Kevin Drum

Quote of the Day: Ease Up on BP!

| Thu Jun. 17, 2010 11:07 AM EDT

Apparently BP is starting to find some defenders:

Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, said a fund BP Plc agreed to establish after meeting with President Barack Obama yesterday amounted to “a $20 billion shakedown.”

“I’m ashamed of what happened in the White House,” Barton said today as a House Energy Committee panel began a hearing on BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Due process wasn’t followed during negotiations between BP and administration officials, Barton said.

This is an example of how runaway partisanship can help Democrats. Under normal circumstances, everyone would be pounding on BP as hard as they can. And for the most part, that's what's happened so far. But as Dems push ever harder, the natural GOP instinct to (a) protect business and (b) instinctively oppose everything Democrats do, is going to surface. Keep up the BP-bashing a little bit longer and eventually, just out of reflex, Fox News and the Republican Party will be calling for Obama to make payments to them. Should be fun.

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Unemployment in 2012

| Thu Jun. 17, 2010 1:10 AM EDT

The UCLA Anderson Forecast is released quarterly. Here's the latest from Forecast director Ed Leamer:

Leamer explains that significant reductions in the unemployment rate require real gross domestic product (GDP) growth in the 5.0 percent to 6.0 percent range....The forecast for GDP growth this year is 3.4 percent, followed by 2.4 percent in 2011 and 2.8 percent in 2012, well below the 5.0 percent growth of previous recoveries and even a bit below the 3.0 percent long-term normal growth. With this weak economic growth comes a weak labor market, and unemployment slowly declines to 8.6 percent by 2012.

So two and a half years from now unemployment will still be at 8.6%, a rate that would normally send everyone screaming for the hills. And what is the United States Congress doing about this? For all practical purposes, absolutely nothing. It must be nice being a congressman.

Chart of the Day: Internal Migration

| Wed Jun. 16, 2010 2:50 PM EDT

Via Andrew Sullivan, here's a Forbes interactive map showing both the inward and outward migration from my home county:

What's interesting is that the outward migration is all over the map, but the inward migration is almost exclusively from the East Coast and bits of the upper Midwest. I'm not sure why. In any case, click the link if you want to see the migration pattern for whatever county you live in.

Quote of the Day: Comic Sans Fights Back

| Wed Jun. 16, 2010 2:30 PM EDT

It's not often that a font fights back against its critics. But Comic Sans is no ordinary font:

Via James Joyner. If you don't get it, see here and here. Official hate site is here.

Learning to Love Mediocrity

| Wed Jun. 16, 2010 12:54 PM EDT

Let's change the subject a bit. Felix Salmon blogs about wine periodically and writes a wine column for Reuters, and one subject that pops up now and then is how blind tastings are affected by the price of a wine. Long story short, most of us suck at distinguishing cheap wines from expensive ones (I'm especially fond of the blind tastings where people can only barely tell the difference between reds and whites), but we still prefer expensive wines anyway. Today, Felix links to a post from Jonah Lehrer explaining that this isn't just pure snobbery. He describes an experiment showing that regardless of wine quality, a particular part of our brain lights up when we drink a wine we're told is expensive:

What's causing this silly behavior? [Paul] Bloom argues that essentialism plays a big role. We automatically believe that more expensive wine has a tastier essence, and that belief alters our sensory expectations. Those expectations, in turn, alter our perceptual interpretations, so that what we experience conforms to what we expect to experience. The essence of the thing has thus been confirmed: more expensive wine tastes better, even if the expensive wine is really Gallo Hearty Burgundy. This helps explain why so many food advertisements focus on the "essence" of the product, whether it's Coors being brewed from Rocky Mountain spring water, or Evian coming straight from the French Alps. The marketers know that the easiest way to increase our pleasure isn't by telling us how pleasurable the product is: It's by weaving an engaging story about essences.

OK, fine. But as a philistine non-wine drinker, here's my question: If you happen to be among the enlightened few who know about this research and accept it as true, shouldn't that affect how you react? It's sort of like knowing that someone is giving you a placebo. It wouldn't work if you knew it was a sugar pill, would it?

Or would it? In any case, here's a budget tip for tough recessionary times: instead of buying expensive wines, train your brain to understand the effect of price on the wine-drinking experience. I know you can do it. And the rewards are great: a lifetime of wine enjoyment at fifteen bucks a bottle. That's worth a few weeks of on-the-job training, isn't it?

How to Ruin the Economy in One Easy Step

| Wed Jun. 16, 2010 12:13 PM EDT

Different times call for different economic policies. That doesn't seem so hard to understand. But it's politically convenient to pretend otherwise, so we keep getting stuff like this.....

But in this case it's hard to blame Obama. Yeah, he's the president, he could be making a better case for fiscal stimulus etc. etc. But there's not much question which branch of government is doing the most damage here.

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Obama's Speech: Did It Even Matter?

| Wed Jun. 16, 2010 11:55 AM EDT

We overeducated types frequently complain that the press spends too much time on horse race political analysis of the president when, really, the only thing that matters is economic conditions. Economy good = popular president. Economy bad = big losses for the party in power. End of story.

And this is, roughly speaking, true. But it's possible to take this political-science-inspired view of the presidency too far, and I think Matt Yglesias does this on another subject today:

The most important thing to keep in mind about the sort of “major” presidential speech we saw last night is that they don’t matter. At all. They don’t move votes in Congress. They don’t move public opinion. The bully pulpit method of governance doesn’t work. And that’s about the best I can say about Obama’s speech — even if it had been much better, it wouldn’t have done much good.

This is tantamount to saying that presidents shouldn't bother communicating to the public at all. But does anyone really believe this? Even the political scientists whose research suggests that presidential speeches don't move the public opinion dial much? I doubt it. A single speech may not have much effect, but let's face it: a single anything doesn't have much effect. Last night's speech was part of a much broader communications strategy from the president, and that broader strategy does make a difference in the long run. Obama had a chance to move the dial a little bit, to shift the topic of elite conversation, and to send a clear signal about what he supports and what he doesn't. Those are useful things, and he should have done a better job with them. 

In a similar vein, political scientist Brendan Nyhan tweeted an old post of his last night:

Over the last few years, I've frequently cited political science research showing that presidential speeches usually fail to change public opinion on domestic policy issues....What's so striking is that reporters and politicos alike still don't understand this point. Why?

I wish reporters knew more about this stuff too, but is it really fair to blame them in this case? Obama could have made the oil spill the subject of his regular Saturday radio speech. He could have held a press conference. He could have given a speech in Baton Rouge. But he didn't. He announced his first ever prime time Oval Office address. Of course everyone expected something a little dramatic. A bold new approach to cleaning up the spill. A call to action of some kind. Something. Instead we got a humdrum update that sounded like something a junior project manager might reel off at a weekly status meeting.

The Senate isn't going to pass a big climate change bill this year. I get that. But it would still be nice to hear Obama at least make the case for one. Not everything has to be lawyered to death in the White House. Sometimes you should speak your mind even if you know Congress isn't likely to listen. That's what Obama should have done.

Banished by the FBI

| Wed Jun. 16, 2010 11:14 AM EDT

This kind of stuff has become so commonplace in the post-9/11 world that we hardly even notice it anymore, but the case of Yahya Wehelie is really just outrageous beyond belief. Keep in mind as you read that he's a U.S. citizen born and raised in Virginia:

For six weeks, Mr. Wehelie has been in limbo in [Cairo]. He and his parents say he has no radical views, despises Al Qaeda and merely wants to get home to complete his education and get a job. But after many hours of questioning by F.B.I. agents, he remains on the no-fly list. When he offered to fly home handcuffed and flanked by air marshals, Mr. Wehelie said, F.B.I. agents turned him down.

....“For many of these Americans, placement on the no-fly list effectively amounts to banishment from their country,” said Ben Wizner, a senior staff attorney with the A.C.L.U. He called such treatment “both unfair and unconstitutional.” An F.B.I. spokesman, Michael P. Kortan, said that as a matter of policy, the bureau did not comment on who was on a watch list. But he said the recent plots showed the need “to remain vigilant and thoroughly investigate every lead.”

“In conducting such investigations,” Mr. Kortan said, “the F.B.I. is always careful to protect the civil rights and privacy concerns of all Americans, including individuals in minority and ethnic communities.”

....The no-fly list gives the American authorities greater leverage in assessing travelers who are under suspicion, because to reverse the flying ban many are willing to undergo hours of questioning.

But sometimes the questioning concludes neither with criminal charges nor with permission to fly. The Transportation Security Administration has a procedure allowing people to challenge their watch list status in cases of mistaken identity or name mix-up, but Mr. Wehelie does not fit those categories.

This is an abomination, pure and simple. There's not the slightest question that it would be possible to allow Wehelie to fly home safely even if he were Osama bin Laden's minister of defense. The government of the United States should be allowed to search him and his luggage with abandon if they have reason to suspect him of illegal activity, and they have every right to question him for the same reason. But the right to keep him from flying home? No. That doesn't just skirt the line of what the American government should be allowed to do, it blows right by it and makes a mockery of the constitution and every smarmy bureaucrat who pretends to support it while snickering behind their hands about "carefully protecting the civil rights and privacy concerns of all Americans." How on earth can Barack Obama stand by and continue to allow stuff like this to happen?

Shooting the Messengers

| Wed Jun. 16, 2010 1:29 AM EDT

You think science has been politicized in the United States? Just feel lucky you're not an Italian seismologist. A geologist friend of mine emails to let me know about an open letter the science community has written to the president of Italy. It starts like this:

Two weeks ago in Italy, the L’Aquila Prosecutor’s office indicted scientists, some of them members of the “Commissione Grandi Rischi” (Commission for High Risks), and civil protection officials for manslaughter. The basis for the indictment is that these people did not provide a short-term alarm to the population after a meeting of the Commission held in L’Aquila six days before the Mw 6.3 earthquake that struck that city and the surrounding area.

300 people died in the L'Aquila earthquake in 2009. The Independent reports:

L'Aquila's public prosecutor Alfredo Rossini said yesterday: "Those responsible are people who should have given different answers to the public. We're not talking about the lack of an alarm, the alarm came with the movements of the ground. We're talking about the lack of advice telling people to leave their homes."

The president of the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, Enzo Boschi, and the director of the National Earthquake Center, Giulio Selvaggi, are among those under investigation. I have a feeling that Italian geologists may be very reluctant to serve on the Commission for High Risks in the future.

Obama's Oil Spill Speech: Running On Empty

| Tue Jun. 15, 2010 9:34 PM EDT

On Twitter, here was my insta-reaction to Obama's oil spill address from the Oval Office:

What a terrible speech.

Unfair? Maybe! I mean, compared to Sarah Palin's (literally) incomprehensible burbling on Bill O'Reilly's show afterward it was a model of straight talk and reassurance. But that's a pretty low bar.

So let's unpack this a bit. The whole point of a prime time Oval Office speech (transcript here) is that it announces something big. On that score, Obama failed right from the start. He told us that lots of people are already working the cleanup. Yawn. That Ray Mabus is going to develop a long-term Gulf Coast Restoration Plan as soon as possible. A plan! Hurrah! That we're gonna make BP pay for everything. Roger that. And then this: "I have established a National Commission to understand the causes of this disaster and offer recommendations on what additional safety and environmental standards we need to put in place." A commission! So much for "going big."

Look, maybe I'm just feeling cranky tonight. There's nothing wrong with an investigating commission, after all. And I happen to think that Obama's reaction to the spill has been substantively pretty reasonable. But if you're going to give a big Oval Office speech and that's the best you have to offer, then let's face it: you don't have much to offer.

But that wasn't the worst of it. So far we've covered three of the four points Obama promised us at the beginning of his speech, and the fourth point was a call to action on clean energy. I still had some hope that maybe he'd redeem himself there. But here, for the edification of future generations, are my contemporaneous notes during this part of his speech:

now is the moment for this generation to embark on a mission.

lots of flowery language.....must rally etc. etc.

house bill is great. but happy to look at other approaches. yeesh.

great nation, we can do anything, blah blah blah

Unfair again? Maybe! After all, I'm the one who thinks the votes for a serious energy bill just flatly aren't there in the Senate, and maybe it's unfair to expect Obama to engage in a political suicide mission. Still, take a gander at what he said:

Last year, the House of Representatives [passed] a strong and comprehensive energy and climate bill — a bill that finally makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America’s businesses. Now, there are costs associated with this transition. And some believe we can’t afford those costs right now. I say we can’t afford not to change how we produce and use energy — because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security, and our environment are far greater.

So I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party — as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels. Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings like we did in our cars and trucks. Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development — and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development.

All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fear hearing in the months ahead. But the one approach I will not accept is inaction....What has defined us as a nation since our founding is our capacity to shape our destiny — our determination to fight for the America we want for our children. Even if we’re unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don’t yet know precisely how to get there. We know we’ll get there.

This gives pablum a bad name. Obama wants a bill. Pretty much any bill will do. But he didn't say a single word about what he himself wanted. A carbon tax? Cap-and-trade? Nuclear subsidies? Electric cars? Who knows? And as Kate Sheppard notes, he didn't breathe so much as a word about climate change.

I dunno. This speech felt entirely by-the-numbers to me. He told us about the spill. He told us the best minds in the country were working on it. He told us BP would pay for it. He told us he was setting up some commissions. He said he wanted an energy bill of some kind. Then he told us all to pray. It felt like he was reading off a PowerPoint deck.

This is, by a long way, the most negative reaction I've ever had to an Obama speech. Even on Afghanistan, where I was dubious of his strategy and felt his address at West Point was technocratic and unconvincing, I thought his speech had at least a few redeeming features. But this one? There was just nothing there. I felt better about Obama's response to the spill before the speech than I do now.

Too negative? Tell me in comments.