Kevin Drum - March 2013

Ed Markey Invented Satellite TV!

| Thu Mar. 28, 2013 5:36 PM EDT

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.

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Does the Public Really Care About Background Checks?

| Thu Mar. 28, 2013 2:27 PM EDT

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.

| Thu Mar. 28, 2013 2:03 PM EDT

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

| Thu Mar. 28, 2013 12:43 PM EDT

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

| Thu Mar. 28, 2013 11:57 AM EDT

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

| Thu Mar. 28, 2013 11:42 AM EDT

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.

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The Great Healthcare Stalemate

| Thu Mar. 28, 2013 10:41 AM EDT

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

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 11:24 AM EDT

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

The Iraq War and American Politics, Take 2

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 12:03 AM EDT

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

| Tue Mar. 26, 2013 8:48 PM EDT

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.