Kevin Drum - 2013

Judge OKs Google Project to Scan All the World's Books

| Thu Nov. 14, 2013 2:05 PM EST

Tim Lee reports that Google has won a big victory for its plan to scan the world's books and make them accessible via the web. Judge Denny Chin of the Southern District of New York ruled today that Google's project constituted fair use and therefore wasn't a copyright violation:

Fair use rulings focus on four factors. Of these, the most important is whether the use of the work is "transformative." Chin ruled that Google Books passes this test easily.

"Google Books digitizes books and transforms expressive text into a comprehensive word index that helps readers, scholars, researchers, and others find books," he wrote. "Google Books does not supersede or supplant books because it is not a tool to be used to read books."

....He rejected authors' arguments that people could use the search engine to assemble copies of entire books out of the short "snippets" Google displays in search results. Chin noted that this was impossible because Google, anticipating this objection, deliberately excludes about 10 percent of the text in each book from being displayed in search results.

This ruling will be appealed, of course, so this isn't the end. But it's a good start.

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Is Darrell Issa Becoming an Albatross to the Republican Party?

| Thu Nov. 14, 2013 12:33 PM EST

Let's talk about Darrell Issa. He's a Republican attack dog, and that's fine. Every party has people like that. But Issa is now the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, which means (in practice) that he's the guy charged with harrying and annoying the Obama administration with maximum effectiveness. The problem is that he keeps misfiring. He has a habit of releasing partial transcripts that look incriminating but turn out to be nothingburgers once the full transcript comes out. He continues to press ludicrously overwrought theories that he simply can't prove. Yesterday he got caught out once again when an administration witness flatly contradicted one of his latest wild charges. Steve Benen has the deets.

So here's my question: Is Darrell Issa effective? My instinct is to say no: Republicans would be better off with someone who builds careful, methodical cases and scores some genuinely damaging points. But then, you'd expect me to say that, wouldn't you? I'm the kind of person who appreciates careful and methodical cases.

Alternatively, the answer is that politics ain't beanbag, and keeping up maximum pressure at all times is an opposition party's best bet. If 99 percent of the mud you throw doesn't stick, who cares? Shake it off and throw some more. Eventually you'll find something damaging, and in the meantime all the mud really does have an effect. Low-information voters see a constant drip of spectacular charges and vaguely decide that where there's smoke, there's fire. They may not quite know what's wrong, but it sure feels as if something is wrong.

So which is it? I can't help but think that Issa really is hurting himself here by shredding his credibility on an almost daily basis. On the other hand, he's been doing this stuff for three years now, and the press continues to eagerly lap up everything he says. No matter how many times he does it, they seem to be afraid that this time he might really have something, so they'd better play along.

I dunno. Issa's ego is huge, but he's no dummy. He obviously has reason to believe he can get away with this stuff forever. After all, during his Whitewater attack-dog days, Dan Burton pulled the same partial transcript trick that Issa loves, and it seemed to cause him no more than some momentary embarrassment. Maybe there really is method to his madness.

Watson Not Just for Jeopardy! Anymore

| Thu Nov. 14, 2013 11:50 AM EST

IBM plans to make Watson, the computer that beat the all-time Jeopardy! champs, available on the web to everyone. But why? In addition to the PR value for its cloud computing business, I suspect the answer is at the bottom of this New York Times story:

Besides gaining bragging rights and a much bigger customer base, IBM may be accelerating the growth of Watson’s power by putting it in the cloud. Mr. Gold said that Watson would retain learning from each customer interaction, gaining the ability to do things like interacting in different languages or identifying human preferences. IBM has taken steps to keep these improvements for its own benefit, by retaining rights in user agreements that customers are required to sign.

Once it's publicly available, Watson is going to receive a tidal wave of new interactions that it can learn from. Basically, the public will be doing IBM's beta testing for it. Everybody wins.

Obama Dares Insurance Companies to Put Up or Shut Up

| Thu Nov. 14, 2013 11:04 AM EST

Here's the latest on Obamacare:

The White House on Thursday will announce a plan for allowing insurance companies to continue offering existing individual insurance policies even if they fall short of the coverage standards set by the 2010 health-care law, a Democratic official briefed on the plan said.

....The plan, which the official said could be implemented without passing legislation, would allow insurance companies to extend "substandard'' plans in 2014 only if they are already in existence. Unlike the House bill, the administration plan wouldn't allow insurance companies to offer such plans to new customers.

Here's my guess: this is primarily a put-up-or-shut-up move from Obama, not a plan designed to really fix the problem of canceled policies. I base this on two things.

First, I think insurance companies are mostly allowed to do this already. Second, I think that most of the canceled policies have been canceled because insurance companies wanted to cancel them. They were designed in the first place to entice buyers away from their old grandfathered policies, and insurance companies did this explicitly so that they would be free to cancel them when 2014 rolled around. This allowed insurers to replace them with more expensive policies without taking any heat for it. They could just blame it on Obamacare.

This is just speculation on my part, so don't take it to the bank. But I think Obama's main goal here is to remove this handy excuse. He's basically daring insurers to go ahead and reissue the old policies. If they don't do it, it means that Obamacare was never really responsible for the cancellations in the first place. And if the insurers see that their bluff is being called and decide they don't want to take the PR hit, then the old policies get reissued and everyone is happy. It's a win-win for Obama.

There are more details to this, including its intersection with state laws and the size of the price increase insurers would attach to re-issued policies. But I suspect this is basically the shape of the river here.

Chris Christie's Failure Shows Just How Popular He Is

| Thu Nov. 14, 2013 10:48 AM EST

Former New Jersey governor Tom Kean is apparently pretty annoyed with Chris Christie, partly for personal reasons and partly because Christie failed to help any other Republicans get elected to the state legislature. Dave Weigel:

The full failure of Christie's "coattails" campaign is only now being known. Christie had wanted to win the state senate, cutting ads and campaigning for key candidates. None of his challengers unseated any Democrats. The total Republican gain in the Assembly appears to be... one. That's better than 2011, when Democrats gained a seat, but even if you factor in the gerrymander that protects Democrats, Kean and other Republicans are amazed that Christie could win by 21 points and carry almost nobody along with him.

OK, but isn't there another way of looking at this? It shows just how popular Christie is personally even in a state that shows no sign whatsoever of warming up to Republicans in general. That's fairly remarkable.

I'll admit this a slatepitchy kind of argument to make, and I don't know if I really even believe it. Weigel is certainly right that this leaves Christie in the unenviable position of having to scrape and compromise with Democrats for the next few years, something that's unlikely to help his presidential ambitions much. If his compromises succeed, he's a sellout. If they fail, he's a guy who can't get anything done. That kind of sucks.

Still! His personal brand is obviously pretty sky high. That has to count for something.

Quote of the Day: The 4th Amendment Takes Another Hit

| Thu Nov. 14, 2013 1:09 AM EST

From Justice Sonia Sotomayor, sighing over a likely ruling in a warrantless search case:

So there's nothing left to Randolph. Police just remove the person.

In Georgia vs. Randolph, the Supreme Court ruled that police were not allowed to search the home of a man who stood in the doorway and objected, even though his wife gave her consent. In a case heard today, Fernandez vs. California, a robbery suspect named Walter Fernandez refused to allow police to search his apartment. They arrested him, and then came back an hour later and got permission from Fernandez's girlfriend to conduct a search. Most of the justices seemed to think this was just fine, which is what prompted Sotomayor's bleak remarks. Randolph really doesn't mean anything if all the police have to do is remove you from your doorway and then come back a few minutes later. So the 4th Amendment takes yet another hit.

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Why Does Fiscal Stimulus Work?

| Wed Nov. 13, 2013 10:54 PM EST

I'm curious about something. It's far enough above my pay grade that I'm a little reluctant to even write about it, but here goes anyway.

John Cochrane, an economist at the University of Chicago who's a frequent punching bag for Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman, wrote a post a few days ago that critiqued the Old and New Keynesian views of fiscal stimulus when we're at the zero lower bound (i.e., when interest rates have been reduced to zero and the economy is still sluggish). The mathematical details are over my head, but I still found it kind of interesting and was curious to see what DeLong and Krugman thought of it.

Well, they finally got around to reading it, and unsurprisingly, they're pretty harsh toward Cochrane (DeLong here, Krugman here). But I was a little disappointed in their responses. They have plenty of detailed issues with Cochrane, many of which strike me as well taken. But I didn't feel like they ever addressed Cochrane's core argument. He isn't insisting that stimulus doesn't work.1 Instead, he's taking aim at the stories economists use to explain why they think stimulus works. In his words, here's the Old Keynesian multiplier story:

More government spending, even if on completely useless projects, "puts money in people's pockets." Those people in turn go out and spend, providing more income for others, who go out and spend, and so on. We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Saving is the enemy, as it lowers the marginal propensity to consume and reduces this multiplier.

But Cochrane says that New Keynesian models don't support this story at all. When you take a look into their guts, NK models posit an entirely different underlying mechanism for why fiscal stimulus works:

If you want to use new-Keynesian models to defend stimulus, do it forthrightly: "The government should spend money, even if on totally wasted projects, because that will cause inflation, inflation will lower real interest rates, lower real interest rates will induce people to consume today rather than tomorrow, we believe tomorrow's consumption will revert to trend anyway, so this step will increase demand. We disclaim any income-based "multiplier," sorry, our new models have no such effect, and we'll stand up in public and tell any politician who uses this argument that it's wrong."

So....is this right? Or wrong? Do New Keynesians believe that the "putting money in people's pockets" story is a good one? Or do they think the justification for fiscal stimulus is different, and that NK models produce old-style multiplier-like results only by coincidence? Are multipliers just a handy mathematical shortcut? Or is it really a crowding-out story we should be telling, not a multiplier story? (This is how I usually think about it.) Or perhaps Cochrane is unfairly oversimplifying NK models, which take into account more than just consumption and interest rates?

I have an unfortunate feeling that pretty much nobody but me is interested in this, but I guess you never know. Maybe someone will take a crack at explaining it.

1In fact, Cochrane is not much of a fan of fiscal stimulus. But that's not the point of this particular post.

UPDATE: Simon Wren-Lewis suggests that most modern Keynesians assume there are two basic types of consumers. One is living paycheck to paycheck and spends pretty much 100 percent of any additional income they get. These consumers fit the Old Keynesian multiplier model. Other consumers are richer and save all or most of any new income they get. Their behavior fits the New Keynesian model. Put it all together, and a complete model ends up being sort of an OK/NK hybrid.

I've badly oversimplified Wren-Lewis's post, so be sure to read the whole thing if you're interested enough to want the real story.

Is the Obamacare Rollout Getting Better? A Second Look.

| Wed Nov. 13, 2013 2:35 PM EST

So how bad is the Obamacare website? This morning I said things were pretty bad, but I've seen some pushback on this. Here's Josh Marshall:

Talked to a few knowledgeable people today. Not so sure people shld be putting much stock in the WaPo piece about the Dec. 1 deadline

Well, it's true that although the WaPo piece said the federal website is unlikely to "work fully" by the end of November, it also said that it would probably be able to handle 20-30,000 simultaneous users. That's not great, but it might not be catastrophic either. If other components can be put in place to ease the load (phone signups, paper signups, insurance company signups, etc.), it would probably allow things to hobble along.

Another reader passed along this Daily Kos piece that suggests progress is being made and most of the problems are fixable. It's interesting reading, though I can't truly evaluate how knowledgeable it is. You'll have to decide for yourself.

More generally, there's the political problem of whether congressional Democrats are starting to crack, which could lead to them signing on to a Republican plan that might allow some people to opt out of Obamacare temporarily. Josh Marshall writes today that this could cripple Obamacare from the start:

For Democrats and especially the President (who can kill any fix with his pen), it's time for the big gut check, one that's not only about 2014 but stretches back into the 1940s and has implications probably decades into the future.

....There are a range of 'fix' plans circulating through Congress right now....I don't know the details well enough to know which are impediments and which are poison pills....[But if] you don't get everyone into the system with at least a base level solid policy there just isn't enough money to cover the sick and the 'bad risks' of people with pre-existing conditions.

So as I said, it's a gut check moment for Democrats. One factual and political point that is getting very little attention is just how many people are affected — people losing policies who will need to pay substantially more without subsidies. This is a critical point and I've seen virtually no reliable data. It's all been a political fog. It is clearly a very, very small part of the population and there is abundant evidence that vastly more people are or soon will have reduced premiums or be able to get insurance that they couldn't get before. The 'winners' greatly outnumber the losers.

....But back to that gut check. Allowing the people with little or no care to stay out of the system makes about as much sense as two people in a canoe on rough water deciding that maybe it will get better if you both stand up. Market failure in the transition to a new system like this can come really hard and fast if you pull the legs out of under it. It took almost 20 years to revisit Health Care after the 1994 debacle. You can only imagine how long it would be if Dems run for the hills now.

So take some hits and let this work its way through or run for the hills and maybe discredit any plan to ensure coverage for all for decades to come....Democrats need to make a choice. And the President does too. It may not be an easy one if they can't get the exchanges in motion rapidly and get the 'plus' sides in motion and visible. But this is the moment when we're going to see what the decision is. And I suspect some stiffening of spines will have to come from the president.

Yep. There's no running away from Obamacare if you're a Democrat. So put all the pressure you want on Obama to get things fixed, but you'd better stick together even if things get tougher than they are now. If you don't hang together, you will surely all hang separately.

The Tea Party Really Isn't Anything Very New

| Wed Nov. 13, 2013 1:56 PM EST

Rick Perlstein writes in the Nation this week that the Tea Party is nothing new. Conservative insurgencies have been part of the Republican firmament since at least the 1950s, and every one of them has roughly the same goals, roughly the same motivations, and roughly the same apocalyptic view of politics. Regular readers know that I agree with this, so I was naturally nodding along as I read Perlstein's piece. I also nodded along at this, which comes after a passage in which Perlstein is dumbfounded that liberals still seem surprised by the fervor of reactionary groups like the Tea Party:

This time, liberals are also making a new mistake. Call it “racial defeatism.” Folks throw their hands up and say, “Of course reactionary rage is going to flow like mighty waters against an African-American president! What can we possibly do about that?” But it’s crucial to realize that the vituperation directed at Obama is little different from that aimed at John F. Kennedy, who was so hated by the right that his assassination was initially assumed by most observers to have been done by a conservative; or Bill Clinton, who was warned by Helms in 1994 that if he visited a military base in North Carolina, he’d “better have a bodyguard.”

All right-wing antigovernment rage in America bears a racial component, because liberalism is understood, consciously or unconsciously, as the ideology that steals from hard-working, taxpaying whites and gives the spoils to indolent, grasping blacks. Racial rhetoric has been entwined with government from the start, all the way back to when the enemy was not Obamacare but the Grand Army of the Republic....Every time the government acts to expand the prerogatives of citizenship and economic opportunity to formerly disenfranchised groups, a racism-soaked backlash ensues. Defeatism—or ideological accommodation—only makes it worse.

I don't doubt for a second that the racial component of the latest right-wing fluorescence is stronger because Obama is black. But it's only modestly stronger, and you hardly need to go back to JFK to see this. It's easy to think of Bill Clinton today as a cuddly, beloved elder statesman, but anyone over the age of 40 knows that Clinton lived through an eruption of right-wing rage that was every bit as bad as what Obama has gone through. Even the specific obsessions of the wingers weren't even very different. Health care socialism? Check. Economy-killing taxes? Check. Gay rights destroying America as we know it? Check. Supposed juvenile drug use? Check. Endless faux scandals and corruption? Check. Government shutdown? Check. Deficit hysteria? Check. Ball-busting wife? Check. The similarities, frankly, are pretty stunning.

The differences are on the margin. There were no birthers in the 90s, but there were all the black babies Clinton supposedly fathered. There was no Benghazi, but there was Black Hawk Down. There was no Solyndra or Fast & Furious, but there was Mena airfield and Monica's blue dress. You work with what you have, so the details are always going to be different. But the melody is pretty much the same.

Tea partiers don't hate Obama because he's black, they hate him because he's a Democrat, and Democrats are forever taking away their money and giving it to the indolent. And while being black probably hurts Obama a bit with this crowd in a way that Clinton avoided, being a philanderer hurt Clinton in a way that Obama has avoided. In the end, I suspect it's mostly a wash. Perlstein is right: Obama was destined to be hated by the reactionary right no matter what.

Am I Really Ambi-Cognitive?

| Wed Nov. 13, 2013 12:23 PM EST

Megan McArdle just made me waste 30 seconds on a test that's designed to show whether I'm left- or right-brained. The answer, supposedly, is that I use both sides equally, which strikes me as fairly unlikely. I'm also suspicious of the test. One question asks, "Put your hand on your head. Which hand did you use?" Well, I used my left hand, but that's because my right hand was on the mouse. So does that count?

But forget the kvetching. Here's one question that perplexed me: "Look at an object and close one eye. Which eye is still open?" I did that, and my right eye was open. But just as I clicked that answer, I realized something was wrong. I'm left eyed. When I look through a camera viewfinder, for example, I always use my left eye. Using my right eye would feel as awkward as using my left hand to write.

But, in fact, if I just close an eye to look at something in the distance, I do indeed close my left eye and use my right eye. I just tried this a few times, and it turns out there are two reasons for this. First, I have better control over my left eye muscles, so closing my left eye is a little easier than closing my right eye. Second, my right eye seems more comfortable to use, even though I'm wearing glasses that correct both eyes to 20/20.

And yet, I still use my left eye for a camera viewfinder (or a microscope or a telescope or anything similar), and I always have. That's kind of weird. I wonder what accounts for it?