January 31, 2003

SEX AND THE BRITISH....Sometimes the stereotypes are true:

A new offence of sexual activity in a public place, carrying a maximum jail term of six months, was proposed in legislation published by the Government yesterday. For the first time, the law would define the circumstances in which sex in public could happen....

Sexual activity in a "dwelling" would be exempt - even if it could be witnessed through open curtains - whereas a couple engaging in sex in their own garden which could be seen from the road would be guilty of an offence.

....Hilary Benn, the Home Office minister, said homosexuals meeting in a public lavatory would avoid prosecution provided the participants were not seen.

"If the cubicle door was open then clearly an offence was committed. If it's closed, it's different," he said.

Don't you think this is a case where "I know it when I see it" might have been sufficient?

(Via Jim Miller)

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:30 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

YET MORE PC MADNESS IN THE ACADMY....Erin O'Connor seems to spend her entire life searching diligently for PC outrages in the educational community, but even by her rather loose standards today's outrage is a stretch:

A Missouri schoolteacher has been fired for voicing controversial opinions. Last fall, a student in Jendra Loeffelman's eighth-grade class asked her what she thought about interracial marriage. The question grew out of a discussion about an assignment the student had been given in another class. Loeffelman answered honestly, telling her class that she disapproved of interracial marriage because it produced children who are likely to be persecuted. Some of Loeffelman's students are of mixed racial origins.

Erin thinks that Loeffelman was fired solely because she refused to "pander to [students']--or their parents'--sensibilities."

Yeah, that makes sense: approval of mixed race marriage would have been just another case of "pandering" to those damn reverse racists in the Democratic party. Why are they so hypersensitive about this stuff, anyway? Does everything have to be about race?

Here's the lesson, Erin: if you're going to be a racist, you better shut up about it. We've made at least that much progress.

And please: no emails suggesting that this isn't racism. If disapproval of interracial marriage isn't racism, then the term has lost all meaning.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 06:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MATT'S BACK....Matt Yglesias is finally back and has sent everyone a shameless, pathetic email asking us to link to him. These Harvard kids will stoop to anything.

However, he's got a good post from the trenches of the Howard Dean campaign, so all is forgiven. And I'm with him on this: if Dean is genuinely a protectionist, he's lost my vote too.

He also comments on my creationism post — well, the headline of my creationism post, anyway:

CalPundit asks is creationism science?, but I think it's a bad question. The so-called "demarcation problem" between science and non-science is, I think, so context-dependent that it's not really answerable. A better question to ask would be "are there good reasons to think creationism is true?" and my answer would be "no."

Sheesh. Trust a philosophy major to bollocks things up....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 05:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MORALITY IN FOREIGN POLICY....Today in the Weekly Standard William Kristol celebrates the return of morality to foreign policy:

It is true that regimes don't exist apart from the various material interests and geographical and historical characteristics of nations. So "morality in foreign policy" is always limited. Necessity has its claims. And the freedom and security of one's own nation come first. But our freedom and security turn out to be inextricably linked to the character of regimes elsewhere in the world.

It's funny, though, he attributes the origin of our concern with the "character" of a regime to Ronald Reagan, the man who mined Nicaragua's harbors, sold arms to Iran, and supported Saddam Hussein for the better part of a decade.

At the same time he absent mindedly fails to remember the real origin (in recent years, anyway) of U.S. concern with morality in foreign affairs: Jimmy Carter's insistence on judging nations according to their respect for human rights. And unless my memory fails me, Carter was roundly castigated for his diplomatic naiveté by neocons like Kristol — until Reagan discovered that "human rights" was actually a pretty good cudgel to use against the Soviet Union. Then it suddenly became OK.

Funny how memory plays such tricks on us....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 05:27 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

IS CREATIONISM SCIENCE?....Shazam! If you want to generate traffic and email, just blog about either (a) France or (b) evolution. Today's subject is evolution.

Here's the nickel version of the story so far: Michael Dini, a biology professor at Texas Tech, says that he won't give students recommendations for "further education in the biomedical sciences" unless they can "truthfully affirm" a scientific explanation of how humans originated. Since many fundamentalist Christians don't believe in evolution, he's being accused of religious bigotry.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: creationists have gone out of their way — most recently using the sophistry of "Intelligent Design" — to insist that creationism is a scientific theory, not a religious belief. The problem is that there is simply no credible scientific evidence for this, and it's perfectly reasonable for a professional biologist to point this out. In Dini's case, what we have is a scientist asking a science student to provide a scientific explanation of human origins, and evolution via natural selection is the answer he's looking for.

To make the distinction clearer, let's try a thought experiment (it's a "thought" experiment because we're trying to read Dini's mind). Here is Dini's question and three possible answers to it:

How do you think the human species originated?

Answer #1: Humans evolved from apes....blah blah blah [insert adequate explanation of evolution here]. Verdict: Thumbs up.

Answer #2: Humans evolved from apes....blah blah blah [insert adequate explanation of evolution here]....but I also believe that the key mutations that created the species H. sapiens were guided by God. Verdict: Thumbs up.

Answer #3: Humans were created in a spontaneous act by an intelligent designer and are separate from the rest of the animal kingdom. They are not members of Class Mammalia. Verdict: Thumbs down.

A "scientific" answer to Dini's question does not rule out religious faith (including a belief in occasional divine intervention), but it does rule out creationism as a defensible model within the scientific tradition and it does require you to understand that Darwinian evolution is overwhelmingly the best known explanation for human origins. It is perfectly reasonable for a scientist providing a professional recommendation to be unwilling to vouch for someone who doesn't understand this.

And a note of caution: anyone who believes that high school biology textbooks should teach evolution, not creationism, should oppose Dini's position with trepidation. If Dini is required to recommend students who defend creationism as a reasonable scientific theory, then what possible argument is there for not including it in our textbooks as well? (It is worth noting that Dini's primary research interest is in the "pedagogy of biology.")

POSTSCRIPT: I think this story really hits you in the face with one of the biggest problems fundamentalist Christians have: they have decided to argue that creationism is a scientific theory, and in doing so they have implicitly accepted the ground rules of the scientific community. This is a disaster for them, since there is simply no way that they can win this battle using the other side's rules.

POSTSCRIPT II: Lots of people have been blogging about this. For other opinions pro and con try the following sites:

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

END THE VETO POWER?....I've noted many times that I think the UN has shown pretty good judgment in matters of military action by its members over the years. Not perfect judgment, mind you, but it has a pretty respectable record, and that's one reason why working through the UN on Iraq is a good idea.

But here's a question: isn't it about time to get rid of the veto power of the five permanent members? The U.S. has been one of the loudest defenders of this privilege over the years, but it's not clear to me that it has ever worked in our favor, let alone that it continues to do so.

Consider: if 14 out of 15 Security Council members approved of an invasion of Iraq but France vetoed it, it's hard to argue that this should be allowed to prevent a military action that obviously has virtually unanimous international support. In this case, international action would indeed be held hostage to the unilateral action of one nation.

On the other hand, if the U.S. can't persuade 10 out of 15 Security Council members that we should invade Iraq, I would argue that we should seriously consider the idea that we're making a mistake. In the extreme, of course, we reserve the right to act on our own, but significant opposition suggests that at the very least we should take a step back and reconsider things.

The veto power of the permanent members makes the UN like a sort of crap game, where any of the permanent members can block UN policy at any time for any reason. Is it any wonder, then, that the UN is often ineffective? Get rid of the the veto power, place more trust in our diplomatic efforts, and I suspect that while we would lose a few arguments, we would win a lot more. And overall, the UN would probably become a friendlier place.

UPDATE: Bryant Durrell at Population: One proposed the same thing last week and included a link to this cool table, which shows which countries have been the biggest users of the veto power over the years.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:10 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DO AS WE SAY, NOT AS WE DO....The Los Angeles City Council voted this week to uphold a new police department policy regarding residential burglar alarms. From now on, police will not respond to burglar alarms unless they also get a phone call verifying a problem. Too many false alarms, the LAPD says, and we're wasting police resources responding to them all.

Ah, but it turns out that certain people are exempt from this new policy: City Council members. The LAPD explains:

"Because they're the most visible representatives of city government, they should have the benefit of some security system in their homes and offices," said Lt. Debra Kirk of the Police Commission's investigations division, which is responsible for enforcing the alarm policy.

What's more, they don't have to pay the annual alarm permit fee or the false alarm fees. Isn't it lovely being a Los Angeles city councilman?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

VACATION IS OVER....OK Matt, it's January 31. Where are you?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:03 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 30, 2003

CHESS UPDATE....Kasparov has now punted two games in a row. In game three, playing white against Deep Junior, Kasparov played strongly until the end, when he slipped and looked headed for a draw — but then missed a crucial play and allowed Deep Junior to pull out a last-minute win.

This seems to be the pattern in the three big-time man vs. machine chess matches since 1997: the human plays well for the first two or three games, but then folds under the pressure of the computer's unblinking eye. Is that going to happen again this time?

The score is now tied at 1.5 to 1.5. The next game is on Sunday.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THE FUTURE....Every once in a while, while I'm all caught up in the middle of some furious political blogging, I suddenly blink and wonder if any of it really matters. Here's why:

  • Quantum computing

  • Artificial intelligence

  • Infinite clean energy from fusion/solar/etc.

  • Nanotechnology

  • Genetic tailoring

Plus a couple of other new technologies that we haven't even thought of yet.

It's possible that none of these things will ever become practical, but I bet most of them will sometime in the next 50-100 years. And it will make all the stuff we're arguing about today simply irrelevant, assuming we can refrain from blowing ourselves to bits in the meantime.

That list is one of the reasons I have a hard time getting too worked up about projections of Social Security deficits in the year 2078....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

I JUST CAN'T TAKE MUCH MORE OF THIS....I've got a deal for conservatives: we'll stop claiming Bush is dumb if you'll stop pretending that every administration fuckup is actually part of an intricate master plan of Brobdingnagian proportions.

Sheesh.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:56 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

FROM THE "CAN'T WIN 'EM ALL" DEPARTMENT....Is art a reflection of life, or is it the other way around?

One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor
where the Shadows lie.



Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DOES IRAQ HAVE NUKES?....Knowledgable people who talk honestly about "weapons of mass destruction" usually differentiate between chemical and biological weapons — bad — and nuclear weapons — horrific. The all-purpose acronym WMD often obfuscates this, leaving us to wonder: does Iraq really have a nuclear program? Or just chemical and biological?

Today Josh Marshall publishes an interview with Kenneth Pollack, author of The Gathering Storm, that asks that very question. Here is Pollack's reponse:

One of the things that has been most important to me is talking to the inspectors, the inspectors who were responsible for this program during the 1990s. Every one of which I've spoken to believes that the Iraqis somewhere have a clandestine centrifuge program. And that's very meaningful to me because the experts, the guys who are in there doing it themselves, they also believe that the Iraqis are still pursuing this. It's just that we can't find what they've got.

Is there more? Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of the interview.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

LIAR, LIAR, HAIR ON FIRE...Does George Bush dye his hair? Maybe, but Megan McArdle thinks the whole question is silly:

Left and right: you have taken leave of your senses when you are trying to interest journalists, or the reading public, in the question of the president's dye job.

Surely, Megan, you haven't been blogging all this time and not noticed that hair is practically an obsession with journalists? Just off the top of my head:

  • Remember when Jimmy Carter started parting his hair on the opposite side?

  • Remember when people asked if Ronald Reagan used hair color?

  • Remember when Bill Clinton supposedly shut down LAX in order to get a haircut?

  • Remember the endless fuss over Hillary's ever-changing hairstyle?

  • Remember when John Kerry was accused of getting a $150 salon cut?

  • Remember when Gerhard Schröder went to court over reports that he used hair dye?

"Trying to interest journalists" indeed. Who needs to try? I think that if Pat Nixon had switched to being a redhead in 1973 it would have crowded Watergate off the front page entirely and the Trickster would have spent his golden years as an elder statesman instead of an international symbol of political scandal.

But for what it's worth, I agree with Megan on the substance: I suspect the whole thing is a trick of light. But I wonder if anybody has asked Ari about it yet?

UPDATE: Apparently not. But as I was checking I noticed that sometimes the White House holds "press briefings" and sometimes it holds "press gaggles." What's the difference?

UPDATE II: According to an email from an "ex-White House grunt":

"Gaggles" historically refer to informal briefings the press secretary conducts with the press pool rather than the entire press corps. They used to happen in the morning, they were more or less off the record, and their purpose was mostly to exchange information - the president's schedule and briefing schedule, from the administration side; heads-up on likely topics or early comment on pressing issues, from the news side. Briefings were what everybody knows them to be.

In previous administrations, when the President traveled, sometimes the press secretary would hold a gaggle with the press pool that travels on Air Force One - not every time, but sometimes, and always informally. In this administration, Ari does a gaggle on the plane every time the President goes out of town, and a transcript is made available for press corps members who weren't on the plane. These mid-air mini-briefings are the "gaggles" you can find transcripts of on the White House website.

He goes on to note that "Now you have one additional bit of wholly useless information to find space for." Hell, that's practically the definition of blogging....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 02:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

EVOLUTION STRIKES BACK....Via Eugene Volokh comes an AP story about a biology professor who refuses to give students recommendations unless they believe in evolution. The Liberty Legal Institute has filed a complaint:

"Students are being denied recommendations not because of their competence in understanding evolution, but solely because of their personal religious beliefs," said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel for the institute.

I would venture to say that belief in creationism indicates a striking lack of competence in understanding evolution, but hey, that's just me.

Of course, I also wouldn't recommend someone who didn't believe in general relativity to a physics program, or someone who thought the Earth was 10,000 years old to a geology program. Blinkered of me, I know....

POSTSCRIPT: I'm just curious: would the Liberty Legal Institute complain if a divinity professor refused to give a recommendation to a student who didn't believe in God?

UPDATE: Eugene Volokh has practically devoted his entire blog to this issue tonight. I don't think I've ever in my life seen so many smart people completely miss the point over and over.

Here it is: if you ask a biology professor for a personal recommendation, it's going to be based on whether he thinks you have a strong knowledge of biology and biological theory. If you don't believe in evolution, you obviously don't understand biology very well. So: no recommendation.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:34 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

EUROPE AND AMERICA....Yesterday I wrote:

Europe and America largely share a core set of values: democracy, capitalism, religious tolerance, and a dedication to civil liberties.

At the same time, apparently, eight European leaders were writing this:

The real bond between the U.S. and Europe is the values we share: democracy, individual freedom, human rights and the Rule of Law.

Hey, not bad! I'm in pretty good company! Of course, as Sun Tzu Files points out, there are 39 other European countries that didn't sign this letter of support for American policy, but it still seems like a significant show of public support to me. It will surely put some pressure on the Germans and French, especially since the signatories included Britain, Spain, Italy, and Portugal, all of whom are large and longstanding members of the EU.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:10 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

WHY BLOG?....Why are there so many political blogs and so few culture blogs? Michael Blowhard opines today:

My current suspicion is that it comes down to the sheer fun of drinking some morning coffee, getting pissed off by the morning's headlines, and heading to the computer for a good morning's blogging.

Yep, that's about it, I think.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:56 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

$45 IN TAXES FOR A FAMILY OF FOUR EARNING $40,000?....Jesse says today:

The long and short of all of this is any family earning $40,000 (and falling) that actually sees their tax burden on predominant, if not total non-dividend income fall the 96% that Bush claims is taking me out to dinner, considering that they will have an effective tax burden of .11%. Now THOSE are some real tax savings.

The thing is, Bush's claim is probably true (or pretty close to true). A family of four with an income of $40,000 only pays about $1200 in federal income taxes, and part of Bush's plan is an increase of $400 in the child tax credit and removal of the marriage penalty. I don't know for sure if this would reduce their tax liability to $45, but it comes pretty darn close.

They still have to pay sales taxes and property taxes and excise taxes, of course, but in terms of federal income tax, Bush's claim is pretty much correct.

(Oh, and if you're single and have no kids — well, you're pretty much out of luck. But that's what we get for electing a "family values" president: if you have no family, you get no value. Tough luck.)

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:09 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

ARE BLOGS THE FUTURE OF PUBLISHING?....Nick Denton has been pushing the idea of "nanopublishing" for a while now: blog-like sites that can be profitable because their costs are very low. Typically, he says, these sites employ only one or two people and have very low ongoing costs. Gizmodo and Gawker are two examples that he's been involved with setting up.

Today Nick points to this article in the Guardian about nanopublishing:

Denton says a site such as Gizmodo costs between $1,000 and $2,000 a month to maintain. It is run by one journalist - Peter Rojas - and employs one designer. "Start-up costs were minimal, at around $2,000 for the initial set-up, plus $150 for the Moveable Type software the site uses." So, in other words, Gizmodo and Denton's other sites won't be running up huge debts as they attempt to build a readership. "Some of these new online media ideas are small but potentially profitable little businesses."

I still don't get this. I'm sure these sites can probably build some traffic and attract some advertisers, but why would an investor be interested in funding a "profitable little business"? Or even several of them?

Investors typically want to put their money into a business that has the potential for huge profitability. But even if Gawker turns a profit of $100,000, and even if Nick starts up a dozen similar sites, that's only a million dollars. Sure, that's nice, but it's not going to attract any serious attention, is it?

The only way for a nanopublishing company to make lots of money is to have lots of sites. But there are only so many sites that a single person (or a small management group) can run. And in the end, if each site is run by a single writer, then the attractiveness of the site depends precariously on that one person. What happens when Elizabeth Spiers leaves Gawker and starts her own blog? Does it shut down for a while until Nick finds a replacement? Struggle along until someone new gets up to speed?

I dunno. The dead-tree world is chock full of nanopublishing enterprises too, and they're called newsletters. These can be quite profitable if they're run by someone whose advice is valuable, but people like this run their own show and pocket all the profits themselves. The vast majority of newsletters, conversely, are just freebies distributed by enthusiasts. Like blogs.

Count me as a skeptic for now. The business model still seems pretty iffy.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:25 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 29, 2003

AMERICA VS. EUROPE....A few days ago I wrote a throwaway post about Europhobia, and David Adesnik at OxBlog suggested that I should explain myself. "Throwaway posts are often the most revealing aspect of a blog," he said in an email.

I've been meaning to do this anyway, but today I discovered there's not much point: Timothy Garton Ash has written a terrific essay on the subject in the New York Review of Books and you should just go read that instead. It's long, but well worth your time.

So instead I'm just going to throw out some miscellaneous thoughts about American and European attitudes toward each other. Here they are:

  • European countries frequently disagree with American policies — Iraq is currently Exhibit A — but that's not the same thing as being anti-American. It's important to keep that distinction in mind. That was what I meant when I asked, "Are Europeans even allowed to disagree with U.S. policy anymore?"

  • At the same time, it would be foolish to pretend there is no anti-Americanism in Europe. There certainly is, especially among the lefty intelligentsia, but that doesn't mean that it's especially deep or widespread among everyone. Keep some perspective here.

  • There's a big political dimension to this whole thing too. Europeans on the whole tend to be more liberal than Americans, so it's natural that liberal Europeans would dislike a lot of American culture. But at the same time, it's also natural that conservative Americans dislike a lot of European culture, and they do. Jonah Goldberg, for example, has practically built a career out of the word "euro-weenie." There is at least as much Euro-bashing in the United States as there is anti-Americanism in Europe.

  • Don't treat Europe as a monolith. Not all European countries are opposed to our Iraq policies, and the ones that are have different reasons. Germany, for example, has had a strong pacifist culture since the end of World War II, and this is probably what's driving their opposition.

  • France, on the other hand, really does a strong anti-American strain, and it is one of their most unattractive features. But even here it's worth keeping in mind that their attitude is not completely irrational. Charles de Gaulle was snubbed by Roosevelt during WWII despite the fact that he was practically the only prominent Frenchman to be both staunchly anti-Nazi and anti-communist, and he held this against America to his dying day. In 1956 the French were infuriated when Eisenhower humiliated them in the UN and forced them to withdraw their forces from the Suez Canal. And in 1996 France's nomination for the post of UN Secretary General was denied a second term after Britain and America ganged up to nominate their "own African," Kofi Annan. They haven't forgotten these things, and legitimately feel that France — and Europe — have their own unique interests and have as much right to an independent foreign policy as the United States.

  • Americans do have a legitimate criticism of Europe's unwillingness to spend money on their military. This was made all too clear in the 1990s, when Europeans were utterly unable to deal with a civil war in their own backyard until America finally agreed to become involved in the 1999 NATO bombing of Kosovo. Since then, Europe has talked vaguely about upgrading their military capabilities but there's been virtually no real action.

  • Americans tend to feel that Europe doesn't feel enough gratitude for our efforts to defend them against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But there's another side to this story: many Europeans feel that they were the ones on the front lines and America was there solely because of our hatred of communism. Americans showed their true colors and began breezily dismissing European concerns once the Soviet Union fell and Europe was no longer important to them.

  • The United States — and especially George W. Bush — has treated Europe rudely over and over. Look: Clinton didn't ratify Kyoto either, but Bush just brushed it off, saying "Kyoto is dead" and refusing to discuss it further. Europeans bent over backward to address American concerns over the International Criminal Court, but in the end America sent them packing anyway. And when George Bush decided to pull out of the ABM treaty, he didn't even bother consulting European leaders. Whether our policies are right or not, it is any wonder that Europeans feel slighted by this behavior?

Why does all this matter? After all, it's not like we're going to go to war with Europe.

It matters because rogue nations and terrorists are genuine problems, and we can't fight them alone, even if we are history's first hyperpower. We need Europe — and they need us — in order to win this battle, and instead of magnifying our differences, both sides should be doing their best to smooth them over. We should agree to disagree when we have to, but work together over the long haul. This is as true for Europeans as it is for Americans.

Europe and America largely share a core set of values: democracy, capitalism, religious tolerance, and a dedication to civil liberties. So, hard as it is, conservatives and warhawks should suck it up and stop the name calling. We need all the help we can get in the war against terror, and Europe is our best ally in this fight.

It may feel good to rant and call each other clever names — "Old Europe," "Axis of Weasels," "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" — but in the end the laughs are hollow and the transatlantic bickering does nothing except help the terrorists. Anyone who is serious about this ongoing battle should knock it off.

POSTSCRIPT: My original post was a comment on a post from Lincoln Plawg. His response is here.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

WORDS MATTER....ESPECIALLY THE LITTLE ONES!....The Washington Post ran a headline today that said, "Sutton Pleads With Senators at Hearing," and Eugene Volokh was puzzled:

So here's my question, which I can't answer myself because I didn't watch the hearing and haven't read the hearing transcript -- is it quite right to describe Sutton's conduct as "pleading"?

Probably not, but surely Eugene has noticed that variations on the verb "said" are among the most popular ways of making someone look vaguely foolish without actually saying something that's overtly untrue or unfair?

As a public service, here's a list of favorites (mostly used by columnists, which is why it might have seemed so jarring in the news story above):

  • Prattled ("As Hillary prattled on about healthcare, the rest of us....")

  • Muttered ("'We need to hear some proof,' the Democrats muttered helplessly....")

  • Cackled ("'Bush's poll numbers are really slipping,' Kennedy cackled....")

  • Whined ("After Daschle finished whining about Rush Limbaugh, the subject turned to....")

  • Bellowed ("'The Enrons of the world need to be reined in,' Wellstone bellowed....")

  • Sneered ("'Bush just isn't telling the truth about tax cuts,' Pelosi said sneeringly....")

  • Droned ("As Al Gore droned on about tax policy, the audience seemed restless....")

  • etc.

The all-time winner, however, is "shrill," which is the hands down conservative favorite these days for describing any forceful liberal argument. In fact, as near as I can tell, conservatives find it nearly impossible to refrain from talking about Paul Krugman without using the word "shrill" in the next breath. It's almost like it's become part of his name.

This kind of language is remarkably effective: it sets an unmistakable tone, but you can hardly complain about the word itself without seeming petty, despite the fact that nine times out of ten the statement was made in a perfectly normal tone of voice. For example:

Eugene Volokh prattled on today about how "well regulated militia" really refers to the entire adult citizenry.

It's hard to take exception to the factual statement set forth there, but it sure makes him sound like an obsessive crank, doesn't it?

The lesson, as Newt Gingrich could tell you, is that language matters. But remember, liberals can do this too: if you want to make someone look weak, or silly, or just plain dumb, quote them properly and treat the facts with respect, but always hit the thesaurus to find an appropriately sneering variation of "said." It's the newspaper columnist's secret weapon!

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:51 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

ARI FLEISCHER....Tim Dunlop posts an excerpt from a White House press briefing with Ari Fleischer today. Go read it.

Now, I could have picked pretty much any day's briefing to make this point, but is Ari Fleischer the sorriest son of a bitch in this general vicinity of the Milky Way, or what? As near as I can tell, his job is to get up in front of the press corps every day and stay robotically calm while they rain down abuse on him. His boss never holds press conferences, everyone knows Ari's not going to tell them anything, and it's gotten to the point where reporters just sort of vent on him because there's nothing much more they can do. It's sort of like being manager of the complaint desk at Sears.

Why would anyone want a job like that? It probably doesn't even pay all that well.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 05:34 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

ROOTS....My mother returned from a trip to England a few days ago and brought back this picture of Parsonage Lane in Bath, a stone's throw from Bath Abbey. This, it turns out, is where my great-great-great-grandfather, William Membry, was born in 1818.

William moved to London as a teenager, where he worked as an apprentice baker, and, in 1839, was married to Mary Drew in the parish church of Islington. The next year, shortly after the birth of my great-great-grandmother, Agnes Membry, the Membry family sailed for America, landing in New York probably in late 1840. They spent eight years there, then moved to Covington, Kentucky for a decade, and finally settled in Marshall, Missouri in 1858.

In Marshall, William became a sign painter and Mary ran a small boardinghouse. The town of Marshall, like the rest of Missouri, was deeply conflicted during the Civil War and William apparently became a well-known Union sympathizer during this time. Well known enough, at any rate, that a history of Marshall records that "Federals preyed upon prominent Confederate sympathizers....while Confederates retaliated upon the households of Judge David Landon, William Membry, Snell, and others."

After the war ended Agnes Membry married a Civil War veteran and in 1884 they moved to Los Angeles, where she opened a boardinghouse of her own — named, fittingly, Olive House, after the Mt. Olive Presbyterian Church back in Marshall.

In 1885 William Membry died, leaving behind about $50 in "paints and paint fixtures" and $205 in two savings accounts. His wife Mary followed in 1896 and the two are buried together in the Mt. Olive Cemetery a few miles outside of Marshall. The gravestone reads, "He did unto others as he would they should do unto him."

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 05:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

NORTH KOREA....It sure has been quiet on the North Korea front, hasn't it? President Bush spent, oh, 30 seconds on it last night, saying basically that "we're working on it" and then moving on to weightier dictators.

So what's the latest? Well, according to CNN, the South Koreans sent an envoy to Pyonyang, but Kim Jong-il snubbed him and refused to meet. The envoy did manage to pass along a letter, however, and claims that Kim "promised to study its warm advice and let us know their opinion later." Uh huh.

Later in the same story, CNN reported that the snub was deliberate:

"They want to deal directly with George W. Bush and tell them basically you guarantee my security and in exchange I may consider dropping my nuclear weapons program," Lee Chong-min, from Seoul's Yonsei University, told CNN.

This is nothing new, really, but it's hard not to wonder if maybe they're actually serious about this. The North Koreans have proven so untrustworthy that it seems foolish to take anything they say at face value, but they sure have been consistent about what they want from the U.S.: a nonagression pact and a guarantee of security.

Assuming for a second that we could negotiate a suitable verification regime — a very big if — is there really anything wrong with this? I imagine there's a catch here, but if suitable security guarantees could denuclearize the Korean penninsula, well, that seems like a pretty good tradeoff to me.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 02:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

TAXING TIMES....Oregon voters have rejected an income tax increase designed to help balance their budget. Anti-tax sentiment is apparently still stronger than fear of losing services.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

CHESS UPDATE....Garry Kasparov got snookered by Deep Junior in the second game of their match and had to settle for a draw after having a clear win in sight. Still, it was a pretty good game since he was playing black.

Kasparov now leads 1.5 to .5. Game 3 is on Thursday.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THE FORTUNE 500 VS. THE REPUBLICANS....Sam Heldman points out today that a lot of big companies oppose President Bush's stand on affirmative action because it reduces the pool of minority graduates they can recruit from.

I've also read a number of articles lately saying that corporate America is rather shaky in its support of war with Iraq due to a belief that "war jitters" are hurting the economy. What's more, they aren't really completely on board with the dividend tax cut because their real concern is stimulating the economy now, not providing shareholders with an incentive to demand ever larger dividends.

None of this is more than background noise at the moment, but it's worth paying attention to. Big business is obviously one of the Republicans' core constituencies, and grumbling in the bleachers today could lead to catcalls from the season ticket holders tomorrow.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:55 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 28, 2003

AT LEAST "D" WON'T BE COMING UP FOR A WHILE....The chairmanship of the UN's Conference on Disarmament rotates alphabetically. Because of this, the chairman of the next session in May will be Iraq. Co-chair is Iran.

Oh my.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:35 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

STATE OF THE UNION....Marian and I watched the State of the Union address while slurping down Chinese food tonight, and then played Scrabble. I think the Scrabble was more entertaining.

I don't usually watch political speeches, even the SOTU, because they're just too predictable and tedious. And sure enough, the domestic part of the speech followed the usual pattern: a long laundry list of proposals, all carefully scripted and focus group approved, with little idea of which ones are really important. The AIDS stuff was unexpected, but otherwise it was mostly a yawner.

The Iraq part was better, I thought, a reasonably good summary of the current situation with very little of the bombastic rhetoric that we've heard so often before. I appreciated that he kept it fairly low key.

There was nothing new, though, although now we have yet another new date: February 5. That's when Colin Powell will present new (and presumably more powerful) evidence to the Security Council about Iraqi WMDs. I still don't understand why that couldn't have been done today — or six months ago — but whatever. I'll keep an open mind until then.

I saw Daschle respond to the speech afterward, and I was once again puzzled by the lousy speaking skills of veteran politicians. At one point, trying to emphasize his "credibility gap" talking point, Daschle said something like "we've heard rhetoric before that's good, but then there's a lack of follow through." Crikey. Why not just say, "He talks a good game but doesn't deliver the goods"? And then give a few punchy examples. What's wrong with these people?

UPDATE: Josh, did you really like that "process" vs. "results" line? To me it sounded like a bullet point from some junior McKinsey consultant's PowerPoint presentation. It was the one sentence in the entire speech that I thought struck a completely false note.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

CAN CATHOLIC POLITICIANS DISAGREE WITH THE CHURCH?....Blue Streak has an interesting post today: according to the Sacramento Bee, the bishop of Sacramento has publicly told Governor Gray Davis that he should stop taking communion unless he changes his liberal stance on abortion.

Just goes to show how much I know: I didn't even realize Davis was Catholic. You learn something new every day.

The bishop's newfound aggressiveness seems to have been partly prompted by a Vatican document released a couple of weeks ago telling Catholic politicians that they are obligated to follow church doctrine on a variety of topics, including abortion. As Jim Capozzola pointed out last week, the Vatican wasn't really saying anything new, but they were trying to re-emphasize existing doctrine, and it seems to have hit home.

It's hard to criticize the church on practical grounds since it considers this to be a purely moral issue, but it sure seems likely that it's all going to backfire. A majority of American Catholics already reject Vatican teachings on a wide variety of subjects, and even if they didn't church-state separation is a pretty touchy subject here. John F. Kennedy put the "he'll be controlled by the Pope" argument to rest in 1960, and it doesn't really seem like it will do the church any good to have it resurrected. What's more, since it's mostly Democrats who support abortion rights, the church is running the risk of seeming not just political, but of taking domestic political sides as well.

More to come on this, apparently, including an advertising campaign on the same subject over the next few months. Time will tell how it all plays out.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 02:42 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

HIDING THE EVIDENCE?....Over at RealClear Politics, Tom Bevan writes:

....the United States has announced it will release more evidence on Iraq's WMD programs.

This has all the markings of a set up by the Bush administration. They may not provide a "smoking gun," but you get the sense they have conclusive proof of Iraqi violations they've been holding back on. Biding their time while military preparations take place and the French and Germans make fools of themselves.

The amazing thing here isn't whether this is true or not, it's that Bevan can write this with such obvious approval. When did deliberately setting up your allies in order to make them look foolish become an admirable part of foreign policy?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 02:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

ADDRESS CHANGE....O'Toole File has moved to its own site and is no longer part of Political Professional. Update your bookmarks accordingly.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 02:13 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

BUSH VS. THE UNITED NATIONS....Yesterday on CNN Bill Schneider reported on the latest poll results:

We asked Americans, who do you trust more to make the right decisions regarding Iraq? The Bush administration or the United Nations? No contest. Right? Well, think again. It's a tie. As many people say they trust the U.N. as the Bush administration.

But TBOGG says it's really closer to 99% support for Bush if you just take the time to interpret the results correctly....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MAN VS. MACHINE....WHO CARES, ANYWAY?....Josh Chafetz wonders why so many people are interested in all these man vs. computer chess matches, and he makes a good point: what's the big deal if a computer is better than a human at chess? After all, computers are already better at humans when it comes to, say, calculating a multiple regression or keeping track of millions of web pages.

And there's more: computers are already better than every single chess player in the world except for maybe three or four. And since chess is a self-contained game with very specific rules and a limited number of pieces, the real surprise is that computers didn't start outplaying humans decades ago. In fact, in 1959 some of the first chess computer programmers predicted that a chess computer would be world chess champion before 1970.

But aside from the fact that lots of computer programmers are also chess fans, the real reason for the ongoing interest is probably that Alan Turing, father of artificial intelligence and inventor of the Turing test, was a (mediocre) chess player himself and predicted in 1945 that one day computers would play "very good chess." In the early days of computing, when hopes for artificial intelligence were higher than they are now, chess was considered an interesting problem that was a step on the road to true AI. In fact, the "chess Turing test" was often used as an example of a limited — but meaningful — Turing test.

Needless to say, no one believes this anymore — in fact, Noam Chomsky once said that a computer beating a grandmaster at chess was about as interesting as a bulldozer winning an Olympic weight-lifting competition. But the interest lives on, perhaps for nostalgic reasons more than anything. After all, John Henry had an entire legend built around his loss to a steam drill, and surely a chess playing computer is at least as interesting as a steam-powered drill?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

RACIAL PREFERENCES AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN....Over at NRO's The Corner, John J. Miller comments on a New York Times article about racial preferences at U.S. military academies:

What the article doesn't supply are any actual numbers showing how much preference minority applicants receive. For that, it's necessary to read this report from the Center for Equal Opportunity, which shows that preferences do appear to play a role in admissions--but not nearly the role they play at the University of Michigan, whose admissions process is currently under Supreme Court review. At West Point, for instance, CEO found a 100-point gap between the SAT scores of whites and blacks admitted. At Michigan, that's the difference between whites and blacks on the verbal section alone.

But this is an important point: would the UM program be OK if they gave minorities an extra 10 points instead of 20? How about 5? It's an important distinction, and not one that Miller should dodge.

In another post he says, "The defenders of Michigan's race-driven policies obscure the debate when they try to hide behind West Point," but it's opponents of preferences who obscure the debate when they rattle on incessantly about UM's 20-point bonus. Are they opposed to any effort to help minorities, or only to helping out too much?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:50 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

JOHN LOTT UPDATE....One of the things that John Lott has complained about is bloggers making harsh accusations without bothering to ask him first for an explanation. There is probably some justice to this, and I've noticed myself that while he has responded via email to bits and pieces of the accusation about his 1997 survey, there's no comprehensive interview where he has responded to everything in one place. So I sent him an email asking if he would do a phone interview with me.

After a couple of emails back and forth, here's what he wrote back:

OK, Kevin, I have a better understanding of what you want to accomplish and it seems like a reasonable point. I have talked to Lindgren and others, but I understand your desire to also ask questions directly. Let me think about it a little. As noted previously, I am way, way, way behind on things and I really couldn't devote any more time to thinking about all this until I finish the paper that is due next week. Thanks.

I hope he'll take me up on this. If he does, I'll publish the results here and also give him space for whatever response he desires. More later.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THE UN REPORT....I know this is easy for me to say since I'm already convinced that we need to get rid of Saddam Hussein by force if necessary, but yesterday's UN report was pretty damning. Hans Blix — hardly a war hawk — said, "Iraq appears not to have come to genuine acceptance, not even today, of the disarmament that was demanded of it." And his final sentence was this:

Mr. President, we now have an inspection apparatus that permits us to send multiple inspections teams every day all over Iraq by road or by air. Let me end by simply noting that that capability, which has been built up in a short time and which is now operating, is at the disposal of the Security Council.

He rather pointedly did not ask for more time for inspections.

And the report contains plenty of disturbing details, too. Today's LA Times contains a long, but very good summary of the findings, and I recommend it highly. I think that even war skeptics might find themselves wavering if they read through the entire thing.

And in response to my own post about France right below this one, let me just say straight up: I don't know. I don't know why this evidence is insufficiently convincing to them and I don't know what kind of political game they are playing. But I'll stick to my prediction from two months ago: the French will come around shortly and the UN will approve military action. Saddam Hussein will be deposed by May, at which point the hard work will begin.

UPDATE: Josh Marshall seems to have roughly the same reaction as me: Iraq clearly isn't complying with the UN declaration, but on the other hand, waiting another month or two won't hurt. So, while we can't wait forever, we ought to continue inspections for a while, and we should certainly share as much intelligence information as we possibly can in order to sway public opinion both at home and abroad.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:39 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

PERFIDIOUS MARIANNE....Glenn Reynolds says:

DOES SADDAM HAVE NUKES? ARE THE FRENCH SPYING FOR SADDAM? Trent Telenko has info on both. I've gotten some email from military folks suggesting the latter based on the behavior of French ships and aircraft in the Persian Gulf region.

If it's true, paybacks should be severe.

Hmmm....let's click on the link to see what's up. Here's the source: a thread at FreeRepublic.com about an interview on Hannity & Colmes that was excerpted at Newsmax. The interviewee is Bill Tierney, a former inspector who was fired during the Clinton adminstration and is, um, bitter about it.

I hope everyone will excuse me if I don't take this too seriously? Especially coming just a few days after Steven Den Beste's breathless speculation that the French have been deliberately helping Saddam build nuclear weapons?

A thought experiment for these folks: if the French really are spying for Saddam, what do they think would be the reaction of the Bush administration? Surely they would know about it, and just as surely they would make it clear to Jacques Chirac that he ought to be voting our way in the Security Council if he wants us to keep his little secret. Right?

The French can be obstinate as hell, their foreign policy is sometimes based on little more than being a counterweight to the U.S., and they are tenaciously aggressive in pursuit of their own national self interest. Fine. But can we please keep speculation within the bounds of rationality?

POSTSCRIPT: Note to Armed Liberal: who the heck are they guys you're hanging out with these days?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

PLAYING IN PEORIA....Hesiod provides an assessment of the Democratic presidential field from a....slightly different perspective than his usual one. Check it out.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:44 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

BUSH, CHENEY, RUMSFELD, AND WAR....Atrios points to this profile of Norman Schwarzkopf in the Washington Post today:

[Schwarzkopf] contrasts Cheney's low profile as defense secretary during the Gulf War with Rumsfeld's frequent television appearances since Sept. 11, 2001. "He almost sometimes seems to be enjoying it." That, Schwarzkopf admonishes, is a sensation to be avoided when engaged in war.

....He expresses even more concern about the task the U.S. military might face after a victory. "What is postwar Iraq going to look like, with the Kurds and the Sunnis and the Shiites? That's a huge question, to my mind. It really should be part of the overall campaign plan."

That pretty much sums up my attitude towards the Bush administration. I'm willing to go to war as a last resort against a dangerous and brutal dictator, but the Bushies (a) seem to relish the thought a little too much, and (b) don't seem to care much about what happens after the war. These are both big mistakes.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 27, 2003

JUST BECAUSE YOU'RE PARANOID DOESN'T MEAN THEY AREN'T WATCHING YOU....Just in case anyone thought I was exaggerating a few days ago in my post about ubiquitous surveillance, check out this paragraph from the Economist:

The use of video surveillance cameras is also growing. Britain has an estimated 1.5m cameras monitoring public places. According to one estimate, the average Briton is recorded by CCTV cameras 300 times a day. As cameras have become cheaper, smaller and more effective, they are proliferating and can now be found almost anywhere: airports, aeroplanes, buses, shopping malls, schools, public buildings, offices, factories and increasingly in people's homes too. Digital cameras allow the images collected to be stored and analysed much faster and more cheaply than in the past.

300 times a day. And that's just the beginning.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:16 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

ALL ABOUT OIL?....Via Body and Soul, here's a truly puzzling story from the Observer:

Facing its most chronic shortage in oil stocks for 27 years, the US has this month turned to an unlikely source of help - Iraq. Weeks before a prospective invasion of Iraq, the oil-rich state has doubled its exports of oil to America, helping US refineries cope with a debilitating strike in Venezuela.

Yeesh. And speaking of oil, yesterday Eugene Volokh criticized Reason's Hit & Run for implying that one of the U.S. government's unspoken war aims was "stealing everything in Iraq that isn't nailed down." Eugene wonders what evidence they have for that accusation.

Well, I imagine that "everything" refers to Iraq's oil (what else do they have, after all?), and the Observer article goes on to say:

Richard Lugar, the hawkish chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggests reluctant Europeans risk losing out on oil contracts. "The case he had made is that the Russians and the French, if they want to have a share in the oil operations or concessions or whatever afterward, they need to be involved in the effort to depose Saddam as well," said Lugar's spokesman.

And we all remember that article in Newsday a couple of weeks ago reporting that hawks in the White House were advocating "appropriation of Iraqi oil income as "spoils of war," right? What's more, Bush has rather studiously avoided saying what his plans are for Iraq's oil after a war, despite the fact that it would certainly help world opinion to state unequivocally that we have no plans to monopolize their oil production.

Is that enough? In the end, none of this might happen, but it strikes me that there is certainly sufficient evidence to allow Reason to wonder out loud if it's something in Bush's playbook.

POSTSCRIPT: And one more thing: why do we need more Iraqi oil anyway? I thought that whenever oil production dropped off, our pals the Saudis were just supposed to open up their spigots a little. What happened this time?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DO WE HAVE THE GOODS ON IRAQ?....Martin Indyk and Kenneth Pollack have an op-ed in the New York Times today about the Iraqi "inspections trap": how does President Bush avoid having UN inspections drag out forever, with Saddam Hussein forever providing just enough cooperation to convince our allies to give him more time?

In general, they say, Bush needs to change his emphasis: stop talking about "smoking guns" and "cooperation," and instead spend more time demanding that Iraq account for "the thousands of tons of chemical precursors, the thousands of liters of biological warfare agents, the thousands of missing chemical munitions, the unaccounted-for Scuds missiles, and the weaponized VX poison that the United Nations has itself declared missing." Then there's this:

The administration should quickly share whatever intelligence it has with its allies in what Mr. Bush calls the "coalition of the willing," so that these countries will understand we have good reason for using force to do what Saddam Hussein will not do and the inspectors cannot do. And it should immediately publish, even in sanitized form, the large amount of information we have already gained from earlier defections of Iraqi scientists, which was always the most valuable intelligence we could get our hands on.

Bush's unwillingness to do this defies belief. If we don't have the goods on Saddam, we should stop pretending we do. And if we do have the goods, we should share what we know immediately.

If the administration truly has convincing evidence of Iraqi arms programs but has not shared it with either our allies or the U.S. public, then they have needlessly sacrificed many lives for crude political gain. I hope that turns out not to be the case.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 05:06 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY....Virginia Postrel — who apparently thinks that permalinks are a part of the future she'd just as soon do without — has a bunch of good posts up right now, including this one about U.S. diplomatic missions:

In small countries at least, U.S. embassy personnel routinely throw their weight around, getting all sorts of special privileges that have nothing to do with our national interest. Special parking places, special escorts through airport security, a thousand minor irritations that tell the locals our officials (no matter how personally nice and well-intended) aren't guests and equals but lords and masters come to call. The State Department needs to remind our diplomatic corps that they should not demand, or even request, privileges unavailable to the locals merely for their personal convenience. Only in matters of serious national, as opposed to personal, interest should the U.S. government ask for special treatment.

There are a couple of good followup posts too.

Also worthwhile is her post about Ritalin, Prozac, and behavioral pharmaceuticals in general. I don't quite understand why conservatives rail against this kind of stuff so much, but, to paraphrase an old saying, I'm willing to bet that a liberal is just a conservative with an ADHD kid.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

IS THERE A SECRET TO THIS?....Does CNN offer lessons in how to be a talking head? I mean, where do they find this endless parade of people who are able to talk for minutes at a time without taking a breath?

I'm just asking.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

FIGHTING COMPUTER FRAUD....ADVICE FROM AN EXPERT....Über-hacker Kevin Mitnick writes in the LA Times today about the real threat to computer security:

The greatest vulnerability for computer security doesn't come from technological flaws in hardware and software but from the weakest link in the security chain: people. And not just dishonest employees. Trusted insiders can be duped or deceived into giving away the keys to the kingdom. The technique is called "social engineering," and it's a modern version of what I call the art of deception, which con men have been using for centuries.

An attacker, foreign or domestic, can easily take advantage of the trust we have in fellow employees and the respect we have for people in authority. For example: A caller tells you that there has been an ongoing problem with your server and you're in danger of losing all your data. He needs to put you on another server; you'll have to change your password and stick with it until the problem is resolved. He gives you a new password to use and waits while you make the change and verify that it works. You hang up, a little annoyed at the interruption but maybe feeling good that the people in information technology are taking such good care of you.

But was that really a man from IT, or a hacker who now has access to your computer system?

....The hacker who uses social engineer tactics steals your trust in much the same way. Consider: Your phone rings and on the other end of the line is a man from the phone company. He says you have an overdue balance of $63.14, and if it isn't paid by 5 p.m., your phone will be disconnected and you'll be required to make a $300 deposit before service is restored.

You insist that you paid on time. The caller says no payment was received and that a disconnect notice was mailed to you. In the spirit of good service, the man offers to search the records to see if he can locate the payment. This drags on for some minutes while you hear him clicking keys and making occasional comments. He still can't find anything, so he asks you to get out your checkbook and give him the details of your bank, check number and amount of payment. Still nothing. He asks you to read off the numbers printed at the bottom of your checks.

You have just given him your checking account number....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

COMMUNIST DUPES?....On Saturday Glenn Reynolds took issue with people who claim that it's "McCarthyism" to criticize anti-war protesters for attending rallies organized by A.N.S.W.E.R.:

It's not McCarthyism to call people who are communists, communists. Communists, as devoted followers of murderous totalitarianism, deserve to be called to account every bit as much as their Nazi colleagues. And in the 21st century, they can hardly pretend to be ignorant of their ideology's true nature.

He's right. But it is McCarthyism to tar people as "communist sympathizers" because they associate — rather vaguely — with communists. It was this tactic that Joe McCarthy became famous for, not for his notable lack of success in finding any real communists.

I imagine that A.N.S.W.E.R. is not my cup of tea. But tagging people as communist sympathizers because they attend a rally organized by a group that has some members in common with a group that's communist — well, that's a pretty rickety chain of association, isn't it?

So I'll ask again: in what way is A.N.S.W.E.R. a communist group? In the 1950s J. Edgar Hoover had a list of hundreds of "known communist fronts" — including the ACLU — and most of them had very little do with any actual communist activity. When it comes to A.N.S.W.E.R., all I've been able to learn is that their leadership shares some members with the WWP, which is a communist group. But that's it. A.N.S.W.E.R. itself seems to be little more than a garden variety flaky left activist group that holds no communist views, supports no communist regimes, and gets no funding from communist groups.

Yeah, I know, I'm just a communist dupe, a useful idiot. But while I don't support A.N.S.W.E.R.'s views, neither have I seen any evidence that they are a communist group. Is there any more to this whole tempest in a teapot than this?

UPDATE: An article in the San Jose Mercury News has this to say:

"Basically, A.N.S.W.E.R. is dominated by the IAC, which is largely a front for the Workers World Party, a Marxist-Leninist group that has been around since the 1950s,'' said Stephen Zunes, chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. "They are very effective at organizing because they are hierarchical."

So now A.N.S.W.E.R. is a front for a front for the WWP? What's the real story here?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DOMAINS FOR SALE....Hey, would you like to have your own internet domain? How about one of those cool dot-mil domains for military sites?

Patrick Nielsen Hayden tells you how to get one. It's surprisingly cheap and suprisingly easy!

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MORE COMPUTER CHESS!....Chess champ Garry Kasparov suffered a humiliating loss to IBM's Deep Blue chess computer back in 1997, and current champ Vladimir Kramnik melted down a few months ago in his match with Deep Fritz, blowing an early lead and ending up in a 4-4 tie.

Yesterday Kasparov decided to try again, this time in a six-game match against Deep Junior. The Singapore Straits Times headlined the match this way:

Chess master out to prove humans are not hopeless

Well, yeah, but that seems like sort of a glass-half-empty approach to the thing, doesn't it? Slashdot took a slightly different approach: "Humankind Makes Last Stand Against Machine," which might sound a bit apocalyptic, but chesswise it's probably true.

Anyway, Kasparov won the first game in 27 moves, a stunning victory. The second game is on Tuesday, and this time the computer will be playing white. Humankind awaits its destiny.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 26, 2003

VIRGINIA HEINLEIN....The Los Angeles Times had a nice obituary for Virginia Heinlein today, and her hometown newspaper, the Florida Times-Union, has another one here. They include a few additional details that I didn't know about when I wrote my post last Monday.

As an interesting aside, my genealogy hobby came in handy when I wrote that post. Virginia Heinlein's birth name was Gerstenfeld, and since the 1930 census is now completely online and fully indexed, I was able to find her 1930 census record immediately. Her father's name then enabled me to look up her 1920 census record as well, and between them these records provided her birth year, the names of her mother, father, and brother, their residence, and her father's occupation (dentist). Social Security death records told me that her brother had died in 1984.

As little as a year ago I couldn't have done this. Census records are released to the public after 72 years, so the 1930 census was released only last June, and it's only very recently that census records have been fully indexed anyway. Even now, only the 1880 and 1930 censuses are fully indexed (the others are indexed by head of household only).

If you're interested in looking up relatives in old census records, go to Ancestry.com. For about $40 you can buy a 3-month subscription that gives you online access to all census records from 1790 to 1930, plus loads of other records as well. And for some reason that I can't quite explain, seeing your relatives' names in old census records is far more fascinating than you'd imagine. Highly recommended.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 07:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

SUPER BOWL UPDATE....Um, I meant Bucs by 10. Approximately.

But that's OK. At least Jay is happy, and since I just noticed that the Daily Rant has me on their blogroll twice, I'm willing to be happy for his team. This time.

But Signs was a pretty dumb movie, Jay....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 07:23 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THE PENTAGON PAPERS....Warblogger whipping boy Robert Fisk thinks American journalists are doing a lousy job of reporting on the Bush administration's anti-terror plans:

Take Eric Schmitt in The New York Times a week ago. He wrote a story about America's decision to "confront countries that sponsor terrorism". And his sources? "Senior defence officials", "administration officials", "some American intelligence officials", "the officials", "officials", "military officials", "terrorist experts" and "defence officials". Why not just let the Pentagon write its own reports in The New York Times?

Why? Because they don't need to. As with any good Republican administration, they've privatized the job.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 05:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

SUPER BOWL UPDATE....Why is a Canadian singer performing "God Bless America" at the Super Bowl? I mean, I'm happy to stand arm in arm with my Canadian comrades and all, but wouldn't an American be more appropriate?

On the other hand, the Dixie Chicks did a pretty good job with the national anthem. Using a group was a good idea.

Raiders by 10.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

A VICTORY FOR BIG MACS....On Wednesday a judge tossed out the suit against McDonald's that claimed their food caused obesity. Here's what the Center for Individual Freedom had to say:

Returning some common sense to our runaway tort system, the judge explained that his decision was “guided by the principle that legal consequences should not attach to the consumption of hamburgers and other fast food fare unless consumers are unaware of the dangers of eating such food.”

Actually, this is what happens to virtually all groundless suits: they get tossed out. The judge in this case was not "returning" common sense to our tort system, he was just doing what judges do every day.

I wonder: is there any area of public policy with more urban legends than tort reform? If I had a nickel for every story of a multi-jillion judgment awarded for patently outlandish behavior, I'd be a millionaire. And if I had a nickel for every one that turned out to be true, I probably couldn't buy a cup of coffee.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THOSE WACKY SOCIOLOGISTS....OK, here's some Sunday fun: Project Implicit, a research project designed to test your unconscious feelings about stuff.

What stuff? Well, they've apparently got about 60 different tests, which they assign randomly on subjects such as young vs. old, black vs. white, coffee vs. tea, Jew vs. Christian, etc. You have to take a few minutes to register, which seems fair since this is a genuine research project, and the test itself takes about ten minutes. By chance, when I took the test I was given Democrats vs. Republicans, and my results are shown below. No surprises there, moderate fellow that I am.

Go ahead and give it a try. Maybe you'll finally find out whether you prefer Denzel Washington or Tom Cruise....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 02:28 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

WHY IS THE U.S. MORE PRODUCTIVE THAN EUROPE?....Brad DeLong has a bunch of thought-provoking posts up this morning. In one of them he asks:

Why are there such huge differences in productivity growth between the U.S. and mainland Europe--especially in information technology-heavy services? One possible answer is that European firms have, like American ones, invested heavily in information and communications technologies but that they have, in contrast to American firms, not yet figured out how to reorganize their work flow in a way to make their computers more than decorative paperweights. This suggests that Europe's problem is a deficiency of management consultants. The second possible answer--the one that Alan Greenspan strongly favors--is that firms will not undergo the unpleasant bureaucratic disruptions necessary to increase productivity until they can smell the profits from reorganization, profits that come either from reducing costs (by firing workers) or from meeting greatly expanded boom-time demand. Since the European Central Bank's policies make a boom in Europe nearly inconceivable, and since it is nearly impossible to fire workers on a large scale in Europe, no productivity boom.

For the entire decade of the 90s I worked at a document imaging company, selling hardware and software in both the U.S. and Europe. The whole point of document imaging is to scan paper and handle it electronically, eliminating the need for armies of clerks to handle it and thus increasing overall productivity.

As Brad suggests, our revenues in Europe were never close to our revenues in the U.S., even after you accounted for smaller populations and a preference for local products. The entire market was simply much smaller and the sales cycle much longer, despite the fact that several of the pioneers of the industry were European. I have a couple of ideas about what was going on:

  • Labor inflexibility might have been part of it — what's the point of installing labor-saving equipment if you can lay off workers? — but most of our American customers didn't lay off workers either: they kept them, or reassigned them. They didn't want to lay off people so much as they wanted to grow without having to hire more people. Obviously Europeans could have done the same thing, but most of them simply didn't have the giddy confidence of American companies that they would continue growing forever. They were less optimistic.

  • They did not trust technology as much as Americans. We designed a new product a few years ago that allowed document imaging to be used over the Internet, and of course we wanted to use the word "Internet" in the product name. The Internet was cool, right? And it would help the stock price.

    Our European sales force was aghast. In Europe (this was around 1998-2000) a word association test for "Internet" would have produced "unreliable," "slow," and "expensive," not "cool" and "high tech." They wanted us to pick another name. (We didn't, arrogant American bastards that we were.)

I puzzled over all this for quite a while, and in the end my armchair theorizing added up to this: Europeans on average are actually more rational about technology than we are. They demanded rigorous ROI analysis before they would buy. They recognized that the technology didn't work as well as the hype. And they had a more realistic view of future growth prospects than Americans did.

But here's the weird part: it didn't matter. I think they were actually right more often than American business people were, but the Americans did better anyway. They drank the Kool-Aid, they invested heavily, they reorganized with gay abandon, and then a whole bunch of them went bankrupt. But the ones that stayed around ended up — by hook or by crook — with better businesses.

So: optimism and entrepeneurship really do seem to be the big differences here. The Europeans had a more realistic view of life and ended up avoiding both huge successes and huge failures. The Americans were wildly optimistic and took rash chances that often failed — but the few successes made more difference than the large number of failures.

And when it all gets averaged together, U.S. productivity growth is higher than Europe's. They could probably use a bit of the cowboy over there.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:32 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 25, 2003

ROBERT BORK EXPLAINS WHY THE UNITED STATES SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO DO ANY DAMN THING IT PLEASES....In the Wall Street Journal today, Robert Bork explains why unilateralism is a good thing:

We know from experience that international tribunals and forums will not be friendly to the U.S. When the U.S. aided the Nicaraguan insurgency, the International Court of Justice, despite having no jurisdiction, ruled that the U.S. had violated customary international law. When the U.S. removed a violent dictatorship in Grenada to the overwhelming satisfaction of the Grenadians, the U.N. General Assembly denounced our action by a larger majority than had denounced the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

As well they should have since our actions in both those cases were disgraceful and unprovoked. Hell, Margaret Thatcher (!) criticized our invasion of Granada and Ronald Reagan nearly got impeached over Nicaragua. I'm surprised that even Robert Bork is shameless enough to try and criticize international law using those two misbegotten adventures as examples.

Of course, he also fails to mention that the UN supported us in the Korean War, supported us against the French and British during the Suez crisis, supported our demand that the Soviets withdraw from Afghanistan, supported us against the Ayatollah in Iran, supported our position in the first Gulf War, and supported our invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11.

So what's all that about international forums never being friendly to the U.S.?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:32 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

HOW MANY DIFFERENT KINDS OF CHEESE DO THEY HAVE?....VodkaPundit, returning from a long hiatus, has a lot to get off his chest. But the most important thing, beating out trivia like Iraq, North Korea, and the University of Michigan, is a long screed about the French. You know the drill by now: we saved their sorry asses in WWII, rebuilt their country singlehandedly with the Marshall Plan, and then they repaid us by pulling out of NATO and.....well, that's about it, actually. At any rate, Stephen doesn't seem to have any major complaints since 1965.

By now, of course, we all know that French anti-Americanism is nothing more than the pitiful mewling of that arrogant European condescension we've come to expect, more's the sorrow, as opposed to American anti-Frenchism, which is a sign of muscular (but non-imperialistic!) determination to make the world safe for all those countries too weak-kneed and morally unclear to do it for themselves. But hey, that ship sailed long ago, the Euro-account is way overdrawn, and once again it's up to us to....um....

Wait a second. Was I saying something?

That's not what I was going to rant about. Not at all. I just got carried away. No, I was going to rant about this:

France is out of the habit of greatness, and it shows – which is about what you should expect from a country whose national identity is personified by a impressively chesty but otherwise useless fashion model, but more on that later.

Well, I kept reading, and there was nothing more about impressively chesty supermodels, useless or otherwise. What gives?

Oh, and considering what the American media is like, I'd be a little careful about drawing analogies about national greatness based on fondness for supermodels....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 06:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THIS DOESN'T SOUND LIKE THE DENMARK I REMEMBER....Via Rachel Lucas, this story from Denmark about games children play:

Parents of more than 100 Danish scouts were outraged over a game of tag at a scout camp in which children acted as Jews wearing yellow Stars of David and tried to escape from adults pretending to be Nazis.

....Jes Imer of the local FDF chapter told the tabloid B.T. that they "may have crossed the line this time with a night game where Nazis chase Jews."

Um, yeah, maybe just a smidge.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 06:26 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

GIVE IT A REST, MATT....Last night Serena Williams won the Australian Open, her fourth grand slam tennis title in a row, and this is the caption that Matt Drudge put on her picture. What a jerk.

And for any of you who may have heard that she now "joins Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf as the only women to win a Grand Slam," it ain't so. This mistake seems to be getting repeated by people who misinterpreted what the announcers said on ESPN after the match.

Actually, three women have won tennis' Grand Slam (Australian, French, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open): Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court, and Steffi Graf. In addition, two women have won all four tournaments in a row but not in the same calendar year: Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf. That's what Serena just did.

Serena's domination of women's tennis over the past year has been astonishing, but it's worth remembering that she's not invincible. She came within a couple of points of losing her first round match in the Australian Open this year and she would have lost in the semifinals if Kim Clijsters hadn't pulled a Novotna and melted down after going ahead 5-1 in the final set. What's more, her sister Venus took her right to the limit before losing in the finals. So there's still a smidgen of hope for the rest of the tour....

UPDATE: He's now changed it to "No sitting on the flag, Serena," so maybe he just meant it in fun. It didn't seem that way with the original caption.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

A GOOD QUESTION....Lincoln Plawg asks:

The question for the US is, of course, what position could the Europeans take up, short of supine submission to each and every US proposal, that the Administration would approve?

I've been wondering that myself. Are Europeans even allowed to disagree with U.S. policy anymore?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:22 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

CONFUSION....I think I'll join Jeanne d'Arc as a fellow Los Angeles Times reader who really doesn't know what to think anymore:

  • France and Germany are vile appeasers for not supporting war with Iraq right this second.

  • But the next day Bush and Blair agree that maybe we should give the inspectors a few more weeks.

  • Then again, Americans should prepare for war.

  • On the other hand, the State of the Union address will not be a declaration of war.

  • But if we do go to war, we might need to use nukes.

  • Because we know where Iraq's WMDs are hidden: deep underground where only nukes can get to them

  • But we're not going to tell the inspectors about this, it's our little secret.

  • While in other news around the world, the tough talk has vanished against North Korea and now "all of the options are on the table."

What the fuck is going on around here?

UPDATE: Kevin Batcho at Beyond the Wasteland thinks he can explain all this. I have a minor quibble or two with his analysis, but overall it sounds pretty reasonable. (Permalinks aren't working, so scroll to "Checkmate in the Gulf.")

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:51 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 24, 2003

ARE GOOGLE'S PAGE RANKS FAIR?....This is interesting. Via Ampersand comes a link to LawMeme, which reports on a suit between Google and a company named SearchKing. Here are the basic facts of the case:

Google ranks all websites with a PageRank, which ranges from 1 to 10. SearchKing owns a subsidiary called PRAN that is in the business of locating highly ranked sites and then asking them if they would be willing to sell advertising space. If they agree, PRAN then sells this space to its clients.

Apparently Google didn't like this, so they intentionally lowered SearchKing's own PageRank from 8 to 4 and decreased PRAN's PageRank from 2 to 0. SearchKing sued, but a few days ago the judge in the case denied several requests from SearchKing, in the process accepting Google's contention that PageRanks are "opinions" covered by the First Amendment. The full ruling is here.

Ampersand calls SearchKing a "cyber-leech," but I'm not convinced this ruling is altogether good news. Google is tremendously powerful in the internet search business, and it's not clear to me that it's right for them to manually lower the PageRank of people they don't like or that they compete with. In a similar way, common carriers like telephone companies and railroads are prohibited from favoring certain customers over others, and airline booking services like SABRE are prohibited from favoring one airline over another.

I'm not quite sure how to react to this case, and the legal details are certainly beyond me, but at the very least it will hurt Google's credibility if it turns out that they do this very often. The case isn't over yet, and it sounds like it's one worth following.

UPDATE: Ampersand has a followup post here that makes some good points. I've done a little more reading about SearchKing, and I'm tentatively willing to agree now that "cyber-leech" might be a pretty good description. However, the principle involved still worries me a bit: did Google simply tweak their algorithm to make it harder for people to game the system, or did they deliberately target only SearchKing? If the latter, it strikes me as a bad precedent.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:26 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

YEP, IT'S ALL ABOUT OIL....Trent Telenko at Winds of Change wonders if the French will really veto a U.S. use of force resolution in the United Nations. Are they secretly (and deviously) working with us? Will they wimp out and support us in the end? Or is there a third choice?

3) The French aren't bluffing, in which case the UN is useless for promoting American interests. So we should let the French veto the use of force resolution and attack Iraq anyway. That will make the UN another "League of Nations" and remove it as an obstacle to American interests. The up side is that it also gives us the justification make a really public and gory example of France.

I really don't see France crashing and burning the U.N. over this. It is clear to all and sundry that the USA is out to control Arab oil income so that it won't be diverted to Pakistani and North Korean WMD production or to fund Al-Qaeda and its mind children. Control of that oil income is a great deal of economic power. Volunteering to be the first example of that power's use is *not* within the meme of French Statecraft.

Crikey. Which rock do people like this crawl out from, anyway?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

NIXON HAD A SECRET PLAN TOO....This just doesn't make any sense:

In Tokyo, U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, Washington's top arms control diplomat, said Iraq had maintained an extensive program for producing weapons of mass destruction, including long-range ballistic missiles banned since the 1991 Gulf War.

"That is information that we have, and I think that, at an appropriate time and in an appropriate way, we will make the case about Iraq's violations," Bolton told a news conference on the third and last stop of a tour of Asia.

If this is false, then Bolton is lying and the administration has no credibility.

If it's true, then the administration has deliberately alienated our allies and helped to drum up opposition to the U.S. by witholding evidence that would persuade them to support a war.

What the hell is up with these guys? And what exactly is an "appropriate time"? What's wrong with right now?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 02:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

JUDICIAL NOMINEES....From the Associated Press:

Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch says he will make it harder for Democratic senators to block home state nominees for federal judgeships.

At issue is the so-called "blue slip" tradition, referring to blue-colored approval papers that senators are asked to submit on nominees to fill vacant federal judgeships in their state. For the last few years, both home-state senators had to submit a positive blue slip for a nominee to be even considered by the Judiciary Committee.

....Under Hatch's plan, a single negative blue slip from a senator won't be enough to stop a Bush nominee.

....After Republicans won control of the Senate in 1994, Democrats say Hatch refused to move a nomination from Democratic President Clinton unless he had positive blue slip approvals from both senators. Former Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina used the tactic to block all of Clinton's court nominees from his state.

But in 2001, when George W. Bush took office, Hatch proposed dropping the requirement down to one blue slip. The suggestion so infuriated Democrats that they delayed nomination hearings for almost six months and even walked out on a Judiciary Committee voting session. That proposal became moot when Jeffords left the Republican Party and gave Democrats control of the Senate.

Let's recap: When Democrats controlled the Senate and Bush and Reagan were president, they were nice guys and allowed judicial nominations to proceed with only one blue slip.

When Republicans took over the Senate and Clinton was president, Republicans played hardball and demanded two blue slips.

When Bush became president, they suddenly decided that those nice Democrats were right after all: one blue slip should be enough.

Don't you just love principled conservatives?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

EUROPE AND IRAQ....Is NATO dead? Is Europe fatally cutting itself off from America? Did Jacques Chirac personally deliver diplomatic pouches full of plutonium to Saddam Hussein?

Take a deep breath, everyone.

The future of NATO is indeed uncertain, but this is a meme that's been making the rounds since the fall of the Berlin wall. It hasn't happened yet, and the U.S. pushed pretty hard to expand NATO just a few years ago, but there's no question that NATO's mission is less clear now than it was in 1960. So, sure, it's possible the alliance might not be around for the long term, but this is not exactly breaking news.

As for French and German reluctance to support war with Iraq, that's pretty bland stuff too. After all, polls in the U.S. show that even American support for the war is only about one-third unless there's UN approval, so it should hardly be surprising that support is even lower in most of Europe. And if support for war among the French and German population is around 10-20%, is it really very shocking that French and German leaders would also be skeptical? Hell, even Tony Blair is starting to sound a bit cautious these days.

Let's face it: the Bush administration says it has proof that Saddam has been collecting WMDs. Fine. Let's see it. I'd like to see it, and I'm an American. It's only natural that Europeans are even more dubious, especially since American administrations have a rather long history of making up phony casus bellis for war. But this doesn't mean Europeans hate America, it means they hate the idea of war with Iraq. Disapproval of war is not the same thing as disapproval of America, no matter how much the warhawks try to claim otherwise.

So, Mr. President, let's see the proof. Unless, of course, you don't have any, and you and Tony actually agree with Chirac and Schröder that the inspectors should be given more time?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:09 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

STILL MORE ON LOTT....IT JUST NEVER ENDS....Lott says he did his survey during the first few months of 1997. His hard disk crashed in June 1997 and he lost all the data.

OK, fine. But it's not believable that he had already thrown away the paper records within ten weeks of finishing the survey. And when his computer crashed, it would have been extra important to keep all his backup data, right? I mean, if your computer crashed, wouldn't you take extra care to make sure that you held on to any raw paper records that you had?

I would. So what's his story? Were the paper records already gone by June? Why? And if they were still around at that point, why were the results not recreated?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:51 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

EVEN MORE ON LOTT....Here are the demographic questions that Lott used for a survey he conducted recently to reproduce the results of his mysterious 1997 survey. He claims that it is very similar to the one he did in 1997:

(We obviously have the area code, write down sex from the voice if possible.)

I have two demographic questions for the survey.

What is your race? black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Other.

What is your age by decade? 20s, 30s, 40s, so on.

That's it? And from that he was able to weight responses up or down by as much as 4:1, magically morphing 2 out of 25 respondents from 8% down to 2%?

Look: the purpose of weightings is to ensure that your sample is similar to the demographics of the United States as a whole. So if your sample contained, say, 11% blacks, but blacks are actually 12% of U.S. population, then you would weight the black responses a little more heavily so that they constitute 12% of the total survey responses.

But weights like that are very small, only a few percentage points. Lott's response, basically, is that "black Vermonters," for example, are very uncommon. So if such a person ended up in his survey, he would represent .04% of the survey sample (1 out of 2,424), while he represents only .01% of the general population. Thus, that one response would need to be downweighted 4:1.

This is simply ridiculous. Even the most partisan hack wouldn't try to get away with something like that.

Why does anybody believe this stuff?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:21 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

JOHN LOTT....THE SAGA CONTINUES....One of the interesting notes at the bottom of Kieran Healy's post about John Lott yesterday was this:

One point came up which I haven't seen mentioned before: if Lott did the survey while at the University of Chicago, why didn't he go through their Institutional Review Board? Federal Law says you can't conduct any research involving human subjects without first obtaining IRB approval. Does the Chicago IRB have any record of Lott going through Human Subjects review? Has he given any reason why he didn't?

This struck me as peculiar, but Kieran confirmed via email that he meant what he said: this stuff is important, and survey work does count as human subject research. "You can get yourself (and worse, your whole academic unit) into serious shit if you don't do the paperwork."

Today Ted Barlow makes the same point:

For my undergraduate thesis, we interviewed less than 50 participants and produced no less than two boxes of paper. We had to have our methodology reviewed, because we were working with human participants....

So is there any record of Lott getting permission from his IRB?

And ArchPundit makes another point that I've been noodling about myself: surveys are very time consuming things. I've done lots of telephone survey work, and if you're not working with professionals using predictive dialing equipment (which he wasn't), you're lucky to be able to make 20 calls per hour. In fact, that would be pretty optimistic.

So: 2,424 respondents means probably around 10,000 phone calls. That means 500 hours of calls. I doubt that students could manage to fit in more than 10 hours a week of calls, so this means at least 50 man weeks of phone calls, and that doesn't even count all the work of transcribing the results into a statistical package, doing the weighting he claims to have done, and then producing the final results. And all of that just vanished into thin air?

And don't forget: Lott originally sourced the 98% number to someone else and then changed his mind only in 1999 when it turned out that he had misinterpreted the survey results he was using. He had never mentioned doing a survey of his own until then. What's more, Lott's first reference to the 98% number was in early 1997, well before his survey could have been finished.

This is nonsense, and the sample weighting is nonsense too. In fact, the whole thing sounds like a tissue of lies from beginning to end. Knowing what we now know about his obsessive and deceptive "Mary Rosh" persona, can anyone possibly read James Lindgren's extremely detailed investigation into this affair and conclude anything else?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:38 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

AMAZON PROFITS....Yesterday Amazon reported fourth quarter results: revenues of $1.4 billion — up from last year — and a tiny profit of $3 million — down from last year. And of course there was also the usual "pro forma" malarky: we would have earned $75 million if we didn't have to, you know, follow normal accounting rules and all.

This has gotten ridiculous. Amazon is the biggest and most successful of the Internet retailers, and yet they can't show more than a microscopic profit at an annual run rate of nearly $6 billion. If you can't manage a profit at that level, when can you?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:21 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 23, 2003

NEWS FLASH....Tom Spencer defends George Bush. Tomorrow: Satan rings up Saddam to order a few barrels of heating oil "just to take the chill off."

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

JOHN LOTT FOLLOWUP....Kieran Healy takes a crack at the John Lott survey question I posted yesterday, and concludes that Lott's weighting is highly unlikely, but not impossible.

But his colleagues apparently found the whole story so hilarious that they could hardly hold still for him to ask his questions.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 07:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

TIME SCREWS UP....A few days ago I linked to a Time magazine article saying that President Bush had revived the practice of sending a Memorial Day wreath to the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. Today Jay Caruso links to a Washington Times article saying that Time was wrong: nobody ever stopped sending the wreath, and Bush was just keeping up the same tradition as everyone before him.

Looks like Jay (and the Washington Times) were right: Time has now retracted the story. Apparently someone was trying a little too hard to dig up a good story.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 07:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

TIA ISN'T DEAD....BUT IT TOOK A BODY BLOW TODAY....Good news: LeanLeft reports that the Senate has voted to remove funding for TIA, the big government snoop program. It's not dead yet, since the spending package it's embedded in still has to be reconciled with the House, but it's a start.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 06:28 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

TED BARLOW CRIES OUT FOR HELP....Ted Barlow points to an article in USA Today that summarizes a new Federal Reserve report on income and wealth in America and wonders if this can be true:

Median net worth for whites rose 17% to $120,900 but fell 4.5% to $17,000 for minorities.

Says Ted: "Can that be right? According to the chart in this story, African-American household income is 56% of white non-hispanic household income, but African-American net worth is only 14% of white non-hispanic net worth?"

The simple answer is "yes indeed." Wealth is extremely concentrated in high income groups, and there are lots of high-income whites and very few high-income blacks and other minorities. The full Federal Reserve Report is here, and the figures for wealth are in Table 3. Here's the median wealth by income category for 2001:

  • Bottom 20%: $7,900

  • 20-40%: $37,200

  • 40-60%: $62,500

  • 60-80%: $141,500

  • 80-90%: $263,100

  • Top 10%: $833,600

If minorities are strongly concentrated in the two bottom categories — and they are — then it's easy to see that their median wealth is indeed around $17,000. And if the top 20% is overwhelmingly white — and it is — then it's easy to see how their enormous wealth pulls up the average for all whites.

Other charts in the report tell the story: minorities own virtually no financial assets (Table 5); they own homes at much lower rates than whites (Table 8); and their debt levels are about the same as whites (Table 11). Add it all up, and minorities have low incomes, fewer (and certainly less valuable) houses, lower inheritances, very little in the way of stocks and mutual funds, and the same high debt rate as whites.

Hopefully it's all clear now....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

ADMITTING A MISTAKE....TalkLeft has the story today of a prosecutor who's now convinced he made a mistake 25 years ago and is fighting to free a pair of men who were convicted of killing a nine year old girl.

There are a lot of people who could learn a lesson from this. Everyone makes mistakes, and there's no dishonor in admitting it. Quite the opposite.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

EMERGENCY ROOM POLICY....The administration has backed off on its policy of limiting emergency room use by Medicaid patients. A sudden attack of consience of the part of the happy Republicans running things in Washington? Not quite:

"We weren't troubled by the policy. We were troubled by the controversy it caused," [Medicaid administrator Thomas] Scully said in an interview. "We want to get off to a friendly, happy, bipartisan start of the year. This clearly wasn't doing it."

It's good to see them reverse this ridiculous policy, which was attacked by virtually everyone on the left and right, but it's too bad they don't seem to recognize why it was a bad idea in the first place.

Then again, that's not really surprising, is it?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THOSE NASTY SUV OWNERS....David Brooks writes about SUVs in the Wall Street Journal:

The main charge is that people who drive sport "utes" are moral savages. SUV drivers "tend to be people who are insecure and vain" not to mention "self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors and communities," writes Keith Bradsher in his book, "High and Mighty: SUVs--The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way." Thoughtful people are usually skeptical about broad generalizations about people's souls on the basis of what car they drive.

Ah, but that's where Brooks take a wrong turn (ha ha). That profile is based on car industry market research, and while "thoughtful people" might not make those kinds of broad generalizations, marketing people do it all the time.

And you know what? Despite what we all want to think, it works pretty well. I know, I know, you are far too complex and nuanced a human being to be ranked and pigeonholed by some mindless demographic/survey/clustering booshwa. Maybe other people, but not you. But you're wrong. And so is Brooks. We are what we drive. And eat. And watch. And where we live. You better get used to it.

(But there's no need to be downcast about it. In fact, if you want to have some consumer marketing fun, click here to go to the Claritas "You Are Where You Live" site, type in your ZIP code, and see what they think of you. It's fun for the whole family!)

POSTSCRIPT: The industry profile of SUV drivers is actually a lot worse than Brooks makes it sound. Ampersand has the best summary here, which you should go read for a chuckle or two.

And me? I don't own an SUV, but the car I do own certifies me as a genuine rapist of the environment and has almost certainly inspired some rather unflattering market research portraits as well. But we all have our vices.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:23 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

LIMITING STATE SPENDING....South Knox Bubba reports today on the Tennessee Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR), a proposal that would limit spending growth to a combination of inflation and population growth. We've had a similar proposal in California, although it hasn't really gotten anywhere yet.

Oddly enough, I support this kind of thing, but with a different twist:

  • The basic idea of TABOR is flawed because it essentially means that state employee salaries are frozen forever in real terms. If we had adopted this kind of rule in 1970, teachers would still be getting paid about $15,000 a year today.

  • A better idea, I think, is to limit state spending to a percentage of gross state product (GSP, the state equivalent of national GDP), with perhaps a small amount of wiggle room allowed by a super-majority vote. This allows everyone to benefit from economic growth, while still keeping a clear cap on spending.

In another post, SKB compares state government to a business:

Every place I've ever worked, when we had financial troubles the CEO came around to every department and said "Hey, you gotta cut back x%. Don't care where, don't care how, just do it. No excuses, no exceptions."

Anyone who's done corporate budgeting knows that it's usually done as a percentage of sales: marketing gets 10%, sales gets 15%, R&D gets 12%, etc. The percentages differ from company to company, and the total percentage (in a well run company) is based on historical knowledge of what it takes to hit your earnings target. I think state governments could run the same way, and their job is actually even easier because the earnings target is always the same: zero.

And aside from capping spending, budgeting as a percentage of GDP has another advantage too: it makes your priorities a lot more obvious. If the constitutional budget cap is, say, 10% of GSP, and you think of education spending as 3% of GDP and law enforcement as .6%, it makes it pretty obvious what the tradeoffs are. You're not thinking in dollar amounts as much as percentages, and the percentages have to add up to 10.

For a variety of reasons I'm not sure something like this would be a good idea at the federal level, where you want to have the flexibility to run a large deficit during a recession (although the Europeans are giving it a try with their budget and stability pact, which allegedly prohibits governments from ever running a deficit bigger than 3% of GDP). Done correctly, however, it might work, and it's worth a look.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

FROM THE "NEVER SEND EMAIL IN ANGER" DEPARTMENT....Nick Denton has the latest on Julie Meyer of Ariadne Capital, and it's not pretty:

From: Julie Meyer
Sent: 21 January 2003 14:22
To: All staff
Subject: The final straw.

I see that whoever has been sending our confidential emails to a certain website has done it again. I am not amused by this. This is a complete betrayal of my trust, my good name and my investment in you as a team

I will be interviewing everyone regarding this and as from now all internet access is restricted to sites on our client list only. If you want external access, please speak to either myself or Bundeep. Email will be restricted to those on the company address list and attachments will be vetted by myself. All company mobile phones will be restricted to certain numbers also due to the abuse of international calling.

This Friday a number of staff are leaving and we had planned a dinner and drinks at O'Neills. In light of these events this has been cancelled.

Let me warn you all that I will not stand for this behaviour from a team of professionals.

Julie

Nick has more.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DINOSAUR WING DING....Chinese paleontologists have discovered the fossil of a four-winged dinosaur/bird/thingy. Charles Murtaugh has the details, plus a cool picture.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:44 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 22, 2003

UBIQUITOUS TRACKING....Can you really be tracked everywhere you go, as I claimed yesterday? Reader Ian D calls my attention to an article that says tire manufacturers are going to start putting RFID emitters in tires.

It's happening fast, folks....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DID HE OR DIDN'T HE?....JOHN LOTT AND THE MYSTERIOUS SURVEY....The revelation that John Lott has been masquerading on the Internet under the name "Mary Rosh" has given everybody considerable entertainment today, but it has a more serious side too: it is now obvious that he is the kind of person who is willing to engage in a meticulous and lengthy deception in order to defend his work. He has posted comments at both Julian Sanchez's site and Megan McArdle's, he has written email to me, he has reviewed his own book on Amazon, and he has posted hundreds of messages on newsgroups, many of them praising his own personal qualities. This is the obsessive behavior of a desperate person, and it means we should now judge his claims extremely skeptically.

The question is, did Lott actually conduct a survey in 1997 regarding defensive gun use, or did he fabricate the results? Recently a person came forward who claimed to have been part of Lott's 1997 survey, and several people have taken this as evidence that Lott actually did conduct the survey in question. Tim Lambert, Lott's most dogged critic, says:

[James] Lindgren questioned him carefully about what questions he was asked and they corresponded pretty well to what Lott said they were (with one major discrepency which I will comment on in the next paragraph). The only way this could have happened is if he had conspired with Lott, and given the blundering way Lott has defended himself, I just don't buy it.

Given Lott's behavior as Mary Rosh, however, this kind of collusion now seems at least plausible. Basically, we still don't know.

So that leaves us with the data itself from Lott's survey, and this is where my main question lies. Here's a brief summary of the problem:

  • Lott claims his survey had 2,424 respondents.

  • James Lindgren estimates that out of this number about 25 would have reported defensive gun use.

  • Lott claims that of those 25, only 2% actually fired their gun. That's one-half of a person.

  • Furthermore, out of the 2%, only one-fourth actually fired at a person (the other three-fourths fired warning shots). That's one-eighth of a person.

Now, as it happens, I have an explanation of this from Lott himself (writing to me under his Mary Rosh pseudonym): the results were weighted, not raw numbers. This is perfectly reasonable, of course, but when I wrote back saying that the weighting seemed awfully large, here's what he replied:

Whether it is possible depends upon how finely you do the weighting. If you do something as simple as national weighting, you are right, it would not be likely. But if you are willing to put in the effort to break things down into enough categories it becomes quite likely. I just looked up some different numbers from 2000 to give you a rough idea. In Montana, black males make up .14 percent of the population. In Mississippi, they make up 18.8 percent. That is a difference of 134 fold, quite a bit bigger than your 8/1 ratio. Obviously, this is an extreme difference and the difference that Lott must have come across is only about 1/17th as large. If he broke things down by age in addition to race and gender, I am sure that you could easily get difference much bigger than 134 fold. My impression is that at least on this point Lindgren is "making a mountain out of a mole hill."

This doesn't sound convincing to me. In order to get different figures for people who fired at a person versus those who fired warning shots, at least two people must have fired their guns. That's 8%, which would have to be weighted down 4:1 to arrive at his 2% figure. Of those two, one of them fired at the person and the other fired a warning shot, which means that one of those people would have to be weighted up from one-half to three-fourths and the other would be weighted down from one-half to one-fourth.

I'm conversant with statistics, but I don't know much about demographic sample weighting in a survey of this nature. So while it seems dubious to me, I just don't know.

But there are people who read this blog who do know, and here's my question for them: does this make any sense? Is there any reasonable combination of survey data and weighting that could be applied to a sample this size that would produce Lott's stated results? And I don't mean a statistically significant result, I just mean any reasonable weighting that could produce this result at all? How about it?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:19 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

YEARNING FOR A GOLDEN AGE....Greg Beato has a great paragraph today on people who pine away for the past:

It's always easy to pick the best from the past (i.e., Casablanca) and compare it with the mediocre of the present, then conclude that they just don't make them like that anymore. But anyone who bothers to examine the past for five minutes invariably discovers that the past was exactly like the present: the lousy and the mediocre ruled, and good stuff was rare. But the good stuff survives and most of the lousy and mediocre stuff disappears, and people remember golden ages that never were. The same dynamic applies to newspaper columnists, of course: Damon Runyon and Walter Lippmann and H.L. Mencken are the names we remember, but it was the Daniel Henningers of the day who filled up most of the pages.

The same is true of politics: George W. Bush is no FDR, but neither was Calvin Coolidge. We should neither glorify nor dismiss the past, but should try to view it through the eyes of those who actually lived through it, warts and all. Only then can we actually learn anything from it.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 07:51 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

PRESCRIPTION DRUGS....I have often wondered about the names given to prescription drugs: Prozac, Viagra, Xanax, Motrin. Who comes up with them? Is it just the marketing department, or are there rules to be followed? And what are they supposed to mean?

Wonder no more! This article in the Economist was so interesting that I'm going to reproduce it in full here — and damn the copyright laws. Brad DeLong does it; why can't I?

Jan 16th 2003
From The Economist print edition

The success of new drugs depends increasingly on what they are called

A DECADE ago, Pfizer turned to Interbrand Wood, a consultancy, to find a catchy name for its new medicine to treat erectile dysfunction. The challenge, according to Rebecca Robins, head of the consultancy's health-care division in London, was to invent a name with enough popular appeal to overcome the stigma associated with impotence, yet serious enough to appeal to doctors. The firm eventually came up with “Viagra”. Suggesting vigour and strength, it also rhymes with Niagara, evoking images of free and forceful flow.

Eli Lilly is taking a different tack with its new anti-impotence drug, being launched later this year. Lilly's product acts in basically the same way as Viagra, but it is longer-lasting. Instead of having to be popped just before intercourse, like Viagra, Lilly's product can be taken in the morning, and the evening can be left to look after itself. Interbrand Wood, which also christened Lilly's drug, has tried to reflect this potential for spontaneity and intimacy in its choice: “Cialis”, whose soft sounds are a far cry from the hardness of Viagra.

Meanwhile Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), two European firms also planning jointly to introduce a drug for erectile dysfunction this year, have hit upon Levitra for their product. GSK says it plays upon the words “le” (French for “the”) and “vita” (Latin for “life”). The name's resemblance to “levitate”, however, is also a powerful reminder of the drug's primary function.

Years ago, christening a new drug was a much simpler affair, with company scientists creating monikers that somehow reflected the drug's chemical composition or biochemical mode of action. This is still true for the early stages of a new drug's development. When drugs begin life as molecules in a test-tube, they are usually assigned basic product codes, such as GW695634, GSK's reference for its new anti-HIV medicine, now in early testing. When a molecule is shown to have some useful activity, it is given an international non-proprietary name (INN), based on internationally agreed rules, which is submitted for approval to a special committee at the World Health Organisation.

By the time their shiny new products reach early clinical trials, drug companies increasingly turn to outside agencies (and spend as much as $200,000) to devise brand names that convey more than simple science. Creating a strong brand is especially important for drug promotion in America, where companies can advertise directly to patients and there are many “me-too” rivals acting on the same disease in much the same way.

Like most branding, drug names follow fashion. Thirty years ago companies wanted their products to start with the letter “A”, because they would be the first that doctors would stumble across when leafing through their prescribing compendiums. In the 1980s, names beginning with “Z”, such as Zantac, Zocor and Zovirax, were all the rage. “Today, V is the new Z,” according to Ms Robins—hence names like Vfend and Viagra.

The problem, according to Anthony Shore of Landor, another brand consultancy, is that good names are increasingly hard to find. There are roughly a million pharmaceutical and medical trademarks registered in America, and more elsewhere. So devising a short, snappy name for a product that will be acceptable around the world is a challenge.

Merely inventing a unique name for a drug that is legally available and culturally acceptable is also not enough: such trademarks must also be approved by regulatory agencies in America and Europe to ensure that they are not easily confused with other drugs, nor promise more than they can deliver. Lilly, for example, originally chose to call its new anti-sepsis drug Zovant, a name which America's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rejected on the grounds that it was too similar to those of two existing drugs: Zofran for nausea, and Zosyn, an antibiotic. Lilly renamed its product Xigris instead.

The firm did not have much luck with Forteo either. The name was chosen for its new anti-osteoporosis medicine, and was accepted by the FDA. But it was rejected by the agency's transatlantic counterpart, the European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products (EMEA), because the word is associated with “strength” in Italian and Spanish, and therefore constitutes unacceptable promotion.

The FDA currently rejects about a third of all trade names submitted. Given language differences across Europe, getting a single name through the European Union is even harder. One company had to rethink the name of a medicine it hoped to call Atrelar when it turned out to mean “to leash” in Portuguese.

Martin Harvey of the EMEA points out that things will only get trickier in Europe as the Union expands and brings in countries with non-Latinate languages. This is on top of the trouble that pharmaceutical giants increasingly encounter as they try to push their products into China and other Asian markets, with very different linguistic traditions and cultural associations. Coming up with a blockbuster name may soon be almost as tricky as coming up with a blockbuster drug in the first place.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 07:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MORE ON ASTROTURFING....A few days ago I wrote about Republican "astroturfing," where a bunch of Republican activists all sent the same form letter to a bunch of small newspapers and got them published. It's "artificial grass roots" letter writing — astroturfing.

Today, Gary Stock — who also apparently has too much time on his hands — provides an exhaustive analysis of the phenomenon (scroll to the top after you click). Read it and weep.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:36 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

HOW MUCH OF A WARMONGER ARE YOU?....Dwight Meredith recommends that we all go visit The Wild Monk, a new blog written by a frequent commenter at Dwight's site. So I did, and while I was there I took "The WildMonk Iraqi-War Personality Test."

Ah, we're all suckers for these tests, aren't we? I scored a 74 and a 10 for rationality. I don't know where the rationality part comes from, but I'm guessing it's mostly based on question 4....

UPDATE: Scientific testing indicates that "rationality" is a simple function of your responses to questions 4, 5, 9, and 10. Yes, I have too much time on my hands....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:15 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DOES PAUL KRUGMAN DRIVE AN SUV?....HOW ABOUT AL SHARPTON?....Tapped is on quite a roll this morning: Krugman, SUVs, guns, Al Sharpton....they've got all the bases covered. Check it out.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:52 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

ANTI-AMERICANISM....OK, since I posted some skepticism about anti-Americanism in Europe the other day, it's only fair to reprint this poem by Harold Pinter that was published in the Guardian today:

Here they go again,
The Yanks in their armoured parade
Chanting their ballads of joy
As they gallop across the big world
Praising America's God.
The gutters are clogged with the dead
The ones who couldn't join in
The others refusing to sing
The ones who are losing their voice
The ones who've forgotten the tune.

The riders have whips which cut.
Your head rolls onto the sand
Your head is a pool in the dirt
Your head is a stain in the dust
Your eyes have gone out and your nose
Sniffs only the pong of the dead
And all the dead air is alive
With the smell of America's God.

© Harold Pinter, January 2003

Now, polemical poetry is supposed to be....polemical. And Harold Pinter can have whatever opinions he wants. But why does the Guardian print drivel like this?

In my earlier post about anti-Americanism I mentioned that the people I socialized with never seemed especially anti-American (although they were alarmed about the election of George Bush). But what I didn't mention was who those people were: mostly sales, admin assistants, and tech support folks. In other words, fairly ordinary middle class Europeans from a variety of countries.

Needless to say, these are not the people who write the op-ed pages of European newspapers. In fact, many of the most extreme opinion pieces are written by academics and intellectuals, who combine university leftiness with a genuine distaste for American culture that more often than not ends up sounding like Pinter's poem. And that's what we see over here.

So while it's fair to point to op-ed articles and journal papers as examples of anti-Americanism, I'd still urge caution, especially among conservative American academics who probably already feel rather besieged on their own campuses. In the same way that you can become hyper-sensitized to academic liberalism if you have to breathe it every day, you can become convinced that anti-Americanism is more widespread than it is if you spend too much time reading European intellectuals.

Nobody would suggest that American universities reflect the political views of average Americans. The same is true in Europe.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

CATS AND DOGS....I know it's an old schtick that's been mined dry, but I always get a laugh out of the whole cat people vs. dog people thing. Especially when it's sincere, as in this post from Bill Sjostrom:

I am a dog person. I do not get cats. I do not mean that I object to them. It is just that I do not understand their appeal. All they seem to do is lie around all day.

Ah, but he's forgetting other things. Like: they demand attention whenever it suits them and then just wander off when they're satisfied, they love their food bowls more than their owners, and they ruin the lower reaches of Christmas trees.

So what's not to like?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:57 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

ISN'T TAX POLICY INTERESTING?....HERE AT CALPUNDIT IT IS!....A couple of months ago, in a rant about the Wall Street Journal's "lucky duckies" editorial, I noted that when you take all taxes into account, tax rates are close to the same for all income groups.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I printed a chart showing that state taxes are regressive, and concluded that "Federal income tax is progressive, but this only barely makes up for the regressive nature of state and local taxes."

Yesterday, the New York Times finally put all the pieces together for me and showed total tax rates for all income levels. And guess what? It's pretty flat. If you make minimum wage you pay out about 18% of your income. If you're the CEO of Microsoft you pay out about 19%. There will undoubtedly be quibbles about the exact numbers the Times used in this analysis, but the overall picture is pretty clear: the American tax system is pretty flat already. If federal income tax (and therefore most state income taxes) moved to a flat model, the end result would a tax system that was heavily regressive. I'm sure the Wall Street Journal must be delirious over the possibility.

Thanks to Slate for the pointer.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:08 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DOING THE WRONG THING....Hesiod links to this story in the Detroit Free Press today: Heather Pebbles, an employee at a Babies R Us, noticed a baby left alone in a car in freezing weather, so she called the police and then used the store PA sytem to track down the baby's mother. Here's her manager's response:

He says, 'We know you did the right thing and all, but you can't involve us. That guest now has a negative impression of shopping with us....We don't need the bad publicity,' " Pebbles said.

Pebbles, a mother of two who had worked part-time for three years at the store on Haggerty near 8 Mile, was stunned.

"I said, 'What's the winning situation here?' and he said, 'You shouldn't have involved us.' "

Pebbles said she quit, telling the manager "I won't work for a company like this."

The only good news is that corporate headquarters backed Pebbles and said the store manager was wrong. Sounds like maybe they should make Pebbles the store's manager.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

JOHN LOTT EXPLAINS....I got an email from Mary Rosh/John Lott this morning:

From: MaRyRoSh@aol.com
To: CalPundit@cox.net
Sent: Wednesday, January 22, 2003 5:39 AM
Subject: Sorry

You are correct. The MaRyRoSh pen name account was created years ago for an account for my children, using the first two letters of the names of my four sons. (They later got their own accounts but this one was never erased.) I shouldn’t have used it, but I didn’t want to get directly involved with my real name because I could not commit large blocks of time to discussions. (However, I never subscribed to the firearmsregprof posting hosted by Volokh.)

I guess I'll let this pass without comment.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:09 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 21, 2003

IT JUST GETS BETTER AND BETTER....Via Atrios, Julian Sanchez reports that John Lott — who claims not to participate in firearms discussion groups — has actually been participating extensively under the cybername "Mary Rosh":

It is fortunate, since Dr. Lott pays no attention to the natterings of Usenet group participants, that his IP-twin, "Mary Rosh," has been his indefatigable defender on those very groups in recent months. In fact, a quick search of Google Groups reveals that her extensive knowledge of Lott's work is matched only by her passion for refuting his many critics. Lucky guy.

"Mary Rosh" has also been posting comments to Sanchez's site:

I had Lott as a professor in the early 1990s and he was always very nice and fair to people. I can only imagine the type of hell that you all put him through if you were indeed publishing these reports without first at least asking him for comment.

Is this hilarious or what? I can't wait to hear him explain that his wife uses the same computer he does and has been doing all this without his knowledge.

Technically, of course, I realize that this doesn't prove anything directly about Lott's questionable survey, but as the TV lawyers say, it goes to credibility. And his is starting to look pretty ragged.

A note to Lott's defenders: you might want to hedge your bets on this guy. He's beginning to look like a serial — but clumsy — liar.

UPDATE: Oh, this is just too rich! After I finished this post I was about to respond to an email I had gotten about an earlier Lott post. Guess who the email turned out to be from?

You guessed it: MaRyRoSh@aol.com. Our Mary is a busy girl!

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DIVERSITY IN AMERICA....South Knox Bubba looks under the surface of George Bush's MLK speech and finds....something different from what George Bush found. Read it for yourself — and be sure to follow the links!

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 05:33 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

SURVEILLANCE TECHNOLOGY OF THE FUTURE....THE NEAR FUTURE....JB Holston had a good post last week inspired by this report from the ACLU warning about the growth of surveillance in America:

I recently re-read Orwell's 1984. Just in case.

I'd forgotten how bleak it is.

We have better technologies for surveillance today than Orwell dreamed.

He's right, and at 17 pages the ACLU report is not a long read. There's only one problem with it: its intent is to scare people, but it doesn't do a good enough job. So I'd like to take a crack at it.

First, you need to have an idea of what kind of technology we're talking about. In a nutshell, here it is:

  • Cameras. These are becoming ever cheaper (only a few dollars each before long) and more ubiquitous. Within a few years it's likely that virtually every store, every intersection, and every public place will be under 24-hour surveillance. Even today, it's difficult to walk the streets of New York without being almost continually under video surveillance.

  • Face recognition software. This is still in its infancy, but it already works and is in use at airports and sports stadiums. Within a decade it's highly likely that it will be efficient enough to pick out virtually everyone in a crowd and then track and store their movements permanently.

  • RFID chips. These are tiny chips that emit a signal that can be picked up by a nearby sensor. They are already in use for things like toll-booth speed passes, and are getting small enough that they can now be embedded in cans of food, credit cards, and driver licenses — even money. If you carry one of these around, you can be identified without your knowledge anytime you pass a sensor — in a store, on the street, or by a nearby police officer, hundreds of times a day.

  • Massive, interconnected computer databases. Current databases already contain detailed information about everything you buy, where you surf the net, your medical records, and your financial records. Put them together, and you know more about a person than most spouses do.

  • Location detection technology. Thanks to federal regulations, all cell phones can now be tracked by location. A GPS receiver in your car can track your whereabouts when you're driving. GPS receivers can even be implanted in human beings.

An awful lot of people simply don't understand how good this technology already is. Within a decade all of them are likely to be widespread, highly accurate, and inescapable.

Of course, it's computers that tie it all together. Much of this information has been available for a long time, but we have become accustomed to a sort of de facto sense of privacy due to the effort of having to retrieve it from hundreds of different sources. In essence, the difficulty and cost of gathering this data for a single person places practical restrictions on the ability to do it very often. But once it's all stored in online, interconnected databases, there is nothing to prevent it from being correlated and used by both government and commercial organizations as often as they like. They will know:

  • When you left your house in the morning.

  • What route you took to work and how fast you drove while you were getting there.

  • What you bought on your way to work.

  • Who you talked to on your cell phone.

  • When you showed up at work.

  • What emails you wrote and received.

  • Where you went for lunch.

  • Who you met with.

  • What movies you rented, what books you purchased, and what organizations you belong to.

  • Your financial condition, your medical condition, and your buying habits.

  • What TV shows you watch and what websites you frequent.

In short, there will be hundreds of data points about you that are stored and indexed every hour, and this makes it possible to reconstruct your movements and your actions every single minute of the day, every single day of the year. And remember: this technology is already more advanced than most people realize. It's not science fiction anymore; ubiquitous surveillance is only a few years away.

Needless to say, this information is of great value to law enforcement — including legitimate counterterrorist programs. But it is something we should fear anyway. Yes, initially it will be used only to target criminal behavior, but it's a certainty that "criminal" will eventually be relaxed to include "suspicious," and then again to include "anti-social" — while corporations will need no reason at all other than the information's sheer commercial value.

It is a truisim of government that you should not give powers to your friends that you would not also feel safe giving to your enemies. Regardless of the possible benefits of ubiquitous surveillance, and regardless of soothing words that it will be used only for good, never for ill, we should fear it. And we should insist not just that programs like TIA be shut down, but that privacy laws be passed that strictly control how surveillance technology and database profiling can be used and shared — both in the public and private sectors.

We should not want Big Brother watching us.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

QUESTIONS AND A.N.S.W.E.R.S....Left and right on the blogosphere are duking it out over whether liberals are morally corrupt for attending anti-war rallies sponsored by A.N.S.W.E.R. Why? Because A.N.S.W.E.R. is a "virtual front organization" for the Workers World Party, a communist organization that says nice things about North Korea and Cuba.

Everybody seems to agree that WWP is bad. Fine. And according to this article some of the founders of A.N.S.W.E.R. are also WWP apparatchiks. Fine.

But can someone tell me if there's more to it than this? Do they just share some members, or does WWP provide financing, or what? Exactly what is the connection between WWP and A.N.S.W.E.R.?

You can email me here if you have any useful information.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:42 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DID JOHN LOTT FABRICATE A GUN USE SURVEY?....Here's the latest on the John Lott gun-use survey controversy:

  • Julian Sanchez reports that someone wrote to Lott to say that he had been one of the respondents in Lott's 1997 survey:

    In my responses to the survey question concerning the defensive use of a firearm I related that I had had two occasions to do so, once in my home in March of 1980 and once in a public place.

  • Tim Lambert reports that James Lindgren has spoken to this person and finds him credible.

This is helpful to Lott's argument, although it would be nice to hear from one of the students who performed the survey, rather than a respondent. I'd also like to hear a better explanation of the "technical problems" that Lindgren discusses here. Lindgren concludes that about 25 people reported defensive gun use in Lott's survey, and then remarks that if only 2% actually fired the weapon this works out to half a person. Lott actually breaks this down further, saying that three-fourths of the shooters fired warning shots and only one-fourth fired at a person. That's one-eighth of a person.

This kind of thing certainly smells like cooked data, so it's reasonable for suspicions to be raised. We'll just have to wait and see if more evidence or better explanations are forthcoming.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

NO MISSION TO MARS?....Last Friday I commented on an LA Times article that said NASA was accelerating plans to build nuclear powered spacecraft, with the intention of using the technology for a manned mission to Mars.

Today in SpaceDaily Bruce Moomaw says the Times got the story wrong:

Brian Berger reports in "Space News" that an official who has seen NASA's Fiscal Year 2004 budget request confirms that there will be a considerable expansion of the [nuclear propulsion] program: "There is significant money in the budget for Prometheus....more than I expected to see."

However, this — to put it mildly — is not the same thing as saying that NASA plans to try to develop a very large nuclear rocket engine capable of launching a manned ship to Mars within a decade.

....[NASA Administrator Sean] O'Keefe has spent the past year talking constantly about his hopes for a deep space mission using nuclear-powered propulsion within a decade or so — while making it clear that he is talking about an unmanned, relatively small probe. NASA's Nuclear Electric Propulsion program — for which it included $46.5 million in its FY 2003 budget request — would have been just such a system.

He's got more on other developments at NASA too. Just click on the link.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 20, 2003

VIRGINIA HEINLEIN....Robert Heinlein's wife, Virginia, died quietly in her sleep Sunday morning, aged 86. She had been in the hospital since Thanksgiving, when she fell and broke her hip.

Originally Virginia Gerstenfeld (and generally known as Ginny), she married Heinlein in 1948, a year after he divorced his first wife. She has often been credited as a significant influence on Heinlein's political views, not least by Isaac Asimov, who wrote in I. Asimov:

Furthermore, although a flaming liberal during the war, Heinlein became a rock-ribbed far-right conservative immediately afterward. This happened at just the time he changed wives from a liberal woman, Leslyn, to a rock-ribbed far-right conservative woman, Virginia.

....I can't explain Heinlein [as someone who simply echoes another person's views], for I cannot believe he would follow his wives' opinions blindly. I used to brood about it in puzzlement (of course, I never would have dreamed of asking Heinlein — I'm sure he would have refused to answer, and would have done so with the uttermost hostility), and I did come to one conclusion. I would never marry anyone who did not generally agree with my political, social, and philosophical view of life.

After Robert's death in 1988 Virginia moved from their home in California to Florida, where she lived with her cat Snowy. She occasionally visited fan newsgroups, where she was reportedly gracious and informal.

The best portrait of Virginia Heinlein I've read is Robert Heinlein's own in Tramp Royale, a memoir of a round-the-world trip they took in 1954. Here are the opening paragraphs:

My wife Ticky is an anarchist-individualist....When she was in the Navy during the early 'forties she showed up one morning in proper uniform but with her red hair held down by a simple navy-blue band — a hair ribbon. It was neat (Ticky is always neat) and it suited the rest of her outfit esthetically, but it was undeniably a hair ribbon and her division officer had fits.

"If you can show me," Ticky answered with simple diginity, "where it says one word in the Navy Uniform Regulations on the subject of hair ribbons, I'll take it off. Otherwise not."

See what I mean? She doesn't have the right attitude.

Tramp Royale makes it pretty clear that his relationship with Virginia was a model for many of the relationships in his later books, especially those written after 1980. In fact, the conversational style of Tramp Royale appears to be transplanted almost whole in books like The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and The Number of the Beast.


Virginia Doris Gerstenfeld was born in 1916 to George and Jeanne Gerstenfeld and raised in Brooklyn. During World War II she entered the navy as a WAVE — eventually advancing to the rank of lieutenant — and met Heinlein while both were working at the Naval Air Experimental Station in Philadelphia. After the war Heinlein moved back to Los Angeles, and in 1946 Virginia followed him there, enrolling in an advanced degree program at UCLA.

In 1947 Heinlein's first marriage ended in divorce, and after California's mandatory waiting period was over Robert and Ginny were married in New Mexico on October 21, 1948. According to Catherine Crook de Camp, "Ginny was just the sort of companion Robert needed, as I realized the first time I met her. A well-balanced, hard-working, gracious young woman, she was totally dedicated to Robert's welfare. Her love and care, without a doubt, added many years to his life."

In 1949 Heinlein described his wife as an "organic chemist and bio-chemist by trade — and superlative kitchen chemist now that she is out of the lab. She is red headed and quite much of an athlete — four letters in college — and could probably lick me in a fair fight."

Shortly after their marriage the Heinleins moved to Colorado Springs, where they lived for 17 years. In 1965, after Virginia's health problems relating to altitude sickness had gone from intermittent to chronic, they moved to the Bonny Doon area of the mountains near Santa Cruz, California. In 1988, after Robert's death, Virginia moved to Atlantic Beach, Florida.

Virginia Heinlein had one brother, Leon, who died in 1984. Robert and Virginia Heinlein had no children.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:26 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Lowest-scoring 1st halves
Pts.TeamsDate
57 New York vs. Miami Jan. 20, 2003 
57 Detroit vs. Denver Nov. 16, 2003 
58 Dallas vs. Indiana Feb. 13. 1998 
58 Ft. Wayne vs. Syracuse Jan. 25, 1955 
59 Dallas vs. New York Dec. 22, 1997 
59 Miami vs. Orlando Apr. 22, 1999 
 
 
BACK TO THE FUTURE....The Knicks and the Heat scored a combined 57 points in the first half in their game tonight. That's just piss poor basketball.

But the cool thing is that according to the table that accompanies the CNN story, they tied a record that will be set later this year in a game between Detroit and Denver!

Place your bets, gentlemen!

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

A GEORGE BUSH TIMELINE....Here's George Bush's timeline on racial sensitivity for the past few weeks:

  • December 5, 2002: Trent Lott suggests the country would have been better off if segregationist Strom Thurmond had won the 1948 presidential election. George Bush condemns his words but does not call for his resignation.

  • January 7, 2003: Bush renominates Charles Pickering, a man reviled by blacks for his record in civil rights cases, to a federal judgeship.

  • January 15, 2003: Bush chooses Martin Luther King's birthday to announce his opposition to the University of Michigan's affirmative action program.

  • January 17, 2003: The White House leaks a story saying that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice agreed with Bush's opposition to affirmative action. This turns out to be a lie and Rice repudiates the leak the next day.

  • Today: Time magazine reports that Bush has revived the tradition of sending a Memorial Day wreath to the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.

What can you do except shake your head? Is George Bush on a death march to ensure that no African-American ever again even thinks about voting for a Republican?

UPDATE: Time magazine has retracted the story about the wreath. Apparently the wreath has always been sent, and Bush was just continuing the tradition.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 05:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

CROWD ESTIMATES....Instapundit prints a query from a reader today asking why we don't know how big the crowds were at the various anti-war events.

Well, in the case of the D.C. event, that's easy: the Park Service no longer provides crowd estimates. They used to do this, but stopped after promoters of the 1995 "Million Man March" filed suits over what it believed was a lowball estimate. As I recall, they estimated the crowd for that event at 400,000, the promoters went ballistic, and the Park Service just decided they didn't need the grief any longer. So they quit doing it.

UPDATE: John Smith at Coherence Theory of Truth suggests "Open Source Crowd Estimates," which involves a bunch of people with synchronized cameras. But does that mean that the cameras have to be running Linux?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:30 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

APPARENTLY THIS IS CALLED "ASTROTURFING"....Atrios has a list of newspapers that all published a form letter praising President Bush's economic plan, most likely orchestrated by the White House or the RNC. In case you're curious, here's the text of the letter:

When it comes to the economy, President Bush is demonstrating genuine leadership. The economic growth package he recently proposed takes us in the right direction by accelerating the successful tax cuts of 2001, providing marriage penalty relief, and providing incentives for individuals and small businesses to save and invest.

Contrary to the class warfare rhetoric attacking the President’s plan, the proposal helps everyone who pays taxes, and especially the middle class. This year alone, 92 million taxpayers will receive an immediate tax cut averaging $1,083 — and 46 million married couples will get back an average of $1,714. That’s not pocket change for a family struggling through uncertain economic times. Combined with the president’s new initiatives to help the unemployed, this plan gets people back to work and helps every sector of our economy.

Yeah, that sounds real, doesn't it?

In comments, David de la Fuente says he wrote to ten newspapers to tell them they had been scammed, but only one responded:

Mr. De la Fuente

Thank you for your email. We did become aware of the fact that the Bush letter stating his "genuine leadership" was some type of form letter. It is often difficult to check the veracity of the letters we receive. We usually try to publish letters on local issues. The practice of mass submitting letters is old. We have been receiving these types of letters for some time. We have our "regular" submitters. I believe there to be a distribution list circulating among certain groups that contain the email addresses of various second tier media vehicles that are more likely to publish the letter. We will occasionally publish these letters although we have a good idea that is a not the work of a single individual. We happen to live in a red state and a majority of our readership are GOP members. We view it as an occasional courtesy. I believe you will see this trend continue as it is relatively inexpensive and lacks labor intensity, while it is able to reach broad market segments. I’m just shocked that it has taken so long for others to expose it. This fad begun over three years ago.

Thank you for your diligence and concern for fair media.

Sincerely
Roger Bunce
The Lynchburg Ledger

Just an "occasional courtesy." Ah, the liberal media....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

CELL PHONE ETIQUETTE....The Economist reports on an effort to build cell phones that encourage polite behavior:

The first phone, called SoMo1, gives its user a mild electric shock, depending on how loudly the person at the other end is speaking. This encourages both parties to speak more quietly, otherwise the mild tingling becomes an unpleasant jolt. Such phones, the designers suggest archly, could be given to repeat offenders who persistently disturb people with intrusive phone conversations.

Yowza! That's my kind of operant conditioning!

Sadly, though, "None of these phones is intended as a commercial product; the design team simply hopes to provoke discussion." Still, now that we've taken care of cigarettes and alcohol, and are busily working on chocolate, can cell phones be far behind?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:03 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MEDICAL MALPRACTICE AND TORT REFORM....My head hurts. Is there a doctor around?

I'm sure there must be another policy dispute in which both sides try as desperately as this one to avoid presenting the actual facts and figures, but I haven't found it yet. All I want is a simple table that shows for each of the 50 states (a) whether tort reform has been enacted, (b) average malpractice payouts, and (c) malpractice premiums rates. The fact that I can't find it leads me to believe that the actual figures would be damaging to both sides in this controversy.

Still, here are a few miscellaneous items that shed a little bit of light on the situation:

  • Here in California we enacted tort reform in 1975 and it was judged constitutional in 1986. Bush's proposal is based heavily on California's law, usually referred to as MICRA.

  • Justene Adamec over at Calblog has a summary of this HHS report that compares experiences in states with and without tort reform. She points in particular to a chart on page 19 of the study showing that premiums have risen much more slowly in California than in the rest of the country. (Her overall conclusion is that tort reform is needed, but payout caps are not a good way of getting it.)

  • However, the HHS report shows only "selected" states and makes heroic efforts not to present a comprehensive table. For a different view of California vs. the nation, check out this report from the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights: it says that between 1991 and 1999 premiums went up 3.5% in California vs. 1.9% in the rest of the country. In other words, California did worse than other states. What's more, it claims that average premiums are only slightly lower in California than in the rest of the country.

  • And there are some other problems as well. Who chose $250,000 as the right cap on pain and suffering payouts? Why is it not indexed to inflation (it hasn't changed in California since 1975)? The Bush proposal recommends annual payouts instead of lump sums, so why not specify the payout cap in annual terms? And why is this a federal matter anyway? Why not leave it up to the states?

So who's right? Beats me. The HHS report is obviously selective and biased, but a similar report from the Center for Justice and Democracy also pretty studiously avoids some sensitive topics as well.

There are clearly other problems at work besides jury awards: insurance companies have had to increase premiums recently to make up for investment losses and there has been plenty of documentation of rampant mismanagement during the 90s that has driven several companies out of business. Still, basic data on jury awards by state shouldn't be so hard to come by. If anyone can help me find it, I'd be grateful.

UPDATE: Dwight Meredith points to this post at the Bloviator for more info. Also, there's this lengthy 1993 report from the Office of Technology Assessment. Both conclude that caps have an effect on reducing malpractice premiums, but there's still no state-by-state data. Dwight suggests that good data may be hard to come by because many settlements are confidential.

My head still hurts.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:41 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

TIME MAGAZINE TAKES A LOOK AT ANTI-AMERICANISM....Avedon Carol has a message for Time magazine: "Bush is not America, and Europeans know this." I've spent the past decade working with Europeans of various stripes, so Avedon's complaint really hit home with me.

My experience has been pretty simple: most Europeans are not anti-American. I can't vouch for what they say when I'm not around, of course, but in person political disagreements are pretty good natured. If anything, Europeans tend to be hypersensitive about cultural differences — what with all those countries packed into a smallish continent and all — and they mostly accept American culture as simply different from theirs. They may disagree with American policy frequently, but they don't hate America.

But it's a whole different story with George Bush. They just don't get it. "Did people actually vote for him?" they ask, as if some horrible psychosis must have temporarily taken hold of the American population when they went to the polls in 2000. Most Europeans I've talked to find him simply incomprehensible: scary, intolerant, short fused, and ill educated. A hick, not a president of the United States.

And so we get to Time magazine, which last week ran a cover story about anti-Americanism in its European edition. And sure enough, here's what it says:

Scratch a European complaint about the U.S. and it almost always reveals the person of George W. Bush — the "toxic Texan," as one American diplomat ruefully puts it. The President's domestic record embodies things many Europeans find strange, if not repellent, about the U.S.: pro-gun, pro-death penalty, pro-Christian, antiabortion, strongly patriotic....Particularly offensive to Europeans are Bush's swagger, tough talk and invocations of God and right and wrong, part of his born-again tradition that is attuned to the U.S. mood after Sept. 11. "We don't see the common guy from Chicago," says Gérald Duchaussoy, a 28-year-old office worker in Paris. "We see Bush. And politicians here don't speak with his language."

And this:

A former cabinet minister in the British Conservative Party, which is officially even more pro-American than Bush's First Friend Tony Blair, recently leaned over at lunch and described Bush as "terrifying," "ignorant," "a prisoner of the religious right who believes God tells him what to do," and "like a child running around with a grenade with the pin pulled out."

Conclusions? None, really, except to take "anti-Americanism" with a grain of salt. It's been around — as has anti-Europeanism on this side of the Atlantic — for a long time, and in any case its current incarnation is often more anti-Bushism than anti-Americanism anyway. It will likely subside in time, just as it has in the past.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

HOLIDAY?....Well, as of today George W. Bush has been president of the United States for two years. Apparently federal employees have all taken the day off in mourning.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

PRE-EMPTIVE WAR....Chris Bertram sums up the intelligent anti-war viewpoint pretty well today. It's worth reading, especially if you're pro-war.

I am nominally on the opposite side from Chris, but I agree with him that most pro-war partisans are unwilling to face up to the essential weakness of their arguments. Pre-emptive war is a horrible doctrine, and once let loose it will not obediently crawl back into its hole simply because we are done with it for the moment. The bar should be set very high for an act of pre-emptive war, and in the case of Iraq — if we are there at all — we are only barely there. The argument balances on a knife edge.

Allowing WMDs to fall into the hands of a man who has started two unprovoked wars against his neighbors in the past two decades — and who is also a brutal, sadistic dictator — is clearly something the rest of the world has a right to be concerned about. But the way the world goes about disarming him matters.

If the United States does it alone, the message we send is that any single nation state has the right to attack another if it feels sufficiently threatened. This is a dangerous precedent to set since, after all, we are not the only nation state in the world.

Contrariwise, if we invade Iraq under UN auspices, we send a different message: pre-emptive war is justified in the extreme, but no single nation state is justified in doing it on its own. You have to persuade a group of neutral third parties first.

This is a principle worth keeping. Not because the United States should be held hostage to the United Nations, but because everyone should be. This is a case where it is in America's best interest to keep Pandora's Box firmly and solidly shut.

POSTSCRIPT: I should add that Chris also echoes my concerns about what we are going to do in Iraq after the fighting is over. As he says, our track record here is not exemplary, and it makes a big difference. If we are fighting to bring some level of democracy and tolerance to Iraq, well and good. However, if we simply install a friendlier dictator who will keep the oil flowing, then we will have lost whatever moral authority we ever had in the first place. George Bush's relative silence on this question is not a good sign.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:25 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

FIRST THEY CAME FOR THE CIGARETTES....I don't often agree with National Review, but yesterday The Corner reported that "Not content with their onslaught on tobacco and alcohol, the totalitarians of ‘public health’ are now eyeing your chocolate bar."

More scary hype from the loony bin right? Let's find out! According to The Independent, British health experts are concerned about the growing crop of extra-large candy bars:

They believe that consumers are more likely to buy the Mars Big One, which is a third larger than a standard bar but only 15p more expensive. Similarly, the KitKat Chunky costs 40p and weighs 55g, and is only 5p more than the smaller, traditional KitKat bar.

No shit. I mean, that is the whole point isn't it?

Ah, well, I suppose it was bound to happen, and as a good liberal I should just suck it up and take it. It's only a matter of time before California goes the way of Britain.

In fact, maybe Gray Davis should read about this. A $1.10 tax fee on chocolate bars would probably go a long way toward solving our little deficit problem.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:03 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

ORIGINAL INTENT...."Originalism" is a doctrine that says constitutional questions should be decided based on the original intent of the framers. Today, via Sam Heldman, Yale law professor Jack Balkin suggests there's less to originalism than meets the eye:

My experience has been that people tend to invoke originalist arguments only when it produces constitutional results they like and they tend not to mention originalist arguments when they prove embarrassing. If I have the time, I hope to do a series on originalism in constitutional argument, but for the moment I want to focus only on the issue of colorblindness and original understanding.

Balkin then goes on to make a pretty compelling case that the original framers of the 14th amendment did not intend to prohibit race-conscious behavior. In fact, they specifically foresaw that blacks could still be prevented from voting (thus the need for the 15th amendment a few years later). What's more, the same congress that passed the 14th amendment also passed a number of bills offering special welfare and educational benefits solely to blacks.

So: will Justices Scalia and Thomas, who claim to be originalists, uphold the University of Michigan's affirmative action program? Answer: does it produce "constitutional results they like"? What part of "no" don't you understand?

UPDATE: History professor Tom Spencer doesn't think much of originalism either. My own take on the doctrine is here.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 19, 2003

I DUNNO, THE CROWDS LOOKED PRETTY BIG TO ME....You know, I'm actually in favor of deposing Saddam, but count me among the people wondering just why the warblogosphere is so shrilly insistent that this weekend's war protests were (a) microscopically small, (b) intellectually vacant, (c) unapologetically Stalinist, and (d) objectively pro-terror.

Sure, more people went to football games than went to the protests. So what? Probably more people went to football games than went to Vietnam War protests too.

Methinks they doth protest the protests too much.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 07:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THIS IS WHAT WE MEAN BY AN "ORANGE COUNTY REPUBLICAN"....My state assemblyman — as well as Einstein-loving Ann's — is John Campbell (R–Irvine). There may not be many Republicans left in state government, but by God, Orange County has one of them.

So what does my assemblyman think about our budget crisis, all $35 billion of it? Like all Republicans, he pretends to believe that the $35 billion figure has been deliberately inflated to make things seems worse than they are, thus creating an excuse to raise taxes. LA Weekly asked Campbell why he thought Gray Davis was doing this:

“So,” asked the Weekly, “if Davis’ cuts solve most if not all of the crisis, why would he want to raise taxes?”

“Because he is catering to ideological liberals in the Legislature who want to raise taxes,” explained Campbell.

“So, John, if the Davis plan was enacted we would have a big budget surplus?”

“Yes, absolutely,” replied Campbell. It seemed an exciting thought. Then he reconsidered. “Well, many of the taxes would end up not being paid because people would figure out ways around them.”

Ah, yes, if we raised taxes, people would just cheat more, and we'd end up with less tax revenue. This is sort of the dark side of supply side economics, I suppose.

Sadly, though, this is the kind of Olympian intelligence we have to put up with around here. Not only is it dumb, but it even ignores political realities: everybody knows that Gray Davis wants to run for president some day, and my guess is that he would rather have his big toe hacked off than have to campaign as a governor who raised taxes. But he went ahead and proposed it anyway.

What does that tell you?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 06:10 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

NEW FRONTIERS IN TRIVIA....Walter Bagehot was a famous British constitutional scholar — a peculiar profession in a country that has no constitution, but never mind that — and one of the early editors of the Economist. To this day there is a regular column in the magazine named in his honor.

And now I know how to pronounce his name. Thanks, Josh.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 05:36 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

FRIED CALAMARI....James Lileks has only had fried calamari once? On an Italian vacation?

I had calamari in Italy once, during a trip to Herculaneum. It had been caught that very day. They didn’t chop it or de-tentacle it; they just rolled it in crumbs and tossed it in the oil. You could still see the black eyeballs, and you couldn’t help but realize you were eating BRAINS. Yes, brains. Sweeet, delicious BRAINS.

He makes it sound like some strange tribal ritual unheard of in modern America. I mean, sure, he lives in the midwest and all, but surely they've at least got an Olive Garden or something he could try.

And is it just me, or does it seem like something called the Thursday Fish Feast really ought to be scheduled for, you know, Thursday?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 05:28 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

CONSERVATIVE VALUES....Digby says, "Study math and English, brothers." And you better listen to him, because if you don't, you're toast....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:03 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

OBSCURE NATIVE RITUALS....Chris Bertram points us to Kenan Malik's blog, where he is upset over this news report from New Zealand:

Work on a section of the new highway between Mercer and Long Swamp, dubbed the "Waikato Expressway", has been put on hold after local Maori said they believe there is a taniwha in the way. Local Maori claim the taniwha - or guardian spirit - is lurking somewhere in swampland near Meremere.

....Transit New Zealand will not be interviewed but says it issued the stopwork order out of respect for Maori culture. A meeting is scheduled between roading authorities and local Maori to decide what happens next.

Kenan is appalled by this:

To take seriously Maori beliefs about the taniwha, and to view respect for such beliefs as the basis of Maori rights, is to suggest that Maoris possess rights, not by virtue of being rational political actors, but as a consequence of holding irrational cultural beliefs. It is to resurrect a Romantic, 'Noble Savage' view of Maoris and to assess their rights on a different basis from which we assess other peoples' rights.

But compare these "irrational cultural beliefs" to this quote from the Chicago Tribune about a pair of cemeteries that are on the grounds of O'Hare Airport. The churches were moved away years ago, so why are they still there?

Said John Carr, acting airport manager: "It is a very costly thing to move cemeteries." The legal complications of moving bodies are formidable, Maynard Marks, secretary of the Cemetery Association of Greater Chicago, agreed.

"If the state has to move one body to route a highway, it will reroute the highway," he said.

As Kieran Healy pointed out in a hilarious post a few days ago, it is all too easy to ignore the fact that our own rituals and beliefs are every bit as stylized and irrational as anyone's, something that anthropologists frequently have good natured fun with. Would Kenan have felt the same way if a local Christian group had protested the highway because its route took it through a cemetery?

It's often the case that the true root of these kinds of disputes is a belief by a non-majority group that they are not being taken seriously. This has certainly been the case in Hawaii, where scientists have built telescopes on Mauna Kea with wild abandon for the past decade and simply dismissed out of hand native concerns about desecration of temples. Eventually protesters got their attention, but the problem probably could have been avoided entirely by simply treating their requests with respect from the start.

My guess is that Transit New Zealand has learned this lesson. Certainly governments are not obliged to automatically defer to religious belief — quite the contrary — but by taking the Maori religion as seriously as we take Christianity, the situation will probably be defused fairly quickly and an adequate compromise reached. And it will be done not by treating the Maori as noble savages, but simply by treating them as equals.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 02:27 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

COMPARE AND CONTRAST....Two excerpts from articles about George Bush today. First, from Ron Brownstein's review of three books about Bush:

What none of these books adequately explain is why Bush has been so confrontational and ideological in shaping his domestic agenda. As governor of Texas, he was a consensus-builder who routinely reached out to Democrats: He made substantive compromises on all of his major priorities in the state

His pattern as president has been very different. He has consistently aimed his proposals (from tax cuts to energy) at the interests of the Republican base, and he has usually resisted compromise unless absolutely necessary. With a restored Republican majority in Congress, Bush is now advancing an agenda that envisions another round of massive tax cuts, large increases in defense spending and sustained federal deficits that choke off domestic spending.

Next, this excerpt from Richard Reeves' column:

[Washington] is a scary place. Not many people here believe Bush when he says he sees war as a last resort. From here, Bush the impatient, Bush the hater, seems ready to go to war no matter what happens -- as if sending tens of thousands of soldiers far from home out there in the desert is reason enough to attack.

....There are words he likes; "commander" is one. Even his weird talk, the jumbled stuff, is sometimes revealing. Exactly a month before taking office, after the chaos of vote-counting in Florida, the new president-elect talked of the job this way: "If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier. Just as long as I'm the dictator."

That is from one scary Texan. There is some kind of anger in the man alone, hostility that sometimes seems barely under control -- as if he were, in street language, being "disrespected."

In the same way that conservatives had some kind of visceral loathing for Bill Clinton, I think this is the side of the Bush that sets liberal teeth on edge. It's not so much that he's dumb, it's that he seems so petty, smallminded, and downright mean, someone who treats politics like a take-no-hostages siege where the goal is not the solution of problems but the utter humiliation of your opponents. I can understand someone liking his policies, but I find it hard to understand someone liking the man.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:24 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

PAIN AND SUFFERING....Dwight Meredith has a question about President Bush's tort reform proposal:

President Bush went to the battle ground state of Pennsylvania yesterday to announce his proposed tort reform initiative for medical malpractice suits. The core of the proposal is a $250,000 cap on the recovery of non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases.

....Why was the cap set at $250,000?

Well, $250,000 sounds like a lot of money, doesn't it? But let's take a more realistic look at things, shall we?

Let's see....how about, say, a 30-year-old who had the wrong leg amputated and ends up in a wheelchair suffering from phantom pain for the rest of her life? Life expectancy is about 50 more years and a prudent guess for long-term real rate of return if the money is invested is about 3%. So what does that get her?

According to this handy dandy annuity calculator, she gets less than $10,000 per year.

Since pain and suffering is a lifetime deal, it makes sense for payouts to be made annually for someone's lifetime. After all, a 30-year-old is going to suffer longer than a 70-year-old. So why not talk about payout caps in those terms?

That's easy: because it suddenly doesn't sound so good. $250,000 sounds like a generous amount to most people. $10,000 per year sounds kind of stingy.

Presentation is everything, isn't it?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 18, 2003

IRAQI NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROGRAM DISCOVERED....Via Michael J. Totten, a report in the Telegraph that says UN inspectors in Iraq have discovered proof of an ongoing nuclear weapons development program:

Acting on information provided by Western intelligence, the UN inspection teams discovered a number of documents proving that Saddam is continuing with his attempts to develop nuclear weapons, contrary to his public declarations that Iraq is no longer interested in producing weapons of mass destruction.

....A Western diplomat closely involved with the investigation into Saddam's nuclear capability yesterday confirmed that the documents showed that Iraq was still attempting to develop its own atomic weapons.

"These are not old documents. They are new and they relate to on-going work taking place in Iraq to develop nuclear weapons," the official told The Telegraph. "They had been hidden at the scientists' homes on Saddam's personal orders. Furthermore, no mention of this work is made in the Iraqi dossier that was submitted to the UN last December."

This report is currently unconfirmed, but if it holds up it's hard to imagine that anything more is needed to get widespread global support for military action. This is not a dozen short-range artillery shells, it's a current, ongoing program to build nuclear weapons.

I have argued before that when it comes to military action the UN does not deserve the abuse it gets from conservatives. In fact, the UN's judgment has been pretty reliable on this score over the past couple of decades, supporting the U.S. when it deserves support and condemning it when it deserves condemnation. And I predict that if these document show what the Telegraph says they show, the UN will once again demonstrate sound judgment and approve a resolution authorizing military force to depose Saddam Hussein.

UPDATE: According to AP, Iraq says the documents relate to an old laser isotope separation program from the 70s and 80s that proved too difficult and was abandoned in 1987. The AP reports quotes Hans Blix as saying that that the UN "was perfectly aware that the laser production took place before 1990, and it doesn't add very much to that knowledge. What it teaches is that they are not declaring meticulously what they should have been declaring."

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

NEWS IN THE AGE OF BLOGGING....Man, it's hard to keep up. Glenn Reynolds, reporting on the San Francisco anti-war march, writes this about one of the protester's signs: "Note the pacifistic theme of wishing Bush would choke on a pretzel."

So I click on the link and get the picture on the right. Huh? Is this like Reagan and jelly beans? And what's this about choking?

No problem though, just go to Google and enter "bush pretzel" and up pops this CNN story from January 14, 2002:

Bush lost consciousness for a brief time in the White House on Sunday evening while eating a pretzel and watching a professional football game on television. He fell from his couch and has a scrape and large bruise on his left cheekbone, plus a bruise on his lower lip, to show for his troubles. His glasses cut the side of his face.

....[Air Force physician Richard] Tubb told reporters Bush reported a pretzel "did not go down right" and the doctor said it was possible a pretzel had lodged against a nerve and momentarily caused a decrease in the president's heart rate, causing him to faint.

Baltimore won the playoff game 20-3.

Morals of the story: (1) I should pay more attention to events like this that provide cultural reference points, (2) protesters have long memories, and (3) Pejman is right: Glenn needs to crack a smile now and again. Maybe he should read Atrios more often?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 05:08 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION....Whenever I read conservative commentary on the U of Michigan affirmative action case, it always seems to focus on the fact that being black gets you 20 points in UM's admissions scoring system. That's 20 times what you get for writing an essay! That's more than you get for a perfect SAT score!

But they never seem to eke out the space to mention that the primary part of the scoring system is high school GPA — which counts for 80 points. Curious, isn't it?

Now, I'm not saying that conservatives are taking a moderate program that's designed to help minorities and lying about how it works in order to make it look like a wild lefty quota scheme that prevents white valedictorians from going to college. I'm not saying that. I'm just, you know, saying.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 02:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

ENFORCING THE GUN LAWS....Families of the D.C. sniper victims are suing the gun manufacturer and the gun seller. The merits of the case are unclear (it's apparently based on the fact that Bull's Eye Shooter Supply "lost" hundreds of guns over the past three years), but aside from this Rachel Lucas has this to say:

While it may be true that Muhammad and Malvo would not have obtained the particular rifle they used to shoot people if Bull's Eye hadn't been in business, it's beyond naive to think for that they wouldn't have been able to acquire another one. Which is so obvious, it feels surreal to even type it. But obvious to me is obviously not obvious to them.

This is a common argument among gun enthusiasts, but I'm afraid I don't quite understand it since it seems to imply that there's really no point in enforcing gun laws — or punishing the people who break them — because criminals will always manage to get hold of guns somehow. But by the same token:

  • There's no point in arresting that pusher who hangs out in the schoolyard. The kids will just get their drugs somewhere else.

  • There's no point in taking out Saddam. Al-Qaeda will just get their nukes from someone else.

  • There's no point in vaccinating for smallpox. The terrorists can always use some other virus instead.

No law can be 100% effective in preventing criminal behavior, but we enforce them anyway in order to make criminal behavior harder. And if you break a law and it results in harm to others, you can be held accountable for that.

Bartenders who sell liquor to drunks can be held partially responsible if the drunk goes out and kills someone. Likewise, a gun shop that sells a gun illegally — as Bull's Eye is accused of doing — can be held partially responsible if their customer goes out and kills someone with it. In this case, a judge and jury will decide whether Bull's Eye or Bushmaster acted negligently, and that's as it should be. Laws are meant to be enforced, and gun laws are no exception.

UPDATE: Rachel Lucas writes to say that she agrees that gun laws should be enforced. Her objection was primarily to the sentence in the court filings that said, "If Bull's Eye and Bushmaster and the other gun industry defendants had acted responsibly in the sale of their guns, Muhammad and Malvo would not have been able to obtain the assault rifle they needed to carry out their shootings." My guess is that this is just legal hyperbole, but even so, point taken. Overall, I think the suit would have considerably less merit if more gun enthusiasts agreed with Rachel that existing gun laws should be vigorously enforced.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THE DEATH OF BANANAS?....Huh? Charles Kuffners passes on a report that says bananas might go extinct within ten years. According to the cover story in this week's New Scientist, bananas lack the genetic diversity to fight off diseases and pests that are plaguing banana plantations. Genetic engineering may be our only hope of saving them.

Since bananas are practically the only fruit I'm actually willing to eat, this could be a major catastrophe. Has Bjørn Lomborg heard about this?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:44 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

WHO LETS THESE PEOPLE VOTE, ANYWAY?....One more quick observation about some weirdness in those exit polls: among people who thought only Gore had the knowledge to be president, 5% voted for Bush. Likewise, among people who thought only Bush had the knowledge to be president, 4% voted for Gore.

What the hell is up with that?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

BUSH AND TAXES....I was surfing around the Web last night and happened to come across the exit polling data for the 2000 election, and it was pretty interesting to look at it two years into the Bush presidency. It's not that there was anything all that startling in the breakdowns, just that it clarified a few home truths a little more forcefully than usual.

In particular, the exit poll results really crystallize the political imperatives behind Bush's economic plan:

  • People who thought the economy was going to get worse voted for Bush 52%-45% and people who thought that being trustworthy "mattered most" voted for him by a whopping 80%-15%. Worriers who put their faith in someone are likely to turn like jackals if they feel mislead or lied to, so he really has to appear to be doing something if he wants to keep from losing the votes of these people. Thus the necessity for a "bold," "much bigger than expected" economic program.

  • Among people who thought taxes were the most important issue in the election, 80% voted for Bush. No other issue even came close to dividing the electorate this strongly for either candidate.

  • As the chart shows, Bush's support rose linearly with income level. So: a big economic program that emphasizes tax breaks and aims them disproportionately at the well-off makes perfect sense. In a way, he didn't really have any other choice if he wanted to avoid wholesale defections among aggrieved core supporters.

And Pickering and affirmative action? Well, Bush won a majority of the popular vote in only one region: the South. Enough said.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:06 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

WWII VETS AGAINST THE WAR....Here's some interesting poll information: the age group that most opposes war with Iraq is that aged 77 and up, Tom Brokaw's famous "Greatest Generation" of World War II veterans.

In a Los Angeles Times Poll last month, support for sending U.S. ground troops to Iraq was 58% among all 1,305 respondents compared with 35% among the World War II generation. A poll of 4,469 Americans by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in the fall indicated that 60% of Americans favored taking action in Iraq to end Hussein's regime, but that only 41% of participants 75 and older supported such action.

Their main complaint seems to be that Bush has not yet made a good case for war, a telling criticism from a generation that has heard successive presidents trying to justify their various wars for over 50 years and probably has a pretty good ear for whether this one's war talk is more like FDR's or LBJ's. As one respondent put it, "I'm willing to be convinced either way, but if there's some darned good reason for going to war, I haven't seen it yet."

But Colin Powell promises that later this month we're all going to hear — something. Not a "darned good reason," perhaps, but at least "a persuasive case." That does seem to be the very least we could expect from them, doesn't it?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:41 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 17, 2003

FROOGLE....Here's an intriguing new item that I just noticed (although it's been around for a few weeks): Google is beta testing a new comparison shopping service called Froogle. So I tried it.

The test subject was a Nikon Coolpix 4500 digital camera. Enter the search terms and you get the screen on the right, which returned 5,847 results. Yikes!

There doesn't appear to be a "sort by price" option, but by entering a price range and lowering it step by step I eventually found one place that sold the camera for $404 and two others that sold it for $450. Not bad. But how does it compare to other product comparison sites? Pretty well, it turns out.

I tried the same search on NexTag, which doesn't sort by price either, but since it returned only 39 results it was easy to scan them and see that the lowest price on offer was $472.

AskJeeves returned 67 results and it even sorted them by price. However, the lowest price it found was $500.

So, based on one quick test, it seems like it has potential. The comparison information wasn't as good as its more established competitors, but on the plus side it returned a lot more hits and found a much lower price. It's worth a look, especially since it will undoubtedly get better when it goes live after the beta testing is finished.

UPDATE: Alex Salkever tried it out too and wasn't as impressed. His report is here.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

SEXUAL HARASSMENT AT BERKELEY....Remember the case of John Dwyer, the Berkeley Law School dean who resigned after he was accused of sexual misconduct? No? Well, I don't blame you. But Erin O'Connor has been studiously following the case and says this today:

Though Reisch was 25 at the time of her encounter with Dwyer, though she was, by her own lawyer's characterization, falling-down drunk the night it happened, though she invited him up into her apartment and chose to wait drowsy and prone on her bed while he used her bathroom....[her actions] reveal not only an unwillingness to take responsibility for her own role in the ambiguous groping encounter that has since been labelled "harassment" but also a truly draconian determination to make her own lack of accountability into the basis for sweeping institutional change.

Huh? She was drunk and "chose" to wait drowsy and prone on her bed? And this means what? That she was just asking for a good groping?

What the hell is wrong with these people? Reisch and her lawyer want Berkeley to ban student-teacher dating and conduct sensitivity training regarding sexual harassment. Maybe that's good, maybe it's not, but trying to portray Reisch as somehow more responsible than Dwyer is contemptible. His conduct was wildly inappropriate — to put it kindly — and he knew it. Dwyer's apologists ought to know it too.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:26 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DOESN'T THIS BAR SEEM LIKE IT'S SET KINDA LOW?....Atrios points to an article that says that when George Bush applied to the Texas National Guard in 1968 he scored only 25% on the pilot aptitude test, "the lowest acceptable grade."

You only have to score 25% on an aptitude test to get trained as a jet pilot? That's about the equivalent of a combined 700 on the SAT, barely enough to get a football player admitted to a local JC. This is kinda scary considering that — theoretically anyway — these guys might be flying planes in actual combat.

I wonder what real Air Force pilots think about this?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:58 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION IN THE WHITE HOUSE....Condoleezza Rice says affirmative action is OK:

I believe that while race-neutral means are preferable, it is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body.

This, of course, is exactly what the University of Michigan does: it considers race as one factor out of many. Here's the whole dreary list:

  • 80 points — GPA

  • 12 points — SAT scores

  • 10 points — Academic strength of high school

  • 8 points — Strength of high school curriculum

  • 10 points — Michigan resident

  • 6 points — Underrepresented Michigan county

  • 2 points — Underrepresented state

  • 4 points — Legacy admission

  • 3 points — Essay

  • 5 points — Personal achievement

  • 5 points — Leadership and service

  • 20 points — Socio-economic disadvantage

  • 20 points — Underrepresented racial-ethnic minority

  • 5 points — Men in nursing

  • 20 points — Scholarship athlete

  • 20 points — Provost's discretion

As the University of Michigan puts it:

While students with very low grades and test scores typically are denied admission, and students with very high grades and test scores typically are admitted, most applicants do not fall into either of these categories. For that large pool of qualified applicants in the middle range, many other factors -- including, but not limited to, race and ethnicity -- can make a difference in admissions decisions.

So: it's not a quota. It doesn't allow unqualified kids to enter. And race is not a "deciding factor" — at least no more so than any of the other 15 factors on the list.

Too bad Condi Rice is only National Security Advisor. Karl Rove probably doesn't have much use for her.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:25 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

BLOGO-CONSERVATISM....I'm not sure this is a very original observation, but ever since I started blogging I've been struck by the specific set of issues that conservative bloggers fixate on. Out of the entire range of conservative views, these are the ones that seem to get the most attention — to the point that they are often simply part of the background culture, accepted almost unconsciously without even the need for argument:

  • Massive civil awards in lawsuits are commonplace and have become nothing more than a lottery system for greedy plaintiffs.

  • Affirmative action is reverse racism.

  • The problem with education is the teachers unions, which are universally corrupt and venal.

  • Anti-war partisans are "blame America" liberals.

  • Europe is weak and effete, a bunch of ingrates who have turned their backs on us after we bailed them out during WWII.

  • Paul Krugman is shrill and ridiculous.

Perhaps these are the hot button issues of some already-existing brand of conservatism that I'm not familiar with, but it seems like a peculiar assortment of issues. I wonder why these are the ones that seem to crop up so frequently?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 02:55 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MISSION TO MARS?....The Los Angeles Times reports today that NASA wants to go to Mars:

The space agency is expected to request "significant resources and funding" to design a nuclear-powered propulsion system to triple the speed of space travel, theoretically making it possible for humans to reach Mars in a two-month voyage.

This is so frustrating. I've been reading science fiction since I was a tot, I was a glassy-eyed fan of Walter Cronkite's coverage of the Gemini and Apollo launches for years, and the original moon landing excited me tremendously. Hell, it was all new back then, and as a stand-in for nuclear war with the Soviets it worked pretty well.

There are certainly conflicting opinions about whether nuclear powered spacecraft are a good idea on technical grounds, but one thing that seems clear is that the only real purpose of nuclear propulsion is for manned missions. But one of the things we've learned since 1969 is that there is very little need to put humans into space. For the most part, manned missions are driven by PR, not by legitimate research requirements.

I hope there's more here than meets the eye. I have despaired in recent years over NASA's egregious lack of vision or management competence. This latest news doesn't make me any more sanguine.

UPDATE: Reader Ian D says that since Mars is the war god, maybe Bush thinks he has weapons of mass destruction and we need to invade. Heh.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:42 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

AL SHARPTON....Conservative yammering about how affirmative action is "reverse racism" and "the Democrats are the party of racism now" should be tossed in the idiot bin where it belongs. But sometimes they have a point, and Al Sharpton is the strongest arrow in their quiver. Geitner Simmons sums up Sharpton's wretched race-baiting history today and says, "In the wake of the Trent Lott debacle, it should hardly come as a surprise that Republicans will make every effort to make sure that Sharpton’s record is put before the public, should he enter the Democratic presidential primaries."

I've read plenty of people talking about how it's tactically dangerous for the Democrats if Sharpton runs, but not much else. What Democrats should be saying is that Sharpton is a disgusting, race-mongering cretin and we want nothing to do with him. Support for Sharpton is the Democratic equivalent of stops at Bob Jones University for Republicans, and both sides should knock it off.

Bill Clinton had his Sister Souljah moment. I'd like to see some Democrats step up to the plate and have an Al Sharpton moment.

UPDATE: Nathan Newman defends Sharpton — sorta. But I'm afraid I'm not buying. Sure, Sharpton has done some good things too, but as a defense I think that's a little too close for comfort to "Mussolini made the trains run on time." And the fact that he was eventually proved right about the Central Park wilding case doesn't make him any less wrong for the racist attacks he's engaged in sporadically over the years. Sharpton may bring in votes, but that's just not a good enough reason for Democratic candidates to pander to him. Sorry.

UPDATE II: Max joins in. I dunno, though, saying that Sharpton is no better than Jerry Falwell is not a very convincing argument.

Come on, guys, we can do better. Just because Republicans routinely engage in similar behavior doesn't mean we should accept it from our side. Shouldn't we be better than that?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

WHO IS THE REAL COLIN POWELL?....Daily Kos asks today, "Why is Colin Powell a Republican?" Unfortunately, he doesn't even have a guess, let alone an answer. I've pondered this myself and have never come up with a good reason either.

Powell is Exhibit A for all those people who try to claim that the Republican party is not a hostage of the Christian right. He would probably have been a shoo-in for the GOP nomination in 2000 except for one thing: he's pro-choice. The anti-abortion folks made it clear that they would fight to their last breaths to keep him off the ticket, and this was enough to make it clear to him that he couldn't compete.

You really can't win the Republican nomination without their support, and this means you have to toe their line. If this isn't the definition of "held hostage," I don't know what is.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

LIES, DAMN LIES, AND HYPERLINKS....My favorite NRO whipping boy, John Derbyshire, posts this short item in The Corner today:

In August 1999, English farmer Tony Martin shot dead a burglar who had broken into the isolated farmhouse where Martin lived. Martin was convicted of murder, later reduced to manslaughter. His bid for parole was just turned down. The parole board gave the following reasons for turning down Martin's request. (1) He is "a danger to burglars." (2) He is "not up to speed with the 21st century" and thinks that "things were better 40 years ago." (3) He has refused to feign remorse. I have not made this up.

Now, it's not that I don't trust Derb, but I decided to click on the hyperlink at "I have not made this up" just out of curiosity. Here's what the article in the Telegraph says:

The three members of the Parole Board, who met in London to review his case, gave no reason for turning him down.

It turns out that items (1), (2), and (3) were actually things that Tony Martin's friends claimed were in the probation report.

Were those things actually in the probation report? I don't know. Did the parole board make its decision based on those things? I don't know.

But: Did the parole board give those things as reasons for turning down Martin's request? Definitely not. Is John Derbyshire to be trusted? Definitely not.

Moral of the story: Follow the hyperlinks, dammit. Don't just take someone else's word for what the story says.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

RACE VS. LEGACY....Are race preferences worse than legacy preferences? Or is the whole comparison specious? Matt Yglesias says:

Legacy preferences aren't just some random departure from meritocracy, they're a departure from meritocracy that overwhelmingly works to disadvantage blacks and Latinos. With that in mind, the one thing certainly does seem relevant to the other.

Consider what we would say if George Wallace has said "sure we'll ban segregating buses by race, we'll just make a new law saying that only children of folks who sat in the front of the bus in the 1940s can sit in the front today."

That's not a totally congruent comparison, but I think it shows that legacy is relevant to the racial preferences debate.

In fact, it's a remarkably congruent comparison. In 1876, after Rutherford B. Hayes won election and removed federal troops from the South, the Reconstruction era ended. Southern states immediately went to work to prevent blacks from voting, and one popular method was the "Grandfather clause": Citizens could only register to vote if their grandfather had voted in a previous election (or, sometimes, literacy tests or poll taxes were waived if your grandfather had voted in a previous election).

Republicans spend an awful lot of time defending practices that "just happen to" injure African-Americans, including such things as legacy preferences, racial profiling, disparate coke/crack sentencing, etc. Perhaps they should spend a little more time actually taking racism seriously and trying to figure out how to end it.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:55 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

AS ALWAYS, SETTING THE STANDARD....Atrios has an unusually good collection of partisan hackery today: Sullivan on "homosexuals," the administration on malpractice, the California Republican party on black whinging, Kaus on losing his faith. He's almost got me back in fighting form after spending yesterday in a funk over the increasingly appalling nature of the Bush administration.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:39 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 16, 2003

CROSSFIRE REDUX....I know I've been going on lately about how liberals should market themselves, and I promise not to make a habit of it, but here's another observation from the last few minutes of Crossfire that I caught today.

The subject was affirmative action and Paul Begala started in on legacy admissions: "Why is Bush against affirmative action when the only reason he got into Yale is because his Daddy went there? He didn't deserve to get in either." (Or words to that effect.) Robert Novak's response: "What's wrong with you people? I'm really tired of all the Bush bashing." (Or words to that effect.)

Now, I have no problem with Bush bashing, but Novak has a point: Bush is still a pretty popular guy, and couching an affirmative action argument as an anti-Bush diatribe probably isn't very effective. Maybe it's OK for us bloggers with small audiences, but not for CNN where you should be trying to persuade undecided viewers.

What is it that keeps the liberals from just making a simple, straightforward case?

Universities give preferences for lots of things: athletic prowess, legacy admissions, musical talent, etc. [Insert numbers here if you have them.] All of these admissions prevent a more academically qualified person from being admitted, but all of them also serve the purpose of making the university a better place that serves a greater variety of people. Why is it that race is the only factor that Republicans object to considering?

I know that's not necessarily going to convince anyone either, but at least it's honest and makes the best case possible. Unfortunately, most liberals come across horribly on TV, acting as if they haven't given even a moment's thought to how they are going to explain their position, or what kind of explanation might best appeal to their audience.

It's a shame.

POSTSCRIPT: Yeah, I know: it's Crossfire, not exactly a bastion of reasoned commentary. But still....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

PRESS CONFERENCES....Robert Novak on Crossfire says that the reason President Bush doesn't hold press conferences is that when he does, all he gets is ridiculous lefty questions from the vast liberal media conspiracy.

So I guess press conferences would be OK if only his friends were allowed to ask questions?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 05:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DATABASE MARKETING....THE SECRET BEHIND ALL THOSE BARCODE READERS....Regarding my post on data mining yesterday, reader Carl Manaster writes to ask:

Yeah, as a matter of fact, I have wondered for a long time about those loyalty programs. I find it incredible (in the sense meaning "unbelievable") that it's worth ~30% of my gross bill to Safeway to keep track of my purchasing habits. I realize, of course, that the un-loyalty-discounted prices are just grossly inflated, but still: use the card, save 30%; don't use it, pay full price - they're paying me that much for the information. If you know something about this, I'd welcome an essay explaining why it's worth that kind of cash to them.

Your wish is my command. For a start, part of the reason is that, yes, the non-loyalty price is inflated. To some extent loyalty programs have simply replaced other marketing programs.

But the fact is that information about your buying habits is worth a lot. To get a taste of this, consider a cat food manufacturer who wants to mail out a flyer to 1 million people. To do this, they buy a list of 1 million names, print flyers, and mail them. The problem is, they know that only 20% of the population owns cats, so most of their flyers are wasted. But what if they could send their flyers only to the 20% of the addresses that represented cat owners? Take a look:

Scenario A
1 Million Names

Scenario B
200,000 Targeted Names

Item

Cost

Mailing List @ 1¢

$10,000

Mailer @ 20¢

$200,000

Postage @ 10¢

$100,000

Total

$310,000

Item

Cost

Mailing List @ 20¢

$40,000

Mailer @ 20¢

$40,000

Postage @ 10¢

$20,000

Total

$100,000

In the second scenario the cat food guys have paid 20x the per-name rate and 4x the total cost for the mailing list, but it doesn't matter. The total cost of the program is one-third, so they pay up happily.

This is a simplistic example, but even so it illustrates the power of highly targeted knowledge. This stuff is like gold to marketers, who all understand that the true foundation of marketing is not advertising, but market research. Supermarkets in particular can profit from this because they carry a lot of items, sell in high volume, and have extremely detailed purchasing information. There are a lot of suppliers they can sell this information to, and it can be used in a lot of different ways:

  • Send out 10¢ coupons to some people and 30¢ coupons to others and track their success.

  • Track people who buy combinations of items.

  • Real-time tracking: did last night's commercial on Joe Millionaire trigger a frenzy of buying?

  • Track repeat purchasers and target them for special promotions.

  • Etc.

The database marketing revolution (in its current incarnation) is about a decade old now, but it's just getting started. (Remember the fuss over Amazon's differential pricing experiment a couple of years ago?) Most consumer marketing people these days just try to track everything they can, figuring that even if they can't use it now they might be able to use it in the future.

You can fight this stuff by using cash and paying the extra 30%, but even that doesn't always work. That's what I do, for example, just out of paranoid crankiness, but since my wife does belong to all the local loyalty programs and she does most of the shopping, even this minor act of defiance does me no good.

Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

INSTAPUNDIT WATCH....The New York Times profile of Glenn Reynolds didn't have too much new for those of us who already read blogs regularly, but one sentence caught my eye:

In InstaPundit's early days, he hunted the Web for ideas. Now most are e-mailed to him; fellow bloggers know that a link from Mr. Reynolds guarantees a spike of hundreds of additional readers, if not thousands.

This confirms something I've suspected for a while, and I think that overall it's probably a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with getting ideas from your readers — probably every blogger does this to some degree or another — but on a large scale it risks turning your site into an echo chamber of interest only to people who already agree with you. This is probably OK in the case of a site like Little Green Footballs, which is deliberately designed to be that way, but not so good for a site like InstaPundit that tries to cover a wider range of topics and appeal to a wider range of readers.

One of the dangers of blogging — as with any act of political activism, perhaps — is that it has a tendency to harden your positions. You start spending all your time with people who agree with you, you're bombarded daily with positive reinforcement that grows stronger as your views become more extreme, and you start to see the views of your most extreme opponents not as outliers but as the mainstream. And if you think Noam Chomsky is typical of the left and David Horowitz of the right, well then, you're not likely to cut even the mainstream of the opposition much slack, are you?

To be sure, much of this is simply an unavoidable aspect of human nature, but I think the virtual nature of blogging makes it worse. It is much easier to demonize people you don't know than ones you do, and much easier to write flaming rants than it is to say them face to face. Blogging may be revolutionary — or not — but it has its downsides as well as its virtues.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 01:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

LIGHT BULB JOKES....My only regret this week is that I will probably not get to be a butt of one of Ted Barlow's lightbulb jokes. He really has an amazingly good (and funny) ear for this stuff.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 01:41 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

AMERICA'S CUP UPDATE....I know I should be rooting for the Americans and all, but surely I'm not the only one hoping that Larry Ellison's team gets creamed in the America's Cup challenger series?

Or is that petty and spiteful of me?

Ah, who cares. I've got Swiss ancestors and I'm going to root for them. Here's hoping the Swiss kick your butt, Larry.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:42 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

GLOBAL WARMING....ARE CONSERVATIVES EMBRACING POSTMODERN SCIENCE?....Is global warming real? How can you decide?

The more general form of this question has bedeviled us for the better part of the last century: how do laymen (and policy makers) evaluate technical scientific problems? In the case of global warming, the relevant experts are mostly a small group of environmental and atmospheric scientists, and by now they pretty unanimously believe that global warming is real and that it is at least partly the result of human activity. So how do you argue with that? There are two possibilities:

  • On scientific grounds. Unfortunately, this is nearly impossible for a layman, and there are virtually no scientists left in the relevant disciplines who believe the opposite side anymore.

  • On non-scientific grounds. That is, the scientists are exaggerating or lying for some political reason.

Earlier this week Jonah Goldberg of NRO made a valiant attempt at the latter. In an argument more commonly associated with academic postmodernists, he contends that environmental scientists are little more than a teenage social group, and in order to be part of the clique they have to toe the line on global warming:

Robert Nisbet writes that more scientists probably have been stopped from pursuing research because "of defiance of conventional wisdom in America since World War II with its accompanying bureaucratization and politicization of science than existed in the whole of the world in Galileo's day."

Unfortunately, despite a strained and ultimately wrongheaded attempt at an analogy to Galileo's problems with the pope, Goldberg profoundly misunderstands how science works. It's true that scientists, like anyone, can become overly attached to their theories and refuse to listen to criticism. But new researchers are constantly entering the field, and while many surely become quickly socialized, the best of them would like nothing more than to turn conventional wisdom on its head. Young scientists challenging the assumptions and theories of their older colleagues is as old as, well, Galileo. The fact is that if all of them agree about global warming, it's most likely because global warming is real.

But is the risk overblown? Does it matter if sea levels rise an inch per decade? Maybe, maybe not. But there are some serious — though hard to quantify — risks that counsel caution. The North Atlantic Conveyor, for example, is a part of the Gulf Stream that cycles warm water east to Europe and warms the continent. It is exquisitely sensitive to increased concentrations of freshwater caused by melting glaciers, and there is evidence that it can shut down quickly when a tipping point is reached, lowering temperatures in Europe enough to make Germany more like Siberia than Pennsylvania. And "quickly" means that it could happen over the course of a few years, not centuries.

Will it ever happen? Nobody knows for sure, but it is a catastrophic enough possibility that it seems prudent to take it seriously. Unless, of course, you've decided that scientific opinion is simply a vast lefty conspiracy. That's what creationists think about the entire community of biologists, it's what tobacco companies thought about cancer researchers, and increasingly it's what conservatives think of atmospheric scientists. It's not good company to keep.

POSTSCRIPT: If you like graphs and charts, the guys at eRiposte have a whole bunch of them here. Read 'em and weep.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:28 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

SOMETHING LOST IN THE TRANSLATION?....Here is North Korea's latest response to the U.S. offer to resume talks:

[Washington's] loudmouthed supply of energy and food aid are like a painted cake pie in the sky, as they are possible only after [North Korea] is totally disarmed.

"A painted cake pie in the sky"? Who translates this stuff?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:50 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

GEORGE BUSH DEMONSTRATES HIS PRINCIPLED OPPOSITION TO AFFIRMATIVE ACTION....How is it that we managed to elect a president with such a repellent and small-minded mean streak? It's one thing to oppose affirmative action, but why on earth would he deliberately choose to announce his opposition on Martin Luther King's birthday?

As Joseph Welch famously put it, "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:02 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MAD AS HELL....Jesse over at Pandagon is pretty pissed off today. Good for him. Check out what he has to say.

And be sure the read the comment from Jim about affirmative action: "I'm not interested in righting wrongs." Yeah, we've noticed. Unfortunately, the entire Republican party seems to agree with you most of the time.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:13 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 15, 2003

POLL NUMBERS....MyDD has a bunch of charts up today showing Bush's historical approval ratings, all of which have been declining steadily since 9/11. This isn't really news — they've been declining steadily, after all — but just in case you ever doubted that these numbers are driven more by outside events than by actual performance, consider this: after 9/11, Bush's approval rating for handling the economy jumped from 54% to 72%.

This obviously has nothing to do with either the economy or with Bush's handling of it, so take these polls with a big grain of salt. But there is at least one thing to take away from this: perceptions matter. Bush is vulnerable in 2004, but convincing people of that depends on both good luck and good marketing by the Democrats, not just on substantive policy.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:04 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MODERATE REPUBLICANS FIGHTING BACK?....An interesting article in The Hill this week says that centrist Republicans in the House are upset with the efforts of new Majority Leader Tom DeLay to enforce a conservative party line:

Many centrists are angered by a $50,000 contribution that Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) made to the Club For Growth, a conservative advocacy group whose mission they say is to defeat liberal Republicans in primaries. Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.), a member of the Tuesday Group, faced a stiff challenge from a conservative primary challenger backed by the group.

....It has also become apparent that House leaders have followed through on threats made last year in the midst of a heated battle on campaign finance reform.

Members of the GOP leadership withheld plum committee assignments from Republican lawmakers who defied them and signed a discharge petition forcing a vote on the controversial bill.

If there's anyone who seems likely to try and overreach in order to push a conservative agenda, DeLay's the guy. Considering the lukewarm response that Bush's tax plan has gotten from moderate Republicans, it will be interesting to see if this turns into a real fight or is just a tempest in a teapot.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 01:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MY KIND OF MEDIA BIAS....Forget all that claptrap about liberal media bias, says Hugh Hewitt in the Weekly Standard today, the real bias is against anyone from the West Coast.

You betcha, and it's about time someone pointed this out. Pundits from California deserve to be taken more seriously.

At least, that's my unbiased opinion.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 01:03 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DIAPERS AND BEER....John Quiggin has a post today about a subject that relates to marketing, economics, and statistical analysis, all of which are favorites subjects of mine. What's more, the context is one of my all-time favorite quandries, so unless the intersection of these three topics strikes you as only slightly less tedious than filling out a 1040 form, read on. And yes, if you make it to the end I do have a point to make, one that perhaps John will respond to.

Here's the background: one of the things that statisticians do is to try and find correlations. A famous example from marketing, for example, is that people who buy diapers also tend to buy beer. One of the problems with correlation hunting, however, is that they are mostly based on surveying a small number of people and hoping that they represent the entire population. Unfortunately, every once in a while you'll get a correlation by chance — your sample just happened to include a lot of alcoholics, for example.

Here's where the fun stuff starts. We marketing folks just adore analyzing what people buy (loyalty programs at supermarkets combined with computerized bar code readers make this pretty easy), and we use this analysis to, um, better serve your needs. Basically, we take enormous masses of data and sift through it until we come up with some correlations. Bingo! People who buy diapers also buy beer! So let's put a beer display on the diaper aisle.

As John points out, however, there's a problem. If you take huge masses of data, you're bound to find some correlations just by chance, so the whole enterprise seems like it's built on straw. By the normal standards of statistical analysis, you'll find correlations 5% of the time even in random data, so if you look at an enormous data set with a thousand different pairs of data you'll find about 50 strong correlations just by chance. So what's the point?

Well, first off there are some pretty sophisticated statistical tricks you can do with the data to make it more reliable. And, as John will no doubt be jealous to hear, he's right: we marketing folks have pretty sizable budgets and can afford to run multiple surveys (or buy new data sets) if we find something that looks interesting.

But even aside from this, there's a more fundamental question at hand, and it's the point of this whole essay: is a correlation deduced from a huge multivariate analysis really less reliable than one deduced from a focused study? The argument seems to me to be this: if you have a hypothesis and test it, and you find a correlation, that's good. But if you don't have a hypothesis, and you find a correlation, then it's probably just by chance.

But it's not. The numbers don't care whether you have a hypothesis or not, and in both cases there's a 5% chance that the correlation is due to chance. In both cases you will have to reproduce the results independently if you want to increase your certainty.

Is this a trivial point? I don't think so, because I think it points to a serious flaw in a lot of statistical analyses: the feeling that if you test a specific hypothesis and find a strong correlation, it's probably real. Oh sure, you will make the usual disclaimers about 95% confidence intervals, but the reality is that the results get treated seriously.

I'm not sure they should be. Or rather, I'm not sure they should be treated any differently than the data mining techniques that produce masses of correlations. I suspect that the disillusionment among economists (and others) with data mining is real, but mostly because it punches you in the nose with the fact that correlations are often just artifacts of chance. The same is true of focused studies, but because these correlations back up a claim we wish to make, we mentally discount the possibility of random error.

This is wrong. Numbers are numbers, and no matter where they come from they should be treated with the same respect — or lack thereof. To suggest otherwise, I think, is merely to admit that your conclusions are based not just on the numbers themselves, but also on some previous belief — a Bayesian argument that we will leave for another day.

POSTSCRIPT: In case you've ever wondered, data mining is the real reason behind supermarket loyalty programs. Oh, loyalty is part of the reason too, but the real payoff is that (a) it produces mountains of data that supermarkets can use to sell their products more efficiently, and (b) there are many eager buyers for the huge, real-time data sets that supermarket loyalty programs produce. But don't think about this too much. It will just scare you.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THE POWER OF BLOGGING....Some undergrads at Harvard have started up a new blog-like site called Critical Mass where students can discuss the inadequacies of their professors in the calm, anonymous prose typical of online writing. I can't check it out since it's available only to Harvard students, but Matt Yglesias can.

So, Matt, what's the deal? Your readers await your verdict.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

RESENTMENT ON THE DECLINE?....A couple of days ago I suggested that David Brooks might be right when he said that resentment of the rich was no longer a potent force in American politics. Fighting a tax plan on the basis that it benefits the rich doesn't seem to work these days.

Today Nathan Newman quotes Bill Schneider on CNN, who says that resentment of taxes is also on the decline. In the last couple of years, the number of people who think their taxes are too high has declined from about two-thirds to less than half.

What's the cause? Reduced tax rates from the 2001 cuts? Stronger sense of patriotism caused by 9/11? Hard to say. Maybe people are just tired of economic issues in general and want to move on.

I'm not sure myself, but it's an interesting juxtaposition of ideas.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:05 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 14, 2003

PROSPECT THEORY AND NORTH KOREA....Hooray! More prospect theory!

Dan Drezner uses my favorite economic pastime to analyze Nicholas Kristof's op-ed in the New York Times today, in which he says we should negotiate with North Korea in hopes that better ties with the West will eventually undermine their isolationism and start to open up their society. Dan thinks that Kristof is engaging in wishful thinking, something that prospect theory suggests will happen when faced with unpalatable choices.

You can read Kristof's column for yourself, but just for the record here are the alternatives I've seen for dealing with North Korea:

  • A military strike. This is obviously risky and is not an option that anyone seems to be seriously advancing.

  • Wait them out. This might work in a decade or two, but nothing I've read leads me to believe that North Korea will collapse in the near future. Thus, this tactic would provide them with loads of time to build more nukes, and possibly sell them to other countries or terrorist groups.

  • Threaten to provide nuclear weapons to Japan. This would supposedly scare them (and the Chinese) so badly that they would agree to concessions. I'm not so sure. Even if this were feasible (i.e., Japan agreed to it and Bush made it fly domestically), it would lead to a situation similar to that between India and Pakistan, except even more unstable. Sounds like a bad choice.

  • Withdraw completely and let China, Japan, and South Korea deal with the situation. Same as option 2: it would give North Korea too much time to build up their arsenal.

  • Offer Kim Jong-il and his cronies safe asylum if they just give themselves up. Sounds good, but everything I've read about North Korea leads me to believe that they would never agree to this.

This is why I think negotiation is the best option: the others are so bad that even a lousy choice is the best we've got. What's more, with any luck we'll be able to negotiate something that provides better verification of their compliance without giving up much of anything that's important to us. After all, what's the harm of signing a nonagression pact if we don't want to attack them anyway?

It's true that this sends a bad message, but North Korea's peculiar brand of negotiation-by-crisis seems unique in the world. Even if we play their game I don't think there are many (or any) other countries that have the stomach to follow their example.

Of course, maybe I'm just engaging in wishful thinking. After all, prospect theory suggests that I should.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

A CONSERVATIVE LOOKS AT THE DEATH PENALTY....Rod Dreher of NRO's The Corner writes about the death penalty:

I find the older I get, the more inclined I am to say if err we must, then let us err on the side of life -- even if it means suffering scumbags to draw breath until their natural deaths.

I'm getting off the subject here for a sec, but I want to mention something that really got to me. An old man to whom I was close died a few years ago, well into his 90s. On his deathbed, he confessed that he was haunted by his participation in an extrajudicial killing back in the 1930s. He was part of a lynching party organized by the sheriff, who for his own reasons didn't want to have to worry about the courts. He got the men together, and they hanged this criminal. Well, it came out shortly thereafter that the criminal they hanged was completely innocent. For various reasons, all the men had believed him unquestionably guilty; anyway, the sheriff had told them it was so, hadn't he? Nothing was ever done to the lynching party, and the incident was forgotten. Sixty some-odd years later, as he lay dying, with an entire lifetime of experience behind him, this is what tormented that old man.

Mind you, our modern prosecutorial and jury system is light years away from a rural lynch mob of the 1930s. Still, the potential for human error, swayed by prejudice, emotion, or plain old fallibility, is always present. Maybe one reason I fear the death penalty is I can too easily imagine myself as part of that lynch mob, trusting governmental authority and carried away by my own emotions, seeing only what I wanted to see, and not aware of my own capacity for error.

Nicely said.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 05:08 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

RICH AND POOR....THE CONSEQUENCES OF A MERITOCRACY OF TALENT....Matt Yglesias makes the point today that one of the reasons for growing income inequality in America (and the rest of the developed world) is "assortive mating": rich people tend to marry other rich people and poor people do likewise. I'm not sure Matt's algebra has quite the right slant on the problem, but he does point toward a genuine problem with modern society: growing social stratification based on talent.

People have always socialized by income level, but today income level is more and more a function of talent. This seem eminently fair to many people, but — no doubt by coincidence — it is promoted as a social ideal most strongly by those who have lots of talent.

But there's a downside to this as well. Back in, say, the 1930s, poor neighborhoods all had at least a sprinkling of smart, talented people, and these people were often the social glue that held these neighborhoods together. Today that's no longer true: talent is so thoroughly recruited and rewarded that poor neighborhoods have been completely denuded of talent.

The number of people affected is small in absolute numbers, but the overall effect is nonetheless devastating. A neighborhood that loses its talent loses the people who run the PTA, coach the little league teams, and organize petitions to city hall asking for crosswalks at busy intersections. When those people leave, the neighborhood inevitably sinks into a long, slow decline from which it never recovers.

Solutions? I don't know if there are any. But while a meritocracy is good for the economy as a whole — and undeniably good for the meritorious — it has its drawbacks as well. America's inner cities, I think, are evidence of that.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

SPINNING NORTH KOREA....William Cohen, Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, was interviewed by Lou Dobbs on Moneyline today. What does he think of news that Bush is quietly proposing a bold (yes, bold!) set of aid packages to North Korea if they end their nuclear program? Is he succumbing to blackmail?

Well, Lou, a deal has to be made without the appearance of making a deal.

In other words, Bush is going to do exactly what Clinton did in 1994 but then spin it to within an inch of its life to make it look like it's anything but that.

And is anyone really fooled by this business of insisting that there's a difference between North Korea agreeing to give up its nukes before we agree to an aid package vs. giving up its nukes in exchange for an aid package? When the piece of paper eventually gets signed, after all, the agreements are all going to happen at one time.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:33 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

PERVERSE INCENTIVES UPDATE....The Economist reports this week on problems at Home Depot: slowing growth, new competitors, and bad demographics. Apparently Home Depot's boss, Bob Nardelli, is getting increasingly desperate to fix the problems, and shareholders are worried that he might go too far:

The biggest worry is that, in a last-ditch gamble to justify his pay and past promises, Mr Nardelli may take some really stupid gambles. His contract could reward him more generously if he wrecks the company and is fired than if he settles for slow or no growth. With market saturation approaching, his share options are probably worthless—unless they are repriced much lower. On the other hand, Mr Nardelli would collect a $20m lump sum and tens of millions more in accelerated salary, bonuses, forgiven loans and other goodies if he were fired “without cause”.

The idiocy of corporate compensation packages never ceases to amaze me, and severance packages top the list of abuses. The only reason to fire a CEO — other than "for cause" — is because he's doing a lousy job. So why would any board agree to pay tens of millions of dollars in severance to a CEO specifically because he's doing so badly that they have to fire him?

The mind boggles.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THE FUTURE OF MADD?....There's been a spate of MADD bashing in the blogosphere lately, so here's something to add fuel to the fire. In Japan, it turns out, laws against drunk driving have already slid down that slippery slope that everyone is afraid MADD is pursuing here. To wit:

  • One drink is enough to put you over the limit for a drunk driving charge.

  • Fines range up to $4,000 or more.

  • Passengers are usually fined too (presumably for allowing the drunkard to drive).

  • Total fines for an entire vehicle can range up to $8,000, sometimes more in extreme cases.

And it's not just drinking either:

Struggling restaurant owners may be tempted to move to Chiyoda ward in Tokyo, where another new regulation, banning smoking in the street, has been forcing some desperate smokers into cafés instead.

Is there a word for something that's even stricter than "zero tolerance"? Maybe "negative tolerance"? Whatever it is, the Japanese seem to have invented a whole new category here.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

ONLINE NEWSPAPERS....A DIFFERENT APPROACH....This is something very cool: the Newseum, an online museum of news. Click on "Today's Front Pages" and you get a display of front pages from around the world, updated daily. Click on a front page and you get a larger view that allows you to read the headlines, plus links to both the newspaper's website and a PDF of the front page if you want to read one of the articles. There's also an alphabetical list of newspapers by region if you don't want to wait for the thumbnails to load.

This is a great way to scan newspapers, and really useful if you want to see what the dead-tree layout looks like (story placement is often quite different from the website). Highly recommended.

WARNING: The site loads pretty slowly even on my cable modem connection. If you're on dial-up, you might want to skip it.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 01:04 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

KEEPING AND BEARING ARMS....A QUESTION....A couple of days ago Glenn Reynolds said this:

The wrongfulness in the World War Two internments, after all, wasn't that they happened, but that they were unjustified. Had significant numbers of American citizens of Japanese descent actually been working for the enemy, the internments would have been a regrettable necessity rather than an outrageous injustice.

But Glenn misses the real problem: those Japanese-Americans didn't have enough guns. Maybe if they had been armed they would have fought back instead of meekly shuffling off to the camps! That would have taught us all a salutary lesson against tyrannical and unjustified government action, wouldn't it? FDR would have backed down, the panic would have passed, and we wouldn't have this blot on our history.

Maybe the pro-gun folks have a point after all....

POSTSCRIPT: On a (slightly) more serious note, everyone should keep in mind that back in 1942 there was plenty of apparent evidence that the Japanese were using Issei and Nisei as spies in America. There always is, and it's only in hindsight that we realize we've overreacted. We fail to learn from history when we convince ourselves that past dangers were somehow less real — and our reaction therefore less justified — than today's dangers.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:42 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

BONDS, MORE BONDS!....It's true: California has no constitutional requirement to have a balanced budget. Devra points me here, where we're told:

The State Constitution requires that the Governor submit a budget to the Legislature by January 10. It provides for a balanced budget in that, if the proposed expenditures for the budget year exceed available resources, the Governor is required to recommend the sources for the additional funding.

....

Although there is no constitutional requirement for passage of a balanced budget, Government Code Section 13337.5 requires that projected expenditures shall not exceed projected revenues.

So Gray Davis has to propose a balanced budget, but the legislature doesn't have to pass it. If they felt like it, they could simply add an amendment to the budget bill stating that Government Code Section 13337.5 is suspended for the year.

This is really cool. I ask questions about the California budget and other bloggers step up with the answers. I wish I could improve my tennis game that easily.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:03 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

TAXING TIMES FOR SINGLE PEOPLE....My sister is always complaining about this, so here's one more problem with the Bush tax plan: it does nothing for single people. My sister is unmarried and has no children, so neither the marriage penalty reform nor the child tax credit do her any good. Her income is moderate, so the rate cuts barely affect her, and she owns no stocks, so the dividend tax elimination brings her no joy.

This is actually a bipartisan complaint: both parties spend almost limitless time competing to tell everyone about how pro-family they are, but the unmentioned losers are all the single people who aren't numerous enough or organized enough to make themselves heard. When will someone start sticking up for the Sex and the City crowd?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 13, 2003

PLAN? WHAT PLAN?....Patrick Ruffini reports that a poll by Public Opinion Strategies shows that the Bush economic plan is preferred to the Democratic plan by 51%-41%.

I've got one question: do they really expect us to believe that 92% of the electorate has an opinion on this? That 92% of the electorate has even heard of Bush's economic plan, let alone that the Democrats have a competing plan?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 07:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

CLASS WARFARE....There's been a fair amount of comment about David Brooks' op-ed in the New York Times yesterday in which he says Democrats should give up complaining about tax cuts for the rich. The most popular quote, of course, was this one:

Nineteen percent of Americans say they are in the richest 1 percent and a further 20 percent expect to be someday. So right away you have 39 percent of Americans who thought that when Mr. Gore savaged a plan that favored the top 1 percent, he was taking a direct shot at them.

But I think his summary paragraph is more important:

[Democratic presidential candidates] haven't learned what Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt and even Bill Clinton knew: that you can run against rich people, but only those who have betrayed the ideal of fair competition.

I don't have any cosmic argument to make here, but my gut tells me that he's right. Even in 1920, when there were lots of poor people — and they were really poor back then — it only occasionally worked to explicitly run against the rich. And sure, during the Depression it worked, but if it takes 25% unemployment to get people to respond to this message, it's not going to work any time in the near future.

A common suggestion among liberal bloggers is that we should use actual numbers instead of percentages. Tell those people who make $50,000 a year that they aren't in the top 1% and aren't going to get there any time soon: they'll have to make $400,000 a year before they have that honor. That ought to get their attention!

Maybe, and I imagine it's better than saying "top 1%," but I think it still misses the point. Brooks is right: fighting for social and economic policies that level the playing field may be the right thing to do, but we won't get it by explicitly appealing to resentment of the rich. That resentment just isn't very intense unless people feel that there's some fundamental unfairness at work, and shooting the messenger won't change that.

For example: fighting to raise the minimum wage is good politics, but charts showing how the minimum wage has declined over time won't do the trick. Unfairness, however might: those CEOs have given themselves whopping pay raises, but they greedily refuse to share the good times with the hardworking folks at the bottom who make their companies run! It's cheating and unfairness that will get people riled up, not richness by itself.

Maybe that will work, maybe it won't. But complaining about the "richest 1%" looks more and more like an electoral loser to me.

POSTSCRIPT: Here's an article by Brooks from The Atlantic last November that expands on his idea.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 05:25 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

SAUDI ARABIA: FRIEND OR FOE?....Saudi Arabia gets a lot of grief in the blogosphere, and the cause isn't hard to pinpoint: 15 Saudi nationals were part of 9/11, al-Qaeda continues to flourish in the Kingdom, and state-supported Wahhabi schools in Saudi Arabia preach a virulent blend of nationalism, fundamentalist Islam, and hatred toward Jews and the West.

So it's worthwhile to take a deep breath once in a while and remind ourselves that the Saudi monarchy has also been pretty steadfast in its support of the U.S., even when it finds itself under considerable pressure from other Arab countries. Clyde Prestowitz makes the case for Saudi Arabia here.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

POSITIVELY CHURCHILLIAN....Nope, no negotiation with Korea. Well, talks maybe, but no negotiation. But definitely no aid, no no no. Oh heck, maybe a little bit of aid:

"We know there are energy problems in North Korea. Once we get beyond the nuclear problems, there may be an opportunity with the United States, with private investors, or with other countries to help North Korea in the energy area," Kelly said in response to a reporter's question at a news conference in Seoul.

"Private investors"? Who are these altruistic private investors who are going to ship fuel oil to Kim Jong-il?

The Bushies sure have had a steady hand on the tiller during this whole Korea deal, haven't they? Remember when Winston Churchill said:

We will never parley; we will never negotiate with Hitler or any of his gang. We shall fight him by land; we shall fight him by sea; we shall fight him in the air, until, with God's help, we have rid the earth of his shadow and liberated its people from his yoke.

See, the difference is that he actually meant it. But with the Bushies it's always just about playacting, and someday it's going to catch up to them.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THE PAST IS PRESIDENT....Have you heard of "dynamic scoring"? It's a politician's dream, a theoretical construct that allows you to cut taxes, but then claim that the economic boost from the tax cut is so large that the tax cut won't actually cost anything!

Dynamic scoring was a hobbyhorse of the Reagan administration, part of the "voodoo economics" that George Bush's father mocked in 1980. But now it's back. As the New York Times reports:

For years the supply-side economists have insisted that tax cuts stimulate the economy, producing increased government revenue that partially offsets the original cuts. But to their dismay, their own director of the Congressional Budget Office, Dan L. Crippen, rejected dynamic scoring. His term recently ended, and he was not reappointed. Replacing him is Douglas J. Holtz-Eakin, the top economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers, who conservatives say is a champion of dynamic scoring. Indeed, the council used dynamic scoring to predict that rather than costing $359 billion over the next five years, Mr. Bush's tax cut will reduce government revenues by only $166 billion.

Tapped says, "To put it bluntly, 'dynamic scoring' gives the GOP further license to lie about their economic policies."

Of course, Tapped is just one of those tiresome left wing ideologues who can be counted on to carp about Republican tax policies. So instead let's hear what the White House's own estimates were — before they were hastily taken down from their website:

The administration's estimates show its proposal would boost economic growth by only 0.4% this year, but 1.1% in 2004 [election year!]. The projections suggest the plan could have a contracting effect of half a point or more in 2005.

A contracting effect of half a percent (or more!) in 2005. Isn't it nice that we have those rock jawed Republicans back in office who disdain flabby short-term Keynesian pandering and instead promote policies for long-term economic health?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:02 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

AN INTERESTING DEFINITION OF "SUFFER"....Adam Garfinkle, arguing that we should withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, makes this puzzling statement in NRO today:

The division of Korea puts U.S. interests at risk more than it does those of any other major regional power (we have troops there; we — not China or Russia or Japan — face directly a nuclearizing adversary), and for the sake of the lowest stakes. Think about what the U.S. might suffer if war broke out in Korea, and about what we would gain from its not breaking out. We would suffer thousands of dead GIs, the probable ascription of responsibility for the razing of Seoul (and maybe Tokyo), and maybe accidental conflict with China.

He seems to be suggesting that being blamed for the vaporization of Seoul (and maybe Tokyo) would be worse for us than the actual vaporization of Seoul (and maybe Tokyo) would be for South Korea (and maybe Japan).

Does this make any sense at all?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:51 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

NEXT FROM FOX: THE LOSERS ALL HAVE TO MARRY SOMEONE FROM JERRY SPRINGER....Nathan Newman — against the odds — thinks he has actually found something socially redeeming about Joe Millionaire. Seriously. Click here to read his theory.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 12, 2003

BRINGING LIGHT TO THE MASSES....Ted Barlow has renamed his site and — apparently dissatisfied at getting nothing more than a three-way tie for "most reasonable blogger" in the year-end awards — has decided to convert into a single-issue blog dedicated to deconstructing the political ramifications of rural electrification.

He's off to a pretty good start.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MALPRACTICE?....ME?....Charles Kuffner reports that the rise in medical malpractice suits is at least partly due to....actual malpractice. Who'd have guessed?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:32 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

BUILD YOUR VOCABULARY THROUGH BLOGGING....You know, until about a year ago I had never heard of the word "conflate." Neither had my mother, who has a master's degree in English and a frighteningly strong vocabulary. But since then it seems like I've seen it used about once a week.

What's going on? Did it win a word-of-the-year contest or something?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

RENDER UNTO CAESAR?....Busy, Busy, Busy tries to deconstruct Bill Frist's theological views, but has a hard time.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:55 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

ANTI-EUROPEANISM....Glenn Reynolds, in his eternal campaign against European "fecklessness," says:

The real paradox is in the notion that Europe could "rival" the United States while still being almost entirely dependent on the United States militarily.

I think this sentence does a great job of capturing the heart of the warblogger world view: only the United States military can solve the world's problems. Europe has nothing — literally nothing — to add because they do not have a huge military machine capable of projecting power around the globe.

Is this truly the only value that they think is important? The ability to bomb other countries? Do they ever stop to think that Europe and the rest of the world might have other things to offer if we would just knock off the sniping and treat them as the friends and allies that they are?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT....Aren't you glad that I've added a few posts so you don't have to look at that bobbing Orange County Register cartoon anymore?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF WISHFUL THINKING....The desolate little town of Soap Lake, Washington, is in trouble:

"The city's broke, practically," said Soap Lake Mayor Ken Lee. "We have no industry, no tax base. We need to do something."

"Something" turns out to be a plan to build a giant lava lamp to attract tourists. All they need is someone to finance it.

I could make the usual kind of snarky comment, but instead I want to offer Soap Lake some genuinely constructive criticism: you're thinking too small. A 60 foot lava lamp just doesn't cut it in this MTV age, so if you really want to attract people, you're going to need to make it at least 500 feet tall. Get cracking.

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Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:39 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

HOW ABOUT THE GEORGE BUSH ECONOMIC CONTRACTION PLAN OF 2005?....One of the things that poor old Jimmy Carter gets no credit for is the fact that he didn't try to juice the economy in 1979 to coincide with his reelection campaign in 1980. He had other problems as well, of course, but he certainly paid the price for this particular piece of Southern Baptist integrity.

George Bush, on the other hand, apparently has no similar voice in his head to guide him. Quite the contrary, in fact:

The administration's estimates show its proposal would boost economic growth by only 0.4% this year, but 1.1% in 2004. The projections suggest the plan could have a contracting effect of half a point or more in 2005.

The estimates -- and especially the conclusion that the administration's plan would pack its biggest punch in the midst of the presidential campaign in 2004 -- apparently sparked controversy inside the Bush camp. Bush press aides ordered them yanked from a White House Web site only hours after they appeared following the president's Tuesday speech unveiling the package.

(Emphasis mine.)

You can argue about whether or not the economy needs a stimulus right now, but how do you justify a plan that by their own estimates will provide a significant stimulus for only one year — 2004, by coincidence — and actually has a negative impact in 2005, when the election is over?

But then, this is the same administration that spent two solid pre-election months in 2002 making sure that the Iraqi resolution in the UN stayed front and center, needlessly delaying any chance at agreement until the very day of the election. Then they let it die.

Are these guys a piece of work, or what?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:03 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

NEW FRONTIERS IN JOURNALISM FROM OUR OWN ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER....This morning just before lunch Marian and I drove out to Stanton — formerly "Crossroads of Vacationland" because you have to drive through Stanton to get to both Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland — and the taco & burger place we stopped at had a copy of the Orange County Register out. So of course we both read through it, which explains the wealth of Register references you're seeing in today's CalPundit.

Here's one of their new features: the "Readers' cartoon caravan," which sounds like something from a high school newspaper circa 1950. Looks like it too, as you can see from today's effort reprinted above.

Aside from the fact that amateur efforts like this are rarely funny or provocative, isn't this just about the most annoying thing you've seen on the Internet since, oh, the last Lileks column you read? Hell, just writing this post has made me kinda seasick....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MORE TAX WRINKLES....Here's yet another wrinkle in the Bush tax plan that I just now heard about: dividends paid by companies that report losses would still be taxable.

Think about this: you're the CEO of a company, and as the end of your fiscal year rolls around it looks like you might show a small loss. But that means that the dividends you've been paying out will be taxable, so you'll be under intense pressure to fiddle with reserves, or prebook business, or stuff the channel, or engage in some other accounting gimcrackery to turn your small loss into a small profit. Isn't that just the thing that we've been trying to get away from?

Conservatives actually have a good point when they talk about the distorting effect of the tax code, and this is a good example. It's also a good example of why it's probably better to tax all kinds of income similarly: it prevents the relentless game playing where people try to move income from one place to another solely to get the best tax rate.

I'm not saying this is conclusive evidence that we shouldn't tax different types of income differently, but there is a cost to doing it.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 02:04 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

JUST AN IDEA....While I was over at Instapundit reading his response to the John Lott affair, I noticed that he doesn't have Atrios on his blogroll. Doesn't that seem odd, what with all the fine work he did on that other Lott affair last month? Perhaps we should all start an email campaign to get him added?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:06 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

HOLIDAY CHOCOLATE....skippy reports that yesterday he ate the last piece of candy left over from a holiday box of See's chocolates.

Huh? By the second week of January he still hadn't finished up one lousy box? Mine was polished off by....hold on a second....December 27. In fact, a detailed mathematical modeling of skippy's chocolate eating habits, assuming that mrs. s didn't eat any, produces an average chocolate eating velocity of approximately 1.6 pieces per day.

Yikes! What kind of a fiendishly disciplined monster is this man?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

STILL ANGRY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS....Tom Spencer brings us up to speed on the Counter-Clinton Library, a plan to build of a library of anti-Clinton bile across the street from the official Clinton Presidential Center and "­LIE-brary" in Little Rock.

The letter from the founders is moderately entertaining, as these things go, and it will probably come as no surprise that the person they really hate isn't Bill so much as Hillary. "Most of the media want to see Hillary become President and they aren’t going to do anything to derail her," they say.

I've noticed that myself. In fact, Hillary's people offered me a substantial sum not to write this post, but I'm one of the few bloggers with the integrity to stand up to her, so I refused. Unfortunately, that probably means my life is in danger, so if blogging here at CalPundit stops suddenly, you'll know what happened.

Of course, you'll never be able to prove anything....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

SUPPLY SIDE ECONOMICS....For those of you old enough to remember who David Stockman is, Avedon Carol has a good post about W's administration today. I don't know how she manages to have the discipline to write long posts like this using a dial-up connection, so go read it and make it worth her while.

The now-legendary 1981 article about Stockman in The Atlantic is here. If you've never read it, you really should. This is the story for which Ronald Reagan rather famously took Stockman "out to the woodshed."

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:10 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MORE GUNS, LESS HONESTY?....Via Instapundit, Clayton Cramer prints John Lott's response to charges that he faked a survey for his book More Guns, Less Crime.

No, I take that back: Lott doesn't actually respond at all, he just says he has now redone the survey and come up with similar results. This completely evades the point. No one is all that concerned with the precise results of the survey — which are not especially crucial to his overall thesis — but with the fact that he apparently lied about conducting a survey in the first place. As Clayton Cramer dryly notes, it would "raise serious credibility questions."

It would indeed. And don't you think that we would then be well advised to take everything else Lott says rather skeptically?

POSTSCRIPT: Apparently this mini-tempest has been brewing for about six months, but no one in the blogosphere felt like writing about it during that time. If Lott hasn't been able to come up with a better excuse than "my dog ate it" after six months, I doubt he's going to do any better in the future. And, yes, "many will choose to draw unflattering conclusions."

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

GAY MARRIAGES....My hometown newspaper, the Orange County Register, has decided to start printing same-sex union anouncements. This policy affects not just the Register, but the entire Freedom newspaper chain, which includes 35 newspapers across the country.

Good for them. The Register is usually described as a conservative newspaper, but in reality it's a libertarian newspaper with a conservative slant. Maybe there's something to this libertarian stuff after all.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 11, 2003

MORE CALIFORNIA BUDGET NONSENSE....The rest of you may safely leave the room.

Ann Salisbury reports that assemblyman John Campbell wants a constitutional amendment that would limit spending increases to the rate of inflation plus population growth. Ann says, "I think I like it." So let's take a look at how this would have played out over the past two decades:

  • 1980: Budget = $52 billion (in 2002 dollars), population = 23 million. Per capita spending is thus $2,260 per person.

  • 2002: Population is now 35 million, so keeping the same per capita spending, the state budget would be $79 billion.

The actual budget last year was $98 billion, and we are supposedly $24 billion in the red for next year, which means that without tax increases the budget needs to be cut to $74 billion. So even if we had followed Campbell's proposal, we'd still be in the hole. But at least we'd only be $5 billion in the hole!

(Actually, this gives you an idea of how much trouble California is in. Even if per capita spending had been absolutely flat for the past 20 years, we'd still be deeply in the red.)

On another subject, Ann quotes an LA Times article with this jaw dropping statement:

To begin with, the state does not have to balance its budget. The Constitution merely requires that the governor propose a balanced budget. At the end of its fiscal year the state budget can show a deficit. This also means that any governor can fulfill his constitutional obligation by proposing changes that he knows will never be enacted. So as you read about Gov. Gray Davis' budget, remember that what counts is not what he asks for but what he can get through the Legislature.

Can this really be true? Hell, my cats could propose a balanced budget. If the legislature doesn't have to actually pass one, then what's all the fuss about every year?

Something here has got to be wrong.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DUELING ECONOMIC PLANS....I've been pondering the two economic proposals on offer lately, and speaking from a nonpartisan point of view I have a question: Do we really even need a big economic plan right now?

On the Republican side, we get a big tax cut, but let's face it: overall tax levels aren't really very high right now, either historically or in comparison to other developed countries. Unless you simply believe that taxes should always be cut no matter what, it's hard to see the point. What's more, the effect of a dividend tax cut is supposed to be a boost to the stock market, but to my eye the stock market looks like it might still be overvalued, and artificially keeping it high doesn't seem to make much sense. Better to just let it drop to its natural level.

On the Democratic side, we've got a bunch of proposals that are supposed to provide a short term stimulus to the economy. It's true that job growth was poor last year, but even so unemployment is only at about 6% and the economy grew by around 3% in 2002. I don't have a problem with, say, extending unemployment benefits, but otherwise this is hardly the kind of deep recession that cries out for a Keynesian stimulus.

I can't help but wonder if the best option is really (c) none of the above.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

ISOLATED....Asia Times explains just how poor our intelligence on North Korea is:

A couple of years ago Western intelligence discovered in Rome that North Korean intelligence agents were busily buying kitchen utensils and microwave ovens. The Western agents became suspicious and investigated the matter. They found out that some parts of microwaves oven could be used to build triggers for atomic bombs. They thus thought that the North Koreans were about to build an atomic bomb and were purchasing the components of its trigger in the form of innocuous kitchenware. They were about to act and stop the traffic, when they came across another piece of information: The utensils were connected with some Italian chefs hired to go and cook for a period of time in Pyongyang at Kim Jong-il's court. So the Western agents dropped the matter - apparently Kim was simply fond of Italian food. Perhaps he is fonder of pizza than of atomic bombs.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 07:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

QUICK QUESTION....Am I the only one who thinks that maybe we need a constitutional amendment that requires the president to hold an occasional press conference? You know, this being a democracy and all?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MAYBE I COULD PICK UP A COUPLE OF THOSE SPEAKING ENGAGEMENTS FOR HIM?....Wow, Paul Krugman got paid $50,000 for overseas speaking engagements? And he says he used to do this "a lot." So figure, what? Ten gigs a year? Twenty? That's pretty good money either way!

But now he doesn't do it anymore because the New York Times won't let him. His income from the Times is "very nice," but it does involve a "substantial income cut" since he had to give up the speaking. I'll bet.

You know, I think it might be fun to write a New York Times column, death threats and all, but would I give up a million dollars a year for it? We're never likely to find out, but I have a feeling I might turn out to be not quite as good a little liberal as Paul Krugman....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:28 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MORE ON GUNS....As long as we're on the subject of guns, Glenn Reynolds complained a few days ago about a Washington Monthly article by Brent Kendall that criticizes Republicans for weakening the enforcement of gun laws. After spending an entire post complaining that the headline writer called John Allen Muhammad's gun a "sniper rifle" instead of an "assault rifle," the next day we get to the meat of his complaint: he says the article writer thinks the gun shot those folks in D.C. all by itself without any help from Muhammad!

Yeah, yeah. Of course, the article says nothing of the sort, it simply uses the D.C. sniper case as an anecdotal lead-in to a story about how the power of the BATF to enforce existing gun laws has been systematically gutted over the past couple of decades. "I don't know if this is true," Glenn says, but then quotes a long letter from Dave Kopel saying, well, it is true, but for good reason:

The important thing that the Wash. Monthly leaves out from its description of why Congress limited BATF's enforcement powers was BATF's egregious abuse of civil liberties under FOPA.

....The fundamental thing wrong with the article is that he complains that the sniper shootings were caused by the Republicans/NRA because BATF didn't shut down [the] Bulls Eye [gun shop]. (Of course there's the absurd presumption that the killers would not have been able to obtain a gun from another store, or from somewhere else.) But if Bulls Eye is in fact guilty of everything that the author charges, then BATF had full power to have Bulls Eye's FFL revoked.

But that's exactly what the article said: BATF doesn't have the funding, authority, or (apparently) the competence to enforce the law. Unfortunately, Glenn seems to think that's OK. With a trademark "Indeed," Glenn then excerpts this comment from a reader:

Maybe Mr. Kendall ought to consider the possibility that an awful lot of us find the idea of more "felony record-keeping charges" a lot scarier than the occasional armed nut.

Usually conservatives feel that if people are getting away with criminal activity, the answer is stronger law enforcement. But not when it comes to guns. In this one case, apparently, the occasional armed gun nut is just the price we pay.

Gun enthusiasts keep telling us that what we really need to do is enforce existing laws, not create new ones. Then shouldn't we reform the BATF and give them the power and funding they need to enforce the law? Or do we only do that for laws that we like?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 01:58 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

GUN SCHOLARSHIP....THE ENTIRE FIELD SEEMS TO HAVE A CREDIBILITY PROBLEM....Megan McArdle points to a post at Extra Ordinary Ideas with more gun scholarship news: apparently John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime, fabricated a survey that he used in his book.

Lott wrote in his book, “If national surveys are correct, 98 percent of the time that people use guns defensively, they merely have to brandish a weapon to break off an attack.” But it turns out that the 98% figure includes warning shots and missed shot. Oops.

But, really, no big deal, right? It didn't ruin his thesis, it just made him look slightly sloppy. Apologize, correct the error, and move on.

But no. Apparently he is now claiming that the 98% figure comes from his own survey. Who did the survey? Students. Which students? He doesn't remember. Any phone records? No, the students called from their home phones. Funding? He paid for it out of his own pocket. Computer records? Lost in a hard drive crash. Handwritten data? Lost when he moved out of his office at Yale University.

Megan comes to the proper conclusion, of course, which is that this kind of thing can't be tolerated regardless of who does it, but she also states:

Of course, the left will jump on it and say it's just as bad as Bellesiles. I've no doubt that many will have some interesting reason why it's actually worse.

Well, hell, I'll take her up on that! One thing that makes it worse is that Lott's book is cited specifically as proof that certain types of gun laws are bad. The Bellesiles fraud, conversely, was in a work of history about American "gun culture" and was not overtly advocating any particular policy.

But the real lesson here is the lengths that people will go to just to keep from admitting to a mistake, even a fairly small one. Honestly, is it really that soul wrenching to confess that you misread a statistic in someone else's study?

UPDATE: I long ago decided that there was probably not one single evenhanded study in the entire literature on gun control, so I decided to simply stay agnostic on the whole empirical question of whether guns cause crime, prevent crime, or have no relation at all to crime. However, for those interested in a rebuttal to Lott's work, you can find one here.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 01:23 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

TAXING SPAM....Marie Gryphon says:

Every market liberal should be allowed one heterodoxy. Mine is telemarketers. I absolutely hate them. Telemarketers should be rounded up, denied their procedural due process rights, and shipped to Guantanamo Bay to room with Al-Qaeda.

OK, I'll go along with that. But how about some market orthodoxy to deal with a very similar problem: spam.

Here's my plan: in order to make up for George Bush's $600 billion Martha Stewart Bailout Plan, how about if we implement a tax of 1 cent per email for all email sent to U.S. destinations? I figure this will either (a) wipe out the federal deficit and fund Social Security through the 23rd century or (b) put spammers out of business. I'm OK with either result.

I don't imagine that this is even technically feasible ("technical" in the usual geek sense, not "technical" in the tax wonk sense), but it would be nice if it were.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

HOW MUCH CAN THE CALIFORNIA BUDGET BE CUT?....A few weeks ago I wondered online about how much of the California budget was legally mandated. In other words, out of our current $98 billion budget, with its $24 billion shortfall, how much are we legally allowed to cut?

Ann Salisbury pointed me to an LA Times story yesterday that answered — or tried to answer — this question. In case you're curious, here's the bottom line:

  • "Technically mandatory" spending is about 90% of the budget. However, although legally mandated, much of this could be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the legislature (which is the same margin required to pass the annual state budget).

  • "Sort of mandatory" spending, a hodgepodge of guesswork and common sense about what is reasonably discretionary and what isn't, appears to be around 66% of the budget.

  • "Absolutely mandatory" spending is 26% of the budget. Examples include bond payments, stuff that's either constitutionally or federally mandated, and court-ordered outlays.

So the real answer is "who knows?" I guess I should have expected this.

POSTSCRIPT: And for all of you "out of control spending" fans, here's a quick summary of California's historical budget. During the decade from 1982-1991 the per capita state budget increased about 2.6% per year (adjusted for inflation). During the decade 1992-2001 the per capita budget increased about 1.6% per year. So while it's true that the California budget has grown a lot in the past five years, decade-to-decade comparisons through an entire economic cycle don't make things look quite so bad. Too bad about that stock market crash, though.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:13 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 10, 2003

CAT BLOGGING MEETS SCRABBLE™ BLOGGING....Today was Marian's birthday, so I got her one of those deluxe Scrabble™ games with the built in lazy susan and the nice raised board that keeps all the tiles straightened out. I was sort of hoping it would be motorized and have a built-in Scrabble™ computer, but no luck.

This is how we usually play, supervised by the cats to make sure we don't cheat. I managed to eke out a victory in the first game, which I suppose was ungentlemanly of me, but the birthday gods took revenge in the second game and thrashed me to within an inch of my life.

And how old is Mrs. C? She's not telling, I imagine. Of course, since the state of California makes its birth records available online, you could find out here if you only knew her maiden name. But you don't, do you? So her secret is safe.

And yes, she did get a bit more than just some upgraded technology for our nightly Scrabble™ festivities....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:56 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MORE ON RACIAL PROFILING....I got a few emails about my post on the LAPD racial profiling report that suggested I should take a look not just at the rate that police conducted searches after traffic stops, but at the result of the searches.

The LA Times story didn't report this, but they did have a link to the raw report, so I decided to go the extra mile and take a look at the figures. Among drivers who were pulled over, here are the percentages who were searched along with the subsequent police action:

Race

Searches

Warnings

Citations

Arrests

Contraband

White

3165 — 4.6%

6428 — 9.4%

61344 — 89.8%

1596 — 2.3%

685 — 1.0%

Black

6986 — 18.8%

5771 — 15.6%

29782 — 80.3%

1568 — 4.2%

1357 — 3.6%

Hispanic

14900 — 18.9%

9201 — 11.7%

66501 — 84.5%

3667 — 4.7%

1823 — 2.3%

It turns out that in one sense, the critics are correct: these are hard numbers to draw conclusions from without more information. Still, while some of the figures look less troubling than they do at first glance, others seem to indicate rather strongly that racial profiling is indeed alive and well in Los Angeles. Here's what I took away:

  • Police searched blacks at about four times the rate of whites, but also found contraband at about four times the rate, which makes the search rate seem defensible on non-racial grounds. On the other hand, they found contraband on Hispanics at only twice the rate of whites, which makes the 4x search rate look pretty dubious.

  • The arrest rates seem even more troubling, since this is a good indication of whether anything serious was going on. For both blacks and Hispanics the search rate is 4x the white search rate, but the arrest rate is only about double. This seems to indicate that the LAPD's "suspiciousness radar" was tuned rather higher for blacks and Hispanics than for whites.

It's true that data like this needs careful study, certainly something more careful than an amateur like me can give it. On the other hand, it does seem to indicate that the LAPD treats blacks and Hispanics with rather more suspicion than is justified, and race seems to be a part of it.

POSTSCRIPT I: One last comment: my snarky remark about affirmative action in yesterday's post had a serious side to it: conservatives typically claim that, yes, there is probably still some racism in our society, but the best way for the government to respond is to just set a good example and be absolutely color blind. Eventually society will follow.

But if that's true, then why isn't it equally true for racial profiling? The liberal response might be, sure, maybe blacks commit more crimes than whites, but the best way to respond to this is to ignore it and have police act in a completely color blind manner. Eventually the problem will solve itself.

Which is it?

POSTSCRIPT II: There was one other problem analyzing the LAPD report: the numbers were screwy. For example, out of 3,165 whites searched, the box for "nothing found" was checked 3,208 times. This seems unlikely. What's more, there was no overall number for searches in which something was found, so I had to add up the figures myself — but it was unclear if that was the right thing to do. Bottom line: take everything here with a grain of salt.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 05:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THE ECONOMIST TAKES ON TORTURE....The Economist is a magazine that I both enjoy and respect. This week their lead editorial was titled "Is torture ever justified," a subject I blogged about a couple of weeks ago, concluding that "Torture is barbaric and unworthy of us. We should not tolerate it. Period."

So I opened the magazine with trepidation, but was gratified to find this:

The prohibition against torture expresses one of the West's most powerful taboos—and some taboos (like that against the use of nuclear weapons) are worth preserving even at heavy cost. Though many authoritarian regimes use torture, not one of even these openly admits it. A decision by the United States to employ some forms of torture, no matter how limited the circumstances, would shatter the taboo. The morale of the West in what may be a long war against terrorism would be gravely set back: to stay strong, the liberal democracies need to be certain that they are better than their enemies.

George Bush has said that the fight against al-Qaeda is a battle for hearts and minds, not just a matter of military power. Though critics focus on his sabre-rattling, Mr Bush has been consistent in his claims to be defending human rights and democracy, and he has persisted in reaching out to Muslims, though he rarely gets credit for this. To keep the moral high ground, he needs to bolster public disavowals of torture by specifying the methods American interrogators can employ, by enforcing the limits, and by desisting from handing prisoners over to less scrupulous allies.

Unfortunately, the issue of official torture has gotten very little attention since the original Washington Post story about it last December, and it's nice to see The Economist — which has been a strong proponent of regime change in Iraq and has taken a pro-American stance on the entire war on terror — take it out for a stroll in the sunlight.

American conservatives, who have lately prided themselves on their moral clarity, seem to have lost their voice on this issue, but as The Economist puts it, "To evade the question is hypocritical and irresponsible." It is indeed.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:51 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DOES NORTH KOREA HAVE A BOMB?....Mario Carino writes to point out another oddity in the whole North Korea situation: do they have a bomb or don't they?

I've been wondering about that myself, but figured my ignorance was just due to my usual cavalier approach to reading the daily news. But no:

"Don't be quite so breathless," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell cautioned one interviewer who expressed alarm on Sunday. "Yes, they have a large army, and, yes, they have had these couple of nuclear weapons for many years, and if they have a few more, they have a few more, and they could have them for many years."

....But, despite administration claims, it is not so clear-cut that North Korea is already a nuclear weapons power. In early 1993, the CIA began circulating an analysis that North Korea may have obtained enough fissile material to produce one or two bombs. But, even today, that analysis is the subject of dispute, with some experts dismissing it as little more than a "back of the envelope" calculation. It is based largely on the amount of plutonium that would be needed for a nuclear weapon and how much North Korea is estimated to have diverted from its nuclear facilities.

In other words: who knows? In any case, apparently the North Koreans haven't admitted anything, which seems odd since they've copped to just about everything else.

North Korea is indeed a morally bankrupt dictatorship and certainly will get no defense from me. But I am nonetheless curious about the basic facts of the situation and whether those facts show that they are technically in violation of their treaty obligations. In a post yesterday I quoted Sebastian Holsclaw as suggesting that building a bomb violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but now that doesn't appear quite as clear. It certainly wouldn't surprise me if they had, but I wonder if the adminstration has more proof of this than they've been willing to publicly release?

POSTSCRIPT: Yes, I know that most people refer to North Korea as the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea), which is their official name, but I just can't bring myself to do it. They are neither democratic, concerned about people, nor a republic, and one out of four just isn't good enough.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:44 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

WAITING FOR REACTION....On the subject of the Newsday article in the post below, I just took a quick look around the conservative blogosphere and found no comment. Maybe it just hasn't percolated up yet, or maybe I'm not reading the right blogs.

But I'd like to know what they think.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:26 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

ALL ABOUT OIL?....I've been holding my nose and supporting the idea of regime change in Iraq for several months now, but today Atrios points to this disturbing article in Newsday:

Bush administration officials are seriously considering proposals that the United States tap Iraq's oil to help pay the cost of a military occupation, a move that likely would prove highly inflammatory in an Arab world already suspicious of U.S. motives in Iraq.

....There are strong advocates inside the administration, including the White House, for appropriating the oil funds as "spoils of war,” according to a source who has been briefed by participants in the dialogue.

I can't tell you how much I hope this isn't true. I have no love for the Bush administration, but I've tried to give them the benefit of the doubt on their motives and conduct in the campaign against Iraq. But it's getting harder every day.

The morality of appropriating Iraqi oil doesn't seem to matter to these guys, but shouldn't they at least be concerned about the practical consequences? The entire Arab world would turn against us, European suspicions would be justified, and every small country in the world — already spooked by our "axis of evil" talk and newly minted doctrine of preemptive war — would start charging headlong down the path of trying to get hold of their own WMDs in case they're the next country in our crosshairs.

For millennia the proper response of a victorious country in war was to punish the loser and demand reparations. After World War II, the United States — partly from virtuous motives and partly out of fear of communism — figured out that rebuilding its former enemies was a better idea. And it worked pretty well.

We have a chance to do the same here. It won't be easy by any stretch of the imagination, and the possibility of failure is high even with the best of intentions, but it would be disastrous not to try. Any other plan would send us well down the road of becoming a world pariah, and only after it's too late will the neocon hawks discover that even the world's sole superpower can't exist without friends.

There's only one piece of good news here: the idea apparently comes from Dick Cheney's office. Colin Powell seems to have perfected the art of letting Cheney shoot himself in the foot for a while before gently shooing him out of the room and taking things over. Hopefully the same thing will happen here.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 09, 2003

SARCASM....DO IT IN PRIVATE AND WASH YOUR HANDS AFTERWARD?....I asked this morning if I should avoid sarcasm in my posts, and so far the responses have been 100% in favor of sarcasm, 0% opposed. I even got a couple of emails telling me I wasn't sarcastic enough.

As I told one of them, a few years ago (a couple of decades ago, actually) my boss made me pay her a quarter every time I said something sarcastic. It worked out OK in the end: I managed to cut down on my public sarcasm, and every couple of months we went out and had a few beers with the money I'd paid her.

But now I'm backsliding. Sigh.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:20 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

SO WHEN DOES THE WAR START?....Back on November 12 I wrote this:

I'll even go out on a limb and predict what will happen next: Saddam Hussein will accept the UN resolution at the last minute, inspectors will go in, they will eventually report obstruction or outright cheating, and the Security Council will then authorize military force. A few weeks later Saddam will be out of a job.

Now, via John Quiggin, I find that I might have been a little too hasty. Here's what the Sydney Morning Herald had to say today:

Britain is pressing for war against Iraq to be delayed, possibly until late this year, to give weapons inspectors more time to provide evidence of violations by President Saddam Hussein.

....British officials hope that London's reservations and Mr Blair's growing problems in the Labour Party will help to tip the balance in the Bush Administration in favour of delay.

I think I'll stick with my original guess, but there's a nagging feeling that tells me that Bush might not be that hard to convince. Wouldn't a successful war be a little more helpful to him if it were closer to election day?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

LYING TO OUR CHILDREN....Via Electrolite, apparently New York is still sanitizing the literary excerpts it uses on its Regent exam:

In new guidelines, the state promised complete paragraphs with no deletions, but an excerpt from Kafka (on the importance of literature) changes his words and removes the middle of a paragraph without using ellipses, in the process deleting mentions of God and suicide.

The new state guidelines promised not to sanitize, but a passage on people's conception of time from Aldous Huxley (a product of England's colonial era) deletes the paragraphs on how unpunctual "the Oriental" is.

You know, I can almost sympathize with the test creators, who probably get a lot of shit from people who consider certain passages to be offensive. But that leads to the real mystery: why choose these passages at all? Out of the entire body of world literature, aren't there plenty of excerpts they could choose that don't include sensitive or offensive phrases?

Maybe they should pay Patrick and me to create the next test. We can fill it with inoffensive Robert Heinlein passages.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:23 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DIET ADVICE....I've seen several blogospheric posts about dieting lately, so I thought I'd share the CalPundit No-Hassle Diet Plan™ with you:

Don't eat any between-meal snacks.

No, this won't solve all your problems, but as a quick-and-dirty plan it's pretty decent. As a bonus, it has the advantage of allowing you to continue your normal — yes, I said normal — eating habits at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

I figure that if you don't have the self control to stop snacking, you don't have the self control to stick to a diet either. So my way is cheaper, easier, and better all around!

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:10 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

EGOTIST OF THE YEAR — RUNNER-UP AWARD....Glenn Reynolds quotes a New York Times article about David Frum's new book about Bush. According to the Times:

Mr. Frum claims that President Bush and John F. Kennedy "owed their connections with the public above all to the power of their words."

Well, the guy was a speechwriter, wasn't he. What else would he say?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:28 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

SOOTHING AND RELAXING....This is the Tokyo Water Park, which describes itself this way: "Get away from the hustle and bustle of city-life as we welcome you to the breathtaking Tokyo Water Park where you can wash away the pressure and stress of the over-crowded city and relax with your friends in the soothing enjoyment of sun, fun and splashing."

Well, why not? It doesn't look too much worse than Huntington Beach on July 4th.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:08 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

TOLKIEN PURISTS TAKE NOTE: THINGS COULD BE WORSE....Apparently Peter Jackson is worred about the demographics of the audience for The Two Towers, so he's decided to add a new character to make Return of the King more appealing to youngsters.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:56 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

BUSH TO STATES: DROP DEAD....Here's an extra little effect of the Bush tax plan that no one has noticed: we already know they dropped the idea of any state bailout money, but it turns out that in addition the plan might actually decrease state tax revenue. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

If dividends are no longer taxable for federal tax purposes, there would be little reason for the federal government to continue to require all the paperwork entailed in reporting the amount of dividends received by each person....The information necessary for reporting and compliance would not exist, and thus states would have no choice but to exempt dividends from taxation.

Like most states, California bases its state income tax on federal definitions, so if the feds stop taxing dividends, so do we. And even if we decided to do it on our own, we might not be able to if companies no longer report the data to the IRS.

Cost to California: about $1 billion or so. Thanks a lot, George.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

EGOTIST OF THE YEAR — 2002....Via Eric Alterman, this bizarre Washington City Paper story about why George Bush was not Time's Person of the Year in 2002: he didn't want to share the limelight with Dick Cheney. Time wanted to do a piece about the "partnership of the year" between Bush and Cheney, but "Bush aides reportedly preferred that their boss appear alone on the cover."

Oddly enough, the White House actually confirmed the story — sort of — but provided a different explanation:

White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett confirms that the White House denied access after reviewing Time's "potential" package. "We decided that the president would not be available for an interview," says Bartlett. However, Bartlett insists that the administration's policy of rotating press access—not jitters about the "partnership"—dictated the decision. "We decided it was U.S. News & World Report's turn to have the president in their year-end interview," says Bartlett.

Are they serious? I'd heard that they were annoyed that Rudy Giuliani got the nod last year, but this is ridiculous. Can these guys hold a grudge, or what?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 02:25 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

IS THE BLOGOSPHERE GROWING UP?....Here's something I didn't notice until today: we had two plane crashes yesterday (one in North Carolina and one in Turkey) and the blogosphere was entirely quiet. No instant speculation that they might be terrorist attacks, no insinuations that the authorites were covering something up, no nothing. Even Glenn didn't mention them.

We're making progress here, folks!

(Or else I'm reading the wrong blogs....)

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 02:11 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

NORAH VINCENT DOES ABORTION....To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Norah Vincent decided to write about abortion today in her LA Times column. Nearly 400 words into her piece here's what she's come up with so far:

Despite what the activists want you to think, the real question on abortion is....Is the fetus human?

Didn't we all know this already? Here's her conclusion:

So maybe a good way to mark this 30th anniversary would be to move the debate from all or nothing -- conception to birth -- to a compromise in which lifers concede the first trimester, choicers concede the third and the rest of us have an intellectual discussion about the middle.

There's nothing wrong with this, really, except that the whole thing is written at about the level of a 9th grade writing assignment. She simply regurgitates obvious material that's been the center of attention for several decades now, and leavens it with some juvenile pseudo-legal arguments of the kind beloved by bright but naive teenagers.

I don't get it. The LA Times is a big newspaper with a big budget and could afford pretty much any columnists they wanted. So why do they pay Norah Vincent to write this puerile stuff every week?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 01:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

AIRPLANE STORIES....Martin Devon says:

Last year I was a 1K flier on United. That meant that in theory I got treated as well as they could possibly treat anyone. In practice all it meant was that I wondered how much they must mistreat everyone else if they treated me so shabbily.

Well, I guess that's why they're bankrupt.

Martin highly recommends JetBlue. I was planning to try them a few months ago based on a friend's recommendation, but the trip got cancelled and I haven't been called to New York since. Sounds like they're worth a try, especially since I don't like airplane food anyway.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:45 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

FUNNY CONSERVATIVES....To give him his due, John Derbyshire can be funny at times:

I get lost in this TV talk because I hardly watch TV. How do you guys find the time? I have a book review due for Roger Kimball tomorrow, and I haven't even read the friggin book yet. I did, though, accidentally catch part of an episode of that reality TV show about the bachelor who's posing as a millionaire in a French chateau. Oy oy oy. Things are bad. Modest proposal: If the Romans had had this technology, they'd have kitted out the girls in leather bikinis, given them swords, nets, and tridents, and let 'em fight it out. Now that would be worth watching.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:14 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

NORTH KOREAN TIMELINE....I've been struggling to figure out the basic timeline for the whole North Korean mess. No conclusions or policy recommendations, just the basic facts, and I think I have it:

  • 1994: North Korea is about to start production of plutonium. The result is a treaty that shuts down their plutonium reactor in exchange for a light water reactor provided by the U.S., plus some interim shipments of food and oil.

  • 1998: North Korea purchases uranium enrichment technology from Pakistan.

  • October 2002: The U.S. presses North Korea about its uranium program, and Korea presses back by revealing that back in 1994 it already had enough plutonium for two bombs. We just didn't know it (and they didn't tell us).

  • December 2002: North Korea throws out the IAEA inspectors and restarts their plutonium reactor. However, they are still years away from successfully enriching uranium.

The reason I'm curious about this is that I'm trying to figure out whether or not North Korea actually broke their treaty with us. The relevant document is the 1994 Agreed Framework, which has specific language about shutting down the plutonium reactors but only very general language about "denuclearization" of the Korean peninsula: both parties will "take steps," they will "work together," and they will "create an atmosphere." In other words, nothing.

Then there's the non-nuclear part of the agreement:

II. The two sides will move toward full normalization of political and economic relations.

1) Within three months of the date of this Document, both sides will reduce barriers to trade and investment, including restrictions on telecommunications services and financial transactions.

2) Each side will open a liaison office in the other's capital following resolution of consular and other technical issues through expert level discussions.

3) As progress is made on issues of concern to each side, the U.S. and DPRK will upgrade bilateral relations to the Ambassadorial level.

In the end, none of this stuff happened. Both sides blame the other.

So what's the deal here? I'm no more eager for the North Koreans to have nuclear bombs than anyone, which is why I favor negotiation with them. Overall, I think the chance of negotiating away their nuclear capability is worth the risk of setting a bad example.

But my real question is this: do we have a leg to stand on when we claim that they "violated our trust"? This is a rather nebulous charge, after all, and a more pointed question is whether the North Koreans actually broke any treaties with us prior to the U.S. visit in October. A "plain text" reading of the Agreed Framework suggests that they didn't.

I'm open to comments about this.

UPDATE: Sebastian Holsclaw writes that by building nuclear bombs the North Koreans violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty (which was also mentioned in the Agreed Framework). Thus, they have violated their treaty agreements with us.

On another subject, Kevin Batcho points me to a post on his blog Beyond the Wasteland where he quotes a report showing that the original plutonium production was done between 1987-1991. In other words, during the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations. Nothing was done at the time and Clinton inherited the problem in 1994.

More later.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:13 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

SKEPTICAL ENVIRONMENTALISM....The Danish Research Agency released a report on Tuesday denouncing Danish author Bjorn Lomborg for the presentation of facts in his book The Skeptical Environmentalist. Australian economist John Quiggin, who is quite knowledgable on the subject, summarizes the situation like this:

There's a sense in which Bjorn Lomborg is entitled to feel aggrieved about the finding of scientific dishonesty made against him. His book is no more or less dishonest than the average book on this topic coming out of the thinktanks on both sides.

Not exactly a stirring defense, but it's about the best he's going to get. As Quiggin put it in another post, "Lomborg is free to believe the most optimistic estimates on every environmental issue, and the most pessimistic estimates of the cost of doing anything. But he shouldn't call himself 'skeptical' or an 'environmentalist'."

It's really too bad that Lomborg took the approach he did. A lot of environmentalists these days really have slid all the way down a slippery slope in which they oppose any environmental damage regardless of the cost of doing so. The proper approach is honest cost-benefit analysis, a necessary first step in prioritizing scarce resources, and Lomborg could have made a good case for this. As it is, Lomborg slid all the way to the bottom of the opposite slope and ended up making a case for nothing. Pity.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

RACIAL PROFILING....Lots of blogospheric coverage of the Boston Globe study of racial profiling in Massachussetts. The results are shocking: Hispanics and blacks who were stopped by police were 50% more likely to be searched than whites. Who would have guessed?

But I think there's some kind of east coast bias at work here, because we have our very own study of racial profiling in Los Angeles and nobody's mentioned it yet. Here's the deal: we've had a bit of police unpleasantness over the past decade in Los Angeles, and the LAPD was finally forced to sign a consent decree with the Justice Department about a year ago. One of the aspects of the consent decree is that the LAPD is required to keep statistics on traffic stops, something that LA's finest don't find amusing:

The requirement is widely resented by LAPD officers. Many say they do not stop people merely because of their race, and that they often cannot tell the race of people they are tailing, particularly at night.

Maybe so, but apparently they can figure out someone's race after they've pulled them over:

Among the findings: Thirty-eight percent of drivers stopped by police were recorded as Latino, 33% were white and 18% black. According to the 2000 Census, the city's population is 46.5% Latino, 29.7% white and 10.9% African American.

Of those pulled over, 7% of whites were asked to step out of their cars, compared with 22% of Latinos and 22% of blacks. Once out of their cars, 67% of the blacks were patted down and 85% were subjected to a search of their person, car, residence or belongings, while 55% of Latinos were frisked and 84% were searched. Meanwhile, 50% of whites were frisked and 71% were searched.

Just in case you don't want to bother doing the math, the bottom line is that Los Angeles police would sneer at a mere 50% difference in the rate at which they search minorities. Among people who were pulled over:

  • 3.5% of whites were frisked and 5% were searched.

  • 12% of Latinos were frisked and 18.5% were searched.

  • 14.7% of blacks were frisked and 18.7% were searched

Man, I sure wish I were black so I could benefit from all those affirmative action goodies. Life would sure be sweet then.

UPDATE: One of my readers thinks I should avoid sarcastic tag lines like the last sentence of this post. Comments?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 08, 2003

HUH?....Mindles Dreck explains the George Bush Tax Complification Act of 2003. Or tries to anyway, but I'm not even sure he understands what this is all about, and he does it for a living. I sure don't, but whatever it is, it seems like an extraordinarily stupid idea. And go here (or just scroll up) for more.

What a mess. Was anybody who actually gives a damn involved in this whole plan?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

HISTORY THEN AND NOW....Chris Bertram writes about the history books of his childhood today. They just don't write 'em like that anymore.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 01:56 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

STATE AND LOCAL TAXES....Reader Bill Nazzaro pointed me to this report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. As the chart below shows, state and local taxes, when taken as a whole, are highly regressive. Among the non-elderly, the poorest pay about 11% of their income in total state and local taxes while the rich pay about 7%. The report also has state-by-state breakdowns, so check it out to see how your state comes out.

The bottom line is that when people talk about how high earners pay the lion's share of federal income taxes, you're not getting the whole story. The whole story is this:

  • The rich pay the bulk of taxes because they have the bulk of the money.

  • Federal income tax is progressive, but this only barely makes up for the regressive nature of state and local taxes.

  • When you add up all the taxes people pay (state, local, and federal), the tax system is progressive, but not as much as you'd think.

Keep this in mind the next time some yammerhead like Steve Forbes starts nattering on about a flat tax. The end result of a flat federal income tax would be to make the entire tax system regressive. Not exactly the "fair" result that the flat taxers pretend to be in favor of.

UPDATE: Some stuff has been rearranged and edited to make it clearer. I hope.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:03 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

RACE AND RACISM....I've mentioned on a couple of occasions that I have very little use for John Derbyshire — even if he does write about mathematics sometimes — but in a soul-wrenching, bend-over-backwards effort to be fair, I want to excerpt the full quote of his that's been making the rounds of the blogosphere lately:

All American politicians are liars and hypocrites about race, from Democrats like Hillary Clinton posing as champions of the downtrodden black masses while buying a house in the whitest town they can find, to Republicans pretending not to know that (a) many millions of nonblack Americans seriously dislike black people, (b) well-nigh every one of those people votes Republican, and (c) without those votes no Republican would ever win any election above the county level.

So yes, his statement is an unusually honest conservative affirmation of the fact that racists mostly support Republicans these days, but there is a context to it.

By the way, in this piece he also elaborates on an earlier statement of his that "I do have some opinions that aren't very respectable — on race, for example..." Here is his explanation:

The principal non-respectable ingredients of my views about this topic are my convictions that race is (a) real, and (b) important. It is a measure of the height to which the waters of hypocrisy have risen that these beliefs are, by themselves, sufficient to put me beyond the pale of polite discourse. That applies even here in the world of conservative punditry, where the ruling dogmas are: There is no such thing as race! and Well, even if there is such a thing, it's not the least bit important! If you contradict these dogmas, even — I think we are now close to the point at which that "even" can be replaced by "especially" — in a roomful of conservatives, everyone gets really, really uncomfortable.

If anything, this surprises me more than the first statement. The idea that race is "socially constructed" and has no intrinsic meaning is something I associate with academic lefties, not with very many people from the real world. I'm rather surprised to hear that this contention is more widespread than I thought, even among conservatives.

I agree with Derbyshire here: race is real and it is important. It's physically real for blacks because it's the result of the all too physically real slave trade that brought them here over the course of two centuries and then caused the bloodiest war in American history. If that isn't real, I don't know what is.

Many conservatives (and even some liberals) like to claim that we should not have programs aimed at helping African-Americans. Rather, we should have programs aimed at helping anyone who's poor and disadvantaged. Although there's some justification for this, it turns out that being a poor black is not the same thing as being a poor white. One of these days I'll work up the courage to write a piece about exactly what the difference is. But not today.

UPDATE: Kieran Healy points out that "socially constructed" doesn't mean something isn't real. Quite the contrary, and we all deal with socially constructed realities every day. Point taken, but in fact I don't believe that race is socially constructed, at least not entirely. Like so many things, it's a combination of social reality with a tangible, physical reality. More later.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

SOUNDBITE MARKETING....Jay Caruso thinks it's the Democrats who are better at phrasemaking, not the Republicans. Ah, if only it were so, Jay....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:41 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THE DEATH PENALTY....USA Today reports on a loose group of law professors and likeminded academics who are pro death penalty. As near as I can tell, their argument is that it's not true that 100 innocent people have been put on death row and later released. In fact, they say, most of them were released on technicalities, and only about 30 or so were truly innocent.

Let me be the first to say that this is not exactly a strong argument. That's still a big enough number that any fairminded person should be worried about it, especially since it's a lower limit. If that many people have been wrongly convicted, it's a dead certainty that there are additional innocents currently awaiting execution.

The death penalty has always been a curiosity to me. I don't really have a philosophical objection to it, but let's face it: the risk of killing innocent people is a really big practical objection. If you imprison someone and later find he's innocent, at least you can free him and make restitution. You can't do that after you've executed someone.

But the real curiosity is this: why are there so many people who are passionate about keeping the death penalty? What's the emotional appeal? A life sentence without possibility of parole keeps murderers off the street just as effectively, but death penalty advocates are dead set against accepting this as a substitute. Even the risk of killing the occasional innocent person doesn't keep them from demanding an eye for an eye.

Why is this?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:50 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THE MARKETING OF THE OPPOSITION....As a corollary to the post below, I watched James Carville trying desperately (and failing) to land a blow on Crossfire yesterday when his guest made the point that the dividend tax cut went mostly to seniors. I imagine the right response would be something like this:

You mean seniors like Martha Stewart and Ken Lay?

I don't know for sure that this would work, but it's probably better than the alternatives.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 07:56 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THE MARKETING OF THE PRESIDENT....I've been thinking about the presentation of Bush's economic plan yesterday, and the more I think about it the more I admire it. Mind you, this is strictly from the point of view of a competitor admiring another competitor's marketing coup.

Think about what Bush had to work with: he's proposing a $300+ billion tax cut on dividends. Most of this will go to wealthy stockholders and is therefore open to attack as a standard Republican sop to the rich. So how does he sell it? Like this:

About half of all dividend income goes to America's seniors, and they often rely on those checks for a steady source of income in their retirement. It's fair to tax a company's profits. It's not fair to double tax by taxing the shareholder on the same profits.

So today, for the good of our senior citizens, and to support capital formation across the land, I'm asking the United States Congress to abolish the double taxation of dividends.

This is inspired marketing and follows the fundamental law of all brilliant marketing messages:

  • Technically, it is absolutely true

  • But it leaves an impression exactly the opposite of the truth.

The "seniors" who receive most of the benefits are actually wealthy retirees who keep most of their assets in stocks. But the impression the president leaves is that of a frail, aging grandmother depending on the $500 check she gets each quarter from the 1000 shares of General Public Utilities stock that her husband left her when he passed away.

I wonder who came up with this idea? It's the kind of thing that's only obvious after you hear it, and it's absolutely devastating. Paul Krugman can write columns until his fingers fall off from carpal tunnel syndrome and it won't change the impression that Bush left in just a few seconds of speaking. As a marketing guy who has struggled to figure out the best way to position products many times in the past, I give this effort an A+. It's simply brilliant.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 07:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 07, 2003

NORTH KOREA UPDATE....Via OxBlog, I learn that the Bushies have apparently changed their tune about their refusal to negotiate with North Korea:

In a key policy shift, the United States said on Tuesday it was willing to talk to North Korea before Pyongyang ends its nuclear programs but stuck to its refusal to give the reclusive, Stalinist state incentives.

...."The United States is willing to talk to North Korea about how it will meet its obligations to the international community," said a joint statement after talks in Washington among U.S., Japanese and South Korean officials.

Naturally I think this is good news, but why does OxBlog's David Adesnik say this:

That's good diplomacy. It shows flexibility by accepting North Korea's demands for face to face talks but preserves the US demand that North Korea has to disarm before its substantive demands are met. Hopefully, the North will go along with this plan.

When he said this last Thursday:

Another significant difference between myself and the critics is that they stand united behind their insistence that Bush ought to negotiate with the North.

Explain yourself, David! Has five days made that much difference?

On a slightly different note, I don't understand why giving North Korea diplomatic recognition counts as any sort of "concession" anyway. Hell, we ought to just do it unilaterally as a show of good faith and see how they react. I've always been a little perplexed by the peculiarly American notion that diplomatic recognition involves some kind of moral approval of a regime as opposed to a simple technical acknowledgment that a government has de facto control over their territory.

We should recognize North Korea not because of pressure they're putting on us right now, but because we should have done it long ago. And as long as we're at it, let's recognize Cuba too. I've got some cigar smoking friends who might even vote for W in 2004 if he'd promise to ease up on the Cuban trade embargo and let in a few boatloads of Cohibas.

Nah, I'm lying. They still wouldn't vote for him.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 07:27 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

IT'S A FEATURE, NOT A BUG....A friend of my mother's decided to get a cat the other day, so she went down to our local shelter and picked one out. This was the first time she had owned a cat, and the next day she called my mother and told her worriedly that she thought maybe the cat was sick. "All he does is lie around and sleep all day," she said.

My mother just laughed.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 06:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

WORDS MATTER....The LA Times ran a story today about David Frum's new book. Here's an excerpt about Bush advisor Karen Hughes:

It was Hughes who laid down various rules for speech writers, Frum says: Parents would be referred to as "moms and dads"; "tax cuts" would be called "tax relief," to come across as "a healing balm."

In Slate today, here is William Saletan:

Three years ago, when George W. Bush ran for president, he popularized a new name for the estate tax....The calculation was simple....The estate tax sounded good. The death tax sounded bad. Bad enough, it turned out, to get Congress to phase out the tax as part of Bush's 2001 tax-cut package.

Now Republicans are taking the technique one step further. You don't have to die to shed the stigma of wealth. You just have to age. Rich people have become "senior citizens."....Monday, a reporter asked White House spokesman Ari Fleischer whether most beneficiaries of a dividend tax repeal would be "well above the average" financially. Fleischer replied, "More than half the money from dividend taxation [relief] goes to seniors."

And here is a third excerpt, this time from Al Franken's Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, possibly the funniest book ever written about politics. The subject is a memo from Newt Gingrich explaining the kinds of words Republican politicians should use:

There are two lists, actually. One contains "Optimistic, Positive Governing Words," which the candidate is told to use to "describe your vision for the future of your community (your message)." The other, a list of "Contrasting Words," which the candidate could use to defame, slander, and otherwise impugn his/her opponent.

Republican Words

Democratic Words

  • courage

  • reform

  • candid

  • hard work

  • common sense

  • empower

  • etc.

  • pathetic

  • decay

  • traitors

  • taxes

  • bizarre

  • liberal

  • etc.

This may all sound horribly Orwellian, but it's a fact of life that words matter, and the right word at the right time can leave an indelible impression. Millions of Americans now think that Bush's tax cut is aimed at coupon-clipping senior citizens trying to make ends meet on a fixed income. They simply don't realize that Jack Welch and Warren Buffett are also "seniors."

In contrast, the best the Democrats could come up with was "We stimulate the job market; the president stimulates the stock market." The DNC needs to come up with better talking points and a list of "governing words" of their own. I wonder if anyone is working on this?

UPDATE: Steve Messina of No More Mister Nice Blog points me to the full memo written by Newt. If you want to learn how to "speak like Newt," the answer is right here.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 06:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MORE ON BUSH-ONOMICS....There's a PR problem with the Bush plan too. A PR problem for the Democrats, that is. Here is RealClear Politics' take on the issue:

"THEY'VE TAKEN STEROIDS": That's how one GOP aide described the White House's $674 billion economic stimulus plan....

By contrast, the Dems $136 billion proposal looks positively paltry....If the Bush plan had been only twice the size of the Democrats' plan, the relative distance between the two plans is small, and all of the sudden the Democrats gain the appearance that they are serious - almost as serious as Bush - about cutting taxes and stimulating the economy. But by proposing a plan that is almost five times greater than the Democrats' plan, Bush creates the opposite impression. Look at the language used in the press: Bush's plan is "bold" and "aggressive" and by comparison the Democrats' plan is tagged as "modest" and "timid."

Actually, the Democratic plan provides $136 billion this year, while Bush's plan provides less than $100 billion. In terms of short-term stimulus, the Democratic plan is bigger.

But it won't play that way in the press.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:08 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MORE FUN WITH POLLING....Daniel Drezner points to a Zogby poll showing that John Edwards has "surged" into second place with support from 9% of likely Democratic voters. But considering that the poll has a statistical error of ±5%, says Drezner, Zogby's breathless prose probably means that "some public relations flack had way too many lattes before writing that."

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 02:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

BUSH STIMULUS PLAN UNVEILED!....WELL, I'M STIMULATED, ANYWAY....So the Bushies ran their "stimulus" plan up the flagpole last week, presumably to gauge reaction and fine tune it before going public with the real thing. So what happened? They made it even worse. Here's what they came up with:

Proposal

10-Year Cost

End dividend tax

$364 billion

Accelerate income tax cuts

$64 billion

Speed removal of marriage penalty

$58 billion

Speed up increase in child tax credit

$91 billion

Speed up move of low income taxpayers to 10% bracket

$48 billion

Adjustments in alternative minimum tax

$29 billion

Incentives for small business purchases

$16 billion

Special $3000 account for unemployed workers

$3.6 billion

Total

$674 billion

It's amazing: every time I think I'm finally completely jaded, the Bush administration still manages to surprise me with its sheer mendacity and incompetence. Last week they were proposing $100 billion in state aid and extensions to unemployment, which got wide praise. So what did they do? They dumped it.

The dividend tax cut, on the other hand, was widely ridiculed. So what did they do? They expanded it. And added a bunch of other tax cuts into the package for good measure.

This plan is almost beyond comprehension. There is virtually nothing in it that will provide a short term stimulus, and even what's there amounts to only $98 billion in the next 16 months. And on a long-term basis, the tax cuts are going to increase the federal deficit out to infinity and beyond, something that Republicans used to think was a bad thing.

Marginal tax rates are no longer at 70% and there's no special reason to think that the United States is suffering from too much taxation at the moment. But the Republican party has become like some kind of mutant cyborg whose programming has become defective: the only words left in their vocabulary are "tax cuts" and they are simply going to keep repeating them over and over like a Hari Krishna chant regardless of whether they make any sense in current circumstances. It just boggles the mind.

As Paul Krugman put it, "Ideology aside, will these guys ever decide that their job includes solving problems, not just using them?"

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 02:36 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

AND YOU THINK OUR SCHOOLS ARE BAD?....Saudi Arabia is apparently planning some educational reforms:

Education Minister Dr. Muhammad Al-Rasheed has said that the Saudi school syllabus has “several defects” and his ministry is making every effort to address and eliminate them.

Hopefully the "defects" he's planning to address include stuff like this:

Following a lesson on the monotheistic faiths, Saudi Arabian schoolchildren are asked to discuss “With what types of weapons should Muslims arm themselves against the Jews?” That question is part of an official textbook for 8th grade students which also emphasizes that “Jews and Christians were cursed by Allah and turned into apes and pigs,” and that “The hour [the Day of Judgment] will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them.”

You know, separation of church and state is probably a pretty good idea, no?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE....Rush, responding to a caller:

You've got to get over 2000. It's 2002 now.

I know that conservatives like to look to the past, but this is ridiculous.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:39 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

YOU LEARN SOMETHING NEW EVERY DAY....The Center for the Cure of Sweaty Palms? Yes, there really is such a thing.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:37 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

POWER BLACKOUT....Justene Adamec just suffered through a 32-hour (!) blackout and apparently no one knew about it:

Imagine my surprise this morning when the power company indicated we should have called the moment it went out, even though vast areas were out and gradually being reconnected. Apparently, our call during hour 14 was the first they had heard of it.

Huh? After 14 hours of a widespread blackout the power company didn't even know it was happening?

During the power crisis in the summer of 2000 the Swiss guy who had came to California to run our company complained bitterly, "Dammit, this is not a third world country!" Sometimes I wonder.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

FREUD WOULD HAVE HAD A FIELD DAY....I had no idea Ann Salisbury had such kinky tastes. Single guys take notice.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:10 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

POST HOC ERGO PROPTER HOC....2blowhards provides an almost unbeatable example today of lousy sociological analysis:

In the Wall Street Journal of 1/7/03, James Q. Wilson quotes William Galston, a former Clinton Administration official, on what I would call "the basics":

To avoid poverty, do three things: finish high school, marry before having a child, and produce the child after you are 20 years old. Only 8% of people who do all three will be poor; of those who fail to do them, 79% will be poor.

Would it be so hard to incentivize these three behaviors?....

It's stuff like this that makes people like me just scream at the entire profession of sociology sometimes (sorry, Kieran). Repeat after me: those three things do not cause poverty. Rather, they are the result of other factors that also cause poverty.

The real story is almost certainly that people who aren't very bright, have lousy upbringings, and live in crappy neighborhoods tend to be poor. These same factors are also likely to produce teenagers who drop out of high school and have children out of wedlock. If you want to fix the problem, you have to attack the root causes, not the symptoms. And those symptons are both environmental and heritable.

Why do people write stuff like this?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

CONSERVATIVE RADIO BREAKS NEW GROUND....Rush is on the radio right now, and he's feeding President Bush's speech about his new economic plan while providing running commentary. It's sort of a cross between a tent revival and MST3K for the radio. It's surreal.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:25 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

SOUTHERN HERITAGE....EXACTLY WHAT "HERITAGE" ARE WE TALKING ABOUT, ANYWAY?....Patrick Nielsen Hayden writes today about the Sons of Confederate Veterans, one of those "Southern heritage" groups we heard about so often during the Trent Lott affair. Apparently SCV has been taken over by a faction headed by Kirk Lyons, who a couple of years earlier laid out his vision for, among other things, making America once again into a "majority European-derived country." Read the post and the accompanying article so you'll have something to say the next time someone tells you that racism doesn't really exist in America anymore.

And right below this is a post about bookstores, where Patrick makes a very good point for those who bemoan the way Barnes & Noble has put so many small, independent bookstores out of business:

The fact that all over the country, in the second-tier cities and suburban sprawls where most people live, you can find a decent selection of books in all sorts of highly specialized categories--well, that's a change. Indeed, sometimes it's hard to convey to people who grew up in Cambridge or Berkeley or New York what a transforming change it really is.

He's right. Even in a populous place like Orange County it's made a big difference, with an enormous selection of books now available in half a dozen big bookstores within ten miles of my house. This wasn't the case 20 years ago, and of course the Internet has broadened book availability even more.

The death of small shops is a modern trend that there is no chance of stopping, and I doubt there's much point in trying. And if it's the social contact you want, there are plenty of other ways to meet likeminded people. Besides, isn't there a benefit to having books from lots of different categories all under one roof instead of having to spend half a day traipsing around to a bunch of specialty shops to find what you want?

Still, having said all that, I'm surprised there is not a single specialty science fiction bookstore in Manhattan. That does seem a bit sacrilegious.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:47 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 06, 2003

FIGHTING THE VAST CONSERVATIVE TALK SHOW CONSPIRACY....skippy thinks we should start a campaign to shame Clear Channel into syndicating liberal talk show host Randi Rhodes. Sounds good to me. You can call 'em at 1-800-553-8686 to complain, or go to skippy's site to get the direct numbers for the program directors.

And while we're on the subject of lefty talk show hosts, check out Digby's post about longtime liberal talk show host Michael Jackson. Jackson has been a staple of Los Angeles talk radio pretty much forever, and is not only liberal but also erudite, phenomenonally well connected, and gets good ratings. But lately he's had a hard time finding a job. I wonder why?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:20 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MORE ON NATIONAL SERVICE....A couple of days ago I wrote a riff on the idea of mandatory national service. I'm hesitant to discuss it further since I'm not even sure I'm in favor of it, but after reading some of the feedback I thought it might be worth one more post.

Armed Liberal summarized the positive case here, while his friend Dave Trowbridge did the same for the negative case here. TAPPED weighed in here and The Corner responded here.

I find the opposition arguments compelling, but even so I'd like to break them down a bit. First, there are the philosophical and ethical objections:

  • It's involuntary servitude. I don't buy this, either legally or morally. On a legal basis, the Supreme Court has ruled that a draft is constitutional, and I don't think this is a lot different (although perhaps some of the law professor types could chime in here if they have a contrary opinion). On a moral basis, we force kids to go to school, and I'm not sure there's that big a difference between forcing a 17-year-old to attend school vs. forcing an 18-year-old to join a national service program.

  • Government shouldn't force people to do things. Coercion is fundamental to all governments. We force people to pay taxes, we prevent them from smoking marijuana, and we insist that they obey traffic laws, all on pain of being hauled off to jail if they don't obey. I realize libertarians don't like this idea much, but most of us think it's OK.

  • What if you don't support the aims of the government? You have to pay taxes even if you don't like what they're used for. Again, there's not much difference. And frankly, I think our political institutions and cultural values are strong enough to keep a program like this from ever becoming the cynical pawn of a partisan president.

Still, having said all that, I accept the idea that there are different levels of coercion, and mandatory national service, even if it's non-military and aimed at teenagers, is a step beyond anything we do today.

Then there are the practical objections. Generally speaking, I find these more convincing than the philosophical ones:

  • What do we do with all these kids, anyway? We would have an army of untrained teenagers with not much in the way of skills. If we wanted them to do good works, like helping teach inner city kids or vaccinating third world inhabitants, could they do it? Or would it just be a giant clusterfuck?

  • Labor unions would object. Yes they would, and rightly so if our army of kids was building public works or doing other jobs that would otherwise be done by paid labor. I think this could be avoided, however, by concentrating on things that would normally be considered charitable activities. The Teamsters don't object to the Salvation Army, after all.

  • Would it really accomplish any of the utopian aims I hope it would? Good question.

In my original post I suggested that mandatory national service might help provide "a sense of national purpose." But I probably have it backwards. What I really wish for, I think, is that America had enough sense of national purpose that the idea of mandatory service would seem like a good idea. Of course, then we wouldn't need it.

So it's all dreamy idealism. But since I think of the blogosphere as a dorm room bull session writ large, I still like the idea of discussing stuff like this. It's both fun and instructive, isn't it?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:13 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THANK YOU....Tim Dunlop says Americans — unlike Aussies and Brits — have figured out what to do when they receive a compliment: say "thank you."

He's right. It actually took me quite a few years to figure this out for myself, but if you're the kind of person who gets self-conscious when complimented, remember Tim's advice: just say "why, thank you very much" and move on. That's all it takes.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

CAN JURIES BE TRUSTED?....Dwight Meredith has a bunch of questions on his mind today. For some reason, I found this one the most provocative:

4) If tort reform is needed because juries make terrible decisions in civil liability cases, why do conservatives think that death penalty juries are infallible?

I never thought of that before. Any conservatives out there care to take a whack?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

FORREST J. ACKERMAN....For science fiction fans, there's a nice little story in today's LA Times about Forrest J. Ackerman, the original fan's fan and recipient of one of the first Hugo awards ever given:

Unlike a lot of collectors, who hoard their troves, Ackerman has always shared his private collection with the public, gratis, every Saturday. An estimated 50,000 visitors traipsed through his hillside home -- a 5,800-square-foot, 18-room home on Glendower Avenue in Los Feliz. The "Ackermansion," as it was called, became a mecca for local science fiction fans and a pilgrimage spot for visitors from around the globe.

The old Ackermansion was a few doors down the street from the house where my father grew up, but Ackerman has since had to sell it and now lives in a small bungalow. He continues to allow visitors to roam freely through his collection free of charge.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:37 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

I AM PART OF THE VAST LIBERAL MEDIA CONSPIRACY....Matt Yglesias says he doesn't need a job at TNR:

This site is being so well funded by trial lawyers, big union bosses, radical academics, dangerously out-of-touch feminists, race-hustlers, petty criminals, and friends of terrorism that I hardly need this TNR job. Frankly I don't know how conservatives do it with their narrow financial base of rich guys, very rich guys, wealthy folks, and large corporations.

This is roughly the same base that supports CalPundit, I think, although my finance manager keeps all contributions hidden even from me, so there's really no way to know, is there?

By the way, I'd like to mention that Matt presents one of my biggest challenges here at CalPundit. The problem is that he writes so much good stuff that I pretty much feel like linking to something of his every day, but that would get old, wouldn't it? So from now on, just assume there's a big banner at the top of my site that says "Matt Yglesias has some really good stuff today. Go read it." OK?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:32 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MORE ECONOMIC ANALYSIS....THE REPUBLICANS ARE STEALING OUR MONEY!....The folks at eRiposte have yet another cheap and cheerful economic analysis showing that Republicans are looting strong Democratic controlled states (like California!) and redistributing our wealth to weaker Republican controlled states. Do I believe it? Maybe. Then again, maybe it's just a cheap partisan shot. But if so, at least it's backed up with colorful charts and regression analyses.

But the real reason I'm plugging them is that they sent me an email asking me to. Actually, it was an email to me and Brad DeLong, and the idea that anyone with economic thoughts would somehow put me on the same footing as Brad just kinda tickles me. See, flattery will get you everywhere!

UPDATE: Ann Salisbury points to the original chart about state spending here. California ranks 40th in federal largesse, receiving only 86 cents for every dollar the feds hoover up from us. But at least we're better off than poor Connecticut!

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:23 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

WHAT'S NEXT?....JEWS WOULD HAVE BEEN BETTER OFF IF HITLER HAD WON WORLD WAR II?....Here in the great state of California the Republican party has been shut out of statewide office for most of the last decade. Why? Largely because they supported the anti-immigrant Proposition 209 a few years ago and thus became reviled among the large (and growing) Hispanic population.

So what is the vice chairman of the state Republican party doing to try and fix this sad state of affair? Well, in 1999, as part of his outreach effort, he distributed a newsletter with an article suggesting the country might have been better off if the South had won the Civil War.

I just don't have the energy to deconstruct this today, but luckily I don't have to. Geitner Simmons has done it for me:

It would be hard to exaggerate the moral idiocy of the California GOP official who circulated part of an essay that said the country would have been better off had the South won the Civil War, because “the real damage to race relations in the South came not from slavery, but from Reconstruction, which would not have occurred if the South had won.”

Geitner's points about California history are well taken, and I would add that while California is not the South, we have a long history of bigotry ourselves, most famously (and viciously) against Asian immigrants during the first half of the 20th century. That alone should give anyone of either party pause before tacitly endorsing an attack on the post-bellum Reconstruction policies of the Republican party.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:48 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 05, 2003

THE JOHN EDWARDS CAMPAIGN IS ALREADY IN TROUBLE....Eric Folley paid a visit to the John Edwards website and has some harsh words for it:

I took a quick look at the John Edwards for President website tonight. In a word, it's bad. In two words, it's really bad.

Technical problems:

  • The HTML doesn't validate.

  • The CSS doesn't validate.

  • Despite the accessibility statement linked from every page, it doesn't meet WAI or 508 accessibility guidelines.

  • The javascript mouseovers for the contribute and signup links at the top of each page are wonky — the tooltips-like popups rarely pop up correctly.

  • The cookies aren't encrypted

I can hear it on Rush's show already: "My friends, his website doesn't even meet WAI or 508 accessibility guidelines! That's exactly the kind of liberal hypocrisy we've come to expect from the Democrat party."

We nerds sure can be brutal, can't we?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:12 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DISAPPEARING DATA....Late Night Thoughts has a post today about one of my favorite subjects, the transient nature of information today:

In the late 1970s, the Census Bureau discovered that the aggregated data from the 1960s Census could be read only using an UNIVAC Type II-A tape drive. At the time, there were only two of those in existence: one in Japan, and one in the Smithsonian Museum! A massive data rescue effort was mounted and by 1979 the data had been recovered....

Back when I was in the document imaging business this was a well-known but rarely mentioned problem. Instead, when the topic of data storage came up, it was usually treated as a purely technical subject: magnetic tape starts to deteriorate in 10 years, for example, while an optical disk has a lifetime of 100 years.

Physical media capabilities are important, but even more important is the logical structure of the data. If you wrote a manuscript on an 8" floppy on a TRS-80 Model II twenty years ago, it wouldn't matter if the integrity of the floppy disk was still OK. And even if you somehow dug up an old Model II somewhere, you'd need to have a copy of Scripsit, the word processor of choice for TRS-80s. And even if you found that, and somehow managed to transfer the data over a serial port (thank God for RS-232!), you'd still have a file that was unreadable on any modern PC.

For anyone who cares about preserving data for more than a decade or two — a librarian like Emma, for example — this is a huge problem. Even if you do a good job of recopying data every decade or so onto fresh media, what are the odds that the files themselves can still be read? Will JPEG still be an image standard in 2030? How about HTML? Or even ASCII?

The document imaging industry is dedicated to bringing about the paperless office, but the oldest joke in the business is that the paperless office will arrive at about the same time as the paperless bathroom. All things considered, that's probably a good thing.

POSTSCRIPT: My example above was not chosen at random: a few years ago I faced exactly that problem with some old TRS-80 files. My solution? Luckily I had paper copies, so I scanned 'em and used OCR to read the text. If I hadn't had the paper copies, I would have been completely up the creek.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:33 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MORE FROM BRAD DELONG....This is a very cool ESP test.

It took me about 10 tries to figure out what was going on. Apparently, that puts me somewhere between a nine year old and a professor of economics.

UPDATE: My wife got it on the second try. Sheesh.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:25 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MORE ON DIVIDENDS!....Reader Eric Mauro begs me to keep writing about the proposed dividend tax cut. Hey, it's Sunday, so why not?

And there is an odd angle to the whole thing that I haven't mentioned before. Sure, a dividend tax cut is about the least likely candidate there is to provide any economic stimulus, but there are other contenders for that honor as well. Top of the list would be a cut in the capital gains tax, a Republican wet dream since the early 80s. So why not that?

Eric replies:

The real scandal is that not even the Republicans think this is a very good idea... it's a giveaway to the CEOs of big companies, to make their stock more attractive versus that of small capital-gains paying companies. Then the CEO gets to keep his job.

....This is mostly corporate socialism for big, slow-growth companies.

Considering Bush's recent nominees to economic posts, he does seem to have soft spot in his heart for big, slow-growth companies. Maybe Eric is on to something here.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:03 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

INTERNATIONAL EXTORTION: TWO CASE STUDIES FROM THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION....Yeah, I know, Atrios warned me about analogies, but what the hell. Live on the edge, I say.

In today's LA Times, John Balzar writes about the Bush administration loosening restrictions on tuna fishing:

"I had to look at the big picture," the agency's assistant administrator, Bill Hogarth, told me.

As he sees it, the big picture is this: If the U.S. did not buckle to pressure and loosen the 1990 labeling requirement, foreign tuna fishermen would simply drop out of the international program that is supposed to protect dolphins and sell their fish elsewhere.

In other news, the Bush administration had this to say about North Korea:

"The issue of a treaty suggests that we should pay something right now for their misbehavior," Powell said. "What we can't do and won't do is reward North Korea for their behavior."

So which is it? Do we cave in to extortionate treaty-breaking behavior or don't we? Or does it depend on whether it's something we wanted to do anyway?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

AEA ROUNDUP....Brad DeLong makes a conference of economists sound fun. More fun than a software conference, anyway.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

HOW TO QUOTE IN CONTEXT....AND HOW NOT TO....Via Ken Layne, I read this AP story about a reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat who got in trouble for some intemperate language:

Political writer and columnist Bill Cotterell, in an e-mail exchange, wrote "Except for Jordan and Egypt, no Arab nation has a peace treaty with Israel. They've had 54 years to get over it. They choose not to."

....The complaint started an exchange with Cotterell, who also wrote, "I don't give a damn if Israel kills a few in collateral damage while defending itself. So be it." Cotterell was suspended a week without pay. Democrat Executive Editor John Winn Miller apologized for the remarks.

This had me scratching my head: the Council on American-Islamic Relations is complaining about that? Don't they have better things to do?

Then today I was wandering around on WorldNet Daily (!) and found this:

Cotterell was suspended for one week without pay, beginning today, for writing to a Muslim: "Except for Jordan and Egypt, no Arab nation has a peace treaty with Israel. They've had 54 years to get over it. They choose not to. OK, they can squat around the camel-dung fire and grumble about it, or they can put their bottoms in the air five times a day and pray for deliverance; that's their business. … And I don't give a damn if Israel kills a few in collateral damage while defending itself. So be it."

Ah, now that puts a different spin on it, doesn't it? A week's suspension suddenly sounds fairly reasonable.

Question: why did AP write such a lame story? It's one thing to bowdlerize copy for family consumption, it's quite another to make it sound like someone is being suspended in an act of ultra-PC idiocy because you don't print the actual quote that got them in trouble.

I guess journalism schools aren't teaching enough liberal to our budding young liberal media wannabes these days. It's a crying shame, I tell you....

POSTSCRIPT: Turns out the Tallahassee Democrat was already in trouble because of a cartoon titled "What Would Mohammed Drive?" that accidentally showed up on their website but was then withdrawn. Cartoonist Doug Marlette, responding to complaints, said the character in the cartoon was not Mohammed, just a generic Arab:

Noting that cartoon images should not be taken literally, he pointed out that "there were no Ryder trucks in Muhammad's time."

Glad we cleared that up.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 02:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

A BLAST FROM THE PAST....I was looking through some old files a couple of days ago and found this, written in those halcyon pre-Monica days of 1997:

Can somebody please explain to me why, after several weeks, there's still such a fuss about Bill Clinton letting big campaign contributors spend the night at the White House?

....The really amazing thing about all this isn't that Clinton was willing to let people sleep in the Lincoln bedroom in return for $100,000 donations, but that he was able to get the donations so cheap. Why, back when men were men and giants roamed the earth, you would have had to promise a lucrative tax break or at least a little help with a government contract to get a hundred grand, but Clinton seems to have gotten off a whole lot cheaper. There's an amazing talent of some sort at work there, that's for sure.

And while we're on the subject of Clinton, can anyone explain the sheer hatred he engenders among so many conservatives? There's certainly no reason for them to like him, but they mostly treat him as if he were the antichrist, despite a pretty middle-of-the-road record. He's moderately liberal (somewhere between Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson), moderately honest (better than Nixon and Johnson, worse than Carter and Bush), and moderately wishy washy (probably better than Bush and Carter, worse than Nixon and Reagan). I can't say that I'm a big fan of his, but what has he done that's so bad that a significant portion of the country apparently believes that he personally had Vince Foster shot and then ordered the Secret Service to dump his body in Arlington Cemetery? Hell, Nixon was about as unhinged a president as we've ever had, and even he never got accused of ordering a mob hit....

I'm still wondering.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DOUBLE TAXATION....Just a quick question: who came up with this lame nonsense about how the tax on dividends is unfair because dividends are taxed twice?

I pay income tax on my entire income (being the honest Joe I am) and then when I go out to buy stuff I pay sales tax from the income that's left over. Does that mean my income is taxed twice?

Well, yes. But so what? I'd venture to guess that every form of income is taxed at least twice, and maybe three or four times. This argument is just another bogus — but remarkably effective — class warfare talking point from the Republican Party, friend of the common man.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

WHO'S YOUR FAVORITE PHILOSOPHER?....This is getting silly. Are we now going to ask all of our presidential candidates who their favorite philosopher is?

You gotta give George Bush credit, though, for answering "Jesus Christ" during the 2000 debates. After he dropped that tactical nuke on his fellow Republicans, you either had to mumble something along the lines of "what he said" (bad) or else admit to having a philosopher you liked better than Jesus (worse). Dubya may not have paid attention in school, but he sure knows his audience.

Still, let's face it: this is a really hard question. Most of us barely even know any philosophers ("Um, Plato? Wasn't he Greek? Oh, and that other Greek guy too...."), and we don't really know anything about the ones we have heard of. (Matt Yglesias does, of course, but he doesn't count.) So as a public service I'd like to offer up some safe, patriotic, and audience-friendly choices for Gephardt, Kerry, Dean, and all the other wannabes in case they get asked:

  • Moderately intellectual choice, suitable for being interviewed by George Will: Vaclav Havel. Talking points: last of poet philosophers, believes in the power of the human spirit, staunch anti-communist, thinks murderous Muslims are bad. Avoid: used to be a chain smoker, has said nice things about Bill Clinton.

  • Funny choice, suitable for being interviewed on MTV: Homer Simpson. Talking points: laughter makes us look at ourselves, Springfield part of the heartland, loves his family. Avoid: support for nuclear power, general idiocy.

  • Multicultural choice, suitable for being interviewed by New York Times: Martin Luther King Jr. Talking points: spoke to all races, touched our hearts and minds, showed that violence isn't necessary for social change. Avoid: reputation for womanizing, apparent belief that blacks are not treated very well in America.

  • Populist choice, suitable for being interviewed by Parade: Will Rogers. Talking points: has place in Guiness Book of World Records for throwing three lassos at once, champion of the common man, underneath folksy manner was a serious thinker. Avoid: Um, nothing, really. Nice guy, family man, born in Cherokee territory, everybody's heard of him, lots of cool quotes you can use to backstop pretty much any opinion on any subject, and you can even credibly assert that you've actually read his work and like it.

  • Safely patriotic choice, suitable for being interviewed by Rush Limbaugh: Thomas Jefferson. Talking points: wrote Declaration of Independence, man of the people, "tree of liberty must be refreshed etc." Avoid: owned slaves, vaguely disreputable religious beliefs, liked France.

  • Thoughtful choice, suitable for being interviewed on PBS: Albert Einstein. Talking points: fled Nazi Germany, nice pacifist guy, but told FDR to start cranking out the nukes when the chips were down. Avoid: reputation for womanizing, one-worldism.

  • Anti-terrorism choice, suitable for being interviewed by Andrew Sullivan: George Orwell. Talking points: opposed both Nazis and fascists, and opposed communists too! Avoid: liberal social inclinations, early writings.

And me? I'm a Hobbesian: life is nasty, brutish, and short.

Coming next week: safe, patriotic, audience friendly "favorite books" in case our presidential candidates get asked about that.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:41 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY....Via Roger Ailes, I learn that Attorney General John Ashcroft is a Simpsons fan.

Damn. Does that mean I can't watch any more?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:37 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 04, 2003

WEEKEND THOUGHTS ABOUT NORTH KOREA....I've had a hard time getting my arms around the North Korea situation, probably for the same reason as a lot of other people: there's precious little hard evidence about what's really happening on the ground. So I'm just going to talk out loud here as a way of trying to organize my thoughts. Here goes:

  • I've argued before that we should negotiate with North Korea. A military strike is unfeasible and containment has little chance of working against a country that's pretty well contained already, so it's the least worst choice open to us.

  • The main arguments against negotiation are that (a) Kim Jong-il is untrustworthy and (b) we would be rewarding nuclear extortion. Those are pretty good arguments, too. Unfortunately, we live in the real world and sometimes unpalatable options are the best ones we've got, so we might as well drink the Kool-Aid and get down to business.

  • Since negotiation has been forced on us, we should keep in mind some of the basic rules of successful negotiation: keep your options as wide open as you can. Don't make threats you're not willing to back up. Don't make public pronouncements that will be hard to take back later. Don't confuse every negotiating concession with "showing weakness."

  • So far, Bush has negotiated badly. Talking tough is a debatable foreign policy strategy, but it's at least defensible if you're willing to back it up. But since we are obviously unwilling to do so in the case of North Korea, President Bush deserves all the shit he's getting for his "axis of evil" rhetoric. Talking tough and then having your bluff called does more harm to American credibility than a dozen stop-gap treaties do.

  • Of course, it would be nice to know just what it is that North Korea wants. For the past decade they have consistently asked for diplomatic recognition, a nonagression treaty, and a formal end to the Korean War, but there must be a lot more to it than this since ten successive presidents have failed to conclude a treaty with them. But if there is something more, I can't figure out what it is.

  • Negotiation is bad only if you negotiate badly, and it's appeasement only if you give up something that's morally reprehensible. Neville Chamberlain is rightly excoriated because he caved in to Hitler and sold out Czechoslovakia, for example. But the situation in North Korea is quite different: they want diplomatic recognition from the U.S., and there's nothing reprehensible about that. Why not give it to them?

  • David Adesnik at OxBlog says about those who call for negotiation, "Not one of them can actually bring himself to say that the US should reward the North Koreans with additional economic aid in exchange for their violation of the 1994 treaty." Well, he's right, it is hard to say that, but what's the alternative? Just wait for them to collapse? It might happen in another decade or two, but I don't think it's a good idea to wait around that long. North Korea has the upper hand right now, and we need to deal with them. That's the way it goes sometimes.

  • We need to get away from a knee-jerk reaction to being "extorted," something that's a fundamental part of all negotiation. North Korea has something we want and we have something they want. So let's trade. North Korea is assuredly playing rough, but it's not extortion until they threaten some kind of military assault if we refuse to give them what they want.

  • Charles Krauthammer thinks we should threaten to give nuclear weapons to Japan. Huh? Why would the North Koreans be more afraid that Japan would lob a nuke their way than the U.S.?

  • And one more thing: aside from their general insane hatred of Jimmy Carter, what's up with the universal conservative loathing of the 1994 treaty? It was far from perfect, but if we hadn't signed it North Korea probably would have had a dozen nuclear bombs half a decade ago. At least it slowed them down, and what's wrong with that?

Conclusions? None, really. I think that Bush has foolishly allowed his rhetoric to paint him into more of a corner than was wise, but beyond that he's handled the situation fairly well. North Korea precipitated the crisis, not us, and the administration's reaction so far has been quite measured. I hope it stays that way.

UPDATE: As Sean-Paul rightly points out over at The Agonist, we should also be a little more concerned with what the South Koreans want to do. His advice: "Invite everyone to go dancing, but just be prepared to go bowling." Read the whole post to find out what he means by that.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 05:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

REST IN PEACE....Jeanne d'Arc just won the Koufax Award for best lefty blog writing, but four days into the new year she's already got strong competition for the 2003 award. Barry Deutsch talks about his dog Chelsea today, and by the time I was finished my eyes were misting over. It's a great tribute and a must read for any pet lover.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

SMALLPOX AND PROSPECT THEORY....One of my favorite economic playthings is Prospect Theory, which won a Nobel Prize for its inventor, Daniel Kahneman, last year. (Its co-inventor, Amos Tversky, died in 1996, and therefore wasn't eligible.)

One of the key elements of prospect theory is something called framing effects: the way we react to risky decisions depends on how the decisions are framed. This was famously demonstrated by Kahneman and Tversky in a question about how people react when faced with a decision about how to handle an expected outbreak of a deadly disease.

Guess what? A hot topic these days is how we should react to the possibility of a terrorist-induced outbreak of smallpox, so you'd think prospect theory might have something to say. Well, Mark Kleiman makes the case here, and he thinks that reluctance to perform mass vaccinations is a good example of framing effects at work.

I don't know if he's right (difficulty in figuring the probabilities might be the real culprit), but it's an interesting approach.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

JURY DUTY....Dwight Meredith, riffing on my post about jury duty yesterday, asks a good question: why are so many people convinced that when their friends and neighbors serve on juries they suddenly go nuts and start handing out huge bundles of cash in frivolous cases?

As Dwight points out, we are all convinced that we would never do such a thing, but somehow trial lawyers are consistently able to pick 12 unanimous idiots to do their bidding and make ridiculous awards.

Maybe. Or maybe the problem is that if you actually hear all the facts of a case, it changes your mind? Hmmm....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:21 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

YET MORE HISTORY....Kieran Healy has posted the answers to yesterday's quiz about 1800 vs. 2000. Since today is apparently history day at CalPundit, go check it out. Both the questions and answers are genuinely interesting.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 11:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THE LESSONS OF HISTORY....By coincidence, right after I finished my history lesson below, I got an email from Randy Paul of Beautiful Horizons pointing me to this Washington Post article:

"The earliest vivid memory in my life," said Kazuo Matsubayashi, "is the day my father was arrested on January 7th, 1943."

....The internment of Japanese Americans? No. Matsubayashi was recalling a shameful and forgotten chapter in American history. From 1942 onward, the United States abducted some 3,000 people of Japanese, Italian and German ancestry from Latin America, shipped them to the United States and placed them in internment camps. These prisoners were never charged with crimes.

This is why I think it's important not to romanticize the past: it prevents us from learning from our mistakes. Yes, interning those people was wrong, but it's different today. Don't you understand that the world is a far more dangerous place than it was in our parents' day?

No it's not. And if in hindsight something was wrong 60 years ago, it's also wrong today.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:47 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

NOSTALGIC FOR THE 50s?....Just a quick comment on history and foreign relations. How often recently have we seen a statement something like this:

What distinguishes the North Korean crisis from any other is the nature of North Korea. The U.S. isn't dealing with a rational adversary as with the Soviet Union in the Cuban missile crisis.

This nostalgia for the good 'ol days of nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union is charming in its own way, I suppose, and is surely proof that we really did win the Cold War. But we've also lost our collective memory about it and this occasionally makes me miss graying pundits like David Broder, who were actually alive back then and know what it was like.

So, a quick history lesson: back in the 50s and 60s, when all this stuff was actually happening, nobody thought the Soviet Union was just a big, furry — and rational — teddy bear. Krushchev was the guy who banged his shoe on the lectern at the UN while promising to bury us, and risked global annihilation by sending nuclear missiles to Cuba. The Soviets invaded Hungary, they invaded Czechoslovakia, and they had two million troops massed behind the Iron Curtain. Schoolkids were taught to duck and cover because an ICBM from Kamchatka might be headed our way any minute. Sputnik was a terrifying example of Soviet superiority in science, raising the spectre of Russian space platforms stocked with nuclear missiles staring implacably down on us 24 hours a day. Lyndon Johnson ran television ads suggesting that nuclear war was right around the corner if you voted for Barry Goldwater. People were scared.

For some reason, every generation loses the ability to appreciate the emotional impact of events from the previous generation. They become merely words in history books, and the players seem somehow like misguided little children making silly mistakes that, really, are sort of obvious in hindsight, aren't they?

Don't fall for it. North Korea and Iraq are not the first dangerous countries we have encountered, 2003 is not the first year we have had to worry about nuclear weapons in dangerous hands, and Kim Jong-il and Saddam Hussein are not the first thuggish dictators we have had to face.

In fact, when you get right down to it I'll take Kim Jong-il over Joseph Stalin any day. Anyone who thinks different is invited to read a biography of Uncle Joe — pretty much any one should do — and then report back. 2003 will suddenly seem a lot brighter.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

NOSTALGIC FOR THE 80s?....Atrios today recommends that you read Haynes Johnson's Sleepwalking Through History, an "often ignored" history of the Reagan years. Well, it's a good book, but good books are often ignored because, well, for starters they're books, and for finishers they might be just a tad on the bland and dull side

So instead here's my recommendation for all you fast-paced, attention deficit disordered, video-game-playing, image-oriented, media savvy consumers out there: Paul Slansky's The Clothes Have No Emperor: A Chronicle of the American 80s. Technically, it's a book, but it's a big, colorful book with lots of pictures, a fun quizzes after every chapter, and chunks of text that are never longer than a hundred words each. Sort of the Classics Illustrated version of the 80s. You'll get stuff like this:

  • 10/11/82: "You can't drink yourself sober, you can't spend yourself rich, and you can't pump the prime without priming the pump. You know something? I said that backwards....You can't prime the pump without pumping the prime..."

  • 10/5/84: Larry Speakes is asked if President Reagan has read the House report on the latest Beirut truck bombing. "I don't think he's read the report in detail," he says. "It's five-and-a-half pages, double spaced."

  • 1/20/87: Robert "Bud" McFarlane goes on Nightline to separate himself from the decison to bring the Iranians a cake. "Simply put, there was a cake on the mission," he says. "I didn't buy it, bake it, cook it, eat it, present it or otherwise get involved with it....The cake was the product of a spontaneous idea of Col. North....I didn't get involved with it."

Ah, doesn't this make you wistful for reruns of Cosby and Gary Hart? Doesn't it make you want to jump up out of your seat and make a contribution to the "Let's Put Ronald Reagan on Mount Rushmore" campaign? You know it does.

Unfortunately, Slansky's book is out of print, so unless you like to prowl around used bookstores maybe you ought to read Sleepwalking Through History after all. Sorry about that.

Oh, and The 50s is a good book too. A very underrated decade, that.

UPDATE: Zizka points out that if you don't feel like slogging through local used bookstores you can buy Slansky's book online. It's available from both BookFinder and Abebooks for a few bucks.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 03, 2003

STIMULATING THE ECONOMY....I needed a good laugh this morning, so I decided to go ahead and read the lead story in today's LA Times: Bush Stimulus Plan Calls for More Tax Cuts. I was rewarded with this:

Sources said the plan will include a larger-than-expected cut in the tax on corporate dividends, $100 billion or more over 10 years in state aid, a generous extension of unemployment benefits, and probably a speedup of tax rate cuts for all but the very highest earners.

...."I'm concerned about all the people," the president said. "I understand the politics of economic stimulus -- that some would like to turn this into class warfare. That's not how I think."

Now, I'm all in favor of a "generous" extension of unemployment benefits, and state aid is a good idea too — although spreading it over ten years is a little mysterious unless Bush thinks the economy is still going to be in the tank in 2013. But still, it's pretty obvious that this is all just a bribe in order to get the dividend tax cut passed, something that Republicans have been drooling over for decades now.

But here's the problem: cutting the dividend tax won't do a thing to stimulate the economy. The fact is that tax cuts — of any kind — simply take too long to have an effect, and since they tend to be permanent they are lousy at countercyclical stimulus.

No, the only way to stimulate an economy that's already feeling sluggish is to spend more money now. How? Who cares. Just spend it. In fact, since conservatives are so fond of flat taxes, I propose a flat anti-tax as the CalPundit Economic Stimulus Plan of 2003™:

Over the course of the year, write checks totalling $1000 to every adult in America. No means testing, no strings, no nothing. Just write the checks.

Tax cuts and pork barrel spending take too long to have an effect. But if you simply give the money back, it allows people to spend it however they please, and spend it they will. Quickly.

If Bush were serious about stimulating the economy, he would do something like this (dressing it up in suitable policy language, of course). But of course he's not, and instead is simply using other people's misery as an excuse to do a $300 billion favor for his rich friends who fund the Republican party. And if anyone calls him on it?

Why, they're engaging in class warfare, of course. Winston Smith would have understood.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

SOCIOLOGY WARS....Daniel Drezner asks, "Why is the left more sensitive than the right?"

Kieran Healy replies, "Why is the right more prone to tendentious dichotomies than the left?" And then answers his own question.

I almost busted a gut. In honor of Kieran, tomorrow I will spend all day pretending to be Irish.

UPDATE: I should probably make clear that I have nothing against Dan Drezner. In fact, I enjoy his blog, and what's more, I think that blogs are an ideal medium for idle speculation. Still, Kieran wins on points....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

MORE FUN AND GAMES FROM THE PRESIDENT....Via a long list of links that started at TalkLeft, the Washingtonian is reporting that if Chief Justice William Rehnquist resigns, Bush might replace him with....wait for it....Clarence Thomas.

Who writes these scripts, anyway? The guys from 24? And don't you actually have to talk in order to be Chief Justice?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 05:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

DRUNK DRIVING....HOW DRUNK IS DRUNK ENOUGH?....Is it time for MADD to declare victory and disband? I don't really have a strong opinion, although I suspect it's true that blood alcohol levels of .08 are probably sufficient to keep dangerous drivers off the road. However, how about a brief counterpoint?

I served on a jury a few years ago in a drunk driving case. The defendent had a lawyer who was obviously very experienced (and very expensive) and who put on a very competent defense that boiled down to one thing: breath tests have a chance of being inaccurate, and therefore we should let his client go. To prove his point he grilled the police officers, brought in expert witnesses, and tried to question the integrity of the tech who administered the test.

Despite all this, the prosecution basically had an open and shut case: the guy was pulled over because he had been weaving between lanes, he was tested properly, and his BAC came out to 1.1, well above the legal limit of .08. He admitted on the stand that he had had five drinks, and that's clearly enough to send your BAC above .08.

But it turned out the jury wasn't convinced. When we went off to deliberate we immediately took a quick vote just to see where we stood, and I was shocked to find out that the initial vote was 10-2 for acquittal. The problem was that the guy's blood alcohol level was 1.1, meaning he was drunk but he wasn't sloppy drunk. What's more, a lot of the jurors were impressed with the defense lawyer's paid lapdog, who testified that breath tests could easily be off by .4 or .5, so it was possible that the defendent's BAC was really no more than .7 or so.

To make a long story short, eventually we convicted him. But it took me and one other guy a day and a half to convince everyone else that acquittal would essentially mean that breath tests were unreliable and that nobody with a BAC under, say, 1.4 should ever be convicted.

So there's one possible reason for lowering the legal BAC even further: because juries have a hard time convicting people of drunk driving unless they are well above the legal limit.

POSTSCRIPT: This story has a funny ending. After the trial was over we got to talk to the prosecutor a bit, and he told us that he had been nervous about the verdict because of two specific jurors who seemed like they might be partial to the defendent. One of them wore a USC class ring, which meant he might be an ex-frat boy, and the other seemed like a very conservative, poker-faced guy who would sympathize with the CEO defendent. The poker-faced guy was me, and the USC grad was the only other vote to convict in the initial tally. So not only did we vote to convict, we were the ones who eventually brought everyone else around. I guess jury selection in drunk driving cases is not quite the fine science that it is in John Grisham novels.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

LIBERTARIAN FANTASIES....2blowhards has a guest post by a former Libertarian that explains the problems with libertarians pretty well:

Being in the LP is a lot like being in a fantasy role-playing group. They are both about as relevant to the real world.

I have some libertarian instincts, especially when it comes to victimless crimes, but most libertarians don't stop there. Rather, they try to apply libertarian principles (which provide precious little guidance in reacting to real world problems) to everything. They are like Marxists in their attachment to a creed that is utterly opposed to human nature and therefore has no chance of ever being adopted.

Libertarianism has a long history in the high tech world, and this has made it a strong presence in the blogging world as well. If you'd like to read more about this, Paulina Borsook wrote a book about high tech libertarianism a few years ago called Cyberselfish. It provides some interesting insight into the dominant religion of Silicon Valley.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 04:19 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

PERCHANCE TO DREAM....Where did the phrase "sleeping like a baby" come from? As all new parents will attest ad nauseum if you accidentally allow the subject to come up, newborns sleep exceptionally badly.

How about "sleeping like a cat" instead? They seem to have the whole sleeping thing down pretty well.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:56 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

KOUFAX AWARD WINNERS....Dwight Meredith has finished counting the votes for the Koufax Awards for best lefty blogging. Here are the winners:

Congratulations to all the winners. For all the details plus Dwight's commentary, click here and scroll down.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 03:08 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

PURPLE RAIN?....What's up with this?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 02:51 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

SALES TAXES AND THE DEFICIT....Apparently some California legislators are proposing that in order to tackle our $35 billion budget deficit we should expand the state sales tax to cover services as well as goods. In today's LA Times, professional tax fighter David Doerr says that's a bad idea: it would be an administrative nightmare, it's inflationary (!), it would harm the business climate, etc.

But out of 500 words and with six separate reasons for opposing this plan, he does not manage to breathe even one word about the worst aspect of the whole thing: sales taxes are regressive, so increases fall disproportionately on the poor.

Oh well, at least he doesn't pretend there's anything compassionate about his conservatism.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:24 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

NATIONAL SERVICE....New York congressman Charles Rangel decided to finish up 2002 by proposing that we reinstitute the draft:

"I'm going to introduce legislation to have universal military service to let everyone have an opportunity to defend the free world against the threats coming to us," Rangel said on CNN's "Late Edition."

...."I think, if we went home and found out that there were families concerned about their kids going off to war, there would be more cautiousness and a more willingness to work with the international community than to say, 'Our way or the highway.' "

Rangel's idea has been predictably savaged on both the left and the right, but it's also gotten some support, most recently from Michigan congressman John Conyers.

Rangel's idea is obviously not serious, just a piece of anti-war grandstanding. There's nothing wrong with grandstanding, of course, especially from a congressman, but I have a better (and more serious) idea: mandatory national service.

This is not a new idea, but it's the kind of thing that we should be seriously discussing these days. Patriotism, after all, does not come from reciting the pledge of alliegance every day or flying an American flag in front of your home. It comes from a deep seated notion that you live in a great country and that you share some of this greatness with your fellow citizens.

Mandatory national service would oblige everyone who lives here to give something back to their country. It would allow teenagers to see firsthand what other parts of America are like, and what their fellow Americans are like. It would allow blacks to work alongside whites, rich alongside poor, and natives alongside immigrants. It would provide a large workforce that could be deployed both domestically and internationally. It would provide manpower for our inner cities and ambassadors to the third world. Military service would count, of course, but no one would be forced to serve in the military, and the vast majority of teenagers would serve in non-military areas.

Yes, this is dorm-room-bull-session kind of stuff, never likely to happen, and that's a pity. Too many Americans these days feel a sense of entitlement, somehow not realizing that a big part of their personal success is due strictly to their good luck in being born here. National service could give that illusion a salutary nudge.

This would, of course, be enormously difficult to manage and enormously expensive to implement. But it would be worth it. The last time anything like this happened was during World War II, and it provided a sense of national purpose that we have never since recovered.

This is all idealistic liberal fluff, but I think we could use more of that these days. If we're all going to snipe endlessly at each other, why not do it over a grand dream like this instead of over minutiae like whether third trimester abortions should be legal?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL....Megan McArdle reviews Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel today. She likes it but has a couple of complaints.

I liked it too, and I don't even have the complaints she does. It was, simply, a terrific book, with a truly eye-opening and compelling explanation for why Eurasian civilizations were the ones that took over the world, not Australian or African or North American ones. The short answer: they started first and managed to conquer the world before anyone else was able to catch up.

One word of warning: the subject of the book is strictly early development, so it does not try to explain why one particular Eurasian civilization (Western Christendom) has so far been the winner over the other three Eurasian civilizations (China, the Middle East, and India). Diamond actually does address this very briefly with a few guesses, but that's all they are, and he makes no pretense otherwise. So don't dive into it expecting a comprehensive history of the world.

This is a highly recommended book, one of my all-time favorites. You can read my longer review of it here.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 08:22 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 02, 2003

DEPARTMENT OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES....A friend of mine tells me that some local residents where he lives complained about a dangerous stretch of road a few years ago. The city finally agreed to put in a light, which was installed two years ago. But it turned out that people didn't know the light was there, so they just barreled on through, a situation even more dangerous than the original one. So the city installed a bunch of raised dots in the road to warn people that something was coming. This worked, but then everyone started complaining that the constant flow of cars over the dots made too much noise. So now they are building a 1000-foot sound wall to cut down the noise.

Exercise for the reader: what is the likely unintended consequence of the wall?

ANSWER: According to correspondent Ian D, the answer is: graffiti.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 05:32 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

NORTH KOREA....David Adesnik of OxBlog wants to talk about North Korea, and points to his contribution to the debate here. So let's talk.

What are the options for dealing with North Korea? There are three:

  • A military strike. Clinton considered this eight years ago, but backed off for obvious reasons. And quite aside from a lack of domestic support, a military strike is hardly feasible unless it's supported by the South Koreans, which it isn't. So that's out.

  • Economic sanctions. Unfortunately, we're already doing this and there's little evidence that they are making much difference.

  • Negotiation.

So, given that negotiation is really the only option, how would I rate Bush's performance on North Korea? Let me put it this way: how would you rate the emperor's performace in the throne room in Return of the Jedi? With the right nudge, Luke might have been turned to the dark side and we would have been spared three more films, but instead the emperor had to engage in some gratuitous trash talking just because it made him feel good. And the result? Like a trash talking newspaper clip pinned to a locker room bulletin board, it just spurred Luke on. Final score: Luke 1, Emperor 0.

So: we should knock off the blustering that accomplishes the exact opposite of what we want. We're big enough that we don't need it. Instead, we should talk, talk, talk, and talk some more. We should promise to take Kim Jong-il seriously, even if we have to leave the room frequently to keep ourselves from busting up laughing. We should make a deal and do our best to monitor it until it breaks down, and then we should make some new deal to replace it.

What's that, you don't like this approach? It sends the wrong message? We shouldn't negotiate with bullies? Tough. It's the way the world works. Kim Jong-il is obviously well aware that nobody would care about North Korea if it weren't for the army, and the missiles, and the bombs, so he's not going to give them up.

We should either launch a military attack or else go to the table and negotiate. And if it's going to be negotiation, then we should do the best job of negotiation we can, and that means sucking it up and acting like a major power, not some tinpot labor leader trying to rally the faithful with rock-em-sock-em rhetoric about never compromising with the evil corporate bosses. Bush knew very well how North Korea was likely to react to his ridiculous "Axis of Evil" childishness, but he went ahead and did it anyway because it made him feel good. He's made his bed, and now he has to lie in it.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:34 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

YOU CELEBRATE YOUR WAY, WE'LL CELEBRATE OURS.... How did you spend New Year's Day? If you're a human, you spent it recovering from a hangover, watching football, eating leftovers, or engaging in some other activity requiring higher intellectual skills.

If you're one of my cats, you spent it proving that nature really is red in tooth and claw.

Note the relative difference in "Cat Q" displayed by my feline companions. Jasmine, on the left, is actively trying to hunt down her lunch. Inkblot, the larger and, um, less agile one on the right, is just watching. If it moves faster than a can of cat food, it's not worth the trouble.

Unsurprisingly, Inkblot is my favorite.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:24 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 01, 2003

2002 BOOK REVIEW....Recommended books from my 2002 reading:

  • A Beautiful Mind, by Sylvia Nasar. I read the book after I saw the movie and was genuinely shocked that the movie was essentially completely fabricated: aside from the fact that it's about a mathematician who goes crazy and then eventually wins a Nobel Prize, there's barely a single thing in the movie that's actually taken from John Nash's life. The movie was good, but it was fiction; the book is also good, but it's fact. And the final chapter, which is a capsule history of the Nobel Prize in Economics, is genuinely entertaining.

  • To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. I like Connie Willis' fiction and I went on a Connie Willis binge around the middle of the year. Of the three or four books I read, this one was the best, a witty time travel story about Victorian England.

  • Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis. This is a gem, a short but incisive book about the six most important shapers of America during the 18th century: Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. Terrific stuff.

  • Nickel And Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich. A middle class writer works at three minimum wage jobs for a month each just to see what it's like. As with 1998's The Corner, with its ground level look at the inner city drug culture, this book is invaluable as a portrait of what life really feels like for the working poor. It may not change your mind on matters of policy, but you should read it anyway just so you have a feel for the reality of the subject, not just the statistics and the talking points.

  • Venus Envy, by Jon Wertheim. An inside look at the dysfunctional women's tennis tour. Even if you don't like tennis, you might still like Wertheim's book purely as an anthropological exercise.

  • The Threatening Storm, by Kenneth Pollack. The most important book to read about the situation in Iraq, whether or not you're in favor of ousting Saddam Hussein. My detailed review is here.

Honorable mention: The Honors Class, by Benjamin Yandell, a comprehensive review of Hilbert's 23 problems. If you don't know who Hilbert is, don't bother with this, but if you do and you enjoy math, it's a surprisingly readable summary of a very complex tale.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:26 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

THE FREEDOM TO BREATHE....Ah, the eternal struggle between principle and self-interest. Looks like self-interest might be getting the upper hand this time.

And by coincidence, the source of Megan's inner conflict was the subject my first ever blog post! My advice: just relax and wallow in a bit of pure unprincipled selfishness. Hell, everyone else does....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 10:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

STRATEGY VS. EXECUTION....IT'S EXECUTION BY A LANDSLIDE!....Charles Murtaugh, in his year-end wrap-up, recommends this article from the New Yorker titled "The Talent Myth."

It's a good piece and makes a point that too few people pay attention to these days: it's important to hire smart people, but it's more important to have a good organization and good processes. The problem these days is that most people recoil instinctively from the idea of "process," mentally conflating it with "bureaucracy" and banishing it to the same final resting place as other hopelessly unfashionable ideas like, for example, not wearing pajamas to work or employing managers who actually tell people what to do.

It's true that when you put processes in place you have to avoid the temptation to let them get out of control. Never be afraid to suggest that some particular bad behavior is not egregious enough to be worth creating a new policy about.

But: good execution is more important than good ideas, and while your company's geniuses might come up with the lion's share of the ideas, it's the other poor shlubs that have to make it work. These people (and you and I probably among them, if we're honest with ourselves) need direction, they need help, and they need guidance and support. In short, since they aren't geniuses, they need an organization with definite ideas about how to get things done.

There are lots of unsexy but important processes that are critical to making a company work: budgeting, product planning, hiring policies, sales administration, pricing discipline, and on and on. They may sometimes be boring, but you ignore them at your peril.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:46 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

TIME MAGAZINE: PAWN OF THE REPUBLICAN CENTRAL COMMITTEE?....With all due respect to my fellow liberals, can someone tell me why the lefty blogosphere has been obsessing over this Time/CNN poll showing that Bush's approval numbers have now dropped to 55%? I mean, it did appear in Time magazine, and as much as we internet-savvy bloggers hate to admit it, the dead-tree version of Time still has a circulation about a gazillion times higher than the entire blogosphere put together, so it's not like there was some kind of sinister conspiracy to hide this.

Besides, Bush's approval numbers have been on a very steady downward slide ever since they peaked after 9/11, and you barely even needed to take an actual poll to figure out that the number this month would be around 55%. This is not exactly "man bites dog" material.

Or was it just that the week after Christmas is a slow news week?

POSTSCRIPT: Conservatives are pissed off at Time too for the effrontery of failing to name Bush their Person of the Year for two straight years! Man, these guys can't please anyone, can they?

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 09:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

EDUCATION TODAY....My friend's 16-year-old daughter says her English class is studying 21st century literature.

"That sounds like sort of a thin subject," I said.

"Oh, actually that class isn't until next year."

Well, in that case, there should be plenty of material....

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:26 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

HAPPY NEW YEAR!....And for all you pessimists out there, remember that long term statistical trends predict that 2003 will be a better year than 2002.

Posted by KEVIN DRUM at 12:09 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
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