Kevin Drum

Blogging Isn't Dead. But Old-School Blogging Is Definitely Dying.

| Sat Jan. 31, 2015 12:32 PM EST

With Andrew Sullivan giving up his blog, there are fewer and fewer of us old-school bloggers left. In this case, "old school" pretty much means a daily blog with frequent updates written by one person (or possibly two, but not much more). Ezra Klein thinks this is because conventional blogging doesn't scale well:

At this moment in the media, scale means social traffic. Links from other bloggers — the original currency of the blogosphere, and the one that drove its collaborative, conversational nature — just don't deliver the numbers that Facebook does. But blogging is a conversation, and conversations don't go viral. People share things their friends will understand, not things that you need to have read six other posts to understand.

Blogging encourages interjections into conversations, and it thrives off of familiarity. Social media encourages content that can travel all on its own. Alyssa Rosenberg put it well at the Washington Post. "I no longer write with the expectation that you all are going to read every post and pick up on every twist and turn in my thinking. Instead, each piece feels like it has to stand alone, with a thesis, supporting paragraphs and a clear conclusion."

I'd add a couple of comments to this. First, Ezra is right about the conversational nature of blogging. There was lots of that in the early days, and very little now. Partly this is for the reason he identified: traffic is now driven far more by Facebook links than by links from fellow bloggers. Partly it's also because multi-person blogs, which began taking over the blogosphere in the mid-aughts, make conversation harder. Most people simply don't follow all the content in multi-person blogs, and don't always pay attention to who wrote which post, so conversation becomes choppier and harder to follow. And partly it's because conversation has moved on: first to comment sections, then to Twitter and other social media.

Second, speaking personally, I long ago decided that blog posts needed to be standalone pieces, so I'm not sure we can really blame that on new forms of social media. It was probably as early as 2005 or 2006 that I concluded two things. Not only do blog posts need to be standalone, but they can't even ramble very much. You need to make one clear point and avoid lots of distractions and "on the other hands." This is because blog readers are casual readers, and if you start making lots of little side points, that's what they're going to respond to. Your main point often simply falls by the wayside. So keep it short and focused. If you have a second point to make, just wait a bit and write it up separately not as a quick aside open to lots of interpretation, but with the attention it deserves.

And there's a third reason Klein doesn't mention: professionalism. I was one of the first amateur bloggers to turn pro, and in my case it was mostly an accident. But within a few years, old-school media outlets had started co-opting nearly all of the high-traffic bloggers. (I won't say they co-opted the "best" bloggers, because who knows? In any case, what they wanted was high traffic, so that's what they went for.) Matt Yglesias worked for a series of outlets, Steve Benen took over the Washington Monthly when I moved to MoJo, Ezra Klein went to the Washington Post and then started up Vox, etc. Ditto for Andrew Sullivan, who worked for Time, the Atlantic, and eventually began his own subscription-based site. It was very successful, but Sullivan turned out to be the only blogger who could pull that off. You need huge traffic to be self-sustaining in a really serious way, and he was just about the only one who had an audience that was both large and very loyal. Plus there's another side to professionalism: the rise of the expert blogger. There's not much question in my mind that this permanently changed the tone of the political blogosphere, especially on the liberal side. There's just less scope for layman-style noodling when you know that a whole bunch of experts will quickly weigh in with far more sophisticated responses. Add to that the rise of professional journalists taking up their own blogs, and true amateurs became even more marginalized.

All of this led to blogs—Sullivan excepted—becoming less conversational in tone and sparking less conversation. There are probably lots of reasons for this, but partly I think it's because professional blogs prefer to link to their own content, rather than other people's. Josh Marshall's TPM, for example, links almost exclusively to its own content, because that's the best way to promote their own stuff. There's nothing wrong with that. It makes perfect sense. But it's definitely a conversation killer.

In any case, most conversation now seems to have moved to Twitter. There are advantages to this: it's faster and it's open to more people. Blogs were democratizing, and Twitter is even more democratizing. You don't have to start up your own blog and build up a readership to be heard. All you have to do is have a few followers and get rewteeted a bit. Needless to say, however, there are disadvantages too. Twitter is often too fast, and when you combine that with its 140-character limit, you end up with a lot of shrill and indignant replies. Sometimes this is deliberate: it's what the tweeter really wants to say. But often it's not. There's a premium on responding quickly, since Twitter conversations usually last only hours if not minutes, and this means you're often responding to a blog post in the heat of your very first reaction to something it says—often without even reading the full blog post first. In addition, it's simply very difficult to convey nuance and tone in 140 characters. Even if you don't mean to sound shrill and outraged, you often do. Now multiply that by the sheer size of Twitter, where a few initial irate comments can feed hundreds of others within minutes, and you have less a conversation than you do a mindless pile-on.

I'm not really making any judgments about all this. Personally, I miss old-school blogging and the conversations it started. But I also recognize that what I'm saying about Twitter is very much what traditional print journalists said about blogging back in the day. You have to respond within a day! You have to make your point in 500 words or less! Whatever happened to deeply considered long-form pieces that took weeks to compose and ran several thousand words? Sure, those conversations took months to unfold, but what's the rush?

Well, they were right to an extent. And now conversations have become even more compressed. Some people think that's great, others (like me) are more conflicted about it. When I respond to something, I usually want to make a serious point, and Twitter makes that awfully hard. Writing a coherent multi-part tweet is just way harder than simply writing a 500-word blog post. On the other hand, the tweet will get seen by far more people than the post and be far more timely.

As with everything, it's a tradeoff. I miss old-school blogging. A lot of people say good riddance to it. And the world moves on.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 30 January 2015

| Fri Jan. 30, 2015 2:40 PM EST

My fatigue level is off the charts today. I have no idea what's causing this. But there are always plenty of catblogging pictures available, and you can hardly go wrong with Hilbert in a bag, can you? Enjoy.

Housekeeping Note

| Thu Jan. 29, 2015 9:00 AM EST

My chemotherapy, which until now has had fairly predictable side effects, seems to have entered a less predictable phase. This means that my fatigue level changes from day to day, and with it my blogging output. So some days you'll see a bunch of posts, and other days you'll see one or two. It doesn't really mean anything is wrong. It just means I'm having a predictably unpredictable bad day.

In addition, today I have several appointments, and Marian is undergoing major surgery. Nothing life-threatening, so no worries on that score. But a very big deal nonetheless.

In other words, there's not likely to be any blogging today. Tomorrow, who knows? As they say, tomorrow is another day.

4 PM UPDATE: According to the surgeons, Marian's surgery was entirely successful. She's still waking up from the anesthesia and has several weeks of recovery ahead of her, but everything went fine.

Here's What's at the Heart of the Crisis in Greece

| Thu Jan. 29, 2015 12:40 AM EST

If you're in the market for some interesting commentary on Greece, there have been a couple of good ones recently. The first comes from Paul Krugman, who, among other things, makes a point that often gets missed: Greece is already running a primary surplus. That is, they've cut spending enough over the past few years that their budget would be balanced if it weren't for interest payments on their gigantic debt. What's more, their primary surplus is slated to rise to 4.5 percent in the future:

If Greece were to adhere totally to the previous terms, over the next five years it would make resource transfers of about 20 percent of one year’s GDP. From the point of view of the creditors, that’s a trivial sum. From the point of the Greeks, however, it’s crucial; the difference between a primary surplus of 4.5 percent of GDP and, say, 1.5 percent of GDP for the Greek economy and the welfare of its citizens is huge. The only reason for the creditors to play hardball would be to make Greece an example, to discourage other debtors from trying to negotiate relief.

In other words, the EU is demanding that Greece not just balance its budget, but run a large surplus that it will mostly send to large countries for whom it's a trivial sum. For Greece, though, it's a huge sum, the difference between years of penury and a return to growth. This is at the heart of the conflict between Greece and the EU.

The second commentary comes from Daniel Davies, who makes the point that Greece's gigantic debt doesn't really matter as debt. Everyone knows Greece will never be able to pay it back. But if everyone knows this, why are Germany and the rest of the EU so hellbent on refusing to write it off?

Don’t think of the Greek debt burden, either in cash € terms or as a ratio to GDP, as an economic quantity. It basically isn’t an economically meaningful number any more. The purpose of its existence is as a political quantity; it’s part of the means by which control is exercised over the Greek budget by the Eurosystem. The regular rituals of renegotiation of the bailout package, financing of debt maturity peaks and so on, are the way in which the solvent Euroland nations exercise the kind of political control that they feel they need to have if they are going to be fiscally responsible for the bills.

....It is, therefore, totally inimical to the Eurosystem to hold out any hope of the kind of debt writedown that Syriza wants, as opposed to some smaller, cosmetic face value reduction or maturity extension. The entire reason why Syriza wants to get a major up-front reduction in the debt number is to create political space to execute the rest of their program. The debt issue and the political issue are the same issue. Syriza understands this, and so does the Eurosystem.

In other words, Greece doesn't want to run a large budget surplus. They want to increase government spending in order to dig their way out of their massive economic depression. The rest of the EU wants no such thing. They're afraid that if they let Greece off the hook, then (a) everyone else will want to be let off the hook, and (b) Greece will go right back to its free-spending ways and soon require another bailout. If the price of that is years of pain and unemployment, so be it.

There's more at both links, and both are worth reading.

Why are Scam PACs So Much More Common on the Right Than the Left?

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 6:01 PM EST

Politico's Ken Vogel reports on a phenomenon that's gotten a fair amount of attention on both the right and the left:

Since the tea party burst onto the political landscape in 2009, the conservative movement has been plagued by an explosion of PACs that critics say exist mostly to pad the pockets of the consultants who run them....A POLITICO analysis of reports filed with the Federal Election Commission covering the 2014 cycle found that 33 PACs that court small donors with tea party-oriented email and direct-mail appeals raised $43 million — 74 percent of which came from small donors. The PACs spent only $3 million on ads and contributions to boost the long-shot candidates often touted in the appeals, compared to $39.5 million on operating expenses.

....[Democrats] have mostly avoided the problem, though they also benefit from the lack of tea party-style insurgency on their side. That could change if the 2016 Democratic presidential primary inflames deep ideological divisions within the party. But on the right, this industry appears only to be growing, according to conservatives who track it closely.

And this problem isn't limited just to consultants who set up PACs to line their own pockets. Media Matters reports that right-wing outlets routinely tout—or rent their email lists to people touting—all manner of conspiracy theories and out-and-out frauds. Here's an excerpt from Media Matters' list:

  • Mike Huckabee sold out his fans to a quack doctor, conspiracy theorists, and financial fraudsters.
  • Subscribers to CNN analyst Newt Gingrich's email list have received supposed insider information about cancer "cures," the Illuminati, "Obama's 'Secret Mistress,'" a "weird" Social Security "trick," and Fort Knox being "empty."
  • Five conservative outlets promoted a quack doc touting dubious Alzheimer's disease cures.
  • Fox analyst Charles Payne was paid to push now worthless stocks.
  • Newsmax super PAC boondoggle.
  • Right-wing media helped "scam PACs" raise money from their readers.

More here. So here's my question: why is this so much more common on the right than on the left? It would be nice to chalk it up to the superior intelligence of liberal audiences and call it a day, but that won't wash. There's just no evidence that liberals, in general, are either smarter or less susceptible to scams than conservatives.

One possibility is that a lot of this stuff is aimed at the elderly, and conservatives tend to skew older than liberals. And while that's probably part of the answer, it's hardly satisfying. There are plenty of elderly liberals, after all—certainly enough to make them worth targeting with the same kind of fraudulent appeals that infest the right.

Another possibility is that it's basically a supply-side phenomenon. Maybe liberal outlets simply tend to be less ruthless, less willing to set up scam fundraising organizations than conservative outlets. In fact, that actually does seem to be the case. But again: why? Contrary to Vogel's lead, this kind of thing has been a problem on the right for a long time. It definitely got worse when the tea party movement created a whole new pool of potential patsies, but it didn't start in 2009. It's been around for a while.

So then: why is this problem so much bigger on the right than on the left? I won't be happy with answers that simply assume liberals are innately better people. Even if they are, they aren't that much better. It's got to be something institutional, or something inherent in the nature of American conservatism. But what?

Murder In Los Angeles Is Way Down Among Teenagers

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 12:52 PM EST

The LA Times reports that murder is becoming less common among teenagers:

“You're not seeing youngsters like you have in the past,” said Det. Todd Anderson of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. “You used to see a lot more kids who were 16, 17, 18, 19. While it does still happen, it seems like they are getting a little bit older.”

In 2000, the average homicide victim was 30 years old and in 2014, the average victim was 34 years old, according to a Los Angeles Times data analysis. The shift comes as the total number of homicides falls.

Why?

George Tita, a criminologist at UC Irvine who studies homicide, said the increase in age is consistent with the changing nature of gang violence and the sharp decrease in killings throughout the county.

Others say that the trauma of losing brothers, cousins and fathers to street violence may make gang life less appealing to younger people. “It's the little brother looking at what happened to the big brother and saying, ‘I don't want to go that way,'” said Elliott Currie, another UC Irvine criminologist. “It's something I think we criminologists don't talk about enough.”

That may be part of the answer. But you'll be unsurprised that there might be another, more plausible, reason: lead. Back in the 90s, the teenage and 20-something generations had grown up in the 70s and early 80s. This was an era of high lead emissions, and this lead poisoning affected their brains, causing them to become more violence-prone when they grew up.

Today's teenagers, however, were born in the late 90s and early aughts. This was the era when leaded gasoline had finally been completely banned, so they grew up in a low-lead environment. As a result, they're less violence prone than their older siblings and less likely to find refuge in gangs.

As always, lead is not the whole story. There have been other changes over the past couple of decades, and those changes may well have had an impact on both gangs and on crime more generally. But lead clearly has a generational impact. Younger kids are now less violent than in the past, while older folks haven't changed much. They've gotten older, which has always been associated with a drop in violent crime, but their basic temperament is still scarred by a childhood filled with lead emissions from automobiles.

In any case, the age of a homicide victim is highly correlated with the age of the killer, and the chart above, excerpted from the Times story, shows homicide victimization age in 2000 and 2014. The huge bulge between age 15-30 is nearly gone, which is just what you'd expect if lead played an important role in violent crime. There may be less mystery here than the experts think.

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Greek Investors Apparently Surprised By Stuff No One Should Be Surprised About

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 10:50 AM EST

The latest news from Greece is a bit peculiar:

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told his new cabinet on Wednesday that he would move swiftly to negotiate debt relief, but would not engage in a confrontation with creditors that would jeopardize a more just solution for the country....Later, the new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, appeared to harden the tone, saying that Greece’s bailout deals were “a toxic mistake” and that the new government was determined to change the logic of how the crisis had been tackled.

While many Greeks were hopeful that Mr. Tsipras would follow through with even a fraction of his populist promises, investors were more rattled. The Athens Stock Exchange, which already had billions of euros in value wiped out during Greece’s election campaign, fell around 7.5 percent in midday trading on Wednesday after slumping around 11 percent on Tuesday. Shares in financial companies in Greece plummeted more than 17 percent on Wednesday.

I wonder what has the stock market so spooked? After all, Tsipras is just doing what he's said he was going to do all along. Everyone expected him to take at least this hard a line on Greek debt, if not harder. So why the sudden panic? Shouldn't this have been priced in long ago? What's new here?

ISIS Fighters Lose Kobani In Win For Obama's Iraq Strategy

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 12:33 PM EST

From the LA Times:

Kurdish fighters in the Syrian border town of Kobani appeared poised Monday to deal a decisive defeat to Islamic State militants after months of street clashes and U.S. aerial bombardment, signaling a major setback for the extremist group.

....The apparent breakthrough shows how U.S. air power, combined with a determined allied force on the ground, can successfully confront Islamic State. The military watched with surprise as Islamic State continued sending hundreds of fighters, vehicles and weapons to Kobani, which was of no critical strategic importance to the overall fight but had become something of a public relations fight.

"Essentially, they said, 'This is where we are going to make a stand' and flooded the region with fighters," said Col. Edward Sholtis, a spokesman for U.S. Air Force Central Command, in charge of air operations in the battle against the Islamic State.

My expert in all things Kurdish emailed me this comment today: "This is a big deal, and it proves the viability of Obama's strategy of working with proxies in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS. My prediction is we won't hear much boasting about it from Obama though. These aren't the politically chosen proxies."

I've been one of the skeptics of Obama's strategy, and I'll remain so until the Iraqi military demonstrates the same fighting ability as the Kurdish peshmerga. Kobani, after all, is more a symbolic victory than anything else, and ISIS continues to control large swathes of Iraq. Nonetheless, at a minimum this shows that ISIS is hardly unbeatable, something that Iraqi forces probably needed to see.

Bottom line: this is a proof of concept. When we can do the same thing in Mosul with Iraqi forces in the lead, then I'll be a real believer.

Scott Walker Is the Winner in 2016's First Republican Campaign Cattle Call

| Mon Jan. 26, 2015 5:05 PM EST

Rep. Steve King (R–Tea Partyville) held his big annual Republican confab in Iowa this weekend, and most of the 2016 wannabe candidates for president were there. But I know you're all busy people who don't care about the details. Youjust want to know who won. Take it away, Ed Kilgore:

The consensus winner (first announced by National Review's John Fund, but echoed by many others) was Scott Walker, who did exactly what he needed to do: show he could twist and shout with the best of them despite his "boring" image, and make an electability argument based on the fruits of confrontation rather than compromise. This latter dimension of his appeal should not be underestimated: at a time when MSM types and (more subtly) Jeb Bush and Chris Christie continue to suggest Republicans must become less feral to reach beyond their base, here's Walker saying he won three elections in four years in a blue state by going medieval on unions, abortionists and Big Government. So Walker's passed his first test in the challenge of proving he's not Tim Pawlenty, and that's a big deal given his excellent positioning in the field.

Kilgore's "Tim Pawlenty" comment is a reference to Midwestern boringness, which has generally been seen as Walker's chief shortcoming. You can judge for yourself if you watch his 20-minute speech in Iowa, but I'd say he still has some work to do on this score. He wasn't terrible, but he never sounded to me like he really struck a connection with the crowd. He knew the words but not the tune—and even his words were a little too stilted and lifeless. Anytime you deliver an applause line and nothing happens, your words still need some work. And anytime you deliver an applause line, fail to wait for applause, then interrupt yourself to tell the crowd "you can clap for that, that's all right"—well, your delivery needs some work too.

I'm on record saying that I think Walker is the strongest candidate in the Republican field. He's got the right views, he's got a winning record, he's got the confrontational style tea partiers love, and he doesn't come across as a kook. But yes, he needs to work on the whole charisma thing. If he gets serious about that, I still like his chances in the 2016 primaries.

Does the Internet Really Make Dumb People Dumber?

| Mon Jan. 26, 2015 1:55 PM EST

I don't normally get to hear what Bill Gates thinks of one of my ideas, but today's the exception. Because Ezra Klein asked him:

Ezra Klein: ....Kevin Drum, who writes for Mother Jones, has a line I've always thought was interesting, which is that the internet makes dumb people dumber, and smart people smarter. Do you worry about the possibility that the vast resources the internet gives the motivated, including online education, will give rise o a big increase in, for lack of a better tterm, cognitive or knowledge inequality that leads to further rises in global inequality?

Bill Gates: Well, you always have the challenge that when you create a tool to make activity X easier, like the internet makes it easier to find out facts or to learn new things, that there are some outliers who use that thing extremely well. It's way easier to be polymathic today than it was in the past because your access to materials and your ability if you ever get stuck to find people that you can engage with is so strong.

But to say that there's actually some negative side, that there actually will be people that are dumber, I disagree with that. I mean, I'm as upset as anyone at the wrong stuff about vaccination that's out there on the internet that actually confuses some small number of people. There's a communications challenge to get past.

But look at IQ test capability over time. Or even take a TV show today and how complex it is — that's responding to the marketplace. You take Breaking Bad versus, I don't know, Leave it to Beaver, or Combat!, or The Wild, Wild West. You know, yeah, take Combat! because that was sort of pushing the edge of should kids be allowed to watch it.

The interest and complexity really does say that, broadly, these tools have meant that market-driven people are turning out more complex things. Now, you can say, "Why hasn't that mapped to more sophistication in politics or something like that?" That's very complicated. But I don't see a counter trend where there's some group of people who are less curious or less informed because of the internet.

I'm sure that was said when the printing press came along and people saw romance novels and thought people would stay indoors and read all the time. But I just don't see there being a big negative to the empowerment.

Unsurprisingly, Gates agrees that the internet can make smart people smarter. By analogy, the printing press also made smart people smarter because it gave them cheap, easy access to far more information. Since they were capable of processing the information, they were effectively smarter than they used to be.

It's equally unsurprisingly that he disagrees about the internet making dumb people dumber. It's a pretty anti-tech opinion, after all, and that's not the business Bill Gates is in. But I think his answer actually belies his disagreement, since he immediately acknowledges an example of precisely this phenomenon: the anti-vax movement, something that happens to be close to his heart. Unfortunately, to call this merely a "communications challenge" discounts the problem. Sure, it's a communications challenge, but that's the whole point. The internet is all about communication, and it does two things in this case. First, it empower the anti-vax nutballs, giving them a far more powerful medium for spreading their nonsense. On the flip side, it makes a lot more people vulnerable to bad information. If you lack the context to evaluate arguments about vaccination, the internet is much more likely to make you dumber about vaccinating your kids than any previous medium in history.

The rest of Gates' argument doesn't really hold water either. Sure, IQ scores have been rising. But they've been rising for a long time. This long predates the internet and has nothing to do with it. As for TV shows, he picked the wrong example. It's true that Breaking Bad is far more sophisticated than Leave it to Beaver, but Breaking Bad was always a niche show, averaging 1-2 million viewers for nearly its entire run. Instead, you should compare Leave it to Beaver with, say, The Big Bang Theory, which gets 10-20 million viewers per episode. Is Big Bang the more sophisticated show? Maybe. But if so, it's not by much.

In any case, the heart of Gates' response is this: "I don't see a counter trend where there's some group of people who are less curious or less informed because of the internet." I won't pretend that I have ironclad evidence one way or the other, but I wouldn't dismiss the problem so blithely. I'm not trying to make a broad claim that the internet is making us generally stupider or anything like that. But it's a far more powerful medium for spreading conspiracy theories and other assorted crap than anything we've had before. If you lack the background and context to evaluate information about a particular subject, you're highly likely to be misinformed if you do a simple Google search and just start reading whatever comes up first. And that describes an awful lot of people.

Obviously this has been a problem for as long humans have been able to communicate. The anti-fluoridation nutballs did just fine with only dead-tree technology. Still, I think the internet makes this a more widespread problem, simply because it's a more widespread medium, and it's one that's especially difficult to navigate wisely. Hopefully that will change in the future, but for now it is what it is. It doesn't have to make dumb people dumber, but in practice, I think it very often does.