Kevin Drum

To the Moon!

| Fri Jan. 2, 2009 12:17 PM EST

TO THE MOON!....Bloomberg reports that the space race may be heating back up. Only the players have changed:

President-elect Barack Obama will probably tear down long-standing barriers between the U.S.'s civilian and military space programs to speed up a mission to the moon amid the prospect of a new space race with China.

....The potential change comes as Pentagon concerns are rising over China's space ambitions because of what is perceived as an eventual threat to U.S. defense satellites, the lofty battlefield eyes of the military.

I'm not sure which is worse: that this suggests Obama is buying into an arms race with China, or that Obama is buying into the zillion-dollar manned moon landing boondoggle. If this report is true, I guess the only question left is which strained excuse he'll use for continuing the moon program. Helium-3 mining? Staging site for mission to Mars? The Chinese will throw rocks at us if we let them colonize the place? Or will he use the excuse du jour: it's great stimulus for our broken economy? Feh.

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Make 'Em Sweat

| Fri Jan. 2, 2009 11:13 AM EST

MAKE 'EM SWEAT....The Washington Post reports that Barack Obama's upcoming inauguration has struck terror into the hearts of corporate wrongdoers:

The Justice Department has reached more than a dozen business-related settlements since the presidential election, with more in the pipeline for January, prompting lawyers and interest groups to assert that companies are seeking more favorable terms before the new administration arrives.

....A review of 15 agreements involving corporations since early November suggests that much of the alleged misconduct dates back five years or more, provoking questions about why the cases took so long to mature and why resolutions are coming with only weeks left in President Bush's term.

"What they obviously are trying to do is take advantage of an administration that's deemed to be more friendly to business," said Cono R. Namorato, a Washington defense lawyer who ran the Internal Revenue Service's office of professional responsibility earlier in the Bush administration. "I know of no tax reason for doing it now."

This is good news. It means that real corporations, with real money at stake, think that Obama's unity talk isn't worth banking on. When push comes to shove, they really do think he's going to drive a harder bargain than the Bush administration when it comes to dealing with charges of corruption, pollution, and overcharging.

Good.

Fight On

| Thu Jan. 1, 2009 2:34 PM EST

FIGHT ON....Today is for football, not blogging, so how about some football blogging to combine the two? Consider this an open thread.

I'll be cheering for USC in the Rose Bowl, of course, and for those of you who wonder why I'm a Trojan fan even though I never attended school there, the answer is on the right. A couple of months ago my mother dropped off a few baby pages from one of her scrapbooks, and my USC junior alumni card was right there. So as you can see, I've been a fan literally my entire life. As for the game today, Penn State has a decent team but I'll take Pete Carroll's crew by three touchdowns, wrapping up a 5-0 bowl record for the Pac-10. Not a bad finish for a conference that otherwise had such a dismal season.

UPDATE: Well, it would have been three touchdowns if USC hadn't played like a bunch of guys afraid to beat the point spread in the second half. But I'll take it anyway. Congratulations, Trojans!

*Nanny State Update

| Thu Jan. 1, 2009 12:28 PM EST

NANNY STATE UPDATE....Attention California readers: just in case Will Smith's recent 2-hour PSA on the subject didn't convince you to stop, it is now illegal to text while driving here in the Golden State. Oddly enough, however, it's still legal to text while bicycling. Also, it's legal to send a text message to a company or other non-human entity while driving. It's only illegal to text a person. This sounds like a traffic court nightmare in the making to me, but there you have it. Details here.

In other legal news, cyber-bullying is now illegal; it's a crime to counterfeit carpool stickers; penalties have been increased for nitwits who call 911 for nonemergencies; the Office of Emergency Services and the Office of Homeland Security have been merged, probably because this worked so great on the federal level; it's now illegal to use radio waves to read another person's identifying information, so no scanning of other people's RFID-equipped passports; and safety rules have been stepped up for operators of wave pools at amusement parks. More details here.

Remember: ignorance of the law is no excuse. Unless you're Scooter Libby.

Happy New Year!

| Wed Dec. 31, 2008 9:00 PM EST

HAPPY NEW YEAR!....As you can see, Inkblot is gazing confidently in the direction of 2009. Or something. You sort of have to use your imagination here.

(I gotta tell you, it's hell getting these cats to do something visually interesting on holiday occasions. If it's not dinner, they're not interested. Maybe I need a parakeet or something.)

In any case, Happy New Year from both humans and felines here at Chez Drum. It's just about 6 pm here on the west coast, guests are starting to arrive, dinner will be on the table in a little bit, and it's time for me to write my final blog post of 2008. So here's hoping that 2009 turns out to be better than any of us expect. Huzzah!

My Blogosphere Whines For 2009

| Wed Dec. 31, 2008 12:59 PM EST

MY BLOGOSPHERE WHINES FOR 2009....Today is New Year's Eve, so here are my top ten whiny, blog-related pet peeves. They are in no particular order:

  1. Blogs without comment sections. Or, blogs with comment sections that require you to go through some kind of painful registration process just to leave a one-sentence note.
  2. Bloggers who don't put their email addresses somewhere on the blog. I don't mind looking around for it a bit (keeps the mind sharp, you know), but put it somewhere, OK?
  3. Blogs that provide only partial RSS feeds. See also point #5, which actually bugs me a lot more.
  4. Bloggers who are too damn lazy to check their links after they post something. Come on, people.
  5. "Teaser" blogs that put only the first paragraph or two on the main page and force you to click "continue" if you want to read the whole thing. This is both annoying and pointless. It only takes a second or two to scroll past a blog post you don't want to read, after all. (Yes, I'm talking about you, Felix Salmon.)
  6. People who say "blog" when they really mean "blog post."
  7. Blogs with lousy (or nonexistent) search capability. Mine, for example.
  8. Top ten lists that are plainly larded with filler because the listmaker couldn't actually think of ten things to write about.
  9. Bloggers who can't count.

I fully expect these problems to be completely resolved starting tomorrow — or, at the very least, on January 20th. If they aren't, a blue ribbon commission will be appointed to deal with them. You have been warned.

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Fun With Rebates

| Wed Dec. 31, 2008 12:46 PM EST

FUN WITH REBATES....Felix Salmon thinks the Obama economic team is showing its behavioral economics roots. Why? Because their proposed tax rebate will come a little bit at a time by reducing tax withholding in paychecks:

The point of a stimulus package, of course, is to boost spending. And hiding a tax rebate in slightly higher take-home paychecks seems like a good way of doing that: even people who save a certain amount of money every month still tend to spend the rest.

I guess that's true. Send me a $1,000 check, and there's a good chance I'll use it to pay down my credit card. Reduce my withholding by $20 a week for 50 weeks, though, and I'll probably just blow it on beer and fritos. And that's consumption, my friends!

Crystal Ball Hell

| Wed Dec. 31, 2008 12:29 PM EST

CRYSTAL BALL HELL....Tom Petruno surveys the year's "most infamous pronouncements" as the economy melted down around our ears. It probably could have been a longer piece, but his editors wouldn't let him take over the entire business section for the day.

Welcome to California

| Wed Dec. 31, 2008 12:23 PM EST

WELCOME TO CALIFORNIA....I see in my morning paper that California cities are engaging in ever more sleight of hand to fund local improvements. Here's a typical arrangement, concocted by John Kim, an advisor with a Los Angeles investment bank. Be sure to read closely:

Oxnard is one of Kim's clients. In 2007, the city wanted to issue bonds to finance part of its $150-million street repaving project, using its share of state gas tax revenue to repay the debt. But the state Constitution says local governments can't issue debt against that revenue.

That's where Kim came in. His plan: The Oxnard City Council would sell the streets to the Oxnard Finance Authority, which consists of the council and mayor. The Finance Authority would issue bonds to raise money for the improvements and repay the bondholders by selling the streets back to the city.

Where would the city get the money to buy the streets? From its gas tax revenue.

So: the left hand isn't allowed to issue a bond, so it sells the streets to its right hand. The right hand issues a bond, then pays off the bond by selling the streets back to its left hand. Everyone's happy!

Needless to say, this costs more than just issuing a standard bond in the first place, but California cities do it because they know voters won't approve a normal bond issue. Welcome to fantasyland, aka the Golden State, in which voters over the years have convinced themselves that it's possible to have lots of services, great roads, and wonderful schools without paying taxes. And to make it even worse, the taxes we've cut back most heavily on (property taxes and vehicle license fees) are the ones that are the steadiest sources of revenue in varying economic climates — unlike things like capital gains taxes and income taxes, which are highly sensitive to economic conditions. As a result, state revenues bounce around wildly when the economy goes up and down, and every few years we find ourselves in yet another crisis, each one worse than before.

This year's, of course, is the mother of all crises, and we're just about out of smoke and mirrors. 2009 promises to be a very, very un-fun year here.

Chart of the Day - 12.31.2008

| Wed Dec. 31, 2008 11:42 AM EST

CHART OF THE DAY....The latest Pew poll shows that this year, for the first time, more people say they get "most" of their national and international news from the internet than from newspapers. Obviously this is slightly misleading, since internet largely means newspaper web sites, but it's still sort of a bellwether statistic.

My question: what happened this year? For the past three years the number of people who got their news mostly from the internet stayed (surprisingly) pretty level at a little over 20%. Then, suddenly, this year, it skyrocketed to 40%. Is this solely because of the presidential election, which became an internet phenomenon? Maybe, although the election came in at a weak #4 in the top news stories of 2008, so that doesn't seem like enough to account for it. In any case, the bulk of the switch appears to been among the young:

For young people [] the internet now rivals television as a main source of national and international news. Nearly six-in-ten Americans younger than 30 (59%) say they get most of their national and international news online; an identical percentage cites television. In September 2007, twice as many young people said they relied mostly on television for news than mentioned the internet (68% vs. 34%).

The percentage of people younger than 30 citing television as a main news source has declined from 68% in September 2007 to 59% currently.

So among young people, TV has gone from a 68-34 winner in 2007 to a 59-59 tie in 2008. That's a huge change in only 12 months.