• What Happens When the Republican Bubble Bursts?

    Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images via ZUMA

    For quite a long time the following thought has been rolling around in my head:

    Every year America gets less white. The Republican Party is keenly aware of this, and keenly aware that their natural base of support is shrinking with every election cycle. But they have no solution to this problem. If they genuinely try to make their party friendlier to voters of color, they’ll lose support from their white base and start losing elections immediately. If they don’t make their party friendlier to voters of color, they’ll start losing elections in the near future thanks to sheer demographic pressure. They have a tiger by the ears, and they can neither hold on nor let go.

    What hasn’t been rolling around in my head is the notion that this thought could be turned into a long cover story in the Atlantic. But Yoni Appelbaum is smarter than me:

    The history of the United States is rich with examples of once-dominant groups adjusting to the rise of formerly marginalized populations—sometimes gracefully, more often bitterly, and occasionally violently….But sometimes, that process of realignment breaks down. Instead of reaching out and inviting new allies into its coalition, the political right hardens, turning against the democratic processes it fears will subsume it.

    ….Trump has led his party to this dead end, and it may well cost him his chance for reelection, presuming he is not removed through impeachment. But the president’s defeat would likely only deepen the despair that fueled his rise, confirming his supporters’ fear that the demographic tide has turned against them. That fear is the single greatest threat facing American democracy, the force that is already battering down precedents, leveling norms, and demolishing guardrails. When a group that has traditionally exercised power comes to believe that its eclipse is inevitable, and that the destruction of all it holds dear will follow, it will fight to preserve what it has—whatever the cost.

    I think this is pretty much true, and that it explains the seeming terror that has taken hold of so many conservatives. It explains why Mitch McConnell doesn’t care much about legislation of any kind but grimly continues to confirm federal judges: it’s his only bulwark against a future in which Republicans lose power completely for a decade or two. It explains why a formerly mainstream party not only voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 primaries, but voted overwhelmingly for him even though they had a perfectly normal field of competitors to choose from. It explains a multi-decade effort at voter suppression that has consumed the party even though it’s unlikely to put off the inevitable by more than a year or three.

    In 2012 I thought that the Republican Party had gone as far as it could to get votes from the white working class. There was just no more blood to be squeezed from that particular turnip. But I was wrong—barely. In 2016 they did what no one could have predicted by nominating a guy who was an all but open racist. And it worked, buying them just a few more votes than it lost them. Once again, they gained a few years.

    But it can’t last forever. The Republican Party has already gone much further down the road of lashing itself to the cause of white racial resentment than I would have guessed possible. How much longer can it last? Like most bubbles, longer than you think. But someday the bubble will burst. The big question is, what will happen next?

  • Lunchtime Photo

    This is a cawtaba rhododendron blooming along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

    May 9, 2019 — Near Blowing Rock, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina
  • Just How Bad Is LAX?

    Wheels up at LAX for a red-eye flight.Kevin Drum

    From the Wall Street Journal:

    LAX, like some other airports, is a collection of terminals built around one double-deck roadway, with one level for departures and another for arrivals. Both are so clogged it can take an hour just to drop someone off after you enter the airport.

    If you click the link, you get this story from 2016:

    “Traffic is crazier than usual. It’s been a rough summer,” says Cheryl Berkman, chief executive of Music Express, a limousine service operating in several cities. At LAX, it’s taken some cars 45 minutes or more to loop 1.3 miles around the terminals.

    “Some cars” have taken 45 minutes—from a story more than three years old—has magically morphed into “it can take an hour.” Journalism!

    FWIW, I’ve picked up and dropped off at LAX lots of times. It’s a mess, and I don’t doubt that there are occasions when it takes 45 minutes to make the full loop. But in all the times I’ve done it, I don’t think it’s ever taken me more than 15 minutes or so. I get that hyperbole sells, but cherry picking the very worst examples and making them sound like they’re typical does no one a service.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    Today was the day of the great Mercury transit of the sun. Obviously NASA is the place to go for pictures of this event, which is, to be honest, not super exciting. However, I was curious whether my little camera could capture the transit.

    I wasn’t hopeful, and when I woke up in the morning there was a solid marine layer filling the sky. So much for catching even the middle of the transit. But by 9:30 the clouds had burned off so I puttered out to my backyard to point my camera at the sun and see what I could get.

    For you camera nerds out there, my settings were f/11, ISO 100, shutter speed 1/32000, and a 10x neutral density filter. And that was barely enough.

    But enough it was. To my surprise, I got some perfectly decent pictures. Here’s my earliest one, with Mercury nearing the end of its transit. You can see it a lot better if you right-click and then select “View Image.”

    November 11, 2019 — Irvine, California

    Here it is a few minutes later:

    Now it’s getting very close to the edge of the sun:

    And finally it’s officially egressing the sun, just a barely visible dot at the very edge of the corona:

    And that’s it. The next transit of Mercury is in 2032. Mark your calendars.

  • Here’s How Corporate America Took Over America

    Have American businesses become more concentrated over the past 30 years? Anecdotally, it seems like the answer is yes. The Big 8 accounting firms are now the Big 4. There are only four cell phone companies, soon to be three. Four airlines control 80 percent of the American market. The car industry consolidated into the Big Three decades ago. Four companies control two-thirds of the cloud computing market.

    But in spite of this anecdotal feeling, it’s an undecided question among economists about whether American businesses are really a lot more concentrated than they used to be. Anyone can pick a few examples of industries that have consolidated, but what happens when you look rigorously at the business community overall?

    We’re not going to solve this question today, though in general I’ve been more persuaded by the researchers who say that consolidation has, in fact, happened, and the result has been increasingly monopolistic behavior among US corporations.

    One of those researchers is French transplant Thomas Philippon, who is introduced to us today in the New York Times by David Leonhardt. Philippon’s research has convinced him that we have indeed gone through an era of considerable consolidation, and it’s mainly due to weak enforcement of antitrust laws. In Europe, which has much stronger antitrust enforcement than we do, Philippon reports that the top firms have increased their market share far less than American firms. As a result, prices charged to consumers have also increased far less than in America. Here is Philippon’s conclusion about how this has affected American workers:

    The consolidation of corporate America has become severe enough to have macroeconomic effects. Profits have surged, and wages have stagnated. Investment in new factories and products has also stagnated, because many companies don’t need to innovate to keep profits high. Philippon estimates that the new era of oligopoly costs the typical American household more than $5,000 a year.

    I find that $5,000 number quite easy to believe. In fact, it seems a little low to me. But how did it happen? Even with weak antitrust enforcement (thanks Robert Bork!), how do companies get away with raising prices and cutting pay? They still have some competition, after all. The answer to that, I think, is the long Republican war against unions:

    The destruction of the American working class is a two-part story. First, it was necessary to get rid of unions. As long as they were around, they’d demand a fair share of profits for workers no matter what the competition landscape looked like. That war lasted from about 1947 to 1981. When Ronald Reagan broke the air-traffic controllers union it was the final straw. Unions had already been decimated both by Republican laws and by Republican-led-efforts to train companies in how to resist unionization. Democrats never had the will to fight back hard enough, and after Reagan they never had the power. Republicans won their war against unions decisively.

    It was only then, with unions effectively out of the way, that corporations could start consolidating and taking an ever bigger share of profits for top executives and shareholders, leaving workers with stagnating wages and grinding working conditions. No union, for example, would accept the practice of “clopening,” where an employee is required to close up a store at night and then turn right around and open in the morning. Nor would they accept the ever-more-common practice of expecting workers to be on call at all times, never knowing for sure what their work schedule will be. As much as low pay, these are the kinds of things that make work such a burden for the working class these days.

    So this is the story. Spend three or four decades wiping out the power of labor unions, and then you can spend the next three or four decades turning the United States into a plutocracy with no one to effectively fight you about it.

    And you have to give Republicans credit: Not only did they cobble together this plan and execute it brilliantly, they’ve managed even so to convince much of the working class that only Republicans truly understand their economic woes. They’re the very party that created those woes by killing off unions and then letting corporate America loose to do whatever it wanted, but hardly anyone sees it that way. Donald Trump yells “China” or “Mexico” and the working class howls its approval. I guess it must be China and Mexico that caused all these problems after all.

  • A Note About Trump’s Tweets

    I feel like I need to remind people of this periodically:

    Donald Trump’s tweets are not aimed at you and me, and analyzing them as if they were will lead you badly astray. They are aimed solely at his core supporters in the electorate and the media.

    In other words: don’t think of them as endlessly outrageous and provocative (“How can he say something like that?!?”). That gets you nowhere because you’re starting from the wrong premise. Think of them instead as routine communiques that Trump thinks are necessary to retain his base support. This allows you to analyze their meaning both more accurately and far more interestingly.

    That is all.

  • Are Hollywood Franchises Hogging Up All the Movie Screens?

    A couple of weeks ago Martin Scorsese declared that Marvel superhero movies weren’t cinema. This prompted the usual tiresome round of social media outrage, even though it was obvious from the start that Scorsese’s point depended entirely on the meaning of “cinema.” Sure enough, the whole affair went pffft when he eventually explained what he meant. His generation of filmmakers, Scorsese said, considered cinema to be high art. “There was some debate about that at the time, so we stood up for cinema as an equal to literature or music or dance.”

    Since even ardent fans can’t seriously consider Marvel superhero movies to be high art, that was the end of this little kerfuffle. But then Scorsese said something more:

    So, you might ask, what’s my problem? Why not just let superhero films and other franchise films be? The reason is simple. In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen. It’s a perilous time in film exhibition, and there are fewer independent theaters than ever.

    In other words, big tentpole movies are taking over the multiplex and leaving no room for small, high-quality films. But this got me thinking. Is it really true that Scorsese’s kind of cinema is being crowded out these days? Here are a few data points to consider. First, the total number of movie screens has increased steadily over the past few decades:

    The share of movies that are sequels or adaptations or otherwise part of a franchise has stayed roughly flat over the past decade:

    And the number of movies that are big studio releases has stayed about the same since 1995, while the number of indie releases has skyrocketed:

    None of this gets us precisely to the problem Scorsese is talking about: namely that franchise movies are taking up all the screens. After all, the number of big studio releases may be the same as it was a couple of decades ago, but they open on more screens than they used to. Without more data, it’s impossible to say for sure how many screen-days are being dedicated to franchises vs. smaller pictures.

    Still, given that the number of releases has been stable while the number of screens has doubled, the data suggests that tentpoles and franchises probably aren’t hogging up a bigger share of screens than in the past. Besides, if screens were truly becoming a lot scarcer, it’s hard to explain why the number of indie releases has tripled in the past two decades.

    Don’t take any of this as conclusive. It’s just what I was able to find without going too far down a rabbit hole. If anyone knows where to find better data, let me know.

  • Why Would Anyone Buy a Greek Government Bond?

    Real interest rates in the eurozone area have been negative for a while. The proximate cause is simple: Eurozone growth is tepid and inflation is subdued, which has caused the European Central Bank to set its policy rate low as a way of stimulating the economy. The current interest rate is -0.5 percent, and once you account for inflation it’s even lower.

    This has a different impact in different countries. In Germany, for example, government bond yields are literally negative. In Greece, which is not as economically stable, yields are positive, but only barely: Greek bonds still pay less than US treasurys.

    I was cogitating on this the other day and wondering how this could be. The ECB can set interest rates wherever it wants, but it does no good unless people are willing to buy eurozone bonds with low or negative yields. Why, I wondered, would investors accept a lower yield on the Greek bond than on US treasurys? And why are they willing to accept the even lower yields on the bonds of other eurozone governments? It was all above my pay grade, so I googled to get an expert view. Here is Ashoka Mody:

    Even if we stipulate that Greece’s government is, in fact, as creditworthy as the U.S. government, why would investors accept a lower yield on the Greek bond? And why are they willing to accept the even lower yields on the bonds of other eurozone governments?

    This made me feel better. Even Mody is confused. He offers up a couple of possible reasons for this state of affairs, but concludes that they make no sense. In the end, the question stands. Why would anyone in their right mind accept a lower yield on a Greek bond than a US bond? Or even a German bond, for that matter? Treasurys are the strongest, safest investments around, and the US economy is in better shape than pretty much any European economy.

    So: why does anyone buy Greek bonds? Why isn’t there a huge stampede at every auction of Treasurys? Can anyone point me to a nice, simple explainer on this topic?

  • Reanimated James Dean “Not a Marketing Gimmick”

    As you may have heard, an upcoming film set in the Vietnam era will star James Dean, brought back to life through the magic of CGI. Not everyone was thrilled by this news, and today the filmmaker begged for sympathy:

    “We don’t really understand it. We never intended for this to be a marketing gimmick,” director Anton Ernst tells The Hollywood Reporter in response to negative criticism on Dean’s posthumous casting.

    If there is a God, Ernst should be struck down where he stands. Is there a single person on the planet who thinks this was anything other than a marketing gimmick?

    I dunno. Maybe this is the Trump influence at work. In the past, you had to make your lies at least superficially plausible, but Trump has taught us that this isn’t necessary. In fact, the dumber the lie the better.

    Still, this is not as bad as it could be. In another decade or so, the big marketing gimmick will be to use an actual human being to play a small role in a movie. Probably a Kardashian or something.