Kevin Drum

Fighting the Power

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 11:31 AM EDT

Via Alan Jacobs, here's Henry Porter in the Guardian warning about the vast evil perpetrated on the unwary by Google:

Google presents a far greater threat to the livelihood of individuals and the future of commercial institutions important to the community. One case emerged last week when a letter from Billy Bragg, Robin Gibb and other songwriters was published in the Times explaining that Google was playing very rough with those who appeared on its subsidiary, YouTube. When the Performing Rights Society demanded more money for music videos streamed from the website, Google reacted by refusing to pay the requested 0.22p per play and took down the videos of the artists concerned.

It does this with impunity because it is dominant worldwide and knows the songwriters have nowhere else to go. Google is the portal to a massive audience: you comply with its terms or feel the weight of its boot on your windpipe.

Its boot on your windpipe!  Because of a commercial disagreement with another enormous industry over the acceptable size of royalty payments!

Whatever.  But what I'm really curious about is whether the PRS really thinks it can get 30 cents per play for YouTube music videos.  At a guess, that sounds too high by a factor of ten or a hundred.  What are they thinking?

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More Gay Marriage

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 11:00 AM EDT
More good news on the same-sex marriage front: the Vermont legislature has voted to override Gov. Jim Douglas's veto of a bill allowing gays and lesbians to marry.  Score one more for the good guys.

The Kitchen Sink

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 1:02 AM EDT
Nick Baumann summarizes all the platforms Robert Gates proposes gutting in next year's Pentagon budget:

In Gates' proposed budget, the F-22, VH-71, the Navy's DDG-1000 Destroyer, Airborne Laser Missile Defense (a laser mounted on a Boeing 747), and the Army's Future Combat Systems program are all targeted for modification or elimination.

And don't forget the C-17!  That's a lot of platforms.  Question: is going after so many programs at once (a) brilliant or (b) insane?  I can make a case for either, but I can't quite convince myself which one it is.

Revenge of the Kids

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 8:43 PM EDT
The Census Bureau's Current Population Survey Voting and Registration Supplement is out!  Are you excited yet?

The graph on the right comes from Charles Franklin and shows the turnout rate by age for the past three elections.  2008 is in red, and turnout among 18-29 year-olds is up by about two percentage points from 2004, which in turn was up by about eight points from 2000.  Turnout rates for all other age groups were down slightly compared to 2004.

More data is here, compiled by Michael McDonald.  Highlights: youth turnout might have been up in 2008, but it was still more than ten points below the turnout rate of every other age group.  The turnout rate was down for whites and up for every other ethnic group.  And early voting increased from 20% of voters to 30% of voters.  In fact, early voting has more than quadrupled since the early 90s.

Torture Memo Followup

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 1:08 PM EDT
A few days ago Michael Isikoff reported that the White House had backed off on plans to release some Bush-era torture memos thanks to mounting internal pushback: "U.S. intelligence officials, led by senior national-security aide John Brennan, mounted an intense campaign to get the decision reversed, according to a senior administration official familiar with the debate. 'Holy hell has broken loose over this,' said the official, who asked not to be identified because of political sensitivities."

Today, Scott Horton suggests that there's more than just pushback involved:

Senate Republicans are now privately threatening to derail the confirmation of key Obama administration nominees for top legal positions by linking the votes to suppressing critical torture memos from the Bush era. A reliable Justice Department source advises me that Senate Republicans are planning to “go nuclear” over the nominations of Dawn Johnsen as chief of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice and Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh as State Department legal counsel if the torture documents are made public....A Republican Senate source confirms the strategy. It now appears that Republicans are seeking an Obama commitment to safeguard the Bush administration’s darkest secrets in exchange for letting these nominations go forward.

These memos must be real time bombs.  So much material has been released already, both officially and otherwise, that I've long assumed we already knew everything the Bush administraton had done — in broad terms, anyway.  But apparently not.  If these memos just confirmed our use of things like stress positions and black sites, it's hard to imagine they'd prompt such ferocious opposition.  There must be some truly new — and truly gruesome — disclosures in them.

How to Read Poll Results

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 12:01 PM EDT
Consider the poll question below, from a CNN survey emailed to me this morning.  If it is to be believed, 95% of all Americans have an opinion about Turkey.  Question: Is it to be believed?  Do you think 95% of Americans could even find Turkey on a map?

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Larry's Problems

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 11:48 AM EDT
Ezra Klein comments on the recent disclosures of Larry Summers' Croesus-like wealth, garnered in the years before he went to work for the White House:

We now know that in 2008, Summers received more than $5 million from the hedge fund D.E Shaw and more than $2.7 million in speaking fees from other Wall Street firms — including $135,000 for a single appearance before Goldman Sachs. These are sums that would make Tom Daschle positively blush, and they likely would have posed a serious threat had Summers been named Secretary of the Treasury.

Really?  Robert Rubin ran Goldman Sachs.  Paul O'Neill was CEO of Alcoa.  John Snow was CEO and chairman of CSX.  Henry Paulson was another Goldman CEO.

Every one of these gentlemen make Larry Summers look like a pauper.  So why would petty cash levels of consulting and speaking fees have caused him any headaches?  I thought his problem wasn't money, but his deeply held belief that girls can't do long division and we should ship all our toxic waste to Chad.  In the face of that, who cares about a lousy few million bucks?

Voice Mail

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 11:15 AM EDT
Responding to a recent New York Times piece about the demise of voice mail, Matt Yglesias says, "If you leave a message on my office voicemail, forget about it. I’m not even entirely sure I know how to check it." James Joyner agrees: "I often forget to check my voice mail for days on end and my wife simply won’t check a message, preferring to return any missed calls that show up on her mobile."  And Andrew Sullivan warns us: "I check my voice mail once a week. Just so you know."

I've never had quite the aversion to voice mail that these folks do1, but still, I understand.  Death to voice mail.  One thing, though: I hope everyone who hates voice mail at least records an outgoing message warning callers that a callback is unlikely and providing some other way of getting in touch.  It's one thing not to like voice mail, but it's quite another to have it on your phone and then just leave people hanging wondering why they never heard back from you.

1True story: I once wrote a remarkably full-featured piece of Windows software solely to keep track of voice mail at work.  It started out as a project to teach myself SQL programming and sort of mushroomed from there.  What a waste.  But it was fun at the time.

Fun With Phosphates

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 10:46 AM EDT
The blogosphere had a few laughs last week at the expense of RedState head honcho Eric Erickson, who warned that revolution was coming and told residents of Washington state, "I’d be cleaning my gun right about now waiting to protect my property from the coming riots or the government apparatchiks coming to enforce nonsensical legislation."  The subject was.....phosphate-free dishwasher detergent.

Seriously.  But guess what?  This story isn't quite the stuff of populist wrath Erickson thinks.  Yes, Spokane has banned the dishwasher detergent with phosphates and Washington state will follow suit next year.  And yes, residents of Spokane have been sneaking into Idaho to buy boxes of Cascade and Electrasol.  But check this out, from today's LA Times:

For those inclined to chuckle at the travails of distant, desperate people with dirty dishes, consider this: The detergent industry has pledged to make every automatic dishwashing soap sold in the U.S. and Canada nearly phosphate-free by mid-2010.

With 12 states — including Washington — phasing in low-phosphate laws by the end of next year and four others considering them, industry officials say they are gearing up to produce a new generation of products that will clean dishes while not harming lakes and streams. (The California Legislature passed a phosphate law last year, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it.)

The pledge marks a significant turnaround for an industry that until recently not only opposed such laws but also warned that many phosphate-free dishwashing detergents didn't work the way consumers expected them to.

But plenty soon will be available, said Dennis Griesing, vice president of government affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Soap and Detergent Assn.

So here's the deal.  Phosphates really are a danger, creating runoff that kills fish and plants.  And Spokane has a uniquely bad problem with phosphates.  And apparently it's entirely possible to create phosphate-free detergents.  The industry just didn't feel like doing it.

But now their hands are being forced.  And guess what?  It turns out they can do it after all.  Imagine that.

Poverty and Stress

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 12:11 AM EDT
The Washington Post reports today on a research project headed by Gary Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University.  Evans decided to investigate the influence of stress levels on cognitive impairment in children:

"We know low-socioeconomic-status families are under a lot of stress — all kinds of stress. When you are poor, when it rains it pours. You may have housing problems. You may have more conflict in the family. There's a lot more pressure in paying the bills. You'll probably end up moving more often. There's a lot more demands on low-income families. We know that produces stress in families, including on the children," Evans said.

For the new study, Evans and a colleague rated the level of stress each child experienced using a scale known as "allostatic load." The score was based on the results of tests the children were given when they were ages 9 and 13 to measure their levels of the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, as well as their blood pressure and body mass index....The subjects also underwent tests at age 17 to measure their working memory, which is the ability to remember information in the short term. Working memory is crucial for everyday activities as well as for forming long-term memories.

"It's critical for learning," Evans said. "If you don't have good working memory, you can't do things like hold a phone number in your head or develop a vocabulary."

When the researchers analyzed the relationships among how long the children lived in poverty, their allostatic load and their later working memory, they found a clear relationship: The longer they lived in poverty, the higher their allostatic load and the lower they tended to score on working-memory tests. Those who spent their entire childhood in poverty scored about 20 percent lower on working memory than those who were never poor, Evans said.

This is, in a sense, discouraging news.  You can't solve problems unless you first understand the objective reality underlying them, so if Evans's results are confirmed it will be good in that sense.  But stress?  What would it take to make the lives of poor children substantially less stressful?  The resources to tackle that could be harder to marshal than the resources to eradicate poverty itself.  If stress really turns out to be a significant factor in the cognitive development of poor children, addressing the problem may have just gotten harder, not easier.