Kevin Drum

Are Churchgoers Nicer?

| Fri May 8, 2009 12:01 PM EDT

Are churchgoers nicer people?  After reading some recent polling showing that churchgoers are more likely to support torture, I find that a hard sell.  Still, Robert "Bowling Alone" Putnam says the answer is yes: in fact, churchgoers are so nice they even let people cut in line in front of them more often than others.

But does going to church cause you to be nice?  Or do nice people just like hanging out in churches?  Michelle Cottle reports:

Columnist E.J. Dionne (reading my mind) asked Putnam about the degree to which this phenomenon can be explained by the self-sorting joiners-are-joiners principle. After all, it's well established that people's personal relationships and social bonds in general are a huge predictor of how happy and, almost by definition, how engaged they are. Isolationism is good for neither the soul nor the community....Putnam acknowledged that it's tough to tease out such causal relationships. He did point to one aspect of their research that seemed to indicate that religious participation actively propels people up the niceness scale. By going back a year after first interviewing people and conducting a follow up, he and Campbell were able to track behavioral changes among interviewees who had, in the meantime, become more frequent churchgoers. In those cases, niceness indeed tended to rise with participation. 

....Coupled with Putnam's findings that young people today are significantly more secular than previous generations, this raises some troubling questions about our civic life going forward. Although, before any Jerry Falwell types start wagging their pious fingers, note that Putnam's research also suggests that the rise of the Christian Right and its politicization of religon played a major role in driving young people out the church. Luring them back, he argues, calls for decoupling faith and politics once more. Unhappy news for some of the old-school demagogues who have made their career flogging this union. But a very welcome prescription for the rest of us.

Well, I'm not sure how unwelcome this news really is, but I'll let that slide for now.  Europeans seem to be just as nice now as they were back when they went to church a lot.  Maybe nicer, in fact.  Nonetheless, check out that final conclusion: if you turn your church into an arm of the Republican Party, your fortunes are then tied up with the fortunes of the Republican Party.  That worked pretty well for conservative evangelicals for a couple of decades, but now the tide has turned.  Perhaps the answer is for young people to start joining nicer churches and avoiding the culture warriors.  That would be good for both niceness and churchgoing.

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Job Losses Slow

| Fri May 8, 2009 11:02 AM EDT

The New York Times reports on the latest employment figures:

The United States economy lost 539,000 jobs in April, the government reported on Friday, a sign that the relentless pace of job losses was starting to level off slightly but was still nowhere near ending.

A year ago, the loss of more than half a million jobs in a single month would have seemed like a disaster for the economy. On Friday, experts were calling it an improvement.

This is being taken as yet another sign that although things are still getting worse, they aren't getting worse quite as fast as before.  Or, even more positively, that since employment is a lagging indicator (i.e., it usually keeps declining even after the rest of the economy starts to turn around), this means the recession might be nearly over.

Maybe.  It's true that, just as it's easy to get too optimistic in good times, it's also easy to get too pessimistic in bad times.  But I still wonder if there are more economic shocks around the corner.  If not, we might be headed for a slow recovery.  But if, say, Russia or Austria or Mexico suddenly decides to collapse, we might not be.  Obviously I don't know any more about this possibility than the next guy, but I'm still having a hard time generating much optimism about this report.  We'll see.

Chart of the Day - 5.7.2009

| Fri May 8, 2009 1:49 AM EDT

Here it is: the results of the banking system stress tests.  How did your bank do?

Quote of the Day #2 - 5.7.09

| Thu May 7, 2009 6:52 PM EDT

From a hacker who broke into the Virginia Prescription Monitoring Program:

I have your shit! In *my* possession, right now, are 8,257,378 patient records and a total of 35,548,087 prescriptions. Also, I made an encrypted backup and deleted the original. Unfortunately for Virginia, their backups seem to have gone missing, too. Uhoh :(For $10 million, I will gladly send along the password.

The site has since been shut down.  Bruce Schneier has more.

Taxing Carbon - Part 3

| Thu May 7, 2009 4:53 PM EDT

Apologies if you're getting bored with this, but here is Jeffrey Sachs weighing in on the cap-and-trade debate:

A straightforward carbon tax has vast advantages. (1) It can be levied upstream at a few dozen places — at the wellhead, the mine face, and the liquid natural gas depot — rather than at thousands or tens of thousands of businesses. (2) A carbon tax covers the entire economy, including automobiles, household use, and other units impossible to reach in cap-and-trade. (3) A carbon tax puts a clear price on carbon emissions for many years ahead, while a cap-and-trade system gives a highly fluctuating spot price. (4) A carbon tax raises a clear amount of revenue, which can be used for targeted purposes (R&D for sustainable energy) or rebated to the public in one way or another, while the revenues from a cap-and-trade system are likely to be bargained away well before the first trade ever takes place.

(Numbering mine.) This is amazing.  Sachs is a smart guy.  He's a famous economist.  But as near as I can tell, there's only one true statement in that entire paragraph.  Let's take a look.

First: Cap-and-trade can be implemented either upstream (i.e., you require permits for the inputs, like coal and oil) or downstream (i.e., you require permits for the outputs, the carbon that's actually emitted into the atmosphere).  It's just a matter of how you write the legislation.  The Waxman-Markey bill combines both methods, with electric plants and industrial sources covered downstream while refiners and other producers of liquids and gases are covered upstream.  On this score, there's no inherent difference between a tax and cap-and-trade.

Second: Cap-and-trade can cover the entire economy just as well as a tax can.  Again, it's just a matter of how you write the law.  Waxman-Markey would cover an estimated 85% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Third: Yes, a carbon tax does place a clear price on emissions — though it's worth keeping in mind that every serious tax proposal envisions changing the tax rate regularly in order to hit emission targets.  So this sentence is sort of true.  (On the other hand, it's worth noting that under a cap-and-trade system, the price of permits naturally decreases whenever demand for energy decreases, as it does in a recession.  So cap-and-trade acts as an automatic stabilizer, which is a handy feature.)

Fourth: Revenue is revenue.  There's simply no reason to think that revenue from cap-and-trade is any more likely to be bargained away than revenue from a tax.

On balance I think cap-and-trade is superior to a carbon tax on several grounds, but there are nonetheless perfectly good arguments in favor of a tax.  So why make arguments like these instead?  It's embarrassing.

Quote of the Day - 5.7.09

| Thu May 7, 2009 1:46 PM EDT

From Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC):

"Marginal tax rates are the lowest they've been in generations, and all we can talk about is tax cuts.  The people's desires have changed, but we're still stuck in our old issue set."

The noteworthy thing about this quote isn't that Patrick McHenry is a Republican, it's that he's Patrick McHenry.  This is not Olympia Snowe.  McHenry is a young man who made his bones by insisting loudly and on all occasions that, no matter who else was in the room, he was still the most right-wing guy there.  But he's also a young man who made his name as a guy willing to do whatever it took to climb the political ladder.  If he's decided that maybe taxes aren't the road to electoral glory anymore, the GOP better start looking for another issue.

For more, read "Getting Ahead in the GOP," Ben Wallace-Wells's profile of McHenry in the Washington Monthly a few years ago.

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Pincus on Newspapers

| Thu May 7, 2009 1:19 PM EDT

Walter Pincus has an interesting piece about the newspaper biz in the Columbia Journalism Review this month.  The points he makes aren't exactly new, but they're worth making anyway.  For example:

We have turned into a public-relations society. Much of the news Americans get each day was created to serve just that purpose — to be the news of the day.

....In 1981, at the beginning of the Reagan administration, Michael Deaver — one of the great public-relations men of our time — began to use early-morning “tech” sessions at the White House, which had been a way to help network producers plan the use of their camera crews each day, to shape the television news story for that evening. Deaver would say that President Reagan will appear in the Rose Garden to talk about his crime-prevention program and discuss it in terms of, say, Chicago and San Francisco. That would allow the networks to shoot B-roll. The president would appear in the Rose Garden as promised, make his statement, perhaps take a question or two, and vanish.

After a while, the network White House correspondents began to attend these sessions, and later print reporters began showing up, too. On days when the president went off to Camp David or his California ranch, Sam Donaldson, the ABC News White House correspondent, began his shouted questions to Reagan, and Reagan’s flip answers became the nightly news — and not just on television. The Washington Post, which prior to that time did not have a standing White House story each day (publishing one only when the president did something newsworthy), began to have similar daily coverage.

At the end of Reagan’s first year, David Broder, the Post’s political reporter, wrote a column about Reagan being among the least-involved presidents he had covered. In response, he got an onslaught of mail from people who said they saw Reagan every night on TV, working different issues. It was a triumph of public relations.

....Today, mainstream print and electronic media want to be neutral, presenting both or all sides as if they were refereeing a game in which only the players — the government and its opponents — can participate. They have increasingly become common carriers, transmitters of other people’s ideas and thoughts, irrespective of import, relevance, and at times even accuracy.

Read the whole thing.

Specter Gets a Chairmanship

| Thu May 7, 2009 12:30 PM EDT

Arlen Specter may have lost his seniority when he defected to the Democratic Party, but thanks to the generosity of Dick Durbin (D–Ill.) he's getting his hands on a gavel nonetheless:

Senate Democratic leaders have reached agreement with Sen. Arlen Specter to partially restore the party switcher's status on the Judiciary Committee, by granting Specter the chairmanship of the Crime and Drugs Subcommittee.

Under the deal, which Senate Democratic aides outlined this morning, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) would give up the gavel of the prestigious post, which holds jurisdiction over most Justice Department activities.

So Specter now controls the hearings for "most Justice Department activities."  Not bad.  No wonder he took the news of his demotion the other day so calmly.

Factlet of the Day

| Thu May 7, 2009 12:24 PM EDT

Over at the mothership, James Ridgeway points to a piece at the New Rules Project by Stacy Mitchell about credit card fees.  Not the million and one consumer fees that sting us all like a horde of angry gnats, but the plain vanilla transaction fees that are charged on every single credit card purchase:

Although the exact rate charged on any given transaction varies widely depending on many factors, including the size of the business and the type of card, the average interchange fee in the U.S. is now about 2% of the value of the sale — two to six times the regulated rates imposed on Visa and MasterCard in Australia and much of Europe.

....Interchange fees now comprise a substantial share of the income these companies make on credit cards.  In 2004, card issuers took in $28 billion in interchange.  By 2008, that figure had shot up to $48 billion.  That's more than one-quarter of all credit card revenue and more than the total collected by banks in credit card late fees, over-the-limit fees, and ATM fees combined.

Needless to say, merchants have no bargaining power at all here, since they can hardly stop taking credit cards and rules prohibit them from directly passing along the transaction fees to consumers.  In Europe, transaction fees have been cut to 0.3%, but that took EU-level government action.

This leads James to say that "piecemeal laws to protect consumers from a handful of the most devious practices will never get to the real problems. The answer to the credit card mess is a full fledged investigation by Congress, followed by meaningful regulation that takes in all the powerful players in the credit card business, including the banks that are at the bottom of it all."  Alternatively, there's my proposal: round up all the credit card company CEOs and have them shot at dawn.  Just as a warning to others, you understand.

Local News

| Thu May 7, 2009 12:00 PM EDT

Here in Los Angeles, one of the most common media laments is about how poorly the LA Times covers local news.  Matt Yglesias, writing from the other end of the country, wonders if this is inevitable:

While it’s true that the coverage of local issues in DC offered by The Washington Post is not all it could be, the fact of the matter is that most people don’t even know what you could be learning by reading the Post. Not only is it going to be intrinsically difficult to ever find a viable revenue model for paying a reporter to cover the zoning board if people don’t want to read about the zoning board, I’m not actually sure how much social value is created by unread articles about zoning boards. If an article about proposed modifications to the Purple Line falls in the wilderness and nobody’s there to read it, are we really making a difference?

My sense of local news isn't that great, but it's always been a little bit different than this.  The fact is that most communities have a pretty hard core of activists who do go to planning board meetings and city council meetings and so forth.  And 99% of the time, they just do their thing and the local paper does no more than print short blurbs about what's going on.  And the rest of us ignore it.

But every once in a while, something becomes a big deal.  Not because the Times or the Post does or doesn't have a reporter at a board meeting, but because the activists suddenly start screaming louder and the community gets up in arms about something.  Then the local press starts to pay attention.

In other words, it doesn't matter that much if the local paper reports assiduously on local zoning board meetings.  What matters is that the community itself has some minimum level of activist organization and that the local press still exists and can pick up a story when it gets hot.  Unfortunately, the local press can't do even that much if there's no more local press.  That's why they matter.