead of Romney nationally, 38%-23%.

So what happens now that both the national spotlight and Romney's millions are turned on Santorum like the eye of Sauron? Nothing good, I imagine. Alternatively, maybe he really does have a chance, and Republicans have made up their minds to stage a nostalgic revival of 1964. The mind reels.

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How Much Do We Spend on the Nonworking Poor?

| Mon Feb. 13, 2012 10:28 AM PST

The Republican primary field has recently decided to revive the Welfare Queen trope, perhaps in hopes that a bit of that old Reagan magic will rub off on them. The argument, as usual, is that there's a vast stream of federal money going to people who are sitting on their asses eating Cheetos instead of going out and earning a living instead. These people are being bred into dependence on Uncle Sam's tit and having their work ethics destroyed.

So the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities decided to add up the numbers and figure out how much money the federal government spends on the nonworking poor. The answer: about 10 percent of all federal welfare spending. How did they come up with that? CBPP's methodology uses census data to figure out exactly where program dollars are going, but you can get pretty much the same answer using a simpler, easier-to-understand technique. Step One is to list every federal welfare program. Step Two is to deduct spending on the elderly, blind, and seriously disabled. That's Social Security, Medicare, SSI, and about two-thirds of Medicaid. Step Three is to deduct spending that goes to the working poor. That's unemployment compensation, EITC, and child tax credits. Step Four is to add up the rest. This overstates how much goes to the nonworking poor, since these programs are open to both working and nonworking families, but it gives you a rough idea.

It comes to about $235 billion, the bulk of which is SNAP (formerly food stamps) and about one-third of Medicaid. That's 12 percent of all federal welfare spending and about 6 percent of the whole federal budget. Once you account for the fact that some of these program dollars go to the working poor, you end up with CBPP's estimate of 10 percent, or about 5 percent of the whole federal budget.

Is that too much? I guess you have to decide for yourself. But I'll bet most people think we spend a lot more than 5 percent of the federal budget on this stuff. They might be surprised to know the real numbers. The CBPP's chart is below, with spending on the nonworking poor highlighted.

Terrorism and Modern War

| Mon Feb. 13, 2012 9:11 AM PST

NBC News reports that the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, which has long been designated a terrorist group by the State Department, has been receiving funding and training from Israel:

Deadly attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists are being carried out by an Iranian dissident group that is financed, trained and armed by Israel’s secret service, U.S. officials tell NBC News, confirming charges leveled by Iran’s leaders.

....The attacks, which have killed five Iranian nuclear scientists since 2007 and may have destroyed a missile research and development site, have been carried out in dramatic fashion, with motorcycle-borne assailants often attaching small magnetic bombs to the exterior of the victims’ cars.

So does this mean that Israel is a state supporter of terrorism? I've suggested before that it does, and Robert Wright outlines some of the arguments pro and con:

After the NBC story broke, Paul Pillar, a former CIA official who teaches at Georgetown, dusted off the definition of terrorism used by the US government for purposes of keeping statistics: "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents." That, says Pillar, is what these assassinations are.

The counter-arguments have tended not to be big on legalisms...."Israel is entirely justified in using whatever means it has to prevent Khameini's government from achieving its genocidal ends," writes Jonathan Tobin in Commentary. Daniel Larison, writing in The American Conservative, was aghast at Tobin's argument: "In other words, Israeli state sponsorship of a terrorist group is acceptable because it's in a good cause."

Oddly, these both seem like decent arguments to me. Are the attacks on Iran terrorism? Of course they are. If they're not, we might as well give up on even trying to define the word. But is it acceptable just because the other side is using it? Of course it's —

But wait a second. Is it? For all practical purposes, Iran and Israel are at war; they've been at war for a long time; and both sides have tacitly agreed that it will primarily be a war carried out nonconventionally. The alternative is what we did in Afghanistan and Iraq: a full-scale conventional attack.

Is that a superior alternative? To say the least, I'm a little hard pressed to say it is. But the alternative is not to fight back at all. Given the current state of the art in human nature, that's really not in the cards.

Still: is it terrorism? Yes. Do both sides use it? Yes. Is this, in many cases, the future of warfare? Probably yes. Is there a better alternative? That's a good question.

The Conservative Id, Part 347

| Sun Feb. 12, 2012 10:20 AM PST

LA Times columnist Steve Lopez visits a living room full of conservatives in California's Central Valley:

Obama is a socialist, said Ray Vercammen. He may be faking his so-called Christianity, said Sam Ackerman. And he wouldn't be much of a public speaker if not for TelePrompTers, said Loron Hodge...."The Mexicans, they have abused this country and we have let it happen," said Ben Strode.

...."What's happening in this country," said Hodge, director of a ministry that provides food and clothing to those in need, is downright scary. With all this "abortion and homosexuality," he went on, the United States may be headed for a hell "worse than Pearl Harbor, worse than 9/11."

"God," Hodge said, "will not be mocked."

Turns out almost all of them are for Santorum. Are you surprised?

Friday Cat Blogging - 10 February 2012

| Fri Feb. 10, 2012 1:01 PM PST

Today, both cats grace the same frame, one looking in and the other looking out. In this photo, the cats are a metaphor for Man's ineluctable failure to appreciate his place in the world. One's nature wants to be in, the other's nature wants to be out. In five minutes, their roles will reverse, world without end. As always, the ISO 9000-approved windowpane prevents true understanding. It is the human tragedy given feline expression.

Alternatively, the cats just want me to open the door, and this picture is merely a representation of the fact that cats don't have opposable thumbs. For which we can all be thankful.

In other cat news, your cat may be turning you into an introvert. Or an extrovert. It depends. Details here.

And with that, I can get back to obsessing over hotel accommodations in Rome later this year. My needs are modest. I'm looking for a place with big, lovely rooms; modern, well-equipped bathrooms; situated in a quiet neighborhood in the center of town; providing all modern amenities; with a friendly and helpful staff; and all for a low price. Oddly enough, I'm having trouble meeting all these modest requirements. What's going on?