Kevin Drum - April 2013

Procreation and Gay Marriage: A Followup

| Tue Apr. 2, 2013 4:15 PM EDT

I generally dislike back-and-forth exchanges in the blogosphere because they inevitably—and surprisingly quickly!—degrade into tedious semantic quibbling. Once both sides have had their say, I figure it's best to call it quits and just let readers decide for themselves who they believe.

But I think I really do need to respond to Ross Douthat today. Douthat originally wrote that for the past ten years, the liberal side in the gay marriage debate has been "pressing the case that modern marriage has nothing to do with the way human beings reproduce themselves." I objected that the procreation argument had been originally injected into the debate by conservatives, not liberals. Here's Douthat today:

The notion that nobody would have entertained what Drum later calls the “esoteric” idea that marriage has an essential link to the way that human beings procreate if desperate social conservatives hadn’t grasped at it is apparently quite a popular view, judging by the fact that other writers raised it on Twitter over the weekend, and its popularity testifies to the way that the gay marriage debate has encouraged a strange historical amnesia about the origins of marriage law.

If gay marriage opponents had essentially invented a procreative foundation for marriage in order to justify opposing same-sex wedlock, it would indeed be telling evidence of a movement groping for reasons to justify its bigotry. But of course that essential connection was assumed in Western law and culture long before gay marriage emerged as a controversy or a cause.

The reason I'm responding is that I think there's just a misunderstanding here. There's no question that marriage has been associated with procreation and child rearing for thousands of years, and I don't think anyone would argue otherwise. I certainly wouldn't.

But I wasn't talking about thousands of years in my post, and neither was Douthat in his original column. We were talking about the past ten years. And I wasn't talking about the general connection of marriage with procreation, I was talking specifically about the notion that permitting gay marriage might cause straight couples to view the procreative functions of their own marriages differently.

My contention is that (a) this is indeed a fairly esoteric argument that few people would contrive on their own, and (b) it was indeed injected into the debate by the right. Liberals never mentioned it unless it was first brought up by a conservative as an argument against gay marriage. And while Douthat is certainly right that it didn't spring out of nowhere, it wasn't common to hear it in the 90s outside of activist circles. By the aughts, as other arguments began to lose their force, it started to become more mainstream.

I might be wrong about this, of course. But that's all I'm saying. I just wanted to clear that up before it becomes conventional wisdom that Kevin Drum is a nitwit who denies that marriage has ever had anything to do with procreation. (For example, here and here.)

I do have some other issues with Douthat's response, especially as it relates to the legal view of marriage, but if I indulge them I'll just be proving my point about back-and-forth arguments drifting quickly into tedious extraneous issues that few people care about. So I'll just shut up instead.

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Is Demand for High-Skill Workers Declining?

| Tue Apr. 2, 2013 2:19 PM EDT

I've written before about my belief that something happened to the economy around the year 2000. A whole bunch of different measures seem to have inflected right around then, and although the subsequent declines were partly masked by the housing bubble of the aughts, they were happening all along. When the Great Recession hit, a decade's worth of decline was telescoped into a couple of years.

Via Arnold Kling, a trio of researchers have a new paper out that points to yet another thing that appears to have suddenly inflected right around 2000: the demand for high-skill workers. Here's their key finding:

In Figure 12 we plot the fraction of individuals aged 18-65 employed in occupations that require substantial cognitive skills....This ratio increased substantially from 1980 to 2000, and then it appears to reach a plateau over the period 2000-2010. On this figure, we also report a (per capita) supply index for cognitive occupations.

....There are two key features of Figure 12 that we wish to highlight. First, from 1980 to about 2000, employment in cognitive jobs grew faster than the supply index, suggesting that demand for cognitive tasks outstripped supply. In contrast, after 2000, the supply index continued to grow at a similar rate as in the pre-2000 period, but cognitive employment stalled. We interpret these trends as suggesting that demand for cognitive jobs likely decreased over this second period.

The authors explain that the college premium for workers remains high regardless of this, because educated workers are simply getting pushed down the employment ladder, where they're performing more routine jobs. But many routine jobs are disappearing too, so workers in these occupations are getting pushed down too. A degree may not be as valuable as it once was, but relative to not having a degree, it's still pretty valuable.

But back to the original point: what happened starting around 2000 that could have dampened our previously growing demand for high-skill workers? The authors don't try to guess, but I will: steadily improving automation. More on this later.

Solar and Fracking: They Go Together Like Ham and Eggs

| Tue Apr. 2, 2013 12:30 PM EDT

David Roberts has an interesting post today summarizing a new report from Citi Research about renewable power and natural gas. Basically, it turns out they go together like ham and eggs.

Here's the nickel summary: Renewable energy tends to be sporadic (solar only during the day, wind only when it's windy, etc.), so if you rely heavily on renewable energy you need a secondary source that can be brought online and offline quickly to provide "peaking power." It turns out that gas-fired plants fill this bill nicely. What's more, as renewables expand even more, they start to eat into baseload power, and since baseload plants can't switch on and off off quickly, they'll no longer be economically viable and will get retired. That means even more natural gas.

The bad news here is that this means an ever expanding role for natural gas fracking. The good news is that it will mostly be replacing coal, so it's a net benefit. What's more, in the longer term, as renewables get ever cheaper and finally reach critical mass, there are ways to eliminate even most of the gas-fired plants:

The need for natural gas to play these two supporting roles [i.e., baseload and peak power] could be reduced and eliminated through a combination of wide geographic dispersion of renewables, a more robust grid, more energy storage, and more non-intermittent renewables like geothermal or biogas. But given how fast renewables are ramping up, and how far those other pieces are from being in place, natural-gas peakers are likely to play a key role for several decades to come.

....The message here is simple: take heart. Shale gas will not swamp and displace renewables, it will help them. Renewables will become cheaper than fossil fuels in the medium- to long-term. It’s happening now in some places, it will happen in others soon. Obviously the rise of renewables could be accelerated by policy, and should be. It won’t happen fast enough to avert the worst of climate change without a policy boost.

But it will happen. History is on the side of clean energy.

There's much more detail at the link. It's worth a read, because if this analysis is correct, it's going to provide some major heartburn for environmentalists. Fracking, for all its dangers, may turn out to be the least of our various fossil fuel evils.

Tennessee Now in Tight Race for Wingnut Crown

| Tue Apr. 2, 2013 11:17 AM EDT

Tennessee, which appears to be giving South Carolina a serious run for the title of Wingnut Central, is now at the forefront of one of the tea party's more peculiar pet rocks: repealing the 17th Amendment, by hook or by crook.

Why are they opposed to electing senators? Hard to say. It was a Bircher thing back in the 60s (Robert Welch was apparently convinced that it represented a poisonous concentration of power in the federal government), and now it's a thing again. The names change, but the obsessions just go on and on. There's probably no point in asking why.

Conservatives Still Don't Have a Health Care Plan

| Tue Apr. 2, 2013 10:52 AM EDT

Matt Yglesias, who's made of sterner stuff than me, read the cover story of National Review this week. It's a long, detailed description of a conservative replacement for Obamacare, and it's the same proposal that "serious" conservatives have been making for years. Here's the meat of it:

The core of a replacement would be a change in the tax treatment of health insurance. The tax break for coverage would be flattened and capped so that people would not get a bigger break the more comprehensive their insurance. The break would also be extended to people who do not have access to employer coverage....Once a robust market for individually purchased insurance has emerged, the problem of people who are locked out of that market because of preexisting conditions should diminish: People will have both the incentive and the ability to buy cheap, renewable catastrophic policies before getting sick.

What should I say about this? If I don't take it seriously, then I'm being snide and dismissive even though conservatives have done what I asked for and presented a real alternative to Obamacare. But if I do take it seriously, I'm just pretending. Because this plan is, and always has been, ridiculous. And conservatives know it.

Catastrophic insurance is already available to individuals, but there's no robust market for it. Nor will different tax treatment change that: Insurers will continue to discriminate based on health status; they won't offer renewable policies to everyone; and policies will remain too expensive for low-income workers. Being able to buy them with pretax dollars won't change that, since most low-income workers don't pay very much—or any—federal income tax in the first place. A tax credit or a subsidy might help, but then you're back to Obamacare—except that instead of offering poor people subsidies for actual health care, you're offering them only the opportunity to make premium payments for a policy that probably won't do them any good and that they can't afford. So they won't buy them.

So why does this proposal have such legs among the right? Partly it's because it's something, at least, and it has enough moving parts that you can fool some people into thinking it might work. But it's also due to the odd conservative obsession with the fact that health insurance, as currently provided, isn't true insurance. It doesn't protect you against big but unlikely events, like auto insurance or fire insurance. It simply pays for health care. And that's true. But who cares? Conservatives need to get beyond that semantic hobbyhorse and instead address the problem that most Americans want addressed: provision of health care. If you don't want to call it insurance, fine. Just call it health care coverage. And then explain how you're going to provide that cheaply and efficiently to as many people as possible.

Once you do that, you run into a hard, shiny nugget that you can't wiggle around: about a third of the country, maybe more, just flatly can't afford decent health care for their families. No amount of smooth talk about HSAs and tax treatment and catastrophic care will change that. So you can either pay for this coverage via tax dollars or you can let them go without, and chalk it up to nature red in tooth and claw.

Insurance is a red herring. It's not the primary cause of high health care costs in America, and offering different kinds of insurance, or making it available across state lines, won't change things by more than a hair. The problem is the actual provision of health care. If you want to do that via a private sector middleman, that's fine. Unnecessary, but fine. But you still have to pay for the actual health care somehow. When conservatives have a plan for that, let me know.

Map of the Day: Who Tells the World About Your Country?

| Tue Apr. 2, 2013 9:34 AM EDT

Mark Graham recently tallied up the nationality of people who make edits to Wikipedia. He found, for example, that 85 percent of edits to articles about America are made by Americans. Conversely, only 9 percent of edits about Kenya are made by Kenyans. His advice:

Some parts of the world are represented on one of the world's most-used websites predominantly by local people, while others are almost exclusively created by foreigners, something to bear in mind next time you read a Wikipedia article.

Graham's map is below. Via Zoe Pollock.

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Why the Euro is Doomed

| Tue Apr. 2, 2013 12:58 AM EDT

Matthew O'Brien on why Europe's common currency is doomed:

The euro is the gold standard minus the shiny rocks.

Read the whole thing, which is a pretty good summary of, um, why the euro is doomed. I agree with it, but I also suffer from cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, all the fundamentals—which O'Brien summarizes admirably—say that the euro can't survive. On the other hand, I can't believe that Europe will ever let the euro fail. Obviously one of these beliefs is wrong. The latter, I suspect, but I'm hardly completely sure of that.

For a related take, but with a somewhat different emphasis, my version of O'Brien's argument is here.

Breaking: Politicizing Religious Worship Now a Bad Thing

| Mon Apr. 1, 2013 11:18 PM EDT

Apparently, during a sermon attended by President Obama yesterday, Rev. Luis León said this:

It drives me crazy when the captains of the religious right are always calling us back ... for blacks to be back in the back of the bus ... for women to be back in the kitchen ... for immigrants to be back on their side of the border. The message of Easter is about the power of love over loveless power.

OK, that's probably not especially appropriate for an Easter sermon. At the same time, this is a little hard to take seriously:

"It’s sad when clergy egregiously politicize worship," Mark Tooley, president of the conservative Christian organization Institute on Religion and Democracy, wrote in one of several blogs and articles that have criticized the sermon. "Is this characterization of religious conservatives as racists, chauvinists and bigots really fair and accurate? And if political critique of religious conservatives were appropriate in an Easter sermon, couldn’t León offer a thoughtful analysis rather than snide smugness?"

Is the religious right really now taking the position that religious worship shouldn't be politicized? It's a little late to start complaining about it now, isn't it?

Twitter, Addiction, and Changing Social Norms

| Mon Apr. 1, 2013 10:48 PM EDT

I see there's some discussion of Twitter today on the blogosphere. I'm going to use it to make the most outlandish point possible. Watch as I attempt this death-defying feat.

Ahem. So Nick Beaudrot gave up Twitter for Lent. And he liked it! "After two days without Twitter, I barely missed it; by the second week, I was downright happy not to be thinking about 'staying on top' of my feed." Ezra Klein says "amen":

The problem isn’t Twitter, exactly. Twitter, like so much else, is excellent when consumed in moderation. But it’s also an unusually addictive product, and it has certain unusual properties that help it crowd out other information streams.

....[Compared to those other information streams,] Twitter elicits a more poisonous information anxiety. It moves so fast that if I’m not continuously checking in, I completely lose track of the conversation — and it’s almost impossible to figure out what happened three hours ago, much less two days ago. I can’t save Twitter for later, and thus there’s always a pressure to check Twitter now. Twitter ends up taking more of my time than I’d like it to, as there’s a constant reason to check it rather than, say, reading a magazine article.

It's not just Twitter. It's broader than that. Within the verbal, well-educated, politically conscious social group that most bloggers belong to, we've always been expected to keep up with things. The problem is that "keeping up" increasingly means being surrounded by an endless torrent of tweets, texts, blogs, and Tumblrs demanding our attention. With traditional physical forms of news consumption no longer acting as natural limits, the risk of relapse into obsession is never more than a ringtone away, with nothing but raw self discipline as our last line of defense. Modern social norms don't allow us to turn this stuff off completely, but for those of us who are vulnerable to this kind of addiction, ever advancing technology conspires to turn us into nervous wrecks if we don't.

You may or may not feel much sympathy for this problem. I don't, because I don't have any problem limiting my news consumption. I dip into Twitter whenever I feel like it, I don't bother with Tumblr, and I mark all my RSS feeds read at the end of the day whether I've actually read them or not. For lots of people, though, it's not that easy. It's a real headache.

So here's my outlandish point: if you do feel any sympathy for this problem, you should probably also feel some sympathy for conservative warnings about the breakdown of traditional social norms. In our own social group (verbal, educated, etc.), we tend to look at things like declining marriage rates and easier access to drugs as generally neutral or positive. That's because we mostly have the self discipline to regulate our own behavior even when laws and norms loosen up, and we have robust social networks to help us out if our self discipline breaks down. But that's not universally true in every social group. Many of the things that seem harmless to us—the way Twitter seems harmless to me—are real problems for people with poor educations, poor impulse control, and weak social networks.

We probably don't think about this as much as we should, and conservatives don't help by crying wolf over every single social change they happen to dislike. But it's something to think about anyway.

Hating on the Rentier Class

| Mon Apr. 1, 2013 4:23 PM EDT

Mike Konczal wrote a column over the weekend suggesting that an "anti-rentier" agenda had some potential to unite left and right. Reihan Salam comments:

Konczal also identifies tensions between what we might describe as the anti-rentier agenda of the right, which tends to focus on how state interventions serve the interests of incumbents and wealthy, influential individuals, and the anti-rentier agenda of the left, which is more concerned about the dangers of wealth concentration as such and the market power of firms that flourish in an open, lightly-regulated economy, due to first-mover advantages, network effects, and much else.

Is this really a serious agenda anywhere on the right? I've occasionally seen committed libertarians make the point that state interventions often serve the interests of economic incumbents, but even that's rare.1 Outside of that, there's Tim Carney and....

Anyone else? Any actual working Republican politicians, for example? Maybe I'm missing something, but it sure seems to me that the Republican Party is pretty firmly dedicated to defending the privileges of big corporations and the rich. Has there been a tectonic shift that I'm not aware of?

1It's even rarer to see them arguing against state intervention because it would benefit the rich too much. In fact, I'm not sure I ever remember seeing an example of this.