I'm reading a lot of commentary about President Obama's press conference today that goes something like this:

  • It's nice that Obama finally acknowledged problems with the healthcare website.
  • But then there was all this happy talk about how things will be fine eventually because lots of people are working hard to fix the bugs. That's unacceptable! This has been a disaster! He needs to fire some people and make it clear that he knows just how bad things are.

Come on. Obama probably knows perfectly well how bad things are. But presidents never fully acknowledge an unfolding disaster on their watch. Their whole schtick is to be grave and serious, but never to make people feel gloomy and depressed. When FDR said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, he was obviously bullshitting. We had a helluva lot more to fear than that. But he said it anyway, because it was uplifting and comforting, and it made people feel better about ultimately recovering from the Great Depression. Obama is doing the same thing. He doesn't want people to give up on ACA, he wants them to feel confident that we're ultimately going to recover from its problems.

Maybe eventually heads will roll over this. I don't know. But when you're in the middle of a battle, you don't usually start firing people, and you don't tell the troops that we're surrounded on all sides and we're probably doomed. You tell them that things are tough, but the cavalry is on the way and everything will be OK if we just keep our heads together. You give them a pep talk. What Obama did today isn't a sign that he's out of touch. It was what every president in history has always done.

Every once in a while I get an email from a regular reader insisting that the troll infestation in the comment section is so bad that it can't possibly be organic. Some of these guys have to be paid professionals who are executing a deliberate strategy. I've always poo-poohed this, but maybe I shouldn't have. Via Media Matters, here's an excerpt from David Folkenflik's forthcoming book Murdoch's World, about the Fox PR department's systematic effort to counter anti-Fox criticism:

On the blogs, the fight was particularly fierce. Fox PR staffers were expected to counter not just negative and even neutral blog postings but the anti-Fox comments beneath them. One former staffer recalled using twenty different aliases to post pro-Fox rants. Another had one hundred. Several employees had to acquire a cell phone thumb drive to provide a wireless broadband connection that could not be traced back to a Fox News or News Corp account. Another used an AOL dial-up connection, even in the age of widespread broadband access, on the rationale it would be harder to pinpoint its origins. Old laptops were distributed for these cyber operations. Even blogs with minor followings were reviewed to ensure no claim went unchecked.

Do they still do this? Beats me. And obviously most trolls have wider interests than just defending Fox. Still, it shows that the idea of hordes of professional trolls isn't quite as far-fetched as I might have thought.

I haven't read Tyler Cowen's Average Is Over, but I'm familiar with its basic thesis: smart machines are going to put lots of people out of work over the next few decades, and this is going to substantially increase income inequality. A small number of very smart people will do really well, while the broad middle class will end up with bleak, low-paying jobs—assuming they're lucky enough to have any jobs at all.

Obviously I agree, as readers of the May issue of Mother Jones know. And since I enjoy reading opposing arguments, I was curious to see what James Bessen had to say about this today over at The Switch. Unfortunately, the answer is: nothing much. "People have been predicting that technology will kill the middle class since Karl Marx," he says. "They have generally been wrong."

Well, yes, they have. Unfortunately, that's his entire argument. The Industrial Revolution didn't put everyone out of work, and neither did 80s-era technology like ATMs and accounting software. Therefore, 2030s-era technology won't either.

This is, literally, the worst possible case you can make for the continued relevance of the middle class. To say that "intelligent machines per se are not new," as Bessen does, wildly misrepresents both intelligence and machines. No machine built before about 2010 has had anything even remotely resembling true intelligence. Not spinning machines that stopped if a thread broke, and not ATMs or accounting programs. Even now, the smartest machines out there display only the barest glimmers of intelligence. We simply don't have either the software or the hardware to do it. The machines that people like Cowen and I are predicting for the 2030s just flatly have no analog to previous machines.

Those machines won't need help from ordinary humans. In fact, as they get smarter and smarter, they won't need much help from really smart humans either. Eventually, they won't need any help at all. Past machines always did, and that's the decisive difference. If you wave this away, you're missing the whole debate. You're pretending to argue without actually addressing the main point of the techno-optimists: What happens to human labor when machines are smart enough that they need virtually no human guidance at all?

Bessen simply ignores this possibility. Apparently he thinks that future machines will get a little bit smarter, but will remain just dumb enough that they'll continue to need constant attention from an army of folks who graduated from high school with a C+ average. But if that turns out to be the case, there's really no interesting conversation to be had. The future will be pretty much like the present. Why even bother talking about it?

But the evidence suggests, rather, that we're on the cusp of big changes. Machines in the future will be a lot smarter than current machines, and they won't need constant attention from much of anyone. If you want to engage with this debate, you need to present a cogent argument that either (a) machines will never get all that smart, or (b) even if they do, there will still be a substantial role for average humans to play. Bessen does neither.

Dave Weigel reads the tea leaves from Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donohue this morning, and concludes that the business community isn't going to press for comprehensive immigration reform anytime soon:

Donohue's sounding more amenable to the House conservatives' approach to immigration reform, splitting up enforcement provisions (easily passed in the House) from legalization provisions (not as easily), not allowing a conference committee to merge the proposals. Josten is talking up the conference committee without making demands. The Chamber isn't nudging the GOP to do anything more than conservatives are asking. So much (again!) for a Tea Party-business split.

I agree about the much-ballyhooed business/tea party split. It could still happen, but the truth is that the business wing and the tea party wing of the Republican Party aren't really that far apart. In the budget showdown, for example, the preferred course of most of the business community was for Republicans to push as hard as they possibly could but to back down at the last second if they had to. And guess what? That's exactly what they did. What's not to like?

As for immigration reform, would the business community like to see a comprehensive bill pass? Sure, probably. Is it a huge priority? No, not really. Are they willing to go along with the obvious reality that it can't pass the House? It sure sounds like it.

Nor is the piecemeal approach going to go anywhere. The whole point of comprehensive reform, roughly speaking, is that conservatives get something they want (tougher enforcement) in return for giving liberals something they want (broader legalization). Will Democrats vote for individual enforcement provisions without the legalization provisions? Never say never, but they'd be idiots to do it unless the House agrees to a conference committee that stitches everything together into one big bill. Democrats know pefectly well that once you give away all the enforcement stuff, Republicans no longer have any incentive to ever address legalization. It's the only stick they have.

So as long as House Republicans stick to their guns and refuse to go to conference, immigration reform is dead. It's possible that some kind of very minor bargain can be forged. Maybe stiffer E-Verify requirements in return for more H1-B visas, for example. But it's hard to see how you get much more than that, and it sure doesn't sound like the business community is going to push for more.

CNN has a new poll out today, and it shows that people are pretty unhappy with congressional Republicans right now. We already knew this, and I doubt that public irritation will last long, so I'm not all that interested. However, there's something else in the poll that mindful readers have known for a while but that has never gotten as much attention as it deserves: Opinions about Obamacare are less hostile than most polls suggest.

In one sense, I don't want to make too much of this. Only 41 percent of respondents favor Obamacare as it is, and that's a pretty feeble number. At the same time, when we talk about "opposition" to Obamacare, we're almost always talking about conservative opposition. And the plain fact is that conservative opposition is mostly limited to....conservatives. Everyone else either likes Obamacare or wants even more. (Or doesn't care.)

Add to this the well-known fact that nearly all the specific features of Obamacare (except the individual mandate) poll pretty strongly, and the picture that emerges is that most of the country favors Obamacare as either a good idea or a good first step. This explains why repeal of Obamacare generally polls poorly: many of the people who "oppose" Obamacare want to build on it, not repeal it. They're just disappointed that it's not a genuine single-payer program.

This means, of course, that tea partiers are right: once Obamacare is up and running, it will almost certainly become popular pretty quickly and will become impossible to repeal. That's why they were so desperate to take one last crack at defunding it. It's also why it's so important for Team Obama to fix their website problems ASAP. The truth is that Obamacare is reasonably popular and most people are willing to give it a chance to succeed. But that tolerance won't last forever.

Happy Birthday to Me

Happy birthday to me! I'm 55. I think this post just about sums things up.

Yesterday the Cardinals ruined my pre-birthday festivities. I hope the Irish are a little more accommodating today.

UPDATE: Oh, and happy birthday to Jim Henley and Grover Norquist and Amy Carter too. And especially to Michael Steele, who is also 55 today.

This week we have another mystery quilt, where you receive the instructions bit by bit and watch the design take shape before your eyes. It's called "Stitches in Time," and it was machine pieced and hand quilted.

I am informed by the quilter-in-chief that Domino's favorite new activity is to jump on the bed and lick Marian's eyelids in the middle of the night. We are all eager for this to stop and for Domino to find some other favorite new activity.

This is hilarious in a pathetic kind of way: last Friday, Sean Hannity invited three "regular families" onto his show to relate their horror stories about premium hikes and business-killing regulations under Obamacare. Eric Stern decided to call all three of them to find out what was really going on.

Answer: nothing. One of them was apparently just lying, and the other two hadn't even checked the exchanges, where they would have found that they could get better coverage for considerably less than they're paying now.

That's just sad. Hannity runs a big-time show with well-paid producers, but they apparently couldn't find even a single true example of someone who got screwed by Obamacare. How hard can that be? Even liberals acknowledge that some people will end up worse off. But Hannity's staff couldn't be bothered. I guess he figures his audience doesn't really deserve any better.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R–NC) was the author of a House pledge to vote against any Continuing Resolution that didn't defund Obamacare. Dave Weigel caught up to him and asked if he planned to write another letter when the current CR runs out:

"We're not going to need to because the president has said he's willing to negotiate when there's not a gun to his head," said Meadows. "We'll fix all the problems between now and then. I'm gonna hold him to his word—his word was that he was willing to negotiate now, and that's what we all expect." Obviously Meadows could change his mind in a few months, but I was struck how pragmatic he wanted to sound.

Hmmm. I'm pretty sure that Obama didn't mean he was willing to negotiate about defunding his signature health care bill once the gun was lowered, so I wouldn't count on anything along those lines. I'd say that ordinary budget negotiations are more along the lines of what he had in mind.

Which is too bad. There are actually details of Obamacare that I suspect Obama and his allies really would like to fix, and they might be able to give Republicans a few things they want in return. But I'm pretty sure that Republicans are still salivating over Obamacare's imminent collapse once it gets up and running, and are entirely unwilling to do anything that might actually make it function more smoothly. So that's probably out.

And on a related subject, remember how we all figured that once the budget shutdown was over, conservative sites would finally be freed to start banging away on the problems with the Obamacare website? Well, over at The Corner, seven of the top dozen posts right now are about exactly that. It's the top story on Drudge. It's at the top of the blog feed at the Weekly Standard. I count seven Obamacare stories on the front page at Fox News. Red State has two. Etc. This is what it would have been like 24/7 for the past two weeks if Ted Cruz and his merry band of own-goalers hadn't hijacked the national conversation and made people actually start to feel kind of sorry for Obamacare.

Matt Yglesias thinks it's time to give China a break:

I've lost track of how many years we're into the story of "debt-burdened China and its unsustainable investment-fueled growth are about to crash and burn" but this morning came the news of a rebound in economic growth despite a fall in exports after a couple of down quarters. Naturally the news article is nonetheless filled with gloom and doom about bad debts and overinvestment and blah blah blah.

And to be clear, I think that two things are true. One is that as China gets richer and richer its growth rate is going to be on a downward trajectory. The other is that if you predict a Chinese financial crisis every month for enough straight months, eventually the Chinese financial crisis will occur.

True dat. Unfortunately, this is probably evidence not that China won't crash, but that bubbles can almost always be sustained longer than people think. In the U.S. serious people started to bang the drum about the housing bubble as early as 2002, and by 2005 everyone was tired of it. But the very next year, the market peaked and started its epic collapse.

Nonetheless, I agree with Yglesias. That's not to say China will never suffer from a recession. It will, just like every other country. But its real problems are less bubblific in nature than they are structural and long-term: aging demographics, rising wages, global competition, and the automation of the workplace. Getting to a per capita GDP of $10,000 has been an amazing achievement, but getting to $20,000 is going to be a lot harder.