The Other Shoe

Megan McArdle comments on the stock market crashes that have followed Japan's recent earthquake:

Periodically, you hear students of the Great Depression wondering whether another shoe is going to drop, the way it did with Austria's Creditanstalt in 1931. The economy looked as if it was going to recover from a sharp, but not all that unusual recession--and then Creditanstalt failed and everything really went to hell. Unfortunately, we have a lot of candidates for the next disaster: oil disruptions in the Middle East, the European debt crisis, and now Japan.

Pessimist though I am, I have to admit that "gigantic earthquake in Japan" was not on my list of possible flash points for the global economy. And in the end, I don't think it will be. Still, it just goes to show that you can't think of everything. If the losses in Japan expose weaknesses in the insurance industry, who knows what might happen next?

The Wisdom of Crowds

Ryan Avent says that while bike lanes are great, the mere existence of big cities like New York is far more important than details like bike friendliness:

Net emissions fall a lot more when someone from Houston moves to New York than when someone from New York starts biking.

Happily, lots of people would LOVE to move to New York. This is one huge benefit we don’t need to subsidize to realize. Unhappily, the benefit is nonetheless out of reach because of the huge obstacles to new, dense construction in New York. New York can’t accommodate more people unless it builds more homes, and it can’t build more homes, for the most part, without building taller buildings. And New Yorkers fight new, tall buildings tooth and nail. They fight them on aesthetic grounds, and because they’re worried about parking and traffic, and because they’re worried about their view, and because they just think there’s enough building in New York already, thank you. And many do this while heaping massive scorn on oil executives and the Republican Party over their backward and destructive views on global warming.

....My old neighborhood, Brookland, voted overwhelmingly for Obama (about 90-10, as I recall). Many of the locals are vocally supportive of broad, lefty environmental goals. And yet, when a local businessman wants to redevelop his transit-adjacent land into a denser, mixed-use structure, the negative response is overwhelming, and residents fall over themselves to abuse local rules in order to prevent the redevelopment from happening.

For what it's worth, I'd dial down the scorn and take this as an opportunity. Here's the thing: my guess is that virtually nobody in the country thinks that cities are greener places than towns or suburbs. And by "virtually nobody," I mean maybe a few percent tops. For most people, it's wildly counterintuitive on all sorts of levels to think of big, dirty, crowded, urban areas as "green." It just doesn't compute.

The downside of this is that urbanophiles have a huge uphill battle ahead of them to change people's minds. The upside is that there's no place to go but up. It might take years or decades, but there's a genuine opportunity to educate the public over the long term and change the way they think about density. And this in turn represents a genuine opportunity to change the way Ryan's lefty friends think about developers who want to put up dense new buildings.

It won't happen quickly, but frankly, there aren't all that many areas where educating the public has much chance of changing things at all. At least in this case the opportunity is there.

Wasting a Crisis

Jonah Goldberg is upset that people are starting to ask fresh questions about nuclear power in the wake of Japan's earthquake and tsunami:

When thousands die, or when some sudden calamity befalls us, the tendency of politicians, journalists, policymakers and experts is to seize the moment to advocate radical changes. "A crisis," Rahm Emanuel famously declared in the early days of the Obama administration, "is a terrible thing to waste."

That this axiom didn't generate more controversy always struck me as bizarre. I mean, shouldn't it be "a crisis is a terrible thing to exploit"? So here we go again in Japan, where the tragedy is literally too terrible to comprehend.

Speaking for myself, I'm with Rahm: it's nearly impossible to get human beings to react to anything less than a crisis, so if you ever want anything at all to get done you'd better take your chances where you find them. But that's just me. Obviously Jonah feels otherwise, and I look forward to his future counsels of caution and deliberation whenever his fellow conservatives appear to be taking advantage of a short-term crisis in order to push their long-term agenda.

The Abuse of Private Manning

Mark Kleiman:

I had breakfast yesterday with two colleagues, both of them actively interested in public affairs and both of them relatively heavy consumers of newspapers and television news. Neither of them had heard about the maltreatment of Pfc. Bradley Manning until the flap over P.J. Crowley’s statement.

Today the New York Times editorialized about Manning, so maybe finally a few more people will hear about this:

Private Manning is in solitary confinement at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Va. For one hour a day, he is allowed to walk around a room in shackles. He is forced to remove all his clothes every night. And every morning he is required to stand outside his cell, naked, until he passes inspection and is given his clothes back.

Military officials say, without explanation, that these precautions are necessary to prevent Private Manning from injuring himself. They have put him on “prevention of injury” watch, yet his lawyers say there is no indication that he is suicidal and the military has not placed him on a suicide watch.

....Private Manning is not an enemy combatant, and there is no indication that the military is trying to extract information from him.

Actually, I'm not sure that last part is true. I think it's entirely possible that the military wants Manning to provide evidence that implicates Julian Assange on espionage charges. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the abuse of Manning is being done in hopes of extracting from him the kind of confession they need in order to make an indictment stick.

It's loathsome behavior regardless, of course. And just to remind everyone: Manning is, for the time being anyway, an innocent man. He hasn't even been put on trial yet.

The Evolution of Blowhardery

The Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that the audience for cable news plummeted last year. In particular:

The audience for cable news in the last year declined substantially. In aggregate, the median viewership fell 13.7% across the entire day in 2010. Prime-time median viewership fell even more, 16% to an average of 3.2 million, according to PEJ’s analysis of Nielsen Market Research data. Daytime fell 12%.

This is interesting. The audience for actual cable news dropped a fair amount, but the audience for prime time blowhardery dropped even more. So the problem isn't that 24/7 news is too boring and needs further injections of attitude, because it turns out that attitude isn't selling as well as it used to. On the other hand, CNN cratered in prime time far worse than the two blowhard cable news outlets, so apparently the public appetite for more high-minded analysis is weak too.

I don't really know what to make of this, but in a weird way I blame MSNBC. For a while, Fox was sui generis, and their viewers basked in the idea that they were part of an exclusive fraternity of insurgents fighting the liberal media monolith. Then MSNBC became the Fox of the left, and suddenly the liberal monolith was unmasked as.....Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann. Once prime time explicitly became just a battle of Team Right versus Team Left and Team Nothing, that made all the blowhardery just a little less special than it used to be in the good old days. Even diehard partisans probably started to lose interest, and that dampened the appetite for prime time cable shows of all stripes.

Then again, maybe it's all Glenn Beck's fault. When a guy like that becomes the face of cable opinionmongers, it can hardly help but give opinonmongering a bad name.

The Flavor of the Day in Libya

Jonathan Chait thinks that Barack Obama is too attached to defending the status quo in international affairs:

The Obama administration's decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan show that it's obviously not allergic to the use of military force. Rather, it seems to have an extremely strong status quo bias. The policy rationale for aiding Libya's rebels seems clearly stronger than the policy rationale for pressing on in Afghanistan. Yet here we are. You can justify each decision on its own terms, of course. But it appears to me that the level of fear of American intervention in the Middle East displayed by Obama here — a level strong enough to foreclose a no-fly zone in defense of, and aid to, an indigenous uprising — would also be strong enough to push it out of one or both of its current wars. Instead, we simply have status quo across the board.

This is probably true, but I'm not sure how it could really be otherwise. It takes a lot of energy to change the status quo, and it takes a lot of energy regardless of which direction you're trying to move it. There's only just so much energy and just so many resources that a president has at his disposal, and that limits his options considerably.

Besides, if the result of status quo bias right now is a strong tendency not to get involved in military operations that can easily spiral out of control, that's probably a good thing. Establishing a no-fly zone in Libya is suddenly the flavor of the day in amateur war punditry, but it's no silver bullet. Before we go there, I'd like to hear some experienced professionals telling me that a no-fly zone would (a) actually make a significant difference and (b) not be likely to lead to an escalation of forces. If Obama wants to hear the same thing before he commits the United States to yet another war, then good for him.

Nukes and the Free Market

Matt Yglesias isn't a huge fan of nuclear power, but he still thinks nukes deserve some pushback against critics who are using Japan's current nuclear woes to argue that nuclear power is inherently unsafe:

We’re currently told that the death toll in Japan will be at least 10,000 people of whom approximately zero seem to have perished in nuclear accidents. What happens when a tsunami hits an offshore drilling platform or a natural gas pipeline? What happens to a coal mine in an earthquake? How much environmental damage is playing out in Japan right now because of gasoline from cars pushed around? The main lesson is “try not to put critical infrastructure near a fault line” but Japan is an earthquakey country, so what are they really supposed to do about this?

This is a good point: energy sources of all kind cause problems. Sometimes the problems create screaming headlines (nuke meltdowns, offshore oil explosions, mining disasters) and sometimes they don't (increased particulate pollution, global warming, devastation of salmon runs). But the dangers are there for virtually every type of energy production.

Still, it's worth pointing out that the problem with nuclear power isn't so much its immediate capacity to kill people. As Matt points out, no one has died in Japan from the partial meltdowns at its damaged nuclear plants, and it's unlikely anyone ever will. The control rods are in place, and even in the worst case the containment vessels will almost certainly restrict the worst damage. [Or maybe not. See update below.] The problem with nukes isn't immediate casualties, it's economic viability:

Peter Bradford, a former NRC commissioner, said Saturday that most of those proposed projects were not viable even before the Japanese crisis because private investors were unwilling to fund them, even with government subsidies.

Experts said it was clear that the situation in Japan would further erode enthusiasm and may even affect applications for continued use of existing plants, such as the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in northern San Diego County.

"The reason there have been no new nuclear power plants ordered over the last 30 years is the economics of the industry," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "Wall Street has been allergic to any investment in nuclear power in the United States."

This is the problem with nuclear power, at least in the U.S. Nobody really wants to invest in new nuclear plants, and post-Japan they're going to be even less willing. Even if nobody dies as a result of radiation leaks, cleaning up those plants after even a partial meltdown is probably going to be staggeringly expensive. Given that, it's perfectly reasonable for investors to adjust their priors and recalculate their spreadsheets after the events of the past few days, and that recalculation is going to make nuclear power even less attractive than it was before — and that's despite the existence of government insurance guarantees and government subsidies.

It's perfectly reasonable to argue that the problem here isn't that nukes are genuinely more dangerous or more expensive than other forms of power generation, it's that other forms of power generation aren't forced to pay for their own externalities. Charge them properly for the carbon they emit and the mercury they spew and the particulates they make us breathe and they'd be just as expensive and just as dangerous as nuclear power. I think there's a pretty good case to be made for that. Nonetheless, until we do start charging properly for all those externalities, nukes just aren't going to be cost effective and nothing is going to change that.

The answer, then, is to force coal and oil and gas power plants to pay for their externalities properly. However, our most recent attempt to make even modest progress toward that goal went down in flames and the Republican Party has made it crystal clear that they'll fight to the death to keep energy generation from ever bearing its market price. So I'm not really sure what the next step is here.

UPDATE: I'm not entirely sure who to believe at this point, but if the New York Times is right then the Japanese nuclear plants might be in bigger trouble than I thought:

Japan’s struggle to contain the crisis at a stricken nuclear power plant worsened sharply early Tuesday morning, as emergency operations to pump seawater into one crippled reactor failed at least temporarily, increasing the risk of an uncontrolled release of radioactive material, officials said.

....Workers were having difficulty injecting seawater into the reactor because its vents — necessary to release pressure in the containment vessel by allowing radioactive steam to escape — had stopped working properly, they said. The more time that passes with fuel rods uncovered by water and the pressure inside the containment vessel unvented, the greater the risk that the containment vessel will crack or explode, creating a potentially catastrophic release of radioactive material into the atmosphere — an accident that would be by far the worst to confront the nuclear power industry since the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant 25 years ago.

The containment vessel is supposed to maintain its integrity even if both the fuel rods and the pressure vessel melt down. If there's really a chance that the containment vessel will explode, then all bets are off.

Getting the Story Straight

I've already defended former NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller's right to tell a prospective donor that he thinks tea partiers are motivated by racism and xenophobia. Schiller isn't a reporter and, right or wrong, his view is a fairly widely held one. There's nothing beyond the pale about expressing it.

But there's more. Lindsay Beyerstein has now watched the entire 2-hour unedited video, and says Schiller actually acquitted himself pretty well:

If you watch the entire conversation, it becomes crystal clear that O'Keefe's provocateurs didn't get what they were looking for. They were ostensibly offering $5 million to NPR. Their goal is clearly to get Schiller and his colleague Betsy Liley to agree to slant coverage for cash. Again and again, they refuse, saying that NPR just wants to report the facts and be a nonpartisan voice of reason. Schiller pointedly informs the fake donors that NPR broke with some very generous Jewish benefactors who had supported NPR for over a decade because they tried to tell NPR that it "couldn't have so much Palestinian coverage."

"And we said, 'sorry,'" Schiller says, "And we lost their funding, and it's gone."

In light of the Blaze post, James Poniewozik of TIME's "Tuned In" blog admits that he reposted O'Keefe's video without watching the entire two-hour exchange and suggests that many other reporters did the same. Poniewozik speculates that O’Keefe posted the extended video because he was confident that “by the time anyone took the time to go over the full video, the narrative would be established, the quotes stuck in people's minds and the ideological battle won.”

Of course that's what O'Keefe does. Talking heads on TV do this routinely, spouting obvious falsehoods because they know that 5 million people will hear them say it and only 50,000 will ever see the correction (if any). This is so common that it's practically taken for granted these days.

Still, O'Keefe is in a class by himself on this score. As Lindsay, says, "At this point, any news outlet that runs an uncorroborated James O'Keefe video is committing journalistic malpractice." Yep.

Defending Mortgage Fraud

Paul Krugman, after pointing out that bankers and their conservative allies are busily insisting that a proposed settlement over fraud charges in the mortgage servicing industry is a "shakedown," explains why the settlement would be good for the economy, not a threat to the health of the banking industry:

First, the proposed settlement only calls for loan modifications that would produce a greater “net present value” than foreclosure — that is, for offering deals that are in the interest of both homeowners and investors. The outrageous truth is that in many cases banks are blocking such mutually beneficial deals, so that they can continue to extract fees. How could ending this highway robbery be bad for the economy?

Second, the biggest obstacle to recovery isn’t the financial condition of major banks, which were bailed out once and are now profiting from the widespread perception that they’ll be bailed out again if anything goes wrong. It is, instead, the overhang of household debt combined with paralysis in the housing market. Getting banks to clear up mortgage debts — instead of stringing families along to extract a few more dollars — would help, not hurt, the economy.

Remarkable, no? The level of shady dealing in the mortgage industry during the great housing bubble of the aughts was legendary. But even a rather moderate settlement like this one is simply unacceptable to mainstream conservative opinion. It's almost as if they don't care about anything other than the interests of rich people and big corporations.

Listen to Me!

No, seriously, you can listen to me tonight at 9 pm Eastern on Virtually Speaking, hosted by Jay Ackroyd. Details here. We'll be talking a bit about the NPR fracas, followed by a conversation about my piece in MoJo this month on plutocracy and the death of the labor movement. It will also be available as a podcast if you can't listen in real time.