Kevin Drum

No, There Is No "Troubling Persistence" of Eugenicist Thought in America

| Thu Oct. 2, 2014 5:15 PM EDT

Andrew Sullivan points me to a piece by Michael Brendan Dougherty bemoaning the "troubling persistence" of eugenic thought in America. But Dougherty's evidence for this is tissue-paper thin, especially in his credulous treatment of the high abortion rate among women with Down syndrome babies:

In an article that explores this sympathetically, Alison Piepmeier writes:

Repeatedly women told me that they ended the pregnancy not because they wanted a "perfect child" (as one woman said, "I don't know what 'perfect child' even means") but because they recognized that the world is a difficult place for people with intellectual disabilities.

If the numbers on abortion and Down syndrome are even remotely accurate, the birth of a Down baby is something already against the norm. As medical costs are more and more socialized, it is hard to see how the stigma attached to "choosing" to carry a Down syndrome child to term will not increase. Why choose to burden the health system this way? Instead of neighbors straightforwardly admiring parents for the burden they bear with a disabled child, society is made up of taxpayers who will roll their eyes at the irresponsible breeder, who is costing them a mint in "unnecessary" medical treatment and learning specialists at school. Why condemn a child to a "life like that," they will wonder.

Oh please. These women were lying. The reason they had abortions is because raising a Down syndrome child is a tremendous amount of work and, for many people, not very rewarding. But that sounds shallow and selfish, so they resorted instead to an excuse that sounds a little more caring. Far from being afraid of eye-rolling neighbors who disapprove of carrying the baby to term because it might lead to higher tax rates, they're explicitly trying to avoid the ostracism of neighbors who would think poorly of them for aborting a child just because it's a lot of work to raise.

This has nothing to do with eugenic thought one way or the other. The more prosaic truth is simpler: Most of us aren't saints, and given a choice, we'd rather have a child without Down syndrome. You can approve or disapprove of this as you will, but that's all that's going on here.

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Would You Pay $20 For a Non-Reclining Seat in Front of You?

| Thu Oct. 2, 2014 3:00 PM EDT

Slate has a great example today of the endowment effect, aka status quo bias:

In an online survey, we asked people to imagine that they were about to take a six-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles. We told them that the airline had created a new policy that would allow people to pay those seated in front of them to not recline their seats. We asked one group of subjects to tell us the least amount of money that they would be willing to accept to not recline during the flight. And we asked another group of subjects to tell us the most amount of money that they would pay to prevent the person in front of them from not reclining.

....Recliners wanted on average $41 to refrain from reclining, while reclinees were willing to pay only $18 on average....When we flipped the default—that is, when we made the rule that people did not have an automatic right to recline, but would have to negotiate to get it—then people’s values suddenly reversed. Now, recliners were only willing to pay about $12 to recline while reclinees were unwilling to sell their knee room for less than $39.

When the status quo is a reclining seat, people demand a lot of money before they'll give it up. But when the status quo is a lot of knee room, people demand a lot of money before they'll give that up.

So what would happen if this experiment were done in real life on a large scale—and without any messy face-to-face negotiation? Suppose an online booking service offered non-reclining seats for a $20 discount and the seats behind them for a $20 extra charge? Would the market clear? No? Then try $15. Or $25. I'll bet it wouldn't take too long to find the market-clearing price, and I'll bet it would be somewhere around $25 on most flights. (Though possibly much more on red-eyes.)

The authors of the Slate piece note that in the online experiment, the status quo would have changed only about a quarter of the time. But that's to be expected. I'd be likely to pay for the legroom because I'm fairly tall and I sometimes want to use a laptop on my tray table. But for anyone of average height or less, it's probably not that big a deal. Likewise, some people care about reclining and others don't. I mostly don't, for example. Put it all together, and I'd guess that if you offered this deal on a long-term basis, less than 20 percent of all seats would be affected.

Now, would any airline find it worthwhile to do this? Probably not. There's no money in it for them, and enforcement would be a huge pain in the ass. But it would certainly be an interesting real-world experiment if anyone were willing to give it a go.

Hooray! This Young Billionaire Actually Invented Something Useful

| Thu Oct. 2, 2014 12:43 PM EDT

Elizabeth Holmes is the third-youngest billionaire on the Forbes 400 list (behind Facebook tycoons Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz). And hooray for her! Her business model doesn't depend on getting drunk teenagers to eventually regret that they ever heard of the internet. It depends instead on a genuinely useful invention: a new type of blood test that requires only a tiny pinprick and a single drop of blood. Slate's Kevin Loria tells us about it:

Traditional blood testing is shockingly difficult and expensive for a tool that's used so frequently. It also hasn't changed since the 1960s. It's done in hospitals and doctors' offices. Vials of blood have to be sent out and tested, which can take weeks using traditional methods and is prone to human error. And, of course, sticking a needle in someone's arm scares some people enough that they avoid getting blood drawn, even when it could reveal lifesaving information.

Holmes recognized that process was ripe for disruption....The new tests can be done without going to the doctor, which saves both money and time. Most results are available in about four hours....Blood samples have traditionally been used for one test, but if a follow-up was needed, another sample had to be drawn and sent out—making it less likely that someone would get care. The Theranos approach means the same drop can be used for dozens of different tests.

It's cheap, too. One common criticism of the healthcare system is that the pricing structure is a confusing labyrinth that makes it impossible to know how much anything costs. Theranos lists its prices online, and they're impressive.

It so happens that I've been getting more than the usual amount of blood drawn lately, and it also so happens that I'm one of those people who really hates this. My angst is for completely irrational reasons. I know it doesn't hurt; it doesn't take long; and it poses no danger. As it happens, my own particular phobia is so bizarre and unaccountable that I'm reluctant to even fess up to it. But it's this: The scarless incision wigs me out. For the rest of the day after a blood test, I'm convinced that any second it's going to pop open like an oil gusher. I used to keep that little cotton ball taped on for a full 24 hours, until the next day's shower finally forced me to take it off. I have recently, through sheer force of will, started taking it off after only a few hours.

This makes no sense. But then, phobias rarely do. And mine isn't even that bad. When I need to get blood drawn, I do it. Still, I often put it off, and I refuse to get it done more than once every two weeks or so. I also refuse to ever have it done in my right arm.

By now, you're either laughing at me or else wondering if I've lost my marbles. But I agree with Holmes: traditional blood testing is barbaric and medieval and it's long past time to bring it into the 21st century. So hooray for Elizabeth Holmes. My only question now is this: When is she going to sign a contract with Kaiser so that I'll be able to benefit from her marvelous invention?

Here's a Great New Cause For the Tea Party

| Thu Oct. 2, 2014 11:03 AM EDT

Harold Meyerson writes today about something called the Investor-State Dispute Settlement provision, a feature of most trade agreements since the Reagan administration. Basically, it means that if, say, a Mexican company objects to a regulation in Texas, it can sue Texas. But not in a US court. Instead the case is heard in a special extra-governmental tribunal:

The mockery that the ISDS procedure can make of a nation’s laws can be illustrated by a series of cases. In Germany in 2009, the Swedish energy company Vattenfall, seeking to build a coal-fired power plant near Hamburg, used ISDS to sue the government for conditioning its approval of the plant on Vattenfall taking measures to protect the Elbe River from its waste products. To avoid paying penalties to the company under ISDS (the company had asked for $1.9 billion in damages), the state eventually lifted its conditions.

Three years later, Vattenfall sued Germany for its post-Fukushima decision to phase out nuclear power plants; the case is advancing through the ISDS process. German companies that owned nuclear power plants had no such recourse.

After Australia passed a law requiring tobacco products to be sold in packaging featuring prominent health warnings, a Philip Morris subsidiary sued the government in Australian court and lost. It also sued the government through the ISDS, where the case is still pending. The health ministry in next-door New Zealand cited the prospect of a Philip Morris victory in ISDS as the reason it was holding up such warnings on cigarette packages in its own country.

Meyerson wants to know why Democratic presidents continue to support ISDS, but I'm more interested in why the tea party crowd hasn't yelled itself hoarse over this. After all, this is a tailor-made example of giving up US sovereignty to an unaccountable international organization, something that normally prompts them to start waving around pocket copies of the Constitution and going on Hannity to complain that President Obama is trying to sabotage America. Agenda 21, anyone?

So why not this time? I guess it's because ISDS is normally used by big corporations to challenge environmental laws. So which do you hate more? The EPA or an unaccountable international organization? Decisions, decisions....

Why Is There No Code Name for the ISIS Bombing Campaign?

| Wed Oct. 1, 2014 2:25 PM EDT

I learned something new today: code names for military operations only became a public thing after World War II, and it was only around 1980 that the names of major operations got turned into serious PR exercises. Paul Waldman runs down all the recent hits:

  • Operation Urgent Fury (invasion of Grenada, 1983)
  • Operation Just Cause (invasion of Panama, 1989)
  • Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm (Kuwait/Iraq, 1989)
  • Operation Restore Hope (Somalia, 1993)
  • Operation Uphold Democracy (Haiti, 1994)
  • Operation Deliberate Force (NATO bombing of Bosnia, 1995)
  • Operation Desert Fox (bombing of Iraq, 1998)
  • Operation Noble Anvil (the American component of NATO bombing in Kosovo, which was itself called Operation Allied Force, 1999)
  • Operation Infinite Justice (first name for Afghanistan war, 2001)
  • Operation Enduring Freedom (second name for Afghanistan war, 2001)
  • Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq, 2003)
  • Operation Odyssey Dawn (bombing of Libya, 2011)

Aside from the fact that we have twelve of these things in just the past 30 years, Waldman points out that Republican names (in bold) are considerably more martial than Democratic names:

Even though it's the military that chooses these names, you might notice that the ones during Republican administrations have a particularly testosterone-fueled feel to them, while most of the Democratic ones are a little more tentative. Something like Operation Uphold Democracy just doesn't have the same oomph as, say, Operation Urgent Fury. If the Obama administration had really wanted to get people excited about fighting ISIS, they should have called it Operation Turgid Thrusting or Operation Boundless Glory.

Oddly, though, it turns out that the ISIS campaign doesn't even have any name at all. I guess that's a good sign.

Take Two: Are Americans Really in Love With War?

| Wed Oct. 1, 2014 11:55 AM EDT

Yesterday I wrote that the American public is "in love with war." This was obviously a bit of a rant, born of frustration with our seemingly bottomless tolerance for addressing foreign policy problems in suitably small countries with military force. Greg Sargent pushed back with some polling evidence, and Daniel Larison takes things a step further:

Far from being "in love" with war, a better way to think of the public's reaction is that they have been whipped into a panic about a vastly exaggerated threat by irresponsible fear-mongers. Most Americans support the current intervention because they wrongly think it is necessary for U.S. security, and they have been encouraged in that wrong view by their sorry excuse for political leaders.

I got this same kind of pushback from several people, but I really think this is a distinction without a difference. As it happens, my primary point was actually the same as Larison's: that the American public is very easily whipped into a war frenzy. In the case of ISIS, all it took was a couple of atrocities on YouTube; a bit of foaming at the mouth from the usual TV permahawks; and a presidential decision to take action. Obama didn't even need to wave the bloody shirt. In fact, he's been relatively restrained about the whole thing. Still, he did commit us to military action, and that was enough. Public support for bombing ISIS went from 39 percent to 60 percent in a mere twelve weeks.

Does this mean the American public is in love with war? Or merely that when a war is proposed, they can be persuaded to support it pretty easily? I submit that there's not really a very big difference between the two.

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Here's How Fact Checking Exits the Real World and Enters Wonderland

| Wed Oct. 1, 2014 10:36 AM EDT

So here's the big controversy of the day out in our nation's heartland. Joni Ernst, running for a Senate seat in Iowa, is one of 21 Republicans who voted in favor of a "personhood" amendment to the state constitution. It says that "the inalienable right to life of every person at any stage of development shall be recognized and protected."

That seems clear enough. It means life begins at conception, and that embryos will have the same legal protections as you and me. Ernst's opponent, Bruce Braley, concludes, logically enough, that this would ban certain forms of contraception, prevent people from getting in vitro fertilization, and lead to the prosecution of doctors who perform those procedures.

Ernst says this is nonsense. "That amendment is simply a statement that I support life," she says. Why, it's just a nothingburger! Sort of like a resolution endorsing apple pie or Mother's Day.

Today, Glenn Kessler wades into this dispute. He dings Ernst for "straining credulity" about the intent of the amendment, but he also has harsh words for Braley:

Braley goes too far with his scary scenarios, especially because he repeatedly said the amendment “would” have the impact he described. Ernst is on record of not opposing contraception—though she also favors punishing doctors who perform abortions. We concede that the legal terrain in murky, and the impact uncertain. But that’s all the more reason not to speak with such certainty. Braley thus earns Two Pinocchios.

Ed Kilgore is dumbfounded by this kind of treatment, and so am I. I just don't get it. Kessler is not some babe in the woulds. He knows perfectly well exactly what the goal of this amendment is. It's possible, of course, that Democrats in Iowa will prevent Republicans from enacting enabling legislation. Or that the US Supreme Court will stand in the way. But why does that matter when the intent is so clear? Likewise, Ernst may say that "I will always stand with our women on affordable access to contraception," but that's plain and simple weaseling. And it doesn't even matter. Republicans in the legislature can keep their hands completely clean and simply let activists take things to court. With an amendment like that in place, no judge could turn away a suit that asked for a ban on abortions or in-vitro fertilization or certain forms of contraception.

As Kilgore says, "Encouraging this lack of accountability, and engaging in the worst form of false equivalency, is just a sin." All Braley is doing is calling out Ernst for the obvious implications of an amendment she supports. It's not merely a "statement" and she knows it. But in our topsy-turvy world of fact checking, Braley's plain description of the obvious real-world impact of Ernst's amendment is somehow deemed more of a lie than Ernst's slippery prevarications in the first place.

I don't understand this. This isn't a debating society. It's not la-la land. It's the real world, and it's not partisan sniping to say that we all know what this stuff means in the real world. Shouldn't that be the domain of a fact checker?

You Insult Henry Kissinger At Your Peril

| Wed Oct. 1, 2014 12:41 AM EDT

Newly declassified documents show that Fidel Castro pissed off Henry Kissinger so badly that he drew up plans to "clobber the pipsqueak":

Mr. Kissinger, who was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977, had previously planned an underground effort to improve relations with Havana. But in late 1975, Mr. Castro sent troops to Angola to help the newly independent nation fend off attacks from South Africa and right-wing guerrillas.

That move infuriated Mr. Kissinger, who was incensed that Mr. Castro had passed up a chance to normalize relations with the United States in favor of pursuing his own foreign policy agenda, Mr. Kornbluh said.

“Nobody has known that at the very end of a really remarkable effort to normalize relations, Kissinger, the global chessboard player, was insulted that a small country would ruin his plans for Africa and was essentially prepared to bring the imperial force of the United States on Fidel Castro’s head,” Mr. Kornbluh said.

“You can see in the conversation with Gerald Ford that he is extremely apoplectic,” Mr. Kornbluh said, adding that Mr. Kissinger used “language about doing harm to Cuba that is pretty quintessentially aggressive.”

Yep, that's everyone's favorite geopolitical strategic master at work. Kissinger considered Castro's actions to be a personal insult, so he began drawing up plans for the US military to blockade Cuba, mine its harbors, and potentially touch off a war with the Soviet Union. Because that's what you do when a small country irritates Henry Kissinger. Amirite?

Mitt Romney Takes Another Crack at Explaining the 47 Percent

| Tue Sep. 30, 2014 5:48 PM EDT

In a recent interview with Mark Leibovich, Mitt Romney offered up a new excuse for foolishly venting to a supporter during the 2012 campaign about the perfidy of the "47 percent" (i.e., the folks who take no personal responsibility for their lives and just want lots of free bennies from the government). Here it is:

Romney told me that the statement came out wrong, because it was an attempt to placate a rambling supporter who was saying that Obama voters were essentially deadbeats. “My mistake was that I was speaking in a way that reflected back to the man,” Romney said. “If I had been able to see the camera, I would have remembered that I was talking to the whole world, not just the man.” I had never heard Romney say that he was prompted into the “47 percent” line by a ranting supporter. It was also impossible to ignore the phrase “If I had to do this again.”

David Corn calls bullshit:

That supporter was not rambling. Here's what he asked: "For the last three years, all everybody's been told is, 'Don't worry, we'll take care of you.' How are you going to do it, in two months before the elections, to convince everybody you've got to take care of yourself?" That was a straightforward query, succinctly put, not rambling at all. It was Romney who took the point to the next level and proclaimed that a specific number of Americans were lazy freeloaders who could not and would not fend for themselves.

But I don't think this is fair. "Rambling" and "ranting" are Leibovich's words, not Romney's. All Romney says is that he was "speaking in a way that reflected back to the man." And that's true. In fact, this was pretty much my guess about what really happened that night, and I suggested at the time that it revealed a lot about Romney's execrable people skills. After all, every candidate has to interact with true believers, many of whom are also rich donors.

A politician with even a tenuous grasp on how to handle this kind of pressure knows what to do: you redirect. You can't tell these folks they're crazy, of course....But you can't really agree with them either....So you soothe. I get where you're coming from. And then you back away. Maybe you blame it on polling data....Maybe you change the subject....Maybe you appeal to authority.

....But you handle them. Except that apparently Romney can't. And that's pretty weird, isn't it? He has more experience handling the titanic egos of rich people than anyone in politics. If anyone should be able to stroke big-dollar donors without saying anything stupid, it ought to be Mitt Romney.

This is basically what Romney is fessing up to. He wanted to pander to this questioner, but he didn't have the skills to do that off-the-cuff in a safe way. So, since he thought he was speaking privately, he just went ahead and gave him the full pander instead.

Whether Romney really believed what he was saying is sort of irrelevant. I figure he probably did—sort of—though I suspect that if he'd been in a different mood he would have said something a little different. But what we really learned from this episode is that Romney had neither the guts to stand up to a rich donor nor the people skills to soothe and redirect in a safe way. In other words, he's not really the kind of guy you want to be president of the United States.

Peak Oil Is All About Cheap Oil

| Tue Sep. 30, 2014 1:37 PM EDT

Russell Gold writes in the Wall Street Journal that perhaps the idea of peak oil is a myth. After all, technology keeps getting better and better, allowing us to extract more oil from old fields. Of course, it's expensive to do business this way:

When the oil industry overcomes an obstacle and boosts oil production, costs typically increase. That opens the door for a better and cheaper energy source that will eventually displace crude oil.

So at some point, the cost of getting more and more oil likely will get so high that buyers can't—or won't—pay....Already, economics is bringing about some changes. Despite the abundance of oil that fracking has delivered, global oil prices remain high. This has kept the door wide open for alternative sources of energy and spending on energy efficiency.

...."There will be peak oil, but it will be [because of] peak consumption," says Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, an energy and climate think tank in Oakland, Calif. "What we all want is to move to better, cheaper and cleaner sources of energy."

This is a good example of a common misconception about peak oil. The theory has never really been about the absolute limit of oil in the ground—though, of course, there is an eventual limit—it's been about the amount of oil that can be profitably extracted. Older fields, where you literally just have to drill a hole in the ground and wait for a gusher, are cheap fields. As the older fields play out, we have to use new technology to extend their lives. And we also have to look for oil in other, more expensive places: polar oil, deep-sea oil, tar sands, and so forth. As we do this, oil gets more and more expensive.

There's nothing new about this. The peak oil debate has never really been about how much oil is in the ground. It's always been about (a) how much oil we can pump on a daily basis and (b) how much it costs to get it above ground. And as Gold points out, even with all the hoopla about fracking, the price of oil is still very high. That's because new technologies are barely keeping up with the exhaustion of older fields.

But there's more to this. It's true, of course, that as oil gets more expensive it naturally motivates a switch to other energy sources. In that sense, peak oil takes care of itself. We'll switch to gas, and then to solar, and maybe someday to fusion. And we'll do it naturally as those sources of energy become cheaper than oil.

In the meantime, however, there's a big problem: declining spare capacity. The real medium-term danger of peak oil lies in the fact that the world is currently pumping oil at close to full capacity. Nor is this likely to change soon, since the developing world has a huge appetite for oil even at current prices. So what happens when there's a supply disruption somewhere? The answer, unfortunately, is that any blip in supply, whether from political unrest, terrorism, or merely unforeseen natural events, can cause prices to carom wildly. A world with $100 per barrel oil is bad enough, but a world in which a single pipeline meltdown could cause prices to skyrocket to $300 per barrel for a few months and then back down is far worse.

Will this happen? No one knows. Iraq has more pumping capacity if they can solve their political problems. Iran has more pumping capacity if they can make a nuclear deal with the West and re-enter the global market. Fracking is still on the rise, and probably will be for the rest of the decade. But oil prices spiked even during the Libya war, and that was a pretty modest supply disruption.

In other words, no one knows for sure. I certainly don't. But the fact that demand is bumping up against supply—and will continue doing so even if supply increases—represents the real danger, economically speaking. With no spare capacity, a modest disruption in supply can cause oil prices to spike, and there's a lot of evidence to suggest that oil price spikes are at least partially responsible for every global recession of the past 40 years. That's peak oil for you.