Kevin Drum - 2013menu-mediakit-secondary

Santa Claus Points the Way to Our Robot-Filled Future

| Tue Dec. 24, 2013 12:21 PM EST

Dean Baker writes today that the Washington Post should be less worried. Their writers seem to think that eventually robots will take away all our jobs, but their editorial page is worried about bankrupting the country via spending on Social Security and Medicare. But you really can't have both. If robots are beavering away producing everything we could possibly desire, then national bankruptcy is hardly a worry. Except, of course, for this:

There can of course be issues of distribution. If the one percent are able to write laws that allow them to claim everything the robots produce then they can make most of us very poor. But this is still a story of society of plenty. We can have all the food, shelter, health care, clean energy, etc. that we need; the robots can do it for us.

Yep. This is the issue. For all practical purposes, you can think of the elves in Santa's workshop as a bunch of robots. As near as I can tell, they work for free, they're insanely productive, and they produce as much stuff as Santa wants them to. So how is all this bounty distributed? Santa is smart enough to have figured out that capitalism won't really work in a situation like this, so he's adopted what's basically a centrally-planned Marxist system: he decides who's been naughty and who's been nice, and then distributes gifts accordingly.

That might not quite work for our robot-filled future, but something like it will. Distribution, as John Stuart Mill pointed out more than a century ago, is really the most important question in economics. In the future, it will only get even more important.

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Why Does the NYT Dialect Map Think I Come From Stockton?

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 9:58 PM EST

Everyone's favorite timewaster of the past couple of days has been the New York Times' online dialect map. Answer 25 questions and it will tell you where you grew up. My results were disappointingly vague. Lots of people reported that the app practically located the city block they came from, but in my case it didn't even get the right part of the state. I've spent my entire life within a radius of about 20 miles centered on Orange County, but the app thinks I come from northern California:

I had trouble with several of the questions. The freeway/highway distinction had a couple of answers that seemed OK. I refer to large vehicles on highways as big rigs, trucks, and semis fairly interchangeably. I'm fairly agnostic between yard sale and garage sale, as well as between drinking fountain and water fountain. But I took the test several times to see if answering these few questions differently made a difference, and it didn't. I kept coming up as a northern Californian.

So I dug in further. Which question was IDing me wrong? After plowing through the test about a dozen times giving different answers to one or two questions at a time, I finally figured it out. It was this one: "What do you call the small road parallel to the highway?" I think of this as a frontage road, but when I switched to service road, the app pegged me with eerie precision:

So what's going on? The truth is that here in Orange County we don't really have roads like this, so I don't call them anything. The only time I see them is when I'm traveling, usually in a car going north on I-5. Once you get up into the San Joaquin Valley, there are signs for these roads all over the place, and they're always called frontage roads. Since that's the only exposure I have to them, I call them frontage roads and thus peg myself as a northern Californian.

I'm pretty sure there's more to it than just this, but since the test rotates questions it's hard to consistently hold every variable constant but one in order to get clean results. As near as I can tell, frontage road reliably places me north of Bakersfield, but service road occasionally does too depending on how I answer some of the other questions. Most of the time, though, service road plus my natural answers to everything else places me solidly in Southern California.

Why Don't Germans Tweet?

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 4:12 PM EST

Why are Germans so resistant to using Twitter? My first guess would be that they're just smarter than the rest of us and have better things to do, but I suppose that's not it. The Economist proposes a couple of other possibilities:

Some have suggested the German language makes tweeting tricky. Germans like to make a point clear, experts say, though this seems often to call for protracted, convoluted sentences with multiple subordinate clauses that are inimical to microblogging.

....A more likely reason is Germans' preoccupation with privacy. Many recall the Stasi, communist East Germany's prying secret police which had at one point recruited or coerced 173,000 people to be its informants. This explains Germans'—and the Merkel government's—outcry over allegations of America's widespread electronic snooping.

Hmmm. The former West Germany accounts for about 80 percent of Germany's population, and there's no reason that any of them would have any deep-seated fears of Stasi surveillance. So I think the Stasi is in the clear on this one. That leaves only a more general distaste for public yammering. Does that sound right? Are Germans really more tightlipped than other folks? I wouldn't have guessed that, but maybe.

On the other hand, the structure of the language itself really does seem like it might be a problem. Learning to write in 140-character chunks is tricky enough in English. Still, I'd normally figure that the obvious response to this would be a more vibrant culture of abbreviation. But maybe Germans don't like abbreviations either. It's a mystery.

"Unruly Passengers" Increased 12x in Four Years. I Wonder Why?

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 1:49 PM EST

Speaking of airlines, two stories crossed my radar by chance today. Here's the first:

The number of incidents of unruly passengers jumped from less than 500 in 2007 to more than 6,000 in 2011, according to the International Air Transport Assn., the trade group for world airlines, which has been keeping track of the incidents....A meeting has been scheduled for March by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a branch of the United Nations, to discuss new rules on how to deal with unruly passengers. A location for the meeting has not been set.

And here's the second:

On Jammed Jets, Sardines Turn on One Another

With air travelers increasingly feeling like packed sardines, flying has become a contact sport, nowhere more than over the reclined seat.

Now, it is only getting worse, as airlines re-examine every millimeter of the cabin. Over the last two decades, the space between seats — hardly roomy before — has fallen about 10 percent, from 34 inches to somewhere between 30 and 32 inches. Today, some airlines are pushing it even further, leaving only a knee-crunching 28 inches.

....Southwest, the nation’s largest domestic carrier, is installing seats with less cushion and thinner materials — a svelte model known in the business as “slim-line.” It also is reducing the maximum recline to two inches from three. These new seats allow Southwest to add another row, or six seats, to every flight — and add $200 million a year in newfound revenue.

I wonder if these could possibly be related in any way?

Chart of the Day: When Southwest Comes Calling, On-Time Performance Goes South

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 1:20 PM EST

Here's an interesting, unintuitive tidbit about the airline market. When Southwest enters a market, it forces incumbent carriers to lower their fares. No surprise there. But according to a recent study, it does more than that. It also reduces everyone's on-time performance:

All three conventional measures of arrival delay indicate that airlines begin responding to the threat of entry before Southwest even threatens the route; incumbents' on-time performance begins to worsen before Southwest actually enters the second endpoint airport, and it continues to do so following Southwest threatening the route, and following entry, as well.

As the chart on the right shows, average travel time for flights starts to increase sharply about four quarters before Southwest begins service in a new market, eventually rising by two minutes three quarters after service begins. The number of flights more than 15 minutes late rises from 18 percent to about 21 percent. Why? The authors find the same effect when other airlines enter a new market, but only if the new competitor is a low-cost carrier. Their guess? Pretty much what you'd expect: "Incumbents worsen [on-time performance] in an effort to cut costs in order to compete against Southwest's low costs."

Presidential Schmoozing Isn't Just For Republicans

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 12:53 PM EST

Sen. Joe Manchin lamented on Sunday that President Obama doesn't schmooze enough."It’s just hard to say no to a friend," he told Candy Crowley on CNN's State of the Union. Steve Benen is unimpressed:

Obama has gone further any modern president in bringing members of the opposing party into his cabinet....incorporating ideas from the opposing party’s agenda into his own policy plans....Obama invited several GOP lawmakers to the White House for a private screening with the stars of the movie “Lincoln.”....How many of the invited Republicans accepted the invitation? None....Obama has hosted casual “get-to-know-you” gatherings; he’s taken Republicans out to dinner on his dime; he’s taken House Speaker Boehner out golfing; and he’s held Super Bowl and March Madness parties at the White House for lawmakers.

In general, I'm on Benen's side here. I think he probably overstates just how hard Obama has tried to be sociable, but in the end, I don't think it mattered. It's been a matter of settled public record for a long time that Republicans were dedicated to forming a united front of obstruction from the day Obama took office, and nothing he did was going to change that.

But in fairness, Manchin says in this interview that he's talking mostly about his fellow Democrats here. And this is an area where Obama's style probably has hurt him a bit. It hasn't hurt him a lot—ideology, self-interest, and political survival will always count for a lot more—but I imagine that Democrats in Congress would be willing to back Obama more strongly if they felt a personal connection with him. Most of them don't, and this has produced a more fractured party with less enthusiasm for backing difficult policies. Obamacare is probably a good example. Right now, when it's having so many birthing pains, is precisely when you want Democrats coming to its defense most passionately. That's a tough sell for obvious reasons, but I imagine that more of them would be stepping up if they felt that they owed it to their party leader. Ditto for other difficult policies, like the U-turn on Syria, the negotiations with Iran, and some of the pseudo-scandals of the past year. Strong relationships wouldn't have turned night into day on these issues, but I'll bet it would have helped.

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Today Is Your Last Chance to Sign Up For Obamacare*

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 11:43 AM EST

*OK, not really. This isn't literally your last chance to sign up for Obamacare. But if you want coverage to start on January 1, today's the deadline. Go sign up!

UPDATE: The Obama administration has extended the deadline by one day due to heavy traffic at healthcare.gov. So you now have until Tuesday to sign up for coverage that will start on January 1.

10 Reasons That Long-Term Unemployment Is a National Catastrophe

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 9:00 AM EST

Unemployment is bad. Obviously long-term unemployment is worse. But it's not just a little worse, it's horrifically worse. As a companion to our eight charts that describe the problem, here are the top ten reasons why long-term unemployment is such a national catastrophe:

  1. It's way higher than it's ever been before. When the headline unemployment rate peaked in 2010, it was actually a bit lower than the peak during the 1980 recession and only a point higher than the 1973 recession. As bad as it was, it was something we'd faced before. But the long-term unemployment rate is a whole different story. It peaked at a rate nearly double the worst we'd ever seen in the past, and it's been coming down only slowly ever since.
  2. It's widespread. There's a common belief that long-term unemployment mostly affects older workers and only in certain industries. In fact, with the exception of the construction industry, which was hurt especially badly during the 2007-08 recession, "the long-term unemployed are fairly evenly distributed across the age and industry spectrum."
  3. It's brutal. Obviously long-term unemployment produces a sharp loss of income, with all the stress that entails. But it does more. It produces deep distress, worse mental and physical health, higher mortality rates, hampers children’s educational progress, and lowers their future earnings. Megan McArdle summarizes the research findings this way: "Short of death or a debilitating terminal disease, long-term unemployment is about the worst thing that can happen to you in the modern world. It’s economically awful, socially terrible, and a horrifying blow to your self-esteem and happiness.  It cuts you off from the mass of your peers and puts stress on your family, making it likely that further awful things, like divorce or suicide, will be in your near future."
  4. It's long-lasting. Cristobal Young reports that "job loss has consequences that linger even after people return to work. Finding a job, on average, recovers only about two thirds of the initial harm of losing a job....Evidence from Germany finds subjective scarring of broadly similar magnitude that lasts for at least 3 to 5 years."
  5. It dramatically reduces the prospect of getting another job. There's always been plenty of anecdotal evidence that employers don't like job candidates who have long spells of unemployment, but recent research suggests that this attitude has become even worse in the current weak economy. Rand Ghayad, a visiting scholar at the Boston Fed, sent out a bunch of fictitious resumes for 600 job openings. Each batch of resumes was slightly different (industry experience, job switching history, etc.), and all of these things had a small effect on the chance of getting a callback. But one thing had a huge effect: being unemployed for six months or more. If you were one of the long-term unemployed, it was all but impossible to even get considered for a job opening.
  6. It turns cyclical unemployment into structural unemployment. What we've mostly had during the Great Recession and the subsequent recovery has been cyclical unemployment. This is unemployment caused by a simple lack of demand, and it goes away when the economy picks up. But structural unemployment is worse: it's caused by a mismatch between the skills employers want and the skills workers have. It's far more pernicious and far harder to combat, and it's what happens when cyclical unemployment is allowed to metastasize. "Skills become obsolete, contacts atrophy, information atrophies, and they get stigmatized," says Harry Holzer of Georgetown University." Economists call this effect "hysteresis," and there's plenty of evidence that we're suffering from it for perhaps the first time in recent American history.
  7. It hurts the economy. A recent study, which Paul Krugman called the "blockbuster paper" of last month's IMF research conference, concludes that "by tolerating high unemployment we have inflicted huge damage on our long-run prospects." How much? The authors suggest that not only has it cut GDP growth, it's even cut potential GDP growth. They estimate the damage at about 7 percent per year—which represents a loss of roughly $3,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country.
  8. Cutting off unemployment benefits makes things even worse. Cutting off benefits obviously hurts the unemployed in the pocketbook. But there's more to it than that. Since you have to keep looking for a job to qualify for benefits, many discouraged job seekers have less incentive to keep looking when their benefits run out. This means they drop out of the official numbers and are no longer counted as formally unemployed. In other words, because we've allowed unemployment benefits to expire for so many people, the real long-term unemployment rate is probably even worse than the official figures say it is.
  9. There still aren't enough jobs to go around. In a normal economy, there might be good reason to keep unemployment benefits short: it motivates people to go out and look for work. But that's not the problem right now. The number of job seekers for every open job has declined since its 2009 peak, but there are still three job seekers for every available job, which means that this simply isn't a matter of incentives. It's a matter of there being too few jobs for everyone. Conservative scholar Michael Strain uses a simple analogy to get this point across: "If you look at the long-term unemployed, a good chunk of them have children. A good chunk are married. A good chunk are college-educated or have had some college and in their prime earning years....It strikes me as implausible that this person is engaged in a half-hearted job search."
  10. Practically everyone, liberal and conservative alike, agrees that this is a catastrophe. And yet, we continue to do nothing about it. Republicans in Congress have declined to extend unemployment benefits further, and they show no sign of changing their minds when Congress reconvenes in January. Democrats have a plan to fight for further benefits by linking them to a farm bill that Republicans want to pass, and right now that's pretty much the best hope we have to offer the workers who have been most brutally savaged by the Great Recession.

Self-Promotion Watch: Lead and Crime in Postwar America

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 2:18 AM EST

I'm usually a little reticent about tooting my own horn, but since I've always had a lot of respect for James Surowiecki, I was sort of chuffed to see this in his year-end roundup of his favorite business stories:

Kevin Drum’s brilliant Mother Jones piece, “America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead,” explores the relationship between lead in the environment and crime (and a host of other social ills). It is not, I guess, a classic business story. But it’s a rigorous and enormously enlightening look at how businesses’ and regulators’ choices—in this case, the decision to keep lead in gasoline and paint—end up shaping society in ways that few expect. I’m not entirely sure that lead explains the entire drop in crime we’ve seen in cities across America. But Drum has certainly convinced me that getting lead out of the environment is one of the best, and most cost-effective, social interventions that regulators can make.

Thanks, James! More here for those who want to dive into some of the other reaction to the lead-crime story, as well as a few items that got left on the cutting room floor.

Secular Ethics Are Doing Just Fine, Thank You Very Much

| Sun Dec. 22, 2013 2:16 PM EST

Ross Douthat writes that there are three spiritual worldviews in America today. You might call them hard-core biblical, soft-core spiritual, and secular. Unsurprisingly, he's bearish on the secular worldview:

The secular picture, meanwhile, seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than either of its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.

In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher....So there are two interesting religious questions....The second is whether the intelligentsia’s fusion of scientific materialism and liberal egalitarianism — the crèche without the star, the shepherds’ importance without the angels’ blessing — will eventually crack up and give way to something new.

The cracks are visible, in philosophy and science alike. But the alternative is not. One can imagine possibilities: a deist revival or a pantheist turn, a new respect for biblical religion, a rebirth of the 20th century’s utopianism and will-to-power cruelty.

I'm willing to concede Douthat's main point: the secular scientific worldview doesn't provide much of a philosophical basis for a moral system. I don't think it's quite as barren of metaphysical guidance as he suggests, but still, he has a point.

But here's what I've never understood about the kind of argument Douthat is making: it's not as if secular ethics is a modern invention. Aristotle's ethics were fundamentally secular, and were appropriated by the Church only long after his death. More recently, we have the example of plenty of modern, secular states in Europe and elsewhere, which appear to effortlessly practice an ethics every bit as praiseworthy as that of more religious states. On a personal level, there's never been the slightest evidence that religious believers behave any better on average than the nonreligious.

None of this is new. Sure, in some abstract way, it's not possible for me to justify my own sense of ethics all the way down to its ultimate core, but in real life that's something I never even think about. In a practical, human sense, my sense of morality is every bit as strong as Douthat's. He might attribute this to God and I might attribute it to the evolution of the human brain and human society, but either way there's no inherent tension in the secular view simply because it lacks an ultimate metaphysical justification. It's just not something that affects most of us even slightly. Douthat is imagining cracks that aren't there.

At a broader level, you might still wonder whether religious underpinnings for morality are more effective at producing an ethical society. Again, though, where's the evidence? You can enforce morality by threatening people with hellfire, or you can enforce it by threatening them with jail time. Both work pretty well—though I'd note that religious societies tend to partake liberally of secular punishments too. Hellfire apparently has its limits.

Secular ethics isn't some newfangled 20th-century experiment that's falling apart at the seams and must inevitably be replaced with a deist revival or the return of Pol Pot. It's millennia old, and doing just fine. It's true that sex and gender roles have changed dramatically over the past century, and that's certainly produced plenty of tension and discomfort along the way. And for all too many devout Christians, that seems to be the real wellspring of their discontent: not secularism per se, but changing sexual mores in particular, which produces a foreboding sense that society is inevitably sinking into moral degeneracy. Christian apologists would do well to keep the two subjects separate.