Kevin Drum

Chart of the Day: Pentagon Budget

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 1:57 PM EST

The Project on Defense Alternatives sent me this email a few minutes ago:

We’ve just opened the web page Trillions to Burn? A Quick Guide to the Pentagon Budget Surge — please have a look.  It’s a quick read with 9 charts that explain why the DoD budget has risen to over 700 billion and what it implies for other federal spending and the national debt.

Hey, you had me at "charts"! So here's your chart of the day: a look at Pentagon spending since World War II, adjusted for inflation. Right now we're spending more than we did during the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or the Reagan military buildup. And there's no end in sight. More at the link.

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Buying Votes the Old Fashioned Way

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 1:18 PM EST

In the LA Times today, Michael Hiltzik provides a taste of our electoral future, where corporation are allowed to spend unlimited sums on their pet projects and candidates. Hiltzik's poster child is electric utility PG&E, which has qualified for the California ballot a measure that would require any public utility to get approval by two-thirds of voters before launching or expanding its public power service, or floating bonds to finance the service. That's a sweet deal, since a two-thirds vote is all but impossible to get, meaning that PG&E's public competitors would be effectively unable to ever expand their business:

Nine state legislators, led by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), warned PG&E Chairman Peter Darbee by letter that PG&E's actions might violate state law by interfering with the creation of new municipal power services. PG&E's self-interested exploitation of the initiative process, they told him, also "calls into question your company's integrity."

How did Darbee respond? His company placed an additional $3 million in the campaign kitty . If you were to translate that response to the legislators into English, it wouldn't be printable in a family newspaper.

...."The fertile minds of utility lawyers are going to be able to dream up all kinds of things," S. David Freeman, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the nation's largest municipal utility, told me last week. "This is just another attempt by a private utility to inhibit the right of public power to be a competitive yardstick. It's so hurtful of consumers that it would be laughable, except that PG&E's ability to put up brainwashing ads makes it a real threat."

Worse, state law prohibits elected officials and public agencies from spending public funds to oppose a ballot measure. That means any effort to counteract PG&E's bankroll will be crippled from the start. "It's a grim reality that public agencies won't be able to fight back at all," says Charles McGlashan, a Marin County supervisor.

PG&E's ballot measure hasn't passed yet, and the good news is that it's tough to win a majority for initiatives like this. Still, they can spend nearly unlimited sums trying to sell it, their natural opponents can't spend a dime, and that leaves nothing but generic good government groups to fight this thing. Not exactly a fair fight.

How They Do It

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 12:31 PM EST

I guess I was dozing off during Jon Stewart's interview with Newt Gingrich last night, because I don't remember this exchange:

Gingrich: The American public doesn't understand reading Miranda rights to terrorists in Detroit when it's fairly obvious they're terrorists.

Stewart: The only thing I would say to that is, didn't they do the same with Richard Reid, who was the shoe bomber?

Gingrich: Richard Reid was an American citizen.

How does he get away with saying stuff like this? Reid was a British citizen, born in London, and radicalized at the Finsbury mosque. This is Wikipedia level stuff. But guys like Gingrich get away with repeating this nonsense over and over even though they must know they're lying. Amazing. Via Steve Benen.

Men Without Work

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 11:13 AM EST

Back in the early 90s Joel Garreau wrote a book called Edge City. Basically, an edge city is a suburb, but it's a suburb that has the usual sprawl of stucco houses plus at least five million square feet of leasable office space. In other words, it's a self-contained community where people can both live and work, and until the mid-70s such places really didn't exist. Today they're ubiquitous. So what happened? Garreau explains:

When I started asking developers when, exactly, they first thought it plausible to build quarter-of-a-million-square-foot office monoliths out in some cow pasture, far from the old downtowns, I found it eerie how often the year 1978 came up....The only thing I've discovered that begins to account for that nationwide pattern is that 1978 was the peak year in all of American history for women entering the work force. In the second half of the 1970s, unprecedentedly, more than eight million hitherto non-wage-earning women went out and found jobs. The spike year was 1978.

That same year, a multitude of developers independently decided to start putting up big office buildings out beyond the traditional male-dominated downtown....The new advantage was proximity to the emerging work force. These Edge City work centers were convenient for women. It saved them time. This discovery was potent. A decade later, developers viewed it as a truism that office buildings had an indisputable advantage if they were located near the best-educated, most conscientious, most stable workers — underemployed females living in middle class communities on the fringes of the old urban areas.

Italics mine. This passage has stuck with me ever since I first read it. Three decades ago employers discovered that as long as their jobs didn't require much in the way of physical strength — and fewer and fewer jobs did — women were a better employment bet than men. Since then, this has become more apparent with every passing year. Which brings us to the recession of 2008-09, as described by Don Peck in the Atlantic:

The weight of this recession has fallen most heavily upon men, who’ve suffered roughly three-quarters of the 8 million job losses since the beginning of 2008....In November, 19.4 percent of all men in their prime working years, 25 to 54, did not have jobs, the highest figure since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the statistic in 1948.

....According to W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, the gender imbalance of the job losses in this recession is particularly noteworthy, and — when combined with the depth and duration of the jobs crisis — poses “a profound challenge to marriage,” especially in lower-income communities. It may sound harsh, but in general, he says, “if men can’t make a contribution financially, they don’t have much to offer.”

Noted without comment, because I really don't quite know how this is all going to shake out. But I wouldn't be surprised if we're entering not merely a slow recovery in general, but an era in which the male employment ratio hovers permanently around 80% even for those in their prime working years. For now, though, just consider this some raw data.

Public Not Ready to Give Up on Healthcare

| Tue Feb. 9, 2010 6:59 PM EST

The Washington Post reports today that both liberals and conservatives are in favor of compromise on healthcare — as long as the other guys are the ones doing the compromising. It's a start! The results aren't quite even, though:

But even Republicans are critical of their congressional leadership, with 44 percent seeing them as doing too little to strike deals with Obama; that compares with just 13 percent of Democrats worried about inaction on Obama's part.

That's something to work with. The Fox News wing of the Republican Party obviously isn't in the mood for compromise, but this is a reminder that there's still a quieter, non-Fox wing that would like to see some things get done. And as the chart on the right shows, 63% of the country thinks "lawmakers in Washington" should keep trying to pass comprehensive healthcare reform, including 42% of Republicans and a firm majority of independents. It's not clear what all these people think they're signing up to when they say they want "comprehensive" reform, but that's still a pretty healthy level of support. At the very least it should help stiffen a few Democratic spines in Congress.

The Healthcare Summit

| Tue Feb. 9, 2010 3:52 PM EST

Jon Chait writes about President Obama's proposed healthcare summit meeting later this month with Republicans:

Skeptics around Washington are already warning that the summit will be nothing more than Kabuki theater, allowing each side to grandstand on television while providing little in the way of substantive debate or additional understanding for the folks watching back home.

That's not the point. Obama knows perfectly well that the Republicans have no serious proposals to address the main problems of the health care system and have no interest (or political room, given their crazy base) in handing him a victory of any substance. Obama is bringing them in to discuss health care so he can expose this reality.

I agree that this is almost certainly Obama's intent. The question is whether it will work. The GOP leadership has already responded to Obama's offer with a list of preconditions for the meeting, a tactic straight out of Negotiation 101, but also one that works pretty well. What's more, if they decide to show up anyway, they'll be a lot better prepared than they were for their Q&A a week ago. My guess is that they'll have some pretty good sounding arguments lined up about consumer focused healthcare, the need for market-driven reforms, the evils of top-down government control, etc. etc. Those aren't things that Obama will be able to conclusively swat down in a few hours.

But we'll see. I don't have high hopes for the summit because Democrats haven't shown much ability to control the media narrative lately, and that's what this is really all about. Hopefully they'll do better than I think.

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The Pain of Spain is Mainly in the....Euro

| Tue Feb. 9, 2010 3:21 PM EST

Paul Krugman writes about Europe's troubles today:

Most press coverage of the eurozone troubles has focused on Greece, which is understandable: Greece is up against the wall to a greater extent than anyone else. But the Greek economy is also very small....

Well, OK, but Lehman Brothers was also pretty small relative to the rest of Wall Street. A failure in Greece could easily have knock-on effects that start taking out other weak countries and then spreads to not-so-weak countries. Still, point taken. Moving on:

....in economic terms the heart of the crisis is in Spain, which is much bigger. And as I’ve tried to point out in a number of posts, Spain’s troubles are not, despite what you may have read, the result of fiscal irresponsibility. Instead, they reflect “asymmetric shocks” within the eurozone, which were always known to be a problem, but have turned out to be an even worse problem than the euroskeptics feared.

The rest is worth reading if this stuff seems mysterious to you. It's very short, comes complete with some colorful charts, and gets across the main problems very succinctly. Basically, the problem is that Spain is in big trouble and needs to devalue its currency, but it can't because it doesn't have its own currency anymore. It has the euro, and the rest of the eurozone (i.e., Germany) doesn't want to adopt an expansionist monetary policy just to bail out Spain and a few other countries. So they're stuck.

Read More Books!

| Tue Feb. 9, 2010 2:12 PM EST

I promise not to spend all day writing about Twitter and the end of Western civilization, but having defended e-media of various kinds earlier this morning, now I want to plead the case for books. Here is Ezra Klein's defense of online media:

Then there are the advantages that online media offer that books can't match: It's possible to follow an issue in real time. People who really wanted to understand the health-care reform conversation were better off reading Jon Cohn's blog than any particular book or magazine. Did those people spend more time reading Jon and less time reading books? Probably. But it was time well spent. Packer is insistent on making the point that something is lost as we move into this faster, more fractured, more condensed media environment. But so too is something gained.

Italics mine. I don't want to disagree too much with this. Obviously online media does allow you to follow issues in real time, something that books don't. But is it really time well spent to devote more time to reading Jon Cohn's blog posts on healthcare and less time to reading Jon Cohn's book about healthcare? I'm not so sure, and to this extent I think George Packer has a point when he bemoans the loss of time for reading books.

This is, I grant, a purely personal reaction, but one of my occasional frustrations with the blogosphere is a sense that people sometimes think they can understand complex issues merely by reading lots of blog posts and newspaper articles. I'm not so sure of that. There's a big difference between a 100,000-word book on healthcare and 100,000 words of real-time commentary on healthcare. You can learn a lot from the latter, but very frequently you miss the big picture because (a) it's not all there and (b) you have to put it together yourself over time. The result is a sort of glib and shallow understanding that can produce enjoyable polemics or good water cooler arguments, but not much more.

A few hours spent with a carefully constructed book, on the other hand, can change the way you think about something by showing you history, context, and all the non-sexy stuff — in other words, all the messy complexity — in a single package that you absorb all at once. Basically, if you read Sick, you're getting years of Jon Cohn's distilled knowledge of American healthcare in a few hours. To get the same from his blog posts, you'd have to spend months or years reading them, and you still wouldn't get it all.

If you really want to understand any issue more complex than Brad and Angelina's marital status, there's really no substitute for a book. Not instead of blogs and newspapers and Twitter, but in addition to them. So: read more books! They're good for you.

Is Killing Terrorists a Sign of Weakness?

| Tue Feb. 9, 2010 1:36 PM EST

Yesterday Fred Kaplan wrote a blistering critique of Sarah Palin's demagogic mockery of Barack Obama's anti-terrorist cred:

Obama, after all, has nearly tripled the number of U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan. He has approved nearly twice as many CIA airstrikes against Taliban targets in Pakistan during his first year of office as President Bush did in his final year (65 vs. 36), killing more than twice as many militants in the process (571 vs. 268).

He has sent military trainers to help the Yemeni government fight al-Qaida insurgents. He has continued to boost the military budget. He has maintained the Bush administration's secret surveillance programs (despite protests from many Democrats). And Palin seems to have forgotten the time, last April, when Obama authorized SEAL sharpshooters to kill the three armed pirates who'd hijacked the merchant ship Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia.

I didn't get around to commenting on this, but it seemed like a pretty good reply. What right-wing hawk could argue with all this, after all? The answer, it turns out, is former Pentagon apparatchik and torture apologist Marc Thiessen:

Hold the applause. Obama's escalation of the "Predator War" comes at the very same time he has eliminated the CIA's capability to capture senior terrorist leaders alive and interrogate them for information on new attacks. The Predator has become for President Obama what the cruise missile was to President Bill Clinton — an easy way to appear like he is taking tough action against terrorists, when he is really shying away from the hard decisions needed to protect the United States.

But what, exactly, does Thiessen mean here? Matt Yglesias translates:

The piece would make sense if only Thiessen were willing to write in the English language. He is, as we’ve seen, an advocate of torture. He thinks torture is an excellent thing, and like the leaders of the Spanish Inquisition he thinks it’s morally obligatory for the government to torture people. From inside this twisted mental space, the notion that killing terrorists is too soft on terror starts to make sense. After all, in Thiessenland it’s better to let four terrorists go free if that lets you torture a fifth. That’s just how awesome he thinks torture is. But he won’t write the word “torture” or say clearly “the problem with Obama killing these terrorists is that he should be torturing them.”

That pretty much seems to be true. Thiessen's use of the phrase "question them effectively" does indeed seem to be a thin euphemism for "torture them." After all, although the Obama administration has (following the lead of the Bush administration) increased the use of drone strikes, it hasn't, in fact, eliminated the CIA's capability to capture terrorists. What it has done is insist that interrogations of captured terrorists follow the guidelines in the Army Field Manual. In other words, no torture. But for some people, I guess that amounts to the same thing.

Is Twitter Ruining the World?

| Tue Feb. 9, 2010 1:07 PM EST

George Packer is getting beat up for dissing Twitter, and now he says he's getting beat up for his response to the beatdown:

Just about everyone I know complains about the same thing when they’re being honest — including, maybe especially, people whose business is reading and writing. They mourn the loss of books and the loss of time for books. It’s no less true of me, which is why I’m trying to place a few limits on the flood of information that I allow into my head....The Internet and the devices it’s spawned are systematically changing our intellectual activities with breathtaking speed, and more profoundly than over the past seven centuries combined. It shouldn’t be an act of heresy to ask about the trade-offs that come with this revolution. In fact, I’d think asking such questions would be an important part of the job of a media critic, or a lead Bits blogger.

Instead, the response to my post tells me that techno-worship is a triumphalist and intolerant cult that doesn’t like to be asked questions.

I confess that I just don't get the vituperation on either side. The main response to Packer's original blog post came from New York Times Bits blogger Nick Bilton, and it was just....a response. Nothing to really get upset about. Ditto for Marc Ambinder's response, which Packer also links to. I don't doubt that some of the responses Packer got were triumpalist and intolerant, but that's just the nature of arguments on the internet. Hell, I get comments and emails by the hundreds telling me I'm a douchebag just because I support an excise tax on high-cost healthcare plans.

Beyond that, I have a hard time understanding why people get so worked up about other people's esthetic and lifestyle choices. I watch some crap TV and read some crap books sometimes. Other people prefer opera or stamp collecting. So what?

Likewise, I find Twitter useful because I'm a blogger. My job is to stay plugged into the news cycle throughout the day, and a constant stream of real-time tweets from a select group of people helps with that. For me, it's a lot less distracting than keeping the television going in the background, which is how a lot of people do this. But if I were, say, a medievalist plugging away on the definitive history of Roger Bacon and the birth of modern empiricism — well, Twitter probably wouldn't be very useful. A distraction, in fact. Again, so what?1

Packer's response, I gather, is that he thinks blogs and Twitter and the new information economy in general aren't just esthetic choices. They're changing the way we live in profound ways, and we ought to question whether those changes are a good thing. That's hard to argue with, but considering the long, unedifying history of cranky elites complaining that new technology is turning our brains to mush and sending the world to hell in a handbasket, surely the burden of proof has shifted? I'm pretty open to Packer's side of things, actually, but I wouldn't give up printed books (16th century), newspapers (17th century), magazines (18th century), the telephone (19th century), or radio, TV, movies, or the internet (20th century) even though they all had their critics at the time too. The critics even made some good points sometimes, but I still wouldn't give up any of this stuff. A few years from now, I might feel the same way about Twitter (21st century).

As a personal choice, read and view what you want. But if you're going to add to the "death of culture" oeuvre, you really need to have a serious argument to make. And if you do, I promise to read it. As long as someone brings it to my attention via email, Google alert, blog trackback, or Twitter first.

1For the record, this is pretty similar to my usual response about whether blogs are good or bad:

It's also why the endless debate over whether blogs are better or worse than the MSM is pointless. In the same way that newspapers excel at broad coverage of breaking news, TV excels at images, magazines excel at long analytic pieces, and talk radio excels at ranting screeds, blogs also excel at certain things. Trying to compare them to "journalism" is a mug's game, like trying to figure out if a beanbag is really a chair. Who cares? Beanbags are great for certain forms of sitting down and lousy at others.

Same for Twitter. It's good for quick, snarky comments and real-time links to interesting stuff. If that's not what you want, then don't use it.