Surprisingly devoid of real policy proposals
He ended up in basically the same place I did, though starting from a different perspective:
Anyone who has been through this annual exercise at the White House would recognize the tell-tale signs. The phrase “I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take,” which came quite early in the speech in relation to energy and environmental policy, is the policy staffer’s worst nightmare in a State of the Union address. It’s your boss saying you failed. It means that after months of meetings and dozens of memos, the White House, OMB, and the relevant cabinet agencies couldn’t even agree on executive actions to take, let alone on a proposal to include in the budget or to press for in Congress. I thought it was strange that Obama would put that declaration of failure so early in the speech. Why not raise your key 2014 budget proposals first—that’s generally what the State of the Union is for—and then do cleanup on the issues that some constituencies want to hear about but that you weren’t able to pull off? If you look at State of the Union addresses from the past few decades, that’s usually how they work.
As the speech went on, though, the reason became clear: There were no 2014 budget proposals. The president didn’t even mention his forthcoming budget—again, that’s usually a big part of what this speech is for. And he didn’t make any significant proposal for reforming any government program, for launching any new one, ending any old one, or doing much of anything in particular that he hasn’t been pushing unsuccessfully for years. It was like an eighth-year State of the Union address, not a fifth-year one.
You have to try to cover up such things, of course, especially if you’re a Democrat, and so the president did speak of all manner of obnoxious federal micromanagement initiatives with fancy names—manufacturing hubs, a “partnership to rebuild America,” a challenge to “redesign America’s schools,” an “Energy Security Trust,” and so on. But you know what these things are? They’re nothing. They’re the headings that the wonks in a Democratic White House put at the top of otherwise blank memos at the beginning of a process that, months later, is supposed to end up with a budget and a State of the Union address. And here they were at the end of that process with barely more meat on their bones than when they started. Some of these proposals might “happen” and some of them will not, but there won’t be any difference between the two.
It sounds great. But can the president's plan survive contact with the real world?
I said in my last post that the president wasn't proposing much that was truly transformative. But if it works, there was one proposal that truly could have lasting (positive) effects on society: his suggestion of universal, high quality pre-school.
There is evidence that pre-school makes big differences if it's done right. Both the Perry Pre-School Project, a groundbreaking experiment conducted in Ypsilanti in the early 1960s, and the Abcedarian experiment performed in North Carolina in the early 1970s, seem to have made substantial improvements in the life outcomes of the kids they served. They did not turn the children into middle class college graduates, but it did improve school graduation rates and reduce the likelihood of a criminal arrest. A team lead by economist James Heckman, who is one of the smartest guys around on educational research, estimates that the return on investment for Perry's pre-school program are 7-12%.
So what's not to love? It seems like the sort of idea that no one could possibly oppose. Nonetheless, there are three big questions about the president's proposal that need to be resolved before we move forward:
1. Should it be universal? Liberals like universal programs because they build widespread support for the benefit. Their customary tagline, when people propose means testing or otherwise narrowly targeting the neediest, is that "a program for the poor is a poor program".
So which was it? Campaign speech or policy brief?
Looking back on yesterday's predictions for last night's State of the Union speech, I find that most of my most pessimistic predictions were confirmed. Lots of symbolic nods towards base-pleasing issues like infrastructure, manufacturing, early childhood education, and climate change but little in the way of specific plans--on climate change, he resorted to a vague threat to use executive orders if Congress wouldn't pass something. He talked about the budget, but spent most of that section implying that we could fix these problems by taking more stuff from rich people, if only the GOP weren't such obstructionists. He was not making the case to his own party for real reform, or even offering up a serious starting point for negotiations. He is preparing for a streetfight, one in which the prize is not "What sort of deal do we get to fix the budget?" but "Who takes the blame when we don't?"
His supportes will say that the GOP has left him no choice. This may be true (though the level of obstruction has clearly moderated since the election.) It's dispiriting either way.
Yesterday I closed with a quote from Bill Galston:
The inauguration speech, says Galston, "stated coherently and elegantly the ensemble of beliefs that animate the coalition that returned Obama to power.
A campaign speech? Or a policy agenda?
Obama's second inaugural address, Bill Galston of Brookings recently said, can be viewed as "the last speech of the 2012 campaign". Like most inaugural addresses, it was long on rhetoric and short on concrete agenda items.
Tonight, Obama the candidate is once again replaced with Obama the president. This will be the first preview of what he wants to accomplish in this second term.
At the moment, that's amazingly unclear. The 2012 campaign was possibly the most information free election in recent history; at the end of it, the only thing we'd really learned was that Obama isn't a wealthy hedge fund manager. So this State of the Union will be particularly important.
The company is reducing the amount of alcohol in the mix
Maker's Mark is watering down the whiskey.
Zachary Seward reports that they are lowering the alcohol content very slightly, by about 3%. (Unclear whether that's 3% of the current alcohol by volume, or 3% points). According to the executives at Maker's Mark, you can't taste the difference.
Maker's Mark cites strong foreign demand for their product, which has led to some interesting internet chatter on the economics of price increases. Are premium bourbons like ticket prices, something for which the makers charge less than they could in order to maintain a broad fan base that supports their brand?
Maybe. But there's another angle that should be considered.
Conservatives are warming to the idea.
George Will's latest column has made quite a splash. Will argues for a smaller, more manageable banking sector:
By breaking up the biggest banks, conservatives will not be putting asunder what the free market has joined together. Government nurtured these behemoths by weaving an improvident safety net, and by practicing crony capitalism. Dismantling them would be a blow against government that has become too big not to fail.
The move toward a "break up the banks" view on the right is an important development, if a largely unheralded one. Will is not alone in believing that Too Big to Fail was a major factor in the crisis--and still a major problem, since Dodd-Frank, our major financial reform, left the banking sector more heavily regulated, but otherwise largely untouched. I have heard some version of this from a growing number of conservatives, who are both disgusted by the bailouts and the stimulus, and looking for a new message to take to the voters. GOP representative John Campbell just introduced a bill which is, according to Bloomberg, "aimed at reducing the size of ‘too- big-to-fail' banks by requiring them to hold more capital including long-term debt."
The world has too few young-old workers--and too many old-old ones.
I'm not a practicing Catholic, so I try very hard not to have opinions on the internal politics of the Vatican. But the Pope's announcement this morning that he would resign seems worth commenting on, because it was a good decision, and a worthy one. The Pope recognized that he was too frail to continue performing his duties as the spiritual leader of his church, and he stepped down so that the Church could elect someone who can.
That's a very hard decision to make. 89-year old Senator Frank Lautenberg is currently embroiled in a spat with Newark's Mayor Cory Booker, who has begun openly campaigning to replace Lautenberg in the Senate. (Lautenberg implied that Booker needed a "spanking" for his impertinence.) Keith Humphreys points out how absurd Lautenberg's indignation is:
The “spanking” story calls Booker “ambitious” (contrasting him, one assumes, with the world’s many non-ambitious politicians), setting up the standard narrative: A pushy up-and-comer who won’t wait his turn thinks an old person can’t be an effective elected official. Other likely stories to come will cover how Booker will have to allude to his “energy” without turning off senior citizen voters who think he is making age an issue.
What the press ought to do instead is communicate reality: The burden of proof is entirely on Lautenberg to demonstrate that he isn’t too old to be an effective senator until the age of 98. Extrapolating from life table data, a 92 year old has only a 1 in 6 chance of living to 98, and that’s the combined rate for males and females. And those who do live to 98 have an extremely high rate of significant physical and/or mental decline. It should therefore not be some awkward responsibility for Cory Booker to hint vaguely about “new ideas”, “vigor” etc. as a way to gingerly raise the age issue. Rather, the press should put the question straight to Lautenberg: “Senator, if you are re-elected the odds are very low you will survive your term at all, much less do so in good health. Is that fair to the people of New Jersey when there are certainly other politicians in the state who could do the job?”. That keeps focus on a legitimate question that the public has a right to have answered (whether Booker brings it up or not).
Your property rights stop at the edge of my fence, but . . .
We're doing something a bit different for this week's Friday forum: a debate question. It's inspired by my mother, who just bought a house next to a fellow who loves to grow bamboo. It's about 10-12 feet high, maybe more, shading her windows and dropping leaves into her yard. More problematically, it seems to be sending roots over to her yard. Unfortunately, she didn't know when she bought the house that bamboo is a highly invasive plant that can wreak havoc with things like sidewalks and foundations. Yeah, I know; this is what comes of living in Manhattan for forty years.
DC, alas, does not have an ordinance against such plants, though local laws against bamboo are apparently rising in popularity.
But should it? If you libertarians wonder why I say that not all questions can be solved by resort to first principles and property rights, this is why. The plants are on his property, but they're invading hers. On the other hand, there are limits to one's ability that the neighbors alter their landscape to suit your preferences: my neighbor has a bumper crop of dandelions going every spring, but I don't think that either an ordinance or a lawsuit are in order. I weed and occasionally resort to Roundup, and don't feel too hard-used. In return, he doesn't complain about the debris shed from . . . well, whatever the hell kind of tree it is that we have out back. (Yeah, I know. Like I said: decades in Manhattan.)
So I'll throw it out to my audience, libertarian-leaning and otherwise. Should governments ban invasive plants that can wreak havoc with neighboring property, or at least require the owners to keep them under control? And if so, how should such rules be framed so that you don't have neighbors suing each other over crabgrass?
The wave of baby boomer retirements is almost upon us. And yes, it's going to hurt.
Is the upcoming Social Security transition manageable? Dean Baker argues that it is--and that people who say otherwise are ignoring the much larger transition we've already made, back in the 1960s:
Baker is right that we've already made a substantial demographic transition. But he is still wrong, because from the perspective of the worker, the worst transition is still ahead. As the ratio of workers to beneficiaries has fallen from 42-to-1 in 1945, to 3.3-to-1 in 2007, here's what it has taken at various points to support one worker--and what it will take when the ratio falls to 2-to-1 sometime in the 1930s.
Up at the top, in 1940, each of 42 workers is contributing just an infinitessimal portion of their income, so small you can barely see it. By 1965 it's substantial. By 2030, it's huge.
Who are you going to believe: me, or my own lyin' eyes?
From the Pew Center on the People and the Press:
Point: 64 percent said they “prefer getting political news from sources that don’t have a particular point of view, compared with 26% who would rather get news from sources that share their political perspective. This is on par with opinions since 2006.”
Counterpoint: “Among individual cable news outlets,” the study notes, “CNN’s regular audience has declined since 2008. Four years ago, nearly a quarter of Americans (24%) said they regularly watched CNN; that has fallen to 16% in the new survey.”
Reports of widespread cuckoldry may be greatly exaggerated
Ever heard that statistic that 10% of kids are not actually descended from the putative father? Yeah, me too. Razib Khan sets both of us straight:
I often encounter this “fact” in a biological context, where someone with an advanced degree in biology will relate how it turns out that there is a great deal of delicacy in situations of transplant matching because of this fact. When pressed on the provenance of this fact most demur. The reason people demur is that the factual basis of this assertion is very thin. In particular, very high estimates of cuckoldry come from databases of disputed paternity, which are obviously going to be a biased sample. A more thorough survey suggests that there is a wide variation in misattributed paternity across populations.
In the interests of disabusing the public of this myth, I point to a paper from Germany, Estimating the Prevalence of Nonpaternity in Germany. The sample consists of the families of children who require bone marrow transplants. The authors note two important conditions: 1) the details of the results as they might relate to paternity are not divulged, 2) none of the parents refused to be typed. Since susceptibility to childhood cancers are evenly distributed across the population the biases introduced in other surveys presumably do not apply to this situation.
Why does any of this matter? Because models of paternity uncertainty are important priors in shaping our view of the course of human evolutionary history. Sexual jealousy and mate guarding loom large in evolutionary psychology. I don’t particularly know how high paternity certainty impacts these arguments, but it needs to be brought to the fore, rather than relying on an old chestnut of wisdom based on nothing.
The things we take for granted took decades to arrive elsewhere
The BBC has a fascinating little look at gadgets of yesteryear. I found this picture particularly fascinating because of the description that comes with it:
A woman demonstrates the Colston dishwasher on November 18, 1959. (Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society Picture Library)
"A new archive from website historypin.com, in collaboration with npower and Mirrorpix, is collecting pictures from the past. This 1960s dishwasher by Charles Colston Ltd cost 85 guineas. The first dishwasher was patented in 1886 by Josephine Cockrane, but was taken up only by businesses because of the amount of hot water required to run it. Home dishwashers became more common in the 1970s." says the BBC blurb. The 1970s! At least a decade behind US housewives.
But I knew this was true. Data on household appliance dispersion shows dramatic differences between the US and Britain in the penetration of household conveniences. In most cases, new inventions show up at the same time in both places (or within a few year. It took until 1938 for 50% of American households to install a refrigerator. According to Bowden and Offer--though I confess that I find this hard to believe--Britain achieved that same feat 30 years later. Then there is more qualitative research, such as contemporary fiction. Here's an exchange from Neville Shute's The Far Country, published in 1952.
It's a hard speech to give well. Can Rubio do it right?
So Marco Rubio is going to give the official Republican response to the State of the Union. Jonathan Bernstein says, "Marco Rubio is going to give the Republican response to Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address this year. My only question: Why? Why would he want to do that?" Kevin Drum adds "If I were a rising political star, I would run, not walk, if party leaders asked me to give the SOTU response. My kid has a piano recital that night. It's my anniversary. Anything. I think you'd have to be nuts to agree to do this."
I agree that the SOTU response is very hard to give well--I once described a responder, current HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius, as having looked and sounded like an early-model Cylon. But I think there's a bigger mystery than why people agree to deliver the response, since the answer to that is obvious (politicians have huge optimism bias, or they'd never have started down this road in the first place). The real question is why they give such terrible responses.
The primary reason that SOTU responses are terrible: while the president is talking to a room full of people, the responder is talking to a camera. And unless you are really extraordinarily talented, talking to a camera looks robotic.
But there is an easy fix for this--two of them, in fact. The first is to practice the hell out of your response. And the second is to deliver it to a room full of people. This is how the only two decent responses in living memory--Barack Obama's, and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's--managed to transcend the traditional, disastrous, voder-vocoder style of the form.
Which age group cut the most?
Who bore the brunt of deleveraging during the Great Recession? The younger you are, the less you consumed:
Don't they want to sell books?
You might have thought that with Borders shutting down, Barnes and Noble would be sitting in the catbird seat. They're now practically the only place in America where you can go to get your hands on an actual physical book before you buy it. Sadly, the reality is not so cheery: with Nook sales weak, Barnes and Noble is closing a bunch of stores, including a high profile local store, in DC's Union Station.
Alexandra Petri says it's time to stage an intervention:
That is why we are staging this intervention. Whenever you see someone you love doing something that is hurting them and you, you feel bound to say something. Absence does not make the heart grow fonder, where books are concerned. Seldom seen and soon forgot seems to be more likely to be the model. Why would you assume that if there are fewer Barnes & Nobles, there will suddenly be more people dashing to BN.com?
And physical bookstores are — as even Klipper noted — not unprofitable. Is getting rid of them really such a good way to save money?
There’s no word yet if the Russians will follow suit after President Obama.
Did Obama lock down the independent vote with his move to reform immigration law? Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky and David Frum debate the liberal and conservative perspective on the latest immigration reform.