Kevin Drum

Book Bleg Followup

| Sat Feb. 7, 2015 1:30 PM EST

A few days ago I asked for reading recommendations that wouldn't tax my brain too much since my chemotherapy regimen has left me more fatigued than usual. Light, multi-part fiction was my primary request. There were loads of ideas, and I figured some readers might appreciate a quick summary. Here are the five that got the most positive comments:

  • Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series
  • Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series
  • Terry Pratchett's Discworld series
  • James Corey's Expanse series
  • Alan Furst's Night Soldiers series

I probably made this thread harder than it needed to be by not mentioning stuff I've read or genres I don't like that much. Pure genre mystery stories, for example (Christie, Hillerman, Leonard, etc.), have never done much for me. On the flip side, I've read lots of 20th century science fiction (Asimov, Heinlein, Willis, etc. etc.), so there's not a lot new to recommend there. Among specific recommendations that popped up several times:

  • I've read James Clavell's Asia series and loved it. Maybe I should reread it!
  • I've read Red/Green/Blue Mars. Meh.
  • I made it halfway through Wolf Hall and finally gave up. That doesn't happen often.
  • I've read everything by Neal Stephenson. Big fan.
  • I've read lots of John Scalzi, and all of the Old Man's War series.
  • I've read Roger Zelazny's Amber series about, oh, a dozen or two times. It begins with maybe the best first chapter ever written. Obviously I'm a big fan.
  • I've tried a couple of Iain Banks' Culture novels and I've just never been able to get into them.
  • I've read most everything by John LeCarre. But it's not a bad suggestion. I'm sure there are a few I've missed.
  • I've read Charlie Stross's Merchant Princes series but didn't care for it much. Ditto for the one Laundry book I read. It's too bad since I like most of his other stuff.

Anyway, thanks for the suggestions, and I hope everyone enjoyed it. I also got some good nonfiction recommendations, including several by email that didn't end up on the comment thread. Much appreciated.

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What Do America's Most Admired Men and Women Say About America?

| Sat Feb. 7, 2015 12:07 PM EST

This is a month old, but Tyler Cowen happened to highlight it today so I thought I'd pass it along. Here are America's most admired men and women at the end of 2014:

I suppose there are no huge surprises here. Presidents and first ladies always do well. People in the news often do well. And while I was alarmed when I saw Vladimir Putin on the list in Cowen's post, I'm a little less alarmed now. He's at the very bottom of the 1 percenters, which likely means he was named by something like 0.6 percent of Americans and then rounded up. This comes to a grand total of about five people in the survey group, which I suppose is nothing to get too stirred up about.

Not a single dead person continues to make the list, which explains why Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher are off the list. Queen Elizabeth II is a perennial favorite and she's still alive, but after the excitement of her Diamond Jubilee faded, I guess she did too.

What's the biggest surprise on the list? I'd say Condoleezza Rice. She's remarkably high on the list for someone associated with an unpopular war and not much recent news coverage. She's at the very top of the list among Republicans, though, so there must be more going on here than I realize. Rice has been rising in popularity over the last couple of years, and surely that's not just because she was part of college football's playoff selection committee last year, was it? Nor do I feel like I see her on Fox News a lot. So what's going on?

Completely missing from the list are: sports stars, military figures, authors and artists not already famous for something else, and liberal pundits of any kind. Almost missing are politicians aside from ex-presidents and first ladies (Elizabeth Warren is the exception—barely); Republican presidential wannabes (Ben Carson is the exception); and scientists (Stephen Hawking is the exception, almost certainly based solely on the recent biopic). Overall, conservative men do much better than conservative women.

As Cowen asks, "Given who is on the list, what should we infer about America as a nation? About human nature?"

John Boehner's Big Triumph Is Now Just a Big Shit Sandwich

| Fri Feb. 6, 2015 9:14 PM EST

I could use a good laugh, and this afternoon I got one. For starters, as the White House hinted yesterday, Joe Biden won't be attending Benjamin Netanyahu's speech next month before a joint session of Congress. Apparently he'll be out of the country that day:

The vice president’s office on Friday confirmed the plans to skip the March 3 speech. “We are not ready to announce details of his trip yet, and normally our office wouldn’t announce this early, but the planning process has been underway for a while,” a spokesperson for the office said.

So where exactly will Joe be? Well, um, somewhere. The planning process "has been underway for a while," the White House insists with a straight face, but they don't know yet what country they've been planning to send him to. But they'll think of one. Maybe Latvia or something.

This is all part of the mounting fury from Democrats in Congress and the White House over the speech, and it's become increasingly clear that the whole thing is a major blunder for Netanyahu. But who to blame? The invitation came from Speaker of the House John Boehner, so why not blame him? Today Netanyahu did exactly that, throwing him under the proverbial bus with barely a passing glance:

A senior Israeli official suggested on Friday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been misled into thinking an invitation to address the U.S. Congress on Iran next month was fully supported by the Democrats...."It appears that the speaker of Congress made a move, in which we trusted, but which it ultimately became clear was a one sided move and not a move by both sides," Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told 102 FM Tel Aviv Radio on Friday.

Poor John Boehner. You almost feel sorry for the guy sometimes. President Obama has been running rings around him for months now, infuriating the Republican caucus and causing Boehner endless headaches over Cuba, immigration, net neutrality, Homeland Security shutdowns, and dozens of other subjects. No matter how hard he tries, Boehner just hasn't been able to get ahead of any of this. Instead he's been forced over and over to respond to Obama's agenda while desperately trying to keep the peace among the tea partiers who control his future.

Then, finally, it looked like he'd pulled something off. He announced the Netanyahu speech two weeks ago, catching the president off guard and garnering huzzahs from every corner of the the conservative movement. Finally, a victory!

But now it's all turned to ashes. His big spectacle is in tatters, with Democrats in open revolt and pundits of all stripes agreeing that he overreached by going around the White House on a foreign policy matter. It's been nothing but a headache, and even Netanyahu has joined the lynch mob now. What's worse, there's nothing he can do. The speech is still four weeks away, and Boehner has no choice but to let the whole dreary debacle play out. He already knows his show is a flop, but the curtain has to come up anyway and Boehner has to keep a stiff upper lip the whole time.

Poor guy.

Friday Cat Blogging - 6 February 2015

| Fri Feb. 6, 2015 3:22 PM EST

My sister is the guest curator for catblogging this week, and this was her selection. I always call this "being a lizard cat," especially when they strike this pose outside on a nice sunny patio.

This is also the aftermath of being a burrito cat. Hopper likes to burrow into the quilt on the sofa and then stretch out, which makes the whole thing look like a cat burrito. A purring burrito. But then, I've always thought that burritos could be improved by a bit of purring. Right?

We May All Be Sinners, But Please Shut Up About Our Actual Sins

| Fri Feb. 6, 2015 3:16 PM EST

Religious conservatives are mad at President Obama again. I suppose the appropriate reaction is a big yawn, since they're always mad at President Obama. It hardly matters what new horror he's ostensibly perpetrated, does it?

Still, this latest brouhaha is kind of interesting. Obama was speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast and said this:

As we speak, around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another....But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon....So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history....This is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.

Hmmm. Nothing wrong with that. We are all sinners, and sometimes we don't live up to our highest ideals. Still, God calls on us to keep trying. This is the kind of thing we hear from fundamentalist preachers all the time—except for one thing. Obama actually named names. Here's the bit I left out in the second paragraph:

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

It's one thing to agree that we are all sinners. But apparently it's quite another to provide an example or two. America's conservative Christians really, really don't like that. They prefer to be make-believe sinners, not actual sinners who might have some actual sins to account for. Obama decided not to give them such an easy out, and that made them spitting mad.

It's easy enough to laugh at this kind of cowardly refusal to acknowledge real sin. But that aside, Christopher Ingraham argues that Obama omitted a key nuance:

Some slave traders may indeed have sought justification for their actions in the Christian faith, but much of the trade was driven by economic reasons (a demand for cheap labor) and racism. The Crusades were just as much about political power as they were about religion.

....But the evidence also shows that religion has become a much more powerful motivator of terrorism in the past 15 years or so....And most religiously-motivated terrorism today is perpetrated by Islamist terrorists in the name of their misreading of Islam. Fully two-thirds of terror-related deaths in 2013 were caused by just four Islamist groups — Al Qaeda and its affiliates, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Islamic State, and the Taliban.

I'd be mighty careful about this. The fact that Islamic jihadists say they're inspired by religion doesn't mean that's their sole motivation. Like the Crusades and slavery, the real motivations are much more varied. After all, Islam has been Islam for 14 centuries, but al-Qaeda style jihadi terrorism is a fairly recent phenomenon.

So what happened in the 70s and 80s that suddenly turned a relatively peaceful religion into a persistent wellspring of terrorist attacks? Probably not anything about religion itself. That's just the public justification. Underneath, there's a whole stew of anti-colonialism; hatred of occupation by foreign powers; lack of economic opportunity for young men; geopolitical maneuverings; tribal enmities; fear of cultural subjugation; hostility toward Israel; and dozens of other things. Religion is part of it, and religion may often be the hook that sucks angry young men into jihadi groups, but it's far from the whole story. We make a big mistake if we look solely at the surface and go no further.

Greek Charm Offensive Is Charming No One So Far

| Fri Feb. 6, 2015 2:10 PM EST

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis is apparently on a "charm offensive" to persuade his European counterparts—i.e., the Germans—to allow Greece to end its brutal austerity program and spend more money. The Germans, so far, are not charmed:

After a meeting in Berlin on Thursday with his German counterpart, Wolfgang Schaeuble, the two sides could not even agree on whether they had "agreed to disagree." Schaeuble said they did. Varoufakis said they didn't get that far. "We did not reach an agreement; it was never on the cards," he said. "We didn't even agree to disagree from where I'm standing."

That's not very promising, is it? Overall, though, my takeaway from this story is that the new Greek government, after winning office based on a very hardnosed platform of vilifying its European creditors, has decided in practice to adopt a fairly conciliatory negotiating strategy. The Times says that Varoufakis has "backed away from the party's pledges to negotiate a debt write-down" and is instead merely seeking "a compromise that would benefit Greece and its creditors."

So it's sort of a good-cop-bad-cop routine: prime minister Alexis Tsipras stays in Athens and continues to insist that Greece won't buckle under to European threats, while Varoufakis makes the rounds of finance ministries and tries to make nice.

Still, keep in mind something I mentioned a few days ago: "backing down" from demands to reduce Greece's enormous debt doesn't mean much, because the issue of the debt write-down has always been a bit of a charade. It's an easy thing to demagogue, but everyone understands privately that Greece will never pay it all back. At this point, then, Greek debt is less a measure of what Greece actually owes other people than it is a crude means of political control: whenever Greece needs to roll over its debt, it's an opportunity for Germany to hold out until they approve of Greece's spending plans. This effectively gives them control of Greece's budget, and they've insisted on huge spending cuts and a future path toward big budget surpluses.

And that's what Varoufakis really cares about. Not the debt, which is basically just a symbol at this point, but control over Greece's budget. He wants to reverse the austerity and increase spending, which he thinks will boost Greece's economy and allow it to get back into growth mode. What's more, he's arguing—none too subtly, as it happens—that this is something important to all of Europe, not just Greece. After all, Greek unemployment is currently at 26 percent, and youth unemployment is nearly 50 percent. This is dangerous territory for any country. Here's Varoufakis:

"Germany must and can be proud that Nazism has been eradicated here, but it's one of history's most cruel ironies that Nazism is rearing its ugly head in Greece, a country which put up such a fine struggle against it," Varoufakis said. He was referring to Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party, which came third in January's elections and has 17 seats in the Parliament sworn in Thursday.

Translation: the Greek public won't put up with this stuff forever. You may think Syriza is a radical far-left party, but there are worse things than far left parties. If we don't get relief soon, the far right will be up to bat next. And that's something nobody wants to risk.

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Quote of the Day: No Dessert For You!

| Fri Feb. 6, 2015 12:38 PM EST

From Tyler Cowen:

I would be happy enough if all desserts were simply dark chocolate ice cream or gelato, consumed rapidly and perhaps at a different venue altogether.

Well, that would certainly put a crimp in the dessert business, wouldn't it? It would actually work out OK for me, but I have a feeling the rest of the world might get bored pretty quickly by an endless series of meals that finish off with dark chocolate gelato.

Anyway, it turns out that restaurant owners are on Cowen's side. Desserts don't bring in much money, but they do cause diners to linger around their tables. "You have to turn the tables," says one restaurant owner, and desserts just get in the way of that. Very sad.

Why Is Wall Street So Excited By Tough New Net Neutrality Regulations on Cable Companies?

| Fri Feb. 6, 2015 12:19 PM EST

I already have a chart of the day, so I suppose this one can't also be a chart of the day. But it's certainly the head scratcher of the day.

It comes via Brian Fung, and it shows the reaction of the stock market to yesterday's news that FCC chair Tom Wheeler plans to impose strict net neutrality rules on broadband internet suppliers. This mostly applies to cable companies, and the prospect of strong regulation should have sent their stocks downward. Instead, they spiked upward:

WTF? Why is Wall Street so excited at the prospect of tough new regulations on cable companies? Fung doesn't know either:

When I confessed to MoffettNathanson's Craig Moffett that I couldn't make heads or tails of what we were seeing, Moffett shrugged. "Nor do I," he said. "I think it just shows you that the market doesn't really understand these issues."

That's a little hard to believe. Wall Street analysts are actually pretty bright folks, and they generally understand the industries they follow pretty well. And while this may be a "tech" issue—which seems to automatically reduce IQs by 30 points among journalists—the truth is that it only gets complicated when you dive fairly deep into the weeds. Basically, under Wheeler's proposal, cable companies would no longer be able to sign special deals to provide certain companies with faster service in return for higher payments. That's pretty unambiguously a bummer for cable companies.

So let's take another shot at this:

Whether or not they understand net neutrality, investors are apparently relieved that Wheeler's draft rules aren't more restrictive, according to BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield. What shareholders feared the most was the FCC swooping in to tell Internet providers what prices they could and couldn't charge to consumers — and the proposal currently doesn't call for that.

In short, the markets are responding favorably because price regulation is off the table, at least for now. "I think it is, in the near term, a knee-jerk reaction that it wasn't worse," said Greenfield.

This is....slightly more plausible, I guess. But as Fung points out, price regulation was never on the table. Even President Obama is against it. So this really doesn't hold water either.

In other words, it's a mystery. I'd say there are two basic possibilities:

  • Wall Street analysts are idiots.
  • Journalists like me are idiots. Buried deep down, Wheeler's proposal actually benefits cable companies in some obscure, nefarious, loophole-y way. Maybe it has something to do with how interconnect charges between cable companies and long-haul broadband suppliers can now be gamed? Or something. In any case, the theory here is that Wall Street analysts have figured something out that the rest of us haven't.

The only other possibility that comes to mind is simply that Wall Street likes certainty. Wheeler's net neutrality proposal might not be what they wanted, but at least it's a firm rule, which means that everyone now knows what to expect going forward. Investors like that, so they bid up cable stocks a bit.

That explanation doesn't do much for me either, though. I eagerly await a plausible explanation for this from some genuine expert who knows the arcane details of what this all means and why Wall Street might be more excited about net neutrality rules than common sense would suggest.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in January

| Fri Feb. 6, 2015 11:24 AM EST

The American economy added 257,000 new jobs last month, 90,000 of which were needed to keep up with population growth. This means that net job growth clocked in at 167,000 jobs. This is lower than last month, but only because December's results were revised sharply upwards. The combined revisions for November and December clocked in at 147,000 jobs, which suggests that for the past quarter job growth has been clipping along at a faster pace than we thought. What's more, January's report followed a familiar pattern: All of the growth was in the private sector. Government employment actually fell by 10,000 jobs. The headline unemployment rate ticked up slightly to 5.7 percent.

I take this all as good news, even the increase in the unemployment rate. The January jobs number is solid; the revisions suggest stronger growth in 2014 than we thought; and the higher unemployment rate reduces the political pressure on the Fed to raise interest rates this year. What's more, the increase in the unemployment rate wasn't due to more people out of work. It was due to more people re-entering the labor force, causing the labor force participation rate to rise slightly to 62.9 percent. This is a good thing, even if it has the perverse effect of artificially increasing the unemployment rate.

Perhaps the best news, however, came in the wage data. Hourly wages of production and nonsupervisory employees—my preferred indicator of wage growth—went up 0.4 percent. However, inflation was negative in December, so this represents a pretty sizeable gain in real terms. (Though note that it might be ephemeral since December's negative inflation rate was due mostly to plummeting oil prices, which is a short-term effect.) Over the past year, hourly wages have increased 2 percent, which is up a bit even when you adjust for inflation. It's still nothing to shout about, but it's at least a glimmer of real wage growth.

Overall: not bad. This is still not a roaring recovery, but the data is very steadily showing genuine sustained growth. Austerity policies have delayed this turnaround by upwards of a year or two, but at least it's finally here. After years of sluggishness, the economy is finally doing pretty well.

NOTE: January is the month when the BLS does its big annual readjustment of jobs data for the entire year. However, the overall change turned out to be quite small, so it doesn't really affect any of the numbers above.

McDonald's Creates Worst Marketing Campaign in History of Marketing

| Thu Feb. 5, 2015 9:25 PM EST

This morning, Kate Bachelder went into McDonald's to get an Egg McMuffin. When she tried to pay the cashier, however, things turned weird:

I wouldn't need money today, she explained, as I had been randomly chosen for the store's "Pay with Lovin'" campaign, the company's latest public-relations blitz, announced Sunday…Between Feb. 2 and Valentine's Day, the company says, participating McDonald's locations will give away 100 meals to unsuspecting patrons in an effort to spread "the lovin'."

If the "Pay with Lovin'" scenario looks touching on television, it is less so in real life. A crew member produced a heart-shaped pencil box stuffed with slips of paper, and instructed me to pick one. My fellow customers seemed to look on with pity as I drew my fate: "Ask someone to dance." I stood there for a mortified second or two, and then the cashier mercifully suggested that we all dance together. Not wanting to be a spoilsport, I forced a smile and "raised the roof" a couple of times, as employees tried to lure cringing customers into forming some kind of conga line, asking them when they'd last been asked to dance.

The public embarrassment ended soon enough, and I slunk away with my free breakfast, thinking: Now there's an idea that never should have left the conference room.

Speaking personally, I can say that the Pay With Lovin' scenario did not look touching on television. It looked horrifying. And I suspect very strongly that in real life it's even more horrifying than my feeble little imagination can imagine.

And for what it's worth, when I saw the ads, it actually wasn't Mickey D's guinea pig customers who I initially felt sorry for. It was the cashiers. Those are the poor folks who have to execute this marketing monstrosity. Every morning they have to paste on a smile and pretend to be thrilled at the opportunity to force some sleepy customer to write a poem or declare who she loves or perform a jig or whatever. Isn't it exciting!?! You get to pay with lovin' today!

Somebody needs to be fired at McDonald's. Maybe a whole bunch of people. I don't know who, but someone has to pay. Right now.