Obama's the first Democrat to face down rising gas prices in an election year since Carter. But he has advantages his unfortunate predecessor didn't.
Cars line up for gasoline during the 1979 fuel shortage / Image: Wikipedia
Gas prices are up, and there's a Democrat in the Oval Office seeking reelection. What year is it?
For Politico, 2012 is 1980 all over again, and the newspaper is now pondering whether President Obama will end up "owning" high gas prices much the way Jimmy Carter did by the end of his term in the White House.
It's certainly possible that, as fuel costs inevitably rise in the coming months, enough cash-strapped voters will start casting blame on the president to cripple his reelection chances. You never know. But economically, comparing Carter's dire predicament, which he notoriously mishandled, with Obama's is silly, in part because you can't look at gas prices in a vacuum. The late 1970s were an economic nightmare in which fuel costs were one of several scourges. Today, we're looking at a strengthening recovery that's better equipped to withstand a bit of pain at the pump.
Here are four big reasons to ignore those Carter comparisons:
No. 1: The U.S. isn't in a fight to the death with inflation
If there's a single graph that captures the misery of America's economy in the 1970s and early 1980s, it's the one below. That blue line? It's the non-core inflation rate, which includes the cost of goods like food and energy which get left out of other measures. Notice that in late 1978, when the Iranian revolution helped send oil prices soaring, prices were already rising at more than 7 percent a year. U.S. policy makers had been trying and failing to slay inflation for most of the decade, and the sudden shock of high oil prices helped set the rate completely out of control. Expensive crude made gas, as well as consumer goods, more expensive. That sent workers bargaining for higher wages, which made prices to rise further. Presto chango: an inflationary spiral.
But it got worse. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker's early, haphazard attempts to slow down runaway prices and save the value of the dollar led to sky high interest rates, which sent the economy tumbling into recession by the summer of 1980 -- right in the middle of Carter's re-election campaign. By July, unemployment topped out at 7.9 percent (it eventually dropped back to 7.1 percent by November).
Today, inflation is just about dead last on America's list of potential economic problems. Workers also aren't in much of a position to bargain for higher pay based on their weekly gas tab. So high gas prices aren't going to lead to the same terrifying wage-price spiral that, along with some clumsy tinkering by the Fed, demolished the economy under Carter.
No. 2: We don't have ridiculous regulations on selling gas
The long lines of drivers waiting outside gas stations for a chance to fill up might be the iconic image of Carter-era economic malaise. But the gas shortages that yielded those lines weren't a direct result of high prices. Rather, they were the produced of an ill-designed system of price and distribution controls, which led gas stations to sell off what limited fuel they had on a first-come-first-serve basis, then close up shop early. To get a sense of how horribly the government's regulation distorted the market for gasoline, check out this 1979 paper from the Brookings Institute. Among their myriad unintended consequences, the controls actually made it more profitable for refineries to stash away gasoline supplies and sell them at a later date, even if there was an immediate shortage. Thankfully, those kinds of regulations went out of style along with disco.
No. 3: Iran (probably) isn't going to stop selling oil
One of the eeriest similarities between today and the Carter era is the role Iran is playing in sending up gas prices. Then, it was fallout from the Iranian revolution. Today, it's uncertainty generated by U.S. and European attempts to stop Tehran's nuclear program. But there are big, gaping differences between the challenges of of 33 years ago and today.
In December of 1978, following the revolution, Iran's new leaders halted all oil shipments (they resumed a small amount the following March). At the time, the country was the world's second largest oil exporter. The market panicked, and the price of crude increased 150 percent over the coming year. Gasoline prices followed, jumping 55 percent in six months.
The current confrontation between Iran and the West is scary, yes. But unless it erupts into outright war, chances are we won't see similar supply disruptions compared to what happened in 1979. The U.S. has levied sanctions on Tehran aimed at limiting it's ability to sell oil. But as I wrote yesterday, they're not intended to take all of their crude off the market. Iran, for its part, is reportedly so desperate to to sell oil that it's offering barter deals.
No. 4: We're used to high gas prices
There's no question about it: When oil prices rise rapidly, they can hurt the economy. But when it comes to determining just how bad the damage will be, it's important to look at where oil prices have been in the recent past. James Hamilton, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, has come up with a formula for doing this that I call the rule of three. He's found that when oil prices quickly spike to a new three-year high, they can cause a damaging shock to the economy. That's because both businesses and consumers suddenly have to rapidly adjust their budgets, and often drastically cut spending. The rule of three is not a hard and fast law, but more a decent rule of thumb. It happens to describe what happened in 1979 fairly well. At the time, the only frame of reference anybody had for an oil crisis was the 1973 OPEC embargo. Nobody expected a repeat.
While oil prices are rising pretty quickly today, they're still close to where they reached during the Libyan revolution last year. They could go higher -- I'm not going to try and predict -- but at this point, even if it's painful, most Americans have an idea of how to cope with higher fuel costs. Back in 1979, it was still relatively new and frightening. Today, it's old hat.
The president is the common thread between the recent Republican losses in Alabama, New Jersey, and Virginia.
Roy Moore was a uniquely flawed and vulnerable candidate. But what should worry Republicans most about his loss to Democrat Doug Jones in Tuesday’s U.S. Senate race in Alabama was how closely the result tracked with the GOP’s big defeats last month in New Jersey and Virginia—not to mention how it followed the pattern of public reaction to Donald Trump’s perpetually tumultuous presidency.
Jones beat Moore with a strong turnout and a crushing lead among African Americans, a decisive advantage among younger voters, and major gains among college-educated and suburban whites, especially women. That allowed Jones to overcome big margins for Moore among the key elements of Trump’s coalition: older, blue-collar, evangelical, and nonurban white voters.
If Democratic candidate Doug Jones had lost to GOP candidate Roy Moore, weakened as he was by a sea of allegations of sexual assault and harassment, then some of the blame would have seemed likely to be placed on black turnout.
But Jones won, according to the Associated Press, and that script has been flipped on its head. Election Day defied the narrative and challenged traditional thinking about racial turnout in off-year and special elections. Precincts in the state’s Black Belt, the swathe of dark, fertile soil where the African American population is concentrated, long lines were reported throughout the day, and as the night waned and red counties dominated by rural white voters continued to report disappointing results for Moore, votes surged in from urban areas and the Black Belt. By all accounts, black turnout exceeded expectations, perhaps even passing previous off-year results. Energy was not a problem.
A conversation about inheritance, philanthropy, and aging with the philosopher Martha Nussbaum and the law professor Saul Levmore
What is the right way to age? It’s a question that isn’t explored enough in American society, where, seemingly, people are expected to be forever young, until, suddenly, they are not. Reflecting this binary, any writing about a long life’s final decades tends toward extremes. On one hand, there are the accounts of heroic men and women who still put in more than 40 hours a week on the job in their late 60s and early 70s (a genre I like to call “retirement porn”). On the other, there are the articles warning about the dangers of not adapting a home for aging bodies, or the plague of financial scammers targeting lonely or cognitively challenged seniors.
That leaves out a vast middle, the space where many older people actually, you know, live their lives. Luckily, Martha Nussbaum, the renowned philosopher and ethicist at the University of Chicago, and Saul Levmore, the former dean of and a current professor at the university’s law school, decided to explore that middle. The result? The recently published Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations About Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, & Regret.
Russia's strongman president has many Americans convinced of his manipulative genius. He's really just a gambler who won big.
I. The Hack
The large, sunny room at Volgograd State University smelled like its contents: 45 college students, all but one of them male, hunched over keyboards, whispering and quietly clacking away among empty cans of Juicy energy drink. “It looks like they’re just picking at their screens, but the battle is intense,” Victor Minin said as we sat watching them.
Clustered in seven teams from universities across Russia, they were almost halfway into an eight-hour hacking competition, trying to solve forensic problems that ranged from identifying a computer virus’s origins to finding secret messages embedded in images. Minin was there to oversee the competition, called Capture the Flag, which had been put on by his organization, the Association of Chief Information Security Officers, or ARSIB in Russian. ARSIB runs Capture the Flag competitions at schools all over Russia, as well as massive, multiday hackathons in which one team defends its server as another team attacks it. In April, hundreds of young hackers participated in one of them.
In analyzing Doug Jones’s surprise win, the pundit-in-chief misconstrues the race and elides his own role in Moore’s defeat.
Doug Jones’s victory in the U.S. Senate race in Alabama on Tuesday poses a quandary to Republicans at all levels—but to none more than President Trump. The results of the race demonstrate the limitations of both his political power and of his self-appointed role as pundit-in-chief. He is more interested in being right than in winning—but on Tuesday, he did neither.
The president offered a series of somewhat contradictory responses to the race between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Late Tuesday, he tweeted:
Congratulations to Doug Jones on a hard fought victory. The write-in votes played a very big factor, but a win is a win. The people of Alabama are great, and the Republicans will have another shot at this seat in a very short period of time. It never ends!
Democrats won a historic victory in the Alabama Senate special election, but the unique circumstances of that race won’t be easily replicated in future contests.
After losing the White House in 2016, the Democratic Party finally has a string of victories to celebrate. In November, Democrats won high-profile races in Virginia, New Jersey, and other states. And on Tuesday, Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in a stunning upset in the Alabama Senate special election.
But the unique circumstances of the Alabama race, where Moore faced allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls, aren’t likely to be replicated. The party also hasn’t yet proven it can win national races in states that flipped from blue to red during the 2016 presidential election.
Party officials are still cheering the wins as a sign of good things to come. Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez predicted on Wednesday that the party can win the House and the Senate in 2018. “Last night was not a fluke, it was a message: The days of Donald Trump are numbered,” Perez said.
There’s a fiction at the heart of the debate over entitlements: The carefully cultivated impression that beneficiaries are simply receiving back their “own” money.
One day in 1984, Kurt Vonnegut called.
I was ditching my law school classes to work on the presidential campaign of Walter Mondale, the Democratic candidate against Ronald Reagan, when one of those formerly-ubiquitous pink telephone messages was delivered to me saying that Vonnegut had called, asking to speak to one of Mondale’s speechwriters.
All sorts of people called to talk to the speechwriters with all sorts of whacky suggestions; this certainly had to be the most interesting. I stared at the 212 phone number on the pink slip, picked up a phone, and dialed.
A voice, so gravelly and deep that it seemed to lie at the outer edge of the human auditory range, rasped, “Hello.” I introduced myself. There was a short pause, as if Vonnegut were fixing his gaze on me from the other end of the line, then he spoke.
Young kids might be smarter and more empathetic than adults think.
In The Emotional Life of the Toddler, the child-psychology and psychotherapy expert Alicia F. Lieberman details the dramatic triumphs and tribulations of kids ages 1 to 3. Some of her anecdotes make the most commonplace of experiences feel like they should be backed by a cinematic instrumental track. Take Lieberman’s example of what a toddler feels while walking across the living room:
When Johnny can walk from one end of the living room to the other without falling even once, he feels invincible. When his older brother intercepts him and pushes him to the floor, he feels he has collapsed in shame and wants to bite his attacker (if only he could catch up with him!) When Johnny’s father rescues him, scolds the brother, and helps Johnny on his way, hope and triumph rise up again in Johnny’s heart; everything he wants seems within reach. When the exhaustion overwhelms him a few minutes later, he worries that he will never again be able to go that far and bursts into tears.
So many people watch porn online that the industry’s carbon footprint might be worse now that it was in the days of DVDs and magazines.
Online streaming is a win for the environment. Streaming music eliminates all that physical material—CDs, jewel cases, cellophane, shipping boxes, fuel—and can reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 40 percent or more. Video streaming is still being studied, but the carbon footprint should similarly be much lower than that of DVDs.
Scientists who analyze the environmental impact of the internet tout the benefits of this “dematerialization,” observing that energy use and carbon-dioxide emissions will drop as media increasingly can be delivered over the internet. But this theory might have a major exception: porn.
Since the turn of the century, the pornography industry has experienced two intense hikes in popularity. In the early 2000s, broadband enabled higher download speeds. Then, in 2008, the advent of so-called tube sites allowed users to watch clips for free, like people watch videos on YouTube. Adam Grayson, the chief financial officer of the adult company Evil Angel, calls the latter hike “the great mushroom-cloud porn explosion of 2008.”
How filler words and tiny pauses keep conversations from going off the rails
When one person asks another a question, it takes an average of 200 milliseconds for them to respond. This is so fast that we can’t even hear the pause. In fact, it’s faster than our brains actually work. It takes the brain about half a second to retrieve the words to say something, which means that in conversation, one person is gearing up to speak before the other is even finished. By listening to the tone, grammar, and content of another’s speech, we can predict when they’ll be done.
This precise clockwork dance that happens when people speak to each other is what N.J. Enfield, a professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney, calls the “conversation machine.” In his book How We Talk, he examines how conversational minutiae—filler words like “um” and “mm-hmm,” and pauses that are longer than 200 milliseconds—grease the wheels of this machine. In fact, he argues, these little “traffic signals” to some degree define human communication. What all human languages have in common, and what sets our communication apart from animals, is our ability to use language to coordinate how we use language.