Kevin Drum


| Fri Sep. 12, 2008 1:54 AM EDT

SERVICE....I don't have any lengthy comments to make about CNN's McCain-Obama show tonight, but I will say two things. First, listening to McCain bleat unctuously about the corrosive tone of the campaign almost made me ill. Second, Obama really does need to sharpen up his answers. Make your point and move on, Senator.

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| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 10:49 PM EDT

WALKABILITY....Responding to my post yesterday about walkability in Irvine (actually, just the Woodbridge area of Irvine, but whatever), Matt Yglesias brings up a key point: at low densities you can have a nice suburb and at high densities you can have a walkable neighborhood, but there's no happy medium where you have both.

This gives me the opportunity, just for the hell of it, to post an excerpt from Joel Garreau's Edge City, a book that's dated but still one of my all-time favorites. An edge city is basically just a suburb that also has lots of office space (like Irvine, for example, or Tyson's Corner), and its density is measured in FAR, or Floor-to-Area-Ratio. For example, 10,000 square feet of office space on 100,000 square feet of land gives you a FAR of 0.1. Developers think of FAR like this: "The fundamental unit of density, from which all calculations spring — parking, hence profitability, hence human behavior, hence civilization." Here are the basic, inviolate laws of FAR:
  • The level of density at which automobile congestion starts becoming noticeable in edge city: 0.25 FAR.

  • The level of density at which it is necessary to construct parking garages instead of parking lots because you have run out of land: 0.4 FAR.

  • The level of density at which traffic jams become a major political issue in edge city: 1.0 FAR.

  • The level of density beyond which few edge cities ever get: 1.5 FAR.

  • The level of density at which light rail transit starts making economic sense: 2.0 FAR.

  • The level of density of a typical old downtown: 5.0 FAR.

  • The density-gap corollary to the laws of density: Edge cities always develop to the point where they become dense enough to make people crazy with the traffic, but rarely, if ever, do they get dense enough to support the rail alternative to automobile traffic.

This comes from "The Laws," which is the appendix to Edge City and its most entertaining part. Highly recommended, even though it's now nearly two decades old.

Other worthwhile responses to my walkability post are here, here, and here. I also think the "tipping point" concept is probably useful here. One of the points I didn't make clearly yesterday but should have is that I don't think walkability is one of those things where you can hope to make incremental changes in order to get incremental improvements. (Outside of dense urban cores, that is.) Woodbridge, as suburbs go, is pretty walkable: probably about 70% as good as you're likely to realistically get. But this has not produced a neighborhood that's gone from 100% car-centric to 90% car-centric. At best, it's produced a neighborhood that's gone from 100% car-centric to 99.9% car centric.

The problem, I think, is that walkability comprises a lot of things and you have to have all of them in full measure. You need high density and street level retail and scarce and expensive parking and good transit and a wide variety of easily accessible shops and restaurants. And a few other things as well. If you have four out of five it's not good enough. If you have medium density but not high density it's not good enough. If shops are 20 minutes away instead of 5 minutes away, it's not good enough. Improving any one of these things has virtually no impact until all of them are good enough. And that's why genuine walkability is really, really hard to get outside of urban cores.

Plus Americans are lazy. Here's another one of The Laws: "In either a downtown or an Edge City, if you do everything you can to make casual use of the automobile inconvenient at the same time you make walking pleasant and attractive, you maybe, just maybe, can up the distance an American will willingly walk to fifteen-hundred feet. A quarter of a mile. And this at the substantial risk of everybody saying forget it and choosing not to patronize your highly contrived environment at all." And if you don't do this? Then the maximum distance an American will willingly walk is 600 feet.

Georgia and NATO

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 7:48 PM EDT

GEORGIA AND NATO....From Charlie Gibson's interview with Sarah Palin:

The governor advocated for the admittance of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO.

When Gibson said if under the NATO treaty, the United States would have to go to war if Russia again invaded Georgia, Palin responded: "Perhaps so. I mean, that is the agreement when you are a NATO ally, is if another country is attacked, you're going to be expected to be called upon and help."

This is not a gaffe of any kind. Nor is it something that Palin blurted out due to inexperience. John McCain's official position on NATO expansion is that we should include Georgia and Ukraine posthaste. This means that if either of those countries gets into a border skirmish — or worse — with Russia, the United States may be obligated to go to war on their behalf.

However, unless I'm mistaken, this is also Barack Obama's official position. So I wouldn't expect a whole lot of pushback on this from his camp. Which is too bad, since the American public really ought to think long and seriously about whether we should be reponsible for defending distant countries that have long histories of ethnic strife and unstable borders. Maybe we should. Maybe they really are that important. But it would be nice to give it a good, hard think before we dive in.

Troopergate Update

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 3:57 PM EDT

TROOPERGATE UPDATE....Steve has the latest on Troopergate. Bloomberg has the latest on the McCain camp's attempt to shut down the investigation.

Healthcare, McCain Style

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 3:29 PM EDT

HEALTHCARE, McCAIN STYLE....Joe Klein wants to get out of the gutter and talk about the issues:

Today's issue: health insurance. John McCain wants to tax your employer-provided health care benefits. He wants to replace those benefits with an insufficient tax credit — $2500 for individuals and $5000 for families (the average cost per family for health insurance is $12000).

....It is amazing to me that Obama campaign has let things go this far without pointing out that McCain — who opposes the energy bill because it would increase taxes on oil companies — is actually proposing a tax increase on health care benefits for American workers. But that is precisely what the Senator from Arizona is doing.

Let's unpack this. If you get health insurance through your employer, as most Americans do, you don't pay taxes on it. Under McCain's plan you would. So if the insurance premium for your family is $14,000 (the best estimate available for 2009), you'll pay federal income tax, state income tax, and payroll tax on that amount, and your employer will pay the employer share of the payroll tax on it. For an average family, that comes to about $4,900.

But McCain's plan provides you with a $5,000 tax credit, so you're ahead of the game. Everything is OK.

Except there's some fine print hidden where McCain hopes no one will see it: his tax credit increases each year only by the normal inflation rate. Your premiums are going to increase way faster — probably around 6-8% per year. That means your taxes are going to go up 6-8% per year too. The chart on the right, courtesy of CAP, shows the gory details: the tax credit doesn't keep up with the increase in tax payments. In other words, your taxes go up.

If you're in a somewhat higher tax bracket than the median, the news is even worse because your marginal federal tax rate is higher. If you live in a high-tax state like California, the news is even worse because your marginal state tax rate is higher. If you have a big family, the news is even worse because your premium will be more than $14,000 and the taxes you pay on it will therefore be higher. If your employer decides to ditch group healthcare entirely because there's no longer any tax advantage to it, then you're really screwed. And if that happens and you happen to have a chronic illness that no private insurer will touch — well, screwed hardly begins to describe it.

So that's McCain's healthcare plan: make it more expensive, make it riskier, and for some people, make it nonexistent. There's more to say about this, and you can get all the details in this CAP report written a couple of months ago. This stuff is hardly a secret.

At War in Pakistan

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 1:06 PM EDT

AT WAR IN PAKISTAN....This has been a subject of discussion so long that it's hardly even news anymore, but apparently the Bush administration has officially decided to endorse ongoing ground operations against Taliban and al-Qaeda camps in Pakistan:

President Bush secretly approved orders in July that for the first time allow American Special Operations forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without the prior approval of the Pakistani government, according to senior American officials.

...."The situation in the tribal areas is not tolerable," said a senior American official who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the missions. "We have to be more assertive. Orders have been issued."

....The Central Intelligence Agency has for several years fired missiles at militants inside Pakistan from remotely piloted Predator aircraft. But the new orders for the military's Special Operations forces relax firm restrictions on conducting raids on the soil of an important ally without its permission.

Earlier in the year John McCain criticized Barack Obama for suggesting that he supported these kinds of operations, so purely for point-scoring reasons it would be nice to ask him whether he approves of Bush doing it instead. (First, though, McCain would have to come out of hiding long enough for a reporter ask him. That doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon since, with good reason, he's afraid of what else they might ask him about at the time.)

But what should we think about this on a non-point-scoring basis? At the risk of being thought a huge wuss, I have to confess to extremely mixed feelings. The situation in Pakistan has surely been tactically intolerable for some time, but this is the hardly the first time we've faced a situation like this. Vietnam analogies may be out of fashion, but it's worth remembering that this is exactly how we got mired down in Laos and Cambodia too: Viet Cong troops were using those countries as bases during the Vietnam War, and tactically this was every bit as intolerable as the Pakistan situation is today. But U.S. raids on those bases turned into U.S. bombing missions, and U.S. bombing missions eventually turned into full scale war. And we all know how that turned out.

In Pakistan, we've now gone from trying to work with the Pakistani government to occasional Predator attacks and now to periodic ground assaults. How likely is it that we can keep things from escalating further? What happens the first time the Taliban wins a firefight and takes some prisoners? What happens when civilian casualties rise to a level where the Pakistani government, under pressure domestically, can no longer pretend not to notice the raids? What happens when a raid goes bad, reinforcements are called in, and before long we have a couple of companies on the ground in some godforsaken corner of the tribal areas?

Needless to say, this is exactly the kind of liberal hand wringing that hawkish conservatives would normally pounce on. I suppose, however, that for now the pouncing has to be kept fairly low key since their own hawkish conservative presidential candidate seems to have the same qualms that I do. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that McCain's qualms were little more than a chance to take a shot at Barack Obama back when that seemed like a good idea, and would almost certainly disappear instantly once he took office. What then?

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Knowledge != Power

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 12:01 PM EDT

KNOWLEDGE != POWER....Robert Kagan says it's OK — maybe even better! — for national politicians to lack experience or knowledge of foreign policy. Matt Yglesias thinks he's expressing his honest opinion:

Kagan, like most neoconservatives, thinks that in-depth knowledge of foreign countries and the politics and culture of foreign societies isn't helpful in thinking about foreign policy questions. Similarly, they believe that in-depth knowledge of theoretical and empirical work in the field of international relations isn't helpful. Indeed, they think that this kind of in-depth knowledge is actually harmful. They prefer the judgment of people who have little knowledge of the outside world but do possess a degree of gut-level nationalism.

Sure. Conservatives never trusted either Nixon or Bush 41 on foreign policy, even though both of them were knowledgable and sophisticated students of foreign affairs. They thought that knowledge slowed them down and made them wimps, always worrying about what world opinion might think. Conversely, they loved Reagan and Bush 43, both of whom had a couple of basic instincts about foreign affairs and not much else.

So John McCain? He's great! And Sarah Palin? Even greater! You, elitist that you are, may think that knowledge is power, but that's decidedly not the position of most modern Republicans.

The "Enough" Club

| Thu Sep. 11, 2008 12:30 AM EDT

THE "ENOUGH" CLUB....Michael Kinsley is a liberal, but he's about as moderate and contrarian a liberal as you're likely to find. After a lie or five too many from the McCain campaign, however, he's finally had enough:

Maybe when this is over, one way or another, McCain will swear off corrupt lying the way he has sworn off corrupt money.

But it shouldn't be necessary to wait for one of McCain's conveniently delayed conversions to righteousness. In a democracy, obvious lies and obvious liars should be self-defeating. Why aren't they?

One reason is that the media have trouble calling a lie a lie, or asserting that one side is lying more than the other — even when that is objectively the case. They lean over backwards to give liars the benefit of the doubt, even when there is no doubt.

....But that shouldn't let John McCain off the hook. He says he'd rather lose the election than lose the war. But it seems he'd rather lose that honor he's always going on about than lose the election.

So how many people have joined the "Enough" club? It only counts if they sort of liked McCain in the first place, so folks like Krugman and Harold Meyerson don't count. Off the top of my head I count eight and a half: Kinsley. Friedman. Mallaby. Joe Klein. Dionne. Marcus. Halperin. Herbert. Brooks seems like he might be getting there. Who else?


| Wed Sep. 10, 2008 11:03 PM EDT

LIPSTICK-GATE....As the entire world knows, yesterday Barack Obama made the following comment about John McCain's claim to be an agent of change: "You can put lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig. You can wrap up an old fish in a piece of paper and call it change. It's still going to stink after eight years. We've had enough."

Now, I've been aware of this remark, along with the idiotic Republican attempts to pretend that Obama was calling Sarah Palin a pig, since the words were first uttered. But only vaguely. The whole thing was so stupid that I just didn't bother clicking on the various links to see what everyone was saying.

Just now, however, I happened to surf over to The Corner for the first time in a day and it was....instructive. The very first mention of lipstick-gate was a brief link at 6:53 pm. This was followed by a couple of straight reax posts and then this from Yuval Levin:

Does anybody really think Obama meant to call Sarah Palin a pig? Come on. Can this really be worth anyone's time?

Of course not! That's just dumb! This was then followed by an avalanche of 31 separate posts on the subject in less than 24 hours. Turns out it was worth NR's time after all. And make no mistake: after a couple of hours of momentary confusion about whether they could get away with it, they decided that Obama had indeed meant to call Sarah Palin a pig. By early this morning everyone was obediently on board, the chum was in the water, and the moral dudgeon was so thick you could stir it with a stick. In fact, their only real argument was over how Palin should handle things: attack back or play it cool? (For the most part, they decided cool was the way to go.)

And that, my friends, is how it's done in the big leagues. It's the noise machine at work.

Lies Etc.

| Wed Sep. 10, 2008 6:39 PM EDT

LIES ETC....Good for Mark Halperin for calling John McCain on the relentless BS his campaign is spewing. Still, as long as they continue to call this stuff "amazing and outrageous" and "demonstrably false," instead of using the blunt Anglo-Saxon term we'd normally use in a case like this, it's not going to get through. If the press knows he's lying, they should say so.