Kevin Drum

Paging Meg Ryan

| Mon Dec. 29, 2008 10:08 AM PST

PAGING MEG RYAN....Something I've long suspected has finally been Proven By Science: romantic comedies are bad for you:

According to a few enterprising social scientists at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, romantic comedies can raise unrealistic romantic expectations among fans and may therefore set them up for personal failure and a lifetime of disappointment.

....After sifting through 200 of the top-grossing romantic comedies to come out of the Big Six Hollywood studios between 1995 and 2005, [Bjarne] Holmes and his colleagues found some interesting common denominators: In the movies, new relationships are portrayed both as exciting, as most tend to be, and offering the intimacy that usually takes years to develop in real life. Past transgressions are easily forgiven. (You cheated on me with the mailman? Big deal! I still love you; let's live happily ever after!) And finally, older, more committed relationships are frequently portrayed in a negative light, with couples bickering and backbiting. More often than not, married couples are depicted as long-suffering.

Sounds right, though I'll confess that Holmes's research methodology strikes me as absurdly thin, even by the usual standards of these things. In academic-speak, he says:

Using 294 undergraduate students, an exploratory study found an association between preference for/like of romance-oriented media and two relationship-as-destiny-oriented beliefs, belief in predestined soul mates (β = .27, p < .001) and that "mind reading is expected in relationships" (β = .21, p < .001).

In English, this means that people who liked romantic comedies also tended to idealize romance. Shocking, isn't it? Still, here's the good news: Holmes and his colleagues at the Family and Personal Relationships Lab have a continuing online project dedicated to this subject and you can participate! Just click here.

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Asleep at the Switch

| Mon Dec. 29, 2008 9:30 AM PST

ASLEEP AT THE SWITCH....The Washington Post reports today that during the Bush administration, OSHA pretty much shut itself down and new workplace safety regulations ground to a halt. I don't think this will come as a shock to anyone. But my favorite part of the story is this anecdote about Edwin Foulke, who took over OSHA in 2006:

Foulke quickly acquired a reputation inside the Labor Department as a man who literally fell asleep on the job: Eyewitnesses said they saw him suddenly doze off at staff meetings, during teleconferences, in one-on-one briefings, at retreats involving senior deputies, on the dais at a conference in Europe, at an award ceremony for a corporation and during an interview with a candidate for deputy regional administrator.

His top aides said they rustled papers, wore attention-getting garb, pounded the table for emphasis or gently kicked his leg, all to keep him awake. But, if these tactics failed, sometimes they just continued talking as if he were awake. "We'll be sitting there and things will fall out of his hands; people will go on talking like nothing ever happened," said a career official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to a reporter.

In an interview, Foulke denied falling asleep at work, although he said he was often tired and sometimes listened with his eyes closed.

I think "Listening With His Eyes Closed" is a great metaphor for the entire Bush era. Somebody should write a book with that title.

Wingnuttia Update

| Sun Dec. 28, 2008 12:50 PM PST

WINGNUTTIA UPDATE....Ed Yong posts this weekend on some research about what happens when people feel they have less control over their lives. The nickel version is that they tend to see patterns that don't exist, they get more superstitious, and they become ever more captivated by conspiracy theories. You can read Ed's measured, sober writeup here, or you can just take in Tim F.'s more pungent summary instead:

Anyhow, about peak wingnut theory. Republicans (and Republican bloggers) will spend at least the next two years with about as much political control as a bug in a jar. You can make your own conclusions.

Oh yes. We can. It's gonna be an entertaining era as long as this remains confined to wingnuttia. If it breaks into the mainstream media, as it did in the 90s, not so much.

Cap and Tax

| Sun Dec. 28, 2008 11:09 AM PST

CAP AND TAX....Matt Yglesias suggests that although a gasoline tax would have been a good idea 20 years ago, today it's obsolete:

Given what we've learned about the risks of catastrophic climate change, it [] seems like a concept that's been somewhat overtaken by events. A carbon tax, or a cap on greenhouse gas emissions with auctioned permits, would constitute a tax on gasoline among other things. And there's no particular reason that burning fuel in a car should be disfavored versus other carbon-intensive activities.

This is true, but it's worth noting that for technical reasons there's an argument to be made that cap-and-trade is a good solution for stationary carbon souces (primarily coal and gas fired power generating stations) while a tax is a better solution for mobile sources. A lot of this revolves around whether your favored cap-and-trade plan applies directly to fuel sources ("upstream" cap-and-trade) or to the actual emission of carbon ("downstream" cap-and-trade). Downstream is essentially impossible with cars and trucks since it's impractical to monitor hundreds of millions of carbon sources, so if that's the version of cap-and-trade you prefer, then you need to apply a different solution to the transportation sector.

In addition, it's also possible that driving should, in fact, be disfavored even compared to other sources. The elasticity of gasoline demand is very low (it's higher in the long term than in the short term, but still low in either case), which means you have to price gasoline at a very, very high level if you want to get meaningful reductions in use. In Europe, for example, gasoline is taxed at around $2-3 per gallon, which is equivalent to a carbon tax of about $1000/ton, and even the most aggressive cap-and-trade plan won't produce carbon charges remotely near this level anytime in the foreseeable future. It's arguable (though, admittedly, far from obvious) that a gasoline tax might be able to get to that range faster than a cap-and-trade plan.

I don't have any special dog in this fight. My tentative preference right now is for gasoline taxes combined with cap-and-trade for stationary sources or, possibly, for gasoline taxes in addition to a broader-based cap-and-trade plan. If we really want to reduce driving, encourage use of urban/suburban transit alternatives, and produce a revenue stream big enough to fund it, that might be what we need.

Land of the Free

| Sun Dec. 28, 2008 10:21 AM PST

LAND OF THE FREE....Juan Gómez, American citizen, would like to be able to return to his country after an overseas trip the same way every other American citizen does: by showing his passport and walking in. Unfortunately, Juan Gómez is in TSA hell:

Time and time again, I've been cleared for entry into the United States. So why does my name remain on the list? Will I have to go through this for the rest of my life? In desperation, I always ask airport-security officers how my name can be removed. I've heard it all, from writing to my congressman (as if that would do any good) to filling out a form (never mind that no one has been able to produce the document or tell me where I can find it). The most honest answer came from a young, Afghan American officer at Dulles a couple of weeks ago: "There's absolutely nothing you can do."

Welcome to America, Juan.

*Modern Architecture

| Sat Dec. 27, 2008 1:30 PM PST

MODERN ARCHITECTURE....The Los Angeles Times asked eight local worthies to choose the ten all-time best houses in Southern California. The results: nine out of ten houses are in Los Angeles and ten out of ten were built more than 40 years ago. Discuss.

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Nightmare on Main Street

| Sat Dec. 27, 2008 11:03 AM PST

NIGHTMARE ON MAIN STREET....From the Wall Street Journal, this is as gruesome a statistic as I've seen yet:

Corporate-turnaround experts and bankruptcy lawyers are predicting a wave of retailer bankruptcies early next year, after being contacted by big and small retailers either preparing to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection or scrambling to avoid that fate.

....AlixPartners LLP, a Michigan-based turnaround consulting firm, estimates that 25.8% of 182 large retailers it tracks are at significant risk of filing for bankruptcy or facing financial distress in 2009 or 2010....Recent changes in the bankruptcy code make it more difficult for retailers to emerge from bankruptcy reorganization....Lawrence Gottlieb, a New York bankruptcy attorney at Cooley Godward Kronish LLP says that only two retailers have successfully emerged from bankruptcy proceedings since the amendments to the code were passed.

A quarter of all major retailers may be in either Chapter 11 or liquidation next year? Holy cow.

The Student Loan Mess

| Sat Dec. 27, 2008 10:47 AM PST

THE STUDENT LOAN MESS....The student loan market is a mess, and it's mainly a mess because the federal student loan program is woefully inadequate. Natalie Hickey learned the hard way:

Hickey got caught in an increasingly common trap in the nation's $85-billion student loan market. She borrowed heavily, presuming that all her debt was part of the federal student loan program.

But most of the money she borrowed was actually in private loans, the fastest-growing segment of the student loan market....Whereas federally guaranteed loans have fixed interest rates, currently either 6% or 6.8%, private loans are more like credit card debt. Interest rates aren't fixed and often run 15% or more, not counting fees.

....Hickey ended up with $20,000 in low-interest federally guaranteed loans issued by Sallie Mae, and $120,000 in higher-interest private loans issued by Sallie Mae. Hickey said no one explained the difference to her.

There's really no excuse for this. At the very least disclosure practices need to be tightened up, but what really needs to happen is a substantial increase in the current limit for federal student loans. It's not even close to the amount needed to get through school these days.

What's more, there's really no reason that the feds should be guaranteeing private loans instead of just originating the loans themselves anyway. Bank origination may have been the only practical option 40 years ago, but that ceased to be the case long ago, and the private student loan market has since become a cesspool of graft, corruption, and abusive practices. Today, federal origination is cheaper and more efficient for both taxpayers and students, and there's really no reason why the Direct Loan Program shouldn't be expanded to the point of putting the private market out of business.

Passive Houses

| Sat Dec. 27, 2008 10:06 AM PST

PASSIVE HOUSES....I've wondered vaguely for a while why you couldn't build a house that was basically vacuum sealed and thus needed almost nothing in the way of heating and cooling. But it turns out you can, and ground zero for research into "passive houses" is the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany, where I spent a couple of nights just a few months ago. The New York Times reports:

The concept of the passive house, pioneered in this city of 140,000 outside Frankfurt, approaches the challenge from a different angle. Using ultrathick insulation and complex doors and windows, the architect engineers a home encased in an airtight shell, so that barely any heat escapes and barely any cold seeps in. That means a passive house can be warmed not only by the sun, but also by the heat from appliances and even from occupants' bodies.

....Decades ago, attempts at creating sealed solar-heated homes failed, because of stagnant air and mold. But new passive houses use an ingenious central ventilation system. The warm air going out passes side by side with clean, cold air coming in, exchanging heat with 90 percent efficiency.

....In Germany the added construction costs of passive houses are modest and, because of their growing popularity and an ever larger array of attractive off-the-shelf components, are shrinking.

But the sophisticated windows and heat-exchange ventilation systems needed to make passive houses work properly are not readily available in the United States. So the construction of passive houses in the United States, at least initially, is likely to entail a higher price differential.

Interesting stuff. Old news to some, but new to me, and probably new to a few of you as well. More passive houses, please.

Friday Cat Blogging - 26 December 2008

| Fri Dec. 26, 2008 12:40 PM PST

BOXING DAY CATBLOGGING....We spent Christmas Eve this year at my mother's house, which naturally means I acquired many new pictures of her implacably adorable new kittens. I think they went through three complete cycles of manic zeal followed by utter slumberland during the few hours we were visiting.

But there will be riots in the street (punctuated by the occasional snooze) if Inkblot and Domino are booted from their rightful spots as America's Favorite Cats™ for two weeks in a row. So here they are. Domino is in her normal morning position, draped over Marian's head and sucking up all her bodily warmth. Inkblot, whose relationship with the new pod is sometimes a fraught one, was in a pod-loving moment a few days ago and spent the morning curled up in the sunshine on the other end of the bed. Usually he disdains the pod and sleeps right by Marian's feet, which basically makes her into a cat sandwich. On the other hand, my mother now has four cats, and apparently all of them like to sleep on the bed at night, so I guess it could be worse.