Kevin Drum

Quote of the Day: Obama's Clean Record Is Evidence of How Corrupt He Really Is

| Wed Dec. 31, 2014 12:39 PM EST

From Jonah Goldberg, explaining the "culture" that causes Hillary Clinton's supporters to attack 2016 primary opponent Jim Webb even if she hasn't asked them to:

She’s created an infrastructure. The incentives are in place. The culture exists. It’s a bit analogous to Lois Lerner at the IRS. She didn’t need to be told by the White House to target conservative groups. She simply knew what she had to do.

I guess this is where we are. Even Darrell Issa's committee report—Darrell Issa's!—was forced to concede that whatever the IRS did or didn't do in its targeting of nonprofit political groups, there's no evidence the White House was involved in any way. This creates a real pickle. What's a good conservative to do?

Answer: simply declare that the White House was involved—in fact, so deeply involved that there was no need for actual marching orders. The very lack of evidence is the best evidence we have of massive, deep-seated corruption in Obama's inner circle. Case closed!

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UAB Faculty Senate Considers Vote Against All That Annoying Faculty Stuff

| Wed Dec. 31, 2014 12:06 PM EST

Earlier this month, Ray Watts, the president of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, announced that UAB would be dropping its Division I football program, the first university to do so in 20 years. I haven't paid much attention to the fallout, but today the LA Times summarizes the swift reaction:

Watts said the decision was strictly financial: After spending $20 million each year subsidizing an unsuccessful team, it was time for UAB to cut its losses and put academics before athletics.

....These are fighting words in Alabama. After announcing his decision Dec. 2, Watts needed police officers to escort him through a crowd of angry fans outside Legion Field, the school's outdated off-campus stadium, where he met with Blazer players and coaches.

....All of a sudden, almost everyone is a football cheerleader: The City Council passed a motion in support of UAB football; the university's Faculty Senate drafted a resolution of no confidence in Watts.

Look, I get that the football players are angry. I even get that all the boosters who hadn't stepped up before are now swearing that they would have donated millions of dollars to keep the program alive if only Watts had asked them. But the Faculty Senate? At a bare minimum, shouldn't they have had the back of a president who wanted to stop draining money from academics into football, even if no one else did? Yeesh.

Anyway, the gist of the story is that without a consistently losing football program to rally around, UAB is now certain to wither away and die. Why would anyone want to be be a student there, after all? What's left?  A bunch of hoity toity classes and labs and stuff? What a waste of some perfectly nice property in the middle of town.

UPDATE: Apparently my reading comprehension is weak today. As the Times story says, the Faculty Senate is considering a no-confidence motion in Watts, but hasn't actually voted on it yet. That won't happen until January 15.

Is Broken Windows a Broken Theory of Crime?

| Wed Dec. 31, 2014 11:10 AM EST

The "Broken Windows" theory suggests that tolerance of small acts of disorder creates an environment that leads to rising amounts of serious crime. So if police crack down on small offenses—petty vandalism, public lewdness, etc.—crime reductions will follow. George Kelling was one of the originators of the theory, and NYPD police commissioner Bill Bratton is one of its strongest proponents. Here's what they write about it:

New York City’s experience has suggestively demonstrated the success of Broken Windows over the last 20 years. In 1993, the city’s murder rate was 26.5 per 100,000 people....While the national murder rate per 100,000 people has been cut in half since 1994, the rate in New York has declined by more than six times.

....Broken Windows–style policing was pivotal in achieving these results. Left unchecked, street corners can degenerate into criminogenic environments. The bullies take over. They drink alcohol and take drugs openly, make excessive noise, intimidate and shake down honest citizens....By cracking down on low-level offenders, the police not only made neighborhoods more orderly....In the next four years, annual shootings fell by nearly 3,300 incidents—or about two fewer shootings per day.

....Current crime levels don’t stay down by themselves because of some vaguely defined demographic or economic factor. Crime is actively managed in New York City every day.

So here's the thing: this is almost certainly wrong. Not even controversial. Just wrong: broken windows policing may well have been helpful in reducing New York's crime rate, but there's flatly no evidence that it's been pivotal. It's true that crime in New York is down more than it is nationally, but that's just because crime went up more in big cities vs. small cities during the crime wave of the 60s through the 80s, and it then went down more during the crime decline of the 90s and aughts. Kelling and Bratton can dismiss this as ivory tower nonsense, but they should know better. The statistics are plain enough, after all.

Take a look at the two charts on the right. The top one shows crime declines in six of America's biggest cities. As you can see, New York did well, but it did no better than Chicago or Dallas or Los Angeles, none of which implemented broken windows during the 90s. The bottom chart is a summary of the crime decline in big cities vs. small cities. Again, the trend is clear: crime went up more during the 80s in big cities, but then declined more during the 90s and aughts. The fact that New York beat the national average is a matter of its size, not broken windows.

Now, none of this is evidence that broken windows doesn't work. The evidence is foggy either way, and we simply don't know. My own personal view is that it's probably a net positive, but a fairly modest one.

But this gets us to the core of the issue. Kelling and Bratton write that the "academics who attribute crime drops to economic or demographic factors often work with macro data sets and draw unsubstantiated, far-fetched conclusions about street-level police work, which most have scarcely witnessed." Why such contempt? Because Kelling, and especially Bratton, want to believe that the things they do affect crime. After all, if crime has declined because of demographics or gasoline lead or the end of the crack epidemic, then all of Bratton's work—along with that of the cops he manages—is pretty much useless. He's just been spinning his wheels while huge, impersonal forces have been acting invisibly.

Nobody wants to believe that. What's more, we don't want people to believe that. Police officers, like all of us, work better if they think that they're having an impact. And their bosses, if they want to keep their trust, had damn well better insist that this is the case. When Bratton says that broken windows works, he's not just saying it because he believes it. He's saying it because he has to. If he doesn't, he'd lose the trust of his officers.

Still, the truth is almost certainly more complicated than Bratton says. Crime is down for multiple reasons, and if I had to guess I'd say about 70 percent is due to big, impersonal forces and 30 percent is due to changes in policing, including broken windows. That may not be a very satisfying explanation, but it's most likely the true one.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, did you know that the link between gasoline lead and crime was the "trendiest crime decline hypothesis in 2014"? I didn't. But that's kind of cool. You can, of course, read more about that here.

2015 Shaping Up To Be an Annoying Year in Tech

| Tue Dec. 30, 2014 6:49 PM EST

The Wall Street Journal is running a feature today called "The Tech That Will Change Your Life in 2015." Sounds great. I'm ready to hear about my future. Sock it to me:

Virtual Assistants You Won’t Want to Fire

“You have an 8:30 a.m. meeting with your supervisor. Last time you met, your heart rate was high. Go to bed early tonight, don’t drink coffee before the meeting and leave home early—traffic will be heavy.”

That’s how much smarter predictive personal assistants like Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana will begin to get....

Seriously? This is what my smartphone will allegedly be doing in the new year? Just kill me now.

As for the rest of the list, call me underwhelmed. Apple watches, Windows 10, yet more fitness trackers, e-credit cards, and an endless procession of "Uber for ____" apps? What happened to my flying cars?

Vladimir Putin's Russia: Criticize the Government and Your Family Will Be Locked Up in a Penal Colony

| Tue Dec. 30, 2014 1:59 PM EST

The show trial of one of Vladimir Putin's chief political critics ended today. He was convicted and banned from political office for ten years, but the sentence was suspended and he immediately joined a protest march upon his release. So what happened next?

The police in Moscow briefly detained the anticorruption crusader and political opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny on Tuesday as he tried to join an unauthorized, antigovernment rally, just hours after a Moscow court had given him a suspended sentence on criminal fraud charges. Yet, in a sign of how unwilling the authorities are to make a martyr of Mr. Navalny, they said later that the police were merely escorting him back to his home, Interfax reported.

Well, that's not so bad. Maybe Putin is lightening up a bit. Except for one little thing:

His brother Oleg was jailed for three and a half years for the same offence....Navalny’s supporters said the Kremlin was returning to the sinister Soviet-era practice of punishing the relatives of those it disliked. Upon hearing the verdict, mumbled quietly by the judge, Yelena Korobchenko, Alexei Navalny rolled his eyes and looked at his brother.

....Oleg Navalny is the father of two small children and a former executive of the state-owned postal service. Unlike his better known brother, he has never played a role in the Russian opposition movement. His imprisonment in a penal colony seems to echo the Soviet-era practice of arresting the relatives of “inconvenient” people.

So they let Aleksei go free in order to keep him from being a martyr, but tossed his brother into prison as a hostage to his good behavior. Charming. A spokesman admitted that Putin "had been aware of the Navalny case, but that Tuesday’s ruling 'isn’t important enough to merit a special report' to the president." I actually believe this. For Putin, it's just another day at the office.

Final Fundraising of 2014

| Tue Dec. 30, 2014 12:15 PM EST

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Chart of the Day: Hooray for the Economy!

| Tue Dec. 30, 2014 11:58 AM EST

Yesterday featured several gloomy posts—strictly a coincidence, I assure you—so today here's some good news. Matt Yglesias passes along the word that for the first time since the Great Recession, Gallup's Economic Confidence Index broke into positive territory this week. Here's Gallup's explanation for the steady rise since mid-September:

While various factors likely contribute to the rise in economic confidence, the weekly average price of gas in the U.S. began to fall precipitously in the late summer and, over the last four months, the price has fallen by nearly 30% — an economic boon to most Americans. In fact, for the week of Dec. 22, the average price of gasoline was as low as it has been since the first half of 2009. Additionally, the U.S. stock market rose in December to its highest levels in history while Gallup's unemployment rate fell to the lowest since its daily tracking began in January 2008.

So there you have it. A little late to help Democrats in the November midterms, but not too late for 2016.

Open-Plan Workspaces Are the Work of Satan

| Tue Dec. 30, 2014 10:52 AM EST

After nine years in an office, Lindsey Kaufman's bosses decided to convert her ad agency into an open plan workspace:

Our new, modern Tribeca office was beautifully airy, and yet remarkably oppressive. Nothing was private. On the first day, I took my seat at the table assigned to our creative department, next to a nice woman who I suspect was an air horn in a former life. All day, there was constant shuffling, yelling, and laughing, along with loud music piped through a PA system.

…These new floor plans are ideal for maximizing a company's space while minimizing costs. Bosses love the ability to keep a closer eye on their employees, ensuring clandestine porn-watching, constant social media-browsing and unlimited personal cellphone use isn't occupying billing hours. But employers are getting a false sense of improved productivity. A 2013 study found that many workers in open offices are frustrated by distractions that lead to poorer work performance. Nearly half of the surveyed workers in open offices said the lack of sound privacy was a significant problem for them and more than 30 percent complained about the lack of visual privacy. Meanwhile, "ease of interaction" with colleagues — the problem that open offices profess to fix — was cited as a problem by fewer than 10 percent of workers in any type of office setting.

Do not dare to ever criticize cubicles in my presence. This is what they replaced, not spacious corner offices with lots of natural light and walnut desks. Compared to open plan, cubicles are a paradise on Earth. Open plan is the work of Satan.

That is all.

Obama's Foreign Policy: Frustrating, Perhaps, But Better Than Most of the Alternatives

| Mon Dec. 29, 2014 9:05 PM EST

I guess I missed this in the coverage yesterday about the official end of the war in Afghanistan:

The ceremony in Kabul honoring 13 years of mostly-American and British troops fighting and dying in Afghanistan had to be held in a secret location because the war has gone so badly that even the capital city is no longer safe from the Taliban.

That's from Max Fisher, who also provides us today with a "highly subjective and unscientific report card for US foreign policy." As top ten lists go, this one is worth reading as a set of interesting provocations, though I think Fisher errs by focusing too heavily on military conflicts. There's more to foreign policy than war. Beyond that, I think he often ends up grading President Obama too harshly by judging him against ideal outcomes rather than the best plausible outcomes. Giving him a C+ regarding ISIS might be fair, for example, since it's quite possible that quicker action could have produced a better result1.  But a D- on Israel-Palestine? Certainly the situation itself deserves at least that low a grade, but is there really anything Obama could have done to make better progress there? I frankly doubt it. I'd also give him a higher grade than Fisher does on Ukraine and Syria (I think that staying out of the Syrian civil war was the right policy even though the results are obviously horrific), but a lower grade on China (A+? Nothing could have gone better?).

Overall, I continue to think that Obama's foreign policy has been better than he gets credit for. He's made plenty of mistakes, but that's par for the course in international affairs. There are too many moving parts involved, and the US has too little leverage over most of them, to expect great outcomes routinely. When I look at some of the worst situations in the world (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Israel-Palestine) I mostly see places that the US has little control over once you set aside straight-up military interventions. Unfortunately, that's a big problem: the mere perception that an intervention is conceivable colors how we view these situations.

Take the long, deadly war in the Congo, for example. Nobody blames Obama for this because nobody wants us to send troops to the Congo—and everyone understands that once a military response is off the table, there's very little we can do there. Conversely, we do blame Obama for deadly civil wars in places like Iraq and Syria. Why? Not really for any good reason. It's simply because there's a hawkish domestic faction in US politics that thinks we should intervene in those places. This, however, doesn't change the facts on the ground—namely that intervention would almost certainly be disastrous. It just changes the perception of whether the US has options, and thus responsibility.

But that's a lousy way of looking at things. US military intervention in the broad Middle East, from Lebanon to Somalia to Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya, has been uniformly calamitous. In most cases it's not only not helped, but made things actively worse. No matter what Bill Kristol and John McCain say, the plain fact is that there's very little the US can do militarily to influence the brutal wars roiling the Middle East and Central Asia. Once you accept that, Obama's recognition of reality looks pretty good.

For the record, I'd give Obama an A or a B for his responses to Syria and Ukraine. Is that crazy? Perhaps. But the hard truth is that these are just flatly horrible situations that the US has limited control over. When I consider all the possible responses in these regions, and how badly they could have turned out, Obama's light hand looks pretty good.

1Or maybe not. But it's plausible that it might have.

Today's Birthday Advice: Celebrate Responsibly

| Mon Dec. 29, 2014 2:34 PM EST

Here's a fascinating new factlet. University of Chicago economics researcher Pablo Pena, who is apparently dedicated to putting the dismal back in the dismal science, tells us that we're more likely to die on our birthdays. If you're in your 20s, you're 25 percent more likely to die on your birthday than on any other day. On weekends this rises to 48 percent.

Now, your chance of dying on any day is pretty small if you're in your 20s, so a 25 percent increase isn't actually much. Still! Watch out for those drunken birthday bashes! If you're under ten, watch out for the sugar highs from too much cake and punch. If you're in your 50s, watch out for....something. I'm not sure what. Above 60, apparently we all give up on birthday Saturnalias and our risk of dying isn't much higher than average.

This comes via Wonkblog's Jason Millman, who provides this sage advice: "celebrate responsibly." I always do.