Kevin Drum - January 2013

The Story Behind My Porsche

| Sat Jan. 26, 2013 2:10 PM EST

I seem to have unleashed a mini-storm of incredulity yesterday by mentioning that I drive a Porsche. Here's a typical email from a longtime reader:

You read a guy for ten years and you think you know him, and I would have never guessed that you drive a Porsche. You can preserve my construct of your personality if you tell me it was bequeathed to you by an uncle you'd never met.

Nope. I don't even have any uncles. The real story is that we all have at least a few vices, and mine is that I'm sort of a C-list car guy. I don't inhale car magazines or anything like that, but I like cars, I like reading about them, and I like driving lively little sports cars. The first car I owned after the VW Beetle I drove in college was a Mazda RX-7. That was a great car! Rear-wheel drive, nice handling, beautiful clutch, crisp shifter, and the rotary engine had a great torque curve. It wasn't all that fast, but fast is overrated. It was fast enough to be fun. And cheap, too: I got mine for under $10,000, and it lasted a dozen years without a single major problem.

I remember shopping around for a new car in the mid-90s and not finding anything I liked. I was mostly intrigued by the BMW Z-3, but the roofline was just a hair too low. My head brushed the roof of the RX-7 in the morning (but not in the evening thanks to ten hours of spinal compression), and the roof of the Z-3 was maybe half an inch lower than that. I tried for a while to convince myself that it wasn't that bad, but eventually I gave up. Ditto for the newer RX-7, which was hopelessly too small. Eventually, after driving lots of cars, I finally compromised on a Honda Prelude. It was a perfectly fine car, but I never really bonded with it. No personality.

So where did the Porsche come from? Well, I used to make more money than I do now, and in the late 90s the startup company I worked for did an IPO, and then a couple of years later got acquired. I made a chunk of money from all that, and thought that maybe I'd go take a look at a Porsche Boxster. One thing led to another, though, and I ended up in a 911 instead. Why? It's been my favorite car forever, it wasn't really that much more expensive than the Boxster, and the roofline is wonderfully high. That's it on the right, back when it was shiny and new. It's still pretty shiny, actually, thanks to low mileage, the wonders of modern paint jobs, and keeping it in a garage.

I don't regret buying it, and it still runs fine. But this is really sort of a farewell post, because it's now twelve years old and it's about time to replace it. Sadly, it's also the end of the line for sports cars for me: my future car will be a cheap little hatchback, something that's a wee bit more practical and gets good mileage. Right now the leading candidate is a Mazda 3, because I want a stick shift and Mazda still seems to make about the best manual transmission out there.

In other words, very soon my friend's construct of my personality will be 100 percent accurate. Funny how that works out.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Apple's Higher R&D Expense May Not Be Good News

| Sat Jan. 26, 2013 12:39 PM EST

Apple announced lower gross margins and slower growth this week, leading to a selloff of their stock. But Chris O'Brien reports some good news:

[If] investors are looking for some reasons for optimism, they might do well to check Apple's numbers related to its research and development spending. Tucked way down deep in its 10-Q filed on Thursday, the company noted that spending on R&D increased 33% in the quarter ending in December. That amounts to an increase of $252 million to a cool $1 billion.

....So, what's cooking in Apple's labs? Ha. You didn't think they'd actually tell us that, did you? In the filing, the company said, "This increase was due primarily to an increase in headcount and related expenses to support expanded R&D activities."

This might indeed be good news. But then again, it might not. Part of Apple's success over the past decade has been its uncanny ability to invent a very small number of blockbuster products. Its R&D expense has been low—less than 2 percent of sales—largely because there was so little wasted motion: first the iPod, then the iPhone, then the iPad. That's three products, along with a smattering of other stuff, generating $200 billion per year. That's remarkable.

But as product lines age, they have to be maintained, and maintenance engineering is as costly as the original invention itself. Compatibility problems crop up, both between product lines and with prior versions of software. Old products have to be supported. Bureaucracies swell. Not every new product is a winner. All of that causes R&D expense to go up.

Maybe Apple still has the R&D magic. Maybe they're spending more because their next product introduction will be even bigger and more amazing than anything they've done before. But then again, maybe it's because they're turning into an ordinary company. Maybe their improbable run of good luck is over. We'll have to wait and see.

Friday Cat Blogging - 25 January 2013

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 4:31 PM EST

No quilt today! We have a lot of quilts around our house, but we don't actually have 52 of them, so there were always bound to be some missed weeks in this year of quiltblogging. These missed weeks will appear randomly, mostly depending on whether I have an alternate catblogging photo that I want to put up. This week I do: a rare action shot of Domino jumping down off the fence after a morning stroll. She jumped down onto a pile of chairs covered by a tarp, and then sort of slid down the tarp until she got to the edge and fell the rest of the way to the ground. Nothing was hurt except her dignity. It would have made for good video if I'd been quick enough on the shutter finger to think of it. I wasn't, though, so you'll just have to use your imaginations.

Not Everyone is Living Longer

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 4:21 PM EST

On the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, Donald Boudreaux and Mark Perry argue that the middle class is doing better than we liberals think. They haul out all of the usual arguments, some of which are valid (you need to count healthcare benefits as part of income) and some of which aren't (the average is being pulled down by immigrants). But then there's this:

No single measure of well-being is more informative or important than life expectancy. Happily, an American born today can expect to live approximately 79 years—a full five years longer than in 1980 and more than a decade longer than in 1950. These longer life spans aren't just enjoyed by "privileged" Americans.

Harold Meyerson is agog: "Clearly, they missed the recent study in Health Affairs which found that the life expectancy of white working class men fell by three years from 1990 to 2008, and that of white working class women by five years." This is actually the figure for high school dropouts, not the entire working class. At the other extreme of the educational spectrum, whites with more than a college degree, life expectancies have risen by five years for men and three years for women.

The chart on the right shows the difference, with men in light colors and women in darker colors. Longer life spans, it turns out, really do depend on just how privileged you are.

Quote of the Day: Being Outvoted is Unfair and Demoralizing

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 3:10 PM EST

From Virginia state senator Bill Carrico, explaining why rural voters are unhappy with Virginia's current method of simply counting up the votes statewide in presidential elections:

The last election, constituents were concerned that it didn't matter what they did, that more densely populated areas were going to outvote them.

Ah, yes. All of Virginia's "more densely populated areas" are outvoting them. I wonder who they could possibly be talking about? That's a real chin scratcher.

And while we're on the subject, here's a bonus quote from Michigan representative Pete Lund, explaining why his Electoral College vote-rigging scheme is gaining support this year but didn't in 2012:

It got no traction last year. There were people convinced Romney was going to win and this might take (electoral) votes from him.

Points for honesty, I guess, but not for IQ. Didn't anyone tell Lund that you're supposed to pretend there's nothing partisan about all these bills, just an honest attempt to represent the will of the people more fairly?

Yes, Americans Will Learn to Unlove Their Cars

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 2:18 PM EST

Stuart Staniford is unconvinced that Americans will ever warm to the idea of relying on networks of driverless cars instead of owning cars themselves:

You won't get any argument from me that driverless cars are on the way, but the idea that people will then agree to get around in networks of super-efficient automatic taxis that they don't own is, I think, complete wonkish naivety....The vast bulk of spending on cars in the US is for irrational emotional purposes: status display, feelings of safety, etc, not simple transportation....I see this in Silicon Valley in spades; parking lots dotted with Mercedes and Porsches well suited to doing 150mph on an empty autobahn or 200mph around a race-track, none of which ever get to do anything of the sort. Maybe occasionally the owner gets a break in the traffic on Highway 1 on a weekend away, but that's about it — maybe half an hour a year that they get to do what the car is actually designed for and the car ads told them it would make them feel good doing. Yet highly accomplished and rational meritocrats will cheerfully stretch the household budget to have one of these things to show off in the driveway or the parking lot at work.

As a person who drives a Porsche and doesn't even get half an hour on Highway 1 each year, I'm obviously sympathetic to this view. But I still think it's mistaken. Let me count the reasons:

  1. Sure, lots of people buy cars as status symbols. But lots of people don't. Honest. At a guess, I'd say that at least half of all drivers basically just buy transportation and don't actually care much about cars as status symbols. And half is a lot.
  2. Even among the status obsessed—or, more accurately, especially among the status obsessed—time is the most precious commodity. Driverless cars will appeal to the well-off because they'll allow them to be workaholics for an hour or two a day formerly dedicated to driving. And I suspect that once you stop actively driving a car, you'll start to view it as much less of a status symbol. After all, how many mucky mucks who qualify for a corporate/government car service decline to use it? And it's not like a plain black Crown Vic or Town Car is really much of a showpiece.
  3. This may be a generational thing. Young people already have a different attitude toward cars than the boomer generation, and they're also more tech savvy. I suspect the idea of using a smartphone to call up a car and get ferried around will be pretty appealing and, in some circles, a status symbol in its own right.
  4. Subscribing to a car service that's fast and efficient will be a lot cheaper than owning a car, and different companies will offer plenty of different service levels (think gypsy taxi vs. yellow cab vs. limo service). When you add up all the things that will conspire to make cars less of a status symbol, those savings will loom very large for all but the very richest folks.
  5. This isn't an all or nothing proposition. It could well start out with people using a service to provide a second car, instead of owning two cars. Or it might start with the elderly. Or in big cities. Or with technophiles. Or environmentalists (better than a Prius for showing off your low-carbon bona fides). But if the technology works, this is simply too compelling not to catch on one way or another. And this is precisely the kind of thing where my faith in the free market to come up with innovative solutions is practically unbounded.

Needless to say, there are still questions of whether the technology will ever work, as well as questions of liability and legal status. If those don't get resolved, the rest of this is moot. But if they do get resolved—and I fully expect them to—there's simply no way we won't see a future of car subscriptions. It probably won't happen exactly the way I expect it to, but it will happen one way or another.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

DC Circuit Court Rules Obama Misused the Word "The"

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 1:15 PM EST

As you may recall, the last few years have been fraught ones for appointments to executive branch positions. Republicans in the Senate have spent their time filibustering President Obama's appointments, thus preventing their confirmation via the regular process, while House Republicans have tried to prevent Obama from making recess appointments by refusing to agree to breaks of more than three days, thus forcing the Senate to hold sham "pro forma" sessions when they adjourned for holidays. Obama finally called out these phony sessions for what they were, and went ahead with a handful of recess appointments that Republicans had blocked.

Today, the DC Court of Appeals ruled that Obama exceeded his authority: he is allowed to make recess appointments only between congressional sessions, not during any other kind of recess. Their reasoning is based on a combination of originalism and the meaning of the word "the." Seriously:

It is this difference between the word choice “recess” and “the Recess” that first draws our attention....[In 1787], as now, the word “the” was and is a definite article. [...] Unlike “a” or “an,” that definite article suggests specificity. As a matter of cold, unadorned logic, it makes no sense to adopt the Board’s proposition that when the Framers said “the Recess,” what they really meant was “a recess.” This is not an insignificant distinction. In the end it makes all the difference.

....Finally, we would make explicit what we have implied earlier. The dearth of intrasession appointments in the years and decades following the ratification of the Constitution speaks far more impressively than the history of recent presidential exercise of a supposed power to make such appointments.

John Elwood of the Volokh Conspiracy is surprised:

It appears that the Court invalidated the use of intrasession recess appointments, which have been in pretty heavy use since WWII, and were used for a number of high-profile recess appointments, including John Bolton and Judge William H. Pryor, Jr. This is in pretty clear conflict with an Eleventh Circuit opinion and is a broader basis for invalidating the recess appointments than I anticipated. I suspect this one is destined for the Supreme Court.

Yeah, that's a pretty broad basis, all right. Not only have presidents made intrasession appointments for over 50 years, but the court seems to be saying that anything that wasn't done in the early 19th century was pretty clearly meant to be prohibited by the framers. Hoo boy.

Bobby Jindal Thinks the GOP Isn't Right-Wing Enough

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 12:23 PM EST

I'm more bullish on Bobby Jindal's prospects for 2016 than a lot of people I know. Sure, he's got that exorcism thing in his past, but in four years that will be deemed "old news" and no longer something worth dwelling on. And sure, he gave a bad response to Obama's first State of the Union address in 2009, but everyone gives bad responses to State of the Union addresses. That's no big deal.

What Jindal has going for him is a peculiar combination. On the one hand, he's about as conservative as it's possible to get. On social issues he's roughly a clone of Rick Santorum, and on domestic issues he's…well, he's the guy who has the brass to suggest that Louisiana should abolish its income tax and replace it with a sales tax. In other words, he explicitly wants to lower taxes on the rich and raise taxes on the poor. Even Newt Gingrich would quail a bit at that prospect.

So that's the one hand. The other hand is that, for some reason, the media is willing—so far—to buy into his story of being a reformer who wants Republicans to stop being the "stupid party." And it's true: He's actually said that. But Jindal doesn't think the GOP needs reforming because it's drifted too far right, or because it's alienated young people and Hispanics, or because it's become too absolutist and unwilling to compromise. Quite the contrary. Jindal thinks the Republican Party isn't right-wing enough. Here he is from today's big speech preparing the soil for a 2016 run:

If any rational human being were to create our government anew, today, from a blank piece of paper—we would have about one-fourth of the buildings we have in Washington and about half of the government workers. We would replace most of its bureaucracy with a handful of good websites.

If we created American government today, we would not dream of taking money out of people's pockets, sending it all the way to Washington, handing it over to politicians and bureaucrats to staple thousands of pages of artificial and political instructions to it, then wear that money out by grinding it through the engine of bureaucratic friction…and then sending what's left of it back to the states, where it all started, in order to grow the American economy.

If it's worth doing, block grant it to the states. If it's something you don't trust the states to do, then maybe Washington shouldn't do it at all.

Later, there are pleasant rhetorical nods to looking forward, not backward; rejecting identity politics; not being the party of big business; and so forth. But that's just window dressing. Jindal's vision is plain: He endorses the most stringent social conservatism possible, alongside a breathtakingly absolutist rejection of the New Deal and everything that's come since. As Ed Kilgore says, "His 'populist vision' of conservative politics is about as new and fresh as that of John C. Calhoun, and the rhetoric has been worked to death by 'anti-Washington' politicians of both parties for decades on end."

Will the media continue to tout Jindal as a "breath of fresh air" for the Republican Party? Or will they eventually catch on that he basically wants to turn the entire country into Louisiana? We'll have to wait and see. But I think Jindal has more crossover appeal than a lot of pundits think. He's got obvious appeal to the tea party base, which loves his hard-nosed conservatism and really loves the idea of proving that they're not racists by voting for a hard-nosed conservative who's also a dark-skinned son of Indian parents. (Take that, liberals!) And the press will, as usual, be wowed by the idea of a hard-nosed conservative who has a high IQ and can discuss policy issues intelligently. The fact that Jindal is singing the same old tired song, and merely wrapping it in a thin fog of policy wonkishness, will take a while to sink in.

Republicans Might Be Outsmarting Themselves on the Electoral College

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 7:11 AM EST

Republicans, apparently convinced that they really are facing demographic doom, have been taking increasingly desperate measures to ensure their continued existence. Does this include an effort to moderate their views in order to win more votes? Don't be silly. Instead, they're trying to game the mechanics of the voting system itself. The last two years, of course, have seen a raft of new voter ID laws designed to reduce participation by groups most likely to vote for Democrats: students, the poor, and minorities. But that's not enough. The Electoral College is looking tougher and tougher for Republicans—especially for hardcore conservative Republicans, who are suffering declining support outside the South—so that's their next target.

The plan is simple: There are half a dozen states that are controlled by Republicans but that often vote for Democratic presidents. Since most states (Nebraska and Maine are the only exceptions) use winner-take-all rules, this means that when Democrats win these states they get 100 percent of their electoral votes. So what would happen if these states instead divvied up their EVs by congressional district? Emory's Alan Abramowitz does the arithmetic:

If the congressional district system had been used in these six states in 2012, instead of Obama winning all of their 106 electoral votes, it appears that Romney would have won 61 electoral votes to only 45 for Obama. As a result, Obama’s margin in the national electoral vote would have been reduced from 332-206 to only 271-267.

That certainly makes things closer. A result like that would mean that Republicans were still very much in the ballgame, just a single small state away from victory.

However, Republicans might be outsmarting themselves. If this system of divvying up electoral votes were adopted nationwide, you could make a case for it. But the unfairness of adopting this system only in states that Democrats usually win is palpable. States in the deep South, for example, have no intention of adopting a similar system, and will continue awarding 100 percent of their electoral votes to Republican candidates. Republicans are picking and choosing different systems in different states, with not even a pretense that they're doing it for any reason aside from choosing whichever system benefits Republicans the most in each state. This is so obviously outrageous that it's likely to prompt a backlash.

Democrats don't have the votes to fight back with anything similar, but they do have another weapon in their back pocket: the National Popular Vote interstate compact, an agreement among states to award all their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote nationwide. If states with more than half of all electoral votes sign up for this, it goes into effect.

So far, only nine states with a total of 132 electoral votes have signed up. But if Republicans continue their patently shameful effort to game the Electoral College system, it might spur more states to sign up. That's what a sense of outrage can do. Republicans might want to think about that as they move forward. If they keep going, the end result might be a system even less favorable to them than the current Electoral College.

Republicans Care About Taxes and Spending, Not Deficits

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 6:28 PM EST

Tim Geithner says, correctly, that we're actually pretty close to fixing our long-term deficit problems. He then suggests that since there's only a little more to be done, "it should be relatively easy to reach an agreement." Paul Krugman is not amused:

To say what should be obvious: Republicans don’t care about the deficit. They care about exploiting the deficit to pursue their goal of dismantling the social insurance system. They want a fiscal crisis; they need it; they’re enjoying it. I mean, how is “starve the beast” supposed to work? Precisely by creating a fiscal crisis, giving you an excuse to slash Social Security and Medicare.

The idea that they’re going to cheerfully accept a deal that will take the current deficit off the table as a scare story without doing major damage to the key social insurance programs, and then have a philosophical discussion about how we might change those programs over the longer term, is pure fantasy. That would amount to an admission of defeat on their part.

Now, maybe we will get that admission of defeat. But that’s what it will be — not a Grand Bargain between the parties, acting together in the nation’s interest.

Yep. Republicans haven't cared about the deficit for decades. They got a bit worried about it when Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cut didn't pay for itself the way he promised, and this prompted them to reluctantly pass Reagan's 1982 tax increase. But they very quickly sent that 1982 bill down the memory hole, pretending to this day that Saint Ronnie never increased taxes. Since then, they've cared about deficits only when Democrats were in office.

As it happens, I don't think there's anything nefarious about this. Republicans don't like Democratic spending priorities, and yelling about the deficit is a very effective way of objecting to all of them without having to waste time arguing about each one separately. It's an effective strategy with the press corps, which for some reason is deficit-phobic, and it's effective with the public, which generally retains its belief that government finances are similar to household finances. If I were a Republican, I'd latch onto deficits as an anti-spending tactic too. It works pretty well.

That said, it's still worth keeping the truth in mind. What frustrates me isn't so much that Republicans do this—that's just politics—but that the press so routinely lets them get away with it. I understand the constraints they work under, but still. The difference between actual Republican priorities and claimed Republican priorities is so obvious that it hardly counts as editorializing to point it out.