Kevin Drum

Pop Culture Watch

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 3:34 PM PST
I've been meaning to write posts about both 24 and Watchmen for a while, but haven't quite gotten around to it because I don't have anything really meaty to say.  So I'm just going to toss out a couple of offhand observations instead, mostly as an excuse to host an open thread on either or both of these fine Hollywood products.

First, 24.  It's turned into exactly the train wreck that I was afraid of when the season started.  Back when Jack Bauer merely tortured people as part of the script, that was one thing.  Your mileage might vary on whether you felt like watching it, but in the end it was just modern-day Dirty Harryism.  Nothing to get all that worked up about.  But this season Jack isn't just spontaneously beating up on bad guys who know where the ticking time bombs are buried.  No.  This season Jack is beating up on the bad guys as part of a premeditated strategy and then talking about it endlessly.  And so is everyone else.  The writers are no longer content to merely suggest that (in their fictional universe) a bit of extralegal torture might sometimes be justified because it gets results.  They're bound and determined to explicate it on screen every single time it happens and demand that we, the audience, actively approve of it. This is not only depraved, it's lousy storytelling too.  All the usual 24 preposterousness aside, it's made the show cringe-inducing this season.

Next, Watchmen.  Like many fans of the comic, I suppose, I've been waiting for it with a mixture of both anticipation and trepidation.  Anticipation, of course, because it's a seminal comic and I'm eager to see how it gets translated onto the screen.  Trepidation because I don't think it will translate well.  This isn't because I think it's "unfilmable," or because I think Zack Snyder will necessarily ruin it.  (I'm agnostic about that.  I thought 300 was fairly entertaining, so I don't hold that against him.)  No.  Oddly enough, it's because I think the story is simply too absurd to survive the transition to film.  I realize that proposition is a little hard to defend, but there's a sense in which a story that tries to treat costumed superheroes as real people is much harder to accept than one in which the essential burlesque of the superhero genre is simply taken for granted.  Once you start to interrogate the whole concept, it's much harder to successfully suspend disbelief.

Now, obviously that didn't hurt the comic.  (Not much, anyway.)  But I think it's harder to pull this off on the screen, which works by default in a realist mode, than it is in a comic book, which doesn't.  Or so it seems to me, anyway — though I cheerfully admit that the whole argument sounds kind of half-baked.  Feel free to mock me in comments.

This won't stop me from seeing Watchmen, of course.  Maybe I'll even see it on Friday if I can find anyone to go with me.  The question is: how many people who haven't read the comic a dozen times will do the same?

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Feeding the Beast

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 1:10 PM PST
Ross Douthat takes a guess at what Barack Obama is up to:

What you see in his budgeting proposals, I think, is the liberal equivalent of the conservative attempt to "starve the beast." In both the Reagan and Bush eras, Republicans passed tax cuts and ran up large deficits while hoping that by starving the federal government of revenue they would curb its long-run growth. Obama's spending proposals would effectively reverse that dynamic — they would create new spending commitments and run up large deficits, in the hopes that the dollars poured into health care and education will create a new baseline for government's obligations, which in turn will create the political space for tax increases on the middle class. Like the starve-the-beast approach, the Obama strategy puts off the hard part till tomorrow: Give them tax cuts today, conservatives said, and they'll swallow spending cuts tomorrow; give them universal health care, universal pre-K, subsidies for green industry and all the rest of it today, liberals seem to be thinking, and they'll be willing to pay for it tomorrow.

I think this is pretty much right, and it's exactly what conservatives are afraid of.  As Bill Kristol knows all too well, social spending programs, once they get started, tend to be pretty popular.  The odds of deep sixing, for example, national healthcare after it's up and running is essentially zero.  And once it's up and running, taxes will follow because most Americans would rather see their taxes go up than their healthcare services go down.

Of course, this mostly applies to broad-based programs.  Smaller ones are still hard to get rid of, but not impossible.  It's the bigger ones that become third rails.  Both Obama and the GOP are smart enough to know this, which is why Obama wants to swing for the fences and congressional Republicans want to become the Party of Nyet.  If they don't stop him now, they never will.

The Market

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 12:34 PM PST
One of the memes making the rounds in the leftosphere these days is that the media pays way too much attention to the stock market.  There's a lot of justice in this.  Day-to-day fluctuations are pretty meaningless, and the media's longstanding insistence on inventing reasons to explain each day's results has always been ridiculous.

But this critique can also be taken too far.  Just because Jim Cramer has the emotional maturity of a five-year-old doesn't mean that the S&P 500 has nothing to tell us.  It can tell us, for example, that investors have little faith in the near-term earning power of American industry.  It can tell us that lots of 50-somethings have suddenly seen their retirement savings cut in half and are scared as hell about it.  And if Robert Barro is right, it can tell us how likely it is that a recession will turn into something much worse:

The U.S. macroeconomy has been so tame for so long that it's impossible to get an accurate reading about depression odds just from the U.S. data. My approach uses long-term data for many countries and takes into account the historical linkages between depressions and stock-market crashes.

....In the end, we learned two things. Periods without stock-market crashes are very safe, in the sense that depressions are extremely unlikely. However, periods experiencing stock-market crashes, such as 2008-09 in the U.S., represent a serious threat. The odds are roughly one-in-five that the current recession will snowball into the macroeconomic decline of 10% or more that is the hallmark of a depression.

Now, it's worth pointing out that almost all of Barro's data comes from developing countries.  There have been only a tiny handful of post-WWII depression-level events in rich countries.  Still, events being what they are, you might say that we are all banana republics now, and if Barro is right the Dow is telling us that we might have as much as a 20% chance of spiraling into depression.  That's worth listening to.

Gordon and Barack

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 11:10 AM PST
It now seems to be nearly universally agreed that Barack Obama snubbed British PM Gordon Brown pretty hard yesterday, holding no formal press conference and taking only a few questions.  But why?  Alex Massie speculates that Obama just didn't want to deal with foreign reporters:

Obama has been briefed about the British press corps and sees no reason to humour them. This would not be wholly unsurprising: Fleet Street's finest are viewed as scatalogically-obsessed, bottle-throwing, teenage yobs far too fond of relieving themselves behind the bushes in the Rose Garden, or worse, in the East Room's pot plants.

Joshua Keating figures Obama's reasons are more prosaic:

I think his motives are actually a bit colder. Obama's most powerful diplomatic weapon right now is his own international popularity, and he seems to be making it clear that he won't share it with just anybody. 

Obama giving the cold shoulder to Brown probably doesn't mean he has any less respect for the special relationship with Britain than any of his predecessors. More likely, and bluntly, he probably just thinks of Gordon Brown as a bit of a loser. Why roll out the red carpet for guys like Brown and Taro Aso who will likely be out of office soon anyway? Something tells me that when Dmitry Medvedev or Hu Jintao visit the White House, the Obamas will break out the good china.

Poor Gordon.  He's the Herbert Hoover of British prime ministers: a guy who took over at precisely the wrong moment and hasn't been able to figure out since how to deal with the hand he's been dealt.  He probably never had a chance.

Quote of the Day - 03.04.09

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 10:22 AM PST
From Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R–Ca.), speaking to one of her aides after a visiting reporter suggested that the stimulus bill didn't actually contain a provision for a maglev train from Los Angeles to Las Vegas:

"Get him the bill, it's right there, show him."

You will be unsurprised to learn that no such provision turned out to be in the bill.  Mack's reaction went sadly unrecorded.  (Via Steve Benen.)

Cuba Lunacy

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 9:35 AM PST
Barack Obama supports a provision in the spending bill before Congress that would allow Cuban-Americans to visit relatives on the island once a year and end limits on the sale of American food and medicines in Cuba. New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez (D–Lunaticville) is so outraged by this that he's threatening to oppose the entire bill.  And he's holding up two of Obama's science nominations (John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco).  And he's threatening to hold his breath until his face turns blue.

Jeebus.  What is it about Cuba that drives people into decades-long fits of insanity?  Even JFK, the guy who instituted the Cuba embargo in the first place, thought we were all kind of crazy on the subject.  But 50 years later?  Crazy doesn't begin to describe it.

What's more, it's a different kind of crazy from most exile communities.  What accounts for it?  A Cuban-American congressional candidate told me last year that the difference was simple: most Cuban exiles, when they fled the island after Castro's takeover, left with their entire families.  So for a lot of them, there's literally nothing remaining there that they care about.  You could drop a nuke on Havana and they'd be OK with that.  This promotes a different brand of insanity than in most exile communities, which might hate the current regime in their home country but still have deep personal ties to it.

I don't know if that's really the explanation or not.  Comments welcome on this score.  But there's got to be something that explains this.  It's just nuts, and Menendez should be ashamed of himself.  It's time to grow up.

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Is the Kindle Too Smart For Its Own Good?

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 7:09 PM PST
Yesterday I decided to buy a Kindle.  As a patriot, I even paid for next day delivery, since surely UPS deserves to be stimulated every bit as much as Amazon.  Right?  Today it came, I charged it up, and then dove into its guts to buy a book and try it out.  Charles Stross's Halting State seemed like a nice choice.

So I clicked on "Kindle Store," and before I could even type in the name of the book Amazon offered up four recommendations.  One of them was Halting State.

I dunno.  That's kind of scary.  I'm pretty sure I've never bought a Stross book via Amazon, so how did they know?  Does the Kindle read my mind?  Brrr.

The book itself was easy to buy.  Too easy, really: click "Buy" and you're done.  The Kindle magically comes preprogrammed with your Amazon account information, and I guess they just assume that anyone impatient enough to buy ebooks online also wants one-click shopping.  A couple of minutes later the book was downloaded and ready to go.  (They say it only takes a minute, but I appear to live in something of a Sprint dead zone, so it took a little longer.)

I shall report back after I've tried it out for a while.  In the meantime, it's pictured above, along with some suitable background material to show scale.

The Mortgage Rescue

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 6:04 PM PST
This isn't the most pressing issue in the world, but a few days ago I suggested that some seemingly contradictory poll numbers on Obama's mortgage rescue plan might actually be perfectly compatible.  Even though it's counterintuitive, it's possible that a majority of people approve of his plan and that a majority of people think it's unfair because it helps out homeowners who were irresponsible.

Today's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll confirms this.  They asked questions about both support and fairness in the same poll and the results are below.  The most likely interpretation is that about 20% of the country thinks the mortgage rescue rewards irresponsible borrowers but supports the plan anyway.  This shouldn't come as a big surprise, either.  Lots of us have had to swallow hard over the past few months and support interventions of one kind or another solely because, even though we don't like them, they seem to be necessary to save the economy.  This is just one more.

Quote of the Day - 03.03.09

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 3:26 PM PST
From Andrew Exum, commenting on Andrew Bacevich's review of David Kilcullen's book on counterinsurgency in Iraq:

No one who really understands COIN wants to do it.

Amen.  (Via James Joyner.)

Free Riding

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 12:49 PM PST
Felix Salmon thinks the rest of the world is shirking:

Justin Fox has an interesting breakdown of global stimulus packages by country: the US, China, and Spain have big ones, while the rest of the world just doesn't seem to be trying so hard....He's right, and no amount of "buy American" provisions in the bill will prevent money from leaking overseas in a globalized economy. Liquidity, you might say, always finds its level. At the margin, it does seem that countries such as the UK are freeloading on the US bailout — both in terms of the stimulus package and in terms of the bank bailout.

I don't know about Spain, but the U.S. was able to pass a big stimulus bill because we had a shiny new left-wing president with lots of political capital to spend, and China was able to do it because they're an autocracy. Conversely, most European governments range from the not-very-shiny (Germany, say) to the downright superannuated (Britain).  They don't have a yearlong campaign of hope and change to draw from.  What's more, as Matt Yglesias and Megan McArdle point out, there are also institutional and cultural issues holding Europe back.  The Germans are still scared of a resurgence of the Weimar Republic, and the European Central Bank humors them by keeping monetary policy absurdly tight.  The EU's stability and growth pact probably doesn't help things either.  The upshot is that Europe isn't doing much to fight the meltdown, and that's especially true of Germany, which ought to be leading the charge since it runs a big current account surplus and could afford to spend much, much more.  Instead, it's one of the chief obstacles to recovery.

I don't have any brilliant suggestions for getting Europe to become a little more proactive on the let's-avoid-another-great-depression front.  Just one more job for the Obama economic team to work on, I suppose.  Maybe someday Treasury will actually hire someone besides Tim Geithner and we can start pushing on this a little harder than we are now.