Kevin Drum - January 2012

Needed: Development Reform in California

| Wed Jun. 20, 2012 8:47 AM PDT

The Los Angeles city council has unanimously approved a plan to allow higher density construction around metro stations and bus routes in Hollywood, and wealthy residents in the nearby Hollywood Hills aren't happy about it. So naturally they're threatening to sue the city for "failing to conduct an adequate environmental review." As Matt Yglesias points out, this has become sort of an all-purpose vehicle for halting any development that happens to personally annoy people with the money to bring long and expensive court cases:

This is a splended example of a serious and growing problem in California—spurious bad faith environmental review. There's no real environmental issue here at all except for the fact that at the margin building a denser urban form in LA will reduce pressure to sprawl outward. Landowners in an adjacent neighborhood just don't want to allow more people to enjoy the virtues of Southern California living. It's their perogative to be jerks about this if they want to, but it's disastrous to have environmental regulations become a free-floating pretext for anyone to stop anything. You can't build a greener economy without building some stuff—new sources of power, new transmission lines for the electricity, different kinds of transportation infrastructure, houses and shops near that infrastructure—but too many states' environmental policies are just generically supportive of the status quo.

This affects ordinary development, of course, but it goes beyond that. Solar and wind installations face the same problem. The LA-San Francisco bullet train is facing the same problem. A new subway extension through Beverly Hills is facing the same problem. I don't know for sure about other states, but in California at least, this reached epidemic proportions years ago. It's all but impossible to build anything that's opposed by rich people or rich interest groups.

The flip side of this, though, is that buried inside all of the nonsense, the complaining groups sometimes have some legitimate beefs. Without access to a sympathetic court, builders would routinely run roughshod over perfectly sensible rules, submitting environmental reviews that merely go through the motions and fail to address genuine problems. This is most common in poorer areas of the city that don't have the resources to fight back against sandbagging developers.

I don't know enough about this stuff to offer up any kind of solution, but it sure seems like we need one. These fights can last years and kill off valuable development right along with the crap. Can anybody point to some reasonable reform proposals that might streamline development in California and elsewhere without turning the state over to development interests lock, stock, and barrel?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

How Americans Feel About Foreign Policy

| Wed Jun. 20, 2012 8:13 AM PDT

Dan Drezner points us to a new poll on American attitudes toward foreign policy conducted by Dartmouth professor Benjamin Valentino. It's got plenty of fodder in it, but Dan points in particular to question 25:

A full 80% of Republicans think we face worse threats today than we did during the Cold War. Hell, even 60% of Democrats agree with this. I submit to you that American foreign policy has no chance of regaining its sanity until those numbers turn around.

In other news, there's also question 64:

I submit to you that the conservative movement in America has no chance of regaining its sanity until these numbers turn around.

Republicans, Hypocrisy, and the Individual Mandate

| Tue Jun. 19, 2012 2:22 PM PDT

Ezra Klein is arguing today with Peter Suderman and Reihan Salam about conservative support for the individual mandate. The question is: why have conservatives flip-flopped? Why did they mostly support it 20 years ago but now unanimously agree that it's the biggest threat to economic liberty since Das Kapital? Pure cynicism? Motivated reasoning? A genuine change of heart?

My answer: none of the above. Back in 1993, I'd say that Republican preference ordering on healthcare reform looked roughly like this:

So what's a Republican to do? The answer is obvious: choose whichever option is the best one available at the time. If Clinton's plan looks like it might pass, you support the next best alternative: private insurance with a mandate. If private insurance with a mandate is on offer, you once again support the next best alternative: nothing. There's not really anything mysterious about this. You don't need to resort to cynicism, motivated reasoning, or even a genuine change of heart to explain it. You merely need to realize that political actors — both liberals and conservatives — will always fight for the best deal they can get. If you offered me Obamacare, I'd take it, but that doesn't mean I'd give up fighting for what I really want. Likewise, after conservatives defeated Clintoncare, I wasn't surprised that they didn't just rest on their laurels, but kept on fighting for what they really want

Suderman suggests that something similar has happened with Democrats and mid-90s proposals for premium support as a way of reining in Medicare spending. I think his case is a little weak here — premium support never really had much liberal support in the first place, and the version on offer recently by Paul Ryan that Democrats opposed bore little resemblance to the original proposal anyway — but he still has a point. And the explanation for the liberal shift is much the same as it was for conservatives and the mandate.

This is politics, and there's nothing really very shocking about it. If you can cut a deal, that's great, but you shouldn't expect that either side will take it as the final word. In fact, you should expect just the opposite: that both sides will continue fighting to change the deal in their own favor.

As it happens, I think that Paul Ryan's most recent version of premium support for Medicare isn't too bad. Given where we are right now, I could imagine it being one side of a negotiation that produces something decent. But even if we came to an agreement, I'd pretty shortly be out there promoting a genuine national healthcare plan that would make it obsolete. Would that be treachery on my part? Of course not. It would just mean I took my half a loaf and then dived right back into campaigning for the other half. Would anyone else do differently?

POSTSCRIPT: None of this means that hypocrisy doesn't play a role in the politics of the mandate. As Adam Serwer notes today, Antonin Scalia is probably Exhibit A here.

Quote of the Day: GOP Leader Says Obama Using the IRS to Punish His Enemies

| Tue Jun. 19, 2012 11:13 AM PDT

From Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, describing the Obama campaign on Fox News last Friday:

What they’re trying to do is intimidate donors to outside groups that are critical of the administration. The campaign has rifled through donors' divorce records. They’ve got the IRS, the SEC and other agencies going after contributors trying to frighten people and intimidate them out of exercising their rights to participate in the American political discourse....Of course, the temptation of anybody in power is to try to silence your critics.

If that were true, I'd be the first to call for Obama's impeachment. But it's not, of course. McConnell just figures he can say whatever he wants and no one will really call him on it. And he's right about that.

Michael Tomasky has more on the bigger picture here.

The Fed's Own Forecasts Show That It Needs to Loosen Up

| Tue Jun. 19, 2012 10:59 AM PDT

Will the Fed finally decide to loosen up a bit and do something to prop up our fragile economy? Maybe! Brad Plumer points us to this chart compiled by the Council on Foreign Relations that explains why they might. Back in March, the Fed thought unemployment was falling nicely and would reach 6.5% by the end of next year. By May they were far more pessimistic, predicting that unemployment would be only barely below 8% by then. And, as Brad says, that's not all:

Of course, there’s more than the unemployment rate to consider. Jobless claims have been ticking upward of late. Retail and manufacturing is weakening. The housing market is still flailing along. Plus, Fed officials will have to consider whether Europe still poses a threat to the U.S. recovery. But the [CFR] graph lays the choice out starkly. If the rough patch in May wasn’t just a blip, then the Fed will be failing to achieve its own stated goals for unemployment.

It's past time for the Fed to do something about this, and it's not just Paul Krugman saying so. The Fed's own forecasts are saying it too.

Why the Microsoft Surface Tablet Will be Great Even if it Sucks

| Tue Jun. 19, 2012 10:09 AM PDT

Last night Microsoft announced that it will take on Apple directly in the tablet market by designing and selling its own device. Farhad Manjoo is excited:

For the first time in its history, Microsoft is taking PC hardware as seriously as it does software. The software giant is coming around to a maxim that archrival Steve Jobs always held dear—that the best technologies come about from the tight integration of code and manufacturing, and that no company can afford to focus on just one half of that equation.

....During the last couple years, the software company has been working to make its next version of Windows perform amazingly well on touchscreen tablets....But after investing so much to create a great tablet interface, Microsoft risked losing the battle on hardware. Many of its traditional PC partners—Samsung, Asus, Dell, and HP—have already tried to take on Apple with rushed, ill-considered, cheaply made tablets. Microsoft would have been foolish to rely on that gang of losers to create tablets that were worthy of the new Windows. With the Surface, the company is taking its future into its own hands.

On two different levels, I don't get this. First off, there doesn't really appear to be anything all that special about the hardware Microsoft announced. It seems perfectly competent, and maybe even a little better than competent. But it's basically a 10-inch tablet with a few ports, a kickstand to prop it up, and a nifty-looking integrated cover/keyboard. All in all, it's a nice package but, as near as I can tell, nothing revolutionary. And nothing in Microsoft's presentation suggested to me that Windows 8, the software that runs the Surface tablet, won't work just as well on Samsung and Asus hardware as it does on theirs.

But that's the least of my puzzlement. The main source is this: the most important aspect of the Surface tablet — by a mile — isn't that Microsoft is paying a bit more attention to hardware. It's the fact that the Pro version is both a tablet and a real computer. This is huge, and it's huge whether you're an Apple fan or a Windows fan.

Here's the thing: I have an iPad. I like it! Millions of other people like it. But let's be honest: it's a toy. It doesn't have a file system you can use. It doesn't run real apps. It can't exchange data with your Mac easily. It has a bunch of limitations on what you're allowed to do with it. (You can't upload files via a website, for example.) Put all this stuff together, and for most of us the iPad simply can't replace our main computer. In fact, it doesn't even play very well with our main computer.

In the Mac world, a tablet that actually ran Mac OS, made data exchange easy, and supported regular apps, would be great. But Apple doesn't appear to have any plans for such a device, and this is what really sets the Surface tablet apart. If you live in the Windows world, as millions of us do, the Surface concept is very, very seductive. As a tablet, the Metro interface offers the casual ease of use that you want in a tablet. Toss in the keyboard/trackpad add-on, plug in a bigger display, and the Windows interface allows you to use it as your primary computer. Or, if not quite that, at least as a full-powered secondary computer. That's huge.

Now, obviously, the devil is in the details, and there are lots of details Microsoft hasn't yet addressed publicly. How much will the Surface tablet cost? What's the battery life? Does Windows 8 suck? How about Bluetooth? GPS? 4G data support? Is Intel's Ivy Bridge chipset any good? How fast is it? Etc.

The answers to these questions might very well be disappointing. See George Ou's comment here for more on that. Put this all together, and I think it's quite possible that Microsoft might very well fail in its newfound dedication to hardware — which I suspect is far more about profit margins than about a sudden appreciation for the "tight integration of code and manufacturing" in any case. But even if Microsoft does fail, other hardware manufacturers are almost certain to step in with devices that make the right set of tradeoffs and allow Windows 8 tablets to perform genuine double duty as casual plaything and serious computer. Whether it comes from Microsoft or Apple, that's the future of the tablet.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

ACA's Mandate is Nothing New, and the Supreme Court Knows It

| Tue Jun. 19, 2012 9:31 AM PDT

The primary legal argument against Obamacare's individual mandate turns on the distinction between activity and inactivity. Conservatives say that although the Commerce Clause gives Congress considerable power to prevent activity, it's never been interpreted to give Congress the power to penalize inactivity. But the Affordable Care Act forces private citizens to purchase a commercial product, and that's a bridge too far.

This has been debated endlessly, and since I'm not a lawyer or a constitutional scholar it hardly matters what I think about it. But from a layman's point of view, I've always had two big problems with this theory:

  • It's brand new. Prior to the passage of ACA, no one had ever seriously brought this up as a legal distinction. It was invented solely as a way of justifying a court decision to overturn ACA.
  • It's not even true except in the most hyperlegalistic sense.

The second point requires some explanation. So here it is: the truth is that the federal government forces you to buy commercial products or engage in commercial activity all the time. If you buy a car, you must buy airbags along with it because federal regulations require it. If you want to travel overseas, you must submit a pair of photos along with your passport application, and the only way to acquire these photos is by engaging in private commerce. Or take this, from Cato's Ilya Shapiro:

There is a qualitative difference between regulating or prohibiting existing economic activity and mandating that someone engage in such activity. When Randy Barnett [] first articulated that distinction and labeled the new assertion of federal power “unprecedented,” that’s what he meant: Congress has never forced people to engage in economic activity. Not during the New Deal — nobody had to become a farmer or buy wheat — nor during the Civil Rights Era — if you didn’t want to serve blacks, you could shut down your restaurant or hotel.

This is what I mean by hyperlegalistic. Did the Civil Rights Act force you to serve blacks in your diner? In every practical sense, yes, of course it did. The vast majority of motel and restaurant owners don't have the option of simply shutting down their businesses. Likewise, you don't have to buy a car and you don't have to travel overseas, but in practical terms in modern America, there are millions of people who don't really have that choice.

There are thousands of examples like this, where the federal government forces you to engage in a commercial transaction of some kind. In fact, it's so common that most people barely even realize it. But you would, literally, have to be a hermit to avoid them all. In the real world, these requirements are essentially mandates to engage in a particular type of commercial activity, enforced by the police power of the state.

What's more, the police power of the state is actually applied fairly sparingly in the case of ACA. If you're poor, you qualify for Medicaid. If you're a little less poor, the government provides generous subsidies to buy insurance. And if you decide not to buy insurance anyway, the penalty is pretty modest: $695 per adult or a maximum of 2.5% of income. That's way less than the penalty for refusing to serve blacks in your roadside diner.

This is why it would be such an outrage for the Supreme Court to overturn the mandate. It's simply not unprecedented, at least not in any practical sense. The federal government effectively forces us to buy lots of stuff, and it's done so for decades. If you dig deep enough, you can find a shard of difference between all these cases and the ACA mandate, but that's all it is: a shard. It's a million miles from the kind of deep constitutional principle that you should have if you want to overturn a piece of landmark legislation duly passed by Congress and signed into law by the president.

Chart of the Day: Civilian Drone Deaths

| Tue Jun. 19, 2012 8:26 AM PDT

The chart below comes from ProPublica reporters Justin Elliott, Cora Currier and Lena Groeger. (Click here for a larger, interactive version.) It shows the various claims about civilian drone deaths from administration sources over the years, varying from "a handful" in 2011 to 50 or 60 over the course of seven years. As Elliot shows in an accompanying piece, these claims haven't been consistent over time.

To be honest, my initial reaction to this is that I'm surprised at how consistent the claims have been, not how inconsistent. A few of them clearly don't add up, but with only a couple of exceptions they've pretty uniformly told reporters that there have been about 30 civilian deaths over the past two or three years and perhaps 50 or 60 over the life of the program.

But consistency is probably the least of the issues here. As the New York Times reported a couple of weeks ago, the Obama administration "counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants [...] unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent." Given that methodology, it's a miracle that the administration has fessed up to any civilian deaths. If there's a lesson from this, I'd say it's not that officials sometimes give differing estimates of civilian deaths. I'd say it's the fact that, in truth, they probably don't have the slightest idea how many civilian deaths they've caused.

Dealing With the Dog Days

| Mon Jun. 18, 2012 6:10 PM PDT

Last week I finally decided that summer had come early this year. It's normal for me to struggle to fill the blog during the dog days of July and August, but June? And yet, I've been struggling ever since I got back from vacation. There's just not much going on aside from campaign inanities. Summer has come early.

Boo hoo, you say? Well, Jonathan Bernstein says there's more at stake here than whether my job is a little harder than usual:

Here’s the story. First of all, the whole political world is, basically, in hurry-up-and-wait mode right now. One huge story, at least, will break soon; the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act will show up sometime in the next couple of weeks, although two weeks is still an eternity of time on the cable news networks. [But there's not much else]....All of this creates a whole lot of reporters with little to report on — and a whole lot of empty time on the cable news networks, the newspapers, the blogs, the new talk radio shows and the rest of it.

And what academic research tells us is that slow news days create scandals. That’s what Brendan Nyhan and other media researchers have found....[So] it’s no surprise that mid-summer, when lots of newsmakers are on vacation (and when little is happening even in the sports world), is when stories such as the “ground zero mosque” or Shirley Sherrod’s supposed racism took off. Not just those; any kind of meaningless hype, whether it’s a supposed gaffe or some meaningless polling random variation, is going to get far more attention than it deserves.

That sounds pretty plausible. If there's no news, you have to make up some news of your own. So you get the WaWa touchpad and "the private sector is doing fine" and tax breaks for Ann Romney's horses and a thousand other micro-gaffes to fill the dead air. Jonathan says there isn't much to be done about this except to beg reporters to at least be aware of what's driving all this fluff. However, he does have a few suggestions, including this one:

Second: substance, substance, substance. The candidates really do have positions on issues of public policy. They really would enact them if elected. Some of those are, I promise, about things that will affect readers and viewers in fascinating ways. You’re not going to be able to fit much of that in once the fall campaign starts; between polling (much more meaningful then, by the way), and charges and countercharges, and whatever other real news is out there. This is a great time to get a little substance reporting in. Hey, another advantage: It’ll pay off for reporters who actually know the issues in the fall.

That would be nice. Of course, most candidates aren't willing to commit themselves on the details of their policy preferences, and Mitt Romney in particular has already straightforwardly admitted that he isn't going to tell us squat until after the election. Too dangerous. People might vote against him if they knew the details of his policies. And there are only so many times you can write policy pieces if the candidates give you nothing but sound bites to work with.

And speaking of sound bites, here's a pet peeve for the dog days of the summer: can we banish forever the idiotic misspelling sound byte? I know they sound the same, but seriously, sound byte doesn't even make sense. So just stop it, OK?

Blame Congress if the President Attacks Iran

| Mon Jun. 18, 2012 12:03 PM PDT

Doug Mataconis notes that although plenty of conservatives criticized President Obama for intervening in Libya last year, none are willing to criticize candidate Mitt Romney for saying that President Mitt Romney wouldn't "need to have a war powers approval or special authorization for military force" in the case of Iran. But why not?

If anything, this is an even more brazen thumb in the eye of Separation of Powers and Congressional War Powers than Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya, which was limited mostly to Americans acting in a support role while the British and French conducted most of the combat operations. What Romney is saying is that he, as President, [can] decide on his own to commit an act of war on behalf of the United States that nearly every analyst who has looked at the issue concludes poses an extremely high risk of exploding into a wider regional war and/or inspiring acts of terrorism against the United States, Israel, and American interests abroad. Economically, the consequences of such a decision could be catastrophic if it results in the explosion in oil prices that most experts in that field expect would come out of any attack against Iran. And Romney believes that, under the Constitution, he would be perfectly free to make the decision to take that down that road all by himself.

True enough, and I'm on Doug's side here. I'm willing to cut presidents some slack on small bombing operations1, but a military strike on Iran would pretty clearly not be a small operation. It would consume days or even weeks and would obviously be a major act of war. As far as I'm concerned, major acts of war require congressional approval.

Still, I think Republicans are mostly off the hook on charges of hypocrisy. I wish it weren't so, but as near as I can tell, Romney's position is the same as Obama's, which in turn is the same as George Bush's and Bill Clinton's. The majority view in both parties, I think, is that the president could order a massive air strike against Iran on his own authority.

Would this be legal? You can argue otherwise — and I would — but in practical terms it's unquestionably legal. If the executive branch thinks it's legal; the legislative branch thinks it's legal (or, at least, declines to oppose it); and the judicial branch refuses to interfere, then it's legal by the only standard that matters. I don't even really blame either Obama or Romney for claiming this authority. I probably would too if I were president and Congress didn't have the guts to call me on it. If Congress routinely refuses to exert its own authority in the national security realm, it's Congress that's to blame when presidents arrogate too much of it. They could put a stop to it anytime they wanted.

1Yes, yes, I know. This makes me a small-scale warmonger. So be it.