Kevin Drum

Kevin McCarthy: "I'm Not the Guy"

| Thu Oct. 8, 2015 1:14 PM EDT


North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones (R) sent a letter to the No. 4 House Republican saying any candidate for leadership who has committed any "misdeeds" since joining Congress should "withdraw" from the contest.


House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Thursday abruptly dropped out of the race to replace John Boehner for speaker, a stunning move that further complicates an already chaotic House leadership contest....Said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus: “I was shocked just like everyone else…he said something to the effect of I’m not the guy.”

Ummm....WTF? I will put off further comment until I pick up my jaw from the floor.

UPDATE: From no less a conservative icon than Erick Erickson, we get this:

There’s a guy out in America who has emails for a massive number of members of Congress and the email addresses of highly influential conservatives outside Congress.

A few days ago, he emailed out to 91 people, including these members of Congress, an email with a series of links to stories alleging a relationship between Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) of North Carolina. It is worth nothing that the two deny a relationship.

But the email began circulating pretty heavily. Conservatives were buzzing about it. The first line pointed to the current scandal about Denny Hastert and concluded suggesting that if the rumor about McCarthy and his personal life were true, he was a national security risk.

Okey dokey.

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We Get It: Paul Krugman Has Been Right All Along

| Thu Oct. 8, 2015 11:46 AM EDT

Here is Paul Krugman just in the past month:

  • It’s now seven years since I warned....
  • Who could have predicted such a thing? Well, me....
  • Many of us warned from the beginning that the multiplier was probably much larger....
  • Those of us who took our Hicks seriously calling the big stuff — the effects of monetary and fiscal policy — right, and those who went with their gut getting it all wrong....
  • As I’ve been trying to point out....
  • As I’ve written many times....
  • Attacks on Keynesians in general, and on me in particular....
  • Here’s what I wrote three years ago....

And that's not even counting his print columns, which I didn't have the patience to plow through. I'm a pretty big fan of Krugman, but even for me this stuff has long since gotten old. Maybe it's time to go cold turkey on the whole "I was right" meme and just concentrate on the economics.

Quote of the Day: Japanese Mathematician Discovers Marvelous Brain-Altering Proof

| Thu Oct. 8, 2015 11:10 AM EDT

From Davide Castelvecchi, writing about an impenetrable 500-page mathematical proof that might change the field forever if it's verified:

But so far, the few who have understood the work have struggled to explain it to anyone else. “Everybody who I'm aware of who's come close to this stuff is quite reasonable, but afterwards they become incapable of communicating it,” says one mathematician who did not want his name to be mentioned. The situation, he says, reminds him of the Monty Python skit about a writer who jots down the world's funniest joke. Anyone who reads it dies from laughing and can never relate it to anyone else.

Apparently Shinichi Mochizuki essentially invented a whole new branch of arithmetic geometry in order to complete his proof of the abc conjecture. So you have to learn a whole new field of math and then work your way laboriously through the actual proof. There are, according to Castelvecchi, something like four or five people in the whole world capable of doing this. Good luck, guys!

Image vs. Reality, Vladimir Putin Edition

| Thu Oct. 8, 2015 10:31 AM EDT

The LA Times writes today about Russia's intervention in Syria:

The outcome of Vladimir Putin's bold military gamble in Syria is far from clear, but in the short term, one loser seems certain: President Obama.

....The White House has been poised for weeks to quietly shift more U.S. military support to seasoned Kurdish militias and other rebel fighters in northern Syria. But at this point, any change in policy will appear to be in response to Putin's muscular moves, not a new initiative to help solve the multi-sided conflict.

Putin is "bold" and "muscular." Obama is a "loser." Well, this piece is labeled as analysis, so I guess that's fair enough. But I hope that future articles continue to report the reality—that Obama has been planning for a while to shift his strategy in Syria—rather than merely parroting the tired judgment that he "appears" to be responding to the muscular Putin. In any case, let's continue:

Middle Eastern allies who have chafed at Washington's reluctance to plunge into the 4-year-old civil war have been impressed by how the Russian president has come to an ally's defense, even if they don't like his goals or his ally, Arab officials say.

Seriously? Sure, many of our Arab allies have been urging us for a long time to be more militantly anti-Assad. But are they really impressed by Putin's actions? He's allowed his "ally" Assad to twist in the wind with no apparent concern at all since 2011, and then after four years he finally enters the conflict in a small way—mainly because he was about to lose Assad for good. So far, he's launched a few air sorties and some cruise missiles. Are our Arab allies really that easily impressed? Onward:

From the White House's perspective, the problem is not only that Russia is propping up a leader who they insist must step down as a part of a political deal to end the bloodletting. It is also that Putin's moves seem aimed at emphasizing American hesitation and signaling a lack of respect for the former Cold War foe.

....Over the last week, Moscow has seemed indifferent to the risk of a confrontation with Washington as Russian forces repeatedly attacked Syrian rebels armed by the CIA and allied spy services.

Once again, Putin is the Donald Trump of world leaders: lots of showmanship and media attention for a very small price. It's impressive in a way. But the simple fact remains: Putin hasn't really done very much, and the fact that his Syria offensive seems aimed mostly at tweaking Obama is a show of childishness not strength. On Wednesday he even boasted that Russia's cruise missiles "hit all the targets," something the US hardly needs to bother with since everyone already knows we have plenty of cruise missiles that have a long history of hitting their targets.

Finally, we end with this:

Putin's gamble may accomplish several of his goals: increasing Russian influence in the Middle East and on the world stage, building his image at home, and shifting Western attention from his intervention in Ukraine.

But many analysts believe that neither Putin nor anyone else can wrest military victory from the bitter cauldron in Syria. And many expect Obama, who has made that argument since the conflict began in 2011, to continue to move cautiously. Obama "has been pretty good about resisting pressure to get in deeper," said Kupchan. "I don't think he's going to react to Putin's gambit by upping the ante."

Maybe we should have started with that? Putin is essentially engaged in a PR campaign. Obama isn't taking the bait because he knows perfectly well it's a fool's errand. I hope everyone in Washington keeps that firmly in mind as Putin continues his Trump-esque rampage across the media landscape.

Quote of the Day: "The Republican Party Left Me"

| Thu Oct. 8, 2015 12:17 AM EDT

From former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, in his new memoir, The Courage To Act:

[I] lost patience with Republicans’ susceptibility to the know-nothing-ism of the far right. I didn’t leave the Republican Party. I felt that the party left me.

This is, of course, a deliberate echo of Ronald Reagan's famous line about the Democratic Party leaving him. And it's hard to blame Bernanke. The know-nothing wing of the Republican Party rebelled against the TARP rescue package at the height of the economic meltdown. They howled that low interest rates would lead to imminent hyperinflation. They resolutely refused to consider fiscal stimulus despite Bernanke's repeated pleas (see helpful illustration below from 2011). They wanted to audit the Fed. They wanted to end the Fed. They wanted to put us back on the gold standard. When Bernanke told them that spending cuts would lead to higher unemployment, Rep. Kevin McCarthy refused to believe him. Now he's about to become Speaker of the House.

Bernanke was no leftist, he was just a mainstream economist—and a cautious one. It didn't matter. Republicans didn't want to hear anything that interfered with their hard-money frenzy, even from one of their own. So they abandoned him.

Ben Carson Apparently Doesn't Know What the Debt Limit Is

| Wed Oct. 7, 2015 8:35 PM EDT

Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Ben Carson:

Ryssdal: As you know, Treasury Secretary Lew has come out in the last couple of days and said, "We're gonna run out of money, we're gonna run out of borrowing authority, on the fifth of November." Should the Congress then and the president not raise the debt limit? Should we default on our debt?

Carson: Let me put it this way: if I were the president, I would not sign an increased budget. Absolutely would not do it. They would have to find a place to cut.

Ryssdal: To be clear, it's increasing the debt limit, not the budget, but I want to make sure I understand you. You'd let the United States default rather than raise the debt limit.

Carson: No, I would provide the kind of leadership that says, "Get on the stick guys, and stop messing around, and cut where you need to cut, because we're not raising any spending limits, period."

Ryssdal: I'm gonna try one more time, sir. This is debt that's already obligated. Would you not favor increasing the debt limit to pay the debts already incurred?

Carson: What I'm saying is what we have to do is restructure the way that we create debt. I mean if we continue along this, where does it stop? It never stops. You're always gonna ask the same question every year. And we're just gonna keep going down that pathway. That's one of the things I think that the people are tired of.

Ryssdal: I'm really trying not to be circular here, Dr. Carson, but if you're not gonna raise the debt limit and you're not gonna give specifics on what you're gonna cut, then how are we going to know what you are going to do as president of the United States?

It sure sounds as if Carson doesn't know what the debt limit is, doesn't it? Kai Ryssdal tries manfully to get a straight answer out of him, and after the fourth try Carson rambles into a long disquisition on the infinite-time-horizon fiscal gap, at which point Ryssdal finally gives up. I guess I don't blame him.

On the other hand, I'll give Carson credit for something Ryssdal doesn't: telling him what he'd cut in order to balance the budget. Carson is pretty clear about this: he would cut the government across the board by 3-4 percent via the simple expedient of keeping spending flat for everything. In real terms, this gets you to Carson's 3-4 percent decrease. He says he'd do this for three or four years, and boom! Balanced budget.

Ryssdal badgers Carson about this, but doesn't ask the obvious follow-ups: You'd cut Social Security 3-4 percent each year? Medicare? Defense? Veterans? If the answer is no—as it probably would be—then you ask Carson how he's going to balance the budget with just the stuff that's left over.

In any case, it's pretty scary that a guy this ignorant of the basics of governance is doing so well in the Republican primary. Not surprising, maybe, but still scary.

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Hillary Clinton Announces Opposition to TPP, But Her Reasons Are Pretty Weak

| Wed Oct. 7, 2015 6:12 PM EDT

Hillary Clinton, who was once a fan of the TPP trade deal, announced today that she's now opposed to it. That's fine. But her reasons seem less than compelling:

In her statement, Clinton said she is "continuing to learn about the details of the new Trans-Pacific Partnership, including looking hard at what’s in there to crack down on currency manipulation, which kills American jobs, and to make sure we’re not putting the interests of drug companies ahead of patients and consumers."

She had said months ago that the currency provision would be a key test for her.

The pharmaceutical provisions are indeed a point of considerable controversy, but the final draft of the agreement weakens them compared to what the US was asking for back when Hillary was involved. As for currency manipulation, TPP doesn't address that at all.

So one provision she mentions has been improved, and the other does no harm because it's not addressed. If the deal looked OK a year ago, it should still look OK today. Likewise, if it looks bad today, it should have looked bad a year ago. So what really changed? Bernie Sanders, most likely. Just as the Republican side of things has been buffeted by the Trump Effect, the Democratic race has been been influenced by the Bernie Effect—which is just what he wanted, since I don't think he entered the race because he truly believed he had a chance to become president. He just wanted to move the conversation to the left, and he's succeeded at that.

Microsoft Announced Some Stuff Yesterday

| Wed Oct. 7, 2015 3:53 PM EDT

Yesterday really highlighted the difference between Apple PR and Microsoft PR. Last month, I started hearing about Apple's big product announcement at least a week before it happened. By the time Der Tag rolled around I had read at least a dozen previews, and on the day itself practically everyone was not just reporting on it, but liveblogging it, tweeting it, Instagramming it, and just generally going bananas. And that was for an announcement that turned out to be fairly unexciting.

On Tuesday, Microsoft put on its big product announcement show. I had no idea it was on the calendar. I hadn't read a word about it beforehand. On the day itself, my Twitter feed was silent. The front pages of newspapers were busy with other things. And that's despite the fact that Microsoft was actually introducing some fairly cool stuff.

(Note: this is not meant as an Apple vs. Windows fight. If you think nothing related to Windows could ever be cool, that's fine.)

But it also highlighted how far from the mainstream my tastes seem to be. One of Microsoft's announcements, for example, was a new notebook with a detachable screen that can be used as a tablet. Ho hum. There are dozens of those around. Except for one thing: this notebook screen has 267 ppi resolution, which means you can actually use it as a tablet without your eyes going cockeyed. But that got hardly any attention at all. Why? Am I the only one who's been waiting for a genuinely high-res Windows tablet? And even if I am, why else would anyone even care about this new laptop? It's expensive and otherwise not especially noteworthy.

Ditto for the new Surface Pro 4. It's slightly bigger and a bit lighter than the old Surface Pro, and it sports faster processors. That's all fine, though nothing to shout about. But! Its screen is super high-res, just like the notebook. I've been pining away for this for years. I want one. And I have a birthday coming up.

So that's question #1: Does the rest of the world think that 200 ppi is basically fine? I mean, it is fine, in a way. I use a 200 ppi tablet all the time, and it's OK. But it's not great. Surely this deserves more attention, especially since Retina displays have been a selling point on iPads for a long time.

Question #2: Still no GPS? Come on. What would it take, a ten-dollar chip plus an antenna? On a tablet that costs a thousand bucks, you'd think Microsoft could spring for this. But maybe no one cares. Am I the only person who thinks it's sometimes useful to use a big tablet rather than a tiny phone to display maps? Unfortunately, I can rarely do that because you need GPS for it to work. (Or, alternatively, some way to tap into my phone's GPS, the same way I tap into its internet connection via WiFi.)

And now for Question #3. Let's let Slate's Will Oremus set the stage:

The Surface Pro 4 nominally starts at $899, but that’s without a keyboard, or the fast processor, or any of the other goodies that make the Surface a viable PC. Realistically, it’s going to run you well over $1,000 and will top $1,500 fully loaded. So, yes, it had better replace your PC.

What's the deal with the continuing obsession over fast processors? I've been using Windows tablets with crappy Atom processors for a couple of years, and never had any complaints. I could easily use any of them as my primary desktop machine. The lowest-end processor on the Surface 4 is quite a bit faster than an Atom SOC, so why all the angst over needing something even better?

Obviously there are exceptions. If you're doing software builds or heavy-duty video editing or high-end gaming, you'll want lots of memory and the fastest processor you can get. But you're probably not going to do any of those things on a tablet anyway, no matter how good it is. For all the ordinary stuff we white-collar worker types do—spreadsheets, word processing, email, web browsing, etc.—just about any modern processor will work fine. Why sweat it?

(More generally, Oremus is right about the price, though. You'll need a keyboard and a docking station if you plan to use a tablet as your primary machine. That will push the Surface Pro 4 up to $1,200 or so even at the low end.)

And what the hell, as long as I'm on the subject, here's Question #4: why are Macs so popular among journalists? Back in the day, Macs had real advantages in display graphics, which led to the development of lots of image editing and page makeup software for Macs. That made them very popular with graphic artists. But writers? Word processing is word processing. A cheap notebook does it as well as an expensive one. So why did journalists migrate to Macs in such numbers? Anyone have any idea?

Quote of the Day: You'd Have to Be Nuts to Want a Leadership Role in the Republican Party

| Wed Oct. 7, 2015 2:36 PM EDT

We all know that John Boehner quit the speakership because he was finally fed up trying to deal with the lunatics in his own party. But how about some of the tea party darlings, like Trey Gowdy or Paul Ryan? Apparently they feel about the same:

[Gowdy] insists he’s not interested in joining leadership, not in any capacity. He is funny, and biting, about the chaos of the present House.

“I don’t have a background in mental health, so I wouldn’t have the right qualifications to lead right now,” he says. Who wants you to be in leadership? “No friend does,” he says.

....“To me, just speaking as one member, the smartest kid in the class is Paul Ryan,” Gowdy said. “If I had one draft choice and I was starting a new country, I would draft Paul to run it. Not because I agree with him on everything, but because he’s super, super smart. And when someone is super, super smart and is not interested, that tells you something. It tells me a lot.

By coincidence, this is sort of related to the conservative fantasy I talked about in the previous post. Folks like Gowdy and Ryan are smart enough to see it too, even though they're both stone conservatives themselves. A leadership role wouldn't give them the power to actually implement the conservative agenda, but too many conservatives these days don't care. They're living the fantasy that if only their leaders fought hard enough, they could win. So when they don't win, it must mean that they didn't fight very hard. Right now, there's just no way to puncture that fantasy.

And why the squirrel illustration? Nothing to do with Gowdy or Ryan or the tea party or conservatives being squirrely or nuts. Honest! This is just our household squirrel, who was outside feeding his face a few minutes ago. So I went out and took his picture. And speaking of squirrels, here's an interesting squirrel factlet: if you Google "squirrel saying," 7 of the top 20 hits are about the difficulties that German speakers have saying "squirrel."

How Our Constitution Indulges the Great Conservative Fantasy

| Wed Oct. 7, 2015 1:52 PM EDT

A few days ago Matt Yglesisas wrote a #Slatepitch piece arguing that Hillary Clinton "is clearly more comfortable than the average person with violating norms and operating in legal gray areas"—and that's a good thing. In a nutshell, Democrats can't get anything done through Congress, so they need someone willing to do whatever it takes to get things done some other way. And that's Hillary. "More than almost anyone else around, she knows where the levers of power lie, and she is comfortable pulling them, procedural niceties be damned."

Unsurprisingly, conservatives were shocked. Shocked! Liberals are fine with tyranny! Today Matt responded in one of his periodic newsletters:

A system of government based on the idea of compromises between two independently elected bodies will only work if the leaders of both bodies want to compromise. Congressional Republicans have rejected any form of compromise, so an effective Democratic president is going to try to govern through executive unilateralism. I don't think this is a positive development, but it's the only possible development.

I don't think I'm as pessimistic as Yglesias, but put that aside for a moment. Look at this from a conservative point of view. They want things to move in a conservative direction. But compromise doesn't do that. In practice, it always seems to move things in a more liberal direction, with a few conservative sops thrown in that eventually wither away and die. This leaves them with little choice except increasingly hard-nosed obstructionism: government shutdowns, debt ceiling fights, filibusters for everything, voter ID laws, etc. etc.

And there's a lot of truth to this to this view. The entire Western world has been moving inexorably in a liberal direction for a couple of centuries. It's a tide that can't be turned back with half measures. Conservative parties in the rest of the world have mostly made their peace with this, and settle for simply slowing things down. American conservatives actually want to reverse the tide.

That's all but impossible in the long term. It's just not the way the arc of history is moving right now. But American conservatives are bound and determined to do it anyway.

This is the fundamental problem. British conservatives, in theory, could turn back the clock if they wanted to, but they don't. Their parliamentary system allows them to do it, but public opinion doesn't—which means that if they want to retain power, there's a limit to how far they can fight the tide. If American conservatives were in the same situation, they'd probably end up in the same place. Once they actually got the power to change things, they'd very quickly moderate their agenda.

It's in this sense that our system of governance really is at fault for our current gridlock. Not directly because of veto points or our presidential system or any of that, but because these features of our political system allow conservatives to live in a fantasy world. They dream of what they could do if only they had the political power to do it, and they really believe they'd do it all if they got the chance. Thanks to all those veto points, however, they never get the chance. Full control of the government would disabuse everyone very quickly of just how far they're really willing to go, but it never happens.

We are living through an era in which conservatives are living a fantasy that can never be. But our system of governance denies them the chance to test that fantasy. So it continues forever. It will stop eventually, either because conservatives somehow do gain total political power and are forced to face up to its limits, or because it burns itself out through continual head banging that gets them nowhere combined with demographic changes that decimate their base. Probably the latter. It's only a question of how long it takes.