Kevin Drum

Revenge of the Show Runner

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 9:54 AM EDT

The Wall Street Journal reports on the tendency of TV writers to get revenge on their real-life enemies by eviscerating them on their shows:

After several seasons of disappointing reviews, writers on the USA network's mystery series "Psych" decided to get revenge. They crafted an episode involving a psychotic killer doctor. The deranged murderer's name? Ken Tucker, who in real life is the mild-mannered, 57-year-old TV critic for Entertainment Weekly magazine.

"It was never 'Dr. Tucker' or just 'Ken.' It was always 'Did Ken Tucker eviscerate the body?'" says USA original programming chief Jeff Wachtel.

....When the lead detective wants to discuss a serious matter with his partner in the drama "Detroit 1-8-7," which premieres on ABC Sept. 21, he will only talk via cellphone, even when the two men are in the same car or sitting together at a coffee shop. "That's a reference to a passive-aggressive Hollywood producer who will go unnamed," says executive producer Jason Richman, referring to a power player who goes to great lengths to avoid face-to-face confrontations.

Some gestures are more casual. Before he created "Mad Men," Matthew Weiner worked as a writer on "The Sopranos," where he put the name of a former employer who had wronged him on a gravestone in the background of a cemetery scene.

This is pretty disappointing. I think it would be kind of cool to be eviscerated on a TV show, and I figured my only real problem is that no one dislikes me quite enough to bother. I could always work on that, though. But why bother, if "evisceration" just means having one of my quirks silently mocked or my name showing up on a gravestone in the background of a single scene? Hell, without Tivo I might miss that it even happened. Is this really the best that TV writers can do?

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Iran and the Bomb

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 9:29 AM EDT

When I read this headline in the New York Times — "U.S. Assures Israel That Iran Threat Is Not Imminent" — I was relieved. Then I read the story itself:

The Obama administration, citing evidence of continued troubles inside Iran’s nuclear program, has persuaded Israel that it would take roughly a year — and perhaps longer — for Iran to complete what one senior official called a “dash” for a nuclear weapon, according to American officials.

....The current draft of the intelligence report also describes considerable division in Iran about whether the goal of the nuclear program should be to walk right up to the threshold of building an actual bomb — which would mean having highly enriched uranium on hand, along with a workable weapons design — or simply to keep enough low-enriched uranium on hand to preserve Tehran’s options for building a weapon later.

Two things. First, a year isn't really a very long time. Second, the tone of this article suggests that the Obama administration takes for granted that Iran is, in fact, working on building a bomb. They might or might not do it, but that would be strictly a tactical decision, not an operational one. This doesn't surprise me, but a lot of people still seem to be skeptical about Iran's intentions, and this story suggests that this skepticism isn't shared by anyone in the Obama administration.

In any case, the point of the piece is that inspectors "would detect an Iranian move toward breakout within weeks," which leaves plenty of time to react. That doesn't actually sound like much time to me, though, and if this is an effort to get critics to calm down it seems unlikely to work. The Bill Kristol brigade is going to milk this for everything it's worth.

How Kids Really Learn

| Fri Aug. 20, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Several years ago I was visiting with some friends and happened to get into a conversation with their four-year-old daughter. I don't remember why, but we got to talking about numbers, and as adults will do, I started quizzing her. Do you know what two plus two is? She did. How about four plus three. No problem. Six plus five? Nine plus four? Eight plus seven? Yes, yes, and yes. That was about as far as she could go, but I was pretty impressed. That's not bad for a four-year-old, is it?

A year later she was in kindergarten and I was visiting again. And I was curious about how her mathematical prowess had progressed. Answer: it hadn't. She couldn't even answer the questions she had gotten correct the year before.

Now, this happened over two decades ago (the daughter in question graduated from college a couple of years ago) and I've long wondered if it even actually happened. I clearly remember it, and yet it all seems so unlikely. Did I just imagine the whole thing?

Maybe not. A few days ago I wrote about a Los Angeles Times project to post an online database that measures the performance of LAUSD teachers based on how their kids do on standardized tests. I approved: "Either you believe that the press should disseminate public data or you don't," I said, but there were some unspoken words in that sentence. What I really meant was, "Either you believe that the press should disseminate meaningful public data or you don't" — since, needless to say, nobody believes the press should randomly disseminate useless and misleading data, public or otherwise.

So do standardized tests provide meaningful data? Millions of barrels of ink have been spilled on this question, but here's an interesting take on the question from a study done a few years ago. Paul Camp, a physics professor at Spelman College, in the course of investigating how students learn Newtonian concepts, came across an interesting result: they don't learn in a straight line. They learn things, then they get confused, and then they learn them again for good. Learning, in other words, follows a U-shaped pattern, and not just for university level physics:

U-shaped developmental patterns appear to be a general feature of human cognition....Competencies, once learned, do not disappear but they are unusually fragile while understanding reorganizes into a more mature form, and this fragility is reflected by variability in performance.... In short, achieving a new state of organization requires passage through a state of apparent disorganization.

....The existence of U-shaped development [] has important implications for student evaluation. It directly implies that single point assessments are unfair and inaccurate.

There's evidence that this U-shaped pattern is common (this paper, for example, compares 7-year-olds and 9-year-olds on certain kinds of math problems and finds that 7-year-olds do better). So is this what happened with my four-year-old friend? Did she learn simple arithmetic, then get confused about it during kindergarten, and then learn it for good in first grade? Maybe. Maybe I didn't imagine the whole episode after all.

If this is true, it obviously has disturbing implications for the use of standardized tests in primary schools to evaluate teacher performance. If students routinely go through U-shaped learning curves, it means that a terrific third grade teacher might produce mediocre test scores if her kids tend to be in the trough of the U at year-end, while the fourth grade teacher who gets the kids the following year reaps the benefits.

I don't have anywhere near the chops to evaluate this evidence, and it's certainly not the end of the story. What's more, I remain in favor of the Times project: standardized tests clearly aren't the be-all-end-all of teacher evaluation, but if we're going to use them at all we need to take them seriously. And for now, we're using them. So let's shine some sunlight on them.

Besides, if the tests really are poor indicators of short-term student performance, perhaps this project will make that clear. Parents, principals, and fellow teachers probably have a pretty good sense already of who the good and bad teachers are, and if the value-added testing metric used by the Times turns out to be wildly at variance with this sense, it should provoke a serious rethink. Either way, then, it's likely to have a net positive effect. It's worth a try.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the Box Office

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 5:27 PM EDT

John Scalzi tries to figure out why Scott Pilgrim vs. the World didn't do very well on its opening weekend:

What is the core audience of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? Well, when I saw it this weekend, the members of the audience were mostly under 30 and (visually) equally distributed between stereotypical nerds and stereotypical hipsters. There were enough snarky T-shirts and chunky black-frame glasses to fill a coffee shop next to an Apple store.

But only enough of them to fill that one coffee shop — and this is the problem, commercially speaking. Nerds and hipsters love what they love, and, while they love it, they love it with the white-hot intensity of a thousand obsessive-compulsive suns (and when they stop loving it, they hate you for still loving it — but that's another column entirely). But hipsters and nerds — and the occasional hipster nerds — aren't in themselves a big enough audience to move the box-office needle any appreciable distance.

This is a fine observation, but I'd like to propose an alternative. Or a complement, perhaps: it just wasn't a very good movie. Not terrible. Just not very good.

Now, I know what you're thinking. I'm not the target audience for a "postmodern hipster-nerd fantasy." I'm a bit of a nerd, and I like fantasy fine, but I'm middle-aged, aggressively un-postmodern, and even more aggressively un-hipster. So maybe I just didn't get it.

Well, sure. It was probably never likely to make my all-time top ten list. But my reaction was actually a lot simpler than that. The plot of the film, such as it is, concerns Scott Pilgrim's series of fights against his would-be girlfriend's seven evil exes. Fine. So half an hour into the movie we have the first of these stylized videogame fights. Wam bam slam tinkle tinkle. Scott Pilgrim wins. Hooray! And immediately — immediately — I thought, "Six more of these? I wonder how they're going to create seven fight scenes that are different enough to stay interesting?"

I don't think I'm giving anything away to say, they don't. The fights aren't identical, and all of them have a quirk or two that might make you smile ironically, but basically they're all the same thing. And there's only so much of that you can take. There's some sweet stuff in between the fights, the dialog isn't bad, and the characters are goofy and sort of endearing. But after the first half hour, two-thirds of the movie is just a series of nearly identical stylized combat scenes. I don't know if it was ever likely to break out beyond its core audience, but I think it needed a lot more narrative and lot less fight to have even a chance.

The Deal

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 12:43 PM EDT

Bob Somerby is following the latest Social Security chatter and hopes that Paul Krugman can explain how the trust fund works in an understandable way:

The trust fund is just an accounting fiction — a pile of worthless IOUs! Generations of voters have been misled by such skillfully-wrought presentations.

....Krugman is our most valuable player by far — our only player at the top of the press corps. Can he disentangle the trust fund scam in a way average people will understand? We don’t know, and it isn’t his job; no player should be expected to carry the ball on every play from scrimmage. Tomorrow, we’ll offer our own ideas at how the “there-is-no-trust-fund nonsense” might best be approached, in a way average people can follow.

Well, hell, I'll take a crack at it. Here's the simple version.

In 1983, when we last reformed Social Security, we made an implicit deal between two groups of American taxpayers. Call them Groups A and B. For about 30 years, Group A would pay higher taxes than necessary, thus allowing Group B to reduce their tax rates. Then, for about 30 years after that, Group A would pay lower taxes than necessary and Group B would make up for this with higher tax rates.

This might have been a squirrelly deal to make. But it doesn't matter. It's the deal we made. And it's obviously unfair to change it halfway through.

So who is Group A? It's people who pay Social Security payroll taxes, which mostly means working and middle class taxpayers. And who is Group B? It's people who pay federal income taxes, which mostly means the well-off and the rich. For nearly 30 years, Group A has been overpaying payroll taxes, and that's allowed the government to lower income tax rates. The implicit promise of the 1983 deal is that sometime in the next few years, this is going to flip. Group A will begin underpaying payroll taxes, and the rich, who have reaped the benefits of their overpayment for 30 years, will make good on their half of the deal by paying higher income tax rates to make up the difference.

The physical embodiment of this deal is the Social Security trust fund. Group A overpaid and built up a pile of bonds in the trust fund. Those bonds are a promise by Group B to repay the money. That promise is going to start coming due in a few years, and it's hardly surprising that Group B isn't as excited about the deal now as it was in 1983. It's never as much fun paying off a loan as it is to spend the money in the first place.

But pay it off they must. The rich have been getting a loan from the middle class for decades, and the loan papers are the Social Security trust fund bonds that George W. Bush is admiring in the photograph above. Anybody who claims the trust fund is a myth is basically saying it's OK for the rich to renege on that loan.

But surely no one would ever say such a thing. Right?

POSTSCRIPT: Still not simple enough? Help out in comments! How can we make this explanation even easier to follow without losing the basic accuracy of the story? Suggestions welcome.

No Right to Build a Mosque

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 10:45 AM EDT

OK, fine. There's nothing much going on today, so let's talk about the Park51 mosque project. We already know that a large majority of Americans are opposed to building it, but here are the results of an Economist poll on a slightly different question:

Whether or not you think the Islamic cultural centre and mosque should be built near the World Trade Center site, do you think that Muslims have a constitutional right to build a mosque there?

Technically, I think the wording of this question should have been turned around: not whether Muslims have the right to build a mosque on Park Place, but whether the government has the constitutional right to stop them from building a mosque on Park Place.

Still, I think everyone probably understands what this means, and it's just depressing as hell. It's one thing to oppose the mosque just because you don't like the idea, but to deny that Muslims even have a constitutional right to build it? That should be a no-brainer. Of course they do. You can picket the site, you can boycott their sponsors, you can vote against politicians who speak in favor of it, and you can scream all you like on blogs and Fox News. But how can anyone not accept, at a bare minimum, that the constitution protects their basic right to build a house of worship the same way it protects their opponents' right to protest it?

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The News Today, Oh Boy

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 10:07 AM EDT

So I guess the biggest news today is that unemployment claims are up and the number of people who think Obama is a Muslim is also up — which is, perhaps, not entirely a coincidence. Oh, and Dr. Laura is quitting her radio show.

Well, I guess I can always post another ad from my collection of old comic books. Which would you like, a Daisy air rifle ad or a Charles Atlas ad? 

A Place For Nothing, and Nothing in Its Place

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 12:29 AM EDT

The latest on the airline front:

American Airlines, in the quest for more non-ticket revenue, on Wednesday began charging customers who want to sit in the first few rows of coach on domestic flights.

Customers who pay the fee, which ranges from $19 to $39, will be among the first to board, giving them a chance to snag coveted overhead bins. As passengers carry on luggage to avoid baggage fees, overhead space has become harder to find.

To summarize, then: (1) Airlines spent years hassling customers about their carry-on bags and persuading them to check their luggage instead. (2) After that finally started to work, they suddenly began charging for checked luggage. (3) As customers scurried to adapt once again, overhead space disappeared. (4) So now they begin charging for early boarding to avoid the crush of bags in the overhead bin.

Has there ever before been an industry that's so actively tried to piss off their entire customer base? You almost have to admire it in a Bizarro-capitalism kind of way.

First, Assume a Can Opener.....

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 3:57 PM EDT

Matt Steinglass reviews a proposal from Simon Johnson and James Kwak to put our fiscal house in order:

First, introduce a value-added tax and lower the ceiling on the mortgage interest deduction from $1m to something more reasonable....Second, carbon pricing, either a carbon tax or cap-and-trade....Third, introduce a Financial Activities Tax, which could raise 0.5% to 1% of GDP.

....And finally—here's the tough one—entitlement reform. As Messrs Johnson and Kwak say, Social Security needs to be tweaked a bit as it goes from 4.8% to 6.2% of GDP with the aging of the population. Medicare and Medicaid, on the other hand, need major reform to figure out how to stop paying for medical care that doesn't make people healthier, while reducing costs on what we do buy. This is a book-length issue on its own and all we can do is note the necessity of doing it.

So, that last one seems like a doozy, but the other three look entirely reasonable. There's no reason why a rational political system shouldn't be able to tackle such reforms in a non-ideological and collaborative fashion. Nothing of that sort has happened in my lifetime, so far as I can remember, but there's a first time for everything.

Hold on. I'm a big fat tax-and-spend liberal, but even I have a hard time swallowing this. Adding three big new taxes and slashing the home mortgage deduction is "eminently doable" but tackling Medicare reform is a "doozy"? Seems like there's a pretty big thumb on the scale here.

Krugman and the Bubble

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 1:06 PM EDT

On his blog today, Paul Krugman reprints a chart of housing prices rising like a hockey stick in the mid-aughts and then hits back against critics who say the bubble couldn't have been predicted:

Given this kind of picture — and given the fact that the late-80s rise in southern California was, in fact, a bubble — how could you not be very worried? And when you looked at the rationalizations for high housing prices being given at the time, it was obvious that they were questionable.

Sorry: the evidence just screamed bubble. No excuses for those who didn’t want to hear it.

OK. But did Krugman call the bubble? My recollection from his NYT columns, anyway, is that he didn't really get concerned about it until mid-2005, which was only half a year before the market peaked. If the evidence was screaming bubble any earlier than that, why wasn't he screaming too? Or was it happening somewhere other than his columns?