Quote of the Day: "Suck It Up, Cupcake"

Oh FFS:

Really? Sarah Palin is still front-page news? Seriously? On the other hand, I have to admit that she's hard to resist:

Palin said Obama’s visit suggested that the president believes that “the greatest generation was perpetuating the evil of World War II.”...[The] tea party heroine said Trump would be a president “who knows how to win.”

“You mess with our freedom,” she said, “we’ll put a boot in your ass. It’s the American way.” At that, the crowd chanted, “USA! USA! USA!”

Palin was the warm-up act at Trump’s large rally, speaking on stage before the candidate arrived in San Diego. She took issue with Obama’s statement overseas this week that other world leaders have been “rattled” by the rise of Trump. “Rattled, are they now?” Palin said....She pointed out that the yellow Gadsden flag flown at tea party rallies depicts a rattlesnake “coiled, prepared, ready to strike.”

“So, yeah, rattlin’ – it’s a good thing,” she said.

....Turning to look at the television cameras and journalists on the press riser, Palin lambasted the “sheep in the media.” “Their head is still a-spinnin’,” she said. “Do you know how thoroughly distrusted you are, mainstream media? ... He is now we the people’s nominee, so suck it up, cupcake!

Oh well. At least it's Saturday. Maybe no one will notice that I caved in and wrote about this.

I was musing the other day about something or other, and for some reason it occurred to me that there are several subjects near and dear to progressive hearts that I flatly disagree with. I'm not talking about, say, charter schools, where there's a robust, ongoing intra-liberal debate and both sides already have plenty of adherents. Nor am I talking about things like Wall Street regulation, where everyone (including me) thinks we need to do more but we disagree on technical issues (Bernie wants to break up big banks, I want to double capital requirements).

I'm thinking instead of things that seem to enjoy something like 90+ percent liberal support—and which I think are basically a waste of liberal time and energy. So if I write about them, a whole lot of people are going to be pissed off. Something like 90+ percent of my readership, I'd guess. Who needs the grief? After all, for the most part there's usually not much harm in spending time and energy on these things (though there are exceptions).

But let's give it a go anyway. Maybe this will be the first entry in a periodic series. Maybe I'll discover that I'm not quite as alone on these issues as I think. Here's my first entry.

Campaign Finance Reform

Liberals love campaign finance reform. Citizens United is our Roe v. Wade, and it's become an even more central issue since Bernie Sanders began his presidential run last year. As near as I can tell, Bernie—along with most liberals—thinks it's the key foundational issue of modern progressivism. Until we seriously reduce the amount of money in political campaigns, no real progressive reform is possible.

I'm pretty sure this is completely wrong. Here are seven reasons that have persuaded me of this over the years, with the most important reason left to the end:

  1. Half a century has produced nothing. Liberals groups have been putting serious effort into campaign finance reform for about 40 years now. The only result has been abject failure. Ban union donations, they create PACs. Ban hard money, you get soft money. Ban soft money, you get Super PACs. Etc. None of the reforms have worked, and even before Citizens United the Supreme Court had steadily made effective reform efforts harder and harder. What's even worse, the public still isn't with us. If you ask them vaguely if they think there's too much money in politics, most will say yes. If you ask them if they really care, they shrug. After half a century, maybe it's time to ask why.
     
  2. Other countries spend less. Most other rich countries spend a lot less on political campaigns than we do. Are they less in thrall to moneyed interests because of this? Some are, some aren't. I've never seen any convincing evidence that there's much of a correlation.
     
  3. Billionaires are idiots. Seriously. The evidence of the last decade or so suggests that billionaires just aren't very effective at using their riches to win elections. This is unsurprising: billionaires are egotists who tend to think that because they got rich doing X, they are also geniuses at Y and Z and on beyond zebra. But they aren't. This stuff is a hobby for them, and mostly they're just wasting their money.
     
  4. The small-dollar revolution. Starting with Howard Dean in 2004, the internet has produced an explosion of small-dollar donations, accounting for over a third of presidential fundraising in 2012 and 2016. This year, for example, Hillary Clinton has so far raised $288 million, including money raised by outside groups. Bernie Sanders has raised $208 million, all of it in small-dollar donations averaging $27. Ironically, at the same time that he's made campaign finance reform a major issue, Bernie has demonstrated that small dollars can power a serious insurgency.
     
  5. Money really is speech. Obviously this is an opinion, and a really rare one on my side of the political spectrum. But why should political speech be restricted? My read of the First Amendment suggests that if there's any single kind of speech that should enjoy the highest level of protection, it's political speech.
     
  6. We may have maxed out anyway. There's increasing evidence that in big-time contests (governors + national offices), we've basically reached the point of diminishing returns. At this point, if the billionaires spend more money it just won't do much good even if they're smart about it. There are only so many minutes of TV time available and only so many persuadable voters. More important, voters have only so much bandwidth. Eventually they tune out, and it's likely that we've now reached that point.

    In the interests of fairness, I'll acknowledge that I might be wrong about this. It might turn out that there are clever ways to spend even more; billionaires might get smarter; and Citizens United has only just begun to affect spending. Maybe in a couple of decades I'll be eating my words about this.
     
  7. Campaign spending hasn't gone up much anyway. I told you I'd leave the most important reason for the end, and this is it. It's easy to be shocked when you hear about skyrocketing billions of dollars being spent on political campaigns, but billions of dollars aren't that much in a country the size of the United States. In 2012, Obama spent $1.1 billion vs. Mitt Romney's $1.2 billion. That's about 1 percent of total ad spending in the US. Hell, in the cell phone biz alone, AT&T spent $1.3 billion vs. Verizon's $1.2 billion. If you want to look at campaign spending, you really need to size it to the growth in GDP over the past half century or so.

So here it is. These two charts show our skyrocketing spending on presidential campaigns as a percent of GDP. Data for the chart on the left comes from Mother Jones. The chart on the right comes from the Center for Responsive Politics. Total presidential spending is up about 18 percent since 2000. I supposed I'd like to see this reduced as much as the next guy, but it's hard to see it as the core corrupter of American politics. It's a symptom, but it's really not the underlying disease. There really are problems with the influence of the rich on American politics, but campaigns are probably the place where it matters least, not most.

Tyler Cowen point us to Wendell Cox, who says that  aside from New York City, mass transit ridership in the US is looking grim:

If New York City Subway ridership had remained at its 2005 level, overall transit ridership would have decreased from 9.8 billion in 2005 to 9.6 billion in 2015. The modern record of 10.7 billion rides would never have been approached.

Despite spending billions of dollars on new rail lines in LA, mass transit in Southern California certainly fits this bill:

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the region's largest carrier, lost more than 10% of its boardings from 2006 to 2015, a decline that appears to be accelerating....In Orange County, bus ridership plummeted 30% in the last seven years....Southern California certainly isn't alone. Public transportation use in many U.S. cities, including Chicago and Washington, D.C., has slumped in the last few years.

But all is not lost. If you take a longer look at Los Angeles transit, it turns out there are things you can do to increase ridership. It's complicated, though, so you'll need to read carefully:

Thirty years ago, [Metro] handled almost 500 million annual bus boardings in Los Angeles County. In the decade that followed...Metro raised fares and cut bus service hours. [Ridership during this period declined from 497 million to 362 million. –ed.]

In 1994, an organization that represented bus riders sued Metro in federal court....Metro agreed to stop raising fares for 10 years and relieve overcrowding by adding more than 1 million hours of bus service. Ridership soared. Metro buses and trains recorded about 492 million boardings in 2006, the most since 1985.

But from 2009 to 2011, several years after federal oversight ended and during the Great Recession, the agency raised fares and cut bus service by 900,000 hours. By the end of 2015, ridership had fallen 10% from 2006, with the steepest declines coming in the last two years.

Hmmm. There's an answer in there somewhere. We just need to tease it out. Here's an annotated version of the full chart that I excerpted above. Maybe that will help.

Friday Cat Blogging - 27 May 2016

I was going to link to Dave Roberts' post about Donald Trump's big energy speech yesterday, but then I couldn't think of anything to say about it. Before I knew it, catblogging time had arrived. So you're on your own. Click the link and draw your own conclusions.

Or just skip it and instead admire Hilbert and Hopper peering out from under the rocking chair. For the record, they write all their own speeches.

Just How Bad Is Gawker, Anyway?

So: Gawker. The general reaction of the press to the revelation that billionaire Peter Thiel has been behind the libel suit against Gawker all along has been close to unanimous: it's bad. The generally accepted storyline is that Thiel was pissed off at Gawker for outing him as gay many years ago, and has been plotting revenge ever since. His deep pockets pretty much ensured that eventually he'd be able to sue them into oblivion, and sure enough, he has.

But do we really want a world in which angry billionaires who don't like the press they get can use their riches to put news organizations out of business? They don't even have to win. Just file enough lawsuits that meet the bare minimum standard to keep from being frivolous, and eventually they'll win. Now that Thiel has proven the concept, we can expect a lot more of this. See Felix Salmon for a good precis of this argument.

However, there's another point of view. John Hempton expresses it eloquently:

Ryan Holiday makes a pretty good case for the odiousness of Gawker here. Nick Denton, the owner of Gawker, more or less responds that Thiel should just suck it up. This kind of shit gets published all the time in places like New York and Washington DC. Why shouldn't Silicon Valley have to put up with it too?

What to think? Here's the problem: I don't read Gawker. I've been on their site once in a while, and generally find it boring. I click on things here and there, and mostly find writers desperately trying to bring some snark to a topic that's really kind of dull. So I go away for a year or so before something happens to bring me back.

So here's what I need: a Gawker-style listicle that sets out, say, the ten most loathsome things Gawker has done. Does anyone know where I can find something like that?

From Mother Jones this morning:

It's the moment we've all been dreading. Initial findings from a massive federal study, released on Thursday, suggest that radio-frequency (RF) radiation, the type emitted by cellphones, can cause cancer.

I guess it's up to me to present the authorized opposing viewpoint. I'm going to outsource it to Aaron Carroll, who's pretty annoyed:

 It was a rat study....9 hours a day, seven days a week....At the end of the study, survival was lower in the control group of males than in all the exposed males. Survival was lower in the control group of females for two of the three exposed groups. Yet no headlines blared that cell phones extend life.

....Now let’s get to brain cancer....no significant differences in the incidences of lesions in exposed male rats compared to controls....No differences were seen in the female rats at all. The cardiac schwannomas were more compelling, but again, only for males. No differences for females.

....I didn’t see any sample size calculation....power calculation....about 14%. This means that false positives are very likely. The cancer difference was only seen in females, not males. The incidence of brain cancer in the exposed groups was well within the historical range. There’s no clear dose response....Also, this: Cell phones are UBIQUITOUS in the United States. If they were causing cancer, we would expect to see rates of cancer going up, right? That’s not what we’re seeing. They’ve been decreasing since the late 1980’s.

I'd add one more thing. This is going to sound snarky, but honest, it's not. Here it is: people don't use their cell phones much to make phone calls. This is especially true of young people, which means it's a trend that will only get more pronounced with time. But there's really no way that a cell phone used for, say, texting or Snapchatting could cause brain cancer. Maybe skin cancer? Fingertip cancer?

On the other hand, maybe it's not the cell phones at all. Maybe it's the cell towers. Has everyone here read Waldo? Maybe you should.

Feeling the Bern in California

The LA Times reports that Bernie Sanders is doing something unusual: campaigning everywhere in California. Why?

All week Bernie Sanders has galloped about California, showing up in places where presidential candidates usually don’t tread. On Sunday he was in Vista. On Tuesday he hit Riverside and San Bernardino. On Wednesday he was in Cathedral City and Lancaster. On Thursday, Ventura. On Saturday, he’ll be in Santa Maria.

....His move to the exurbs and to other less definitely Democratic turf is driven by several realities particular to California. Foremost is the state of the Democratic campaign: Sanders continues to trail Clinton, even if the race appears to be narrowing. So he needs every vote he can get....Another factor makes the exurbs a potential goldmine for Sanders, in particular: While the state as a whole took a giant hit during the Great Recession, the exurbs were particularly hard hit.

There's actually a simpler explanation for this: 2016 is the first time in half a century that anyone has bothered campaigning at all in a California presidential primary in June—let alone for an entire month. In the past, nomination fights have been over by March or April, and California's only real role has been to act as a base for fundraising. And there's not much point in holding a fundraiser in Lancaster.

So that explains all the exurbs. Sure, they might be Bernie territory, but he still wouldn't be there in an ordinary year. He'd either be out of the race entirely or else he'd already be the winner, and he'd be holding $5,000-a-plate dinners in Brentwood and Atherton.

The Wall Street Journal has an article today about the massive spike in robocall phone scams, mostly aimed at the elderly. Luckily, there are several well-known ways that phone companies could put a stop to this. So what's happening on that front?

The FCC is strongly encouraging phone carriers to offer customers technology that aims to detect robotic calls and stop them before getting through, said an agency spokesman. Carriers are “working toward that goal,” said Kevin Rupy, vice president of law and policy at USTelecom, a trade association.

Excellent. The FCC is "strongly encouraging" telcos to do something. And the telcos are "working toward" doing something. Someday. Maybe.

Sounds like a job for Congress. Since telcos obviously don't plan on actually doing anything unless they're forced to, it's time to force them. Of course, that would require Congress to actually do something. During an election year. Can't have that, can we? Gotta keep the oldsters nice and angry. Maybe next year.

Trump Toes the Line on Energy

Stop me if I'm wrong, but Donald Trump's big energy speech today was just the usual conservative mishmash, right? Global warming doesn't exist. Drill baby drill. Dig more coal. Repeal job-killing Obama environmental rules. Fracking is great. Wind and solar meh. Nukes, sure, whatever.

This is the usual establishment Republican line, and Trump is carefully toeing it. Or am I missing something?

Shaun King says he's giving up on the Democratic Party. He can't abide Hillary Clinton's establishment views and thinks the Democratic Party is fundamentally corrupt and in thrall to moneyed interests. Fair enough. This isn't my position, but I understand it.

But there are times when I wonder if we've all succumbed to some kind of mass memory wipe. Although King dislikes Hillary, he says he respects President Obama "a great deal." This prompts interviewer Emmett Rensin to ask an obvious question: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have pretty similar domestic policy positions. So why loathe one but like the other? Here is King's answer:

I think we would have to go down each and every one of the president’s positions to really evaluate, what does the president think about health care? Yes, there is a thing called Obamacare — but was that what he campaigned on? What came out of the sausage factory, was that his dream? No. Of course not.

So is the president for universal health care? Well, he was. For years and years and years. And I don't know that he stopped being for universal health care. It was just that he used virtually all the political capital he had in his first term to get something decent through Congress, and what came out was very different.

What? I don't doubt that Obama, in his heart of hearts, favors truly universal health care. He's said as much in the past—though in the next breath he's always added that it might take a while to get there. But the only thing he ever campaigned on was Obamacare. He unveiled his health care plan nine years ago almost to the day, and—well, let's roll the tape:

Obama's plan retains the private insurance system but injects additional money to pay for expanding coverage. It would also create a National Health Insurance Exchange to monitor insurance companies in offering the coverage. Those who can't afford coverage would get a subsidy on a sliding scale depending on their income, and virtually all businesses would have to share in the cost of coverage for their workers. The plan is similar to the one covering members of Congress.

Obama's package would prohibit insurance companies from refusing coverage because of pre-existing conditions. The plan doesn't have the mandate that rival Democratic candidate John Edwards is proposing to ensure that all Americans get coverage. The 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee would require everyone to have health insurance, much like state requirements for auto insurance for every driver. Both candidates would require businesses to help cover their workers.

Obama was, by universal consensus, less ambitious on health care than either Hillary Clinton or John Edwards. He introduced his plan in 2007, he campaigned on it for the next 18 months, and it's quite close to what eventually got passed. The big difference is that the final version of Obamacare added an individual mandate, something that Hillary had in her plan from the start.

There are plenty of reasons to like Obama more than Hillary Clinton. I certainly do. But we all need to stay reality-based too. On domestic policy there was very little difference between Obama and Clinton during the 2008 campaign, and to the extent there was, it was generally Obama who was considered a bit more centrist. It was Obama who was the darling of Wall Street. His climate change plan was all but identical to Hillary's but included lots of happy talk about clean coal. Etc. etc.

This whole thing is crazy. Do people even remember the 2008 campaign? Obama was an inspirational speaker, for sure, but on policy matters he was a relentlessly pragmatic, mainstream Democrat. And that's how he's governed ever since he won. If you like Obama on domestic policy, it's really hard to see just what you'd have against Hillary. Their differences lie mostly in foreign policy instincts, and not anywhere else.