Kevin Drum

Detainee Photo Update

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 11:20 AM PDT

In a conference committee meeting yesterday, House negotiators held firm on their insistence that an upcoming war spending bill not include a Senate amendment that retroactively exempts detainee abuse photos from disclosure under FOIA.  Senate negotiators then dithered a bit, finally backing down only after Barack Obama promised to "take every legal and administrative remedy available" to ensure the photos are not released.  The photos, Obama said, wouldn't add "any additional benefit to our understanding of what happened in the past and the most direct consequence of releasing them would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger."

Nick Baumann isn't impressed:

Obama's argument against releasing the photos is total poppycock. It should be totally non-controversial that additional photos will add to our understanding of what happened in the past. There's a reason the CIA destroyed the interrogation video tapes: images convey a different kind of truth than words do. It's one thing to read that Americans abused detainees, not just in Abu Ghraib, but throughout the world, encouraged by the highest levels of government. It's another thing entirely to see the photographic evidence of that abuse. The second part of the White House's argument is equally silly, because it can be extended ad infinitum. Are we supposed to keep secret anything that makes the US look bad? If Obama does decide to pull a Cheney and classify the photos as secret, he better get ready for a long slide down a slippery slope. What happens the next time there's something that embarasses the US and might inflame opinion against Americans? Will he classify that, too?

I agree entirely with Nick's second point, but not with his first.  It's true that images are different from words and videotape is different from images.  But we already have plenty of images of detainee abuse, and what we're fighting over here is more images, not videotape.  It's genuinely not clear that releasing yet more images will really accomplish anything.

That doesn't mean that Obama's position is correct.  Preventing release via legislation or unilateral classification just because you don't like the possible result of a court fight is an appalling precedent to set.  If a court orders the photos released, they should be released even if they do end up causing some harm.  Still, I think it's worth at least acknowleding the fact that releasing the photos is likely to do some damage and isn't likely to tell us anything we don't already know.  It's really not a great combination.

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Mapping Iran

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 10:52 AM PDT

Over at TPMCafe, Todd Gitlin linked today to a post at the Internet and Democracy Blog mapping out the support for the two main presidential candidates in the Iranian blogosphere.  And since we're all whiling away the time waiting for real news now that the polls have closed, I thought I'd share their colorful results with you.  Basically, Mousavi has support from all over the blogosphere, while Ahmadinejad's support is confined mostly to only the most conservative precincts.  This is presumably good news for Mousavi, as is the high turnout so far, which means that urban voters are probably voting in substantial numbers.

No telling what this means, really, but it's kind of cool.  Enjoy.

Chart of the Day

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 9:51 AM PDT

Via Andrew Gelman at the Monkey Cage, here's a cool chart showing changes in attitudes toward gay marriage at the state level.  (The original paper is here.)  Andrew says there's all sorts of cool statistical wizardry involved in creating it ("multilevel regression and poststratification"), but the bottom line is not just that attitudes toward gay marriage are becoming more liberal everywhere, but that they're becoming more liberal fastest in the states that were most liberal to begin with.  Andrew is surprised by this ("I generally expect to see uniform swing, or maybe even some 'regression to the mean'") but I don't think I am.  My guess is that there's some kind of positive feedback for these kinds of things, where more liberal attitudes feed on themselves as the resulting change turns out to be fairly obviously benign or even beneficial.  Andrew has a couple of other plausible explanations too.  For now, though, just revel in some cool chartmaking and the good news it conveys.

TV Talk

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 9:07 AM PDT

Two pieces of TV news today.  First, Alex Tabarrok is puzzled by the bizarrely high price of HDMI cables for Blu-Ray players:

Why don't any stores stock cheap HDMI cable?  I knew cables were a ripoff yet I could not find reasonably priced cables at Best Buy, Radio Shack, Target or even Wal-Mart.  Ordinarily, we would expect competition to push prices down but in this case it seem as if the mere existence of Monster is anchoring high prices everywhere but online.

My best guess is that this is an unusually strong version of the hidden fee model of Laibson and Gabaix.  In that model, firms overprice one aspect of service — such as a hotel charging exorbitant rates for telephone service — as an idiot tax.  Crucially, the idiot tax is matched by an IQ-subsidy; the price of the hotel room is lower than it would be without the idiot tax — so the idiots don't know to shop elsewhere and the high-IQ types are, in fact, drawn to stores with an idiot tax.  Thus, buy your blu-ray player at places such as Best Buy which sell a lot of expensive cable as well as massively overpriced extended warranties.

Maybe so.  Another possibility is path dependence: back when I managed a Radio Shack store (about 30 years ago), 10% of my store's sales came from stuff like cables and electronic parts.  However, they accounted for upwards of 50% of the store's profits because the margins were fantastically high.  We got away with this because the absolute prices were so low: people will shop around for the best price on a stereo or a computer, but they just don't care about saving a few dollars on stuff like cables and batteries.  The same thing is true for USB cables, which are bizarrely overpriced in places like Office Max or Staples, or high-tech razor blades at your local supermarket.  My guess is that even now, when the price of things like cables and razor blades is high enough to make it worth shopping around, inertia keeps everyone thinking that this stuff is basically cheap and not worth hassling over.

But I admit that the lack of competition is still surprising.  For a few stores to overcharge is understandable.  Maybe even for most stores.  But all of them?  Last year I made the rounds of every retail store in the area after I got annoyed at the price of a simple Cat-5 network cable, and there wasn't a single place that sold them for a reasonable price.  Not one.  It was almost like there was a cartel or something.  (And the cartel worked!  I didn't feel like waiting the few days it would take to order online, so I went ahead and bought an expensive one.  Their fiendish strategy turned out to be remarkably effective.)

And the second piece of TV news?  Something that's close to my heart: broadcasters have promised Congress that by September they will have standards in place that prevent commercials from being wildly louder than the TV programs they're embedded in.  Hooray!  It's only taken them 40 years to finally address this.  "We get it," an industry flack told Congress about loud ad complaints. "As a matter of pure economics, we do not want to lose viewers."

The bad news, however, is that the industry's sweet talk has convinced Congress to halt work on legislation to force broadcasters to address this.  Too bad.  Like the Do Not Call list, this is one of those things where ideology plays no role for me.  I don't care if this is liberal, conservative, libertarian, or anything else.  I just want it to stop, and I don't care a whit whether or not it's a justified interference in the free market.  JUST MAKE IT STOP!

China's Economy

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 8:11 AM PDT

The United States needs to reduce its trade deficit, but arithmetic being what it is, that can happen only if other countries reduce their trades surpluses.  That means Germany and Japan, but most of all it means China — and as the chart on the right shows, China's exports are indeed down.  Good news?  Not really: as Brad Setser has pointed out in the past, this only produces a declining trade surplus if imports also go up — or at least decline at a slower rate than exports.  Ed Hugh delivers the bad news:

The decline [in exports] was the biggest since Bloomberg data began in 1995. And more to the point as far as Brad is concerned China’s imports dropped 25.2 percent last month, compared with a 23 percent fall in April. Hence China just one more time ran an increased trade surplus (up to $13.4bn in May from $13.1bn in April), and it is no clearer to me than it is to Brad how a country running a trade surplus can be leading a surge in global demand. Indeed this months data, far from prodiving evidence of an accelerating “recovery” continues to point towards ongoing weakness in global demand, just like the evidence we are receiving from Germany and Japan.

Ed has more at the link, including some detail about China's imports that provides even more cause for gloom, but the bottom line is that there's not much hope in the short term that China will be leading a global recovery.  Their economy isn't rebalancing, it's just falling.  No green shoots here.

Quote of the Day

| Thu Jun. 11, 2009 1:42 PM PDT

From New York governor David Paterson, explaining to legislators why they should settle their leadership fight and get back to business:

“Think of the lobbyists who have invested in themselves to try to persuade legislative leaders and legislators on issues.”

Give him credit for thinking outside the box, anyway.

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Drill Baby Drill

| Thu Jun. 11, 2009 11:15 AM PDT

Matt Yglesias notes that public support for serious action on global warming has fallen recently:

The trouble is that what the public wants is basically a fantasy — a policy that will let us avoid paying the costs involved in coping with the climate crisis. I understand why people want a policy like that — I want one too. The problem is that it can’t happen.

Au contraire!  The Republican Party has just what the public is asking for:

Democrats in Congress [] seem determined to make our energy situation even worse....Instead, the American Energy Act will produce more energy, lower fuel bills, create more jobs, yield a cleaner environment, and lead to a more secure nation. Can there be any doubt what path is best for the country?

See?  Energy policy is easy when you're willing to avoid actual reality and instead simply engage in pipe dream pandering.  That's today's GOP at work.

Brown Shoots

| Thu Jun. 11, 2009 10:41 AM PDT

The World Bank is fantastically gloomy about the prospects for the global economy this year:

The World Bank publicly released an update on Thursday [for] 2009, saying it expected the global economy to contract by "close to 3%." That is sharply worse than the World Bank's March estimate of a 1.75% contraction. Mr. Zoellick said that while there are signs of an easing of the recession in wealthy countries, developing nations are suffering from a drop in exports, remittances and foreign investment.

....Mr. Zoellick described the global downturn as occurring in "waves." In the first wave, the financial crisis battered the U.S. and Europe. As markets in wealthy countries dried up, a second wave, hit developing nations. Now a third wave is weakening financial institutions in those countries, which could produce a fourth wave that could further undermine financial institutions in the U.S. and Europe.

Italics mine.  That's a huge change in just three months.  Zoellick didn't provide any details about why the Bank's forecast has plummeted so dramatically since March, but their economists must be seeing some pretty sizeable deteriorations to drive a change this large.

On the bright side, the IMF thinks that the recovery in 2010 will be stronger than they previously thought.  I sure hope so.

What the Iranian Election Means

| Thu Jun. 11, 2009 9:52 AM PDT

I don't have any special comment about the upcoming Iranian election pitting hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against moderate reformer Mir Hossein Mousavi, but I thought Marc Lynch's musing was worth passing along.  Here it is:

The Iranian election has already captivated the Arab public sphere — it has been all over the headlines and the TV stations. I imagine that many of the Arabs who see democracy as an important and positive issue find this Iranian election inspiring (as they did Khatemi's 1997 campaign). The Arab public may regard a Mousavi victory as the same kind of opportunity to rethink relations with Iran as Obama's victory offered for relations with the United States. Arab leaders may find it harder to mobilize opposition to Iran with the seemingly reasonable Mousavi in office than with the cheerfully inflammatory Ahmedenejad.

....Of course, if Ahmedenejad wins, the reverse effect may take hold. When George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in 2004, a very wide swathe of Arab public opinion concluded that this meant that the American people really did bear responsibility for Bush's unpopular policies. If the U.S. is really a democracy, they asked, then didn't Bush's victory mean that his war on terror and invasion of Iraq really did represent the American popular will? If Ahmedenejad wins, the same dynamic may hit Iran in the Arab world: the Iranian people had the chance to correct their policies, and chose to continue as they were. That might lead to a hardening and deepening of anti-Iranian sentiment, at least among elites and leaders.

Payday Lending for Rich People

| Thu Jun. 11, 2009 8:30 AM PDT

Felix Salmon has the story here.  I found it unaccountably entertaining.  Cashing out Daddy's art collection after blowing through your inheritance has never been easier.