Kevin Drum

Chart of the Day: Generation Gap

| Mon Nov. 8, 2010 3:27 PM EST

Via Jon Chait, the New York Times ran an interesting graphic this weekend showing demographic breakdowns of election results going back to 1982. Here it is for age groups:

Basically, all age groups were relatively evenly split between Democrats and Republicans until 2004, when the youth vote started to blow out for Democrats, and 2010, when older voters went heavily for Republicans. That's not quite what I would have expected, so this is a useful corrective. The other charts are interesting too.

NOTE: The NYT exit poll numbers don't match the numbers at the CNN site, though they're close. I'm not sure why this is. If anyone knows, enlighten us in comments.

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Our Ruling Class

| Mon Nov. 8, 2010 2:51 PM EST

Matt Yglesias on the conservative love affair with Ireland during the Bush era:

I wouldn’t try to blame their property crash on low tax rates. But by the same token a frightening number of pundits went “all-in” on the idea that Ireland’s conserva-friendly tax policies were behind a boom that was in fact driven by a real estate bubble. There needs to be some accountability for this, because it appears to quite genuinely be the case that relaxed financial regulation is a can’t-lose strategy for (temporarily) attracting financial inflows, sparking an asset price bubble, and boosting growth. But that doesn’t mean countries should do it. And we need a system of international praise and esteem that’s not so blind to these issues.

Italics mine. Good luck with this. I've never spent too much of my energy on the Dean Baker-ish crusade about how we keep listening to all the people who got everything wrong during the aughts, but that's mostly just a matter of writing temperament, not because I disagree with him. But it's getting harder and harder not to jump on the bandwagon. I mean, we've now got mainstream Republicans suggesting we should (kinda sorta) go back on the gold standard, we've got conservative economists who believe we should raise interest rates because inflation is our biggest worry right now, and we've got a victorious GOP that thinks spending cuts and deregulation are the key to prosperity — all aided and abetted by an economically illiterate pundit class seemingly convinced that accounting identities are just guidelines and the federal government should be run the same way you and I run our family budgets.

I mean, it's almost as if the entire scientific community agreed about the fundamental chemical and thermodynamic reality of GHG-induced global warming but instead we listened to a bunch of cranks who — oh wait. We are listening to them, aren't we?

Never mind. I'll just retreat back into my cave now. Somebody send up a flare when it's safe to come back out.

Is In-Flight WiFi in Danger?

| Mon Nov. 8, 2010 2:26 PM EST

I think Bruce Schneier might be overreacting here:

Okay, now the terrorists have really affected me personally: they're forcing us to turn off airplane Wi-Fi. No, it's not that the Yemeni package bombs had a Wi-Fi triggering mechanism — they seem to have had a cell phone triggering mechanism, dubious at best — but we can imagine an Internet-based triggering mechanism. Put together a sloppy and unsuccessful package bomb with an imagined triggering mechanism, and you have a new and dangerous threat that — even though it was a threat ever since the first airplane got Wi-Fi capability — must be immediately dealt with right now.

Please, let's not ever tell the TSA about timers. Or altimeters.

The two linked reports are actually pretty weak tea. The Gizmodo post is based on a New Scientist report, and the New Scientist report is basically sourced to one guy: Roland Alford, the managing director of "an explosives consultancy in Chippenham," who says he "expects" in-flight Wi-Fi technology to be scrutinized in future security reviews. And maybe it will be. Frankly, the TSA security folks wouldn't be doing their jobs if they didn't do at least that. But the fact that one guy thinks in-flight Wi-Fi will be scrutinized doesn't mean that in-flight Wi-Fi will actually be banned. Or even restricted. It's probably reasonable to expect the worst from TSA as a default reaction, but this particular report is literally based on nothing. I woldn't panic yet over this.

DADT on the Chopping Block?

| Mon Nov. 8, 2010 1:43 PM EST

Adam Serwer reads the Wall Street Journal today and finds a story saying that Senate Democrats are planning to jettison repeal of DADT from this year's Pentagon funding bill:

Look, if Democrats can't repeal a policy more than two thirds of the American people, including a majority of conservatives want gone then they can't expect people to vote for them....That Democrats would cave on this now shows how far the party of Harry Truman has fallen. In December the Defense Department is reportedly set to release a study showing that, like the American people, most servicemembers aren't opposed to gays and lesbians openly serving. That's in contrast to the vast opposition of most servicemembers to racial integration in the 1940s; if Truman had insisted on staying his hand until a political climate as favorable as this one had come along, integrating the military might not have happened until decades later. 

Democratic spinelessness on this is worth mocking. But let's get real: the problem isn't with Senate Democrats, 97% of whom voted to repeal DADT in September. The problem is with Republicans, 100% of whom voted against repeal even though, as the Gallup poll above shows, repeal is favored by 60% of Republicans, a majority of conservatives, the Secretary of Defense, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

100%. Not one single Republican was willing to buck the tea party hordes and vote for DADT repeal. Even Susan Collins of Maine, the only Republican who publicly supports repeal, concocted a transparently bogus excuse not to vote for it.

Democrats may not be profiles in courage here, but they aren't the villains on DADT repeal. They just aren't. Republicans are. They're willing to unanimously filibuster funding for the military in order to pander to the small percentage of their own party that thinks gay people are icky. And they'll keep doing it, too. They don't care about the military report due in December and they don't care whether DADT repeal would actually affect military readiness in any way. They'll defund the entire Pentagon if that's what it takes to keep the tea partiers happy. They're the enemies of national security here, not Democrats.

Ireland's Woes — And Ours?

| Mon Nov. 8, 2010 12:28 PM EST

Via Tyler Cowen, Morgan Kelly writes in the Irish Times about Ireland's foreclosure tsunami, which makes ours look like nothing worse than a good surfing day:

The gathering mortgage crisis puts Ireland on the cusp of a social conflict on the scale of the Land War, but with one crucial difference. Whereas the Land War faced tenant farmers against a relative handful of mostly foreign landlords, the looming Mortgage War will pit recent house buyers against the majority of families who feel they worked hard and made sacrifices to pay off their mortgages, or else decided not to buy during the bubble, and who think those with mortgages should be made to pay them off. Any relief to struggling mortgage-holders will come not out of bank profits — there is no longer any such thing — but from the pockets of other taxpayers.

This is the basic problem with foreclosure relief. There are a whole bunch of good arguments about why it would be good for the economy, but the public would hate it. Bailing out bankers is bad enough, but at least it's bad in a sort of abstract, far-off way. Bailing out your next door neighbor is a whole different story. That's a fast way to political oblivion. Kelly continues:

House prices are driven by the size of mortgages that banks give out. That is why, even though Irish banks face long-run funding costs of at least 8 per cent (if they could find anyone to lend to them), they are still giving out mortgages at 5 per cent, to maintain an artificial floor on house prices. Without this trickle of new mortgages, prices would collapse and mass defaults ensue.

However, once Irish banks pass under direct ECB control next year, they will be forced to stop lending in order to shrink their balance sheets back to a level that can be funded from customer deposits. With no new mortgage lending, the housing market will be driven by cash transactions, and prices will collapse accordingly.

While the current priority of Irish banks is to conceal their mortgage losses, which requires them to go easy on borrowers, their new priority will be to get the ECB's money back by whatever means necessary. The resulting wave of foreclosures will cause prices to collapse further.

Right now, the hated Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are essentially keeping the entire American housing market afloat despite the fact that American banks, unlike their Irish counterparts, have very low funding costs and can still make money on mortgage lending. But what would things be like if Fannie and Freddie weren't around and funding costs were high? For all intents and purposes, there would probably be no mortgage market at all. If Morgan is right, that's what Ireland is facing next year.

Europe will probably figure out a way to muddle through its euro-inspired crisis, but there's no guarantee of that. Ireland, Portugal, and Greece are still teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and the mood in the core states against further bailouts has hardened considerably since a year ago. Whether the euro survives is anyone's guess. I'd give it about an 80% chance, myself.

And if we end up living in the world where the 20% chance of a currency breakup comes to pass? Chaos in Europe, of course, but we won't avoid the storm either. Buckle up.

Quote of the Day #2: Fighting Back on Climate

| Sun Nov. 7, 2010 9:25 PM EST

From physics professor Scott Mandia, commenting on plans for 700 climate scientists to start speaking out more forcefully and publicly about global warming:

The notion that truth will prevail is not working. The truth has been out there for the past two decades, and nothing has changed.

This is a welcome development. But I hope these guys are well trained. They need to know the science cold, they need to be aware of the standard denialist talking points, they need to stick to the facts religiously, and they need to have good media training. They won't be going up against amateurs and the rules of the game won't be set by the Marquess of Queensberry. That said, this is long past due.

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Quote of the Day: Rethinking Gehry

| Sun Nov. 7, 2010 4:27 PM EST

From an LA Times description of Jon Platt's redesign of Frank Gehry's Schnabel House, which he purchased four years ago:

Simple tasks such as replacing fluorescent light bulbs with LEDs were accompanied by massive undertakings, such as centralizing and consolidating the home's climate controls, TVs, lighting and security cameras onto one technologically advanced system, now managed by eight iPads.

Platt's house now requires eight iPads to control? Damn.

Ending the Filibuster

| Sun Nov. 7, 2010 1:45 PM EST

Tim Fernholz says Senate Democrats should eliminate the filibuster when they open the 112th session of Congress in January:

Of course, the advantage for Democrats is that they will be able to have more control of the one chamber where they possess a majority, making it easier to pass their own priorities — rather than have the House pass a lot of bills and the Senate take no action, you could see a dynamic where the Senate and the House pass a lot of competing versions of bills, creating both more contrast between the parties and making the possibility of actual legislation more likely.

The funny thing is that this would actually be a pretty good time for Republicans to go along with this. Contra Tim, the fact that the GOP controls the House means that Democrats won't find it easier to pass their own priorities if they ditch the filibuster. But it might set up the contrast Tim mentions, and Republicans seem to think this contrast would be entirely in their favor. What's more, if Republicans genuinely think they can win control of the Senate and the presidency in 2012, getting rid of the filibuster now would serve them pretty well.

But they won't go along anyway. And I doubt very much that Harry Reid can find the votes to do this in the Democratic caucus even if he's inclined to try. He'd need 51 out of 53 votes and Obama's OK (in order for Biden to make the appropriate rulings), and I don't see him getting that.

But what about something narrower? The least defensible use of the filibuster is against executive branch appointments, and I wonder if Republicans couldn't be talked into supporting a change here? Maybe something that does away with the filibuster but puts in place some specific and limited ways that executive branch appointments can be delayed instead. This runs up against the hideous (and bipartisan) ego-driven nature of the Senate, where every member prizes their ability to hold up appointments in order to extort favors of one kind of another from the White House, but still — you never know. With only two years left in Obama's term and Republicans feeling like history is on their side, it's not completely out of the question.

The Circular Firing Squad

| Sun Nov. 7, 2010 1:01 PM EST

The Washington Post collects a batch of Democratic handwringing today over their loss in the midterm election:

"There doesn't seem to be anybody in the White House who's got any idea what it's like to lie awake at night worried about money and worried about things slipping away," said retiring Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D). "They're all intellectually smart. They've got their numbers. But they don't feel any of it, and I think people sense that."

....Obama "is not Bill Clinton in the sense that he's not an extrovert. He doesn't gain energy by connecting with people," said a Democratic strategist, who worked in the Clinton White House and asked not to be named while offering a candid criticism. "He needs to be forced to do it, either by self-discipline or others. There's no one around him who will do that. They accommodate him, and that is a bad thing."

....William A. Galston, a Clinton White House policy adviser who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the midterm election revealed what had always been a "missing middle" to the Obama campaign message.

Honest to God, stuff like this just makes me want to scream. Why do Democrats panic so badly whenever they lose an election? Why run to the nearest reporter to spout idiocies about Obama not feeling middle class pain or not being an extrovert like Bill Clinton? Bill Clinton! For chrissake, I like and defend the guy, but he was an extrovert who felt people's pain and he lost 54 seats in the 1994 midterm. No one cared if he felt their pain. Likewise, no one cares if Obama feels their pain. They want jobs, not pursed lips and moist eyes.

This stuff is so inane, so ego-driven, so self-destructive that it drives me crazy. Why are Democrats such idiots?

Hecho in Mexico

| Sat Nov. 6, 2010 7:14 PM EDT

A few years ago I bought Marian a case of Dr. Pepper from a bottler in Texas that uses real sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup. She said it was fantastic. I couldn't tell the difference. I think that might be part of what's going on in Jonah Lehrer's post about his preference for Mexican Coke (sweetened with sugar) to American Coke (sweetened with HFCS):

But here’s the rub: Mexican Coke appears to be a cognitive illusion.

....Consider this clever study of soft drinks led by Samuel McClure and Read Montague. The experiment was a recreation of the Pepsi Challenge, except this time all the tasting was being done in a brain scanner. Each person swallowed sips of cola from a plastic tube while their brain was being scanned. When Coke and Pepsi were offered unlabeled, the subjects showed no measurable preference for either brand. Most of the time, they couldn’t even tell the two colas apart. But Montague’s second observation was more surprising: subjects overwhelmingly preferred drinks that were labeled as Coke, no matter what cola was actually delivered through the tubes. In other words, brand trumped taste. We cared more about the logo than the actual product.

....Mexican Coke has become my Coke. I see that glass bottle and I’m flooded with all sorts of dopaminergic associations, those smug feelings reminding me that I don’t drink that generic high-fructose corn syrup crap. I drink the real stuff, the cola made with old-fashioned sugar. But those associations are almost certainly an illusion — my tongue is too crude a sensory device to parse the difference between Coke and Pepsi, let alone between slightly different formulations of the exact same drink.

It's possible that Lehrer's tongue is indeed too crude a sensory device to taste the difference between Coke and Pepsi. Mine probably is. But there's a sizeable minority who can tell the difference, and I suspect they tend to be proselytizers. Most of us may not be able to distinguish the tastes ourselves,1 but we aspire to be people who can, so we allow the proselytizers to convince us of something that our own senses don't really confirm. That kind of thing happens all the time in other circumstances, after all.

For the most part, this is probably the same phenomenon that McClure and Montague documented. We're both saying that people respond to more than just the taste of the colas, but they're ascribing the difference to packaging and advertising. I'm ascribing it to peer pressure, more or less, which eventually gets associated with the packaging and advertising. More research, please!

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, none of this means that the preference for one cola over another (or any food over any other) is "fake." If you prefer it, you prefer it, regardless of what's triggering the response. So don't be an asshole and go around telling people who like Mexican Coke that there's no difference. There is.

1Hell, in blind wine tastings lots of people can't even distinguish between reds and whites. We think we know a lot more than we really do.