Kevin Drum

Furloughs and Perks

| Thu Jul. 9, 2009 2:17 PM EDT

From Ezra Klein's online chat this afternoon:

Wokingham UK: It seems that some employers are persuading their workers to take wage cuts, maybe under the guise of long breaks from work. British Airways is pushing that agenda at the moment. Is this way of dealing with the crisis likely to play a big part over the next twelve months?

Ezra Klein: Yep. I'm hearing a lot about unpaid "furloughs," too. Essentially, you can do two things when labor costs are too high. You can fire people are you can cut their compensation. This is a way of cutting their compensation. And it means that the employment statistics are even worse then they look, because people are getting paid less money.

I too feel like I'm hearing way more about this kind of thing than I have during past recessions.  My sister had her 401(k) matching cut.  My wife's company is making everyone take furlough days.  The Virginia Symphony Orchestra took a month off.  Etc.  And of course, this is all on top of good old fashioned rising unemployment.

But what's the right metric to measure this?  The 401(k) stuff doesn't show up in wage figures but furlough days should, shouldn't they?  (Although many of them just end up eating into vacation time, which helps corporate accounting but doesn't affect official wage figures.)  Obviously wage freezes show up too.  On the other hand, layoffs usually hit the most recently hired workers first, who are also the lowest paid, which makes average wage figures go up even as total wages go down.

So consider this an assignment desk post.  Are furloughs and benefit cuts more widespread than they have been in past recessions?  What's the best way to measure that?  Surely some enterprising economist can answer this.

POSTSCRIPT: Someone also asked Ezra about Matt Taibbi's takedown of Goldman Sachs in the latest issue of Rolling Stone.  I finally got around to reading it the other day, and my verdict is simple: it was terrible.  Taibbi wrote a terrific article about AIG a couple of months ago, but the Goldman piece was just phoned in, a long series of blustery assertions with essentially nothing to back up any of them.  If he wants to claim that Goldman was the wizard behind the curtain of everything from the dotcom boom to last year's oil spike, he really needs to produce some evidence for it instead of just saying so.

POSTSCRIPT 2: I just learned that Rolling Stone didn't actually post Taibbi's article.  They only posted a set of excerpts, which is why the online version reads like a long series of blustery assertions with essentially nothing to back up any of them.  Unfortunately, unless you read the intro very carefully, it's not clear that these are merely excerpts.  Instead, it just seems like a very badly written article.

So: I retract what I said for now.  I still suspect that Taibbi is considerably overstating things, trying to construct a dramatic narrative by blaming Goldman for things that are actually sins of the investment community as a whole, but I won't know for sure until I read the entire piece.

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Factlet of the Day

| Thu Jul. 9, 2009 1:36 PM EDT

According to a recent Pew survey, 55% of scientists are Democrats and only 6% are Republicans.  This is good news for everyone.  Democrats now have quantitative backup for their sneers about Republicans being anti-science.  Likewise, Republicans now have quantitative backup for their sneers about scientists just being a bunch of liberal shills who aren't to be trusted on questions like climate change and evolution.  We all win!

In other science-esque news, scientists now rank third, in between teachers and doctors, as contributors to our collective well-being.  (Business executives rank last, even behind lawyers. So sad.)  And although most people are now aware that aspirin is recommended to prevent heart attacks, the public is still having trouble with the issue of whether electrons are smaller than atoms.  Perhaps a gazillion dollar ad campaign from the electron industry would help here.

Is Anyone Binging?

| Thu Jul. 9, 2009 1:01 PM EDT

Responding to a commenter who says Microsoft doesn't really understand branding, E.D. Kain says:

Exactly right. Nor do they understand connectivity and product overlap the way Google does. Google connects your email, chat, documents, search, and even browser now, etc. into basically one product, and with upcoming innovations like Wave and their OS that connectivity and overlap will just become far, far more effective. (Apple has done this fairly well also with hardware added into the mix)

Microsoft has tried with “Windows Live” and all that, but there are just too many gaps, too many brands, etc. I mean “bing” is now part of the whole cadre of Microsoft products, but is it really tied into them well? Why Microsoft hasn’t made their Windows platform more webby is beyond me. And why they make it so difficult to integrate everything is also confusing.

I'm out of touch on this stuff these days, but in fairness to Microsoft, doesn't a lot of this have to do with antitrust rules that don't allow them to integrate everything the way they'd like to?  My understanding has always been that if they could get away with it they'd basically merge every piece of software they own into a single platform and then make it next to impossible to use anything else.  But they can't.

In any case, the motivation for the original post was David Pogue's piece in the New York Times about Microsoft's new search engine, Bing.  Anyone have any opinions they'd like to share on this?  I use it a lot for image searches, but not so much for ordinary text searches.  Partly this is because Bing doesn't seem to have an Advanced Search page, which means I'd have to memorize whatever Boolean concatenation rules they use if I want to do anything more complicated than a search for the latest Michael Jackson news.  Sure, that's lazy of me, but Google works pretty well, so even a small nuisance makes all the difference between using something new and skipping it.

On the other hand, it's sort of interesting to see what Bing comes up with in its "Related Searches" list.  If I type in my name, I get a bunch of expected stuff, but also Maitland Ward.  Huh?  Who's that?  (Says here that she's an actress born in Long Beach who attended the same university as me.  Is that all it takes?)  But even at that I'm lucky.  Matt Yglesias gets paired up with Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter.  Atrios gets Michelle Malkin and Atrio Insurance.  Jane Hamsher gets Bill Clinton.  (She also gets Jane Hamsher Death, which seems kind of ghoulish.)

Oh, and I like the background artwork on the Bing home page.  Very soothing.  Not enough to make me switch from Google on a regular basis, but soothing anyway.

The Drug War Down South

| Thu Jul. 9, 2009 11:05 AM EDT

The Washington Post reports on the drug war south of the border:

The Mexican army has carried out forced disappearances, acts of torture and illegal raids in pursuit of drug traffickers, according to documents and interviews with victims, their families, political leaders and human rights monitors.

....Mexican officials acknowledged that abuses have occurred in the fight against traffickers but described the cases as isolated...."I know that the armed forces are not acting inappropriately, although there have been some cases," said Interior Minister Fernando Gómez Mont, who is responsible for coordinating security operations across Mexico. "The government honestly believes that. There is no incentive for abuse."

No incentive? How about money?

There is the one reported by the US press, a place where the Mexican president is fighting a valiant war on drugs, aided by the Mexican Army and the Mérida Initiative, the $1.4 billion in aid the United States has committed to the cause. This Mexico has newspapers, courts, laws, and is seen by the United States government as a sister republic.

It does not exist.

There is a second Mexico where the war is for drugs, where the police and the military fight for their share of drug profits, where the press is restrained by the murder of reporters and feasts on a steady diet of bribes, and where the line between the government and the drug world has never existed.

Read the rest in "We Bring Fear," part of our cover package on the drug war in the current issue of MoJo.  The Mexican army's incentives should become pretty clear.

Positive Feedback in the Amazon

| Thu Jul. 9, 2009 1:31 AM EDT

One of the most alarming aspects of climate change is the existence of positive feedback loops.  For example, as polar ice melts, less sunlight is reflected back into space, thus heating up the ocean and causing more ice to melt.  Rinse and repeat.  Another one: warming causes the permafrost in the Siberian tundra to melt, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, thus warming the earth and causing yet more tundra to melt.

Here's still another, from the latest issue of the Washington Monthly.  Oliver Phillips, a professor of geography at the University of Leeds, has studied a 2005 drought in the Amazon rainforest and come to a frightening conclusion:

In normal years the Amazon alone absorbs three billion tons of carbon....But during the 2005 drought, this process was reversed, and the Amazon gave off two billion tons of carbon instead, creating an additional five billion tons of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. That’s more than the total annual emissions of Europe and Japan combined.

....Significantly, Phillips [] found that the 2005 drought was not the result of El Niño, the cause of previous smaller episodes, but of a regional rise in sea temperatures — one of the expected early signs of global warming. Taken together, these findings suggest that climate change could trigger the worst kind of vicious cycle, with climbing temperatures causing the rainforests to dry out and give off massive quantities of greenhouse gases, which in turn causes the planet to warm more rapidly — a dynamic with harrowing implications.

Read the whole thing for more.  The Monthly's entire special package on tropical deforestation is here.

Lying to Congress

| Thu Jul. 9, 2009 1:14 AM EDT

Congressional Quarterly reports:

CIA Director Leon Panetta told the House Intelligence Committee [on June 24] that the agency had misled and “concealed significant actions from all members of Congress” dating back to 2001 and continuing until late June, according to a letter from seven Democrats on the panel.

Continuing until late June?  As in, two weeks ago?  As in, right up to the time that Panetta testified before the committee?

Wow.  You'd think even Republicans might be a wee bit upset about this.  But no.  You see, a couple of months ago Nancy Pelosi said the CIA misled her about waterboarding, and if Republicans admit the CIA has lied to Congress it might hinder their efforts to attack her:

House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes , D-Texas, this week sent to the panel’s top Republican, Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, a letter saying new information led him to conclude that the CIA has misled and at least once “affirmatively lied to” the committee. Republicans disputed its contents and have said that the Democrats were trying to protect Pelosi.

....Republicans said it was true, as Reyes wrote in his letter, that the classified subject about which the committee was notified was a subject of bipartisan concern. But they did not endorse Reyes’ conclusions that the CIA had lied....[Hoekstra] said Democrats wanted to help validate Pelosi’s prior claims by establishing other occasions in which the CIA may have misled Congress.

....Reyes expressed surprise at the Republicans’ remarks about whether the controversy was legitimate and whether Democrats were trying to protect their leader, saying simply, “They know better.”

Sure, they know better.  But what's that compared to the opportunity to keep a minor partisan squabble alive?

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Giant Robot Update

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 6:37 PM EDT

Last week I went to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  I did this because the movie had gotten such mind-bogglingly bad reviews that I was curious to see if anything could really be that bad.  Unfortunately, the sound system in the theater kept cutting in and out, and after about 45 minutes I finally gave up and asked for my money back.  Sadly, the only thing I had learned up to that point was that I had no idea what was going on since I never saw the first Transformers movie.

No matter, though.  Via the WaPo's domestic and robot affairs blog, Rob Bricken's Transformers FAQ explains it all and is probably a lot more entertaining than the movie itself.  Also shorter and cheaper.

Quote of the Day

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 5:55 PM EDT

From Fox News anchor Jon Scott, flailing around trying to describe my employer:

There's a recent article in Mother Jones magazine, not exacty a....uh....magazine that is....what....how to put it?....against lightening up on marijuana laws....

Nice save, Jon!  This was just before quoting an excerpt from my marijuana piece — and needless to say, they chose practically the only paragraph in the entire story that had much of anything negative to say about marijuana legalization.  But I guess all PR is good PR as long they spell my name right, isn't it?  And they did spell my name right....

UPDATE: Hmmm.  Bad day for Fox anchors.  Apparently Brian Kilmeade is upset because in America "we keep marrying other species and other ethnics."

Other species?

Overtreated

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 3:04 PM EDT

David Leonhardt's column today suggests that maybe I'm not quite as out of touch as I thought I was about the realities of healthcare for most people.  His piece is about slow-growing, early-stage prostate cancers, and to make a long story short, it turns out there are lots of different treatments for it but pretty much zero evidence about which one works best.  However, the price tags range from about $2,000 for doing nothing ("watchful waiting") to $50,000 for the latest whiz bang proton radiation therapy.

But here's the tidbit that caught my eye:

A fascinating series of pilot programs, including for prostate cancer, has shown that when patients have clinical information about treatments, they often choose a less invasive one. Some come to see that the risks and side effects of more invasive care are not worth the small — or nonexistent — benefits. “We want the thing that makes us better,” says Dr. Peter B. Bach, a pulmonary specialist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, “not the thing that is niftier.”

When I read about healthcare, pretty much the only thing I hear is that everyone wants infinite amounts of it.  And they always want the latest and greatest stuff.

Not me.  My motto is, "That healthcare is best that cares the least."  Or something like that.  Basically, I prefer to get the minimum reasonable amount of healthcare possible, and I have a strong preference for the simplest, oldest, best-known treatments.  I'm not exactly a fanatic about this, but generally speaking I think that most new treatments turn out not to be nearly as effective as we think, and the more time you spend around hospitals the better your chances of catastrophe.

Does that make me an outlier?  It seems like it.  But maybe the difference is just information: I read an awful lot about this stuff, and it's convinced me that there are dangers to overtreatment just as there are dangers to undertreatment.  Leonhardt's "fascinating series of pilot programs" suggests that with better information, more people might agree.

Torture For Thee, But Not For Me

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 1:47 PM EDT

Glenn Greenwald was on NPR yesterday to talk about their policy of refusing to call torture by its proper name, and while he was waiting to go on he listened to NPR's ombudsman explaining their policy:

She also said — when the host asked about the recent example I cited of NPR's calling what was done to a reporter in Gambia "torture" (at the 20:20 mark) — that NPR will use the word "torture" to describe what other governments do because they do it merely to sadistically inflict pain on people while the U.S. did it for a noble reason:  to obtain information about Terrorist attacks.  That's really what she said:  that when the U.S. did it (as opposed to Evil countries), it was for a good reason.

Jeez, that Glenn.  Always exaggerating.  For the record, here's what she actually said about NPR's piece on Gambia:

In that case, these were strictly tactics to torture him, to punish him, versus in the United States, and the way that it's used, these are tactics used to get information.  The Gambian journalist was in jail for his beliefs.

Wow.  She really did say that, didn't she?  When other people do it for other reasons, it's torture.  When we do it for our reasons, it's not.

You don't usually find people willing to say this quite so baldly.  Congratulations, Alicia Shepard.