Driverless Cars Will Change Our Lives. Soon.

Felix Salmon is no fan of cars, but after attending a panel on smart cars he's rethinking things. Driverless cars are making impressive strides, he says correctly, and that could be a bigger deal than we think. Big enough, in fact, that it might make cars superior to rail in already developed areas:

If and when self-driving cars really start taking off, it’s easy to see where the road leads. Firstly, they probably won’t be operated on the owner-occupier model that we use for cars today....Given driverless cars’ ability to come pick you up whenever you need one, it makes much more sense to just join a network of such things....therefore the freeing up of lots of space currently given over to parking spots.

What’s more, the capacity of all that freed-up space will be much greater than the capacity of our current roads. Put enough [] self-driving cars onto the road, and it’s entirely conceivable that the number of vehicle-miles driven per hour, on any given stretch of road, could double from its current level, even without any increase in the speed limit. Then, take account of the fact that vehicle mileage will continue to improve. The result is that with existing dumb roads, we could wind up moving more people more miles for less total energy expenditure in cars — even when most of those cars continue to have just one person in them — than by forcing those people to cluster together and take huge, heavy trains instead.

This vision creates a dilemma, when we start facing choices about building rail lines or new suburbs. We’re not in a self-driving-car utopia yet, and the transportation problems we have are both real and solvable using rail. So do we use the tools we have, or do we wait and hope that future technology will solve our problems in a more efficient way?

I don't really need any convincing on this front. I think that genuine self-driving cars will be available within a decade and that they'll be big game changers. Even bigger than Felix suggests. When you're not actually driving a car yourself, for example, you don't care much about how powerful it is. So you'll be happy to chug along in a super-efficient car, reading a book or playing on your phone. You'll be more willing to share a car, since automated systems will be able to quickly put together carpools with guaranteed maximums on wait time. And of course, driverless cars will be fundamentally more fuel-efficient since computers can drive cars better than humans can.

There's much more, and while I'll happily concede that it's all speculative, I really don't think it's that speculative any more. The technology is coming, and it has some pretty obvious implications. It will affect some things (commuting, event transportation) more than others (long-distance driving, short hops), but in the end it's going to affect everything. How many people will even bother owning cars if they can buy a share in a car service for a quarter of the price with a guaranteed wait maximum of five minutes, or for a tenth of the price with a maximum wait of 15 minutes? Not too many.

This stuff is coming. I honestly have no idea why so many people are still convinced that, for some reason, true driverless cars can't possibly ever happen. Sure they can. And we don't have much longer to wait, either.

Are Robo-Pollers Cheating?

Are robo-polls as good as live-interviewer polls? Maybe! Some people have even suggested they're better.

But wait. Gary Langer reports on an academic study of robo-polls during last year's Republican primary that finds something strange: if the robo-polls are done after human polls have been done, they're just as good as the human polls. But if they're done in states where no human polls were done—that's the red oval in the chart below—they do significantly worse.

So what's going on? The researchers make two suggestions. First, the poor results in the red oval are based on a small number of polls in just five states, so "it’s possible that what’s going on is something goofy in those five states." Alternatively, the folks doing the robo-polls might be massaging their results. The researchers say their analysis "suggests, but certainly does not prove, that at least some IVR polls may use earlier human polls to adjust their results to ensure that they are not notably different from existing polls and beliefs."

The full paper is here. Stay tuned for further research.

Filibuster Reform Stumbles to the Finish Line

One of the great liberal hopes of 2013 was that Harry Reid would pull the trigger on filibuster reform and return to the Jimmy Stewart talkathons of Hollywood legend. Well, it's not going to happen. Rather than use the "nuclear option" to pass filibuster changes on a party-line vote, Reid has reached an agreement with Mitch McConnell for a bipartisan reform. Sam Stein and Ryan Grim have the details:

The deal would address the filibuster on the motion to proceed, which had regularly prevented the Senate from even considering legislation and was a major frustration for Reid. The new procedure will also make it easier for the majority to appoint conferees once a bill has passed, but leaves in place the minority's ability to filibuster that motion once — meaning that even after the Senate and House have passed a bill, the minority can still mount a filibuster one more time.

Reid won concessions on judicial nominations as well. Under the old rules, after a filibuster had been beaten, 30 more hours were required to pass before a nominee could finally be confirmed. That delay threatened to tie the chamber in knots. The new rules will only allow two hours after cloture is invoked.

There's a bit more to make post-cloture debates a little more onerous for the minority, but this is about it. Instead of three chances to filibuster, the minority party will now be able to filibuster only twice (once when the bill comes to the Senate floor and a second time after the final conference report comes to the floor). [See update 2 below.] In addition, once a filibuster is broken on a judicial nomination, the minority party can waste only two hours of floor time, not 30. [See update 1 below.]

So did Harry Reid cave? Could he have gotten more by ignoring McConnell and passing a more robust reform with just Democratic votes? Maybe. But I think David Atkins is right:

Despite Senators Udall's and Merkley's bold claims, it has never been entirely clear that there were ever a full 51 votes for real reform. So it's possible that Harry Reid, rather than subterfuging Democrats, is instead counting votes and playing his best hand.

....But the most important outcome is the realization that while we aren't quite there yet, the newer crop of Democrats like Merkley and Udall is far better than much of the old guard responsible for abetting and supporting the broken system. We're only a few retirements and progressive primaries away from a Democratic Senate majority progressive enough to make the necessary changes.

The sad truth is that Democrats only have 55 votes in the Senate, and there were almost certainly more than five Democratic senators who just weren't willing to give up the filibuster. Partly this is because they want it in place in case Republicans ever get back into power, and partly it's because they themselves don't want to give up the personal privileges associated with the filibuster.

This is a pretty tiny step. But for now, anyway, we simply don't have a strong enough Democratic Party to get more than this. Maybe someday.

UPDATE 1: Apparently this is an even tinier step than I thought. Dave Weigel reports that the 2-hour limit on judicial nominations applies only to district court nominees, not to the more important appellate court nominees.

UPDATE 2: Worse and worse! Apparently even the filibuster on the motion to proceed hasn't been eliminated after all. Instead, reports Ezra Klein, Reid's deal "allows the chamber to sidestep the filibuster with agreement of the minority and majority leaders and seven senators from each party." In other words, Mitch McConnell can continue to filibuster every motion to proceed if he wants to. And I'll bet he wants to.

Now that we have the details in front of us, it's pretty clear that this deal accomplishes almost nothing. A few scraps have been thrown to reformers, but that's all.

Unions and Income Inequality: Two Charts

Over at Bloomberg, Kris Warner follows up on yesterday's report on U.S. unionization rates with this chart, comparing us to Canada:

Why have union membership rates stayed high in Canada, which faces all the same globalization pressures as the United States? Mostly because Canadian labor law is more union-friendly than U.S. law, which has been gutted over the past 60 years by anti-union Republicans:

Several provinces have bans on temporary or permanent striker replacement, which don’t exist in the U.S. And there is no Canadian equivalent of the “right-to-work” laws that have been enacted in 24 U.S. states....A second distinction is the manner in which Canada enables unions to be formed....In Canada, the process is relatively quick. Card-check authorization, which is used in almost half of Canadian provinces, allows a majority of employees to form a union at their workplace simply by signing cards stating that they would like to do so....Similarly, there is an important difference in how the two countries deal with charges of illegal obstruction of union drives. In general, Canada handles such charges much more quickly than the U.S., where they often aren’t resolved until long after a union drive is over. This helps to ensure an atmosphere free of coercion and intimidation.

As a result of this, unions have spread into service industries—which are less affected by globalization pressures—more rapidly in Canada than in the U.S. So what does all this mean for the growth of income inequality over the past few decades? Here's another chart showing inequality rates:

This is only one data point, and you can draw different conclusions depending on whether you look at pretax or post-tax income inequality. Still, it's an instructive data point because the U.S. and Canadian economies are so closely bound together. In Canada, income inequality has gone up, just as it's gone up in most English-speaking countries. That's no surprise, largely because the Canadian economy really is similar to the U.S. economy, and subject to similar globalization pressures. But it hasn't gone up as much, and part of the reason is probably unionization rates. Most research finds that the decline of unions has contributed to perhaps a third of the growth of income inequality in the United States, and comparisons like this confirm that. It's not the whole story, not by a long way, but it's a significant chunk of the story.

Virginia Republicans, last seen ramming through a quick mid-decade redistricting plan while a Democratic state senator's attendance at Monday's inaugural ceremonies gave them a one-seat majority for a few hours, are now busily in the process of changing the way they allocate electoral votes. Unhappy over the fact that Barack Obama won all their EVs by the sneaky subterfuge of winning a majority of the vote, Sen. Bill Carrico has introduced a bill which would change the winner-take-all method that served Virginia so well until Obama came along and ruined things. But Carrico went even further than other GOP-dominated states that are doing the same thing. Dave Weigel explains:

I interviewed Carrico about the bill last month, asking why he added a provision that makes this even less democratic than other vote-split schemes. Most of these bills assign one electoral vote for every congressional district, then give the two at-large districts to whoever wins the state. But the Carrico bill would assign the final two electors to whoever won the most districts....Had the Carrico plan been in place in 2012, Mitt Romney would have won nine of Virginia's electoral votes, and Barack Obama would have won four — even though Obama won the popular vote of the state by nearly 150,000 ballots, and four percentage points.

Here's what I don't get. Why even bother with the pretense of fairness here? Everyone knows this is a naked power grab, and there's not much point in pretending otherwise. So why not keep the winner-take-all rule, but change it to one that gives all of Virginia's electoral votes to whoever wins the most districts? Or the most counties? That would pretty much guarantee that a Republican would win them all, rather than a mere 9 out of 13, wouldn't it? What's the holdup here?

Yet More on Government Spending Levels

Last night I posted a chart showing government expenditures per capita over the past two decades. I guess somebody must have linked to it, because my Twitter stream is suddenly full of conservatives claiming that it's all a fake because I showed total government spending (state+local+federal) and then adjusted it for population growth. That's actually the right measure of the total impact of government spending, but apparently my critics want to see just federal spending, and with none of this "per capita" trickery.

I aim to please, so here it is. I assume no one objects to adjusting for inflation? (I used the GDP deflator, in case anyone cares.) As you can see, the chart is a little different from the previous one, but not by that much. Spending spiked up at the beginning of the Obama administration thanks to increased federal aid to people who were thrown out of work by the Great Recession, but since 2011 spending has slowly been sliding back down. Federal spending has stayed somewhat elevated to make up for declining state and local expenditures, which is as it should be during a weak economy, but not by that much. Given our current trajectory, it's safe to say that even by 2016 the biggest increase in spending, by far, will have come during the Bush years.

Dave Weigel describes the GOP approach to Hillary Clinton's long-awaited testimony on the Benghazi attacks:

Watching it, I'm struck by the division between two kinds of Republicans. Group One has questions about the timing of the Benghazi attack, what the State Department could have done to prevent it, what it can do now. Group Two wants the truth, damn it, about the talking points that Susan Rice used on the Sunday shows after the attacks.

Group One basically consisted of Marco Rubio. Group Two was everybody else.

I only watched a few bits and pieces of the testimony, and I missed Rubio. All I saw was Rand Paul grandstanding about how he would have fired Hillary, Ron Johnson being an obvious idiot, and John McCain practicing his glower. All together, I didn't hear a single question that wasn't a transparent partisan attack. Apparently Republican senators are still consumed with rage that their concocted stories about Susan Rice somehow failed to resonate with the public and produce an epic defeat for Barack Obama in November. They're simply unable to get over the fact that their fabricated conspiracy theories, which usually do so well when they're amplified by Fox and Drudge, accomplished nothing more than preventing Rice from becoming Hillary Clinton's successor.

In any case, my favorite part of the testimony was Hillary Clinton's posture toward the end, when she was taking questions from McCain and Rand Paul. It's about what they deserved.

OK, hivemind, here's a question for you: is it possible to donate money anonymously other than by sending wads of cash to people? I sometimes want to contribute to a cause without having my name attached, either because I don't want to be put on an eternal mailing list for further donations or because I don't want the recipient to feel obligated to me. Those may or may not be good reasons, but as Donald Rumsfeld once said, you go to war with the reasons you have, not the reasons you wish you had. there any convenient way to do this? I suppose anonymous money orders or certified checks would work in some cases. How about electronically? Does PayPal have an option to hide payor information? What are my options here?

Raw Data: The Union Premium

The Department of Labor released its latest report on union membership today, and it's no surprise that private sector union membership continued its long-term decline, down from 6.9 percent last year to 6.6 percent this year. To give you an idea of what this means in real-life terms, here's the latest data on the difference in wages between unionized and nonunionized workers. It doesn't distinguish between job categories, so it exaggerates the actual premium, but this nonetheless gives you a sense of just what it means to actual people, in terms of dollars and cents, that private-sector union membership has shriveled to almost nothing in recent decades. It's left as an exercise for the reader to figure out who's getting this union premium now that so few corporations have to pay it to their workers.

Paul Ryan Promises a Balanced Budget

Robert Costa reports:

Speaker John Boehner told House Republicans this afternoon that the GOP’s upcoming budget will balance the federal books in a decade....According to sources in the room, Boehner made the pledge at a closed-door meeting in the Capitol basement. The speaker said that Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the budget committee chairman, will lead the effort.

Well, I suppose this is possible. Paul Ryan's previous budget was out of balance by about 1 percent of GDP in 2023, and as I recall, it included several tax breaks for rich people and corporations. If Ryan simply agrees to stay revenue neutral at the level set by the recent fiscal cliff negotiations, the next iteration of his budget might theoretically be in balance in ten years.

Of course, that seems unlikely, since tax cuts for the rich have always been Ryan's primary target, not deficit reduction. But Ryan's other primary target has been spending cuts on the poor, and there's always room to nick the poor even more, isn't there?

Alternatively, he could simply offer no details at all on where spending will be cut. That's the usual wheeze. I guess we'll have to wait and see.