Kevin Drum - April 2013

In the Long Run We're All Dead. In the Medium Run, We Have Things to Worry About.

| Mon Apr. 15, 2013 8:58 AM PDT

Perhaps today I will link only to people named Matthew. Here is Matt Yglesias on possible fears about the future:

I understand why people worry about technological unemployment. And I understand why people worry about rising entitlement spending burdens. What I don't understand is why people worry about them both simultaneously. In the technological unemployment world, we'll be able to give everyone a 2013 level of consumption goods with a radically diminished workforce, raising the question of what everyone is going to actually do.

....The other worry is the opposite of this one. It's that in the future a very large share of our population will be elderly nonworkers and a very large share of our workforce will be dedicated to taking care of elderly nonworkers ("skyrocketing health care costs"), and that consequently younger people's living standards will diminish or stagnate.

Either of those things could happen, but they can't both happen.

Well, now, I'm not so sure about that. The question is: who will benefit from technological unemployment? Unless public policy changes fairly radically, the answer is: the owners of technology. In other words, the rich.

If technology really does keep improving and putting humans out of work, this means the rich will get ever richer. And in theory, we can tax away that wealth to take care of our entitlement problems. In theory. But I don't think it's entirely irrational to be worried that this might not be as easy as it sounds. As you may have noticed, rich people fight like crazed weasels to prevent their wealth from being taxed away. Do we think their political power is somehow going to decline as they become richer and richer?

This cycle can't go on forever. Eventually the masses will rebel, or the rich will actually get less rich because nobody has any money to keep the economy going. (Robots have no need for houses or fast food restaurants.) Or something. But "eventually" could be a ways away. In the medium-term future, both technological unemployment and rising entitlement burdens could indeed both be serious problems simultaneously.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

It's Hard to Get a Job if You Haven't Had a Job For a Long Time

| Mon Apr. 15, 2013 8:13 AM PDT

Matthew O'Brien reports on a recent study showing that companies are reluctant to hire people who have been out of work for six months or more. A pair of researchers sent out thousands of fake resumes that were identical except that some showed a long spell of unemployment and some didn't, and then tallied up the callback rates:

The results are equal parts unsurprising and terrifying. Employers prefer applicants who haven't been out of work for very long, applicants who have industry experience, and applicants who haven't moved between jobs that much. But how long you've been out of work trumps those other factors.

....As long as you've been out of work for less than six months, you can get called back even if you don't have experience. But after you've been out of work for six months, it doesn't matter what experience you have. Quite literally. There's only a 2.12 percentage point difference in callback rates for the long-term unemployed with or without industry experience....In other words, the first thing employers look at is how long you've been out of work, and that's the only thing they look at if it's been six months or longer.

I wish there were a baseline study to compare this to, because I doubt this is anything new. Hiring managers have always been suspicious of applicants who have been out of work for a long period. Partly it's because skills can atrophy over time. Partly it's fear that someone out of work for a long time might be lazy and not all that committed to working. Partly it's a hunch that if no one else is interested in an applicant, there's probably a good reason for it. Partly it's a sense of uneasiness that a long spell of unemployment might represent a hidden problem of some kind (drugs? recent divorce?). Or perhaps that someone out of work for a long time might be bitter about it.

When the economy is stronger, and it's harder to fill open jobs, you might get some callbacks anyway. When the economy is weak, as it is today, and hiring managers have a dozen good candidates for every opening, you're completely out of luck. Any black mark is enough to kill your chances. Some of this might be rational and some of it might not, but it's not something that's just popped up recently. It's just more noticeable because of the lingering effects of the Great Recession.

Buckraking, Obama Style

| Sun Apr. 14, 2013 10:32 PM PDT

Noam Scheiber writes that Barack Obama doesn't really like former aides showing off their closeness to the White House. But that's not really a problem:

There are more than enough ways to cash in on a White House tour of duty that fall comfortably within the red lines governing Obama’s Washington. No one in the West Wing, from the president on down, would begrudge former colleagues the chance to make a buck so long as a modicum of tact is displayed.

That's good to hear, no? Click the link for more.

Kermit Gosnell: A Case Study in Working the Refs

| Sun Apr. 14, 2013 9:52 PM PDT

The Kermit Gosnell story is truly breathtaking. There are, of course, the actual crimes Gosnell is charged with, which are appalling all on their own. Gosnell was a rogue abortion doctor who (it's alleged) ran a hideously deadly clinic in Philadelphia, and remained open for years before local authorities did anything to shut him down. The details are gruesome to report and stomach-turning to read about. 

And then there's the media angle. When a grand jury report on Gosnell's conduct was released in 2011, it got a smattering of national coverage and then dropped off the radar. On March 18 of this year, Gosnell's trial started. It got plenty of coverage in Philadelphia, as well as on some activist websites, but not much elsewhere.

That is, it didn't get much coverage until conservatives decided they could make hay with charges that the story was being deliberately suppressed by the liberal media. To see the way this hustle works, consider how the conservative Washington Times has handled the Gosnell case so far.

On March 18, they ran an AP dispatch about the start of the trial. Since then, they haven't published a single additional piece. However, they have published the following:

  • March 27: An op-ed by Christopher Harper about the media's "shameful" silence concerning the Gosnell case.
  • April 8: A news story about the "media blackout" of the Gosnell trial for "political reasons."
  • April 11: An editorial deploring the fact that "this grim story was not something for the morning papers or the evening news, at least not for those reading the 'mainstream' newspapers or watching ABC, CBS or NBC."
  • April 11: A news story reporting that conservative House members "took to the floor to denounce what they call a 'national media cover-up' of the sensational case."
  • April 12: A news story reporting that "conservatives and other pro-life advocates who are upset with the lack of coverage of the case are taking to social media sites in droves."
  • April 13: A weekly news recap headlined, "Abortion doctor on trial, but media not interested."
  • April 14: An op-ed about our "undistinguished press corps," listing all their recent shortcomings. "Most egregious of all, though, has been the lack of coverage on the 'House of Horror' trial of abortionist Kermit Gosnell."

And that brings us to today. Adding it all up, we have a grand total of one story about the trial itself and seven stories complaining that other media outlets aren't covering the trial. It's pretty obvious what the priorities are here, and, as Paul Farhi reports, the Washington Times is hardly alone:

The Weekly Standard and the National Review, two leading conservative magazines, for example, hadn’t published anything on the trial, according to a search of the Nexis database.1 The New York Post’s conservative editorial board has written one commentary — an editorial lamenting the lack of coverage, which, although it doesn’t mention it, includes its own paper.

We can add to that the Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page, which hasn't mentioned it yet. And Alex Seitz-Wald reports that Fox News has run "brief updates on the trial in its roundup of the day’s news on several nights over the past month," but that's about it for its news programs.

Why hasn't the Gosnell trial caught on nationally? Beats me. I've often wondered just what it is that causes some local crime stories to become media sensations and others to molder in obscurity. But the interest of the conservative press is pretty obvious, and it has little to do with the grisly nature of the case itself. After all, they've been well aware of the Gosnell trial all along, because both Breitbart.com and conservative pro-life sites have been covering it extensively. Despite this, they barely mentioned it themselves. Obviously, even conservative editors didn't it consider it newsworthy on a national scale. Their outrage only kicked into high gear when they spied an opportunity to pretend that this was a story about the liberal media ignoring a grisly abortion story. And according to Farhi, it's working:

The media appears to be responding to the criticism. CNN devoted multiple segments to the story Friday. CBS said it plans two segments and MSNBC will discuss the trial on its “Morning Joe” program Monday. The Post ran a full AP report on it in Saturday’s editions; the paper has also assigned its own reporter to cover the trial in Philadelphia this week.

“We talked about the story during the day on Friday and decided that, in fact, the story warranted our staff attention because of the seriousness and scope of the alleged crimes and because this was a case that resonated in policy arguments and national politics,” said [Post executive editor Martin] Baron. “In retrospect, we regret not having staffed the trial sooner. But, as you know, we don’t have unlimited resources, and . . . there is a lot of competition for our staff’s attention.”

I'm not really outraged by conservatives working the refs like this. Both sides exploit tragic events for their own benefit. That's politics. But I sure hope the media itself understands just how zealously they're being worked.

1The Standard finally included a piece on the Gosnell trial in its current issue. Its subject? The fact that the national media hasn't been reporting on it.

Lists of Stale Words Have Become Kind of Stale. I Say We Do Away With Them.

| Sun Apr. 14, 2013 6:52 PM PDT

Andrew Sullivan links today to an interview with Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books:

I know from sometimes-painful experience how particular you are about certain tired words. Massive, for example, is strictly forbidden. Or framework.

Framework could rightly refer to the supporting structure of a house, or a wooden construction for holding roses or hollyhocks in a garden, but now the word is used to refer to any system of thought, or any arrangement of ideas. And it really means nothing.

The most heretical thing we do is try to avoid context. Context has an original, useful meaning, now generally lost: the actual language surrounding a particular text—con, meaning “with,” and text—and now it’s used for every set of surrounding circumstances or state of things, and it gets worse with contextualize, sometimes used to mean some sort of justification.

....Then there is the constant movement of every kind of issue—war, treaty, or political feud—on or off “the table.” The question of an independent Palestinian state is on the table! Or is it off the table? It’s become a way of avoiding a more precise account of just what’s happening.

This is one of my pet peeves. Why on earth is framework off limits? As Silvers says, it's obviously analogous to the framework of a house, and its meaning, far from being "nothing," is quite plain. Ditto for context. It's a perfectly good word which, as Silvers himself points out, means "a set of surrounding circumstances." What's the problem? And ditto yet again for off the table.

Obviously any of these words and phrases can be misused or overused. But what is it that makes editors mistake their idiosyncratic dislikes for a cosmic rule of good taste? If you hire a good writer, and she wants to use framework to refer to an arrangement of ideas, then let her. It's her byline on the piece, not yours. And it's not her problem that you have some weird aversion to the word.

I think we all agree that editors should watch out for faddish usages that become overworked, and recommend replacements where it truly seems advisable. But that's it. In fact, I have a proposal. I've noticed that it's become rather faddish lately for publications to have (sometimes quite long) lists of banned words. Unfortunately, this has gotten hackneyed and stale. How about if we do away with them?

Except for contextualize. That can stay on the list. It really is hideous, isn't it?

An Update on Peak Oil

| Sat Apr. 13, 2013 10:19 PM PDT

If you've been reading this blog regularly, you already know the basics about peak oil:

  • It's not a kooky conspiracy theory. The obsessively mainstream International Energy Agency, which refused to even acknowledge the possibility of peak oil for years, officially admitted it was real three years ago. Not only that, they even put a date on peak production of conventional oil: 2006. In other words, it's already happened.
  • The peak in conventional oil will be offset by new "unconventional" production: shale oil, tar sands, deepwater oil, and so forth. But that oil is both expensive and in limited supply. Shale oil has gotten immense publicity, but it's unlikely to ever get much above a production rate of 1 million barrels per day. That's 1 million out of a current global production of about 85 million (75 million barrels of crude oil and about 10 million barrels of petroleum liquids).
  • Other unconventional sources will add more to this, but unless there's some huge discovery of unconventional oil that we know nothing about, it's likely that we're already at or close to peak oil right now. New production of unconventional oil is only barely replacing declines in older, more mature fields, and decline rates in older fields are only going to get worse in the future.

Over at Wonkblog, Brad Plumer interviews energy analyst Chris Nelder about peak oil, and Nelder has this to say about unconventional oil:

BP: So what we're seeing is that the world can no longer increase its production of "easy" oil — many of those older fields are stagnant or declining. Instead, we're spending a lot of money to eke out additional production from hard, expensive sources like Alberta's tar sands or tight oil in North Dakota.

CN: Right, and that's entirely consistent with peak oil predictions, which said that extraction would plateau, that the decline in conventional oil fields would have to be made up by expensive unconventional oil. Right now, we're struggling to keep up with declines in mature oil fields — and that pace of decline is accelerating.

Mature OPEC fields are now declining at 5 to 6 percent per year, and non-OPEC fields are declining at 8 to 9 percent per year. Unconventional oil can't compensate for that decline rate for very long.

Even all the growth in U.S. tight oil from fracking, which has produced about 1 million barrels per day, hasn't been enough to overcome declines elsewhere outside of OPEC. Non-OPEC oil has been on a bumpy plateau since 2004.

There's more oil out there. But it's hard to find; expensive to extract; declines quickly; and is usually disappointing in volume (Nelder: "Anticipated production growth for tar sands has consistently failed to meet expectations, year after year after year. Ten years ago, tar sands production today was expected to be twice what it actually is."). We may or may not be quite at peak oil yet, but we're either there already or else very, very close. And either way, production costs of unconventional oil make it unlikely that oil will ever get much below $100 per barrel again. This makes it a significant restraint on global economic growth, and unless and until we make a huge switch to renewable energy, this will continue permanently. Any time you see a medium or long-term forecast of global growth that doesn't mention oil constraints, you should probably take it with a big grain of salt.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Quote of the Day: Happy Days Are Here Again

| Sat Apr. 13, 2013 8:51 AM PDT

From Kelly Hamon, who recently bid $47,000 over the asking price to beat out five other buyers for a cream-colored North Hollywood home:

I am going to have to tighten the budget. Maybe not get TV right away — just Netflix.

The backstory here is the return of the housing bubble to Los Angeles:

The once-in-a-lifetime mentality, fueled by a shortage of for-sale homes, is driving the Los Angeles area from recovery to frenzy, according to real estate agents and experts....Out of all homes sold in March, 91% of [Redfin's] deals involved a bidding war. And about 10% were investors flipping a property at a profit after buying it just a short time before.

....While cash offers may have proliferated in 2012, this year has ushered in stronger competition in the mortgage market, said Guy Cecala, publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance Publications....[Banks] are setting their sights on new home buyers by loosening their underwriting standards and accepting lower down payments. Some lenders have even begun offering piggyback loans — which enable buyers to take multiple mortgages to avoid putting any money down, Cecala said.

"It is mostly something that started in the last month or two," he said. "The good news for borrowers is that they are starting to see looser underwriting, but it is not looser underwriting across the board."

....Leo Nordine, a real estate agent in Manhattan Beach, said he recently listed a one-bedroom home in South Los Angeles and got 49 offers...."Everybody I know is trying to do flips right now. It's like the day trading of the 1990s," Nordine said. "We went straight from Armageddon to speculation; there was nothing in between this time."

I'm sure there's nothing to worry about, though. Los Angeles is unique, after all. And things are different this time. Right?

Friday Cat Blogging - 12 April 2013

| Fri Apr. 12, 2013 12:03 PM PDT

I only got one photograph of Domino this week. That's because, as usual, as soon as she saw the camera she immediately perked up and walked over. Luckily, it was a pretty good picture, so I didn't need any more.

This morning we got our carpet cleaned. Two hours later, it's covered by multiple trails of cat paw prints. It's like we have a blanket of fresh snow in the house.

Rand Paul, Fainthearted Truth Avoider

| Fri Apr. 12, 2013 11:59 AM PDT

There's no question that Rand Paul has the knack of staging political theater that gets the media's attention. But Adam Serwer argues that he really doesn't deserve any credit for his speech yesterday defending the Republican Party's civil rights record:

Also strange is the presumption that somehow Paul was doing something risky or brave by speaking at a historically black college. Howard University is not a Greyhound Bus station at midnight. It is way past time for pundits to retire the notion that white politicians deserve extra credit for being willing to talk to a room full of black people. This is, as one Republican once put it, the soft bigotry of low expectations. The history of Republican politics and the conservative movement means that a black audience has every right to be skeptical of the GOP, and that the burden is rightfully on that party to reconcile with black voters. Politicians are supposed to reach out to voters, not the other way around. No more gold stars for attendance.

In fairness, politicians often get a little extra credit for speaking in front of a hostile audience. But Adam is right: there was really nothing especially brave about what Paul did. I mean, he spoke for about half an hour and then answered questions for half an hour. Hell, I can't count the number of half hours I've spent fielding caustic questions from resellers who were pissed off about my latest marketing brainstorm—and I'll bet they were a lot less polite than the Howard students. But I didn't especially feel like I'd been through combat or anything. It's just something you do.

In any case, I'm genuinely stumped about the particular conservative meme that Paul was promoting to the Howard students. His story, basically, is that Republicans were really good on civil rights and Democrats were really bad during the century after the Civil War. And sure, there's a certain amount of truth to that. Enough for a political schtick, anyway.

But what's the point of saying this? Everyone knows it. And everyone knows that Democrats very bravely destroyed their own electoral coalition in the 60s by repudiating racism and losing the South. It's one of the party's finest moments. And everyone—except Republicans, who consistently refuse to acknowledge this—knows that the GOP very cynically and deliberately hoovered up as much of that racist vote as they could after Democrats abandoned it. This is not rocket science. It's recent history, and everyone knows it. It's why blacks vote against the Republican Party at 90+ percent levels.

If you don't want to address that recent history, fine. Who can blame you? But what's the point of addressing your party's civil rights history at all if you don't also address its history after 1965? You can't possibly think it will get you anywhere, can you? On the contrary: it just makes you look cynical and smug. I don't get it.

Kermit Gosnell About to Become Right-Wing's Pet Rock for April

| Fri Apr. 12, 2013 10:41 AM PDT

Last night I was browsing through The Corner, and it was basically wall-to-wall coverage of the Kermit Gosnell case. This is a pretty grisly trial of a Philadelphia doctor who performed late-term abortions and killed the fetuses if they were delivered alive; conducted his business on a cash basis amid filthy conditions; spread disease among his patients; and caused the deaths of at least two of them. There's also a political angle: Gosnell was able to continue his practice only because of a massive breakdown among state and local oversight agencies that failed to shut him down. Conor Friedersdorf has a ton of detail here if you want to read more.

As grisly as this is, however, the really big story on the right is the fact that Gosnell isn't getting 24/7 coverage from the national media. Peter Kirsanow, in particular, believes the national media would normally be all over this story since most of Gosnell's patients were poor and black, and doesn't the national media love stories about people who abuse poor blacks?

In almost every other circumstance race is never irrelevant to the very same people who are maintaining complete radio silence on the Gosnell case. There’s a reason why the parody headline, “World Ends, Minorities and Women Hardest Hit” resonates. The elite media are rarely at a loss for highlighting racial disparities, whether real or imagined, in any story. But it’s hard to highlight racial disparities when you refuse to cover the story at all.

Also missing are the usual suspects who would rail against the responsible oversight authorities for their indifference to the plight of minorities. These usual suspects would normally ask — in this case perhaps justifiably — whether what allegedly happened in Gosnell’s clinic would be allowed to happen in a clinic largely patronized by whites. But again, as with the elite media, utter silence.

A hierarchy of priorities is thus revealed.

Obviously, conservatives believe the media is ignoring this story because it's about abortion, and the lefties who run our media empires hate stories that put abortion in a bad light. Alternatively, it could be because it's a Philadelphia story, and the national media doesn't usually give a lot of time to local cases like this. Frankly, I don't know—though I'll note that even the conservative media didn't give it a huge amount of coverage until fairly recently, when Gosnell's trial started.

But if the motivations of the mainstream press are hazy, the motivations of the conservative press are crystal clear: they want this case to get a lot of attention because it highlights a rogue abortion doctor. That's it. They wouldn't give it the time of day if it were merely a story of regulatory failure that caused the deaths of a few poor people in, say, a rogue inner city dentist's office.

Which is fine. If it were a rogue banker, I'd want to highlight it too. But that wouldn't mean the rest of the media would somehow be implicated in a conspiracy if they didn't follow my lead.

In any case, a reader emailed me a few minutes ago to make a prediction: "This story is about to bloom in a big way." Probably so. The conservative echo chamber is now pounding on this big time, and when that happens the mainstream media usually isn't far behind. It's likely, in fact, that this is about to become The Most Important Story In The World. Fasten your seat belts.