The kids are alright

There's a great graph making the rounds of the liberal blogosphere lately…

As you can see, young voters are increasingly moving into the Democratic column.  The combination of the successful Clinton years followed by the disastrous Bush years seem to have had a rather dramatic impact on the political-thinking of younger Americans.  For Democrats, this is really great news.  Firstly, nothing helps explain voting decisions like Party Identification.  Secondly, this is a really good thing for the long-term.  I'll leave it to Ezra's Political Science-y summary because he does it so well:

Democrats have moved from an 11-point advantage among youth in 2004 to a full 25 points.
That's a remarkable leap. Political scientists argue that the more
often someone votes for a party, the more that preference gets locked
in. Each vote marginally increases your personal identification with
the party you pulled the lever for. Three election cycles, and you're
probably a partisan for life, or something near to it. Which means an
advantage like this, though potentially temporary, also opens the door
to a more enduring electoral edge with this generation.

I guess we can consider this the plus side of the Bush legacy.

(Not) enough with Wright

So, I just posted “Enough with Wright,” but as usual anything new and original I had to say pales in comparison to some other great commentary I've read on the matter.  To that end, a couple of great comments.  First, Glen Greenwald:

Why the Jeremiah Wright story deserves more attention

I
think the most important thing to note about the Jeremiah Wright Story
is that we're a Nation plagued by exceedingly few significant problems;
blessed with a quite healthy political culture and very trusted
political and media institutions; composed of a citizenry that is
peacefully content with its Government and secure and confident about
their future; endowed with a supremely sturdy economic foundation free
of debt and other grave economic afflictions; vested with the ability
to command great respect and admiration from the other nations of the
world; emancipated from the burdens of war and intractable conflicts
which have toppled and destroyed so many other great nations of the
past; and, most of all, we're becoming freer and more prosperous by the
minute.

Not only that, but we have an extremely impressive, serious and honor-bound ruling imperial class devoted to the preservation of all of these blessings.

So it isn't as though we really have anything else to talk about
besides Jeremiah Wright. There are some countries in the world –
probably most — which have so many big problems that they could
ill-afford to devote much time and energy to a matter of this sort.
Thankfully, the United States isn't one of them. I believe it's
critical that we keep that in mind as we discuss him for the next seven
months.

For the non-sarcastic approach, this post from John Cole is simply amazing:

So Jeremiah Wright has acted like a jackass the past few days, and
he may have acted supremely selfishly by hurting Obama?s electoral
chances. Regardless, he may be a flawed man, but that does not undo all
the good he has done over the years. I don?t know of any bloggers with
thirty years of service to the poor and the indigent. Get back to me
when Chris Matthews feeds hungry people for three decades. And even
with all his flaws, Jeremiah Wright did give us this quality bit of entertainment,
and I have to admit to enjoying someone treat the media with the
respect they deserve (which is to be mocked, have eyes rolled at them,
and taunted as Wright did yesterday at the Press Club).

Maybe
it is because I am totally and unrepentantly in the tank for Obama, but
I just can?t get worked up over what his pastor said. Maybe it is
because I am not religious, and I am used to religious people saying
things that sound crazy. Or maybe I just refuse to spend any more time
and energy getting worked up over and denouncing, distancing, and
rejecting the wrong people- people who really don?t matter in the big
scheme of things. If you have a memo from Jeremiah Wright to John Yoo
showing how we should become a rogue nation, let me know. If you have
pictures of Jeremiah Wright voting against the GI Bill,
send it to me. If you have evidence of Jeremiah Wright training junior
soldiers on the finer aspects of stacking and torturing naked Iraqi
captives, pass them on.

Until then, I just can?t seem to get all worked up about the crazy scary black preacher that Obama has to ?throw under the bus.?

Enough with Wright already!

So everything Jeremiah Wright says and does is news now??  Yeah, the guy has done a bit of a media offensive this weekend– clearly taking advantage of his 15 minutes– but are any of his pronouncements truly newsworthy.  Obama has already quite clearly rejected (if not denounced) Wright's more extreme statements and outlines his clear areas of disagreement with Wright's views.  Therefore, just why is it so newsworthy when Wright continues to publicly espouse the particular views that Obama has rejected?  EJ Dionne asks “are the media paying too much attention to Wright?”  I think you know the answer. 

I started this post last night, today I see that George Will has piled on.  The essence of his column seems to boil down to: Wright says bad stuff and Obama was his parishoner for 20 years– how do we no he doesn't believe it.  Ummm, maybe because Obama already disowned all of Wright's more odious views?

“Objective” Journalism

I noticed this amazingly flawed story in the New York Times on Sunday, and was pleased to see its been caught around the blogosphere.  The lede:

3 Candidates With 3 Financial Plans, but One Deficit
By LARRY ROHTER and MICHAEL COOPER

The
Republican and Democratic presidential candidates differ strikingly in
their approaches to taxes and spending, but their fiscal plans have at
least one thing in common: each could significantly swell the budget
deficit and increase the national debt by trillions of dollars,
according to tax and budget experts.

Some various sharp commentary: Matt Yglesias offers some nice numerical perspective:

Later in the article we find out that McCain's proposals “if enacted
as proposed, would add at least $5.7 trillion to the national debt over
the next decade.” Conversely, “even taking into account that there are
some differences between the proposals by Senators Hillary Rodham
Clinton and Barack Obama, the impact of either on the deficit would be
less than one-third that of the McCain plan.” Let's do some math.
McCain's plans will at “at least $5.7 trillion” whereas the Democratic
plans will add “less than” $1.9 trillion to the deficit. The difference
between them, in short, is at least $3.8 trillion.

That, obviously, is a huge difference — larger than the
net worth of Bill Gates or the GDP of Italy. There's no grounds for
saying that two plans' costs have something “in common” when they
differ in cost by at least $3.8 trillion, but to understand this you
need to understand what you're talking about. After all, if one
candidate was offering budget-busting on the Democratic scale, and
another candidate was offering $2 trillion in deficit reduction nobody
would have trouble distinguishing between the budget hawk and the
deficit spender. But the difference in magnitude is the same in either
case.

TNR's Jonathan Cohn points out how this ultimately comes down to wrong-headed journalistic values:

Clinton and Obama can probably achieve
most of their goals
either by trimming (rather than ditching) some proposals, finding a
politically acceptable way to raise a few taxes, or letting the deficit
grow at a moderate rate. (Or, most likely, some combination of the
three.) McCain, by contrast, is
going to have to jettison some of his ideas altogether. Either he'll
have to let go of those tax cuts or he'll have to let the deficit
explode.

This is,
arguably, a very important distinction–one about which the voters
should know, as it says a lot about the candidates' honesty and ability
to govern. The Times deserves great credit for highlighting it.

But
I suspect many readers of the Sunday Times didn't grasp this distinction. In fact, I suspect many came away with the
very opposite impression about the candidates–i.e., that they're all equally irresponsible…

It's just one article, of course, but it's also
indicative of a broader phenomenon in campaign coverage: Journalists
trying so hard to seem even-handed that they end up distorting reality.
I have no idea whether it was the reporters or editors who chose to
frame this particular story this way. Either way, though, it was a poor, if all too typical, decision.

I do think this is largely a typical example of the media's false objectivity, but I also suspect that, more often than not, such examples will end up playing in John McCain's favor.  As the 2000 campaign so clearly demonstrated, the more you lie with the numbers, the more you benefit when the media pretends your whoppers are equivalent to the other guy's mild exaggerations. 


McCain and taxes

The Post had a great article today analyzing McCain's disaster of a tax plan.  Not only is it just dumb and budget-busting, it is also in direct contrast to many of McCain's earlier (more reasonable) political pronouncements and just a super-duper pander to the anti-tax at all costs Republican right.  Some highlights:

Now that he is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee,
however, McCain is marching straight down the party line. The economic
package he has laid out embraces many of the tax policies he once
decried: extending Bush's tax cuts he voted against, offering
investment tax breaks he once believed would have little economic
benefit and granting the long-held wishes of tax lobbyists he has often
mocked.

McCain's concerns — about budget deficits, unanticipated defense
costs, an Iraq war that would be longer and more costly than advertised
— have proved eerily prescient, usually a plus for politicians who are
quick to say they were right when others were wrong. Yet McCain appears
determined to leave such predictions behind.

Of course, even in the face of such incontrovertible pandering, the article cannot help but fall back on the pathetic little, he said, she said, game, as if this is all just a matter of perspective:

To supporters, McCain has simply seen the light and now understands the
power that business tax relief has to spur economic growth and
innovation. Said J.D. Foster, a former Bush White House and Treasury tax policy expert, now at the Heritage Foundation: “It's logical that he wouldn't be repeating the arguments he made then. We all learn from experience.”

To critics, it is political pandering. “It's just part of the new John
McCain that's taking on the conventional wisdom that in tight races,
you have to energize the base and win by 50.000001 percent,” Chafee
said. “I was frankly surprised that he's kept it up after securing the
nomination. I thought he'd move to the center, and I haven't seen it.”

Of course, this is the opposite of “learning from experience.”  The concerns he had about the problematic nature of the Bush tax cuts when he was not running for the Republican nomination have proven dead-on. 

And if that's not enough, McCain is making ridiculous pronouncements that somehow he can balance the budget by savings here and there.  Think Progress has a nice visual that shows just how not true that is:

If we want to actually cut the budget deficit, we're simply going to have to raise taxes on the rich country-club Republicans, and that's that.

Why I could never be a politician

 I was listening to an NPR story the other day about a recent Hillary Clinton rally in Indianapolis.  Since the rally was on Pennsylvania St, her Indiana campaign co-chair, Joe Hogsett, proclaimed, with seeming passion and authenticity, “We're gonna take this campaign from Pennsylvania Street in Indianapolis, Indiana, all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”  Hearing such (typical) political absurdity I couldn't help but roll my eyes and wonder about the people who would actually be inspired by such silly rhetoric (most of us?).  Then it occurred to me, how could I ever say such a ridiculous line with a straight face, much less mean it.  Yet, we hear such political humdingers all the time, so it is clearly just part of politics.  Conclusion: no way could I ever run for elective office.

Bananas

No, I'm not talking about Hillary supporters who think she's got a real shot at being the nominee now that she's won PA (though, the term does apply).  I'm talking about a new book, Banana: the Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World.  I have not read (and I probably won't), but there was a wonderfully entertaining interview with the author last month on Fresh Air– it allowed me to innundate my friends with fascinating (to me, at least) banana factoids for days.  Should you not want to make the 40 minute commitment (well, worth it) to the Fresh Air podcast, last week Salon ran a nice story highlighting many of the most interesting parts of the book, well worth your 5 minutes.  Some of the juicier parts (let's just say, Banana Republic was an appropriate name:

The mass-produced banana first came to the United States in the 19th
century. As the next century rolled on, buccaneering banana men
pioneered such innovative business practices as propping up puppet
heads of states throughout Latin America, keeping them in power through
corporate largesse, and exploiting local workers, when not actually
encouraging local governments to enslave or kill them. By building
railroads, in exchange for land for plantations, United Fruit tightly
entwined itself with the economies of many countries, and came to own
huge swaths of Central America. Its reach was so extensive that it
became known as “the Octopus.”

When local leaders threatened taxes or complained about the
company's abysmal labor practices, such as paying workers exclusively
in company scrip to be spent only at the company store, United Fruit
threatened to leave the country, taking its business next door. Mere
bribes to local officials were strictly junior varsity in this jungle.

In some countries, United Fruit blatantly paid no taxes at all for
decades. In others, when troubled by local officials, it simply
installed a more sympathetic government. In Honduras in 1911, the
banana men not only staged an invasion to depose the current regime and
put in a new one, they had the audacity to demand the new government
reimburse the costs incurred in the invasion!

On the purely fruit front, I was quite intrigued to learn that the bananas we eat today, are a much inferior product to the ones, an entirely different species, that Americans happily consumed 50 years ago, before they were done in by disease. 

Where the money goes

Thanks to Ezra Klein (sometimes I worry I wouldn't have anything to blog about without him– good thing I'm not obsessed with Israel), I came across a great series of graphs from the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities that shows quite dramatically where all our tax dollars go.  I especially love this graph of “other” spending after accounting for social security, defense, etc.

So many people (especially my students) seem convinced that we are wasting all our money spending it on other countries.  Here, of course, you can see that “Non-security international” accounts for a whopping 1% of the budget.  If you want to find some room to cut the budget, the 22% in “Defense and Security” certainly presents a better target– especially when you consider that the U.S. represents nearly half of the world's entire defense spending. 

The future of renewable energy

I was listening to a depressing interview the other day on NPR about how the increasing demands for limited fossil fuels will have increasingly important geopolitical consequences– and probably not so good for the United States.  The simple fact is that most of the oil and natural gas reserves are in nations with governments one would not exactly call benevolent and enlightened.  It is absolutely shameful how much energy our nation of SUV's, and 90 minute commutes, and McMansions wastes, but I came across two interesting articles this past week which really suggest a promising future for good old solar energy as a potentially important future energy resource.

Forget solar photovoltaics which only work when the sun it out, the key is to store that solar energy for use during cloudy times and at night.  Looks like the technology is already pretty much there.  The key is Concentrated Solar Power (CSP)  From Salon:

after speaking with energy experts and seeing countless presentations
on all forms of clean power, I believe the one technology closest to
being a silver bullet for global warming is the other solar power:
solar thermal electric, which concentrates the sun's rays to heat a
fluid that drives an electric generator. It is the best source of clean
energy to replace coal and sustain economic development. I bet that it
will deliver more power every year this century than coal with carbon
capture and storage — for much less money and with far less
environmental damage.

The key innovation– molten salt:

The key attribute of CSP is that it generates primary energy in the
form of heat, which can be stored 20 to 100 times more cheaply than
electricity — and with far greater efficiency. Commercial projects
have already demonstrated that CSP systems can store energy by heating
oil or molten salt, which can retain the heat for hours. Ausra and
other companies are working on storing the heat directly with water in
the tubes, which would significantly lower cost and avoid the need for
heat exchangers.

Amazingly, it all sounds quite realistic:

CSP makes use of the most abundant and free fuel there is, sunlight,
and key countries have a vast resource. Solar thermal plants covering
the equivalent of a 92-by-92-mile square grid in the Southwest could
generate electricity for the entire United States. Mexico has an
equally enormous solar resource. China, India, southern Europe, North
Africa, the Middle East and Australia also have huge resources…

The technology has no obvious bottlenecks and uses mostly commodity
materials — steel, concrete and glass. The central component, a
standard power system routinely used by the natural gas industry today,
would create steam to turn a standard electric generator. Plants can be
built rapidly — in two to three years — much faster than nuclear
plants. It would be straightforward to build CSP systems at whatever
rate industry and governments needed, ultimately 50 to 100 gigawatts a
year growth or more.

The New York Times also had a nice story on the topic this week, including a cool graphic of how the storage works.

Consider me sold.  As depressing as all of our future energy and climate problems might seem, I am pretty optimistic at what technology can accomplish if we just set out mind to these sorts of things before it is too late.  We can make our renewable energy future a smooth, gradual transition or an abrupt painful one.  I'm obviously hoping for the former, but fear the latter.

McCain and the media

I've been meaning to do a post on the media's excessive love for McCain for a while, but I just came across this great post (thanks to Ezra Klein), that really sums it all up amazingly succinctly:

Do you think if Barack Obama had left his seriously ill wife after having had multiple affairs, had been a member of the “Keating Five,”
had had a relationship with a much younger lobbyist that his staff felt
the need to try and block, had intervened on behalf of the client of
said young lobbyist with a federal agency, had denounced then embraced
Jerry Falwell, had denounced then embraced the Bush tax cuts, had
confused Shiite with Sunni, had confused Al Qaeda in Iraq with the
Mahdi Army, had actively sought the endorsement and appeared on stage
with a man who denounced the Catholic Church as a whore, and stated
that he knew next to nothing about economics — do you think it's possible that Obama would have been treated differently by the media than John McCain has been?  Possible?

Bittergate

Well, I've been a shamefully poor blogger of late.  My apologies.  My heart wasn't in it for a bit, then my heart was but I just didn't have any time.  And now– both!!  Anyway, it seems to me that it is only appropriate that I get back into the swing of things by weighing in on Bittergate.  I'm going to assume you know what I'm talking about.  So, of all the random commentary on the matter, what I found the most interesting.

1) Ezra Klein makes a good case that this will not have legs because a) there's not a drip-drip-drip of information, b) the comments are not on their face that damaging, and c) there's no video.  I think a) is quite important but I also think it is easy to underestimate the importance of c).  Without pictures there was no Abu Ghraib scandal.  Without a video of Jeremiah Wright's speech it would not have had near the newsworthiness.  Obama is definitely lucky in this regard. 

2) TNR's John Judis says, “Yes, it really is that bad” because it so plays into larger narratives of Democrats as elitists.  He's got a nice analysis of the difficulty of Democrats in appealing to White, working-class voters.  I think he's got a real point here, but he may be overselling just how damaging Obama's comments are.

3) I, of course understand that Hillary will really go to town on this, that's politics.  But the chugging beers and talking about learning to shoot, so she can be Ms. regular gal.  Give me a break.  She just embarasses herself.  Especially when she then refuses to answer when she last fired a gun or went to church.  My Man EJ on the matter:

At one level, who can blame Hillary Clinton
for going after Obama's mistake? Her campaign looked set to collapse,
if not in Pennsylvania then shortly thereafter. Of course she
capitalized on his error by accusing him of being elitist.

But something doesn't parse when a Wellesley and Yale Law School
graduate whose family made $109 million since 2001 relentlessly assails
a former community organizer on the grounds that he is an elitist.
(McCain enthusiastically dittoed the charge Monday.) It's also
disappointing that Clinton, whose husband bravely battled the National Rifle Association over a ban on assault weapons, now presents herself as a Second Amendment hero.

And not contenting herself with bashing Obama, she denigrated the last two Democratic presidential nominees, John Kerry and Al Gore, at Sunday night's CNN forum on faith.

4) So long as Obama stays within 10 in PA next week, I think this “scandal” is effectively done.  Oh, it will live on in the general, as will Jeremiah Wright, but it will assume the modest proportions it deserves.  A number of recent PA polls have come out suggesting that bittergate has not really damaged Obama in PA.  Additionally, Obama maintains a strong national lead over Hillary in tracking polls.  From what I saw on TV today, the media seemed ready to put the story to bed, based on the fact that it had not significantly changed the dynamic among voters.  Of course, only time will tell.

Scammed by the pharmaceutical industry– again

At this point, no one should be shocked to learn that customers have spent billions of dollars in the past few years on the new cholesterol lowering drug Vytorin, that has essentially been a waste of money.  Vytorin combines to cholesterol-lowering drugs, Zocor and Zetia.  Turns out that Vytorin has been prescribed like mad, despite the fact that there was no evidence that it was actually any more effective than many existing drugs at reducing heart attack, stroke, etc.– e.g., the whole point of anti-cholesterol drugs.  The newly-released data shows that while Vytorin lowers cholesterol numbers more than Zocor alone, it is not the least bit more effective in preventing the adverse cardiac events that is the whole point in taking these drugs.  Part of the problem here is doctor's excessive reliance on numbers, even when the evidence indicates there's a lot more to outcomes.  Heck, just from reading a few books in the past years, I was not the least bit surprised to learn that Vytorin lowered bad cholesterol without actually improving outcomes, whereas all the physicians who've been prescribing this very expensive drug instead of just-as-effective generics were shocked (shocked!) to discover its lack of efficacy.  From the Post editorial:

IT'S NO WONDER medical costs are skyrocketing: Companies such as Merck and Schering-Plough have been brilliantly marketing a drug that hasn't been shown to improve health.

The two manufacturers released the results of a cholesterol study last month that compared Zocor, a generic cholesterol treatment, with Vytorin, a drug that combines Zocor with another drug called Zetia.
Despite Vytorin's massive marketing campaign, the drug looks to be no
more effective at reducing artery plaque than Zocor alone, even though
Vytorin is three times as expensive as generic Zocor…

What explains this belated revelation? The Food and Drug Administration
approved Vytorin and Zetia for reducing LDL (the “bad”) cholesterol,
and they do in fact reduce LDL cholesterol more than statins alone do.
However, lower LDL cholesterol itself is not the final goal; the goal
is to lower the risk of heart disease and stroke. Only with the new
study has it become known that Vytorin and Zetia are probably not
superior to statins in improving health. Although another study looking
directly at their effects on heart disease and stroke is underway, it
looks as if consumers may have been throwing away their money.

The FDA could take some steps to prevent similar waste. When
approving drugs, it could make public statements to clarify whether a
drug is more effective than similar drugs and whether it should be used
first or as a last resort. FDA officials say this type of information
is sometimes included in drug labels, but drug companies often bury it.

For drugs that are the first in a new class, as Vytorin was, the FDA
could also request post-approval tests to show that the medicines do
improve health. Merck and Schering-Plough initiated the Vytorin
efficacy study voluntarily. But had they not undertaken a study to
directly compare their drug with a competing drug, and had a
congressional investigation not scared the companies into releasing the
embarrassing results, patients would be none the wiser.

A drug manufacturere does not have to prove that a new drug is any better than what's out there on the market.  Simply that it is safe and more effective than a placebo.  Doctors need to stop being bullied and bribed into providing drugs that cost billions more in the aggregate but do nothing for our nation's health.  FDA reforms could definitely help.

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