Kevin Drum

The Fat Lady Finally Sings for Scott Walker

| Mon Sep. 21, 2015 9:47 PM EDT

Scott Walker, low on funds and polling at zero percent, has dropped out of the Republican race for president. Let's see now, what did I say about Walker late last year? Oh yes:

Predictions are hard, especially about the future. But if he runs, I rate Walker a favorite right now.

If I'd been smart, I would have stopped at "future." In my defense, (a) this is a hard race to predict, and (b) who would have guessed that Walker would be quite as incompetent on the campaign trail as he turned out to be? At this point, I guess I'd go with the obvious and put my money on Bush or Rubio. The non-office-holders still don't seem plausible to me; the Cruz/Huckabee/Paul contingent is just too extreme; Kasich seems too moderate; and the rest are mired in nowhereville. But really, who knows?

For what it's worth, I think Walker was a victim of Donald Trump. My sense is that he thought he had the tea party base locked up, and then Trump came along and took it by storm without displaying any kind of normal conservative ideology. So whenever a topic popped up in the news, Walker froze. He knew the "right" response, but Trump was constantly out there stealing the spotlight by saying something different and outrageous. What to do? Spout the usual tea party shibboleths? Or go along with the Trump response that seemed to have everyone so excited? He couldn't make up his mind, so he regularly declined to take any position at all—only to clumsily change his mind a day or two later.

This was the worst possible thing to do, since it made him look completely unprepared for the presidency. If he can't even come up with a simple sound bite about Syrian refugees or how to beat ISIS, what's he going to do if he actually makes it to the Oval Office? In the end, he couldn't figure out what to do about Donald Trump, and he paid dearly for it.

But at least there's one thing we don't have to speculate about: who will pick up all of Walker's supporters. There aren't any left.

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Capitalism and Machines Go Together Like Peanut Butter and Jelly

| Mon Sep. 21, 2015 5:29 PM EDT

James Pethokoukis says that economist Deirdre McCloskey has written "the most powerful defense of market capitalism you will ever read." It's based on the chart on the right, which shows the fantastic growth of the world economy since about 1800:

Now, McCloskey does not like the word “capitalism.” She would prefer our economic system be called “technological and institutional betterment at a frenetic pace, tested by unforced exchange among all the parties involved.”

Or perhaps “fantastically successful liberalism, in the old European sense, applied to trade and politics, as it was applied also to science and music and painting and literature.”

Or simply “trade-tested progress.”

I am a considerable fan of capitalism by nearly any standard (aside from the current Republican Party one, which essentially holds that you're a socialist if you believe in any regulation of large corporations at all). So sure: capitalism or free market exchange or whatever you want to call it certainly deserves plenty of credit here.

But was it the main driving force of the post-1800 economy? McCloskey says the Great Expansion wasn't the result of "coal, thrift, transport, high male wages, low female and child wages, surplus value, human capital, geography, railways, institutions, infrastructure, nationalism, the quickening of commerce, the late medieval run-up, Renaissance individualism, the First Divergence, the Black Death, American silver, the original accumulation of capital, piracy, empire, eugenic improvement, the mathematization of celestial mechanics, technical education, or a perfection of property rights." Those had existed for a long time. Rather, it's the fact that European elites "came to accept or even admire the values of trade and betterment."

Does that seem right? I don't know much about China or India—and I might be wrong about Europe too—but I've always thought that trade and commerce were also relatively free during, say, the height of the Roman Empire. The landed elites made a lot of money in trade, and if merchants weren't quite pillars of society, they were hardly social lepers either. The legions were routinely used to protect trade routes. Corruption was endemic, but tariffs and regulations on trade were fairly mild. The pursuit of wealth was respectable, and accounting practices were sophisticated.

Is this all roughly correct? Maybe I'm woefully misinformed. But it seems like the big difference between AD 0 and AD 1800 wasn't so much attitudes toward trade as it was the obvious thing that McCloskey left off her list: machines. As long as humans and animals were the only source of power, there was a limit to how much wealth could be generated. But if the Romans had invented steam engines and electrification, we'd all be speaking Latin today and arguing about what made classical Roman culture so special.

This is something that's been a subject of academic study for a long time, and I hardly expect to break any new ground here. But while a respect for fairly free trade might be a prerequisite for exponential economic growth, the example of Rome suggests that more than that is needed. The truly interesting question, then, is: why did 18th century Europeans invent machine power but 1st century Europeans didn't?

Raw Data: Here's How Black Kids Are Really Doing in School

| Mon Sep. 21, 2015 2:09 PM EDT

Bob Somerby is pretty ticked off at the way our "journalistic elites" cover black kids. In particular, he's ticked off at liberals who seem to care only about black kids getting shot, and conservatives who care only about promoting scare stories that make our public schools look as horrible as possible:

You will never see those people ask how black kids are doing in school. The reason for that seems abundantly clear:

None of those people care!

Just for the record, this is what score gains in math look like over the past twenty years. You’ll see these data nowhere else.

Twenty years?!? How about 40 years? I've got that for you right here, courtesy of the NAEP long-term assessment, which has used a similar test for over four decades precisely so that it's possible to make reasonable long-term comparisons. On the math test, black kids have improved their performance significantly: by 36 points at age nine, 36 points at age thirteen and 18 points at age seventeen. If we use the usual rule of thumb that ten points equals one grade level, that looks pretty good. And the gap between white scores and black scores has shrunk as well.

So maybe our schools are doing pretty well, after all? Maybe so. But at the risk of being a wet blanket, I'll point out one thing that makes all these score gains a little less uplifting: Since 1990, 17-year-old black kids have made no gains in math at all—and the story is the same in reading. Over the past 25 years, younger black kids have improved by one or two grade levels, but those gains are completely washed out by age 17. There may be good explanations for this. School reforms haven't hit high schools yet. A lower dropout rate means there are more mediocre kids still in school at age 17. Maybe, maybe, maybe. But one way or another, nothing matters unless our kids are doing better by the time they finish school. Until we figure out how to keep high school from being the black pit that it apparently is, none of the score gains in lower grades really matter much.

VW Loses About $20 Billion in Value in 2 Hours

| Mon Sep. 21, 2015 1:28 PM EDT

Guess what happens when you concoct a contemptible scheme to secretly blow off emission rules on your cars—and then it suddenly becomes not so secret? Answer: your respected multinational corporation loses about $20 billion of value over the course of a few minutes. Your stock gets downgraded by pretty much every analyst on the planet. And the folks who put together the Dow Jones Sustainability Index start suggesting that maybe VW isn't exactly a poster child for sustainability anymore.

By the way, it turns out that VW's deception was actually discovered a year ago, but they doggedly denied any wrongdoing:

For nearly a year, Volkswagen officials told the Environmental Protection Agency that discrepancies between the formal air-quality tests on its diesel cars and the much higher pollution levels out on the road were the result of technical errors, not a deliberate attempt to deceive Washington officials.

....The company was evidently concerned that actually meeting the federal emissions standards would degrade the power of the engines, which it marketed as comparable in performance to gasoline engines. Meeting the standard would also undercut the fuel efficiency that is one of the main selling points of diesels.

Volkswagen finally fessed up only after the EPA said it planned to withhold approval for the carmaker's new 2016 models. Until then, it was just deny, deny, deny.

CNN Poll: Hillary Clinton Gains Ground on Bernie Sanders

| Mon Sep. 21, 2015 12:19 PM EDT

Yesterday I wrote about the new CNN/ORC poll taken after Wednesday's Republican debate. Today CNN released the results of its polling on the Democratic race, and they have it at 42 percent for Hillary Clinton vs. 24 percent for Bernie Sanders. Joe Biden is at 22 percent, but no one even knows if he's running yet, so take that with a big grain of salt. When he's excluded from the poll, Hillary leads Bernie by 57 percent to 28 percent. In other words, if Biden officially drops out, it's a big win for Hillary Clinton.

Compared to earlier this month, Sanders is down 3 points and Clinton is up 5 points. Sanders appears to be getting most of his support from liberals and Independent leaners—though this is a little confusing since the poll claims to be counting only registered Democrats.

In any case, I suppose this will all get lost in the mix amid Xi-mania and pope-mania. There's always some excuse, isn't there?

Here's a Heartwarming Story of Innovation in the Pharmaceutical Business

| Mon Sep. 21, 2015 11:32 AM EDT

Apparently the new hotness in the pharmaceutical industry is this: (1) Find an old, generic drug that's used only rarely and made by only one company. (2) Buy it. (3) Jack up the price astronomically. Since you have a monopoly, there's not much that anyone can do about it. And since it's a rarely used drug, it's not really worth anyone's time to manufacture a competing version.

At the New York Times, Andrew Pollack spotlights this problem with the story of Daraprim, which was acquired last month by an ex-hedge fund manager who immediately raised the price from $13.50 per tablet to $750 per tablet. He offered up two excuses for doing this:

Daraprim, known generically as pyrimethamine, is used mainly to treat toxoplasmosis, a parasite infection that can cause serious or even life-threatening problems for babies born to women who become infected during pregnancy, and also for people with compromised immune systems, like AIDS patients and certain cancer patients.

Martin Shkreli, the founder and chief executive of Turing, said that the drug is so rarely used that the impact on the health system would be minuscule and that Turing would use the money it earns to develop better treatments for toxoplasmosis, with fewer side effects.

“This isn’t the greedy drug company trying to gouge patients, it is us trying to stay in business,” Mr. Shkreli said. He said that many patients use the drug for far less than a year and that the price was now more in line with those of other drugs for rare diseases.

“This is still one of the smallest pharmaceutical products in the world,” he said. “It really doesn’t make sense to get any criticism for this.”

....Turing’s price increase could bring sales to tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars a year if use remains constant.

So there you have it. It's such a tiny market that, really, who cares? Chill, people. And anyway, they're going to use their newly found profits to develop wonderful new treatments for toxoplasmosis. I wouldn't hold my breath for that to happen. Besides, doctors who use the drug say that Daraprim works fine and no one's really clamoring for something better.

Welcome to the 21st century pharmaceutical biz, working hard to find new and innovative ways of gouging the most vulnerable members of society. And for once, we can truly say that this could happen only in America, since no other country would allow it. Makes you proud, doesn't it?

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Carly Fiorina: Is She America's Next Millard Fillmore?

| Sun Sep. 20, 2015 7:12 PM EDT

From George Colony, chief executive of tech research firm Forrester, judging Carly Fiorina's tenure as head of Hewlett-Packard:

I'd put her at the top of the bottom third of C.E.O.s.

Good enough for me! In round numbers, this means she's another Millard Fillmore. I suppose this also means we'll soon be getting a rash of conservative essays telling us that we really need to reevaluate Fillmore's place in history. Also, I guess I can expect some flak from residents of Buffalo and from fanciers of the Whig Party. Bring it on.

But that's enough about Carly's business record. How about her political record? She does have one, you know. In case you've forgotten, here is Carly's greatest claim to political fame. Fast forward to 2:20 if you just want to see the good part.

Fiorina, Rubio Are Big Winners of Second Debate

| Sun Sep. 20, 2015 3:59 PM EDT

As usual, I'm more interested in which candidates are moving up and down than in which candidates are ahead—with one exception that I'll get to. After all, it's still more than four months before the first primary ballot is cast.

A new CNN/ORC poll shows that there were two clear winners from Wednesday's debate: Fiorina and Rubio. Trump was the biggest loser. And Scott Walker? I'll make an exception for him. Not only was he down five points, but he was down five points from his previous level of five percent. In other words, his absolute level of support is now officially zero. This has to be one of the fastest, most dramatic flameouts of a top-tier candidate ever.

Trump, Fiorina, and Carson are now the top three candidates, but I simply don't give any of them much chance of winning. So the next three are more interesting: Rubio, Bush, and Cruz. Of those, Rubio is not only in the lead, he's the only one who gained any ground this week. This makes him officially one of the front runners, and should mean that he starts getting a lot more attention. We'll see whether that's good or bad for him.

WTF, Volkswagen?

| Sun Sep. 20, 2015 2:12 PM EDT

On Friday I saw a bunch of headlines about Volkswagen facing possibly huge fines for violating EPA rules. There have been a lot of headlines like this recently, so I sort of shrugged and moved on.

It wasn't until yesterday that I actually read a couple of the stories and realized what Volkswagen had actually done. Once I did, words failed me. So let's just hand the mike to Mark Kleiman:

The story reads like the most paranoid anti-corporate fantasy, until you get to the line where the firm admits what it did....In the VW case, code was written into the engine-control software to detect the pattern of pedal and steering operations characteristic of an emissions test. Then, and only then, the car’s emissions-control machinery would kick in. Once the test was over, the software noticed that, too, and returned to normal — that is to say, illegally and dangerously dirty — operations, at about 40x the permitted — and advertised — level of nitrous oxide emissions.

Now just think about the depth of corporate depravity involved. This wasn’t one rogue engineer or engineering group at work. People up and down the chain had to be party to the crime. And note that the conspiracy held together for six years, and was finally broken not by an internal leak but by the work of outside scientists at the University of West Virginia.

In a nutshell: A whole range of VW and Audi "clean diesel" models were spewing immense amounts of nitrogen oxides—a precursor to ozone formation—into the air we breathe. But if you took one of these cars in for a smog check, its engine-control software temporarily put it into a special mode that would pass the test. As soon as the test was over, the engine returned to its smog-spewing ways.

This goes far beyond most safety issues with cars. Whether we like it or not, car manufacturers always face tradeoffs between cost and safety. Having those conversations is a normal part of engineering life. Even in infamous case like the Pinto gas tank, what you have is a normal conversation that went way overboard. As bad as it is, it's understandable that stuff like this happens occasionally.

But that's not what this is. There was no cost involved. In fact, writing the code to do this cost Volkswagen money. Nor was it something that took place just among a small group of product managers with bad incentives. This was coldly premeditated. It required substantial testing to make it work right. It happened across not just different models, but across two different nameplates. It lasted for six years until it was discovered. And it was done not as a tradeoff of some kind, but solely to make the car peppier during test drives so that VW could sell more diesel models.

How far up does this go? It's hard to believe it doesn't go up pretty far. And it must have left behind a significant paper trail. So what's next? Given the calculated nature of the crime, and the fact that it almost certainly killed people, Kleiman doesn't think civil fines are enough:

When people conspire to commit a crime that harms the health of untold numbers of people, shouldn’t criminal charges at least be considered? And not only against the company, but against every official in it who can be shown to have known about the conspiracy....The most horrible thing about this case is that very few if any of the people involved will have lost any sleep over their guilt in making sick people sicker (and killing some of them) and none will lose face among their friends and neighbors. Even if some are found guilty of felonies, life won’t be nearly as bad for them as it is for someone who gets caught committing burglary: someone whose contribution to human suffering can’t hold a candle to what the VW conspirators pulled off.

In Georgia, a CEO is about to go to jail for a long time—maybe for life—because he approved the sale of tainted peanuts across state lines. The result was a nationwide salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds and killed nine people. The CEO's brother and a quality control manager at the plant also face prison time.

Did VW's actions sicken hundreds and kill at least nine people? A quick swag suggests that VW emitted about 3,800 excess tons of nitrogen oxides in Southern California alone over the past six years, which may have caused as many as a dozen or more incremental deaths. If we can put a peanut CEO in prison for this, why not an auto CEO?

UPDATE: My original spreadsheet used an incorrect value for the EPA NOx standard. It's been corrected now. The death rate is probably a bit higher than my original estimate, though the error bars are big enough that it doesn't change the final result much.

We Are Programmed to Receive

| Sat Sep. 19, 2015 1:26 PM EDT

It's Saturday, and I am oh-so-tired of Donald Trump. (The latest: he finally coughed up his favorite Bible verse, but it doesn't actually appear anywhere in the Bible. Since this was an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, he knew this had to be coming but still didn't bother to look up a genuine verse. I swear, he's just taunting us. He's actually a Democrat with an IQ of 300 and he's running a test to see just how far you can bamboozle the press corps and the conservative base and still lead the Republican primary race. Judging by Wednesday's debate performance, he's finally tiring of the gag because it appears you simply can't go too far.)

So: no more Donald. Instead, prepare yourself for a ridiculous topic explored at ridiculous length. Here's the background: the iPod in my car is set to permanent shuffle play, and yesterday the Eagles' "Hotel California" came up. I've heard this song hundreds of times, I suppose, but this time one word in the final famous lines suddenly struck me as odd:

"Relax," said the night man,
"We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave."

Programmed? This song was written in 1976, before the PC revolution and the rise of Silicon Valley conspired to make programming into a common word. [See update below.] Even cheap programmable calculators had just barely started to hit the market. It was certainly a common word among techie types, which is probably why it never seemed odd to me before, but was it common among shaggy rock musicians? It doesn't seem like it would be. Did Don Henley take an intro CS course at North Texas State? Or is the word being used in a different sense?

Naturally, I went to my favorite source for word usage over time, the Google Ngram Viewer. Here's what it shows:

There are two notable things here. First, the use of programmed peaks in 1984. That's odd. You'd think it would have kept on rising into the stratosphere. It's in common use today for everything from building a space shuttle to setting up your toaster oven. [In comments, weirdnoise suggests that this is because coding is used these days rather than programming. Could be.]

More germane to my question, however, is the fact that its use starts to rise around 1940. What's up with that? This is obviously a non-computer usage, since digital computers hadn't been invented at that point. So let's go to Google Books and check things out. Programmed appears to have been commonly used in four basic senses. Here are examples of each:

War Housing: Hearings Before the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, 1942: "The 20,000 units in item 5b and the 100,000 additional Government dormitories yet to be programmed and financed, as shown in item 5c...."

Variety Radio Directory, 1940: "National Broadcasting Co. Owned and/or Managed and/or Programmed Stations—474...."

Health and Its Maintenance: A Hygiene Text for Women, 1931: "She has always programmed her work. She never undertook more than she could do and do well...."

Life magazine ad, 1949: "IBM products using electronic principles: Card-programmed Calculator...."

In order, the four senses in which programmed was used are: (1) in construction and engineering scheduling, (2) in radio scheduling, (3) as a generic synonym for scheduled, and (4) the IBM sense, which is a precursor to the common computer programming sense of today.

The first three of these are all variants of scheduled, or else used in the similar sense of verbing the noun program. The final one is the source of the contemporary usage of the word in the software biz.

So what were the Eagles thinking of? It doesn't make sense that it was used as a synonym for scheduled. That doesn't read right, and anyway, why not just use the word scheduled instead? The computer sense works in context, but somehow seems unlikely. That leaves us with the radio programming sense, and I suppose that's the right one. Musicians would obviously be familiar with this usage, and so would their audience.

I warned you that this was a ridiculously long post about a ridiculous topic. Don't blame me if you read all the way to the end. But now that you have, feel free to comment if you think there's a possibility I've left out.

UPDATE: Via Twitter, Dan Perkins (aka Tom Tomorrow) reminds me that programmed—in the computer programming sense—was fairly commonly used in science fiction TV and movies in the 60s and 70s. For example, here it is from 1965 in the first episode of Lost in Space:

DR. SMITH: I have reprogrammed the robot. His power has been activated. Exactly eight hours after launch the robot will destroy the spaceship with all hands aboard.

Here it is from 1967 in I, Mudd, an episode in the original Star Trek series:

KIRK: Who sent you?
NORMAN (an android): I am not programmed to respond in that area.

Here it is from 1968 in 2001: A Space Odyssey:

INTERVIEWER: Do you believe that Hal has genuine emotions?
POOLE: Well, he acts like he has genuine emotions. He's programmed that way to make it easier for us to talk to him.

And from 1972 in Silent Running:

LOWELL: Hey, that's really excellent. Now, see, what I've done is...I've reprogrammed both of you so that now you'll respond directly to me.

And of course, from 1977 in Star Wars:

OWEN: You, I suppose you're programmed for etiquette and protocol.
THREEPIO: Protocol? Why, its my primary function, sir. I am well-versed in all the customs—
OWEN: I have no need for a protocol droid.
THREEPIO: Of course you haven't, sir. Not in an environment such as this. That is why I have been programmed—

OK, I'll stop now. The point is that perhaps the computer programming sense of the word was actually pretty common in popular culture by 1976. So I guess there was no real mystery to be solved after all.

UPDATE: Or maybe the song is using the word in the new-agey sense of cult programming. That would make sense on multiple levels.