Browsing the blog archives for March, 2014.


There are Known Knowns, and Known Unknowns, and Then There’s the Stuff We Know But Ignore

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disasters, natural and unnatural

Numbers of dead and missing from last week’s massive mud slide in Oso, Washington, keep shifting around, and every news story has different numbers. As of today there are somewhere between 18 to 25 dead and another 30 to 90 or so unaccounted for.

Last week the county officials who control land use permits said there was no way to have predicted the disaster. Now we know that at least a couple of studies had warned that it was going to happen, precisely where and how it happened. The only thing they didn’t know was when. Somebody chose to ignore the warnings.

The most recent study was done in 2010. It was commissioned by the county to comply with federal law. The area that was buried was ranked as high risk for being buried.

Also, geologists surveyed the area back in 1999 and predicted the area would suffer a “catastrophic failure” in precisely the spot that failed.

It wasn’t that hard to predict, apparently, because the earth on the hillside shifted around a lot, especially after heavy rain. One of the geologists went back to look at the area after a large 2006 mudslide that didn’t hurt anybody.

“There was new construction,” he said. “The sound of hammering competed with the sound of [destabilized] trees snapping after the mudslide. I can’t believe that someone wanted to build their home there. It was a very bad idea.”

Charity Prueher, 41 and raised in Oso, said homeowners rarely mentioned the slides. When they did, the coursing mud was considered a small disruption, more of an annoyance than a major problem.

“They’re so content with the beautiful place where they live, they don’t think anything would happen,” Prueher said.

Prueher said she helped clear debris from the 2006 mudslide when she was a volunteer firefighter. The thought that another slide could come that was far worse never occurred to her.

Timothy Egan writes that the hillsides became dangerous because they were overlogged. He had visited the area 25 years ago and watched a massive mudslide then. He adds,

Yes, but who wants to listen to warnings by pesky scientists, to pay heed to predictions by environmental nags, or allow an intrusive government to limit private property rights? That’s how these issues get cast. And that’s why reports like the ones done on the Stillaguamish get shelved. The people living near Oso say nobody ever informed them of the past predictions.

Just upriver from the buried community along the Stillaguamish is Darrington, a town with a proud logging tradition. The folks who live there are self-described Tarheels, transplanted from Southern Appalachia several generations ago after their own timber mills went bust. They hold a terrific bluegrass festival every year, and they show up in force at public hearings where government and environmentalists are denounced with venom. It’s not their fault that the earth moved, certainly. But they should insist that their public officials tell them the plain truth when the science is bad news.

Most of us live somewhere where there’s a potential for natural disaster. I live close enough to Long Island Sound that flooding from a big hurricane is a real concern. But that’s not likely to be a sudden disaster. I’ve told myself that if there’s ever a prediction of a big hurricane I would pack up my essential stuff and Sadie Awful Bad Cat and go somewhere else, away from water, until it’s safe to come back. There was only minor damage in this neighborhood from Sandy, though, so it would have to be a worse hurricane than Sandy to flood the place out. I don’t think I’m being entirely crazy to live here.

Still, the human capacity to ignore what you don’t want to acknowledge never ceases to amaze.

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Stuff to Read

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Iraq War

The NY Times is publishing a four-part series called “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld” by Errol Morris that is brilliant, and I think most of you will enjoy it. Here are the links:

Part 1: Three Reporters

Part 2: The Known and the Unknown

Part 3: A Failure of Imagination

Part 4: Absence of Evidence Isn’t Evidence of Absence

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Data 1, Righties 0

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Obama Administration

Erick Son of Erick and other righties have been having a grand time making fun of Matt Yglesias and calling him stupid because they think they caught him in a mistake. Except they didn’t.

Yglesias made a video titled “How Scary Is the Public Debt?” intended to explain that the public debt is not scary. Yglesias’s figure for the public debt is lower than what the Treasury says is the national debt, because Yglesias left out debt owned by one branch of government to another branch. But this point flew right over their muddled little heads, and they’ve been hooting about Yglesias making a mistake for the past several hours in complete oblivion of what Yglesias actually was talking about. John Aziz explains this.

Other than the number discrepancy that wasn’t actually a discrepancy, the righties’ basic issue with Yglesias is that they disagreed with him and don’t like him very much, but typically, they come up short explaining why. Mostly they just insulted Yglesias.

When Erickson eventually got around to trying to rebut Yglesias (after writing 263 words in a 394 word piece), the RedState editor pulled out arguments that were brief and devoid of both context and substance. . . . after that, Erickson was right back to bashing Vox’s “left-wing propaganda.”

It’s

Of course, the real issue is that on the Right it is apostasy to say that the public debt is not scary, so what Yglesias says must be propaganda. Yeah, that’s it.

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Hobby Lobby

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Obama Administration

So SCOTUS heard arguments on the Hobby Lobby case yesterday, and all we know for sure is that three women justices means at least three of them actually understand how contraceptives work. Unfortunately, there are only three.

There is a lot of speculation today about Antonin Scalia, but no one is speculating how he will vote. Obviously, he will side with Hobby Lobby. The speculation is about how he’s going to side with Hobby Lobby while ignoring his own past opinions on other religious liberty cases.

Dahlia Lithwick thinks the contraception mandate is doomed. If it is, this may be a “win” the Right will come to regret.

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The Easiest Way to Make a Small Fortune

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Obama Administration

… is to inherit a large fortune. Old joke. However, these days it’s even easier to inherit a large fortune and make an even larger one. It’s practically idiot-proof, actually.

A new book by French economist Thomas Piketty is causing quite a stir because Piketty just plain comes out and says that the malefactors of great inherited wealth are eating the world economy. Krugman says,

Mr. Piketty, arguably the world’s leading expert on income and wealth inequality, does more than document the growing concentration of income in the hands of a small economic elite. He also makes a powerful case that we’re on the way back to “patrimonial capitalism,” in which the commanding heights of the economy are dominated not just by wealth, but also by inherited wealth, in which birth matters more than effort and talent. …

… It’s generally understood that George W. Bush did all he could to cut taxes on the very affluent, that the middle-class cuts he included were essentially political loss leaders. It’s less well understood that the biggest breaks went not to people paid high salaries but to coupon-clippers and heirs to large estates. True, the top tax bracket on earned income fell from 39.6 to 35 percent. But the top rate on dividends fell from 39.6 percent (because they were taxed as ordinary income) to 15 percent — and the estate tax was completely eliminated.

Some of these cuts were reversed under President Obama, but the point is that the great tax-cut push of the Bush years was mainly about reducing taxes on unearned income. And when Republicans retook one house of Congress, they promptly came up with a plan — Representative Paul Ryan’s “road map” — calling for the elimination of taxes on interest, dividends, capital gains and estates. Under this plan, someone living solely off inherited wealth would have owed no federal taxes at all. …

… Why is this happening? Well, bear in mind that both Koch brothers are numbered among the 10 wealthiest Americans, and so are four Walmart heirs. Great wealth buys great political influence — and not just through campaign contributions. Many conservatives live inside an intellectual bubble of think tanks and captive media that is ultimately financed by a handful of megadonors. Not surprisingly, those inside the bubble tend to assume, instinctively, that what is good for oligarchs is good for America.

Matt Bruenig writes,

A 2011 study by Edward Wolff and Maury Gittleman found that the wealthiest 1 percent of families had inherited an average of $2.7 million from their parents. This was 447 times more money than the least wealthy group of people — those with wealth less than $25K — had inherited. In between the wealthiest and least wealthy groups, inheritance levels ran in exactly the direction you would expect: the wealthier a group of people was, the more they had inherited.

As outrageously lopsided as these inheritance disparities seem, they only reflect half of the inheritance problem. The funny thing about piles of wealth is that they deliver to their owners passive, unearned streams of income variously called rents, dividends, profits, capital gains, interest and so on. Those who get big inheritances can park those inheritances in investment accounts that just get bigger and bigger without them having to lift a finger. As a result, the gaping inheritance disparity actually grows even more gaping each year after the inheritances have been received. …

…Children of the wealthy could wind up receiving increasingly larger shares of the national wealth bequeathed to them, wealth that will allow them to generate soaring incomes from capital income alone. If that happens, the meritocratic rhetoric that we use to justify America’s extraordinary levels of inequality will only become even more preposterous and delusional. Inheriting big piles of wealth and then using those piles to bring in even more unearned wealth is the exact opposite of meritocracy.

Sigh.

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Conservative Book Sales Slump; Crayons Next?

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Obama Administration

Apparently the bloom is off the rose for conservative book imprints.
McKay Coppins writes that the political conservative book genre is in even worse shape than the publishing industry as a whole. However, I’m not buying the excuse. The excuse is that by setting up exclusive imprints for conservative books, publishers have isolated those books from the mainstream marketplace of ideas. They are now a niche market, which limits their distribution and sales.

I say this always was a niche market, marketed almost exclusively through right-wing media to a niche audience, and if these books aren’t selling like they used to there has to be another reason.

McKay doesn’t say anything about the bulk sales that used to push right-wing books up the best-seller list. McKay says that the web “has decimated the subscription-based “book clubs” that launched a slew of conservative best-sellers in the ’90s and early 2000s,” but those book clubs still exist, and they were still considered a viable marketing tool as recently as 2010. Alex Pareene wrote an article in 2010 musing why George W. Bush’s post-presidency book sold more copies than Bill Clinton’s post-presidency book (really?) and the most plausible reason was …

Conservative book clubs

The sales of books by awful right-wing authors like Jonah Goldberg are boosted by an entire industry dedicated to … boosting the sales of books by awful right-wing authors. Conservative book clubs purchase tens of thousands of copies and right-wing think tanks order right-wing books in bulk. There’s probably a bit more genuine demand for George W. Bush’s wisdom than, say, Laura Ingraham’s wit, but every little bit helps. And there was no progressive equivalent of the right-wing book-buying machine to boost Clinton’s book when it was released.

Steve Benen wrote in 2010,

This is a long-running phenomenon — conservative books nearly always outsell liberal books in large part because of bulk orders. A couple of months ago, for example, Mitt Romney boosted sales of his book by requiring various schools, think tanks, and institutions to buy thousands of copies in exchange for his speeches. Various conferences and Republican outlets do this all the time.

Paul Waldman wrote recently,

As a liberal who has written a few books whose sales were, well let’s just say “modest” and leave it at that, I’ve always looked with envy at the system that helps conservatives sell lots and lots of books. The way worked was that you wrote a book, and then you got immediately plugged into a promotion machine that all but guaranteed healthy sales. You’d go on a zillion conservative talk shows, be put in heavy rotation on Fox News, get featured by conservative book clubs, and even have conservative organizations buy thousands of copies of your books in bulk. If you were really lucky, that last item would push the book onto the bestseller lists, getting you even more attention.

It worked great, for the last 15 years or so. But McKay Coppins reports that the success of conservative publishing led to its own decline. As mainstream publishers saw the money being made by conservative houses like Regnery and the occasional breakthrough of books by people like Allan Bloom and Charles Murray, they decided to get into the act with right-leaning imprints of their own. But now, “Many of the same conservatives who cheered this strategy at the start now complain that it has isolated their movement’s writers from the mainstream marketplace of ideas, wreaked havoc on the economics of the industry, and diminished the overall quality of the work.”

Um, Regnery was not, in effect, a niche imprint? Do most book buyers give a hoo-haw about the imprint?

I think it’s usually true that if you are a niche author, you may be better off going with a small publisher that specializes in marketing your sort of book to your sort of audience rather than with one of the big publishers. But conservative books were unusual among niche books in that they had the huge national media infrastructure Waldman talks about to use for promotion. And that infrastructure is still in place.

It used to be that Ann Coulter could crank out the same book every year, titled Liberals Hate God and America and Want to Eat Your Babies, and be all over television promoting it for awhile, being taken seriously by interviewers. Did people finally catch on that if you’ve read one Coulter book, you’ve read ’em all, and there’s really no point buying another one?

My guess is that the demise of suburban mall bookstores might really be a factor, but that would not have impacted book club sales. Whoever was buying copies in bulk may have stopped doing that. There may be a glut of too many books titled Liberals Hate God and America and Want to Eat Your Babies authored by various cable bobbleheads.

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Marco Rubio Said What?

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Obama Administration

Marco Rubio is very serious.

Put simply, Russia should no longer be considered a responsible partner on any major international issue. The Russian people should see that Putin’s actions will bring about a decline of Russia’s status as a global power, not a return to supposed Soviet glory.

That’s fine until we need Russia to put pressure on Iran, as I thought we did. We’re not worried about Iran any more?

To this end, Obama should urge U.S. allies to impose an arms embargo on Russia. It is unconscionable that NATO allies would send arms to Moscow even as it violates Ukrainian sovereignty.

I didn’t know Russia was dependent on NATO nations for arms. Uh, it isn’t. Russia doesn’t appear to be importing arms from anybody, although it exports quite a lot

Third, I welcome the fact that Vice President Biden is in the region this week to bring a message of reassurance to our allies and partners. I hope those assurances include a specific and clear response to requests by Georgia and Ukraine for lethal military support from the United States. It is shameful that even as Russia attempts to carve up Ukrainian territory, Ukraine’s request for weapons, intelligence sharing and other assistance has been turned down by the Obama administration. We also need to deploy additional military assets and even U.S. personnel to our allies, including Poland and the Baltic states.

Lethal military support? We’re supposed to go to war over freakin’ Crimea?

WaPo’s editorial board is raving that the Russian annexation of Crimea poses a threat to “European and global security,” because it’s clear (to them) that Putin intends to keep going and annex “former Soviet republics with substantial populations of ethnic Russians.” They want Estonia and Latvia to be accepted into NATO last week.

In Georgia and now Crimea, Putin took advantage of massive political instability and, in the case of Georgia, the presence of an ongoing separatist movement. I’m not aware of any such instability in Estonia and Latvia. So it’s not obvious to me what Putin’s long-term plans are. A military move on those two countries would be a very different act from what just happened in Crimea, it seems to me. And given their location, if Putin made such a move, I’d expect NATO to respond whether Estonia and Latvia are members or not.

And I can’t bring myself to read Condi Rice’s opinion. If anyone ever relinquished any right to express an opinion on foreign policy, it’s her. Well, her boss, too, but he doesn’t seem to care.

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The Market Hath Spoken

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Obama Administration

The news yesterday was that the world’s stock markets are not worried about the Crimea: “Global financial markets on Monday shrugged off an anticipated Russian annexation of Crimea, as stocks rose strongly on Wall Street and in Europe.”

Some are still wringing their hands, but the only tangible reason for concern given in this Telegraph article is that sanctions might make Russia an unsound investment.

So the wise and all-knowing Market, Blessed Be It, hath spoken on the Crimea crisis. And It says, meh.

This is not to say there is no reason to be concerned, but nobody seems to know what that reason is. Especially after Crimeans themselves voted to join Russia, unless someone can document they had a gun to their heads as they voted, I’m not sure why we should try to reverse that. The “cure” might cause more problems than the disease.

John Cole wrote,

There is a very serious disconnect between the public and our news media, and the most immediate example of which is the frothing headlines about Crimea and the opinion leaders need for action as compared to the responses I have gotten around here.

And mind you, I am in West Virginia, where almost half of us it seems are veterans, and the resounding response to the Crimea issue around here is “Who the fuck cares? Are they shooting at us?”

I’m hard pressed to disagree.

Again, I’m not saying there’s no reason to be concerned; I’m saying nobody’s telling us what that reason is. The Right primarily is in a twitch because Barack Obama is President; if a Republican were in the White House doing exactly the same things, they’d be praising him up and down for his prudence and restraint. Now, they seem to be hysterical because Hitler annexed Austria, and nobody did anything, and domino theory, and Florida will be next. Or something.

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Talk Is Cheap

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Obama Administration

Bobby Jindal has an editorial in the New York Post titled “Bill De Blasio’s War for Poverty.” So the governor of one of the most poverty-ridden states in the Union, with 20 percent of residents living below the poverty line, thinks he is in a position to lecture anybody about poverty? That’s rich.

Jinda mostly criticizes De Blasio’s alleged war against charter schools, which are basically schemes to let a private educate industry gets its hands on tax dollars. However, De Blasio’s actual charter schools policy isn’t much of a war.

The previous week, Mr. de Blasio had approved 14 of 17 charter schools for co-location in traditional school buildings, which does not easily suggest that he is conducting a war on charter schools. And yet this has become the conventional wisdom. Five of the approved schools belong to the high-performing Success Academy network, run by Eva S. Moskowitz, who having led the protesters upstate chose to focus not on her win, but rather on the fact that three of her schools were rejected.

In two of those instances, elementary schools would have been set up on high school campuses, a practice the city has come to regard as problematic, and the third, a co-location at Public School 149 in Harlem, would have put the school at almost 135 percent of its capacity over the next few years and would also have displaced a vast number of children with special needs. Writing to the Department of Education, the principal of P.S. 149, Barry Daub, explained that keeping the space as it is would mean that his students would be able to maintain rooms for mandated occupational and physical therapy and speech services and that the school could continue with a theater arts initiative that was a key part of its program for children with severe disabilities.

You would have learned none of this from Ms. Moskowitz, who marketed her tale of victimhood by proclaiming that the mayor was disenfranchising “poor minority kids who want a shot at the American dream,” as if the autistic and behaviorally challenged children at P.S. 149 were coming from Sutton Place.

The facts of the matter don’t stop Bobby Jindal, in whose state charter schools have been founding teaching children that dinosaurs co-inhabited the earth with humans, from criticizing Mayor DeBlasio for being insensitive to the educational needs of the poor.

Like I said, talk is cheap.

Also, our old pal Mittens is crowing about how he wouldn’t have let Vlad the Mad take Crimea. Daniel Larison responds at The American Coservative with “Thak Goodness Romney Isn’t President.” After providing specifics on why Mitt ha no clue what he is talking about, Larison writes,

It has become fashionable in the last few months to give Romney credit for “prescience” on Russia in the 2012 campaign, as if he did anything more than echo ignorant hard-line talking points that didn’t show the slightest understanding of the relevant issues. He uttered a nonsensical claim about Russia as “our number one geopolitical foe,” which is still very wrong, and most of his defenders still don’t understand how laughable this was. All that Romney demonstrated as a candidate was a knee-jerk hostility to Obama’s policies and equally reflexive hostility to improving relations with Russia. To the extent that he had a coherent idea for how to approach Russia differently, he thought that Russia should be provoked at every turn and that cooperation should be avoided. This approach was rightly mocked during the campaign, and one can only imagine how much more poisonous relations with Russia would be now if it had been official policy for almost five years before the crisis in Ukraine. Had Romney been carrying out his preferred policy towards Russia over the last year, relations would be considerably worse, and we would be saddled with an administration that would go out of its way to clash with Russia on every issue. It was bad enough listening to Romney try to make foreign policy arguments as a presidential candidate, but it is simply ridiculous to be treated to the same nonsense now that the election campaign is long over.

Talk that is never tested is very, very cheap.

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More Chieftans

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Obama Administration

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