Kevin Drum

Chart of the Day: Afghanistan

| Mon Jan. 11, 2010 1:04 PM EST

First the bad news: public attitudes in Afghanistan regarding the U.S. presence, who they blame for violence, and life in general are worse than they were five years ago. And the good news: these same attitudes seem to have bottomed out last year and are now improving.

This all comes from a recent ABC/BBC poll of Afghanistan, and some of the results are peculiar. Support for Hamid Karzai is surprisingly high (71% say he's doing excellent or good work) — and 75% say they're satisfied with last year's election results — despite the fact that over half the country thinks the election was marked by fraud. And positive ratings for the U.S. presence, though a little bit higher than last year, have plummeted since 2005, going from 68% to 38%. On the unalloyed bright side, however, only 8% of Afghans now think that attacks on U.S. forces are justified. That's way down both from 2005 and from last year.

This is mostly just raw data. Maybe it means something, maybe it doesn't. But somehow, a combination of Barack Obama's election, a greater U.S. focus on Afghanistan, more wanton Taliban depredations, and changes in U.S. tactics seem to be making a difference. Keep your fingers crossed.

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Climate Change's Low-Hanging Fruit

| Mon Jan. 11, 2010 12:26 PM EST

If you don't live in California, you might not have heard of Arthur Rosenfeld. But for the past four decades, he's been the main inspiration behind a host of energy efficiency and conservation regulations that have made California the greenest state in the nation. He's retiring from the California Energy Commission this week, and today the LA Times remembers his early battles:

New homes and buildings were required to be better insulated and fitted with energy-wise lighting, heating and cooling systems. Appliances had to be designed to use less power. Utilities were forced to motivate their customers to use less electricity.

....Not surprisingly, those rules were attacked by business groups as bureaucratic job killers. Rosenfeld, who received his doctorate from the University of Chicago, was called unqualified by critics at Pacific Gas & Electric Co., one of California's largest utilities.

Yet these mandates have yielded about $30 billion annually in energy savings for California consumers. They've eliminated air pollution that's the equivalent of taking 100 million cars off the roads. They have been copied by states and countries worldwide. California's gains are so closely linked to Rosenfeld that they've been dubbed the Rosenfeld Effect in energy efficiency circles, where the 83-year-old has taken on rock star status.

Rosenfeld's ideas, far from being job killers, have been a boon for California. We have plenty of problems here in the Golden State right now, but better energy efficiency isn't one of them. In the end, Rosenfeld was right and his critics in the corporate world were wrong.

This reminds me of a current kerfuffle over energy efficiency on a national scale. McKinsey, the consultancy firm, has pressed the cause of energy efficiency for some time, and in 2007 they released a report that contained this now-famous chart (this is the 2009 version):

The point of the chart is simple: Some energy efficiency measures have a net cost and require fairly careful analysis to decide if they're worthwhile. Those things are shown on the right side of the chart. But there are lots of efficiency measures that not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but produce net cost savings at the same time. These are the low-hanging fruit of climate change, otherwise known as "no-brainers." There are tremendous savings out there for the taking.

But there's still opposition to this idea. A couple of weeks ago Ted Gayer of the Brookings Institution wrote that McKinsey's conclusion "violates the basic principles of economics. If firms (or consumers) could reduce emissions at negative cost, then they would do so. To say otherwise is to say that they are willingly or ignorantly passing up profits." But firms and consumers do pass up opportunities to save money. Maybe it's through ignorance, maybe through laziness, maybe because of financing limitations. But there's plainly friction in the real world that doesn't always show up in simple Econ 101 models. A few days ago Brad Plumer linked to a Wall Street Journal report about an energy efficiency consultant, EnerNOC, that audited Morgan Stanley's New York headquarters and immediately saved them a bundle of money:

The reason Morgan Stanley didn't notice how much energy it was wasting, it seems, is because $100,000 was a (relative) drop in the bucket. The company wasn't behaving irrationally — it's just that those savings weren't worth a lot of extra effort. But as carbon concerns have become more prominent, firms like EnerNoc are popping up and making it easier for the Morgan Stanleys of the world to cut that waste. Now, if we had a cap or tax on carbon, it's reasonable to expect that you'd see even more attention paid to the issue, even more EnerNOCs popping up, and even more stories like the one above. As Jon Chait pointed out in his response to Gayer, one of the biggest impacts cap-and-trade could have is the simple signaling function — you'd just see companies and CEOs pay a lot more attention to the issue, which would make a galaxy of difference.

There really is low-hanging fruit in practice, even if there isn't in theory. Rosenfeld, I think, demonstrated that almost beyond doubt in California. Firms routinely overestimated the costs of regulatory compliance and routinely underestimated the cost savings. Some of this was ideological and some was just a case of hidebound management, but it was real. A nudge in the right direction can make a big difference, and if you pick the right nudge then energy efficiency often turns out to be pretty cheap. Sometimes even free.

Goldman's Charity

| Mon Jan. 11, 2010 11:20 AM EST

I don't think much of this idea:

As it prepares to pay out big bonuses to employees, Goldman Sachs is considering expanding a program that would require executives and top managers to give a certain percentage of their earnings to charity.

....While the details of the latest charity initiative are still under discussion, the firm’s executives have been looking at expanding their current charitable requirements for months and trying to understand whether such gestures would damp public anger over pay, according to a person familiar with the matter who did not want to be identified because of the delicacy of the pay issue.

I think it's great if corporations support charities or set up charitable foundations of their own. It's also great if corporations urge their employees to give to charity. But that's as far as it goes. Charitable giving isn't a smokescreen for indefensible behavior, and in any case it's not charity if you're forced to do it at the point of a gun. Bankers who make millions ought to feel obligated to give some back to the community, but if they don't, that's their business, not Goldman's.

International Relations

| Mon Jan. 11, 2010 2:00 AM EST

Europe: not the hellhole you thought it was. Paul Krugman explains.

Harry Reid's Non-Gaffe

| Sun Jan. 10, 2010 5:24 PM EST

According to John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's Game Change, back in 2006 Harry Reid "was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama — a 'light-skinned' African American 'with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,' as he said privately." Last night I tweeted Mark Kleiman's response to this, but today I see that not only has this non-story not disappeared, it's actually getting more attention from our stalwart media titans. So here's Mark:

Other than using an old-fashioned word to refer to African-Americans (a word which was the standard word for about the first half of Reid’s life), what did Reid do wrong?

It is the case that Obama is light-skinned and that he is a native speaker of American English, though he can and does, on occasion, use Ebonic cadences for rhetorical effect. And it is the case that both his skin tone (and the ancestry it reflects) and his command of the common dialect are among his political assets. If he had looked, or sounded, like Jesse Jackson, he wouldn’t be President. A darker hue and a more Ebonic speech pattern would certainly have cost him some votes among white Anglos, Latinos, and Asians, and almost certainly cost him some black votes as well.  (The internalization of racism in the African-American community is a well-known phenomenon.)

It would have been insane for anyone considering an Obama candidacy not to weigh those factors.  In October of 2008, when the dark-skinned, Ebonic-speaking David Alan Grier, on “Chocolate News,” urged white voters to “vote for the white half,” he was repeating a joke I’d heard at least a year earlier.

This whole thing is ridiculous. That Reid immediately apologized and Obama immediately accepted his apology isn't surprising. It's all part of the kabuki of American politics. Nor is it surprising that buffoonish attack dogs like Liz Cheney and Michael Steele are trying to pretend Reid is some kind of stone racist. But Reid was speaking privately, he was a political pro talking about Obama's electability, and he didn't say anything offensive anyway. Are we seriously at the point where we have to rely on George Will (!) to talk sense into the conservative movement?

Banks to Britain: Drop Dead

| Sun Jan. 10, 2010 12:39 PM EST

Great Britain has enacted a temporary 50% tax on large bank bonuses. Via Tyler Cowen, the Financial Times reports on how British banks plan to respond to this:

Most banks, polled in an anonymised survey, said they would absorb all or part of the cost of the one-off 50 per cent tax by inflating their bonus pools, even at the risk of irritating the government and their own shareholders....“The tax is going to be 90 per cent absorbed by the banks,” said one senior recruitment consultant with clients in the City.

In many cases that will mean banks doubling bonus pools, with the cost of the tax borne by shareholders. Dividends, already under pressure as regulators force banks to retain earnings to boost capital, are likely to be hit, bankers concede.

I'm generally skeptical of the effectiveness of direct controls on salaries and bonuses. I think the real problem is the size and profitability of the financial sector, which is what drives the big bonuses in the first place. That's what we should be paying attention to.

But even so, the arrogance and entitlement that this displays is stunning. British banks, even more than American banks, were saved from destruction by central government action, and they desperately need to rebuild their capital cushions. The last thing they should be doing is spending it on huge bonuses, and they certainly shouldn't be cavalierly doubling their bonus payouts just because their traders are upset at Alistair Darling's tax proposals. They don't even have the excuse that they need to do it in order to retain talent, since the tax applies to all firms equally.

Back here in the U.S., Christina Romer tells George Stephanopoulos that "she is hopeful that financial institutions will show some restraint, but with a shake of her head, she indicated she’s not that hopeful." Me neither. But here's the silver lining: since banks are all about to announce their bonus payouts over the next few weeks, and those payouts are certain to be outrageous, this provides the Obama administration with a lovely opportunity to stop just "shaking its head" and instead use bonus season as an opportunity to work up some righteous anger against the entire structure of the financial system. We need to target the source of the cancer, and a wave of populist revulsion is the perfect political opportunity to do it. More spine please, Mr. President.

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Corporate Responsibility

| Sun Jan. 10, 2010 1:02 AM EST

After the Christmas bombing attempt Andrew Sullivan loudly called for Janet Napolitano's resignation. He now admits that his reaction was "ill-advised, even dumb in retrospect." Fine. But then he says this:

But once we have very specific instances of failure, after a thorough investigation, it seems to me good management to hold individuals accountable. In the private sector for the most part, profound failures of this sort that could have led to the deaths of hundreds of people would lead to resignations and firings.

Maybe so, but I wouldn't hold up the private sector as the model for this attitude. Not in America, anyway. As near as I can tell, it takes riots in the streets just to get apologies out of private sector executives who are responsible for disasters on their watch, let alone resignations. See Bhopal, release of methyl isocyanate by Union Carbide in, and Wall Street, collapse of, for more on this.

Terrorball

| Sat Jan. 9, 2010 9:04 PM EST

Paul Campos writes in the Wall Street Journal that he could subject LeBron James to humiliating defeat in a game of one-on-one if only they played by two special rules: the game continues until he scores a single point, and as soon as he scores he wins.

The world's greatest nation seems bent on subjecting itself to a similarly humiliating defeat, by playing a game that could be called Terrorball. The first two rules of Terrorball are:

(1) The game lasts as long as there are terrorists who want to harm Americans; and

(2) If terrorists should manage to kill or injure or seriously frighten any of us, they win.

These rules help explain the otherwise inexplicable wave of hysteria that has swept over our government in the wake of the failed attempt by a rather pathetic aspiring terrorist to blow up a plane on Christmas Day. For two weeks now, this mildly troubling but essentially minor incident has dominated headlines and airwaves, and sent politicians from the president on down scurrying to outdo each other with statements that such incidents are "unacceptable," and that all sorts of new and better procedures will be implemented to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

I think that calling this a "minor" incident goes too far, but basically Campos is right: we need to stop doing al-Qaeda's PR for it by panicking over every foiled terrorist plot. AQ's public image — that they're a triumphant army forever creating fear and hysteria in the decadent West — is the oxygen they live on and a key to their recruiting efforts. We should at least make them work for it, rather handing it to them on a silver platter.

But the rest of the piece takes a tack that strikes me as fundamentally wrongheaded:

It might be unrealistic to expect the average citizen to have a nuanced grasp of statistically based risk analysis, but there is nothing nuanced about two basic facts:

(1) America is a country of 310 million people, in which thousands of horrible things happen every single day; and

(2) The chances that one of those horrible things will be that you're subjected to a terrorist attack can, for all practical purposes, be calculated as zero. (See article below by Nate Silver.)

Consider that on this very day about 6,700 Americans will die.....etc. etc.

Two things. First, this line of argument — that terrorism is statistically harmless compared to lots of other activities — will never work. For better or worse, it just won't. So we should knock it off.

Second, even in the realm of pure logic it really doesn't hold water. The fundamental fear of terrorism is that it's not just random or unintentional, like car accidents or (for most of us) the threat of homicide. It's carried out by people with a purpose. The panic caused by the underwear bomber wasn't so much over the prospect of a planeload of casualties, it was over the reminder that al-Qaeda is still out there and still eager to expand its reach and kill thousands if we ever decide to let our guard down a little bit.

So even if you agree with Campos, as I do, that overreaction to al-Qaeda's efforts is dumb and counterproductive, it's perfectly reasonable to be more afraid of a highly motivated group with malign ideology and murderous intent than of things like traffic accidents or hurricanes. Suggesting otherwise, in some kind of hyperlogical a-death-is-a-death sense, strikes most people as naive and clueless. It's an argument that probably hurts the cause of common sense more than it helps.

2008 Campaign Gossip

| Sat Jan. 9, 2010 2:02 PM EST

Ah, the 2008 campaign. Who wouldn't want to relive it? John Heilemann and Mark Halperin dig up several juicy new tidbits in Game Change, to be released shortly. Marc Ambinder on the Edwards campaign:

I don't want to give away the whole book... but I would be remiss if I did not point to the chapters about the unbelievably dysfunctional husband and wife team of John and Elizabeth Edwards. Not only, it turns out, did many senior Edwards staffer suspect that John was having an affair, several confronted John Edwards about it, and came away believing the rumors. At least three campaign aides resigned because of their knowledge of the affair well before the national media picked up on those early National Enquirer stories.

And John and Elizabeth (who the book says was known to Edwards insiders as an "abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending, crazywoman") fought, in front of staffers, about the affair. The authors describe a moment where Elizabeth, in a such a state of fury, deliberately tears her blouse in the parking lot of a Raleigh airport terminal, "exposing herself. 'Look at me," she wailed at John and then staggered, nearly falling to the ground."

And Jeff Zeleny on Sarah Palin:

In the days leading up to an interview with ABC News’ Charlie Gibson, aides were worried with Ms. Palin’s grasp of facts. She couldn’t explain why North and South Korea were separate nations and she did not know what the Federal Reserve did. She also said she believed Saddam Hussein attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.

It looks like there's going to be plenty of other blog fodder in the book as well. Bill Clinton was having an affair. (Maybe.) Harry Reid said something slightly impolitic. George Bush didn't think much of John McCain's campaign. Etc. Should be good for 24 or maybe even 48 hours worth of nonstop cable coverage.

Netflix by Zip Code

| Sat Jan. 9, 2010 12:54 PM EST

What movies are the most popular with your neighbors? Netflix has the answer and the New York Times has the interactive graphic. Here in lovely downtown Irvine, for example, the most rented title of 2009 was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Draw your own conclusions. That was a broadly popular rental, but plenty of movies have strong geographic appeal. Here in Southern California, for example, Religulous, Milk, and Vicky Christina Barcelona were popular among the liberal West LA set, but not so much elsewhere. (The map on the right is for Milk.)

If you live in one of the 12 biggest metro areas, you can play around with maps for your zip code too. Not only is it good clean fun, but surely also something that can inspire plenty of amateur sociology as well as blog posts full of partisan condescension. Latte-sipping lefties didn't like Paul Blart: Mall Cop! Orange County reactionaries refused to see Frost/Nixon! Nobody liked Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull! (Which goes to show that at least there's some justice in the world.) Have fun.