Kevin Drum

The Super-Rich Tech Elite Is Just Fine With Big Government

| Mon May 2, 2016 2:49 PM EDT

Gregory Ferenstein, in the course of arguing that super-rich donors are about equally split between Democrats and Republicans (although the Republicans donate more in absolute dollars), points out that the super rich in Silicon Valley are almost exclusively Democrats. Why?

I think the more likely explanation is that the nation’s new industrial titans are pro-government.

Google, Facebook, and most Internet titans are fueled by government projects: the Internet began in a defense department lab, public universities educate a skilled workforce and environmental policies benefit high tech green industries. The CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, is a fan of Obamacare, which helps his entrepreneurial drivers keep their health insurance as they transition between jobs.

In other words, the Democratic party is good for emerging industries and billionaires recognize it. Donald Trump is a candidate known to go after major figures in tech; a trend that may further the Democrats friendship with new industrial titans.

Perhaps more importantly, I’ve argued that the modern emerging workforce of Silicon Valley, urbanized professionals, and “gig economy” laborers all represent an entirely new political demographic redefining the Democratic party to be more about education, research and entrepreneurship, and less about regulations and labor unions.

There's something to this, but I suspect culture has a lot more to do with it. Most of these folks have spent their lives marinating in social liberalism, and being situated in the Bay Area just adds to that. So they start out with a visceral loathing of conservative social policies that pushes them in the direction of the Democratic Party. From there, tribalism does most of the additional work: once you've chosen a team, you tend to adopt all of the team's views.

Beyond that, yes, I imagine that tech zillionaires are more than normally aware of how much they rely on government: for basic research, for standards setting, for regulation that protects them from getting crushed by old-school dinosaurs, and so forth. And let's be honest: most of the really rich ones have their wealth tied up almost entirely in capital gains, which doesn't get taxed much anyway. So endorsing candidates who happen to favor higher tax rates on ordinary income (which they probably won't get anyway) doesn't really cost them much.

For most folks in Silicon Valley, even the super rich, there's very little personal cost to supporting Democrats. Combine that with an almost instinctive revulsion at both troglodyte Republican policies and the Fox News base of the party, and there just aren't going to be many Republican supporters in this crowd.

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Is Bernie Sanders Just the Latest Goo-Goo Candidate?

| Mon May 2, 2016 1:20 PM EDT

Jonathan Chait argues that the appeal of Bernie Sanders isn't truly rooted in his ideology:

It is certainly true that Sanders pushed the debate leftward, by bringing previously marginal left-wing ideas into the Democratic discussion....But to understand the Sanders campaign as primarily a demand for more radical economic policies misses a crucial source of his appeal: as a candidate of good government.

American liberalism contains a long-standing tradition, dating back to the Progressive Era, of disdain for the grubby, transactional elements of politics....Candidates who have fashioned themselves in this earnest style have included Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, Jerry Brown, Howard Dean, and Barack Obama. These candidates often have distinct and powerful issue positions, but their appeal rests in large part on the promise of a better, cleaner, more honest practice of politics and government.

I've made much the same argument myself, so you'd think I'd agree with Chait. But after hearing from a lot of pissed-off Bernie supporters over the past few days, I'm not so sure anymore. For example, here is Ryan Cooper explaining why non-Boomers like Bernie's ideas:

Though I can't speak for everyone, I'd wager that young people are attracted to those ideas because they know what it's like to graduate with a crushing load of student debt or to have a baby in a country with no paid leave but which also expects both parents to work full-time. Or maybe they can just feel that the bottom half of the income ladder is getting a raw deal. They're not idiots in thrall to a political charlatan.

I've gotten an awful lot of responses like this. The gist is usually a combination of (a) my "statistics" about the state of the economy are totally bogus, and (b) I'm too fat and contented to understand what life is like for anyone less fortunate than me. But here's the thing: most of these responses seem to come from folks who themselves have student debt or low incomes. There's nothing wrong with that, and I'd fully expect these folks to appreciate Bernie's message. But they're not arguing for good government, they're arguing for policies that would help them personally. That's your basic transactional politics, no matter how you dress it up.

POSTSCRIPT: I think Cooper is very, very wrong about the history of health care reform too, but I'll leave that for another time.

Childhood Obesity Is Still Going Up, Up, Up

| Mon May 2, 2016 12:08 PM EDT

Hey, do you remember that breathless CDC study from a couple of years ago showing a dramatic drop in obesity among 2-5-year-olds? I was pretty skeptical about it, and today I learn that I was right to be. I basically figured that it was a noisy sample that didn't make sense, but according to a new look at the data it's worse than that: the data is noisy, and that allowed the CDC researchers to cherry pick a starting point that made it look like there was a huge drop.

Roberto Ferdman provides a new chart based on the new study. Take a look. If you start in 2003, as the CDC study did, it looks like there's a big drop. The prevalence of obesity among girls goes down 2.1 percentage points, and among boys it goes down a whopping 6.1 percentage points.

But if you include data going back to 1999, which is the true beginning of this data series, the improvement is distinctly more modest: a drop of 1.1 percentage points for girls and 1.7 percentage points for boys. And those drops aren't even statistically significant.

The original study was always suspect because the alleged drop for 2-5-year-olds wasn't matched in any other age group. And sure enough, a fresh look at the rest of the data continues to show rising obesity for every other age group. Suddenly the results for 2-5-year-olds look perfectly in sync.

It's one thing if this newer study shows different results because it includes 2013-14 data. But deliberately excluding the starting point of the data series is the real culprit, and that's inexcusable. The authors of the original study have some explaining to do.

The Residents of Flint Need to Know the Truth About Lead Poisoning

| Sun May 1, 2016 1:36 PM EDT

This article about Flint is heartbreaking, but not quite for the obvious reason:

Health care workers are scrambling to help the people here cope with what many fear will be chronic consequences of the city’s water contamination crisis: profound stress, worry, depression and guilt.

....Diane Breckenridge, Genesee Health’s liaison to local hospitals, said she had seen “people come into the hospitals directly related to breakdowns, nervous breakdowns, if you will....Most of it’s been depression or suicidal ideation directly linked to what’s going on with their children,” she added. “They just feel like they can’t even let their children take a bath.” Children, too, are traumatized, said Dexter Clarke, a supervisor at Genesee Health, not least because they constantly hear frightening things on television about the lead crisis, including breathless advertisements by personal injury lawyers seeking clients.

....Too often now, Nicole Lewis cannot sleep....To help her nerves, she recently installed a home water filtration system, paying $42.50 a month for the service on her main water supply line. She also bought a blender to make her sons smoothies with lead-leaching vegetables, like spinach and kale.

But still her mind races, especially late at night. Her 7-year-old was just found to have attention deficit disorder, she said. Her 2-year-old is already showing athletic promise, but she wonders whether lead exposure will affect his ability to play sports.

These people desperately need to be told the truth:

  • What happened in Flint was a horrible, inexcusable tragedy.
  • Residents have every right to be furious with government at all levels.
  • But the health effects are, in fact, pretty minimal. With a few rare exceptions, the level of lead contamination caused by Flint's water won't cause any noticeable cognitive problems in children. It will not lower IQs or increase crime rates 20 years from now. It will not cause ADHD. It will not affect anyone's ability to play sports. It will not cause anyone's hair to fall out. It will not cause cancer. And "lead leaching" vegetables don't work.

For two years, about 5 percent of the children in Flint recorded blood lead levels greater than 5 m/d. This is a very moderate level for a short period of time. In every single year before 2010, Flint was above this number; usually far, far above.

The choices here are sickening. On the one hand, nobody wants to downplay the effects of lead poisoning, or even be viewed as downplaying them. On the other hand, feeding the hysteria surrounding Flint has real consequences. The residents of Flint should not be tormented about what's going on. They should not be flocking to therapists. They should not be gulping Xanax.

Of course, at this point Flint residents probably don't believe anything the government tells them, and for understandable reasons. So maybe it's time for someone they trust a little more to begin telling them the truth. I'm looking at you, Rachel Maddow.

In Which I Respond to My Critics About the Bernie Revolution

| Sat Apr. 30, 2016 3:36 PM EDT

A couple of days ago I wrote a post criticizing Bernie Sanders for basing his campaign on a promised revolution that never had the slightest chance of happening. A lot of people didn't like it, which is hardly a surprise. What is a surprise is how polarizing the response was. My Twitter feed was split almost perfectly in half, and nearly every response fell into one of two categories:

  1. OMG, thank you for finally writing what I've been feeling all along.
  2. Another Boomer happy with the status quo. Your generation has been a failure. Stupid article.

There was almost literally nothing in between. Either fulsome praise or utter contempt. I need to think some more before I figure out what to make of this: It's dangerous to assume Twitter reflects the larger progressive community, but it might be equally dangerous to write it off as meaningless. It certainly seems to suggest an even stronger chasm in the Democratic Party than I might have suspected, and possibly more trouble down the road if it also reflects a stronger loathing of Hillary among white millennials than I've previously suspected. But I'm not sure.

In any case, although I can't do much about people who just didn't like my tone (bitter, condescending, clueless, etc.) I figure it might be worth addressing some of the most common substantive complaints. Here are the top half dozen:

1. I'm a typical Clintonian defender of the status quo.

No. My post was very explicitly about how to make progress, not whether we should make progress. I don't support everything Bernie supports, but I support most of it: universal health care, reining in Wall Street, fighting climate change, reversing the growth of income inequality, and so forth. If we could accomplish all this in a couple of years, I'd be delighted. But we can't.

2. I think change is impossible.

No. Of course the system can be changed. Why would I bother spending 14 years of my life blogging if I didn't believe that? But promising a revolution that's simply not feasible really does have the potential to create cynicism when a couple of years go by and it hasn't happened.

3. Yes we can have a revolution! You just have to want it bad enough.

FDR and LBJ had massive public discontent and huge Democratic majorities in Congress. The former was the result of an economic disaster and the latter took a decade to build up in an era when Democrats already controlled Congress. We're not going to get either of those things quickly in an era with an adequate economy and a polarized electorate.

4. Sure, you boomers have it easy. What about young people?

This just isn't true. The average college grad today earns about $43,000, roughly the same as 25 years ago. The unemployment rate for recent college grads is under 5 percent. About 70 percent of college grads have debt under $30,000, and the default rate on college debt is about the same as it was 30 years ago. I want to be crystal clear here: this isn't good news. Incomes should be rising and debt should be much lower. Nonetheless, the plain fact is that recent college grads aren't in massive pain. They suffered during the Great Recession like everyone else, but all told, they probably suffered a little less than most other groups.

(For comparison purposes: My first job out of college in 1981 paid me about $35,000 in current dollars. That's a little less than a current grad earning $43,000 and forking over $300 per month in loan repayments. I was hardly living high on that amount, but I can't say that I felt especially oppressed either.)

5. You have no idea what life is like outside the Irvine bubble.

I got a lot of tweets suggesting that I was, um, misguided because I'm personally well off and live in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. It's certainly true that it's easier to be patient about change when you're not personally suffering, but in this case it's the Bernie supporters who are living in a bubble. They assume that the entire country is as ready for torches and pitchforks as they are, but the numbers flatly don't back that up. The median family income in America is $67,000. Unemployment is at 5 percent, and broader measures like U6 are in pretty good shape too. Middle-class earnings have been pretty stagnant, but total compensation hasn't declined over the past two decades. Obamacare has helped millions of people. So has the ADA, SCHIP, the steady rise in social welfare spending, the 2009 stimulus, and the 2006 Pension Protection Act.

Again, let's be crystal clear: This isn't an argument that everything is hunky dory. I've written hundreds of blog posts pointing out exactly why our current economic system sucks. But it is an argument that the economy is simply nowhere near bad enough to serve as the base of any kind of serious political revolution.

6. Oh, fuck you.

I guess I can't really argue with that. I also can't argue with anyone who just didn't like my tone. In my defense, I've found that no matter how hard I try to adopt an even tone, Bernie supporters are quick to insist that I'm just an establishment shill. For what it's worth, the same is true of Hillary supporters when I write a post critical of her—even when my criticism is of something patently obvious, like her appetite for overseas military intervention.

Two more things. First, Greg Sargent makes a perfectly reasonable criticism of my position. My fear is that having been promised a revolution, Bernie supporters will become disgusted and cynical when Hillary Clinton and the establishment win yet again and the revolution doesn't happen. Sargent argues not only that it's useful to have someone like Bernie delivering a "jolt" to the political system, but that he might have permanently invigorated a new cohort of voters. "Many of these Sanders voters, rather than dissipate once they come crashing down from their idealistic high, might find ways to translate those newly acquired high ideals into constructive influence."

Yep. There's no way of telling what will happen. If Bernie himself is bitter from his defeat, I think I'm more likely to turn out to be right. But if Bernie decides to take what he's built and turn it into a real movement, Sargent is more likely to be right. We'll see.

Finally, for the record, here's where I agree and disagree with Bernie's main campaign points. None of this will be new to regular readers, but others might be interested:

Income inequality: Total agreement. I've written endlessly about this. Rising inequality is a cultural and economic cancer on a lot of different levels.

Universal health care: Total agreement. I think it will take a while to get there from where we are now, but if I could snap my fingers and import France's health care system today, I'd do it.

Breaking up big banks: I agree with the sentiment here, but I don't think it's the best way of reining in the finance system. I prefer focusing on leverage: increasing capital requirements significantly; increasing crude leverage requirements; and increasing both of these things more for bigger banks. This makes banks safer in the first place; it gives them an incentive not to grow too large; and it reduces the damage if they fail anyway. (This, by the way, has been our main response to the financial crisis via Basel III and Fed rulemaking. It's been a good step, but it would be better if it had been about twice as big.)

Free college: I'm ambivalent about this. These days, college benefits the upper middle class much more than the working class. On the other hand, the nation benefits as a whole from making college as accessible as possible. Beyond that, this is mostly a state issue, not one that can be easily solved at a national level. Generally speaking, I'd like to see college debt levels drop by a lot, but I'm not quite sure what the best way to do that is.

Raising taxes on the rich: I'm generally in favor of this, though not necessarily in exactly the way Bernie proposes. More broadly, though, I think liberals should accept that if we want big programs that significantly reduce inequality—and we should—it's going to require higher taxes on everyone. The rich can certainly do more, especially given their stupendous income increases since the Reagan era, but they can't do it all.

Military intervention: Bernie hasn't really been very specific on this, but he's generally skeptical of overseas wars. I agree with him entirely about this. It's my biggest concern with a Hillary Clinton presidency.

I've probably left some important stuff out, but those are the big ticket items. Take them for what they're worth.

UPDATE: Here's a Daily Kos poll about my take on Sanders. In fairness, it follows a sympathetic summary from Xaxnar, and it's obviously nothing scientific, but still interesting.

Shia Mob in Iraq Demands More Technocrats

| Sat Apr. 30, 2016 10:42 AM EDT

Protesters stormed the Iraqi parliament today:

Baghdad Operations Command declared a state of emergency and said all roads into the capital had been closed....Iraq is in the grip of a political crisis, with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi attempting to reshuffle his cabinet and meet the demands of the demonstrators, who have been spurred on by the powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. But Abadi has been hampered by chaotic parliament sessions, where lawmakers have thrown water bottles and punches at one another.

Oddly, the "firebrand cleric" Sadr (remember when that practically used to be his first name in news reports?) is demanding that...the current hacks running government ministries be replaced with nonpartisan technocrats. "More bean counters in the cabinet!" isn't the usual rallying cry of a populist uprising, but there you have it.

Needless to say, the sectarian hacks currently in charge have been resisting this change for the past month. In the meantime, Iraq is in chaos. Again.

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Friday Fundraising and Cat Blogging - 29 April 2016

| Fri Apr. 29, 2016 3:00 PM EDT

Why do we beg you for money three times a year? Clara and Monika explain:

Remember when Chris Hughes put The New Republic up for sale earlier this year? His letter to TNR staff subtly blamed the very same people it was addressed to: "I will be the first to admit that when I took on this challenge nearly four years ago, I underestimated the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company in today's quickly evolving climate."

Bullshit. "Transitioning" was not The New Republic's main challenge. Refusing to work on, with, and for the internet was once a pervasive problem in news organizations, but while vestiges of that still linger, it is no longer what keeps publications from succeeding financially.

What keeps them from making money now is that online advertising pays pennies....From the very beginning, 40 years ago this year, our newsroom has been built on the belief that journalism needs to be untethered from corporate interests or deep-pocketed funders—that the only way a free press can be paid for is by its readers. This can take a few different forms: subscriptions, donations, micropayments, all of which we're experimenting with. It can be something the audience is forced to do (via the paywalls you'll find at the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal) or something they choose to do, as in public radio.

At Mother Jones, we've gone the latter route: Our mission is to make our journalism accessible to as many people as possible. Instead of requiring you to pay, we bet on trust: We trust you'll recognize the value of the reporting and pitch in what you can. And you trust us to put that money to work—by going out there and kicking ass.

So please help us out! This is my final pitch for the spring fundraiser, and it includes more options than ever before. You can donate via PayPal or credit card, as usual, or you can sign up to make a monthly donation. If enough of you do this, maybe we can cut back on the fundraising begs? Maybe.

And with that out of the way, it's finally time for catblogging. Hopper's new favorite place lately is...me. When I settle down on the sofa these days, she comes right over and flops down on my stomach. After a good tummy rub, she snoozes while I peruse the news on my tablet. It works out pretty well for everyone.

No, Donald Trump Didn't Oppose the Iraq War

| Fri Apr. 29, 2016 1:52 PM EDT

Via Bob Somerby, here are two ways of handling the same set of facts. The first, from the New York Times, is wrong:

Mr. Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, pledged a major buildup of the military, the swift destruction of the Islamic State and the rejection of trade deals that he said tied the nation’s hands. But he also pointedly rejected the nation-building of the George W. Bush administration, reminding his audience that he had opposed the Iraq war.

The second, from the Washington Post, is right:

Mr. Trump blamed previous administrations for making a mess of the Middle East — a reasonable claim, but one he littered with false assertions. He again claimed, against the known record, to have opposed the Iraq War well before it began.

Granted, the Post's version is in an editorial, where writers have more freedom to say what they want. Still, straight news reporters have, obviously, an obligation to report the news straight. And the straight truth is that Donald Trump didn't oppose the war in Iraq—not until well after it had already become a disaster, anyway. All the available evidence says so, and reporters shouldn't enable Trump's lies by repeating them unchallenged.

If Trump really opposed the war in Iraq, all he has to do is show us the evidence. It would take five minutes. He hasn't done it. He's lying.

Trey Gowdy Still Tracking Down Benghazi Conspiracy Theories

| Fri Apr. 29, 2016 12:10 PM EDT

Via Steve Benen, I see that the Pentagon is finally getting a little fed up with Trey Gowdy's Benghazi investigation:

Gowdy's "nonpartisan" investigators are apparently still obsessed with tracking down idiotic conspiracy theories that originate in Facebook posts, radio shows, and other corners of the right-wing fever swamp. They seem to be convinced, even now, that the military deliberately chose not to respond to the Benghazi attacks even though they could have. Why would they do this? Who knows. Because they were acting under orders from the secretary of state, to whom they had sworn a secret blood oath? It's just the kind of thing Hillary would do, isn't it? And by God, the truth is out there. Eventually Trey Gowdy will get to it.

Three Cheers for Monotasking!

| Fri Apr. 29, 2016 11:21 AM EDT

Is multitasking finally getting the reputation it deserves?

Multitasking, that bulwark of anemic résumés everywhere, has come under fire in recent years. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that interruptions as brief as two to three seconds — which is to say, less than the amount of time it would take you to toggle from this article to your email and back again — were enough to double the number of errors participants made in an assigned task.

....But monotasking, also referred to as single-tasking or unitasking, isn’t just about getting things done....“It’s a digital literacy skill,” said Manoush Zomorodi, the host and managing editor of WNYC Studios’ “Note to Self” podcast, which recently offered a weeklong interactive series called Infomagical, addressing the effects of information overload. “Our gadgets and all the things we look at on them are designed to not let us single-task. We weren’t talking about this before because we simply weren’t as distracted.”

Anyone who has coded—or worked with coders—knows all about this. They complain constantly about interruptions, and with good reason. When they're deep into a problem, switching their attention is costly. They've lost their train of thought, and it can take several minutes to get it back. That's not much of a problem if it happens a few times a day, but it's a real killer if it happens a few times an hour.

Not all jobs require as much concentrated attention as coding, but it's probably more of them than most people think. More generally, the ability to focus on a single task for an extended period is a talent that's underappreciated—especially by extroverts, who continue to exercise an unhealthy hegemony over most workplaces. Sure, the folks who want to be left alone are the ones who actually get most of the work done, but they're still mocked as drones or beavers or trolls. That's bad enough, but now technology is helping the extroverts in their long twilight campaign against actually concentrating on anything. There are times when I wonder if we're starting to lose this talent altogether. Probably not, I suppose—something like this probably can't change all that appreciably over the course of just a few years, no matter what kind of technological miracles are helping us along.

But we sure are hellbent on helping it along. Open office plans, cell phones, constant notifications: these are all things that fight against sustained attention on a task. For some people and some tasks, that doesn't matter. But for a lot of important work, it matters a lot. Smart hiring managers in the modern world should be asking, "How long can you concentrate on a task before you have to take a break?" I wonder how many of them do?