Kevin Drum

Housekeeping Note

| Tue Sep. 22, 2015 10:03 AM EDT

I'll be up in LA this morning seeing one of my rotating cast of doctors, so no blogging today. I may put up an item or two later in the day.

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Does France Control What American Internet Users Are Allowed to See?

| Tue Sep. 22, 2015 1:21 AM EDT

We all saw this coming eventually, but here's the latest on Europe's ill-considered "right to be forgotten":

French data protection regulators on Monday rejected Google's bid to appeal an order that requires the company to block French results removed under Europe's "right to be forgotten" from all of Google's sites.

....An order from France's Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés, or CNIL, earlier this summer required Google to remove requests results from all versions, including, but the company appealed.

A Google spokesman said that the company was trying to cooperate with European authorities, "But as a matter of principle, we respectfully disagree with the idea that a single national Data Protection Authority should determine which Web pages people in other countries can access via search engines."

Well, yeah. There's just no way that a French regulator can force Google to censor results on an American website. The reason should be pretty obvious, even to a French data protection agency: If France can do this, every other country can do it too. It's not hyperbole to say that this would be the end of the internet as we know it. Like it or not, it's just not a tenable position.

So now this gets appealed to EU courts, and hopefully they'll display some common sense. If they don't, I'm not sure what happens. No other country will allow France to unilaterally dictate what their citizens are and aren't allowed to have access to, so in the end the French won't get their way. They just won't. They can block sites in their own country, as the Chinese do, but practically speaking that's all they can do.

If that's how this ends up, the result would be a class-divided internet in France. Smart, well-educated folks would be relatively unaffected. They all know—or would quickly figure out—how to connect with and would routinely get the full story when they ran a search. Conversely, the unwashed masses mostly wouldn't know how to do this and would obliviously continue to use, not knowing that, unlike their elite countrymen, they were seeing an expurgated version of the world. Maybe that would be OK in France. I don't know. But it doesn't sound like a great way to run a country to me.

Quote of the Day: Carly's Ex Doesn't Think Much of Her Chances

| Tue Sep. 22, 2015 12:46 AM EDT

From Todd Bartlem, Carly Fiorina's first husband, on the GOP presidential race:

In the clown car that is the Republican Party, she's the ultimate clown.

In fairness, if we took the opinions of exes seriously, very few of us would look good. Still, I suspect that Carly may be a pretty reliable generator of quotes of the day for a while. Not from her, mind you, but from people who know her.

This all comes from a piece written a few months ago by Bloomberg's Melinda Henneberger, who also highlights one of the things that bugs me the most about Fiorina: her "secretary to CEO" schtick. She likes to leave the impression that she was some kind of real-life Melanie Griffith, who was stuck taking messages for second-rate men until she eventually proved her savvy and clawed her way to the top against all odds.

Please. Her father was dean of Duke's law school and an appellate judge. She graduated from Stanford. She attended UCLA law school before deciding law wasn't for her. She did work as a receptionist for a few months after that, but it was just a short bit of downtime while she dithered about what to do with her life. When the dithering was over, she spent a couple of years getting an MBA and then started at AT&T as a management trainee.

So don't believe the nonsense about Fiorina bootstrapping herself up from the steno pool. She was a daughter of privilege; well traveled, very smart, and educated at an elite university; and bound for some kind of top-tier job practically from the cradle. It's still a testament to her skills and work ethic that she ended up getting so far, and the real story ought to be more than good enough for her. But I guess she thinks the log cabin version sounds better.

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.

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.

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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?

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.