Kevin Drum - February 2013

The Post Office Is Tired of Begging Congress for Attention

| Wed Feb. 6, 2013 2:20 PM EST

The Postal Service announced today that it plans to end Saturday delivery starting on August 1. Congress hasn't actually approved this or anything, but apparently USPS is going to do it anyway and dare Congress to stop them. I like Felix Salmon's take on this:

The organization does actually have a detailed plan for becoming fully self-reliant over the next few years…The big problem is simple, but huge: Congress isn't playing along, and instead is just making matters worse, unhelpfully micromanaging everything from postage rates to delivery schedules to health-care contributions.

That's why I love the idea of the Post Office doing something that's clearly illegal, putting the ball squarely in Congress's court…Today's announcement says to me that relations between the Post Office and Congress have deteriorated so much that the Post Office has given up on getting Congressional buy-in for its plans. At the same time, the plans are necessary (sufficient is a different question) if the Post Office is going to survive for decades to come. And so the Post Office is just going ahead with what needs to be done, and has decided to treat Congress as an adversary, rather than as a key partner in its evolution.

Trillion dollar coins, recess appointments, endless filibusters, debt ceiling hostage taking, and now the Post Office telling Congress to take a hike. Maybe this is our future: Congress has become so dysfunctional that other agencies are going to start shrugging their shoulders and just getting on with business. If Congress wants to stop them, let 'em try. At least it will force them to pay attention.

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It's a Virtual Currency! It's an Old-Fashioned Marketing Campaign! It's Both!

| Wed Feb. 6, 2013 12:14 PM EST

Amazon announced today that it will soon launch Amazon Coins, a new "virtual currency" that customers can use to buy stuff on their Kindles. They're planning to give away tens of millions of dollars worth of Amazon Coins. Matt Yglesias comments:

Each Amazon coin is worth one cent and can be redeemed by Kindle store vendors. In macroeconomic terms, you can think of this as a program of aggressive monetary expansion to stimulate the Kindle Fire economy. By delivering a helicopter drop of Amazon Coins to Kindle owners, Amazon is hoping to boost consumption of Kindle Fire content. Not for the sake of increasing consumption as such, but because higher expected demand for Kindle Fire content should stimulate investment by third-party firms in the development of Kindle content. In that sense, the monetary stimulus isn't merely a short-term expedient to make Kindle owners happy. It's part of a longer-term strategy to strengthen the overall Kindle platform (and increase its differentiation from generic Android) by exploiting the positive feedback dynamic between market size, app quality and quantity, and desirability of joining the market.

Matt writes an economics blog, so he talks about this in economic terms, something that Amazon is encouraging by calling their coins "virtual currency." My background is in marketing, so I say bravo to Amazon for a clever marketing stunt. Amazon Coins are no more a virtual currency than frequent flyer miles or the coupons that you clip out of the Sunday paper, but it sure sounds cool to call it that! After all, virtual currencies are considered sort of a hot topic these days.

Alternatively, of course, you could say that both frequent flyer miles and newspaper coupons are virtual currencies too and always have been. It's just that nobody's been smart enough to call them that. And I suppose that's true. Either way, Amazon isn't really doing anything new here. They're just pouring a bunch of marketing dollars into a launch promotion for one of their new products. If it works, every new marketing campaign that involves building up points or credits or loyalty bucks or whatnot will suddenly become the latest virtual currency. I expect the primary result of this will be a bubble in doctoral dissertations on closed economies on the internet.

Support for Immigration Reform is Paper Thin

| Wed Feb. 6, 2013 11:14 AM EST

ABC News reports that their latest poll is good news for President Obama:

Public approval of Barack Obama’s handling of immigration has jumped to a career high in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, buttressed by majority support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and, much more broadly, endorsement of stricter border control.

....Obama’s approval rating on immigration is 11 percentage points higher than it was seven months ago; disapproval, down by 9 points. His approval score now numerically beats his previous best, three months after he took office, albeit by a single point.

Well, maybe. But a good rule of thumb is that on any contentious issue, you'd better start with at least 60 percent support. Two-thirds is even better. Because once the attack ads start running and the radio bloviators start bloviating, those numbers are going to slide downward. If "path to citizenship" is only polling at 55 percent before this stuff starts, it's not likely to stay in majority territory for very long.

This confirms two of my beliefs about this issue. First, passage needs to happen quickly. The longer it drags out, the more likely it is that support will drop below critical mass. Second, Marco Rubio is key. If he can get the Fox/Drudge/Limbaugh axis to moderate their opposition, conservative support might get wobbly but nothing worse. If he fails, and they go into full flamethrower mode, this isn't going to end well.

Who Can the President Kill?

| Tue Feb. 5, 2013 11:39 PM EST

Last night, NBC's Michael Isikoff disclosed a 16-page memo that laid out the Obama administration's legal justification for targeted killings of U.S. citizens abroad. Roughly speaking, the memo claims that the Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed after 9/11, gives the president the power to wage war against al-Qaeda, and he thus has authority to take action against any "senior al-Qaeda leader" who poses an imminent threat to the United States. Adam Serwer has the details here.

In the past, most of the anger over this, including from me, has centered on the idea that the president can order the killing of an American citizen who hasn't been provided with any kind of due process. But Scott Lemieux says this is misguided:

Much of the coverage of the memo, including Isikoff's story, focuses on the justifications offered by the Obama administration for killing American citizens, including Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan (two alleged Al Qaeda operatives killed by a 2011 airstrike in Yemen.) In some respects, this focus is misplaced. If military action is truly justified, then it can be exercised against American citizens (an American fighting for the Nazis on the battlefield would not have been entitled to due process.) Conversely, if military action is not justified, extrajudicial killings of non-Americans should hardly be less disturbing than the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen. The crucial question is whether the safeguards that determine when military action is justified are adequate.

The more I've thought about this, the more I've come to agree with this position: If we're at war, and if targeted killings of enemy combatants are legal, then U.S. citizenship is irrelevant. If you've joined up with enemy forces, you're fair game. Conversely, if the justification in the memo is inadequate, that means the justification for targeted killings in general is inadequate. Either the entire program is justified, or none of it is.

But....even if this makes sense, I'm not sure it feels right. Comments?

Quote of the Day: J.J. and the Star Franchises

| Tue Feb. 5, 2013 9:20 PM EST

From Gina McIntyre of the LA Times, reporting on geekdom's reaction to the news that J.J. Abrams will direct the next Star Wars movie:

Some suggested that no one man should creatively control both "Star Wars" and "Star Trek."

Agreed. This is surely more power than any single human should be entrusted with.

CBO's Scary Debt Chart Not Looking Very Scary These Days

| Tue Feb. 5, 2013 2:38 PM EST

The CBO's latest budget projections are out today. Here's the scary debt chart:

Hmmm. Not so scary after all. The CBO's projections are, of course, sensitive to both their economic forecasts and their reliance on current law. However, their economic forecast seems fairly conservative, and current law is a lot more reliable now than it was before we decided what to do about the Bush tax cuts. So CBO's projections are probably fairly reasonable.

You can decide for yourself, of course, whether you find this debt projection scary even though it's flat for the next decade. Maybe you think it needs to decline to give us more headroom for the future. Maybe you think it masks the problem of growing debt after 2023. Maybe you think we're likely to have another recession over the next decade, which will balloon the debt yet again.

Those aren't entirely unreasonable concerns. Still, the fact remains that debt reduction just isn't a five-alarm fire kind of problem, no matter how loudly the Pete Petersons of the world claim otherwise. In fact, if you go to page 23 of the CBO report, you'll see that federal spending is on a downward slope in almost all categories. Aside from interest on the debt, the only spending that's projected to increase is Social Security (a little bit) and healthcare spending (a fair amount). Of those, the Social Security spending is baked in the cake and there's nothing much we can, or should, do about it. Seniors should get the pensions they've been promised.

So, as usual, that leaves healthcare spending. If you're truly concerned about debt, instead of someone who just pretends to be concerned, that's pretty much the only thing you should care about. If we rein in healthcare spending, we're in good shape. If we don't, we have problems.

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The NRA's Own Fanaticism May Be Its Doom

| Tue Feb. 5, 2013 1:05 PM EST

Paul Waldman argues that if any kind of gun regulation passes in the near future, the NRA will have only itself to blame:

They've become more extremist in the last two decades, but most people didn't realize it, because unless you're a member and are getting their magazines and emails or seeing their representatives appear at conventions, you had no idea just how extreme they'd become. So the idea that the NRA is just the guardian of Americans' gun rights could persist. An average gun owner who saw that the NRA endorsed a candidate could say, whatever else he thought of that candidate, "I suppose he's all right when it comes to guns."

But now that Wayne LaPierre has been appearing on television shows, the whole country has gotten to see just what a maniac he is, and how extreme the organization has become. And now that there are concrete proposals on the table, voters can see that the NRA will oppose even universal background checks, which every opinion poll taken in the last couple of months has shown are supported by an astonishing 90 percent of the public. When even the host of Fox News Sunday is calling your arguments "ridiculous" and "nonsense," you've got a problem.

I find this a very congenial view, but I'm curious about whether it's actually true. To me, of course, Wayne LaPierre's spittle-flecked performance last December was dramatic evidence of just how crazy the NRA has gotten. But how many people saw it? And how many people interpreted it the same way I did? I'm not really sure about that. Not many people watch press conferences or congressional hearings on C-SPAN, and the ones who do mostly have their minds already made up.

So....I'm not sure about this. Still, I hope it's true, because the evolution of the NRA over the past decade or two has been truly hair-raising. Tim Dickinson gets at some of this in "The NRA vs. America," his long-form look at the NRA's growing business connections to the gun industry, but I think there's still a good piece to be written about the cultural evolution of the NRA as well.

Over the past 20 years, fueled by paranoia over Ruby Ridge and Waco and aided by the rise of assault weapon fetishization, the NRA has gotten almost insanely aggressive. In the past, they were a single-minded lobby out to protect your right to own a gun: zealous and unbending, but with a fairly limited set of goals. However, since the mid-90s—and accelerating after the Supreme Court finally codified gun ownership rights once and for all—they've gone far, far beyond this. Conspiracy theories about the UN coming to take away your guns run rampant in NRA literature. They now insist not just that guns help you defend yourself, but that widespread ownership actively reduces crime. What's more, merely defending gun ownership is no longer enough. Not by a long way. Today the NRA fights fanatically for the expansion of shall-issue laws, concealed carry laws, unconcealed carry laws, stand your ground laws, and a bevy of laws that would all but remove the right of private property owners to ban guns on their own premises. They want guns in schools, guns in bars, guns in the workplace, guns everywhere. The result is squadlets of morons marching around shopping malls with AR-15s slung over their shoulders, causing total panic, just to show that, by God, no one can deprive them of their 2nd Amendment rights.

That's the story I'd like to read. How and why did the NRA morph from merely defending gun ownership to actively demanding that guns should be displayed everywhere, at all times, and largely as a means of defending yourself from the state? Has someone already written the definitive piece on this subject, or is it still awaiting its Boswell?

Do We Exaggerate Our Political Differences?

| Tue Feb. 5, 2013 12:01 PM EST

Andrew Gelman points me toward a new paper today that attempts to measure political polarization. The authors use NES survey data to measure (a) average positions from self-identified Democrats and Republicans on ten issues, and (b) perceptions of how big those differences are. They found that perceptions were consistently higher than reality: both Democrats and Republicans tended to overestimate how polarized we really are, and the more partisan you are the more you overestimate polarization. The full paper is here.

I've got a couple of problems with this paper, though. First, the dataset spans 30 years and ends in 2004. So even if the effect they find is real, it doesn't tell us much about polarization, both real and imagined, over the past decade or so.

Second, and more important, is the effect real? There's an obvious problem with how the authors calculate polarization:

We calculated perceived polarization, for every issue and respondent, as the respondent’s estimated attitude of the “Republican Party” minus the respondent’s estimated attitude of the “Democratic Party.” Higher numbers indicated greater polarization. We calculated actual polarization as the mean attitude of all respondents who self-identified as Republican minus the mean attitude of all respondents who self-identified as Democrat. We then calculated exaggerated polarization as perceived polarization minus actual polarization for each respondent on each issue in every year.

The problem is that when people are asked to estimate the actual positions of Democrats and Republicans, they probably aren't thinking about national averages. More likely, they're thinking about the positions of national leaders with big megaphones: presidents, governors, members of Congress, etc., all of whom are likely to have more strongly partisan positions. If that's the case, perceptions of polarization might actually be fairly accurate. The authors are aware of this, so they ran a test to see if perceptions changed depending on how the questions were worded:

To directly address this possibility, we conducted a Web-based experiment to ascertain whether different ways of phrasing the attitude questions would produce different estimates of perceived polarization.

....Democratic or Republican targets were described using one of the four following prompts: (a) Where would you place the Democratic [Republican] Party on this scale? (b) Where would you place those people who identify as Democrats [Republicans] on this scale? (c) Where would you place Democratic [Republican] Party officials (that is, Democrats [Republicans] who hold an elected position at any level of government) on this scale? (d) Where would you place those people who identify as Strong Democrats [Republicans] on this scale?

The authors found no difference in perceptions based on question phrasing. Unfortunately, I don't find this especially persuasive. Only about 70 people responded to each phrasing, so this is a pretty small sample set. Furthermore, I have my doubts that most people really have clear beliefs about these differences in the first place. For example, the authors report "somewhat surprisingly" that when the attitude question referred to party officials, perceived polarization was significantly lower. As they say, that doesn't really make much sense, and it suggests that respondents simply weren't thinking very hard about this. I suspect that happens a lot when you pay people a buck or two to fill out a questionnaire using Amazon's Mechanical Turk.

So....I'm a little skeptical of this. It's interesting in a limited way, but the differences between actual and perceived polarization were generally fairly modest; the data set is old; and it's unclear that the authors' definition of "actual" polarization corresponds to the real world. I don't really doubt that the media exaggerates partisan differences these days, but I'd nonetheless take this study with a grain of salt.

Chart of the Day: Where Girls Do Better Than Boys in Science

| Tue Feb. 5, 2013 10:36 AM EST

Here's an intriguing chart from the New York Times. It shows how teenagers around the world scored in a science exam conducted by the OECD. Higher scores are, obviously, higher, and scores on the right show countries where girls scored higher than boys. The regional breakdown is pretty interesting. In the Americas and western Europe, boys generally did better than girls. But in Asia, the Middle East, and in eastern Europe, girls generally did better.

The reasons are unclear. One of the researchers suggests that girls in the United States are victims of "stereotype threat," and that girls are also less likely than boys to "see science as something that affects their life." But I'm hard pressed to believe that this is less of an issue in Asia and the Middle East than in northern Europe and the United States, so I don't find this a very satisfying guess.

In any case, click the link for a full-size, interactive version of the chart.

Public Use of Public Airwaves Sounds Like a Good Idea to Me

| Mon Feb. 4, 2013 9:47 PM EST

The Washington Post has a big story today about the FCC's proposed auction of broadcast spectrum formerly used for UHF televison stations and freed up when we made the switch to digital TV a few years ago. The chunk of bandwidth in question is known as the 600 MHz spectrum, because it mostly spans the region from 600-700 MHz.

This auction is a bit of an odd duck because it's actually two auctions in one. In the first, or "reverse" auction, TV broadcasters around the country will be asked to voluntarily give up the 600 MHz spectrum currently allocated for their use. In order to encourage this voluntary participation, they're being promised a share of the proceeds from the second auction, which is where cell phone companies will bid to buy chunks of the 600 MHz spectrum.

This is, needless to say, a bit more complex than your standard spectrum auction, and it's likely that some broadcasters will participate and some won't. This means that particular chunks of the spectrum will be available for sale in some cities but not others, so wireless companies will almost certainly find themselves bidding on, say, one 5 MHz chunk of space in New York, a different chunk in Boston, etc. Not only is this messy, but a lot of advocacy groups are unhappy that TV stations are being allowed to benefit from an auction of what are, after all, public airwaves.

But Republicans are also unhappy about something: guard bands. These are empty chunks of spectrum that prevent interference between different uses. The FCC has proposed two guard bands of 6 MHz each that would protect wireless spectrum from adjoining TV spectrum. The diagram below shows how this works. Note that the sizes of the two chunks of spectrum being auctioned (in pink) are referred to merely as X and Y because their actual size won't be known until after the reverse auction is completed. 

In theory, the controversy over this is that, technically speaking, it's not clear if these guard bands are actually necessary—or if they need to be so big. There's a good case to be made that 1 MHz would be plenty, which would free up two more chunks of bandwidth that could be auctioned off.

On the surface, then, the argument is between technical requirements vs. a desire for maximum revenue. But that's not what anyone really cares about. The real argument is between FCC chairman Julius Genachowski and Silicon Valley, on one side, who want to leave these guard bands unlicensed so that local communities can create "super Wi-Fi" networks, vs. wireless carriers, on the other side, who very decidedly don't want to compete with a bunch of municipal bandwidth that could be used to surf the web and make internet phone calls free of charge. Democrats are mostly siding with Silicon Valley, while Republicans are siding with the wireless carriers. Here's the Post:

The airwaves that FCC officials want to hand over to the public would be much more powerful than existing WiFi networks that have become common in households. They could penetrate thick concrete walls and travel over hills and around trees. If all goes as planned, free access to the Web would be available in just about every metropolitan area and in many rural areas....The free networks would still take several years to set up. And, with no one actively managing them, con­nections could easily become jammed in major cities. But public WiFi could allow many consumers to make free calls from their mobile phones via the Internet. The frugal-minded could even use the service in their homes, allowing them to cut off expensive Internet bills.

....Cities support the idea because the networks would lower costs for schools and businesses or help vacationers easily find tourist spots. Consumer advocates note the benefits to the poor, who often cannot afford high cellphone and Internet bills.

....Some Republican lawmakers have criticized Genachowski for his idea of creating free WiFi networks, noting that an auction of the airwaves would raise billions for the U.S. Treasury. That sentiment echoes arguments made by companies such as AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Intel and Qualcomm, in a letter to the FCC staff late last month, that the government should focus its attention on selling the airwaves to businesses.

So that's what this is all about. My quick take on the technical argument—definitely subject to revision if I learn more—is that the guard bands probably don't really need to be so big. At the same time, a one-time payoff of a few billion dollars is hardly important to the federal government's finances, either. The real argument here is about whether a significant chunk of prime spectrum should be left free for public use.

The truth is that this probably wouldn't create serious competition for wireless carriers and wouldn't hurt their business much. It's too small, too local, and too unreliable for anyone who needs serious cell phone service. At the same time, it sure would be useful to have large-scale Wi-Fi networks available throughout the country for casual use. The rollout might be messy, but count me as a supporter anyway. If Republicans want to take the anti-public side of this debate, they're welcome to it.