Paul Waldman

No One Has to Tweet

I really doubt Paul Krugman would do this.

I can recall, back in around 2008 or so, sitting in an airport listening to a radio story about this thing called Twitter, in which some tech booster was explaining how great it was to be able to send out little 140-character updates on what he was doing all the time, so the the people he cared about could have a sense of his daily life. I thought it sounded both inane and horrifying, but like most things governed by network effects, its value not just increased but changed in nature as more and more people got on it. I resisted going on Twitter for a long time (despite the pleading of my then-editor), in part because I was worried it would just be a distraction from my work. But it turned out, once I got on, that it became invaluable to my work. Most of the people I follow are writers or other people who point me to things I might need to know or want to write about; when I'm lost for something to say, Twitter will often send me on a path that will ultimately lead to a post or a column.

But I can see how, if you're still not on Twitter, all the people saying, "You totally need to be on Twitter!" would make you really, really not want to be on Twitter. So it seems with Paul Krugman, who I think it's safe to say is the most influential liberal voice in the American media. He explains why he stays away:

Could You Live on $11,940 a Year?

A couple of months ago, Fox News host Neil Cavuto went on a rant against fast-food workers striking for higher wages, explaining that when he was but a wee pup of 16, he went to work at an Arthur Treacher's restaurant for a mere $2 an hour, setting him on the road to becoming the vigorous and well-remunerated cheerleader for capitalism he is today. For all his economic acumen, Cavuto seemed to forget that there's a thing called "inflation," and the two bucks he earned in 1974 would today be worth $9.47. That's less than the striking fast-food workers are asking for (they want $15 an hour), but significantly more than the $7.25 today's minimum-wage workers make. Not to mention the fact that so many of them are not teenagers but adults trying to survive and support families. (According to the Economic Policy Institute, 88 percent of those who would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage are over the age of 20; that and much more data on the topic can be found here.)

Yesterday, the California legislature passed a bill raising the state's minimum wage to $10 an hour, which would make it the highest in the nation. Governor Jerry Brown intends to sign it. Of course, business interests howled that paying people such a handsome wage would destroy the state's economy, which is what they always say whenever the minimum wage is raised, despite the fact that it never seems to happen. The California increase is going to be phased in over two and a half years; the minimum in the state will rise from its current $8 to $9 next summer, then to $10 at the beginning of 2016. Since this issue seems to be coming back to the fore as it does periodically—the mayor of Washington, DC just vetoed a living wage bill that was aimed primarily at Walmart—I thought it might be worthwhile to compare the value of the minimum wage today to what it has been in the past:

The Rapid Rise and Humiliating Fall of a Middle East "Expert"

One of Elizabeth O'Bagy's many appearances on Fox News.

It seems as though every few months, some Washington institution—a government agency, a think tank, or the like —finds themselves surprised when one of the people working for them turns out to be a fraud, a purveyor of offensive ideas, or otherwise an embarrassment. After a few days of controversy, the person's resignation is accepted, and they disappear forever. Back in July, a guy working for Rand Paul turned out to be a neo-Confederate. In May, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, Jason Richwine, turned out to have some colorful ideas about Hispanics and IQ. The latest, and one of the strangest, is the case of Elizabeth O'Bagy, an expert on Syria employed by the Institute for the Study of War, a right-leaning think tank.

This often happens when the person achieves precisely the goal they've been working for: wide dissemination of their ideas, and an elevation in their visibility. It's that sudden visibility that leads people who disagree with those ideas to say, "Who is this person?" and start looking into their past, which is when things begin to unravel.

Just What Cable News Needs: More Bickering

The new Crossfire, just as interesting as you'd expect.

Back in 2004, Jon Stewart went on the CNN show Crossfire and begged the hosts to "stop hurting America." The clip became an early viral video (this was before YouTube), and it was like the young boy shouting that the emperor has no clothes. Evidently, people at the network looked around at each other and said, "He's right. This is just awful. We have to cancel this show so we can look ourselves in the mirror again." Within weeks it was off the air.

I'm not saying that in the entire two decades of its previous incarnation, Crossfire was uniformly pernicious. But by the end it had reached a truly ghastly low, with Tucker Carlson and James Carville shouting over each other while a studio audience whooped and hollered in the background. Why anyone voluntarily subjected themselves to watching it remains a mystery. And now, Crossfire is back on the air. The obvious question is one you might ask yourself after a hurricane flooded your house or a bear killed and ate your favorite great-aunt: Why, God, why?

Twelve Years Later, Have We Gotten Control of Our Fear?

This kind of thing just doesn't fill us with terror anymore. (Office of the President/Wikimedia Commons)

Reading an article today I came across a reference to the Dixie Chicks and their fall from grace, which happened ten years ago. It was shocking enough at the time, but today it seems beyond absurd, that a musical group could be all but blacklisted out of the American entertainment industry because they expressed opposition to the Iraq War and joked about being ashamed that George W. Bush was from their home state of Texas. Even then, a year and a half after the September 11 attacks, just expressing reservations about a foreign military adventure was enough to put them on the receiving end of a torrent of hate and fear, to the point where radio stations refused to play their songs and concert venues wouldn't book them.

But today, we can say with some pride that our level of national terror has been significantly reduced. The situation in Syria and the Iraq War are obviously different in many important ways, but don't forget that despite the ridiculousness of the Bush administration's case for war (which some of us saw plainly at the time), they were quite successful in getting Americans to sign on. At the time of the invasion, around two-thirds of the public thought it was a good idea. And that was a full-scale war. Today, Barack Obama can barely get half that number to support lobbing some cruise missiles into Syria.

As I said, the situations were different in many ways. But what made Bush's persuasion project possible was the fact that Americans were afraid.

Mobile Phones Continue Inexorable Conquest of Globe

Flickr/Kohei314

Yesterday, Apple released its new iPhones, one a slightly updated version of the iPhone 5 with a fingerprint reader, and one a cheaper version ("unapologetically plastic," in the term the PR wizards came up with) meant to attract new customers in developing countries. In case you didn't catch any of the eight zillion articles written about the release, minds remained rather unblown. Apple may still be an unstoppable engine of profit, but there are only so many times you can tweak a product and convince people it's totally revolutionary (not that that will stop Apple cultists from standing in line to get the latest version). In any case, this is as good a time as any to step back and look at the remarkable spread of mobile phones across the Earth. There are few other technologies that have found their way into so many hands in so short a time.

Government-Shutdown Crisis Proceeding on Schedule

Eric Cantor, liberal stooge. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

What with all the attention being paid to Syria, most people have forgotten that we're just three weeks away from a government shutdown unless Congress passes a continuing resolution (CR), which is the (relatively) quick-and-easy way of keeping the government operating at current funding levels without writing a whole new budget. As you may remember, Tea Party Republicans in the House would like to use the threat of a government shutdown to force a defunding of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, while the Republican leadership, conservatives to a person, realizes that this is spectacularly stupid. If they actually hold up the CR with a defunding demand, Barack Obama will say no, the government will shut down, Republicans will get every ounce of the blame, and it'll be a complete disaster for the GOP. Eventually they'll give in and pass a CR, but only after having caused a crisis and eroding their brand even further, and by the way not actually defunding Obamacare.

So House Majority Leader Eric Cantor came up with something resembling a solution. The way it would work is that the House would pass two versions of the CR, one that defunds Obamacare and one that doesn't. They would then send them to the Senate, which would presumably pass only the one that doesn't defund Obamacare, which Obama would then sign. As Politico describes it, "The arrangement allows all sides to express themselves, but it surrenders the shutdown leverage that some conservatives hunger for." And not surprisingly, Tea Partiers both inside and outside Congress don't like it.

Investigative Journalism Producing Change, Local Edition

Last Sunday's Post.

One of the main arguments for why it's a bad thing if the newspaper industry dies is that newspapers cover local affairs in a way that nobody else does, and that has demonstrable effects on people's lives. Most of the time we don't actually see those effects, but every once in a while, a story comes along that proves all over again why newspapers are so vital, not just because of what they can expose but because of the change that can come from it.

The Washington Post is in the midst of a series of articles about an unbelievable scam victimizing some extremely vulnerable citizens of the District of Columbia. It's one of those combinations of government incompetence, private greed, and sheer immorality that just makes your blood boil. Here's what happened.

The War on Terror Is Still Everywhere

AP Photo/Doug Mills

In May of this year, Barack Obama gave a speech effectively declaring the end of the "War on Terror." Like many people, I was pleased. The War on Terror, which embodies the idea that terrorism is such an existential threat that all other threats the US has faced pale before it and therefore we had permission abandon every moral standard we ever held to and wage a global military campaign that never ends, has been a poison coursing through our national bloodstream. Its effects can be seen in things that don't on their surface seem to have almost anything to do with terrorism. And despite Obama's speech, it doesn't seem like much has changed.

It was only a few weeks after that speech that Edward Snowden's revelations about the scope of NSA surveillance began to come out, and it wasn't as though President Obama said, "You know what? This just shows how things have gotten out of hand. We're going to be dialing this stuff back." He defended every bit of it as necessary and proper. Why do we need this positively gargantuan apparatus of surveillance? The answer is always terrorism. Oh, we're using it to spy on state actors too—both enemies and friends—but it's harder to argue that Chinese officials or the president of Brazil want to kill your children, so when challenged, the justification inevitably turns back to terrorism.

The War on Terror perspective, where the most extreme overreactions become the ordinary way of doing business, has infected all kinds of government actions. I point you to this story in yesterday's New York Times by David Carr, which on first glance doesn't look like it's about the WoT, but I think in some ways it is. It's about Barrett Brown, a journalist who has reported on the activities of Anonymous, the internet hacking group. If prosecutors have their way, Brown will spend the rest of his life in prison because he posted a link. I kid you not:

Is Barack Obama a Hawk?

Wikimedia Commons/DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy.

Back in 2008, one of the things—maybe the main thing—that convinced liberal Democrats that Barack Obama was more liberal than Hillary Clinton was that while Clinton had supported the Iraq War and was seen as generally to the more hawkish side of national security issues, Obama had opposed the war and sounded generally more skeptical about the use of American military power. Having been right on Iraq was a pretty rare calling card, and a lot of liberals took it as a proxy for something larger. It wasn't just that he was less like George W. Bush, it meant that he had the courage to stand up to Republicans and advocate for liberal values when other Democrats quaked in fear.

In retrospect, it doesn't seem that Obama was or is more liberal than Clinton in any substantive way, aside from perhaps a small policy difference here or there. And while he hasn't started any new big wars on the scale of Iraq, that isn't saying much, since Iraq was our biggest war since Vietnam. Today Kevin Drum takes E.J. Dionne to task for saying that "Obama has been so reluctant to take military action up until now."...

What Happens If There's a Split Decision in Congress on Syria?

Flickr/World Can't Wait

As we begin the congressional debate on whether to launch some kind of strike on Syria, one of the main questions animating the political discussion is, what happens if Obama loses? People are saying some predictably stupid things about it, talking about how wounded Obama's presidency would be, and how he'd no longer be able to get Congress to do his bidding, unlike the last few years, when he got whatever he wanted from Congress. But here's a question: What if a resolution on the use of force in Syria passes the Senate, but fails to pass the House?

Right now that looks like a distinct possibility. People doing whip counts based on what members have publicly said (see here or here) are saying that in the House, a majority of members have either come out against military action or say they're leaning that way. In the Senate things are less clear; most senators haven't said how they'll vote. Of course that could change, but if it doesn't, what happens then?

Your New Robot Colleague Has Been Programmed to Put You At Ease

Baxter, a friendly robot colleague who'd love to hang out with you after work. (Flickr/Steve Jurvetson)

As robots move into more and more workplaces in the coming decades—not just high-tech manufacturing but eventually everything from hospitals to supermarkets—one of the big challenges employers will face is making their carbon-based workforce comfortable with the new arrivals. That's the topic of an interesting story in The Economist (h/t Kevin Drum) that focuses not just on the technology but on how the robots make us feel, and what must be done to keep people from freaking out when they find out their new partner is made of metal and plastic. It seems that the psychology of human-robot interaction is going to be a burgeoning field in the next few years:

Iraq Is Still Burning

AP Photo/Hadi Mizban

In the debate over whether we should bomb Syria, a name has come up that we hadn't heard in a while: Iraq. There are all kinds of overly simplistic comparisons you could make between 2003 and 2013, but they really are nothing alike, most particularly in that George Bush wanted and got a great big war, while Barack Obama plainly doesn't want any such thing. And of course, Iraq was just kind of sitting there, while today Syria is engulfed in a bloody civil war.

But this is a good time to remember that when we finally left Iraq two years ago, things didn't exactly become all unicorns and rainbows. Not that it would be any better if our troops were still there getting shot at, but the country remains awash in sectarian violence.

For some perspective, think about the Boston bombing—not just the reaction of the authorities, which included shutting down a major city for most of a day, but how much we talked and thought about it, learned about the victims, debated what it meant and didn't mean. As horrible as it was, these days that would be a quiet day in Baghdad.

Amid the Unwashed Masses

Flesh pressed, opinions heard. (Flickr/Rep. George Miller)

Over the next couple of weeks, we'll probably be seeing a lot of stories in which a member of Congress goes back to the home district and is confronted by worried/angry/surly constituents demanding we stay out of Syria. Here's a piece in today's New York Times about Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) hearing from skeptical citizens. Here's a piece in today's Washington Post about Rep. Gerry Connolly hearing from skeptical citizens. Here's a piece in Politico about John McCain hearing from skeptical citizens. This is almost invariably described as the politician "getting an earful." For some reason, we never refer to someone getting an earful of praise or support; the ears of our representatives can only be filled with displeasure or contempt.

In the old days before polling, grizzled political reporters would literally go door to door and do their own informal polls to see what people thought about an election or a policy debate; they'd get a sense of the public will, along with some quotes, and they'd have a story. As some point they discovered it's more efficient to just go to a diner, but either way, for all their Northeastern elitism, the reporters still want to keep their finger on the public pulse. But reading some of these stories has me wondering. What do you do when you go out with a member of Congress to get in touch with the people, and the people turn out to be idiots?

Class Struggle at the Airport

Settle in - you'll be here a while. (Flickr/Jonathan McPherskesen)

I've always thought that the real reason conservatives recoil in disgust from the idea of "socialized" health care is their belief that in a system like Britain's (actual socialized care) or Canada's (private care, socialized insurance), the wealthy can't buy more care than anybody else. In practice that's not really true—most single-payer systems include some kind of supplemental private insurance you can get that will give you more perks than the common folk, like a private room when you're admitted to the hospital. But the point is, American conservatives are deeply committed to inequality as a fundamental principle of resource distribution. Whatever we're talking about—iPads, cars, education, health care—rich people ought to be able to use their money to get more of it than the rest of us. What's the point of being rich if you aren't elevated beyond the teeming masses during every moment of every day and in every aspect of your existence?

Maybe I'm caricaturing them because I'm a liberal, but I don't think so. The question is, are there any areas of life where we all should have to suffer the same hassles and indignities, no matter what our net worth? I'm not begrudging a millionaire his Porsche, but if I have to wait at the DMV for two hours to register my used car, he ought to have to do the same for his finely crafted piece of German engineering. And what about the airport?

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