Monday, November 30, 2009

Go For It! Part Deux

Towards the end of yesterdays Cardinals-Titans game, I tweeted, "ARI up 17-13. 4th and 1 on TEN 44, 6 minutes to go, Go for it! #whatwouldbillbelichickdo". I'm pretty sure he would. After all, your opponent's 44 is almost the definition of the "Maroon Zone": too close to punt, but too far to kick a field goal. On the ensuing drive, the Titans completed a bomb that took them to Arizona's 24 yard line. The receiver fumbled, but the Cardinals couldn't make anything out of their next possession. After punting to the Titans' one yard line, Vince Young drove his team ninety nine yards for the game-winning TD.

This sequence highlights the basic premise of go-for-it boosters. To win, your opponent needs to score points. To score points, your opponent needs the ball. If you go for it on fourth down and get it, you deny your opponent the thing he needs most: the ball. Had the Cardinals decided to go for it with 6 minutes left, they could have gone into their four minute offense to burn some clock. If they could make it just another 10 yards, they'd be in field goal range, meaning the Titans would have needed overtime or a 2-point conversion to win the game. In an era of weaker offense and lower passing completion percentages, punting made more sense. In todays high-octane offense times, holding the ball becomes more important.

(photo from flickr user rexhammock )

Let There Be Data!

Several folks asked for raw data on House Freshmen Report Card. Ask and ye shall receive!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Wanker of the Day

Evan Bayh.

In general the cable news freakout related to the party-crashers exemplifies Village paranoia. I suppose Bayh thinks it's good that he's telling the Villagers what they want to hear.

Happy Birthday Nick!

Right now, it's Nick's 30th birthday on both sides of the world. Happy birthday, Nick!

The Nick:Neil ratio of this blog is going to move upward quite a bit over the next two weeks, I think, as I fly around Australia and New Zealand giving philosophy talks. But after that, things should get back to their usual state.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Black Friday Kitsch Drum FC

The rapid pace at which Black Friday has become an official holiday during which the press covers very little beyond shopping mania is, odd. Also odd: Megadeth. Here's the only known FC (zero misses) of Good Mourning/Black Friday:

Leave nominations for future kitsch covers in the comments.

My Trip Down Under

In three days I fly off to Australia. I'll be giving a bunch of talks on my research there and in New Zealand. I return to Singapore in early January. If you're curious about where I'll be or want to meet up or something, my info is on my philosophy blog. Blogging here may be a little bit sparse in the next two weeks or so, because of how I'll be living it up with philosophers in the Southern Hemisphere.

You're especially encouraged to drop me a line if you want to hang out Down Under sometime around New Year's Day, when I'm just going to be wandering aimlessly around Eastern Australia and New Zealand.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Gobble Gobble Gobble

Jane Pepperdene taught my senior year English class. She's one of those teachers that the school system needs more of. Jane died last Friday in her home of Decatur. She is survived by the hundreds of students whose lives she touched.

I'm thankful for having Jane in my life, and for the fact that the Internet has preserved at least something she said.

That is all.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Lots of people are writing about Sarah Palin. And lots of people are writing about people writing about Sarah Palin, often saying "gahhh people are paying way too much attention to Sarah Palin!" I'm basically on everybody's side here.

There are a bunch of strange phenomena surrounding Sarah Palin that say something important about our politics and generate lots of fodder for analysis. So people spend lots of time chewing that fodder. This is as it should be. Lots of people (I'm thinking of Ezra here) have better things to do, so they will go away from the Palin conversations and do better things. That is also as it should be. Palin also is kind of a Big Shiny Object that attracts attention, so people who like to chatter about Big Shiny Objects will chatter about her. And that's okay too.

So, carry on, everybody.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Is The Filibuster Good for Individual Senators?

Yglesias: "[the 60-vote Senate requirement] allows each individual senator to drive a harder bargain in the horse-trading and log-rolling sweepstakes in a manner that rarely serves the public interest". Does it? Clearly it allows Olympia Snowe and Evan Bayh and Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson to drive a harder bargain. But what about the rest of the Democratic caucus? Would anyone find it credible if Jack Reed said he would join Republicans in filibustering the HCR bill? Would he really end up wringing concessions for quahog harvesters? I find myself doubful of his prospects. It seems to me that the filibuster is only individually good for those Senators who for ideological or political reasons are already likely to oppose progressive legislation. That's a good reason for those Senators to oppose an end to the filibuster, but it's not a good reason for your run-of-the-mill member of the body. This goes for Republicans to; the filibuster is mainly a tool for preserving the status quo, meaning that Jim Demint's free-market utopia would stand a better chance (but still not a good one) of enactment if it needed only fifty votes.

The Senate is basically debating a bill written by Max Baucus and edited by Harry Reid, and to some extent by other members of the Finance Committee. That leaves 46 Senate Democrats who've close to zero input on the current bill. If I were one of those 46 I'm not sure I'd feel great about that arrangement.

The Filibuster And The Future

Ezra has the small-d democratic case against the filibuster. But I'd like to make the small-p progressive case against the filibuster as well.

Western societies have been changing over the last couple centuries in a few fairly steady ways. For one thing, technology keeps getting better. For another thing, old prejudices like racism, sexism, and homophobia are slowly declining. So if you make it easy to change the laws, you make it easy for a society to have the laws that people want in a high-tech, unprejudiced society. But if you make it hard to change the laws, you stick us to laws from the past. The filibuster is basically a way of making it very hard to change big laws, so it keeps us a couple decades behind the present.

It's pretty clear that progressives have anti-prejudice reasons to oppose the filibuster -- we don't want another scenario where Dixiecrats are using it to keep Southern blacks from having rights. But I think progressivism is also the view more suited to a high-tech world. As technology gets better, you become able to make more and more cool stuff. Not just in the sense that now there are iPhones, but also in the sense that antibiotics are inexpensive and available. If you're stuck to laws from a time when there was less stuff, your social welfare programs are going to reflect that condition by being more stingy. Maybe you're only going to feed the hungry, because that's all they could do in the old days, when you've got enough resources to heal the sick as well.

There's a technocratic case that goes along with this. Having the economy of the future is great in a lot of ways, but weird new problems come up that you didn't expect. You put enough carbon into the atmosphere to mess up the climate. Financial institutions become capable of doing complicated things that crash the economy. Your employer-based health care system starts swallowing up 16% of GDP. At a very general level of description, these aren't problems specifically for people who have progressive views. They're things that, say, Edmund Burke would've recognized as genuine ills, and it's only the weird interest-group structure within the Republican Party that makes them seem like partisan concerns.

Now, you don't solve these problems by smashing everything up and living in a cave. You do it by devising regulatory or social-welfare solutions to them. And if those solutions need 60-vote supermajorities, it's a lot harder to put them into practice.

The Best Reasonable Idea Ever

I'm really happy to see the growing number of Congressional Democrats, many of them quite powerful, who want the Afghan War to be paid for in the budget. The big focus of this is, of course, Afghanistan. But it's good in lots of other ways.

One thing I love about the whole effort is how it presses the fact that the health care legislation in Congress actually reduces the deficit. This is the sort of thing that the CBO has affirmed and wonks are going to know and newspapers will have in utterly forgettable ways and ordinary people are not going to realize. But when it comes up in the surprising way that it does here -- "We had to make sure health care reform wouldn't increase the deficit, so the Afghan War shouldn't either" -- it's a neat new way to get the message across.

I have no idea how this will all turn out, because it's pretty novel, but if David Obey's bill somehow succeeds and we end up generating the norm that wars must be paid for, that's going to be a truly world-historical development. A future in which War or Car doesn't really work as a blog idea because we don't blow enough money to coat NH and VT in gold leaf without seriously weighing the tradeoffs is a future I want to live in.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bill White And Everybody Else For Governor

Chris Cilizza covers the excitement surrounding the possibility that Houston mayor Bill White will enter the race for Governor of Texas. This weakens our position in the Senate race, as that's what White was running for before. On the Republican side, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson is leaving the Senate seat to challenge Gov. Rick Perry in the primary. I don't know why all the top-tier people are trying to become governor -- among the 50 states, the Texas Governor is one of the weaker state executives.

The office does, however, come with the power to appoint creationists to the State Board of Education. Since Texas is the largest unified textbook market in the country, Republican Texas governors are a menace to children across the land.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Favre And The Iraqis

If any of the football-interested readers who came for Nick's Belichick 4th down post are still around, they might be interested in seeing that unhappy Iraqi detainees are taunting Wisconsin National Guardsmen about Brett Favre.

Forget all those guys out in caves who don't know what the Lambeau Leap is. Iraqi militants who understand the ins and outs of NFL rivalries will be dangerously effective in infiltrating our culture.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Today's Senate HCR Debate

I stomached a few hours of the House debate I don't think I can bring myself to watch the second round of carnage, even if the opposition in the Senate from most members is more reasoned in tone. The only thing I have to say is that I really, really hope that Robert Byrd has been taking his vitamins.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Donkeylicious Asks, Democrats Provide

Via Eric Martin, it looks like Obey, Larson, and Murtha are requesting that we raise revenue to pay for the war in Afghanistan! Just like we asked.

Also via Obsidian Wings, Lindsay Beyerstein has her first article in Newsweek about how the Stupak stuff isn't going into the Senate bill, making it very likely that it'll die in conference committee. (Congratulations, Lindsay!)

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

President Barack Obama opens the door of the Oval Office to welcome Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Oct. 29, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Today's Kitsch Cover is Jimmy Eat World covering The Prodigy's "Firestarter"

Firestarter - Jimmy Eat World

Leave your captions and nominations for future kitsch covers in the comments.

GOP : ACORN :: Democrats :

Diebold? That seems roughly correct. Diebold may have been engaged in some nefarious (or, more likely, negligent) activity, but they weren't really anywhere close to the center of the Republican universe.

The difference, of course, is that while progressives have to deal with the black box voting people at conferences and rallies and such (and they have a point! It's just not my #1 issue!), they tended to be shunted to the side. And while I think lefties tend to exaggerate the importance of Glenn Beck, Michelle Bachman, Louie Gohmert, and the like, the GOP has still mainlined the crazy a bit more than Democrats did during their out years.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The 'Bronze' Tier is Dead! Long Live the 'Lead' Tier

It occurs to me that one simple way to get consumers to avoid the crappy Bronze plans would be to rename them. Right now, based on the quality of insurance, plans are either 'Bronze', 'Silver', 'Gold', or 'Platinum'. But "Bronze" means third place, and is most often heard in the context of the Olympics. Third place in the Olympics sounds pretty good! We would be better off naming the top tier Gold, the second tier Silver, and the third tier Bronze.

After that, Congress should rename the the lowest tier of coverage so that it sounds like crappy insurance in addition to being crappy insurance. You could name it the 'Lead' tier, since lead is both a cheap metal and something that's actually bad for your health.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Forcing People to Buy Crappy Insurance

On page 112, we get to some serious bad news. My big fear was that Harry Reid would stay below the $900 billion by watering down the minimum benefits package. This would let the CBO continue to say that however many people are "insured" but not really get into the details of the quality of their coverage. I think I was right:

13 (A) BRONZE LEVEL.—A plan in the bronze
14 level shall provide a level of coverage that is de
15 signed to provide benefits that are actuarially
16 equivalent to 60 percent of the full actuarial
17 value of the benefits
provided under the plan.

This is the point where I snarkily suggest that pro-reform conservatives, who seem to be coalescing around "universal catastrophic insurance" as the latest phantom alternative health reform, should start supporting the current bill. As written, the Bronze plans will be, if not universal, certainly a popular form of individual catastrophic insurance with some first-dollar coverage for certain pre-existing conditions preventative care tacked on. Insurance with a 60% actuarial value is worse than the insurance offered by over 99% of employer-based plans (search for "exhibit 2"). And, of course, people are notoriously optimistic when it comes to assessing their own risk exposure; lots of folks will opt for these crummy bronze plans, not set aside much savings, and hope they don't get sick.

In Massachusetts, 42% of the total population in the Connector, and 58% who don't choose the Young Invincible plans, end up purchasing Bronze insurance. That's a lot of folks who will end up with very high deductibles and co-payments. In theory this is supposed to give people incentive to choose low-cost treatment options. But of course we're not all MDs who are well equipped to determine the optimal course of treatment in many cases, so we just end up cutting back on health care across the board, rather than keeping the "good" health care and throwing out the "bad" health care.

This is, in my view, a suboptimal solution. Subsidies are supposed to help with this, but that just feels backwards to me. Why make people buy weak insurance, then subsidize their deductible, rather than just subsidize the purchase of better insurance? I think they really ought to either make bronze plans really unattractive to all but the cheapest of the cheap, or otherwise set the minimum level of coverage closer at 70% or even higher (I think Rockefeller wanted it at 73%, which sounds good to me).

Good News

I'm up to page 80 (out of 2074) of the health care bill, and this is by far the best bit of news I've gotten to:
13 ‘‘(A) such rate shall vary with respect to
14 the particular plan or coverage involved only
15 by—
20 ‘‘(iii) age, except that such rate shall
21 not vary by more than 3 to 1 for adults

22 (consistent with section 2707(c)); and

The Senate Finance version of the bill that left Committee limited the age variation to 4:1, which would let insurance companies price anyone over 50 out of the market. The House version limits it to 2:1. The fact that the Senate has already shifted to 3:1 means that things are moving in the right direction.

On to page 81 ...

Republicans In Favor of Higher Insurance Premiums, Unnecessary Patient Stress

Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) has decided that an independent advisory panel's suggestion to scale back mammogram recommendations is the front lines of government-controlled health care. This is roughly 100% poppycock. First off, said advisory panel has no authority to change anything. Second, there's a decent amount of evidence that the panel's right anyway. The US of A has high cancer survival rates. But we also diagnose more cancers. If you look at the death rate due to breast cancer (as opposed to the survival rate among diagnosed patients), the US isn't really a world leader. In the United Kingdom, regular mammograms start at age 50 and continue once every three years. The new recommendations suggest starting at age 50 with screenings every 2 years. Mammograms have a notoriously high false positive rate, especially in the United States, where one in seven patients returns for further testing, as opposed to less than one in ten in the UK. That's a lot of women who have to sit through several weeks thinking they might have breast cancer, and a lot of money spent on testing.

Thankfully, Ms Blackburn is not a Senator, so she can't force the executive branch to bend to her wishes by placing a hold random nominations.

Also, in the interest of gender equality let me add that the same thing goes for prostate cancer. As with breast cancer, the survival rate among diagnosed patients is very high, but the survival rate among the overall population is average. One read is that Americans are more cancerous and better treated. Another read is that Americans are overdiagnosed, with a number of patients receive treatment for "marginal" cancer that isn't life threatening.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

House Freshmen Report Card

Of the 50 or so new Democratic seats in the House, which members are voting more liberally than their district might suggest? And which are unnecessarily conservative? We can use the Cook Partisan Voting index to estimate the shape of each district's electorate, and then measure members' performance using DW-NOMINATE ratings. This isn't imperfect, but likely accurate to a first approximation. The chart below the distance between each members rank in the DW-NOMINATE score and subtracts their district's rank in the PVI score. A positive score (DW-NOMINATE > PVI) means the member is to the right of their district. A negative score means they're to the left. Then I counted the number of Dems who are at more than 175 slots more liberal than their district; those 151 to 175 slots more liberal; 126 to 150 slots more liberal; and so on. The result looks something like this:

As you can see, most Democrats who took over GOP-held seats in the past two elections are pulling their district to the left. That's because most seats are swing seats being replaced by not-super-conservative Democrats, or lean-Republican seats where any Democrat is more liberal than the district. Among '06 freshmen, the two best Democrats are John Hall in suburban NYC, and Bruce Braley in Eastern Iowa. The worst are Joe Courtney in Connecticut, who's become something of a China hawk; Ron Klein, whose deal I don't know; and Joe Donnelly, who's 100% anti-choice. These numbers are somewhat different if you use the 110th Congress and the PVI based on the 2004 and 2000 elections; for example between 2006 and 2008, Carol Shea-Porter shifted to the right as the result of a tough reelection fight, while her district went way to the left with Obama on the ticket.

Among '08 freshmen, the Democrat who is furthest to the left of his district is ... wait for it ... Bobby Bright. That's right, the second most conservative Democrat (behind Walt Minnick, who's basically useless) is also the freshman who is farthest to the left of his district, simply because his district is so conservative. Now, Chet Edwards manages to hold a more conservative district with a significantly less conservative voting record, but he's an entrenched incumbent. After Bright comes Frank Kratovil, who's more or less in the same boat; then Eric Massa, Betsy Markey, Alan Grayson (shocker!), and Harry Teague. The worst of the bunch are Jim Himes, Dan Dreihaus, Dina Titus, Dan Maffei, and Gary Peters.

What about incumbents--who are the crappiest Democrats? It's a bit harder to see any patterns. Here are the 13 Democrats at least 75 slots more conservative than their districts:


Kendrick Meek and Artur Davis are running for the Senate as black men in the South while holding safe seats. They don't really count; if we were to use their score from the 110th Congress, they would show up as more conservative than their district, but not this conservative. Pelosi is in the leadership so that doesn't really count either since she rarely votes. Of the remaining ten members, I count four members of the Congressional Black Caucus—Gregory Meeks, Laura Richardson, Charlie Rangel, and Edolphus Towns. Rangel is in the leadership, and both he and Edolphus Towns are at least fairly liberal. That leaves Meeks and Richardson as the real standouts from the CBC. Some of the other members on this list have been the targets of primaries before—Dan Lipinski, Jane Harman—so the others on this list may attract challengers in the future.

One last chart, this is a chart of white Southern Democrats. We're going to use the CQ South, defined as the old Confederacy plus Kentucky and Oklahoma:


Simply by virtue of holding more conservative districts, most white Southern Democrats are pulling their district to the left. It's not immediately clear what we should expect from these members. They're not all going to be Chet Edwards, an entrenched incumbent who represents deep-Red territory, yet seems to be more liberal that one quarter of the caucus.

Only seven of these 41 members are to their district's right (17%), better than to 17 out of 51 members of the '06 and '08 classes (33%). Six of those seven represent safe seats. These are reps who are dealmakers like Jim Cooper, (who's slightly to the right of his Nashville-based district), or have such liberal districts it's simply hard to get to their left (Lloyd Doggett in Austin). The exception is John Barrow (D-GA12; photo from Wik). Barrow represents a seat that was redrawn by state Republicans in 2005. He won his 2006 reelection in a nail-biter, but cruised to victory in 2008, winning 66-34. His district appears to have shifted to the left, though his large margin may in part be due to Obama's presence on the ticket and his district's large African-American population. He must think that the 2010 electorate will look like the 2006 electorate, because despite the fact his seat appears fairly safe, he's still behaving like an extremely conservative Democrat.

If people are casting about for members who deserve a primary challenge, Dan Lipinski is an obvious target, as is Jane Harman. Donna Edwards may provide a template for running challenges to entrenched CBC incumbents. And while it's tempting to go after members who have tried to stymie health care in a high-profile way coughMikeRosscough, don't forget about members who are doing their district a disservice. John Barrow is a "more Democrat" when his district deserves a "better Democrat". That may not be in the cards in 2010, but with Obama on the ticket in 2012 it's definitely something worth considering.

If people find this stuff useful, I may post more charts. What do you want to see? Blue Dogs? Stupak Dems?

I'll upload the spreadsheet soon, but at the moment Google Docs is misbehaving.

Should I Buy These Carbon Offsets?

I'm going to be flying around Australia and New Zealand this December and January to give a bunch of philosophy talks. A bunch of the airlines down there offer carbon offsets. It sounds good and I've been buying them. Is this the thing to do, or is there some weird counterintuitive reason that it's a bad idea? And of course I'd like cap and trade / a carbon tax / any politically feasible way of averting the planetary disaster where traditional crops fail in poor countries so lots of people die and the refugees flee to our Atlantises.

In Waxman Vs. Stupak, Bet On Waxman

In a story that brings one of our most loved heroes together with one of our most hated villains, here's what happened when the House Energy and Commerce Committee was working on the health care bill. Brian Beutler reports that the legislation had a provision where none of the federal funds being authorized could be used to pay for abortions, except in the case of incest, rape, or to protect the mother's life. (I assume that this got edited out later when they merged the bill with the bills from Miller and Rangel's committees.) And then:

A day before the bill passed out of committee, Stupak co-sponsored, and voted for an amendment written by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA)--distinct from the now notorious "Stupak amendment"--that would have limited the government's ability to include abortions in benefits plans to cases of incest, life of the mother, and forcible rape.

The Pitts amendment actually passed, 31-27, with the support of several Democrats and all Republicans. But the "forcible" language--legally significant--was a bridge too far.

In a parliamentary maneuver, chairman Henry Waxman actually voted "aye", according to a House aide, in order to retain the prerogative of bringing it up for a second, unsuccessful vote. Between votes, Waxman conferred with some of the bill's Democratic supporters to convince them to help shoot it down.

One of them, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), agreed to flip his vote. Another--Rep. Zack Space (D-IN)--didn't vote at all the first time around, but voted against it on its second pass. And that was enough to kill it.

If I get this right, Waxman and Gordon flipping their votes takes it to 29-29, and Space's vote puts Team Human Decency over the top.

I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy, so this story makes me feel optimistic about the future. There may be very bad people in the House Democratic Caucus. But Henry Waxman is on our side, and if there's any way for the good guys to win, he's going to find it. People wondering how the Stupak amendment will fare in conference committee should take note.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Final Word

Nate Silver thinks Belichick made the right call.

To remind everyone, Silver got his start in sports, not politics. He's well within his comfort zone.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Don't Lose Your Edge, Bill!

Predictably, the talking heads have already begun raking Bill Belichick over the coals for his decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 from their own 28 yard line with 2:08 on the clock. However, if you look at the math, the Pats' head coach appears to have made the correct decision.

The following paragraph has been edited for clarity, in addition to flipping the sign in the equations written to reflect what I actually wroete

On 4th down, with 2 yards or fewer to go, New England has gained a first down on approximately 66% of its attempts with Tom Brady as quarterback. The Colts had no timeouts one timeout. If the Patriots gain a first down, the game ends; they can simply kneel on the ball three times slowly walk to burn a few seconds, then take a knee on each down to end the game. If they don't gain a first down, the Colts would still need to score a touchdown to win the game. Let's give the Colts a probability P of getting the six if the ball starts at the 28 yard line. So if the Patriots try for the first, their chance of losing is
(Probability of 4th down failure) x
(Probability of Colts scoring a TD from the 28 Yard line) = 0.33P
The average New England punt nets about 40 yards. Let's give the Colts a probability Q of scoring a TD on a driving starting at the Indianapolis 32. Then, the chance of the Patriots losing is simply Q. For Belichick's decision to make sense, we just have to believe that he gave his team a higher chance of winning lower chance of losing. In math terms, that would mean 0.33P > Q 0.33P < Q. Doing some algebra leaves you with P > 3Q P < 3Q. In other words, for the Patriots to have made the right decision, we only have to believe the Colts odds of scoring a TD on a drive starting 28 yards from the end zone are less than three times the odds of the same outcome starting from 68 yards out. The win probability graph for the game suggests that, given 1st-and-10 from New England's 29, the Colts had roughly a 51% chance of winning in the actual situation. We have to believe that their chances under the punt scenario were below 17% above 17% for Belichick to have made a bad good decision. Considering the Colts' have scored touchdowns on 30% of their offensive possessions, my guess is that this was a good one.

Tom Brady is sitting in the postgame press conference doing yeoman's work trying to explain this to a roomful of stunned sports reporters in a language that they can understand. I don't envy him in this moment.

Update: Okay, the Patriots made one error
3rd and 2 at NE 28
(Shotgun) T.Brady pass incomplete short right to W.Welker (J.Powers).

Timeout #3 by NE at 02:08.

4th and 2 at NE 28
(Shotgun) T.Brady pass short right to K.Faulk to NE 29 for 1 yard (M.Bullitt).

The punt team should not have come on the field, forcing the Patriots to call a timeout. With the time out in hand, New England could have challenged the spot on the 4th down play, or allowed the Colts to score quickly so they could try for a comeback field goal (speaking of which, why didn't they let the Colts score a TD on the first play from scrimmage so they could try for a comeback field goal).

Military Spending

I like this line about how the Afghan War would stop pretty quickly if you demanded that it be deficit-neutral over a 10-year timeframe. Can we get some Democratic Senator to come out and say this? I understand that military contractors are powerful in lots of people's states, but surely there's somebody out there who can say smart and provocative things about how we need to reduce military spending without bad consequences.

It's generally a bad thing when interest groups capture the political process and get lots of public funds for their thing by buying votes. But I don't think it gets any worse than the case of military spending, where the bad arguments used as justifications for the spending present foreign threats as more dangerous and conflict as more justified. If somebody makes a bad public policy argument for a bridge or a post office, the worst that happens is that we waste money on a useless bridge or a post office. The worst-case scenario with arguments for military spending is far worse than that. To justify buying unnecessary military hardware, you have to magnify the need to use it, and drive the nation towards war.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover


First Lady Michelle Obama hands out treats during a Halloween reception for military families and children of White House staff in the East Room of the White House, Oct. 31, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Today's kitsch cover is five Harmonix's employees singing Paramore's "That's What You Get". Barber shop style:

I have Kitsch covers lined up for the next two weeks, but, keep 'em coming.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

American Chemistry Council: Chemical Manufacturers, Not Scientists

Nicholas Kristof's column mentions pro-Bisphenol A comments from the American Chemistry Council. The name made me a little curious, as my father (who has a Ph.D in chemistry) is a member of the American Chemical Society. We would occasionally have American Chemical Society junk, like magazines and such, lying around the house. The ACS is the chemists' trade association, and if they said that Bisphenol A was okay, I'd be inclined to trust them.

The American Chemistry Council, of course, is a totally different group, formerly called the Chemical Manufacturers' Association. According to Wikipedia, it's "in charge of improving the public image of the chemical industry." I guess they realized that their former name was worse for getting people to quiet down and enjoy their Bisphenol A.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Retroactive abortion riders

Um ...

How would that worklogistically? Would insurance companies track your visit history(assuming this doesn't violate HIPPA HIPAA) and send you mail when you go to an ob-gyn and turn out to be pregnant, offering you a low-priced abortion supplemental? Would they instruct ob-gyns to hand out information on supplementals to anyone who comes in for a pregnancy test? How long would the people who voted for Stupak allow this to happen? Thirty seconds?

Deep Thought

The attention paid to Sarah Palin pales in comparison to the Villagers' tremendous interest in John Edwards's post-2004 book tours.

He Won It With His Bat

This is a crime against sabrmetrics. Or a cruel joke played on me, Joe Sheehan, and the authors of Lawyers, Guns, & Money. Or both.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More Bernie Sanders Please

Here's Bernie Sanders encouraging Democrats to use budget reconciliation to pass health care reform if Lieberman filibusters. And here he is pushing for the government to break up financial institutions that are too big to fail.

I'm sure why I don't hear more about this guy. Is he not being vocal enough? Is it that he's not a swing vote on any legislation so the media doesn't follow him closely? Is he too junior to make much noise? Whatever the case may be, I'd like to hear about him more often.

Sanders is a nifty asset as far as Overton Window issues are concerned. He's formally not a Democrat, and this gives him the opportunity to push good ideas that the party as a whole doesn't really want to be associated with, but which towards which they're happy to promote half-measures. Then he can get all grumpy about how Democrats aren't socialists like they should be, but vote along with them.

I understand how centrist positioning can be an electoral asset, so in some cases it's reasonable to pursue it. But of you want to be seen as a Democratic centrist, you need prominent and respectable people on your left, or nobody will see you as being in the center of anything. These people can introduce ideas that keep your votes from looking radical, and sometimes angrily call you a moderate and a non-socialist, which is what you want to be called. The Ben Nelsons of the world should understand that they need Bernie Sanders to do his thing.

Under the Radar

Chain letters full of various hoaxes relating to President Obama continue to circulate. This business about Barack Obama moving the location of "In God We Trust" (something which was voted on by a Republican Congress and approved by President Bush) managed to grab the attention of Sarah Palin. Elsewher, and completely unbeknownst to me until yesterday, chain letters falsely claim that the White House Christmas Tree has been renamed the "Holiday Tree".

If I had a degree in philosophy perhaps I could put together a story about mythos versus logos, but as it is I just see these email stories and think of the random white folks they show in By The People and their skepticism about Obama.

The Sound of Inevitability

Chris Bowers is almost entirely correct here; Olympia Snowe isn't going to be a Republican by the time of the 2012 Senate primary. Provided the teabaggers recruit a challenger that motivates the base that challenger will receive the endorsement of every credible 2012 Presidential candidate prior to the primary. They'll have plenty of resources to run a campaign with a Republican-only electorate, which already appears to favor the challenger by substantial margins.

Democrats should seriously consider convincing Snowe (and Susan Collins, while we're at it) to at least become join Joe Lieberman as an independent who caucuses with Democrats. In fact, it might even be useful form a "Mugwump Party" consisting of socially liberal, economically moderate non-Southern Republicans and Democrats: Carper, Specter, Snowe, Collins, Lieberman, Herb Kohl, Jeanne Shaheen, and Dianne Feinstein could all form a little club and get jackets made.

Shorter Seattle Times

The people have spoken ... the bastards.

Needless to say I find the Times' analysis an exercise in the pundit's fallacy. The most likely explanation for why Mike McGinn won a low turnout election is ... the McGinn campaign worked harder. Joe Mallahan tried to buy the election via establishment endorsements and high-priced advertising. He was outdone by a tremendous volunteer effort. Should we really be surprised that this happened in a low-turnout election, given what Carol Shea-Porter was able to do in New Hampshire, and what Barack Obama did in caucus states and small states?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Thanks, Harald Jäger

I hadn't heard the story Dana tells about the day the Berlin Wall came down, but it's kind of fascinating in how ordinary and human it is. After being handed a badly written note at a minor press conference, a confused Politburo spokesman mistakenly claimed that East Germans would be allowed to cross the border. And then:

During the evening news broadcast in West Germany, the anchor Hanns Friedrichs joyfully proclaimed that the ninth of November was a historic day, for the East German government had announced that its borders were open. East Germans who listened surreptitiously to the Western broadcast immediately gathered at the gate. Within an hour, thousands had gathered at the Wall.

In a nearby possible world, this story ends with a bloody riot. Armed guards shoot the boldest of the misinformed citizens; the uninjured retaliate. Guards are killed, the police put down the riot, and the Wall stands, not forever, but for a little white longer as the Soviets eased into openness.

In this world, Harald Jäger, in command at the Bornholmer Gate, decided not to shoot. He called his superiors, who of course had heard of no such policy change, and faced with the gathering, chanting crowds, decided to let a few cross the border; by midnight, he simply opened the gate to all, not taking names or checking identification.

During the protests in Iran, I was hearing from lots of smart people that what usually decides the fate of nonviolent protests against authoritarian governments is the behavior of the security forces. If they refuse to beat or shoot the protestors, the regime loses its control over the people and collapses. But if they carry out their brutal orders, everything ends in tragedy. That's the choice that faced Harald Jäger twenty years ago, and he made the right one.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

94 Million Gallons Of It

This is just to say that if you live near Rosendale, WI, you should write to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources before December 3 or some serious bullshit will go down.

The List Within The List

I'm going to produce a subset of the Democrats voting for Bart Stupak's nonsense that I think has some relevance. These are Representatives who
What is the significance of this list? You might think that only the first two questions would give you a list of Representatives who were given everything they wanted on choice, yet still didn't view this as a "trade" that would lead them to support the final bill. But there are about a dozen Democrats from especially conservative districts that tend to vote against Democratic leadership even on some straightforward procedural votes. I'm not sure what they're there for, maybe votes to raise the minimum wage. Anyway, here's the list of truly inexcusables. I've ordered these thirteen members based on the PVI of the members' districts. Representatives in italics held a NARAL or Planned Parenthood rating other than zero; they're at least "sort of" pro-choice. Note that John Boccieri and Harry Teague don't have any interest group record in project vote smart.
  • Barrow, GA-12, D+1
  • Boccieri, OH-16 R+4
  • McIntyre, NC-07, R+5
  • Altmire, PA-04 R+6
  • Holden, PA-17 R+6
  • Shuler, NC-11 R+6
  • Tanner, TN-08 R+6
  • Teague, NM-02 R+6
  • Peterson, MN-05 R+7
  • Ross, AR-04 R+7
  • Chandler, KY-06, R+9
  • Gordon, TN-06, R+13
  • Skelton, MO-4 R+14
  • Matheson, UT-02 R+15
All of these men—and I emphasize that because of their decision to throw women's health under the bus without giving up anything in return—represent districts with at least a slight GOP lean. Barack Obama probably won less than half of these districts; in a 50-50 election, they would have to run 5-10 points ahead of the President.

But that's okay. A quality Democratic challenger with strong local connections runs on average about 5 points ahead of a Presidential candidate. John Boccieri should be winning his R+4 district in most years. Let's re-sort the list based on each member's share of the vote in 2008.
  • Tanner, TN-08 unopposed
  • Ross, AR-04 86.2%
  • Peterson, MN-05 72.3%
  • McIntyre, NC-07, 68.8%
  • Barrow, GA-12, 66.0%
  • Skelton, MO-4 65.9%
  • Chandler, KY-06 64.7%
  • Holden, PA-17 63.8%
  • Matheson, UT-02 63.3%
  • Shuler, NC-11 62.0%
  • Altmire, PA-04 55.9%
  • Teague, NM-02 55.8%
  • Boccieri, OH-16, 54.0%
For the most part, these guys look pretty safe. Nine of the thirteen, and eight of the semi-pro-choicers would have won a 50-50 election by more than ten points. Still, even if those eight had voted against the Stupak along with the remaining pro-choice Republicans—Biggert, Castle, Frelinghuysen, Kirk, and Dent—the Stupak amendment would have 207 "No" votes, which is still not enough.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Deep Thought

The man who write the Hyde Amendment has retired. So should the Hyde Amendment.

Stupak Answers To Stupak Questions

This is probably a time when people are wondering what we can do about Bart Stupak, whose anti-abortion amendment is going to be debated on the House floor. One thing: call your Congresscritter and tell them to vote no! Beyond that, there's the hope that this dies in conference, as Nick mentions in the last post. I don't think it'll make it into the final legislation. Maybe we can entice Snowe to vote for the conference report by killing Stupak's amendment and ceremonially offering her its first page on a platter.

But maybe you want to hear about primary challenges! Well, here's Bart Stupak's district, MI-1, consisting mostly of Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. It's a fairly conservative district with a PVI of R+3. Last general election, he won 65-33. Time before that, he won 69-28. It doesn't look like the most promising territory either for a primary challenge or for any kind of Scozzafavaing.

Stupak's wikipedia page says, "Stupak is considered a possible candidate for Governor of Michigan in 2010." I don't know how serious such consideration was, but this should end today. His amendment is the kind of thing that should effectively disqualify you from winning a statewide primary. That, at least, is a consequence he can face.

Considering the events of today in general, the offensive/delightful video for Amanda Palmer's "Oasis" seems like the appropriate way to end this post. Health care reform is about to pass the House! But really bad stuff happened! But good! And, abortion!

Church and State, Then and Now

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leaders were negotiating with the Catholic bishops and their representatives on Friday.

The apparent decision to jettison abortion services in the name of political expediency is really quite a remarkable climbdown from the Clinton era, when reproductive rights were much closer to core Democratic principles. And it can't really be attributed to Republican obstruction; at the moment there are roughly five Republican Representatives with decent records on choice issues: Judy Biggert (IL-13), Mark Kirk (IL-10), Mike Castle (DE-AL), Charlie Dent (PA-15), and Rodney Frelinghuysen (NJ-11).

I really, really, hope that the endgame plan here is to kill this crap in conference. I can't see Barbara Boxer or any number of Northeastern Senators voting for this nonsense.

Update: On the plus side, this make or break time for Douthatism. We're going to end up with a bill that expands insurance coverage but reduces insurance coverage for abortions (individuals who currently buy insurance on the non-group market will have to buy it through the exchange, so some of them will not bother purchasing separate riders for abortion coverage). This is the sort of thing that Douthat and the 2007-vintage Mike Huckabee should support, right?

... Also, if there's no vote on Medicare+5% at this point, that's some grade-A bullshit. The whole point of pulling the vote on Medicare+5% was to give leadership an excuse not to allow Bart Stupak's wanker amendment to come to the floor. Since that's clearly not happening, we should get votes on both amendments.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Hug Your Postal Worker

Sigh. Yglesias:
As run by the government, the USPS loses money ...

Most Postal Service stakeholders believe that the PRA [Postal Reform Act] has been a success. The business model that the Postal Service should support itself on revenues collected from users of the mail has been validated by 38 years in which the Postal Service has broken even, sometimes had no debt, and stopped asking for an appropriation to cover the public service cost of mail service. The PRA gave the Postal Service some independence from executive control over its purse strings, and on the whole the Postal Service has used its discretion responsibly. Arguably, its financial performance is superior to that of the executive branch itself over this period.
In fact, in recent years, the Postal Service has run at a surplus, but Congress continues to demand that it prefund its pension and retiree health benefits at a level that no private sector pension fund has to meet.

I'm semi-agnostic on the question of privatizing the postal service ... I assume it's another urban-to-rural cross subsidy, and people in the far reaches of North Dakota might not have any mail service if it were privatized, but there are so few people out there that increased competition for small parcel might lead to lower costs for so many more people that it makes sense. But like the VA, the Postal Service has escaped it's 1980s failures, and we really ought to end the stereotype that it's a poorly run government service.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

CBO To GOP: Fools, This Is Not A Health Care Plan

Ezra: "CBO begins with the baseline estimate that 17 percent of legal, non-elderly residents won't have health-care insurance in 2010. In 2019, after 10 years of the Republican plan, CBO estimates that ...17 percent of legal, non-elderly residents won't have health-care insurance."

Update: For comparison, I have included pictures of other things that are roughly as effective in covering the uninsured over a 10-year timeframe.

I Misagree With Michelle Malkin

She writes of NY-23:

Better a donkey in office that acts like a donkey than a donkey in elephant’s clothing making a complete ass of the GOP.

The donkey clothing equals a vote for Speaker Pelosi, so I agree. We've got to come up with a nifty word for the kind of agreement about what would be good that is the product of a disagreement in goals times a disagreement about what would bring about those goals. Misagreement? If you've got a better one, suggest in comments.

In the short term, it's best for the Malkins of the world to grow somewhat stronger within their party, generating more intraparty conflict that creates more NY-23 situations where a fractured GOP helps Democrats win elections. Aside from occasional outliers, Republicans aren't going to provide any bipartisan support for legislation. So the party might as well be run by crazy people that freak out independents and lose elections.

I've been convinced (partly by some smart commenters) that over the long term we'd like to see a non-lunatic GOP, since at some point they're going to control everything again and we don't want insane leaders. But the question of how we get these long-term changes in the Republican Party from our current position is a complicated one. I don't know whether the quickest path goes through fiery intraparty civil war or through some kind of reconciliation. Whatever it is, it's going to be a long and winding path.

When it's clear what's good in the short-term but you have no idea what helps in the long-term, you go with your short-term good. So I'm quite happy to see Malkin say what she says, and I wish her a little more power for a little while.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Simple Answers to Simple Questions

Matt Cooper:

(Who were the pro-pot anti-gay marriage voters, I wonder?)

Straight White Men aged 35-49.

This has been another edition of Simple Answers to Simple Questions.

What It All MeansTM

I've been pondering what to say about the election results in Virginia, New Jersey, Upstate New York, Washington State, and elsewhere, and I find it more difficult to put the results into any cohesive picture. My brain's ability to comprehend an election that takes place outside of the context of Bush appears to be just awful. Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising, after five straight election dominated by Bush (even if I didn't pay attention to the first two). But it's genuinely difficult to figure out what's going on.

Part of me wants to say that there's a rise in general anti-incumbent party/anti-establishment sentiment. Corzine lost, but Artur Davis is ahead in the polls in Alabama (it'd be really nice to have some independent polling of this race). The GOP took over the Governor's mansion in Virginia, but Mike McGinn is in the lead in the Seattle mayor's race. Mike Bloomberg's attempt to bend the rules and buy himself a third term only barely worked. The next mayor of Atlanta may be white. We live in interesting times, indeed.

Part of me also wants to say that the economic fundamentals are at work here. People are going to vote against incumbents when times are tough. It would be utter folly to expect Dems not to lose hold of some offices somewhere when unemployment has gone from 6% to 10% over the past year. Exit polls also show that most voters didn't see their votes as specifically for or against Obama. This shouldn't be surprising either; swing voters tend to perceive themselves as pragmatic and non-ideological. Yet, at the same time, while voters seem to be rejecting specific elected Democrats, they don't seem to be rejecting "tax and spend"; taxpayer bill of rights measures failed in Washington state and Maine, and to pour salt on the teabaggers' wounds, a highway bond issue passed in the Pine Tree State. Also, the NY-23 results suggest that anti-Democratic sentiment isn't enough; your candidate has to not suck, and you can't have a message that's too far out of tune with the district.

There's also a question of turnout among certain core Democratic groups that I want to address in more detail, but that will have to wait until later. For now, I think it's pretty clear that it was a bad night for Dems, who should have held New Jersey given the registration advantage, but NY-23 at least produced a pleasant aftertaste for the evening.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

NY-23 Unpredictions

Nate Silver has right-winger Doug Hoffman as the favorite, but admits that it's unpredictable. I'm clueless, so you'll have to rely on Nick for any Donkeylicious crystalballery.

Neither do I have much of an idea what happens in the aftermath of this election, following either an Owens or Hoffman victory. The sheer crazy of the national GOP at this point makes it hard to figure out exactly what happens next -- at one point I think Stu Rothenberg was saying that a Hoffman win would embolden Republicans to do the self-destructive thing and run lots of third party candidates. But I think that was before Scozzafava dropped and endorsed Owens. Now they'd probably blame a defeat on Scozzafava and get even more furious at their party's moderates, which could also have exciting consequences. The party base is unmoored from mainstream news sources and attached to quirky political celebrities who have their own interests, and may push their followers into tactical absurdities.

Really I'm just hoping Owens wins. That'd counter any bad press we get if New Jersey abruptly stops working, and it's one more vote for Speaker Pelosi. I don't think we'll need it, but Nate sometimes seems worried, so I worry too.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Zero-summy Versus Yummy

Via Ezratabdumplink, I liked this from Eric Asimov:
the enemy of good beer and good wine, and good food in general, is bad beer, bad wine and, yes, bad food.

What unites this team is the striving for real wine, real beer, and real food, as opposed to cynical product. That is the problem, and I think most people realize this no matter what they say or do. Craft beer’s battle is not against wine but against decades of cynical marketing from the giant breweries, which have done everything possible to portray beer drinkers as asinine fools. The enemy of good wine is the atrocious marketing that makes wine an aspirational commodity, just another luxury good to purchase for its status value. That has to offend the reverse snob in all of us.
Aspirational commodities are positional goods. They only get their goodness by being better than other things, which then seem worse. And maybe sometimes something can be appealing as an anti-aspirational commodity (I think Asimov's characterization of beer industry marketing might fit this model), but then it gets its goodness through something else's looking bad in a different kind of way.

So adding goodness to your product through this kind of marketing ends up being a zero-sum game. It's not that aspirational marketing can't increase a consumer's satisfaction with a product, especially an unreflective consumer -- it does. It just accomplishes this by damaging the value of everything else.

But you know what doesn't work like that? Tastiness. For me, eating and drinking are a genuinely fun part of life, because there's so much good food and drink around. (Food especially, out here in Singapore at the nexus of all these different cultures that know how to use spices well.) And while there is such a thing as having high standards and appreciating better food, the overall fun-ness of eating and drinking can be raised by things being more yummy. Things getting more yummy isn't a zero sum game.