Kevin Drum - March 2012

Policing the Language Police

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 10:58 AM EDT

Ed Kilgore linked today to a Tim Noah piece about the misuse of the word "Christian," and I was all ready to throw in my own two cents about this until I clicked the link and read Tim's first paragraph:

In November I introduced a periodic blog feature called “Language Cop” to “keep track of unacceptable words and catchphrases that enter the political dialogue.” In that column I exiled the terms “optics” and “inflection point.” Earlier this month I inveighed against “pivot,” and last week I suggested this euphemism be replaced with a new term, “shake,” in deference to America's first multiplatform gaffe. Today I banish “Christian ”—not the word itself, but a specific, erroneous usage.

Hold on there, pardner. Here's what I want to know: why do so many people get so upset about particular new pieces of jargon that enter widespread use? There's nothing wrong with optics or inflection point or pivot. They're perfectly good descriptive words. "Optics" doesn't mean quite the same thing as "appearances" and "inflection point" definitely doesn't mean the same thing as "significant developments." That makes them genuinely useful. "Pivot" seems fine too. All three of these terms seem like they're both nicely descriptive and full of meaning. When someone says "optics," for example, I know that they're talking not just about general appearances, but about how something plays in the media and how it plays with public opinion. Using the word optics also suggests that you're referring to a highly-planned operation managed by media pros, not just some random event on the street.

Anyway, if Tim Noah can be a language cop, then I can be a language cop cop. And I hereby declare all these words just fine. Anyone want to fight about it?

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Chart of the Day: President Obama Hates Oil Drilling

| Wed Mar. 28, 2012 10:17 AM EDT

This comes via Stuart Staniford, and it's not really anything new. Still, I wonder how many people realize just how strongly the oil industry has boomed under the Obama administration? The shale gas boom (red line) has petered out since the mid-2000s thanks to falling prices, but the number of working rotary oil rigs (blue line) has skyrocketed since January 2009. (A rotary rig is one used to explore for new oil.) If President Obama is hostile to new oil exploration, he sure has a funny way of showing it.

Mitt Romney's Big Problem: No One Likes Him

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 11:22 PM EDT

I know it's early days and all that, but this ABC News/Washington Post poll tells you all you need to know about Mitt Romney's November problem: nobody likes him much. I figure he'll make up his relatively poor showing among Republicans once the primaries are over and it's time to sing Kumbaya, but independents and moderates just don't want anything to do with the guy. Obama scores decently with both groups, but Romney is completely in the tank. I suppose he'll make up some of this deficit once the general election campaign starts and he does his Etch A Sketch restart, but he's got an awfully big hole to climb out of.

The Supreme Court Shows Its True Colors

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 8:01 PM EDT

From an attorney friend who's long been more pessimistic than me1 about the possibility that the Supreme Court might overturn Obamacare:

Dalia Lithwick posted an updated piece after the arguments — the gist of which was that they really might strike it down. She didn't mention her "no they really won't" piece (I wouldn't expect her to yet, but it's interesting how fragile her previous piece's argument seems to be).

Toobin's hair on fire response is interesting because I think legal watchers deep down believed that the Court would not be so superficial as to unhinge established jurisprudence for an ideological cause. It's a fun parlor game, but they figure that when sobriety prevails the court will bow to precedent where — as here — the issue is squarely within existing precedent. Well, no, and they are perfectly free to channel right wing bullshit points such as inactivity vs. activity.  I think this really rattled Toobin to see justices behaving like congressmen from Alabama in their arguments.

Lithwick points out that no one on the right discussed the case law. I mean .... why, who needs it!?

I'm still sticking with my guess that the individual mandate survives. But I'll confess that I'm sure not thinking it'll be a 7-2 decision any longer.

1Yeah, the Supreme Court is a political body and always has been. I've never thought otherwise. But I had a hard time believing they could be so brazenly political that they'd overturn a law so plainly supported by past precedent. Just goes to show that it's almost impossible to be too cynical these days.

Donald Verrilli Makes the Worst Supreme Court Argument of All Time

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 5:20 PM EDT

Virtually everyone agrees that today's arguments before the Supreme Court were a disaster for the Obama administration. Adam Serwer tells us why:

Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. should be grateful to the Supreme Court for refusing to allow cameras in the courtroom, because his defense of Obamacare on Tuesday may go down as one of the most spectacular flameouts in the history of the court.

Stepping up to the podium, Verrilli stammered as he began his argument. He coughed, he cleared his throat, he took a drink of water. And that was before he even finished the first part of his argument. Sounding less like a world-class lawyer and more like a teenager giving an oral presentation for the first time, Verrilli delivered a rambling, apprehensive legal defense of liberalism's biggest domestic accomplishment since the 1960s—and one that may well have doubled as its eulogy.

This is just bizarre. Verrilli is an experienced guy. He's been involved in loads of Supreme Court cases and has personally argued more than a dozen. So what on earth happened? So far I haven't seen anyone even take a stab at trying to figure it out. How could Verrilli possibly be unprepared for the questions he got, given that the conservative arguments against Obamacare have been extremely public and obvious for well over a year? Everyone in the world knew what to expect. Everyone except Verrilli, apparently.

This is just mind-boggling.

The Death of the Enclosed Mall

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 1:38 PM EDT

Dan Malouff reports that enclosed malls are shutting down all over the Washington DC metro area. Atrios comments:

There's an absolutely absurd amount of retail floor space in this country, so this isn't all that surprising.

But there are two things going on here. First, as the chart on the right shows, there was a big spike in construction of retail space between 2004 and 2007 that was unsustainable, and the Great Recession unsustained that spike with extreme prejudice. So in one sense, no, it's not that surprising that a bunch of retail space has shut down recently.

At the same time, the long-term trend is up, up, up, and the recent bursting of the retail bubble, which was part of the wider commercial real estate bubble, seems to have run its course. (Knock wood.) But despite that, enclosed malls are still shutting down, part of a trend that's been going on for years. Here in my neck of the woods, for example, I don't think a new enclosed mall has been built in the past 20 years. But that doesn't mean retail is dead. During that same period, three gigantic open-air retail centers have opened within five miles of my house, each with over a million square feet of retail space. For some reason, enclosed malls are out and open-air "power centers" (or "lifestyle centers" or whatever they're calling them these days) are in.

I actually find this a little inexplicable. Here in Southern California it makes at least a bit of sense, since the weather is generally pretty good. Outside the sunbelt, though, not so much. What's more, these outdoor malls are a pain to navigate. In a typical enclosed mall, parking forms a ring around the structure itself, which is fairly compact and walkable. But the outdoor malls are often just the opposite: a gigantic parking lot with stores in an outer ring. This means that it's a long walk if you want to visit more than one store.

So why are enclosed malls on the outs? They're good in all weather, and they're convenient if you want to shop at a bunch of different stores. Open air malls are neither. On the other hand, if you want to shop at one store, and park close to it, they're a better option. And they're outdoors. If you like walking around in the fresh air, they're pretty appealing.

In any case, I've never entirely understood this trend. But it's been going on for a long time, so it's more than just a short-term fad. Enclosed malls are dead. Long live the outdoor mall.

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Coal's Final Hoorah Coming Soon

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 12:20 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias writes that new EPA rules will soon spell the end of new construction of coal-fired power plants:

The new rules will mandate that all new power plants generate no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt of electricity produced. That's a standard that your basic renewables can of course easily meet as can nuclear plants. It also conveniently draws the line such that natural gas, whose price has plummeted lately amidst the North American Fracking Boom, fits in under the standard as average gas-fired plants emit between 800 and 850 pounds per megawatt. But coal plants on average emit almost 1,800 pounds per megawatt, way outside of the acceptable range. The result is that barring some miraculous new innovation in the creation of cost-effective carbon sequestration technology, there aren't going to be any more coal-fired plants built in the United States. The face of new fossil fuel based electricity will be gas (which is considerably cleaner than coal), and the alternative to gas in the event that the gas boom ends will be renewables.

Back in 2010, the power industry was in the middle of a boom in construction of coal-fired plants. "Building a coal-fired power plant today," said Severin Borenstein, director of the Energy Institute at the University of California at Berkeley, "is betting that we are not going to put a serious financial cost on emitting carbon dioxide." And that was a good bet! In fact, cap-and-trade legislation had collapsed earlier that year amid mutual recriminations, which meant that putting a price on carbon was dead for the forseeable future.

But in the long run, power companies were just trying to beat the clock. One of the most compelling arguments in favor of cap-and-trade was simple: it's better than allowing the EPA to hand down a bunch of hamhanded command-and-control rules, but if cap-and-trade fails, that's exactly what will happen. And guess what? That's exactly what's now happened.

So it was a good bet, all right, and power companies were smart to get started on as many coal-fired plants as they could. They knew that any plants they built would be profitable as long as carbon emissions remained unregulated, and they also knew that EPA would likely shut down the construction boom for good before long. So it was build, baby, build. We'll be paying the price for this for years to come.

Quote of the Day: Today's Supreme Court Debacle

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 11:43 AM EDT

From Justice Anthony Kennedy, generally believed to be the key swing vote on the individual mandate, during oral arguments today:

Can you create commerce in order to regulate it?

I'm not sure what the context for this was, and on its own it doesn't make a lot of sense. What commerce is the government supposedly creating? But it's a bad sign, and CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin had a dismal appraisal of this morning's session:

"This was a train wreck for the Obama administration," he said. "This law looks like it's going to be struck down. I'm telling you, all of the predictions including mine that the justices would not have a problem with this law were wrong... if I had to bet today I would bet that this court is going to strike down the individual mandate."

....Toobin also said he thought Justice Kennedy, the perennial swing vote, was a "lost cause" for supporters of the health care reform law.

Urk. Fasten your seat belts.

The Conservative Agenda in the Trayvon Martin Case

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 11:07 AM EDT

Has there been any public controversy in recent memory as disheartening as the Trayvon Martin case? I don't mean the killing of Martin itself, though. That's certainly disheartening, but it's hardly unique. I'm talking instead about the political reaction to it.

A week ago, the worst I could say about right-wing reaction to the Martin case was that conservatives were studiously ignoring it. But that was a week ago. Since then, conservatives have entered the arena with a vengeance.

But why? At first glance, there's no obvious conservative agenda here. They might, in the abstract, want to defend the "Stand Your Ground" laws that have suddenly drawn the public's attention since the Martin shooting. But the shooting itself? There's no special conservative principle at stake that says neighborhood watch captains should be able to shoot anyone who looks suspicious. There's no special conservative principle at stake that says local police forces should barely even pretend to investigate the circumstances of a shooting. There's no special conservative principle at stake that says young black men shouldn't wear hoodies.

But as Dave Weigel points out today, the conservative media is now defending the shooter, George Zimmerman, with an almost messianic zeal. There's a fake photo of Trayvon Martin making the rounds, and even after it was debunked it's still making the rounds:

Why is the fake photo so popular? It's part of a new cottage industry of "truth about Trayvon" content, calibrated to convince people that they really shouldn't worry about the implications of this killing. Why, the kid wasn't even a saint! He might have been shot after brawling with the man who creeply followed him around the gated community? The Drudge Report has become a one-stop shop for Trayvon contrarianism.

Unfortunately, it's not really a cottage industry at this point. More like a mammoth, smoke-belching factory. When I opened my LA Times this morning, for example, I found Jonah Goldberg staring back at me, explaining that we shouldn't really care about Trayvon Martin because:

Martin's tragic death is a statistical outlier. More whites are killed by blacks than blacks killed by whites (or "white Hispanics"). And far, far more blacks are killed by other blacks. Indeed, if we're going to use the prism of race to analyze murder rates, then the real epidemic is that of black murderers.

Quite so. And that, it turns out, is the conservative principle that's actually at stake here: convincing us all that traditional racism no longer really exists (just in "pockets," says Goldberg) and that it's whites who are the real racial victims in today's America. Heh indeedy.

Medicaid is the Big Sleeper at the Supreme Court

| Tue Mar. 27, 2012 10:17 AM EDT

Aaron Carroll writes today that although the individual mandate is getting all the attention, the Supreme Court's ruling on Obamacare's expansion of Medicaid is even more important:

The way the ACA is written, unless states comply with these expansions, they stand to lose all Medicaid funding....Florida, along with 26 other states, is bringing a case to court based on the Constitution’s Spending Clause. Basically, the federal government has the right to make states accept certain conditions for which they will be given federal funds. If they don’t accept the conditions, then they don’t get the money. This is how Medicaid began, as an optional program states could agree to join. All of them did, obviously.

But now the law has changed, and those against the ACA’s new policy argue that this is an unfair expansion of a program that in practical terms is no longer optional. Medicaid is so fundamental to states’ operations now, they assert, that it can’t be considered funding that states can refuse if they choose not to agree to the new regulations. Because they will lose not only the new funding but all Medicaid funding if they don’t expand the programs, they say the actions of the federal government are coercive.

Aaron is right that this part of the case is far more fundamental than the court's ruling on the mandate. If the mandate is overturned, it would place moderate new limits on Congress's regulatory power. It wouldn't even necessarily be disastrous to Obamacare: there are other ways to implement an effective mandate that are unquestionably constitutional, after all. The problem is that right now Democrats don't have the votes to pass one of those other ways. But that's a political problem, not a fundamental constitutional problem.

The Medicaid changes are quite different, though. For decades, Congress has implemented national programs not by explicitly forcing the states to go along, but by making funding available only to those states that agree to follow federal rules. Critics have long argued that this is a subterfuge: Congress does this in cases where they don't have the constitutional power to make a program mandatory on a national basis, so instead they extort cooperation by sucking out tax dollars from the states and then agreeing to give them back only if the states go along. But subterfuge or not, courts have always ruled that this is constitutional.

So if the Supreme Court overturned the Medicaid changes, it would be a genuine earthquake. At worst, it would make hundreds of programs instantly unconstitutional and expel the federal government from playing a role in dozens of policy areas. At best, the federal government could still start programs this way, but could never change them once they'd become entrenched and were no longer "optional." This would freeze policy in place in a way that would be disastrous.

This, of course, is why most observers haven't paid a lot of attention to this part of the case: it's nearly inconceivable that the court is willing to produce this kind of bedlam. It would overturn decades of very clear precedent and produce chaos at both the state and federal levels. And unlike overturning the mandate, overturning Congress's ability to fund national programs this way would quite likely provoke a genuine constitutional crisis. I don't think anybody believes the court is really in a mood to do this. So even if they do overturn the Medicaid provisions (unlikely), they're almost certain to do so on very narrow terms that don't have a broad impact on Congress's general ability to make federal grants conditional on Congress's rules.

But I guess we'll see. If this part of the law gets upheld, but by only a 5-4 vote, it would mean that Medicaid is safe but that the court is really and truly feeling its oats. This part of the program will be argued tomorrow, and it's worth a watch.