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Is Obama Trolling Republicans Over Immigration?

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 12:07 PM EST

Jonah Goldberg is unhappy with President Obama's immigration order, but he's not steaming mad about it. And I think this allows him to see some things a little more clearly than his fellow conservatives:

Maybe President Obama is just trolling?

....As Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution notes, Obama "could've done all this quietly, without making any announcement whatsoever." After all, Obama has unilaterally reinterpreted and rewritten the law without nationally televised addresses before. But doing that wouldn't let him pander to Latinos and, more important, that wouldn't achieve his real goal: enraging Republicans.

As policy, King Obama's edict is a mess, which may explain why Latinos are underwhelmed by it, according to the polls. But that's not the yardstick Obama cares about most. The real goal is twofold: Cement Latinos into the Democratic coalition and force Republicans to overreact. He can't achieve the first if he doesn't succeed with the second. It remains to be seen if the Republicans will let themselves be trolled into helping him.

Don't get me wrong. I'm pretty certain that Obama did what he did because he really believes it's the right thing to do. Goldberg just isn't able to acknowledge that and retain his conservative cred. Still, somewhere in the Oval Office there was someone writing down pros and cons on a napkin, and I'll bet that enraging the GOP caucus and wrecking their legislative agenda made it onto the list of pros. So far, it looks like it's probably working. But if Republicans are smart, they'll figure out some way to follow Goldberg's advice and rein in their worst impulses. If they go nuts, they're just playing into Obama's hands.

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Map: Here's How #Ferguson Exploded on Twitter Last Night

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 11:24 AM EST

On Monday evening, news of a grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown erupted across social media. The announcement was made shortly after 8:20 PM CT and sparked massive protests around the country. The situation was particularly violent in and around the St. Louis area, with more than 60 people arrested overnight.

Using the hashtag #Ferguson, Twitter has mapped out how the conversation took place:

Following the announcement, Wilson's full testimony was released. One of the most controversial remarks included a description of Brown as looking like a "demon."

More from the chaotic scene:

Police gather on the street as protesters react after the announcement of the grand jury decision. Charlie Riedel/AP
Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown's mother, is comforted outside the Ferguson police department as St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch conveys the grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of her son. Robert Cohen/AP
People watch as stores burn down. David Goldman/AP

 

Economic Growth Starting to Show Real Signs of Life

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 10:48 AM EST

The latest numbers from the Commerce Department show that GDP increased faster than we thought in the third quarter of 2014. Growth clocked in at 3.9 percent, an increase from the original estimate of 3.5 percent. "The economy expanded at its fastest pace in more than a decade," says the Wall Street Journal. "The combined growth rate in the second and third quarters was 4.25%, the best six-month reading since 2003."

This is true, but a bit misleading since both quarters were making up for a dismal first quarter in which GDP fell by 2.1 percent. Still, even if you look at things in a more defensible way, economic growth is unquestionably picking up. The chart on the right uses a 5-quarter moving average to smooth out individual quarters that might be unusually high or low, and the trajectory of the economy is clearly on the rise. You still can't really say that things are booming, and it continues to be true that the labor market is loose and wages are pretty stagnant. Nonetheless, since 2011 growth has increased from about 1.8 percent annually to about 2.8 percent annually. Things are picking up.

If Europe can ever manage to get its act together, we might finally start really digging ourselves out of the Great Recession. I'm not sure I see any signs of that happening soon, though.

More Patents Does Not Equal More Innovation

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 11:18 PM EST

Via James Pethokoukis, here's a chart from a new CBO report on federal policies and innovation. Needless to say, you can't read too much into it. It shows the growth since 1963 of total factor productivity (roughly speaking, the share of productivity growth due to technology improvements), and there are lots of possible reasons that TFP hasn't changed much over the past five decades. At a minimum, though, the fact that patent activity has skyrocketed since 1983 with no associated growth in TFP suggests, as the CBO report says dryly, "that the large increase in patenting activity since 1983 may have made little contribution to innovation."

The CBO report identifies several possible innovation-killing aspects of the US patent system, among them a "proliferation of low-quality patents"; increased patent litigation; and the growth of patent trolls who impose a substantial burden on startup firms. The report also challenges the value of software patents:

The contribution of patents to innovation in software or business methods is often questioned because the costs of developing such new products and processes may be modest. One possible change to patent law that could reduce the cost and frequency of litigation would be to limit patent protections for inventions that were relatively inexpensive to develop. For example, patents on software and business methods could expire sooner than is the case today (which, with renewals, is after 20 years), reducing the incentive to obtain those patents. Another change that could address patent quality, the processing burden on the USPTO, and the cost and frequency of litigation would be to limit the ability to obtain a patent on certain inventions.

Personally, I'd be in favor of limiting software and business method patents to a term of zero years. But if that's not feasible, even a reduction to, say, five years or so, would be helpful. In the software industry, that's an eternity.

Are Term Limits a Good Idea?

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 1:44 PM EST

Jim Newton, a longtime local politics reporter in Los Angeles, wrote his final column for the LA Times today. In it, he offered up "a handful of changes that might make a big difference," and the one that resonates with me is his suggestion that both LA and California do away with term limits:

Elected officials who were popular with their constituents once held their seats for decades, building up experience and knowledge; now, with term limits in place, they're barely seated before they start searching for the next office. That's brought new faces but at great cost. Power has shifted from those we elect to those we don't, to the permanent bureaucracy and to lobbyists. Problems get kicked down the road in favor of attention-grabbing short-term initiatives that may have long-term consequences.

Case in point: Why do so many public employees enjoy budget-breaking pensions? Because term-limited officials realize it is easier to promise a future benefit than to give raises now. The reckoning comes later; by then they're gone.

Term limits locally were the work of Richard Riordan, who bankrolled the initiative and later became mayor. I asked him recently about them, and he startled me with his response: It was, he said, “the worst mistake of my life.”

Term limits always sound good. The problem with the idea is that being a council member or a legislator is like any other job: you get better with experience. If your legislature is populated solely by people with, at most, a term or two of experience, it's inevitable that (a) they'll have an almost pathologically short-term focus, and (b) more and more power will flow to lobbyists and bureaucrats who stay around forever and understand the levers of power better.

For what it's worth, I'd recommend a middle ground. I understand the problem people have with politicians who win office and essentially occupy sinecures for the rest of their lives. It's often a recipe for becoming insulated and out of touch with the real-world needs of constituents. But short term limits don't solve the problem of unaccountable power, they simply shift the power to other places. The answer, I think, is moderate term limits. Something between, say, ten and twenty years. That's long enough to build up genuine expertise and a genuine power base, while still preventing an office from becoming a lifetime of guaranteed employment.

Obama's Immigration Order: Lots of Sound and Fury, But Not Much Precedent

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 12:28 PM EST

In the New Republic this weekend, Eric Posner warns that President Obama's recent executive action on immigration may come back to haunt liberals. Obama's order was perfectly legal, he says, but "it may modify political norms that control what the president can do." And since most of the regulatory apparatus of the government is fundamentally liberal in nature, a political norm that allows presidents to suspend enforcement of rules they don't like benefits conservatives a lot more than it does liberals.

This is not something to be taken lightly, and Posner makes his point pretty reasonably—unlike a lot of conservatives who have been busily writing gleeful, half-witted columns about suspending the estate tax or dismantling the EPA. Political norms matter, as Republicans know very well, since they've smashed so many of them in recent years. Still, there are a couple of reasons that there's probably less here than meets the eye, and Posner acknowledges them himself.

First, although the core of Obama's authority to modify immigration law lies in his inherent power to practice prosecutorial discretion—which is rooted in the Constitution—the specific actions he took are justified by statutory language and congressional budgeting priorities that are unique to immigration law. As conservative lawyer Margaret Stock reminds us, "The Immigration and Nationality Act and other laws are chock-full of huge grants of statutory authority to the president." And Posner himself agrees. "The president’s authority over this arena is even greater than his authority over other areas of the law." He reiterates this in his TNR piece, explaining that immigration law "falls uniquely under executive authority, as a matter of history and tradition."

So Obama's actions may be unusually broad, but that's largely because immigration law is written to give the president considerable latitude. That's much less the case for things like the tax code or the Clean Air Act. So even though it's true, as Posner says, that most regulatory statutes "contain pockets of vagueness," there's less precedent here than it seems, and less breaking of political norms than Posner imagines.

But there's a second reason that Obama isn't seriously breaking any political norms: they were already broken years ago. Posner himself tells the story:

In 1981, Ronald Reagan entered the presidency vowing to deregulate the economy. But because the House was controlled by Democrats, Reagan could not persuade Congress to repeal as many regulatory statutes as he wanted to.

So Reagan sought to undermine the regulatory system itself. He forced agencies to show proposed regulations to the Office of Management and Budget, a White House agency, and empowered the OMB to block or delay regulations that did not satisfy a cost-benefit test. Although OMB was told to obey the law, liberals howled that the effect of the cost-benefit test was to undercut regulation since no such test existed in the statutes under which agencies issued regulations. And when the Reagan administration could not change or repeal the rules, it cut back on enforcement. The Justice Department famously reduced enforcement of the antitrust and civil rights laws. More howls ensued.

But the Reagan administration exhausted itself fighting against political distrust of an imperial executive and overreached by trying to deregulate in areas—like the environment—that people cared about. Republican successors—the two Bushes—did not pursue deregulation through non-enforcement with such zeal. Obama’s deferral actions, by further normalizing non-enforcement, may reinvigorate the Reagan-era push for deregulation through the executive branch.

It's become traditional that when a new president takes office he immediately suspends any of his predecessor's executive actions that have been recently implemented. At the same time, his own team begins beavering away on regulatory changes that are part of his campaign agenda. At a different level, orders are written that make it either easier or harder for agencies to implement new rules and enforce old ones. And while Reagan may not have gotten all the deregulation he wanted, the OMB has become a permanent part of the regulatory landscape, which is yet another avenue for presidents to affect the enforcement of rules. It may not get a lot of attention, but when you fiddle with the cost-benefit parameters that OMB uses, the ripple effect can be surprisingly extensive.

In other words, agency regulations and executive orders are already major battlegrounds of public policy that are aggressively managed by the White House, regardless of which party is in power. Has Obama expanded this battleground? Perhaps. But I don't think the change is nearly as great as some people are making it out to be. Immigration law is fairly unique in its grant of power to the executive, so we don't really have to worry about President Rand Paul rewriting the tax code from the Oval Office. We do need to worry about all the other executive actions he might take, but for the most part, I don't think that's changed much. The kinds of things he can do are about the same now as they were a week ago.

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Finland Starting to Think Hard About Joining NATO

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 11:05 AM EST

Behold the results of Vladimir Putin's brilliant strategy of scaring the hell out of every single country within bomber range of Russia:

As Russian-backed separatists have eviscerated another non-NATO neighbor this year — Ukraine — Finnish leaders have watched with growing alarm. They are increasingly questioning whether the nonaligned path they navigated through the Cold War can keep them safe as Europe heads toward another period of dangerous standoffs between West and East.

....The palpable anxiety in this country that many in the West consider a model of progressive and stable democratic governance reflects how unsettled Europe has become since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March. Many in Helsinki are convinced that Russia will not remain deterred for long and say Finland needs to fundamentally rethink elements of its security policy that have been bedrock principles for decades.

....“It’s going in a terrifying direction,” said Elisabeth Rehn, a former Finnish defense minister who favors NATO membership. “It’s only been 100 years since we gained our independence from Russia. Crimea was a part of Russia, too. Will they try to take back what belonged to them 100 years ago?”

Rehn said she doubts Russia would go that far but said the fear of Russian military aggression is real.

Will Finland join NATO? Probably not anytime soon. But just think about what Putin has accomplished here. Finland stayed out of NATO for the entire four decades of the Cold War, but is now so unnerved by Russia's actions that it's seriously thinking about joining up. If Putin is truly afraid of Russia being fully surrounded by the West, his worst fears are about to come true thanks to his own actions. No one wants to be the next eastern Ukraine, and right now NATO membership is probably looking mighty appealing to a lot of people who were OK with the status quo a few years ago.

Putin's bellicose nationalism may play well at home, but it sure isn't doing him any favors anywhere else.

Media Goes Wild Over Hagel Firing But Not Obama's Secret Afghanistan Reversal

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 11:03 AM EST
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel meets with soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division.

There's little the Washington-centric political-media universe loves more than the story of a fallen star. The defenestration of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has reporters and pundits in a schadenfreude-driven tizzy. Was he fired? Was he in over his head? OMG, look at how the White House is dumping on him, as he departs! Who's passing nasty notes in class about him?

The presumably forced resignation of Hagel is indeed big news. The Obama administration is confronting a host of new national security challenges: ISIS, Ukraine, Ebola. So the guy (or gal) in charge of the Pentagon has to be nimble and able to handle this expanding and shifting to-do list. And Hagel, ever since his underwhelming performance at his confirmation hearing, has not been (at least in public) a confidence-inspiring Cabinet member. So perhaps President Barack Obama can do better—though the elbowing Hagel is receiving on the way out seems poor manners.

Yet here's a useful exercise. Compare the red-hot media reaction to Hagel's bye-bye to the response to the New York Times' eye-popping report that Obama signed a secret order to expand the US military mission in Afghanistan next year. The story about one man—yes, one of the cool kids in DC—is at least an order of magnitude higher on the MediaReax-ometer. Any tidbit from an anonymous source about de-Hagelization gets immediate attention from tweeting journos. But the story about this significant policy shift has prompted mostly a yawn.

In case you missed it—the story was posted online on Friday but appeared in Saturday's dead-trees edition—the Times revealed that Obama, who last May said the United States would have no combat missions in Afghanistan in 2015 (and only train Afghan forces and hunt Al Qaeda "remnants"), had secretly authorized American forces

to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.

Chuck Hagel Resigning as Secretary of Defense

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 10:36 AM EST

President Barack Obama is expected to announce the resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday. The New York Times reports that the president's decision to ask Hagel to step down follows a series of meetings, which concluded that a change in leadership was needed in order to deal with international threats including the Islamic State.

Candidates for Hagel's replacement reportedly include former Undersecretary of Defense Michelle Flournoy, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, and Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.) Hagel, the only Republican in the president's national security team, is expected to remain until a successor is named.

Less than two years on the job, this is the first major resignation from Obama's cabinet following the Democrats' disappointing midterm elections. From an administration official:

Over the past two years, Secretary Hagel helped manage an intense period of transition for the United States Armed Forces, including the drawdown in Afghanistan, the need to prepare our forces for future missions, and tough fiscal choices to keep our military strong and ready. Over nearly two years, Secretary Hagel has been a steady hand, guiding our military through this transition, and helping us respond to challenges from ISIL to Ebola. In October, Secretary Hagel began speaking with the President about departing the Administration given the natural post-midterms transition time.

Earlier this month, Hagel announced the country's nuclear weapons program would be undergoing a massive overhaul after the Pentagon released a review citing antiquated equipment and poor leadership plaguing the nuclear forces. 

One Man Should Not Dictate Immigration Policy

| Sun Nov. 23, 2014 3:31 PM EST

You know, the more I mull over the Republican complaint about how immigration reform is being implemented, the more I sympathize with them. Public policy, especially on big, hot button issues like immigration, shouldn't be made by one person. One person doesn't represent the will of the people, no matter what position he holds. Congress does, and the will of Congress should be paramount in policymaking.

Now don't get me wrong. I haven't changed my mind about the legality of all this. The Constitution is clear that each house of Congress makes its own rules. The rules of the House of Representatives are clear and well-established. And past speakers of the House have all used their legislative authority to prevent votes on bills they don't wish to consider. Both the law and past precedent are clear: John Boehner is well within his legal rights to refuse to allow the House to vote on the immigration bill passed by the Senate in 2013.

Still, his expansion of that authority makes me uneasy. After all, this is a case where poll after poll shows that large majorities of the country favor comprehensive immigration reform. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill over a year ago by a wide margin. And there's little question that the Senate bill has majority support in the House too. So not only is the will of Congress clear, but the president has also made it clear that he'd sign the bill if Congress passed it. The only thing stopping it is one man.

That should make us all a bit troubled. John Boehner may be acting legally. But is he acting properly?