Kevin Drum

12 Ticked Off Men

| Mon Feb. 15, 2010 11:50 AM EST

You've heard of jury nullification, but how about jury rebellion? Apparently it's the latest thing. Here's what happened during a recent trial to settle a suit for emotional distress brought by a sheriff's deputy:

[Tony] Prados, an ex-Marine, leaned forward in the jury box and asked in a let-me-get-this-straight tone of voice: "He's brave enough to go out and get shot at by anyone but he couldn't handle this?" he said of the locker-room taunting. Fellow jury candidate Robert Avanesian, who had also unsuccessfully sought dismissal on financial hardship grounds, chimed in: "I think severe emotional distress is what is happening in Haiti. I don't think you could have such severe emotional distress from that," he said of the allegations in the deputy's case.

The spontaneous outbursts of the reluctant jurors just as Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James R. Dunn was about to swear them in emboldened others in the jury pool to express disdain for the case and concerns about their ability to be fair, and to ratchet up the pathos in their claims of facing economic ruin if forced to sit for the three-week trial.

In this time of double-digit unemployment and shrinking benefits for those who do have jobs, courts are finding it more difficult to seat juries for trials running more than a day or two. And in extreme cases, reluctance has escalated into rebellion, experts say.

After three days of mounting insurrection, lawyers for both the deputy and the sergeant waived their right to a jury trial and left the verdict up to Dunn.

In fairness, the story presents virtually no actual evidence that this kind of behavior has increased lately. But we've all probably imagined doing something like this, haven't we?

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Book Bleg

| Sun Feb. 14, 2010 2:06 PM EST

I was just looking at my vast pile of books that have been read but not shelved — it goes back about four years now — and aside from Moby Dick it turns out that I haven't read a new piece of fiction for nearly 12 months. Actually, scratch that. I know I have a Charles Stross book on my Kindle that I read last spring. So that's one new piece of fiction in the last year.

This is bad. I need recommendations. Good new nonfiction is fine too, but really, I need to dive back into some fiction. Help me out. What have you read and enjoyed lately?

Quote of the Day: Mavericky McCain

| Sun Feb. 14, 2010 12:10 PM EST

From Doyle McManus, on John McCain:

Ever since he entered politics as a foot soldier for Ronald Reagan in the House in 1982, McCain has been a fiscal conservative, a traditionalist on social issues and a hawk on foreign policy....His image as an independent has been exaggerated, often by those of us in the media who yearn for politicians to break ranks because it makes a good story.

Well, that's good to hear. Of course, as McManus says, this is the story that fits McCain's needs right now since he's running against a conservative opponent in the Arizona primary. So that's what we're hearing. Funny how that always seems to be the case with McCain.

Best Healthcare in the World, Baby

| Sun Feb. 14, 2010 12:02 PM EST

California may be a bellwether for the rest of nation, but apparently it doesn't take long for the rest of the nation to catch up these days:

Consumers in at least four states who buy their own health insurance are getting hit with premium increases of 15 percent or more — and people in other states could see the same thing.

....The Anthem Blue Cross plan in Maine is asking for increases of about 23 percent this year for some individual policyholders. Last year, they raised rates up to 32 percent. And in Oregon, multiple insurers were granted rate hikes of 15 percent or more this year after increases of around 25 percent last year for customers who purchase individual health insurance, rather than getting it through their employer.

...."You're going to see rate increases of 20, 25, 30 percent" for individual health policies in the near term, Sandy Praeger, chairwoman of the health insurance and managed care committee for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, predicted Friday.

Karen Tumulty: "To give you a sense of what we are talking about if these rates go into effect, a family of four in Maine (which is a relatively poor state) can expect to pay $1,876 a month — about $22,500 a year — for health insurance, starting in July." And that's still a way better deal than you get if you can't get insurance at all, since doctors and hospitals typically charge uninsured patients 2-3x what they charge insurance companies for identical procedures.

But hey — the system is working great. Best healthcare in the world, baby. No need to change a thing.

Red Scares and Green Tech

| Sat Feb. 13, 2010 8:41 PM EST

It's almost unfair not to let Tom Friedman be my spokesman for a post about the "we're in a green race with China" crowd, but I'll go with Bob Herbert instead:

Two weeks ago, as I was getting ready to take off for Palo Alto, Calif., to cover a conference on the importance of energy and infrastructure for the next American economy, The Times’s Keith Bradsher was writing from Tianjin, China, about how the Chinese were sprinting past everybody else in the world, including the United States, in the race to develop clean energy.

That we are allowing this to happen is beyond stupid. China is a poor country with nothing comparable to the tremendous research, industrial and economic resources that the U.S. has been blessed with. Yet they’re blowing us away — at least for the moment — in the race to the future.

Brad Plumer thinks this idea is way overblown:

This notion that we're in a race with China to see who can develop solar panels and wind turbines the fastest isn't really accurate. If China zooms ahead and figures out how to make really cheap wind turbines, that doesn't hurt anyone — it just makes the enormous task of cutting global carbon emissions that much easier.

Dave Roberts agrees with Brad, but tweets:

I don't dispute political merit, tho I'm not convinced it will work.....

What sayeth the hive mind? As near as I can tell, Brad is almost certainly right on the merits. If China produces lots of green tech, that's good for everyone. Sure, it would be nice if this stuff were made in the U.S. by U.S workers, but the competitiveness of American manufacturing vs. Chinese manufacturing goes way deeper than solar panels, and in the short to medium term there's probably not a lot that's going to change our relative advantages in this area.

But — is Dave right about the political merits of the "race" metaphor? I haven't made up my mind on this, but I've lately become more receptive to the idea that, for better or worse, the only way to get Americans to take this stuff seriously is to kick it old school and start hauling out that old time Cold War evangelism. Frame green tech as a matter of vital economic and national security superiority over the Reds and quit worrying overmuch about whether that's really technically accurate. Just figure that it's close enough, it's language everyone understands, and it'll do a better job of motivating development than a couple hundred more PowerPoints about receding glaciers.

This is pretty much how Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–SC) does it, though he talks more about "energy independence" than about a green race with China. But those are just two sides of the same coin, and if one works then so does the other. But will it work? On the one hand, Graham obviously has a better feel for how to talk to centrists and conservatives than we lefties do. On the other hand, so far he doesn't seem to be much making headway with them.

But it's worth thinking about. Arguing endlessly with Sean Hannity and James Inhofe about whether or not snowstorms are evidence of global warming sure doesn't seem to be getting us very far. Maybe it's time for a rethink.

Earnings Manipulation for Pros

| Sat Feb. 13, 2010 12:30 PM EST

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating little story today. A pair of Stanford researchers examined half a million earnings reports and concluded that companies routinely adjust their earnings upward. How did they figure this out? It turns out that a favored way of doing this is to use accounting adjustments to boost your earnings per share ever so slightly — say, from 5.4 cents to 5.5 cents, which then gets rounded up to 6 cents. And a difference of a penny a share in the headline earnings number makes a noticeable difference in your stock price:

The authors' conclusions rest on a simple piece of statistical analysis. When they ran the earnings-per-share numbers down to a 10th of a cent, they found that the number "4" appeared less often in the 10ths place than any other digit, and significantly less often than would be expected by chance. They dub the effect "quadrophobia."

....In their most intriguing finding, the authors found that companies that later restate earnings or are charged with accounting violations report significantly fewer 4s. The pattern "appears to be a leading indicator of a company that's going to have an accounting issue," Mr. Grundfest said.

So here's your pro investing tip for the day: If you're thinking of buying stock, check to see if the company has too few threes or fours in the first decimal place of their earnings-per-share numbers over the past few years. If they do, buy the stock! These guys know how to please the analysts. But don't hold on too long! Eventually they'll restate and you'll be screwed. Timing is everything.

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How the Game is Played, Part 576

| Fri Feb. 12, 2010 6:40 PM EST

A few hours ago Felix Salmon wrote a post about the fate of financial reform in the Senate:

Are there really Republicans who would stick their neck out and filibuster a financial-reform bill aimed at reining in Wall Street? Voting against it is one thing, but killing it with a filibuster is surely not a vote-winner anywhere in the US right now.

I mentally shrugged when I read that because the answer is pretty obvious: Republicans will simply portray any Democratic bill not as something that reins in Wall Street, but as a convoluted Beltway boondoggle that puts government bureaucrats in charge of the banking system, kills off credit to Main Street, stifles economic growth, destroys jobs, and shovels money into the hands of favored interest groups. Fox and Rush and the Journal will all sing along, tea partiers will start demonstrating against it, and before long it will get to the point that not only will Republicans filibuster it, but half the Democratic caucus will join in.

In other words, just another day at the office. But no! Apparently I'm still not cynical enough. A few minutes later I was reading Jon Chait's blog, and it turns out that the right-wing "Committee for Truth In Politics" — George Orwell would be pleased by the homage — is already running TV ads that don't merely portray the reform bill as bad for the economy, but specifically as a bailout for Wall Street bankers. The ad has been running in ten states for the past week, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Factcheck.org has the dope here.

And that, boys and girls, is how the game is played.  Just portray a bill meant to rein in banks as a bill meant to bail out banks and see if the noise machine plays along. If it doesn't, try something else. Maybe suggest that instead of protecting consumers, it will remove consumer protections. Or that instead of regulating derivatives, it will set them free. Simple. Why bother making up complicated lies when simple ones will do just fine?

Friday Cat Blogging - 12 February 2010

| Fri Feb. 12, 2010 3:00 PM EST

Today we have an exciting double feature of cat videos. On the left, Domino jumps onto my lap. Exciting! On the right, Inkblot heads out to his favorite spot to.....well, I don't want to give away the ending. You'll have to watch to see what he does when gets there. It's always the same — though I'm not sure just what the attraction of that exact spot is. Plus the whole thing is accompanied by authentic neighborhood background sounds! Just remember: the key to enjoying this kind of thing is to have low expectations.

And in other news, we have this:

A poll of 2,524 households found that 47.2% of those with a cat had at least one person educated to degree level, compared with 38.4% of homes with dogs.

"We don't know why there is this discrepancy," [said Dr Jane Murray, a lecturer in feline epidemiology at Bristol University]...."Our best guess is that it's to do with working hours and perhaps commuting to work, meaning people have a less suitable lifestyle for a dog."

Pshaw. It's because people of discriminating taste prefer cats. Let's not sugar coat this in order to be politically correct. And now, on with the show!

Quote of the Weekend: Valentine's Day Edition

| Fri Feb. 12, 2010 2:56 PM EST

From Dan Drezner, offering some Valentine's Day advice:

My dear readers, if you are so lucky as to find a soulmate that shares an enthusiasm for a particular movie genre —  zombies, for example — then enjoy that shared interest to the hilt on a date movie.  Otherwise, do the right thing and go rent The Philadelphia Story.

Roger that.

The American Internet

| Fri Feb. 12, 2010 2:31 PM EST

Nancy Scola uses Iran's recent ban on Gmail as an occasion to say this:

I've been squawking recently about the rising time of anti-Internet rhetoric that is at its core anti-American Internet rhetoric, and how that's something that those of us who love the Internet should perpare ourselves to deal with. We saw it with China, when they responded to a possible Google pullout by complaining that the World Wide Web is hopelessly flooded with American content, and we see it again and again in Cuba, where the Castro regime argues that the content on the Web is so skewed toward American interests that they just don't want it for their people. From the perspective of Beijing or Havana, it's as if you turned on a TV in New York City and 470 of 500 channels were running Latin American telenovelas. More local, non-English content would be good for everyone involved.

Maybe this is a nit, but I'd say it's more "anti-American internet rhetoric" than "anti-American internet rhetoric." After all, the internet isn't like turning on a TV in New York and getting mostly non-English channels. My bookmark bar includes the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and McClatchy because I chose them. And I chose them because I'm an American who wants English-language news. They aren't forced on me. If I were Chinese and wanted Chinese-language content, I'd go out and find it, and that's what my browser would be filled with.

Likewise, taking the Cuban government at face value when they say the Web is skewed is pernicious. Their problem isn't that there's no Cuban content on the internet, their problem is that given a choice, Cubans apparently like American content better than that of the Castro brothers. But that's a problem with the Castros, not the internet. Ditto for Iran. Gmail doesn't have an American viewpoint. It's an email service. Its content is only American if you use it to send email to Americans.

Scola's concern is real: more local content is good, and complaints about how the internet is run have to be taken seriously. But a lot of it is just posturing by authoritarian regimes. As Scola says, "This can't be just about Google, and the hope is that a defense of the global web will emerge as a core value held by freedom-loving people everywhere, that OneWebDay, will emerge as the same sort of global celebration as EarthDay has become. The battle lines are pretty quickly being drawn."