Kevin Drum

Chart of the Day: Americans Think Hard Work Is the Key to Success. Europeans, Not So Much.

| Tue Apr. 19, 2016 2:25 PM EDT

Here's a fascinating result from the plucky pollsters at Pew Research:

I'm not surprised that the US ranks highest. But I am surprised at how much higher. Only a quarter of the French think that hard work is important for getting ahead in life? How about that. Even the famously diligent Germans clock in at only 49 percent.

Granted, in order to make the grade, you have to score this as 10 (or "10," as Pew puts it) on a 0-10 scale. Maybe Europeans tend to score it as a 9—still pretty important, but not quite totally life-engulfing. Either way, though, apparently we Americans continue to believe in the importance of hard work a lot more than our Europeans peers. No 6-week vacations for us!

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The Gig Economy Is Mostly a Myth

| Tue Apr. 19, 2016 1:05 PM EDT

The gig economy. Uber for X. The on-demand revolution. Crappy part-time work with no benefits or job security.

Call it what you will, but it's big. Very, very big. It's the future.

Or is it? It's important to define things correctly here. The "gig economy"—and I really want to know who came up with this idiotic name—has nothing to do with using software as some kind of consumer front end. Practically every company in the world does that in one way or another. Nor is Amazon "Uber for diapers." They're just a gigantic retailer that delivers stuff fast.

What we're really talking about here is being able to hire the services of random strangers (a) quickly and (b) for unpredictable amounts of time. The truth is that Uber could be run entirely via old-school phones and a call center. It would be less convenient, but still workable. So why is it that Uber has been phenomenally successful but few other on-demand services have come anywhere close? Matt Yglesias suggests that everyone misunderstood what Uber was really doing:

What optimistic investors missed about Uber clones is that hailing rides is a bit of a unique case. In that particular market, digital ordering isn't just a little better than the old analog alternative, it's dramatically better. But that's because of the ways rides for hire were regulated, not something that applied to food or laundry delivery.

The traditional taxi market before the rise of ride-hailing apps was regulated in a peculiar way....In the vast majority of cases, the agencies in question were essentially "captured" by industry lobbyists who set the rules so as to protect the incumbent holders of taxi licenses from competition.

....App-based ride hailing was a game changer in this context, not just because it offered a somewhat better way to get a ride, but because in Uber's earliest cities it exploited loopholes in the way taxi regulations were written to put vehicles for hire on the road that would not have been allowed to operate as cabs.

In other words, Uber wasn't primarily a technology hack, as everyone assumes. It was a regulatory hack. Try to do Uber for groceries or Uber forbabysitting and you have to compete with everyone who's already out there—most of whom have been operating in a competitive market forever and know a lot about how to do it. It just won't work as well as it does when you're taking on a long-coddled industry.

If this is true—and it certainly sounds plausible—it's important to take away the right lesson from this. It's not that new startups should all start beavering away to find regulatory hacks. It's that you have to have some kind of hack. In its early days, Netflix hacked the postal service. Amazon hacked the clubby publishing clique. Uber hacked the taxi medallion system.

"On demand" is nothing new. Ask any freelancer or consultant or day laborer. App-based dispatching adds some convenience to on-demand services, but in most cases it's nothing to shout about. That's because the market economy is already an on-demand machine. That's the whole point of a market economy. If you make that machine a little better, you'll make a little bit of money. But if you find some kind of niche that you can make a lot better, you'll make a lot of money. You just have to find the niche.

It Was Night Goggles, Not the Taliban

| Tue Apr. 19, 2016 12:15 PM EDT

Here's the result of an Air Force investigation:

A solid plastic case designed to hold a set of night-vision goggles was ultimately responsible for causing the crash of an Air Force transport plane that killed 14 people in October, the Air Force announced in a statement last week.

This is obviously a tragedy, all the more so for having such a trivial cause. But what's interesting is what came next:

Twenty-eight seconds after takeoff, 14 people, including the four crew members, two Air Force security personnel and five civilian contractors aboard, were dead. The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the crash, saying it shot down the aircraft.

I often wonder how many claims of this nature are actually true. Many of them are, obviously. But it's pretty easy to claim responsibility for just about anything, and it's good PR to take credit for killing a bunch of Americans. Maybe too easy.

No, Bernie's Taxes Don't Show That He's a Hypocrite

| Tue Apr. 19, 2016 11:27 AM EDT

This argument was tiresome a decade ago, and it's still tiresome:

Bernie Sanders released his 2014 tax return this weekend, revealing that he and his wife took $60,208 in deductions from their taxable income. These deductions are all perfectly legal and permitted under the U.S. tax code, but they present a morally inconvenient, if delicious, irony: The Democratic socialist from Vermont, a man who rages against high earners paying a lower effective tax rate than blue-collar workers, saved himself thousands using many of the tricks that would be banned under his own tax plan.

....The deductions left Sanders and his wife paying...an effective federal tax rate of 13.5 percent. If that seems low to you, your instincts are right: According to the Tax Foundation, the average federal income-tax rate for a couple making $200,000 to $500,000 in 2014 was 15.2 percent.

....What Sanders did, using every option and advantage available under a Byzantine tax code to minimize his tax payment, is a normal practice for many Americans. But it’s also exactly what the targets of his anger do. You can argue about whether or not that’s greed, but it’s impossible to argue that it isn’t hypocrisy. The paragon of liberal purity is not as pure as he’d like the world to believe.

This isn't even close to hypocrisy. If you don't like the designated hitter rule in baseball, does that mean you should send your pitcher to the plate just to prove how sincere you are? Of course not. You play by the rules, whatever those rules are.

I favor universal, government-funded health care. Does that mean I should virtuously refuse MoJo's employer health care? Does anyone on the planet think that makes any sense at all?

Tax laws are tax laws, and there's nothing hypocritical about following them even if you disagree with them. Just the opposite, in fact. It speaks well of Sanders that he supports changes that would hurt him personally. It's a helluva lot more than Republicans ever do.

Trump, Clinton Remain Way Ahead in New York Primary

| Mon Apr. 18, 2016 9:36 PM EDT

I'm not sure how reliable primary polling has been this year, but the Pollster aggregates are pretty clear for Tuesday's primary in New York. Donald Trump retains a commanding lead on the Republican side, even though New Yorkers should know better, and Hillary Clinton is ahead of Bernie Sanders by 15 points in the Democratic primary. Both Trump and Clinton have increased their leads slightly since the beginning of the month.

Sam Wang forecasts that a big win in New York puts Donald Trump on track to win the Republican nomination outright with 1265 delegates by the end of primary season. His probability of getting 1237 or above is 64 percent. Hillary Clinton, of course, has basically already won the Democratic nomination thanks to her current lead in pledged delegates and her overwhelming lead in superdelegates. The Democratic primary has been little more than shadow boxing for at least the past month.

Donald Trump Is Very Easily Disgusted

| Mon Apr. 18, 2016 2:17 PM EDT

Consider the following five anecdotes about Donald Trump:

  • On Hillary Clinton's late return from a debate break in December: "I know where she went — it’s disgusting, I don’t want to talk about it. No, it’s too disgusting. Don’t say it, it’s disgusting."
  • On Megyn Kelly's tough questioning during a debate in August: "She gets out and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions. You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever."
  • On Elizabeth Beck's request to take a breast pump break during a deposition in 2011: "He got up, his face got red, he shook his finger at me and he screamed, 'You're disgusting, you're disgusting,' and he ran out of there."
  • On his well-known germaphobia: "Trump doesn’t even like to push a ground floor elevator button because it’s been tapped by so many people....Trump especially avoids shaking hands with teachers, since they are likely to be have been 'in touch' with too many germy kids. Trump has what he calls a borderline case of germaphobia — aka msyophobia — that the American Psychological Association defines as one of the more common forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder."
  • On his one-time friendship with notorious lawyer Roy Cohn: "By virtually all accounts, one of Trump’s closest friends early in his career was Roy Cohn....When Cohn was facing disbarment in the mid-’80s, Trump testified on his friend’s behalf as a character witness. For a while, according to Vanity Fair, the two men spoke '15 or 20 times a day.' Then Trump found out Cohn was HIV-positive. He moved swiftly to cut ties with his mentor, seeking out new attorneys and transferring his legal business to them. The sudden rejection stunned Cohn."

This brings to mind Jonathan Haidt's theory of moral foundations, which suggests that although liberals and conservatives share a set of five innate moral roots, they prioritize them quite differently. Conservatives, for example, are especially sensitive to moral foundation #5:

Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination....It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants.

I wonder how strongly Donald Trump scores on this particular moral foundation? Pretty strongly, I'd guess. I wonder how much it explains his approach to politics? And I wonder how much it explains his popularity with a certain subset of conservatives?

It's just a thought. But perhaps one of the things that unites so many of Trump's longtime obsessions (immigrants, crime, kicking out protesters, anything to do with foreigners) is a fear of growing impurity in the body of the country. It might explain a lot.

UPDATE: I see that Alexander Hurst got here first. His take on Haidt's moral foundations and Trump's sensitivity to disgust is here.

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Weekly Flint Water Report: April 9-15

| Mon Apr. 18, 2016 1:33 PM EDT

Here is this week's Flint water report. As usual, I've eliminated outlier readings above 2,000 parts per billion, since there are very few of them and they can affect the averages in misleading ways. During the week, DEQ took 905 samples. The average for the past week was 10.63.

 

Will Twitter Soon Be Overrun With Silicon Trolls?

| Mon Apr. 18, 2016 12:49 PM EDT

Hugh Hancock muses today about the remarkable effectiveness of efforts to turn Microsoft's (now) infamous Tay chatbot into an asshole. It didn't take much. Mostly the people who did it were just having a laugh, and Tay took it from there. It turns out that being an asshole is a pretty easy thing to emulate.

So what does this mean for the future? Not the far future, mind you, but next year. Hancock has an unnerving answer:

Everyone Can Have Their Own Twitter Mob

Right now, if you want to have someone attacked by a horde of angry strangers, you need to be a celebrity. That's a real problem on Twitter and Facebook both, with a few users in particular becoming well-known for abusing their power to send their fans after people with whom they disagree.

But remember, the Internet's about democratising power, and this is the latest frontier. With a trollbot and some planning, this power will soon be accessible to anyone.

There's a further twist, too: the bots will get better. Attacking someone on the Internet is a task eminently suited to deep learning. Give the bots a large corpus of starter insults and a win condition, and let them do what trolls do — find the most effective, most unpleasant ways to attack someone online. No matter how impervious you think you are to abuse, a swarm of learning robots can probably find your weak spot.

There are some details to be worked out, of course, like setting up all the accounts your trollbot would need. Hancock addresses that. He figures the bots will be pretty good at this stuff too.

The unnerving part of this is that although Hancock is writing in a chatty tone, this is all very plausible. And for something like Twitter, where a bot doesn't need much intelligence to fit right in, it's a pretty serious near-term possibility.

So what happens? Behind Door 1, Twitter becomes an abattoir of filth and verbal war. Only the bravest dare enter. Behind Door 2, Twitter mobs become so frequent that no one cares about them anymore. Even the most sensitive among us just shrug them off. Behind Door 3, it all becomes a tedious war between semi-intelligent trollbots and semi-intelligent trollbot filters. It's just Act II of the online production that began with email spam.

On the bright side, this might put actual trolls out of commission. How can they compete? And what will they do with all their newfound free time?

Bernie Supporters Are Mostly Disappointed in Obama

| Mon Apr. 18, 2016 12:04 PM EDT

In response to my post yesterday about the tradition of truthtellers in Democratic primaries,1 a reader emails: "Offhand my guess would be that a lot of Bernie supporters think Obama proves that an outsider/rebel/truthteller can both win and end up a very successful president." Another reader tweets the same sentiment:

Hmmm. I don't think either of these is true. Obama didn't run in the truthteller tradition. He ran more in the JFK/Clinton tradition: a young guy bringing the voice of a new generation to the White House. Obama was inspiring and wildly popular, but he didn't spend his time explaining that we all had to face up to endemic corruption or tidal waves of money or demographic Armageddon. Just the opposite. He mostly sanded the rough edges off that kind of stuff. It was all hope and change and ending the partisan bickering in Washington.

As for Bernie supporters, I don't think they view Obama as a rebel or a truthteller. Bernie himself is careful not to criticize Obama, but a lot of his supporters see Obama as basically a disappointment: just another squishy centrist who made some incremental progress and called it a day. In the end, we still don't have universal health care; the banks are still running things; the Republican Party continues to obstruct; and rich people are still rich. That's the very reason we need a guy like Bernie in the Oval Office.

This is certainly my impression, anyway. Am I wrong?

1A theme that Jamelle Bouie touches on in a much longer, more nuanced piece here about the Bernie insurgency. It's well worth a read.

Who Supported the 1994 Crime Bill?

| Mon Apr. 18, 2016 11:16 AM EDT

Farah Stockman reports that the generation gap between Hillary supporters and Bernie supporters extends to African-Americans too. And the 1994 crime bill is part of it:

[Caryl] Brock said she had been a social worker in charge of the removal of children from dangerous homes in the South Bronx and Spanish Harlem in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when crack tore a path of destruction through those neighborhoods....She said she was relieved when the crime bill passed. In addition to providing more money for prisons and the police, the law banned assault weapons and offered funding for drug courts and rehabilitation. “Because of the crime bill,” she said, “anybody that wanted rehabilitation, we could process them and get them a detox bed in a hospital.”

Ms. Brock’s comments underscore a sometimes overlooked reality in today’s re-examination of the crime bill: The legislation was broadly embraced by nonwhite voters, more enthusiastically even than by white voters. About 58 percent of nonwhites supported it in 1994, according to a Gallup poll, compared with 49 percent of white voters.

Mr. Clinton has seemed rattled at times as he tries to defend the measure to younger African-Americans in an era in which concerns about mistreatment by the police and mass incarceration have eclipsed the fear of crime in many black communities.

And among these younger voters, the Clintons lack the deep admiration that they enjoy from previous generations of African-Americans. In the Democratic primary contests so far, 92 percent of black voters 65 and older cast ballots for Mrs. Clinton, compared with 45 percent of black voters under age 25, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research.

Obviously everyone should vote for whoever they want. But this piece highlights one thing that continues to eat at me: judging the past by the standards of the present. The 1994 crime bill was hardly supported unanimously, and there was plenty of criticism of it at the time. It's fine to take note of that. But the plain fact is that 1994 was a different time: crime was rampant and people were scared—including black people—and most of them supported the crime bill, warts and all. Were they wrong to do so? Maybe. But you need to seriously engage with what the world was like in 1994 and what they could reasonably have known about it before you condemn them.

A world where violent crime is no longer an obsession, replaced instead by DWB and Ferguson-style police shootings, calls for different responses. No one would propose anything like the 1994 crime bill anymore. But in 1994 things looked a lot different. You need to understand that deep in your gut before you lash out at the folks who supported it.