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Sentence of the Day: Court Must Rule on Whether Court Can Rule

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 11:10 PM EDT

From my colleague Pema Levy:

Sometime in the next few months, the state Supreme Court is likely to rule on whether the legislature has the right to strip the Supreme Court of its administrative authority.

Well, I guess someone has to do it. You will perhaps be unsurprised to learn that this sentence refers to Kansas.

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Why Has Conservative Talk Radio Gone Gaga Over Donald Trump?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 8:30 PM EDT

Roughly speaking, I think the reason Donald Trump will eventually flame out is because people will get tired of his act. This is the downside of getting lots of media attention: when you recycle the same sentence fragments over and over, people eventually figure out that you have nothing more to say. His supporters get bored. The press gets bored. The whole country gets bored. And while the endless insults might be amusing for a while, eventually even his fans will conclude that he sounds an awful lot like a fourth grader, not a president. In the end, Trump will end not with a bang, but a whimper.

In the meantime, though, I'm a little curious about why conservative talk radio has been so consistently gaga over Trump. For example, here's a little snippet from Hugh Hewitt's show today:

HH: You know everything about building buildings. You could build the wall. I have no doubt about that....But on the front of Islamist terrorism, I’m looking for the next commander-in-chief, to know who Hassan Nasrallah is, and Zawahiri, and al-Julani, and al-Baghdadi. Do you know the players without a scorecard, yet, Donald Trump?

DT: No, you know, I’ll tell you honestly, I think by the time we get to office, they’ll all be changed. They’ll be all gone. I knew you were going to ask me things like this, and there’s no reason, because number one, I’ll find, I will hopefully find General Douglas MacArthur in the pack. I will find whoever it is that I’ll find, and we’ll, but they’re all changing, Hugh.

....HH: Now I don’t believe in gotcha questions. And I’m not trying to quiz you on who the worst guy in the world is.

DT: Well, that is a gotcha question, though. I mean, you know, when you’re asking me about who’s running this, this this, that’s not, that is not, I will be so good at the military, your head will spin.

....HH: Last question, I want to go back to the beginning, because I really do disagree with you on the gotcha question thing, Donald Trump. At the debate, I may bring up Nasrallah being with Hezbollah, and al-Julani being with al-Nusra, and al-Masri being with Hamas. Do you think if I ask people to talk about those three things, and the differences, that that’s a gotcha question?

DT: Yes, I do. I totally do. I think it’s ridiculous....I’ll have, I’m a delegator. I find great people. I find absolutely great people, and I’ll find them in our armed services, and I find absolutely great people.

Here's the thing: I don't know if obsequious is the right word to describe Hewitt's attitude, but it's close. Throughout the interview he takes considerable pains to compliment Trump on every little piece of knowledge he manages to dredge up, like a teacher complimenting a dim third-grader for remembering five times three. This is despite the fact that Trump makes it crystal clear that he's comically ignorant about practically everything that Hewitt thinks is important.

But Hewitt is no idiot. He's a partisan warrior and a trained killer on the radio, but he's not a stupid one. He's a very smart guy.

So why does he put up with someone like Trump? Is it just for the ratings? Does he think Trump actually might become president? Is he embarrassed by this? Or what? Inquiring minds want to know.

Maybe We'll Win the War Against HIV After All

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 8:04 PM EDT

A new study published Tuesday in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases shows a HIV-prevention treatment may have been successful at preventing new cases of the disease.

The regimen, which is called preexposure prophylaxix (or PrEP), involves administering antiviral medication to those at-risk for contracting HIV—stopping infections before they become permanent. This is the largest evaluation of PrEP, administered daily as a single pill called Truvada, since the Food and Drug Administration approved the drugs in 2012. Also, it's the first study done outside a clinical setting.

During the course of the 32-month study, researchers at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center found no new cases of infection among the 675 patients taking Truvada, most of whom were gay men considered to be at higher risk for contracting HIV.

Critics of the drug have raised concerns that it will pave the way for unsafe sex—much like the accusations against early birth control users. However, health officials and gay rights advocates have overwhelmingly voiced support for its use, saying it may be a promising treatment for preventing the spread of HIV.

Previous studies, conducted in a clinical setting, showed that the drug could stop 92 percent of HIV infections in those taking the pills if they are taken correctly and consistently. Truvada is currently recommended by both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization for at-risk groups, including drug-users, gay and bisexual men as well as anyone who has a HIV-positive partner.

Kaiser researchers, however, emphasized the treatment should be used more widely, and "underscored the need for outreach to others at risk for HIV, including transgender women, heterosexual men and women, and people using injection drugs."

Germany Has Taken In 800,000 Refugees. Guess How Many the US Has Taken In?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 6:10 PM EDT

Germany is set to take in 800,000 refugees by the end of the year.

America, a country that won two World Wars, went to the moon, and did "the other things," has taken in, well, far fewer.

Quoth the Guardian:

The US has admitted approximately 1,500 Syrian refugees since the beginning of the civil war there in 2011, mostly within the last fiscal year. Since April, the number of admitted refugees has more than doubled from an estimate of 700.

...

Anna Greene, IRC’s director of policy & advocacy for US programs, said the 1,500 people the US has admitted thus far “doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what is needed and what could really make a difference”.

Oxfam wants the US to up that number to 70,000 by the end of 2016.

Correction: This post and its headline originally said that Germany planned to take in 800,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year. That is incorrect. It is 800,000 refugees total. 

Rhetoric vs. Reality, Police Safety Edition

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 5:45 PM EDT

Here's the rhetoric:

Scott Walker: "In the last six years under President Obama, we've seen a rise in anti-police rhetoric....[This] rhetoric has real consequences for the safety of officers who put their lives on the line for us and hampers their ability to serve the communities that need their help."

Ted Cruz: "Cops across this country are feeling the assault. They're feeling the assault from the president, from the top on down....That is fundamentally wrong, and it is endangering the safety and security of us all."

Donald Trump: "I know cities where police are afraid to even talk to people because they want to be able to retire and have their pension....And then you wonder what's wrong with our cities. We need a whole new mind-set."

And here's the reality. During the George Bush administration, police fatalities per 100 million residents averaged 58 per year (54 if you exclude 2001). During the Obama administration, that's dropped to 42.

Donald Trump Screws Up GOP Loyalty Pledge, Making it Extra-Meaningless

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 2:41 PM EDT

On Thursday, Donald Trump pledged his fealty to the Republican Party with a largely meaningless pledge not to run as an independent candidate during the 2016 campaign for the White House. In doing so, it appears the billionaire presidential hopeful also affixed the wrong date to his signature:

Brilliant.

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Marx and Keynes Put Economics on the Map, and They Can Take It Right Off Again

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 2:38 PM EDT

Over at PostEverything, Dan Drezner wonders why economics has managed to wield such an outsized influence among the social sciences. His strongest point—or at least the one he spends the most time on—is that economists "share a strong consensus about the virtues of free markets, free trade, capital mobility and entrepreneurialism." This makes them catnip to the plutocrat class, and therefore the favored social scientists of influential people everywhere.

Fine, says Adam Ozimek, but what about liberal economists? "Why is Paul Krugman famous? Robert Shiller? Joe Stiglitz? Jeff Sachs? 'To please plutocrats' is not a good theory." And this: "Why do liberal think tanks with liberal donors supporting liberal causes hire so many economists? To please plutocrats?"

I think Drezner and Ozimek each make good points. Here's my amateur historical explanation that incorporates both.

The first thing to understand is that in the 19th century, economists were no more influential than other social scientists. Folks like David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus were certainly prominent, but no more so than, say, Herbert Spencer or Max Weber. What's more, economics was a far less specialized field then. John Stuart Mill had a strong influence on economics, but was he an economist? Or a philosopher? Or a political scientist? He was all of those things.

So what happened to make economists so singularly influential in the 20th century? I'll toss out two causes: Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes.

The fight for and against communism defined the second half of the 20th century, and Marx had always identified economics as the underpinning of his socio-historical theories. Outside of the battlefield, then, this made the most important conflict of the time fundamentally a fight over economics. In the public imagination, if not within the field itself, the fight between communism and free markets became identified as the face of economics, and this made it the most important branch of the social sciences.

Then Keynes upped the ante. In the same spirit that Whitehead called philosophy a series of footnotes to Plato, economics in the second half of the 20th century was largely a series of footnotes to Keynes. Rightly or wrongly, he became the poster child for liberals who wanted to justify their belief in an activist government and the arch nemesis of conservatives who wanted no such thing. In the same way that communism was the biggest fight on the global stage, the fight over the size and scope of government was the biggest fight on the domestic stage. And since this was fundamentally a fight over economics, the field of economics became ground zero for domestic politics in advanced economies around the world.

And that's why economists became so influential among both plutocrats and the lefty masses. Sure, it's partly because economists use lots of Greek letters and act like physicists, but mostly it's because that window dressing was used in service of the two most fundamental geo-socio-political conflicts of the late 20th century.

So does that mean economics is likely to lose influence in the future? After all, free market capitalism and mixed economies are now triumphant. Compared to the 20th century, we're now arguing over relative table scraps. And, as Drezner points out, the profession of economics has hardly covered itself with glory in the opening years of the 21st century. Has their time has come and gone?

Maybe. I mean, how should I know? Obviously there's a lot of inertia here, and economics will remain pretty important for a long time. But the biggest fights are gone and economists have an embarrassing recent track record of failure. If the rest of the social sciences want to mount an assault on the field, this would probably be a pretty good time to do it.

Kansas Republicans May Have Just Shut Down the State's Court System

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 1:42 PM EDT

What happens to a legal appeal when there's no court to hear it?

That's the tricky question before Kansas Republicans today as they grapple with the results of their own law, which threatens to shutter the state court system.

On Wednesday night, a district judge in Kansas struck down a 2014 law that stripped the state Supreme Court of some of its administrative powers. The ruling has set off a bizarre constitutional power struggle between the Republican-controlled legislature and the state Supreme Court. At stake is whether the Kansas court system will lose its funding and shut down.

Last year, the Kansas legislature passed a law that took away the top court's authority to appoint chief judges to the state's 31 judicial districts—a policy change Democrats believe was retribution for an ongoing dispute over school funding between the Supreme Court and the legislature. (Mother Jones reported on the standoff this spring.) When the legislature passed a two-year budget for the court system earlier this year, it inserted a clause stipulating that if a court ever struck down the 2014 administrative powers law, funding for the entire court system would be "null and void." Last night, that's what the judge did.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt warned that last night's decision “could effectively and immediately shut off all funding for the judicial branch.” That would lead to chaos. As Pedro Irigonegaray, an attorney for the Kansas judge who brought the legal challenge against the administrative law, put it, “Without funding, our state courts would close, criminal cases would not be prosecuted, civil matters would be put on hold, real estate could not be bought or sold, adoptions could not be completed."

Both parties in the case have agreed to ask that Wednesday's ruling remain on hold until it can be appealed to the state Supreme Court, so that there is a functioning court to hear the appeal. On Thursday, a judge granted the stay. Meanwhile, lawyers involved in the case and advocates for judicial independence are preparing a legal challenge to the clause of the judicial budget that withholds court funding. Sometime in the next few months, the state Supreme Court is likely to rule on whether the legislature has the right to strip the Supreme Court of its administrative authority, and whether it can make funding for the courts contingent on the outcome of a court case.

“We have never seen a law like this before," Randolph Sherman, a lawyer involved in fighting the administrative law, said in a statement, referring to the self-destruct mechanism in the judicial budget. "[I]t is imperative that we stop it before it throws the state into a constitutional crisis.”

This story has been updated.

Florida Governor Refuses to Admit That His Own Investigators Have Cleared Planned Parenthood

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 1:08 PM EDT

Good news! Florida regulators have finished their investigation of Planned Parenthood and concluded that there were no problems with the group's handling of fetal tissue. But you might not know that if you read their press release about the investigation. It turns out that Florida Gov. Rick Scott preferred to keep this under wraps:

Emails between the governor’s office and AHCA, obtained by POLITICO Florida through a public records request, show the agency prepared a press release that same day noting that “there is no evidence of the mishandling of fetal remains at any of the 16 clinics we investigated across the state.”

Scott's office revised the release to exclude that sentence, an email sent by Scott’s communications director, Jackie Schutz, shows. Additionally, the revised release noted the AHCA would refer physicians who worked at the clinics to the Board of Medicine for possible disciplinary action.

Kinda reminds you of a half-bright middle schooler who thinks he has a genius idea, doesn't it?

Republicans Shot Themselves in the Foot Over Iran

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 12:06 PM EDT

Why did Republicans fail to kill the Iran nuclear deal?

Opponents of the deal may have miscalculated the degree of public interest in the debate. They hoped for the kind of outpouring of public anger that gave rise to the tea party and nearly doomed Obamacare in August 2010. But the Iran deal “just hasn’t had that kind of galvanizing effect” on the public, said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), who backs the agreement.

....A Republican invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address both houses of Congress in March appears to have backfired. His harsh denunciation of the negotiations then underway, which the White House portrayed as a snub of Obama’s foreign policy, made the debate more polarizing and partisan, pushing Democrats to the president’s side.

Another factor, said one frustrated Republican on Capitol Hill: “Trump happened.” The GOP leadership aide, granted anonymity to discuss the setback, said billionaire Donald Trump’s attention-grabbing presidential campaign, along with scrutiny of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s email server, overshadowed all other issues this summer, making it harder for the Republicans’ message to attract attention.

....Democrats have felt free to back the deal in part because they heard from many in the American Jewish community who split from the more hawkish AIPAC....The dozen or so Democratic opponents in Congress come mainly from parts of New York, New Jersey and Florida with large politically conservative Jewish populations. But the opponents failed to mount a serious effort to persuade other lawmakers to buck the White House.

First things first: don't blame this on Donald Trump. He's been scathing about the deal, and has probably drawn more attention to it than all the AIPAC-funded ads put together. As for Hillary Clinton's email woes, it would please me no end if Republicans had shot themselves in the foot by focusing the fever swamps on that and leaving no room for outrage about Iran. But I doubt it. There's always stuff going on. Nobody ever fights a political battle in a pristine environment. There was plenty of room for Iran outrage.

As it happens, though, I think Republicans did shoot themselves in the foot, but in a different way. Ever since 2009, their political strategy has been relentless and one-dimensional: oppose everything President Obama supports, instantly and unanimously. They certainly followed this playbook on Iran. Republicans were slamming the deal before the text was even released, and virtually none of them even pretended to be interested in the merits of the final agreement. Instead, they formed a united, knee-jerk front against the deal practically before the ink was dry.

This did two things. First, it made them look unserious. From the beginning, the whole point of the economic sanctions against Iran was to use them as leverage to pressure the Iranian leadership to approve a nuclear deal. But by opposing it so quickly—based on an obviously specious desire for a "better deal" that they were never willing to spell out—Republicans made it clear that they opposed any agreement that lifted the sanctions. In other words, they opposed any agreement, period.

Second, by forming so quickly, the Republican wall of opposition turned the Iran agreement into an obviously partisan matter. Once they did that, they made it much harder for Democrats to oppose a president of their own party. A more deliberate approach almost certainly would have helped them pick up more Democratic votes.

All that said, keep in mind that Democrats only needed 34 senators or 145 House members to guarantee passage. That's not a high bar for a historic deal backed by a Democratic president. In other words, it's quite possible that Republicans actually did nothing wrong. They simply never had a chance in the first place.