• The Gay Marriage Debate Probably Hasn’t Affected Straight Marriage Much

    Ross Douthat on the coming liberal victory over gay marriage:

    Whether people think they’re on the side of God or of History, magnanimity has rarely been a feature of the culture war.

    That’s true! Also true of practically every other disagreement, big or small, among human beings. The exceptions are rare enough that they usually become famous.

    In any case, what Douthat wants lefties to magnanimously acknowledge is the possibility that the growing acceptance of gay marriage, even if it’s a net positive, might have contributed to things like the decline in traditional marriage rates and the rise in out-of-wedlock births. He concedes, of course, that those are long-term trends and the Great Recession has made them worse:

    But there is also a certain willed naïveté to the idea that the advance of gay marriage is unrelated to any other marital trend. For 10 years, America’s only major public debate about marriage and family has featured one side […] pressing the case that modern marriage has nothing to do with the way human beings reproduce themselves, that the procreative understanding of the institution was founded entirely on prejudice, and that the shift away from a male-female marital ideal is analogous to the end of segregation.

    Two comments. First, I think this is ironic. My sense of the debate is that the procreation argument was introduced by opponents of same-sex marriage, not supporters. Those advocating SSM just wanted gays and lesbians to be able to marry each other. It was opponents, after realizing that Old Testament jeremiads weren’t cutting it any more, who began claiming that SSM should remain banned because gays couldn’t have children. This turned out to be both a tactical and strategic disaster, partly because the argument was so transparently silly (what about old people? what about women who had hysterectomies? etc.) and partly because it suggested that SSM opponents didn’t have any better arguments to offer. But disaster or not, they’re the ones responsible for making this into a cornerstone of the anti-SSM debates in the aughts. Without that, I doubt that most ordinary people would ever have connected gay marriage to procreation within straight marriages in the first place. If this really has had an impact on traditional marriage, the anti-SSM forces have mostly themselves to blame.

    But they probably shouldn’t blame themselves very much, because I don’t think the demographic details back up Douthat’s case. Take a look at the demographic groups where marriage has declined: very famously, it’s been among poor and working class women, and especially among poor and working class black women. I’ll concede that I might be off base here, but I think Douthat is assuming that recondite arguments over procreation and gay marriage, which are common in his highly-educated social group, are also common in the groups where marriage has declined. I doubt that very much. What’s more, support for gay marriage is lowest in precisely the groups that have abandoned traditional marriage in the largest numbers. If the procreation argument were really affecting marriage rates, you’d expect to see the biggest impact in the groups where this argument is most commonly advanced, and in the groups that most strongly support gay marriage. Instead we’ve seen the opposite.

    The economic and social forces behind the decline in marriage are decades old: stagnant incomes for men, growing incomes for women, an incarceration explosion that’s left black male communities decimated, and a feminist revolution that made single parenthood more socially acceptable. Against that backdrop, I guess I find it unlikely that a fairly esoteric debate about procreation, which took place mostly among the chattering classes, had a significant impact on the people who are actually abandoning marriage. I’m open to evidence to the contrary, though.

  • The Rules of the Game

    Here’s a little something to noodle on while I’m lounging in my easy chair trying to solve this week’s Saturday Stumper crossword puzzle. First, you need to click here and go read a post by Matt Yglesias. I’ll wait.

    You didn’t read it, did you? Fine. I know you’re busy, so here’s the nickel summary. Matt is talking about the distribution of income in America, and he makes the point that modern capitalism is fundamentally based on a set of fairly complex rules created by humans. There’s no natural, “default” distribution of income, it all depends on what rules we agree on:

    It takes an awful lot of politics to get an advanced capitalist economy up and running and generating wealth….You go through the trouble of creating advanced industrial capitalism because that’s a good way to create a lot of goods and services. But the creation of goods and services would be pointless unless it served the larger cause of human welfare. Collecting taxes and giving stuff to people is every bit as much a part of advancing that cause as creating the set of institutions that allows for the wealth-creation in the first place.

    The specifics of how best to do this all are (to say the least) contentious and not amenable to resolution by blog-length noodling. But the intuition that there’s some coherent account of what the “market distribution” would be absent public policy is mistaken. You have policy choices all the way down.

    Matt’s argument is a common one, and I’ve seen it made dozens of times in various ways. What’s more, it’s an argument with a lot of force. It really is true that income distribution depends on the rules of the game, and it can favor the rich or the poor depending on who sets up the rules. There are practical limits to how much you can muck with the rules and keep your economy humming along, but within these limits there’s nothing inherently natural about one set of rules vs. another.

    So here’s the thing to noodle on. Despite having seen this argument made dozens of times, and despite its obvious force, I’ve never really seen it made in a way that’s very persuasive at a gut level. Conservatives have done a very good job of convincing the public that rules which favor the rich really are the most natural ones, and you fiddle with them at your peril. Liberals, conversely, haven’t done a very good job of convincing the public that a different, less business and wealth-centric set of rules, would be equally natural, and would benefit more people.

    Why is that? It’s one thing to acknowledge that changing the rules is hard because rich people have a lot of political power and don’t want to see them changed. But that hardly even matters until you can make the egalitarian economic argument in a way that’s convincing to the public in the first place. That’s apparently very hard to do, but I’m not quite sure why. Guesses welcome in comments.

  • Friday Cat Blogging – 29 March 2013

    Marian bought a new comforter for our bed a few days ago, and it’s rather thicker and more cushiony than our old one. Domino adores it. She’s actually abandoned her favorite American Airlines blanket and now spends every morning plonked down in the lovely, luxurious nest of the new comforter. She is like the princess and the pea.

    Next week: the return of quiltblogging!

  • President’s Budget May Include Entitlement Cuts

    Damian Paletta reports that President Obama may endorse entitlement cuts when he releases his budget on April 10:

    Including entitlement curbs would be notable, as Republicans often have criticized the White House for offering such steps in private negotiations but never fully embracing them as part of an official budget plan.

    ….The White House declined to offer details of what would appear in the budget, but top officials have said negotiations with the GOP are near an impasse. “We are in a place now where it’s difficult for us to reach an agreement when you have a firm bloc of Republican senators who are refusing to compromise,” White House principal deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said.

    It’s sort of interesting how little has leaked about this. In order for the interagency review to be done and printed copies of the budget to be ready on April 10, pretty much all the major decisions must have been made by now. But the only actual example of an entitlement cut that Paletta’s piece mentions is adoption of chained CPI for Social Security, a policy that Obama has been committed to for quite a while. If there’s more, the president’s team is doing a pretty good job of keeping it quiet.

    More leaks, please.

  • How Gays Won the Adoption Battle

    Gay marriage has been a culture-war hot button for the past two decades. But what about gay couples adopting children? Why did that never ignite the same level of opposition? In “Under the Gaydar,” Alison Gash explains:

    The secret to this progress was that gay parents and couples—who were by now aided by newly-formed gay rights advocacy groups—fought these cases in family court, where judges had wide discretion and public scrutiny was minimal. Aware of the perils of drawing public attention to these cases, advocates from national gay rights groups worked hard to camouflage their efforts. They removed their names from briefs, provided behind-the-scenes support, and avoided appealing losses to appellate courts, out of fear that higher-level court approval would awaken the sleeping giant of public opposition.

    ….Eventually, same-sex parenting cases did make their way to higher courts in two states—ironically in the same year, 1993, that gay marriage hit the supreme court docket in Hawaii (the case that launched a nationwide debate). But rather than rally opposition to both issues, conservatives chose to focus their attention only on same sex marriage. Why?

    For one, the co-parenting cases received relatively little attention from the mainstream press—again, because they were not being argued as matters of “gay rights.” Also, many pro-family activists also assumed, or at least hoped, that anti-marriage efforts would limit both marriage and parenting progress. They theorized that same-sex marriage bans would, like anti-sodomy statutes, impose a chilling effect on judges. So while conservatives were busy getting the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act through Congress and initiating state level bans on same-sex marriage, gay parents and their advocates continued to quietly amass significant court victories in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont.

    This sparks two thoughts. First, the initial focus of gay adoption was limited to biological parents who wanted to retain custody of their children after divorce. There’s an obvious tension here: Should courts be allowed to take children away from their biological parents just because they’re gay? Conservatives, who believe pretty strongly in the rights of biological parents, would be torn. I suspect this limited their desire to fight this battle.

    Beyond that, however, I wish Gash had written more about the legislative process. It’s one thing to argue that gay adoption succeeded in court because it mostly proceeded under the radar, but at some point states started affirmatively passing laws making it OK for gay couples to adopt. That began in the 90s, and obviously couldn’t be kept low profile. So how did it succeed, during a period when same-sex marriage was still universally banned? That sounds like an interesting story, and one whose moving parts might be a bit different. I’d like to read “Under the Gaydar, Part II,” please.

  • Barack Obama Is Dumb and Lazy

    <a href="http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/inside-white-house/west-wing-tour">Pete Souza</a>/White House photo

    Jamelle Bouie points me toward the very conservative John Podhoretz today, who warns his fellow conservatives against their peculiar preoccupation with the idea that Barack Obama is an empty suit:

    The weird condescension his opponents display toward him is ludicrously wrongheaded. They seem eager to believe he is a lightweight, and he is not. Obama is very possibly a world-historical political figure, and until those who oppose him come to grips with this fact, they will get him wrong every time.

    ….It’s not just the comforting delusion that he’s a golf-mad dilettante, but also the reverse-negative image of that delusion—that Obama is a not-so-secret Marxist Kenyan with dictatorial ambitions and a nearly limitless appetite for power. That caricature makes it far too easy for Obama to laugh off the legitimate criticisms of the kind of political leader he really is: a conventional post-1960s left-liberal with limited interest in the private sector and the gut sense that government must and should do more, whatever “more” might mean at any given moment.

    This is related to the “continuing parade of weirdly invented, personality-driven scandalettes” that I mentioned yesterday. It’s not as if I’m surprised that conservatives routinely try to attack Obama. Sure, I happen to think that issues like Benghazi, Solyndra, and Fast & Furious are hopeless nothingburgers, but they’re perfectly understandable, routine kinds of political attacks. Every president is on the receiving end of this kind of stuff, and some of it sticks and some of it doesn’t.

    But then there’s the completely mysterious stuff. Obama was too dumb to write his own autobiography. Obama was an affirmative action baby at Harvard Law. Obama can barely string three words together without a teleprompter. Obama is too lazy to attend national security briefings. Obama gives soaring speeches but there’s nothing behind them. Obama lives a life of sybaritic ease punctuated mostly by golf dates and basketball games.

    It’s just bizarre. Normally, the opposition exaggerates the actual character of the president. Bush was incurious, so liberals called him dumb. Clinton was a child of the sixties, so he became a coke-snorting drug lord running dope out of Mena airfield. Reagan was personable and a little hazy on facts, so he became a doddering grandfather. Etc.

    In Obama’s case, he’s pretty plainly a very smart, studious, and serious policy guy. So the obvious caricature of him would be as an aloof, Harvard egghead. There are occasional stabs at that, usually when conservatives try to portray him as arrogant, but it’s fleeting. Mostly, the tea partiers are convinced he’s dumb, lazy, and tyrannical. The problem is that this is so risibly wrong that (a) they have a hard time fighting back because they flatly don’t understand what they’re up against, and (b) it makes them look moronic. Nobody in their right mind thinks that Obama is dumb and lazy.

    So where did this come from? One obvious possibility is that it’s race related: a lot of conservatives are so thoroughly steeped in resentment against affirmative action that they just can’t believe Obama got where he did on his merits. This is probably part of it, but it doesn’t ring entirely true to me. In a way, it seems like this is really more a product of his phenomenal speaking skills. His speeches elate liberals, but they drive conservatives crazy. They simply can’t believe that anyone actually falls for this stuff unless they’ve been hypnotized by a con man, so that’s what Obama becomes: a slick but basically empty hustler.

    Or something. Obviously my ability to fathom the tea party mind is pretty limited. Feel free to adduce your own theories in comments.

  • Big Banks Getting a Fresh Look After Cyprus

    Simon Johnson writes today about the scourge of banks that are too big to fail. Cyprus is the latest example of what happens when a megabank fails, and it’s fresh on everyone’s minds:

    The good news at the end of last week was that the Senate unanimously decided that the United States should go in another direction, by ending the funding advantages of megabanks.

    ….But making last week even more decisive, [Ben] Bernanke’s language shifted significantly….saying in the clearest possible terms during a news conference on March 20: “Too big to fail is not solved and gone,” adding, “It’s still here.” And in case anyone did not fully grasp his message, Mr. Bernanke explained, “Too big to fail was a major source of the crisis, and we will not have successfully responded to the crisis if we do not address that successfully.”

    Now that the policy consensus has shifted, how exactly policy plays out remains to be seen….

    Hmmm. This seems optimistic. Has the policy consensus really shifted? I hope I’m wrong, but what we’re seeing right now seems more like one of those little boomlets that crop up and then disappear regularly. Remember NGDP targeting? For a period of a few weeks when it got mentioned in a set of Fed minutes, the economics blogosphere couldn’t get enough of it. But it was never going anywhere, and it never did.

    But enough pessimism! If there’s any movement at all toward going beyond Dodd-Frank to make banks safer, that’s good news. I’ve always been skeptical, on both political and practical grounds, that big banks can literally be broken up or their size capped, but they can certainly be made safer by requiring much higher capital levels. And you could probably go a long way toward encouraging smaller banks by introducing a formula that set higher capital levels for bigger banks. Who knows what would happen if required capital was a minimum of 10 percent or, say, double your bank’s assets as a percentage of U.S. GDP? If a bank the size of Citigroup had to hold twice the capital of a smaller bank, that would certainly provide a big incentive to break up.

    I don’t know how feasible this kind of thing is on a national basis, and further international action doesn’t seem to be in the cards these days. But every little bit helps. We’ll see if the coming months produce anything more than a purely symbolic vote on a nonbinding resolution by the Senate.

  • Our Honeybees Are Still Dying

    I thought we had made some progress in understanding and fighting colony collapse disorder, the malady that’s killing off our honeybees. But apparently not:

    A mysterious malady that has been killing honeybees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.

    ….“They looked so healthy last spring,” said Bill Dahle, 50, who owns Big Sky Honey in Fairview, Mont. “We were so proud of them. Then, about the first of September, they started to fall on their face, to die like crazy. We’ve been doing this 30 years, and we’ve never experienced this kind of loss before.”

    This is not good. I didn’t realize we were still so deeply in the dark about the cause of this.

  • Obama and Republicans Agree on Something!

    The Washington Post reports on “possible common ground” between Obama and congressional Republicans on cutting Medicare costs:

    In particular, participants say, the president told House Republicans that he was open to combining Medicare’s coverage for hospitals and doctor services….Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican, proposed much the same in a speech in February.

    ….While Mr. Cantor’s proposal got little attention at the time, its echo by Mr. Obama hints at a new route toward compromise — in contrast with the budget that House Republicans passed this month that has no chance of Senate approval.

    That sounds like a mighty small area of agreement to me. Any port in a storm, I suppose, but it’s a little hard to see how this leads to any kind of larger bargain.

  • Too Many Damn Charts: A Followup

    Over at the Atlantic, Elspeth Reeve charts the rise of charts in the blogosphere. In particular, she charts the rise of “In One Chart” posts. I’ve modified the final bar in her chart to show the true surge in these posts over the past year:

    One correction, though. She credits Ezra Klein as the likely inventor of this phenomenon, and that might be true. However, she credits Arthur Delaney for the recent appearance of “signs of a rebellion” against “One Chart” posts, and that’s something I’d like to take credit for. It’s true that my rebellion last year was technically against “Everything you need to know about [xxx] in two charts,” but I think that’s close enough.

    In case you’re curious, I’m only halfway joking about this. I love graphical information, so I hardly have any standing to complain about chart-heavy posts. But it really does seem as if they’re being overused these days. Sometimes they’re the best way to explain complex topics, but not always.

  • Ed Markey Invented Satellite TV!

    Here is Matt Yglesias cruelly baiting Bob Somerby:

    It really is a little shocking in retrospect how entrenched the Gore stuff has become.

    Matt is reacting to a Republican ad that tries to pretend that Rep. Ed Markey is taking credit for inventing Google and satellite TV. You know, just like Al Gore invented the internet. Yuck yuck.

    Gore aside, I’ve always found it sort of fascinating how obsessed conservatives get with some of their pet rocks. Last night I happened to surf by Sean Hannity’s show for about ten seconds, and he was blathering on about the canceled White House tours. Jesus, I thought. They’re still bellyaching about that? Hannity’s designated liberal punching bag (sorry, didn’t catch who it was) seemed to feel the same way. She mostly just rolled her eyes, unable to work up the energy to pretend to take this seriously.

    Do we liberals have our own pet rocks like this? It’s never quite seemed like it to me. Obviously we have ideological passions that we hammer on constantly, just like conservatives do, and it’s true that putting up pictures of “Mission Accomplished” never gets old. But on the right, there seems to be a never-ending parade of these ridiculous little things that take on a life of their own and just never go away. When newer pet rocks come along, they just acquire elder statesman status and become part of right-wing lore. In the case of the White House tours, it’s apparently all part of a Michele Bachmann-inspired conservative obsession with the curious notion that Obama lives like an emperor, complete with dancing girls dropping peeled grapes into his mouth during trips on Air Force One that he orders just because he wants to take advantage of the gourmet chefs on board and maybe get a nice view of the Potomac. Or something.

    There’s a million things like this, and only a few achieve mainstream status, like the birther nonsense. The rest just ripple endlessly in the primordial ooze of conservative websites, radio shows, and Fox News. I dunno. Maybe I just don’t hang out enough on uber-lefty sites to see how much we do it too. But conservatives sure do seem to thrive on a continuing parade of weirdly invented, personality-driven scandalettes in a way that liberals don’t.

  • Does the Public Really Care About Background Checks?

    Jonathan Bernstein makes a good point today about what I call “poll literalism,” the idea that if a poll shows the public is on your side, that means the public is really on your side. In this case, the subject is background checks for gun buyers:

    Sure, 90 percent of citizens, or registered voters, or whoever it is will answer in the affirmative if they’re asked by a pollster about this policy. But that’s not at all the same as “calling for change.” It’s more like…well, it is receiving a call. Not calling.

    Those people who have been pushing for marriage equality? They were calling for change. And marching for it, demanding it, donating money to get it, running for office to achieve it and supporting candidates who would vote for it, filing lawsuits to make it legal. In many cases, they based their entire political identity around it.

    Action works. “Public opinion” is barely real; most of the time, on most issues, change the wording of the question and you’ll get entirely different answers. At best, “public opinion” as such is passive. And in politics, passive doesn’t get results.

    Public opinion is real. But it only matters if it’s strong, and polls rarely measure that. It only matters if it determines who you’re going to vote for (or against), and polls rarely measure that. It only matters if it means that lots of people are willing to make big hairy pains in the asses of themselves, and polls never measure that.

    Public opinion is a start. You certainly need it, and politicians won’t do much of anything without it. But it’s nowhere near enough.

  • Yep, Our Sluggish Recovery Is Mostly Cyclical. But Not All of It.

    One of the longstanding arguments about our sluggish recovery from the Great Recession is whether it’s mostly cyclical or mostly structural. If it’s cyclical, that basically means it’s a matter of depressed spending. If the Fed and Congress would just pump enough money into the economy to stimulate demand, that would kickstart us back into a stronger recovery.

    But if it’s structural, that won’t work. A structural problem, for example, would be an economy that needs lots of computer programmers, but instead finds itself with too many construction workers thanks to the housing bubble. You can’t easily train construction workers to be computer programmers, so even if you stimulate demand you’re still going to have a big unemployment problem.

    Neil Irwin points out today that it’s been hard to find evidence for the story of structural problems. If certain occupations were in desperate need of workers they couldn’t find, wages in those occupations would skyrocket. But they haven’t. Likewise, if it were a matter of too many workers in, say, California, and too few in Texas, you’d expect wages in Texas to go up. But that hasn’t happened either. With a few small exceptions, wages have stayed depressed in all occupations and all regions.

    So now a team of Fed economists has taken a different approach to slicing and dicing the data: Maybe the problem is actually a broad mismatch between the supply and demand for workers who can do complex, nonroutine jobs. But they took a look, and their basic answer is no: the Great Recession has hit both routine and nonroutine occupations about the same.

    I accept this. And yet, the data from the Fed study doesn’t back up their theory completely. For example, here’s a pair of charts showing the change in unemployment rates:

    That’s a little hard to read, though. Here’s a rough re-charting of their data using equal units for the entire period from 2007 through 2012:

    It’s true that routine jobs have recovered a little better than nonroutine jobs, but they’ve still done worse overall. And their other charts show a similar trend: before the recession, there was no difference at all between routine and nonroutine jobs. Since then, a persistent gap has appeared. It’s a small gap, but it’s there.

    And this is just a guess on my part, but I suspect that routine workers have dropped out of the workforce at a greater rate than nonroutine workers, which means they don’t show up in unemployment statistics at all. Some of them go on disability, some of them stay home with the kids, some of them retire early, and some just plain give up and don’t have any income.

    For what it’s worth, I also have some issues with their definitions of routine vs. nonroutine. But that’s obviously a very tricky thing, and I certainly haven’t taken a close look. So I’ll set that aside for now.

    Generally speaking, I think this study is valuable: it shows, more broadly than some previous studies, that the aftermath of the Great Recession is primarily cyclical, not structural. That means we could fix most of it if we quit obsessing over budget deficits in 2030 and instead focused on proper fiscal and monetary policy right now. My only caution is that I don’t think this study shows that our problem is entirely cyclical. It really does look to me like the Great Recession opened up—or perhaps exposed—a structural gap that’s a bit larger than it used to be. It’s not a lot bigger, but it’s there.

  • Defying the Laws of Physics at Walmart

    One of the stories making the rounds this week is a Bloomberg piece about people getting increasingly frustrated with Walmart because the shelves aren’t being stocked and they can’t find the stuff they want. The culprit, apparently, is low staffing levels:

    It’s not as though the merchandise isn’t there. It’s piling up in aisles and in the back of stores because Wal-Mart doesn’t have enough bodies to restock the shelves, according to interviews with store workers. In the past five years, the world’s largest retailer added 455 U.S. Wal-Mart stores, [but its workforce] dropped by about 20,000.

    ….At the Kenosha, Wisconsin, Wal-Mart where Mary Pat Tifft has worked for nearly a quarter-century, merchandise ready for the sales floor remains on pallets and in steel bins lining the floor of the back room — an area so full that “no passable aisles” remain, she said. Meanwhile, the front of the store is increasingly barren, Tifft said. That landscape has worsened over the past several years as workers who leave aren’t replaced, she said.

    Something isn’t right here. I’m no expert in retail logistics, but I do know enough about the laws of physics to understand that this really can’t be true for more than a short period of time. At some point, when the back room gets full, then either (a) new merchandise gets shelved at the same rate it comes in, or (b) it starts overflowing out into the parking lot. Since (b) apparently hasn’t happened, I conclude that the flow of merchandise onto store shelves has to be about the same as the flow of merchandise getting shipped in from Walmart’s warehouses.

    So how is that going? One person interviewed for the story said his local Walmart “would go weeks without products he wanted to buy, such as men’s dress shirts, which he found only in very large or small sizes and unpopular colors.” OK, but that’s probably a forecasting/MRP problem, not a shelving problem. Somebody’s not ordering the right stuff for their stores.

    Now, if, as reporter Renee Dudley says, Walmart has 13 percent more stores but 1.4 percent fewer workers, that’s going to hurt. Stories of long checkout times or inability to get help in the shoe department make perfect sense. But the shelving thing seems a little iffier. They could certainly be chronically behind, leading to shelves that don’t always have the latest and greatest stuff—and that’s a genuine problem for Walmart execs—but over any period longer than a few days the actual flow of merchandise into the store pretty much has to match the flow of merchandise into the back room. Right?

    POSTSCRIPT: And it’s still Walmart, not Wal-Mart. Rebranding is hard!

  • Earthquakes in Oklahoma

    Here in my neck of the woods, a magnitude 5.6 earthquake is little more than a wee bit of exercise to help you digest your lunch. In Oklahoma it’s a big deal:

    Such seismic activity isn’t normal here. Between 1972 and 2008, the USGS recorded just a few earthquakes a year in Oklahoma. In 2008, there were more than a dozen; nearly 50 occurred in 2009. In 2010, the number exploded to more than 1,000. These so-called “earthquake swarms” are occurring in other places where the ground is not supposed to move. There have been abrupt upticks in both the size and frequency of quakes in Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, and Texas. Scientists investigating these anomalies are coming to the same conclusion: The quakes are linked to injection wells. Into most of them goes wastewater from hydraulic fracking, while some, as those in Prague, are filled with leftover fluid from dewatering operations.

    Not to worry, though! Jean Antonides, vice president of exploration for a company that operates a fracking site in Oklahoma, says that anyone who blames their wells for the earthquakes is “either lying to your face or they’re idiots.”

    Whew. That was a close call. But an industry spokesman would never lie to us, so I feel better now.

    BY THE WAY: I’m breaking my rule and linking to this piece even though it includes an animated GIF. That’s because it’s a very sedate animated GIF, and actually demonstrates something that’s worth animating.

  • Watching the Worm Turn on Gay Marriage

    I missed out on all the DOMA blogging yesterday while I was off the net, but I doubt my voice was missed. When I got back to my RSS feed in the afternoon, it was practically wall-to-wall DOMA. Oddly, though, I still have something to add. It turns out that a number of conservatives had a reaction like this one, from CBN’s David Brody:

    In the media’s narrative, you would think that homosexuals are the poor souls who have been banished by society like ugly stepchildren and are now rising to overcome incredible odds.

    But what about today? Let’s be honest: If you are a conservative evangelical who believes in the biblical definition of traditional marriage then guess what? You are one of the following: An outcast, a bigot, narrow-minded, a “hater” or all of the above. It’s a different type of ridicule but it’s still ridicule.

    This produced a fair amount of mockery from liberals, including this nice mini-rant from Paul Waldman. But you know what? Brody is right. A lot of us really do believe that conservative evangelicals are narrow-minded haters. Next year, even more of us will believe that. A decade from now, Brody’s beliefs will be viewed by most of us as pure bigotry, full stop. That’s got to hurt.

    Brody is finding himself increasingly at the business end of a tremendous societal pressure telling him that his lifestyle is wrong and he should keep his beliefs to himself. I won’t lie and pretend that I don’t enjoy the irony. But Brody’s diagnosis is quite correct. He just hasn’t yet figured out the cure.

  • The Great Healthcare Stalemate

    I feel fine today. Thanks for asking! But what if I weren’t? Then I’d have to go to the doctor. And that would cost a lot of money. It wouldn’t cost me a lot of money, mind you, but it would certainly cost someone a lot of money. Probably MoJo, which is too bad since they have lots of better uses for their money than paying huge sums to insurance companies for their employees’ aches and pains.

    It would be nice if we could pay less. Unfortunately, as Ezra Klein points out, Democrats and Republicans have come to opposite conclusions about how to do that. Democrats, quite sensibly, point out that private insurance is the most expensive kind of healthcare there is, so perhaps we need more government involvement. Republicans, who are ideologically opposed to more government involvement, insist that Medicare is the big driver of high medical costs, even though there’s no actual evidence for this. Ed Kilgore is despondent:

    Beyond that, the arguments can get confusing. Sometimes Republicans seem to identify health care inflation strictly with rising public costs; shifting those costs to beneficiaries, from that perspective, “solves” the problem. Other times Republicans appear to believe that over-utilization of health care is the only real problems in the system; thus, exposing patients to more of the costs generated by their demands for care will “bend the curve” of health care costs. More direct reductions of costs via the use of the government’s leverage “distorts markets” and can’t, according to conservative dogma, possibly work.

    How do you find a “compromise” between people with such diametrically opposed ideas of how the health care system works? Beats me.

    Well, it’s a good question, all right. Roughly speaking, if you place the rich countries of the world on a scale from most government involvement to most private involvement, you find countries like Britain and Canada at one end, and they spend the least. You find countries like Switzerland and the United States on the other end, and they spend the most.

    Now, it’s almost certainly true that if we switched to a purely private system and eliminated standard healthcare insurance as we know it, we’d end up spending less. This is the “skin in the game” theory, and it means that if we all had to pony up full cost whenever we visited the doctor or got an MRI, we’d pay a lot fewer visits to the doctor and demand lower cost MRIs. The problem, of course, is that this idea is universally hated and will never happen. This leaves Republicans in a quandary. It’s really the only idea they have, but they can’t seriously propose it because they’d probably get kicked out of office for the next 50 years or so. Their solution, in practice, is to (a) propose watered down versions of this idea hidden under enough layers that maybe no one will notice, and (b) relentlessly oppose every other idea without really offering any alternatives of their own. Remember “Repeal and Replace”? We never did hear much about the “Replace” part of that, did we?

    Will this stalemate ever end? Probably someday. But not soon.

  • Housekeeping Note

    I’m a little under the weather this morning. Sorry. Back later.

  • The Iraq War and American Politics, Take 2

    A couple of days ago, Ross Douthat wrote a column arguing that the Iraq War had a transformational effect on American politics. I argued back that in the Obama Era, our foreign policy has changed little, while our domestic policy has changed a lot:

    To believe that Iraq was responsible for this, you have to adopt the perverse view that a huge foreign policy failure was responsible for (a) a continuation of that very foreign policy, but (b) a repudiation of Bush’s completely unrelated domestic policy. That doesn’t strike me as very plausible.

    Douthat responds:

    Actually, it strikes me as quite plausible indeed. Post-Cold War American foreign policy has almost always featured more continuity than change from administration to administration, and this has held true even after failed or mismanaged wars. Presidents and parties may be punished at the polls, but grand strategy is rarely altered there: The same elites keep circulating, the same programs and alliances and commitments continue, the same basic ideas about America’s role in the world endure….Obama got us out of Iraq in just one [term]…and that was all that was explicitly expected of him: Ending the occupation was the break with the Bush era that the public wanted, and with that accomplished it’s not surprising that the Obama White House would continue Bush’s second-term policies on other fronts, or that the public would more or less accepted this continuity.

    This is a reasonable point. For all the sound and fury, U.S. foreign policy is a pretty bipartisan affair and has been for a long time. Democrats and Republicans share most of the same basic framework about America’s role in the world, with only modest changes of emphasis from one administration to the next. So Obama’s continuity with Bush’s foreign policy is hardly a surprise.

    But you still need to make the case that Iraq had a transformative effect on American domestic policy. So what was it? Yes, the liberal blogosphere was initially energized by the war, but the plain truth is that the blogosphere’s bark was always bigger than its bite. At a policy level, Obama staffed his economic team largely with familiar faces from the Clinton administration and followed their Clintonian advice. He passed a healthcare bill that was more conservative than Clinton’s. He passed a financial reform bill that progressives almost universally derided as too limited. He repealed DADT, but that was obviously the end result of a long-term trend that was decades in the making.

    No, what’s really startling about Obama is that given everything he inherited—the Iraq War, the financial collapse, a scandal-plagued Republican Party, huge majorities in Congress—his “era” lasted a scant 24 months. He got a fair amount done in that 24 months, but as progressive revolutions go, it was a mighty short one.

    Obviously we can’t turn back the clock and see what would have happened without the war, but I simply don’t see the transformative changes Douthat does. He makes a comparison with the domestic political consequences of the Vietnam era—”the hastened crack-up of the New Deal coalition, the birth of neoconservatism in its intellectual and popular forms, the undercutting of Great Society liberalism just as the grand welfare state project seemed about to be completed”—but this is telling mostly because he’s right about Vietnam. It did have a huge impact. The Iraq War has had nothing like that. We got 24 months of modest liberal progress, and that’s it.

    Without the war, that progress would have been different. Maybe smaller. That’s true. I don’t want to argue the absurd proposition that Iraq had no effect on American politics. But considering what a debacle it was, I’ve mainly been gobsmacked at just how little effect it’s had. Hell, as near as I can tell, the American public isn’t really even war weary. If Obama declared war on Iran (after a suitable period of saber rattling, of course), I think the public would be on his side. And if the Iraq War hasn’t even made us war weary, what are the odds that the rest of its impact has been more than minimal?

    POSTSCRIPT: Let me put this another way. Suppose you slept through the past dozen years and woke up today. Somebody told you that we had a big financial collapse in 2007-08; a Democrat won the presidency; he passed a stimulus bill to pull us out of economic collapse; finally passed a version of healthcare reform; passed some other liberal legislation; and then lost big in the 2010 midterms. Would any of that—or anything else you learned about—make you shake your head in amazement and figure that you must have missed something? Like, say, a long and bitter overseas war? I don’t think so. It would all seem like politics as usual.

  • I Am Stumped by This Music Review

    In the LA Times today, classical music critic Mark Swed reviewed Yuja Wang’s performance of Scriabin’s Sixth Sonata. He says Wang played it for “beauty and thrills”:

    But she also raced through the sonata, treating it as something to be so fully mastered that it might lose its power to corrupt the spirit with its huge portions of musical decadence.

    I love this. Not just because I don’t understand a word of it. That’s to be expected since I know essentially nothing about music. I love it because I can’t even conceive of how someone might come up with that particular string of words to describe a musical experience. Where did they come from? What was going through Swed’s mind when he put them down on paper? Did this thought occur to him naturally, or did he have to work hard on that sentence to make it express the way he felt? And did he really feel that the tempo of Wang’s performance was somehow motivated by a desire to cut through the sonata’s “power to corrupt the spirit”?

    I have no idea. It’s like reading Ulysses. Or perhaps a description of a cricket test. The words are demonstrably in English, and the syntax makes sense, but nothing else does.

    Anyway, you can probably tell by now that I’m having trouble coming up with anything to write about today, so at this point I’m just blathering. But I sat down on the sofa with the newspaper a few minutes ago and then Domino jumped onto my lap. I didn’t want to toss her off right away, so I gave her a few minutes of snoozing by reading the whole entertainment section,1 including Swed’s review. And it just stonkered me, especially the sentence above. But let’s give this post a veneer of seriousness anyway by turning it into a teachable moment. For those of you who know music better than me (a lot better, hopefully), read the review and discuss in comments. What should I have taken away from it?

    1Nickel version: Jack Nelson was a great reporter; Lil Wayne’s new album has a few good moments; the architecture of the new Perot museum in Dallas is “cynical”; American Idol needs some changes to reverse its declining fortunes; and next year’s Oscars telecast will be on March 2.