Kevin Drum

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.

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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.

The Middle Class Needs More Income. Faith Will Follow.

| Mon Dec. 29, 2014 11:11 AM EST

Atrios has decided to force me to read Robert Samuelson's column this morning. Thanks, dude. Here's the start:

What is curious about the present understandable preoccupation with the middle class is the assumption — both explicit and implicit — that the system is “rigged” (to use Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s favorite term) against this vast constituency of Americans. In reality, just the opposite is true. The system is rigged in favor of the middle class. That’s a natural result for a democracy in which politicians compete more for votes than for dollars.

If you look at how the federal government spends and raises its money, the bias for the middle class and poor becomes plain. In fiscal 2014, about two-thirds of the $3.5 trillion federal budget went for “payments to individuals.” This covers 59 million Social Security recipients, more than 54 million Medicare beneficiaries (overlapping with Social Security), 68 million Medicaid recipients, 46 million food-stamp recipients — and many more.

This really doesn't make sense. When we speak of the "middle class," we're nearly always talking about the working-age middle class. Samuelson surely knows this. But the only programs he calls out by name are specifically directed at the elderly and the working poor. Barely a single dollar of those programs goes to middle-class workers.

What's the point of this pretense? Beats me. I guess it allows Samuelson to ignore the stagnant middle-class wages and skyrocketing upper incomes of the past 15 years, which is what nearly everyone means when they say the system is rigged against the middle class. And it allows him to make the truly chin-scratching point that during the aughts, the result of this soaring inequality was basically a massive and fraudulent loan program from the rich to the middle class that eventually—and inevitably—broke down, producing a massive economic recession. This, in Samuelson's view, was "an intellectual, political and social climate that legitimized lax lending policies in the name of promoting middle-class well-being." If that's the way we promote middle-class well-being, can I please be transferred to a different class?

I don't agree with Samuelson much, but this column is a real head scratcher. It's not as if any of this stuff is ancient history. For more than a decade, income gains have been going almost exclusively to the rich; the housing bust, by contrast, was a calamity mostly for the working and middle classes; and government aid programs have been aimed largely at rescuing the financial sector and (in a pinch) helping the poor. The middle-class folks thrown out of work have gotten a few grudging extensions of our meager unemployment insurance and a slight expansion of our meager disability system, but that's about it. This is not a "crisis of faith," as Samuelson puts it. It's a crisis of not having very much money.

And Now For Some Dour Predictions For the New Year

| Mon Dec. 29, 2014 10:31 AM EST

Tyler Cowen offers some economic guesses for the coming year. In a nutshell, he thinks Russia is doomed; American wage growth will remain stagnant; a resource crash will throw Canada and Australia into downturns; Abenomics will fail once and for all; Greece will cause chaos by voting itself out of the eurozone; China will decline; Latin America will decline; and Italy and France (and maybe Germany) will stagnate. On the bright side, India might do OK.

And that's not all. We might have a stock market crash in the US. And maybe a nuclear bomb will go off somewhere. And we'll have another outbreak of avian flu.

This public service announcement has been brought to you by the Doleful Society of Dystopic Downers. If you haven't yet given up all hope, there's more at the link. Including at least one cheerful prediction!

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Millennials and Comic Books: Chill Out, Haters

| Sun Dec. 28, 2014 1:44 PM EST

Saul DeGrew surveys the various complaints people have about the Millennial generation. Here's one:

Another part of the Millennial complaint brigade is complaining about how they are still into videogames, comic books, and other activities from their childhood....I admit that I find this aspect of the Millennials staying Kids debate to be a bit troublesome but that is probably my own snobbery and cultural elitism coming in more than anything else. I don’t quite understand how explosion and bang wow movies are still big among a good chunk of the over-30 set.

Forget videogames: that's a huge industry that spans all generations these days. Their popularity says nothing about arrested adulthood. But I was curious: just how many Millennials are still reading comic books? Not just "interested" in comics or willing to see the latest X-Men movie. DeGrew may not like "bang wow" movies, but they've been a pretty standard part of Hollywood's product mix forever, and the current fad for superhero bang wow movies doesn't say much of anything about Millennial culture in particular.

So: how many actual readers of comic books are there among Millennials? I don't know, but here's a guess:

  1. Diamond Comic Distributors sold about 84 million comics in 2013. Diamond is damn near a monopoly, but it's not a total monopoly, and that number is only for the top 300 titles anyway. So let's round up to 100 million.
  2. That's about 8 million per month. Some comic fans buy two or three titles a month, others buy 20 or 30. A horseback guess suggests that the average fan buys 5-10 per month.
  3. That's maybe 1.5 million regular fans, give or take. If we figure that two-thirds are Millennials, that's a million readers.
  4. The total size of the Millennial generation is 70 million. But let's be generous and assume that no one cares if teenagers and college kids are still reading comics. Counting only those over 22, the adult Millennial population is about 48 million.
  5. So that means about 2 percent of adult Millennials are regular comic book readers. (If you just browse through your roomie's stash sporadically without actually buying comics, you don't count.)

I dunno. I'd say that 2 percent really isn't much. Sure, superheroes pervade popular culture in a way they haven't before, though they've always been popular. Adults watched Superman on TV in the 50s, Batman on TV in 60s, and Superman again on the big screen in the 80s. But the rise of superhero movies in the 90s and aughts has as much to do with the evolution of special effects as with superheroes themselves. Older productions couldn't help but look cheesy. Modern movies actually make superheroes look believable. Science fiction movies have benefited in the same way.

In any case, superheroes may be a cultural phenomenon of the moment—just ask anyone who tries to brave the San Diego Comic-Con these days—but even if you accept the argument that reading comics is ipso facto a marker of delayed adulthood1, the actual number of Millennials who do this is pretty small. So chill out on the comics, Millennial haters.

1I don't. I'm just saying that even if you do, there aren't really a huge number of Millennial-aged comic fans anyway.

Cuomo and Christie Veto Port Authority Reform Bill. But Is It Permanent?

| Sun Dec. 28, 2014 10:57 AM EST

I'm as distant from the politics of New York and New Jersey as it's possible to get, but I'm puzzled about today's news that the governors of both states have vetoed legislation that would have reformed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Here's a typical piece from the New York Daily News:

Rather than sign the bill supporters say would have opened the bi-state agency to much needed transparency and accountability, the two governors crossed party lines to announce they would push a reform package recommended Saturday by a panel they had created earlier this year.

....The bill's Assembly sponsor James Brennan (D-Brooklyn) and other critics argued there was no justification for the veto of legislation passed unanimously by the legislatures in both states.

Some, like former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat who in 2009 sponsored a public authorities reform bill that did not cover the Port Authority, suggested Cuomo, a Democrat, and Christie, a Republican, were more interested in protecting their own power than actually reforming the agency. "It's shameful," Brodsky said. "They ripped the heart out of real reform in order to maintain their control and power."

....New Jersey Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said the vetoes were a slap in the face to commuters who "rightly expected more from the governors after the revelations at the Port Authority over the last year."...Cuomo and Christie say the reforms they are recommending embrace "the spirit and intent" of the legislation....But critics suggest the recommendations were meant as a smokescreen to distract from the vetoes. "Power trumped good government," Brodsky said.

Wait a second. The bills were passed unanimously in both legislatures. It should be a snap to override the vetoes, right? And yet, none of the stories I read so much as mentioned the possibility. The best I could find was the last sentence of an AP dispatch:

New Jersey Sen. Loretta Weinberg said the decision was a "cop-out," and Assemblyman John Wisniewski said he's disappointed the bill didn't become law.....Both Weinberg and Wisniewski predicted that overturning a veto would be difficult.

Can someone fill me in on the inner workings of New York and New Jersey politics? Do legislators' loyalties to their governors really carry that much weight? I mean, everyone knew Cuomo and Christie were opposed to the bill from the start. So if the legislatures passed it unanimously to begin with, why can't they now muster a two-thirds vote to override? What am I missing here?

How About If We All Get Back to Protecting and Serving?

| Sat Dec. 27, 2014 7:39 PM EST

My neighboring city of Costa Mesa may be thousands of miles from New York and much, much smaller (population: 112,000), but they have something in common: police unions that don't seem to know when to quit. Check this out:

An Orange County Superior Court judge on Wednesday ordered a private investigator to stay away from two Costa Mesa councilmen he allegedly helped surveil in the run-up to local 2012 elections.

....The false-imprisonment charge relates to the filing of a police report that caused Councilman Jim Righeimer to be detained briefly when an officer responded to his home to perform a sobriety test, according to prosecutors....[Scott Impola 's firm] was retained by the Costa Mesa Police Assn. to surveil and research local councilmen who were trying to cut pension costs and reduce jobs at City Hall, according to the Orange County district attorney's office.

As part of their work, Impola and private investigator Chris Lanzillo allegedly put a GPS tracker on Councilman Steve Mensinger's car and later called in a false DUI report on Righeimer as he was leaving Skosh Monahan's, a restaurant owned by fellow Councilman Gary Monahan.

....Prosecutors say they have no evidence that the police union knew of any illegal activity beforehand.

Well, yeah. No evidence. But there is this:

Costa Mesa police officers mocked members of the City Council and suggested ways to catch them in compromising positions in the run-up to the 2012 municipal election, according to emails contained in court documents reviewed Monday by the Daily Pilot.

.... In one message, the association's then-treasurer, Mitch Johnson, suggested telling the union's lawyer about two of the councilmen's upcoming city-sponsored trip to Las Vegas...."I'm sure they will be dealing with other 'developer' friends, maybe a Brown Act [violation] or two, and I think [Steve Mensinger is] a doper and has moral issues," Johnson wrote in an email from a private account. "I could totally see him sniffing coke [off] a prostitute. Just a thought."

Yes. "Just a thought." I have a feeling that maybe the GPS and DUI revelations didn't come as a big shock or anything when the union was confronted with them. There's also this:

The association's president at the time, Jason Chamness, told the grand jury that he asked the law firm to dig up dirt on certain City Council members because he believed they were corrupt. Shortly after the DUI report involving Righeimer, the union fired the law firm, although the affidavit notes the union continued to pay a retainer until as recently as January 2013.

During his testimony, Chamness also said he deleted emails from his private account, which he used to contact the law firm about union business.

And why did the police union hire these two goons? Because the city councilmen in question were trying to cut pension costs and reduce jobs at City Hall. How dare they?

Quote of the Day: Hooray For Nerdy Details!

| Sat Dec. 27, 2014 2:22 PM EST

From Ben Goldacre, author of I Think You'll Find it's a Bit More Complicated Than That, a physician and author who debunks health fads and can be thought of as sort of an anti-Dr. Oz:

I think the public want nerdy details more than many in the media realize.

Preach it brother! Interviewer Julia Belluz asked Goldacre if he'd seen any progress over the past decade, and I found his answer pretty interesting:

I think the really big change has been the Internet. What was really frustrating when I first started writing [in the Guardian in 2003] was you would see mainstream media journalists and dodgy doctors and scientists speaking with great authority and hopelessly distorting research in a way that was dangerous and scaremongering. There was no way to talk back.

When I started writing the column I felt like I was talking back on behalf of this enormous crowd of disenfranchised nerds and nerdy doctors. Now with blogs, Twitter, and comments under articles, what you can see is everybody can talk back. On top of that, not only can people more easily find a platform to put things right when they’re wrong and also explain how they’re wrong and how to understand science better, but also anybody who is interested in something, who is sufficiently motivated and clueful, can go out and find out about it online. That’s an amazing thing. It wasn’t the case ten to 15 years ago. People now are now much more empowered to fight back against stupid stuff, and to read about interesting stuff.

Given that Dr. Oz and his ilk seem to be at least as popular as ever, I guess I'm not quite as optimistic as Goldacre. The problem is that the internet does help people who are "sufficiently motivated and clueful," but that's never been a big part of the population. And sadly, the internet is probably as bad or worse than Dr. Oz for all the people who don't know how to do even basic searches and don't have either the background or the savvy to distinguish between good advice and hogwash. Regular readers will recognize this as a version of my theory that "the internet is now a major driver of the growth of cognitive inequality." Or in simpler terms, "the internet makes dumb people dumber and smart people smarter."

In fairness, the rest of the interview suggests that Goldacre is pretty well aware that the impact of his writing is fairly limited ("I don’t think you can reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into"), and he shows a nuanced appreciation of exactly when his writing might influence a conversation here and there. The whole thing is a good read.