Kevin Drum - January 2014

Here's Why You Should Hate Apple's Iconic 1984 Ad

| Fri Jan. 24, 2014 1:04 AM EST

Paul Waldman notes an anniversary:

Thirty years ago this week, the Super Bowl featured an ad (directed by Ridley Scott, no less) for the soon-to-be-released Macintosh computer, in which Apple implicitly compared the dominance of Microsoft operating systems and IBM computers to the oppressive dictatorship of George Orwell's 1984. Apple's Board of Directors apparently hated the ad, but Steve Jobs insisted that it air, probably because he understood how critical it was to building Apple into not just an identifiable brand but a statement of personal identity. If you use a PC, Jobs was saying, you're a drone, a cog in the wheel, someone who has been stripped of your individuality as you labor for the Man. Whereas if you use a Mac, you're a creative, youthful individual forging your own way in the world and subverting the dominant paradigm.

Waldman uses this as a springboard for some thoughts about technology and privacy, but I want to hijack his post to make a more mundane point. Apple's 1984 ad is justly famous, but everyone seems to be afraid to make the most obvious point about it: It didn't work. Apple's board of directors was probably right.

As a piece of art, the 1984 ad was tremendously successful, quickly turning into a cultural touchstone that generated mountains of free publicity for Apple. But that very success almost certainly helped doom the Macintosh, which became irrevocably viewed as a chi chi niche product for bohemians and graphic arts folks. The 1984 ad told everyone in unmistakable tones that the Mac wasn't intended for business use; wasn't intended for normal people; and wasn't intended for getting any real work done. Sure, it may have appealed to creative, youthful individuals, but it cost the equivalent of $5,000 in today's dollars. Creative, youthful individuals couldn't afford to buy the damn thing—and the people who could afford it weren't much interested after being pointedly ridiculed as drones and dullards.

Aside from all its other problems, Apple never overcame that. The Macintosh never held more than a tiny share of the PC market, and Apple's revival in the aughts never owed anything to the Mac. Its success in the Jobs 2.0 era was based on the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. Those were genius.

The moral of the story is simple: Yes, the 1984 ad created an indelible brand image. But it was the wrong image. It was a memorable ad, but it wasn't a good one.

And if that's not enough to change your mind, here's one more thing: 1984 also ushered in the era of insufferable "event" ads saturating the Super Bowl. That alone should be reason enough to consign it to the fiery depths of hell.

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Dinesh D'Souza Indicted for Campaign Finance Fraud

| Thu Jan. 23, 2014 7:27 PM EST

I see via TPM that conservative crackpot Dinesh D'Souza has been indicted for violating federal election laws. But is this real fraud, or the sort of picayune thing that anybody might get entangled in simply for not being an expert in the finicky details of campaign finance regs? Here's the Reuters report:

According to an indictment made public on Thursday in federal court in Manhattan, D'Souza around August 2012 reimbursed people who he had directed to contribute $20,000 to the candidate's campaign. The candidate was not named in the indictment.

Hmmm. This would be the real deal. Telling other people to make contributions and then reimbursing them is an obvious no-no, something that D'Souza could hardly plead ignorance about. If this turns out to be true, he's in trouble.1

1Alternatively, it could be a godsend, something he can milk forever as proof that he's being hounded by Obama administration thugs determined to shut down their conservative critics.

No, There Was Never a Legitimate Traffic Study About the Fort Lee Lane Closures

| Thu Jan. 23, 2014 7:07 PM EST

Bob Somerby has been doing yeoman's work on the Fort Lee lane closures, pointing out that some liberal pundits have gotten a little too far over their skis on the scandal. I'd say that's fair. However, he also takes issue with the allegation that the "traffic study" offered up as the reason for the closings was merely a pretense made up after the fact. Technically, he's right: there's plenty of evidence that bridge authorities talked about the study before the lanes were closed. But that doesn't mean the study wasn't a pretense, only that it was a pretense made up prior to the closures. There's a ton of evidence suggesting that this supposed study was never anything more than a tissue-thin charade:

  • Most traffic studies don't involve actually doing anything to traffic: "Traffic engineers will assess the existing flow by counting cars....Then they'll take standard calculations for what the proposed change would introduce, and plug them into formulas provided by the Institute of Transportation Engineers. It's a pretty automated procedure, with little impact on traffic."
  • If traffic is affected, it's usually for a single day, not multiple days.
  • Yes, data was being collected while the lanes were shut down. However, as Somerby points out, it was tolls data. This is collected every day automatically. Nothing special was done during the Fort Lee lane closures.
  • No serious planning document has been produced. When the general manager of the bridge was asked if "traffic experts or engineers" had been consulted about the plan, he replied, "We had talked about gathering data...." That was it. This is hardly the hallmark of a genuine study.
  • Several managers at the Port Authority were flummoxed about what this study was all about. They asked why it was being done, and apparently received no credible answers.
  • A few weeks before lane shutdowns, one of Chris Christie's senior aides, Bridget Anne Kelly, gleefully emailed David Wildstein, a top Christie executive at the Port Authority, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." This is obviously damning. In the first place, it doesn't seem likely that a Christie aide would have any role to play in a legitimate traffic study. And if she did, she certainly wouldn't take a tone like that.

Put all this together, and it's hardly likely that the traffic study was ever genuine. The folks involved obviously knew that they needed a public story, and so they made one up. I agree that everyone should get their tenses right on this, but at this point I think it's going too far to remain agnostic about whether the Fort Lee lane closures were ever part of a legitimate traffic study. If they were, we'd know it by now.

Medicaid Expansion May Be a Sleeper Issue for Democrats This Year

| Thu Jan. 23, 2014 3:41 PM EST

Once Obamacare has been in place for a while, will it become popular enough that Republicans will finally give up their opposition? Maybe, maybe not. But how about the Medicaid expansion? The evidence there might be a little clearer. Here's Greg Sargent:

The Medicaid expansion, as an issue, is kind of taking on a life of its own, independent of Big Bad Obamacare. In Louisiana, Senator Mary Landrieu has aggressively criticized the rollout of the law, but has also attacked Republicans for refusing to implement the Medicaid expansion. In Georgia, Dem Senate candidate Michelle Nunn has called for fixes to the law while also saying the state should expand Medicaid.

....Meanwhile, the expansion could hold pitfalls for Republicans, because as enrollment mounts, they may be pressed to say whether they really support taking that coverage away from people. Mitch McConnell was recently asked to comment on Kentuckians benefitting from the law, and he filibustered. The GOP Senate candidate in West Virginia is gung ho for repeal but has hedged on the expansion.

Hmmm. Jonathan Bernstein took a quick look at the websites of Republican gubernatorial challengers in blue states that have expanded Medicaid but look like possible Republican pickups. After all the appropriate caveats, he tells us what he found:

And the answer? Nada. Zip. Nothing. None of these Republicans is pledging to repeal the Medicaid expansion put in place by a Democratic governor....I don’t want to make more of this than the evidence can support. But for what it’s worth, early evidence supports the liberal optimist (and conservative pessimist) view: that where it’s in place, Medicaid expansion is here to stay.

If that’s truly the case, then sooner or later Obamacare's Medicaid component will expand to all 50 states. Eventually, every state will have a governor who is willing to embrace it. Provided that trend is not counteracted by reversals in states that were in the first wave of Medicaid expansion, we’re talking about a one-way street. The only question is how long it takes.

Pushing for Medicaid expansion in the holdout states could turn out to be a solid populist issue for Democrats this year. The argument is simple: It's free medical care and it doesn't cost the state anything. Who's against that? We'll find out later this year how well that argument works.

Raw Data: It's Elites Who Drive Polarization, Not the Working Class

| Thu Jan. 23, 2014 3:12 PM EST

Who's responsible for increasing political polarization? Andrew Gelman suggests that one of the "cleanest pieces of evidence" is public attitudes toward abortion. If you look at the polling data, what you see is that attitudes between Democrats and Republicans start to diverge markedly around 1990. If you dig a little deeper, you find that the change is almost entirely among whites. If you dig a little deeper among whites, you get this:

The biggest change in party polarization on abortion appears among those with mid to high incomes; those with college degrees; and those who are heavily tuned into politics. Among the fabled blue-collar whites, party ID doesn't really predict attitudes on abortion very well at all.

Gelman avoids drawing any broad conclusions from this, and so will I. But it's interesting, especially since we've seen lots of evidence like this before. It's elites who have largely turned our major parties into polarized war zones, not the heartland.

Is Our Robot Future Really All That Speculative Anymore?

| Thu Jan. 23, 2014 1:17 PM EST

James Pethokoukis points us to a new working paper about economic growth released by the San Francisco Fed this month. Here's a piece:

Even more speculatively, artificial intelligence and machine learning could allow computers and robots to increasingly replace labor in the production function for goods....In standard growth models, it is quite easy to show that this can lead to a rising capital share — which we intriguingly already see in many countries since around 1980 (Karabarbounis and Neiman, 2013) — and to rising growth rates. In the limit, if capital can replace labor entirely, growth rates could explode, with incomes becoming infinite in finite time.

Pethokoukis comments:

The Fed paper is particularly amazing when you consider that when outgoing Fed chairman Ben Bernanke mentioned “robotics” in a commencement address last spring, he was the first US central-bank boss to use the word in a speech since Alan Greenspan in 2000. Expect more mentions from Janet Yellen.

Technological progress in AI and robotics — even short of the singularity — raises huge questions about the future of work, mobility, and inequality....What do we make of all those long-range economic and fiscal forecasts from folks at the Fed, Congressional Budget Office, and other expert groups? How do we plan for a future that may be just as revolutionary, if not more so, as the Industrial Revolution?

My long-form take on this is here. The thing that gets me is that so many people continue to think of this as wild speculation. I don't mean the infinite incomes stuff, which is obviously hyperbole since we'll always need more than just capital to make the economy run. I just mean the general idea that robots and AI are pretty obviously going to have a huge economic impact in the medium term future. This is something that seems so obvious to me that I'm a little puzzled that there's anyone left who still doesn't see it. Nonetheless, an awful lot of people still think of this as science fiction. I put the doubters into four rough buckets:

  1. Moore's Law is going to to break down sometime very soon, and we'll never get the raw computing power we need for true AI.
  2. There is something mysterious about the human brain that we will never be able to emulate with silicon and software. Maybe something, um, quantum.
  3. Meh. We've been hearing about AI forever. It's never happened before, it's not going to happen this time either.
  4. La la la la la.

#1 is at least plausible. I think we're too far along for it to be taken very seriously anymore, but you never know. #2 is basically New Age nonsense dressed up as physics. #3 is understandable, but lazy. We heard about going to the moon for a long time too, but it didn't happen until the technology curve caught up. We're at the same point with AI. #4 is the group of people who kinda sorta accept that AI is coming, but for various reasons simply don't want to grapple with what this means. Conservatives don't like the idea that it almost inevitably will require a much more redistributive society. Liberals don't like the idea that it might make a lot of standard lefty social programs obsolete.

As a liberal believer, I'll put myself in the latter camp. I'm not willing to give up on the standard liberal social program because (a) I might be wrong about AI, (b) if I'm not, we're still going to need variations on these programs, and (c) we still have to deal with the transition period anyway. I assume conservative believers might feel roughly the same way.

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Income Mobility in the US is Terrible, But at Least It's Not Getting Worse

| Thu Jan. 23, 2014 11:53 AM EST

A new study confirms what I've been reading for a while now: income mobility in America hasn't changed much in the past few decades. We continue to trail most other advanced economies, but at least things aren't getting any worse.

Interestingly, it turns out that mobility changes fairly dramatically depending on where you grow up. The heat map on the right shows a measure of absolute mobility: the odds that a child of poor parents will move up the income ladder. Mobility is highest in the Midwest, followed by the Northeast and the Pacific Coast. The authors conclude that there are five main factors that contribute to higher mobility:

High mobility areas have (1) less residential segregation, (2) less income inequality, (3) better primary schools, (4) greater social capital, and (5) greater family stability. While our descriptive analysis does not identify the causal mechanisms that determine upward mobility, the new publicly available statistics on intergenerational mobility by area developed here can facilitate future research on such mechanisms.

There are some other remarkable charts in the paper, including one that shows virtually perfect correlation between parent income and the odds of children attending college, and another that shows nearly as good a correlation between parent income and teen birthrates. (The teen birthrate correlation is inverse: the higher the income, the lower the birthrate.)

David Leonhardt has more here.

Review Board Splits on Whether NSA Phone Record Program Is Legal

| Thu Jan. 23, 2014 2:22 AM EST

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board will release a report on the NSA's phone records program tomorrow, but apparently plenty of reporters already have advance copies. The headline news is the report's conclusion that Section 215 of the Patriot Act doesn't authorize the government to collect bulk phone records, but there's less there than meets the eye. The board was split 3-2 on this question, with all the liberals saying the program isn't legal and all the conservatives saying it is. That's a bit of a snooze.

More interesting is this:

“We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation,” said the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. “Moreover, we are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.”

....In its assessment of the program’s value, the board scrutinized 12 terrorism cases cited by the intelligence community that involved information obtained through the Section 215 program. Even in cases where the data related to contacts of a known terrorism suspect, in nearly all of them the benefits were minimal—“generally limited to corroborating information that was obtained independently by the FBI,” the report said.

The dissent from one of the board's conservatives is pretty unconvincing: "Ms. Cook criticized judging the program’s worth based only on whether it had stopped an attack to date. It also has value as a tool that can allow investigators to 'triage' threats and provide 'peace of mind' if it uncovers no domestic links to a newly discovered terrorism suspect, she wrote."

It's unclear how much impact this will have. President Obama was briefed on the report before his big surveillance speech last week, but it doesn't appear to have influenced him much, if at all. And the intelligence community can pretty easily dismiss it by merely claiming that the phone record program has had successes that are classified and therefore unavailable to the board. So we're right back where we started.

However, it's possibly noteworthy that the board did unanimously agree on ten other recommendations, "including deleting raw phone records after three years instead of five and tightening access to search results....limiting analysts’ access to the call records of people no further than two links removed from a suspect, instead of three, and creating a panel of outside lawyers to serve as public advocates in major cases involving secret surveillance programs." Also: "All members of the board expressed privacy concerns about requiring phone companies to retain call records longer than they normally would, which might be necessary to meet Mr. Obama’s stated goal of finding a way to preserve the program’s ability without having the government collect the bulk data."

Please Tell Me Republicans Aren't Going to Touch Off Yet Another Idiotic Debt Ceiling Fight

| Wed Jan. 22, 2014 10:33 PM EST

From Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner:

The speaker has said that we should not default on our debt, or even get close to it, but a "clean" debt limit increase simply won’t pass in the House. We hope and expect the White House will work with us on a timely, fiscally responsible solution.

Somebody please tell me that this is just derpy boilerplate because Steel didn't have anything better to say. Even Republicans have got to have better things to do than once again threaten default on US debt unless President Obama caves in to yet another list of hopeless right-wing pet rocks. Don't they?

We Already Have a Lower Minimum Wage for Teenagers

| Wed Jan. 22, 2014 4:57 PM EST

Responding to yesterday's set of posts about the effect of the minimum wage on teen employment, Matt Yglesias is puzzled. Do we even want higher teen employment? It doesn't really seem like it:

After all, policymakers from both parties are pushing longer school days and shorter summer vacations. We've done a lot to encourage more people to go to college. We seem to be pushing more extracurricular activities on high schoolers....Now perhaps this is a huge mistake. But if it's a huge mistake, it's much bigger than the minimum wage. And actually the minimum-wage angle could be patched pretty quickly. Jordan Weissmann recently wrote about Australia where the minimum wage is higher than in the United States, but there's a special low teenage minimum wage.

That reminds me. A few days ago I ran across the following footnote on a Labor Department web page:

5A subminimum wage — $4.25 an hour — is established for employees under 20 years of age during their first 90 consecutive calendar days of employment with an employer.

Am I the only person in America who didn't know this? Sure, it's only for 90 days, but it still makes a difference. Summer jobs could certainly all be offered to teens at $4.25. And it significantly reduces the risk of hiring a teen, since they don't cost very much during the period when you're still deciding whether they're any good.

In any case, this went into effect in 1997 and it hasn't changed since. Surely this is germane to any discussion of the minimum wage and teen employment?