Kevin Drum

Americans are Confused, Part 895

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 1:04 PM EDT

Via Bruce Bartlett, here are the results of a Harris poll that asked people various questions about deficit reduction. Americans, it claims, are strongly in favor of spending cuts instead of tax increases and believe, by a 73% margin, that "public spending cuts are necessary to help long term economic recovery."

OK then. Spending cuts it is! And just what should we slash? Well, that's shown in Table 5, to the right, and the answer is.....

Aid to developing countries! Which currently accounts for something south of 1% of the entire federal budget. Aside from that, there was no appetite for cutting anything. Even defense spending, bloated by two unpopular wars, was favored for the chopping block by fewer than a third of respondents. "Healthcare" got only 18%, and since my guess is that this was mostly people who want to cut spending on healthcare for poor people, this means that Medicare cuts are favored by virtually no one. And Harris didn't even bother to ask about Social Security.

Bottom line: Americans say they want to cut spending, but they pretty plainly don't want to cut any actual spending. Just fantasy spending. Sort of like being in a rotisserie baseball league.

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Saving and Creating

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 12:39 PM EDT

Here's the latest from the White House: the 2009 stimulus package has "saved or created between 2.5 and 3.6 million jobs as of the second quarter of 2010." You can see this in handy chart form on the right.

Now, obviously you can argue with the CEA's analysis here. Maybe their baseline counterfactual is bogus. Maybe their GDP calculations are off. Whatever. For the most part, though, the actual complaint seems to be with their "saved or created" formulation.

As a partisan tool for tea party gatherings, I get why someone would mock this. But I've seen plenty of more mainstream types mock it too. Why? Isn't this the obvious formulation you'd use if you were trying to calculate the effect of some economic policy or other? If you give the state of Florida some money and they use it to prevent a bunch of cops and teachers from being laid off, doesn't that do as much for the employment rate as going ahead with the layoffs and then using the money to hire a bunch of new park rangers? Is there some reason, aside from crude partisanship or Maureen Dowd-esque puerility,1 for anyone to have a problem with this?

1Is that a word? Well, it should be.

I Am Dan Brown?

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 12:09 PM EDT

The internet toy du jour is a site that supposedly analyzes your writing and tells you which famous writer you most resemble. I'm dubious. I stuck in several blog posts, followed by a few magazine articles of several thousand words each, and it turns out that I write like Dan Brown, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Lovecraft again, Brown again, Brown yet again, and King again.

So I write like everyone. On balance, though, I write like Dan Brown. Which is great news since he's — what? The best selling author since Yahweh? For some reason, though, my writing income still seems to trail his by a wee amount. What am I doing wrong?

UPDATE: I analyzed some fiction written 30 years ago and got Vonnegut, James Joyce (!), King, Douglas Adams, King, and King. So maybe I'm really more like Stephen King, which would be great too, though his writing riches still elude me.

Deflation is Coming

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 11:12 AM EDT

John Makin is not exactly a raging lefty economist, but he's got his hair on fire over deflation anyway:

At this point in the postbubble transition to deflation, fiscal rectitude and monetary stringency are a dangerous policy combination, as appealing as they may be to the virtuous instincts of policymakers faced with a surfeit of sovereign debt. The result of Europe's embrace of fiscal rectitude will be — paradoxically in the eyes of some — to export deflation to the United States, Asia, and the emerging markets.

....The link between volatile financial conditions and the real economy has been powerfully underscored by the events since mid-2007. Growth has suffered and subsequently recovered given powerful monetary and fiscal stimulus. And yet, the damaged financial sector, unable to supply credit; a jump in the precautionary demand for cash; and a persistent overhang of global production capacity have combined to leave deflation pressure intact. The G20's newfound embrace of fiscal stringency only adds to the extant deflation pressure.

No wonder no country wants a strong currency anymore, as attested to by Europe's easy acceptance of a weaker euro. The acute phase of the financial crisis is over, but the chronic trend toward deflation that has followed it is not.

Italics mine. I think Makin believes that he's only saying the same thing that Milton Friedman would say if he were still alive. Unfortunately, conservatives no longer seem to care what Milton Friedman might say. After all, there's an election coming up. Haven't you heard?

Quote of the Day: Tax Cuts Pay For Themselves!

| Tue Jul. 13, 2010 6:15 PM EDT

From Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell:

There's no evidence whatsoever that the Bush tax cuts actually diminished revenue. They increased revenue, because of the vibrancy of these tax cuts in the economy.

I keep hearing that conservatives actually have a nuanced view of tax cuts, not the laughable caricature that liberals impute to them. But it sure looks like their top guy in the Senate has exactly the laughable caricature we've always thought he did. I now eagerly await an outpouring of criticism from conservatives upset at McConnell for being such a pandering rube and giving the movement a bad name.

UPDATE: Karl Smith at Modeled Behavior tweets: "I have a chart I use on Bush tax cuts, has broken even the hardest of partisans. Will post & tweet later." Really? The hardest of partisans? This I have to see.....

UPDATE 2: Well, here's the chart. And it's a good one! But I somehow have a feeling that the hardest of partisans will remain unmoved.

Kids and the Internet

| Tue Jul. 13, 2010 5:57 PM EDT

I wasn't planning to make this Jonah Goldberg day here at the blog, but he and Nick Schulz have a piece in National Review this week so strange that I just have to wonder what they were thinking. The problem they're addressing is the prevalence of porn on the internet, and they concede right off that government regulation ought to be avoided ("There’s something to be said for keeping the Internet out of the hands of progressive planners"). Instead they offer this:

Here is one proposal. Right now, there are many “top-level domains” — .com, .org, .biz, .gov, .edu., etc. We propose the creation of a .kids domain that would be strictly reserved for material appropriate for minors 18 years and under. Most sites would probably be able to mirror themselves on a .kids domain with little to no extra effort. Most corporations, schools, and other organizations have perfectly harmless material that kids and teens can view without causing their parents to stay up at night. The sites of the Smithsonian, McDonald’s, Disney, PBS, and countless other institutions are already perfectly safe for minors. Other websites would need a little tweaking, but not much. Only a relative handful of them — porn, dating services, adult-themed chat rooms, R-rated movie sites, et al. — would be explicitly barred from the .kids domain. The others would simply have to tone down or pare down their offerings.

....Merely creating a new domain wouldn’t create a neighborhood or safe zone for kids. But it would give the private sector the wherewithal to help parents, without handing jurisdiction of content over to the government or requiring parents to rely on notoriously unreliable filters. Programming a browser to recognize only a .kids address would be simple. Devices and software could be designed to make it impossible for kids to wander into bad neighborhoods.

Never has the danger of the passive voice been so thoroughly demonstrated. Who, exactly, would decide what is and isn't acceptable for this domain? Not the federal government, they say, but who then? The private sector? Which part of it? Some souped up international version of the MPAA? The United Nations? And what would they allow? "Heather Has Two Mommies"? Not if the Boy Scouts were in charge. Palestinian textbooks about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank? Not if the ADL gets a vote. Taliban cartoon primers for young girls about their proper role in an Islamic household? Not if NOW has anything to say about it.

I don't even object to this idea. I just don't see how you could make it work on an open, global network like the internet. Surely if you're going to spend 2,000 words on a topic like this, you're obligated to at least mention the single biggest obstacle in its way?

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Toyota Cars: Not As Bad As You Think

| Tue Jul. 13, 2010 4:57 PM EDT

Toyota cars really do suffer from sticky accelerator pedals and floor mats that can trap accelerator pedals to the floor. But those of you who remember the great Audi 5000 debacle of the late 80s will be unsurprised to learn that the bulk of recent reports of runaway acceleration in Toyota vehicles were likely the result of [drumroll please] driver error:

The U.S. Department of Transportation has analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles involved in accidents blamed on sudden acceleration and found that at the time of the crashes, throttles were wide open and the brakes were not engaged, people familiar with the findings said. The results suggest that some drivers who said their Toyota and Lexus vehicles surged out of control were mistakenly flooring the accelerator when they intended to jam on the brakes.

....NHTSA has received more than 3,000 complaints of sudden acceleration in Toyotas, including some dating to early last decade, according to a report the agency compiled in March. The incidents include 75 fatal crashes involving 93 deaths.

However, NHTSA has been able to verify only one of those fatal crashes was caused by a problem with the vehicle, according to information the agency provided to the National Academy of Sciences. That accident last Aug. 28, which killed a California highway patrolman and three passengers in a Lexus, was traced to a floor mat that trapped the gas pedal in the depressed position.

I'm not sure what can be done about this. A brake override only works if there's a genuine throttle problem and you really do have your foot on the brake. But what would stop people from mistakenly jamming the accelerator to the floor and then panicking? There are just too many legitimate occasions for flooring the accelerator to put in place a system that stops it. Any ideas beyond the ones carmakers have already adopted?

The Palin-ization of Politics

| Tue Jul. 13, 2010 3:15 PM EDT

Like me, Michelle Cottle thinks Sarah Palin is a natural PR genius. In the current issue of the New Republic she muses about how Palin manages to pull it off:

Her byline pops up now and again in the opinion pages (supporting McCain, bashing enviros). She periodically hits the campaign trail with favored candidates. She is a prolific and passionate tweeter. Her Facebook page overflows with thoughts on global events both past (DDay, Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech) and present (Israel, border security, the need to drill, baby, drill); news of upcoming appearances (a rally at the Lincoln Memorial with Glenn Beck, a possible U.K. jaunt to meet Margaret Thatcher); the latest media atrocities committed against her; and her rolling endorsements of “commonsense conservative” candidates who tickle her fancy. And, any day now, filming is scheduled to start on the docu-travelogue series in which Palin will “bring the wonder and majesty of Alaska” to TLC viewers.

In the midst of this aggressive visibility, however, Palin keeps a tight grip on her time in the public eye. She rarely sits down with non-conservative interviewers and eschews mix-’em-up formats pitting her viewpoint against that of a more liberal counterpart.

....It’s an unconventional media strategy, to be sure....Yet it’s hard to deny that Palin’s p.r. approach has not only succeeded but succeeded brilliantly. How? The most obvious element at work here is that Palin operates not as a politician but as a celebrity. “Most politicians can’t get on the cover of People,” sighs another GOP campaign veteran. “She’s on the cover almost every week.” The rules are different for celebrities: Palin’s megawattage enables her to command attention for every word and gesture, even as she largely stiff-arms The New York Times and “Meet the Press.” Similarly, candidates desperate for her endorsement are unlikely to (publicly) whine about whatever attention she dribbles their way, no matter how arbitrary or last-minute.

Palin is, in some sense, sui generis. And yet, I wonder if her press strategy is really such a unique consequence of her celebrity-hood or rather a sign of things to come? There's no question that she's pulled off her particular schtick better than anyone else in American politics, but there are others who have gone a ways down this road too. One is Barack Obama, who restricted press access to a startling degree during his presidential campaign. Keeping presidential campaign reporters on a tight leash is a trend that's been building for years, with every campaign more tightly controlled than the last, but still, Obama pretty clearly took this to a new level.

The other example who comes to mind (since I live in California), is Meg Whitman, who just ran a high-profile primary campaign in a big state with virtually no interaction with the mainstream press. She gave speeches, she ran ads (boy did she run ads), and she spoke to friendly reporters occasionally, but that was about it. And guess what? It worked. She proved that you really don't need the press anymore to run a successful campaign.

Now, obviously there are some catches to all this. Obama, like Palin, had a strong aura of celebrity that he could milk. And Meg Whitman has untold riches to spend. Your ordinary schmoe candidate in a smallish state or a single congressional district can't count on either of those things.

Still, I'm putting my money on the Palin-ization of politics. Partly this is because the mainstream press is dying anyway, and partly it's because Palin and others are demonstrating that you really don't need conventional press coverage to win. In fact, as Rand Paul and Sharron Angle can testify, it's a real risk. Between YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and blogs and friendly talk radio hosts — as well as more conventional things like TV ads and database-driven phone outreach — who needs the New York Times? Increasingly, I'll bet the answer is, no one.

Scott McInnis in Hot Water

| Tue Jul. 13, 2010 2:47 PM EDT

The Denver Post reports that Republican gubernatorial candidate and former congressman Scott McInnis plagiarized a bunch of articles on water policy that he wrote a few years ago for the Hasan Family Foundation. McInnis blames it on his assistant, of course (they always do), but here's the real affront to common sense:

McInnis' water articles were a required part of his two-year fellowship at the Hasan Family Foundation in 2005 and 2006. The former congressman, who left office in 2004, was paid $300,000 to do speaking engagements and "research and write a monthly article on water issues that can be distributed to media and organizations as well as be available on the Internet."

Crikey. They paid him $150,000 a year for a dozen short essays and a few speeches? Where do I sign up for a gig like that? I'm pretty sure I can get up to speed on water issues pretty quickly even without an assistant.

Michael Bellesiles in the News Again

| Tue Jul. 13, 2010 1:47 PM EDT

Is it possible that Michael Bellesiles has invented yet another story? Bizarrely enough, yes: it does seem at least possible, as Jim Lindgren documents here. (And I'd add that in addition to Lindgren's factual issues, Bellesiles' piece also strikes me as implausibly pat just purely as a story.) In the grand scheme of things this doesn't matter much, but it's sort of the blog equivalent of wondering whether Jennifer Aniston is really over Brad. If you've been following it, you can't help but be fascinated. Hopefully, in fairness to Bellesiles (if he's done nothing wrong) and to everyone else (if he has), the Chronicle of Higher Education will sort this all out shortly.