Kevin Drum - July 2012

Bibi Tosses Mitt Under the Bus

| Sat Jul. 28, 2012 9:42 AM EDT

From a profile of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the current issue of Vanity Fair:

“Israel’s current prime minister is not just a friend, he’s an old friend,” Mitt Romney, with whom Netanyahu worked at the Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s, told AIPAC in March. (Romney, Netanyahu suggests, may have overstated the tie. “I remember him for sure, but I don’t think we had any particular connections,” he tells me. “I knew him and he knew me, I suppose.”)

Netanyahu’s encounters with President Obama have been marked by slights, misunderstandings, mutual suspicion, and downright distaste. One Obama aide says they keep hearing Netanyahu has evolved but have yet to see any signs of it. At home, Netanyahu scores points with his every slight of Obama, to whom the Israelis have never warmed. But Netanyahu insists his relationship with Obama is friendlier than it has been portrayed. They are, he tells me, “two people who appreciate the savviness and strength of the other.”

What's interesting here isn't that Romney appears to have exaggerated his relationship with Netanyahu. That's a political misdemeanor. What's interesting is that Netanyahu seems to be thoroughly uninterested in backing up Romney even a little bit. Mitt Romney? Yeah, I guess I'd recognize him if we passed on the street. He's the one with the good hair, right?

At the same time, he insists that his relationship with Obama is better than we think. This is probably just normal politics — why diss the American president in public, after all? — but it's still an interesting juxtaposition. The interview took place in March, when Romney hadn't quite locked up the Republican nomination, but even then he was the pretty obvious frontrunner. And Netanyahu is too savvy a politician to say this kind of thing by accident, even given the famous Israeli reputation for bluntness. So why throw him under the bus like that? Is it because Netanyahu has decided Romney has no chance of winning, so there's no point in sucking up to him? Or what?

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Friday Cat Blogging - 27 July 2012

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 2:04 PM EDT

I'm afraid I have heartbreaking news today. On Tuesday night I left the back door open and apparently Inkblot slipped out during the night. He never returned.

We've scoured the neighborhood, put up flyers, and checked with the local shelter, but there's no sign of him. It's inexplicable. It's not the first time I've failed to close all the doors at night, and never in his life has he ever strayed more than a couple hundred feet from home. I don't know what happened this time. I just can't figure it out.

I kept hoping he'd come trotting through the door any moment, sporting his usual quizzical expression, wondering what I was so worried about and asking when dinner was going to be served. Then he'd go back to stealing my chair out from under me and demanding to be held upside-down so he could suck on my armpit. I kept hoping I wouldn't have to write this post. But he hasn't come back, and if he were anywhere nearby he'd have returned long ago. We haven't given up hope entirely, but at this point I'm afraid we've lost him for good. As you can imagine, it's been a very sad week around here. He was the best of cats.  

I have two pictures today. The top one is the first picture I took of Inkblot after we brought him home from the shelter on July 10, 1999. He was about two months old at the time. The second one is from Sunday. It's the last picture I ever took of him. He was 13.

Modern Music is Tedious and Unimaginative

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 1:27 PM EDT

I'm not going to pretend to understand this, but a group of Spanish scientists say they now have empirical evidence that modern pop music is boring:

We find three important trends in the evolution of musical discourse: the restriction of pitch sequences (with metrics showing less variety in pitch progressions), the homogenization of the timbral palette (with frequent timbres becoming more frequent), and growing average loudness levels.

Basically, musicians are using fewer and simpler note sequences, less variety in timbre, and then making up for it by cranking up the volume. The chart on the right, which is really the only comprehensible one in the paper, shows the evolution of timbral variety, peaking in the 60s and then dropping off dramatically every year since.

Later, during a Q&A with neighborhood kids, the researchers added, ¡Quítese mi césped!

Presidential Race is Too Close to Call

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 11:33 AM EDT

Earlier this morning I predicted that it wouldn't be long before political scientists began plugging second-quarter GDP numbers into the election models to figure out who's going to win in November. I predicted correctly! First out of the gate — first that I've run across so far, anyway — is Seth Masket, who provides us with the chart on the right. I've added the horizontal dashed red line to show exactly where the latest numbers put us, and the news is slightly bad for President Obama: Masket's regression shows Obama winning about 49.7% of the popular vote. Masket provides all the proper caveats:

This isn't the strongest correlate with presidential vote shares. Real disposable income does a bit better, as do measures that incorporate third quarter growth. But still, by itself, this measure explains 39% of the variation in vote shares.

You'll notice that there's a red dotted line projecting the 2012 presidential vote based on GDP growth this year (an average of 1.75%). It basically hits the trendline right at 50%, continuing to indicate a really, really close contest. Notably, we're experiencing slower economic growth than George W. Bush had to contend with in 2004 or his father faced when he lost reelection in 1992.

Of course, I'm not making a forecast (political scientists are apparently terrible at that). I'm just suggesting that what we've seen so far this year from the economy is consistent with a very close election, and that things with more modest influences on the vote (campaign spending, voter turnout efforts, new voter ID requirements, etc.) could end up making all the difference.

Well, maybe Masket isn't making a forecast, but that won't stop the rest of us. Unfortunately, the numbers really are too close to be meaningful. It's not as if Obama is winning or losing by five percentage points or something. Given the limits of the model and the tightness of the numbers, Masket is right: it's still anyone's race. This year, at least, it looks as if the economic fundamentals are so evenly balanced that all the other campaign stuff really is going to make the difference. Just the way the media likes it.

POSTSCRIPT: Do you want my prediction? Sure you do! My guess is that the economic fundamentals really are on a knife-edge this year. However, voters usually keep parties in the Oval Office for two terms and toss them out after that. So if your party has held the presidency for one term, you have about a two-point built-in advantage. If your party has already held the presidency for two terms, you have about a two-point disadvantage.

It doesn't always work out that way, but take a look at all the outliers at the top right of the chart: they're all candidates running for second terms. Now take a look at the outliers below the green line. They're all candidates running for third, fourth, fifth, or even sixth terms (poor old Adlai in 1952).

Obama is running for a second term. So I'd add about two points to Masket's number and forecast a popular vote majority of around 51% to 51.5%. That's my current guess, unless something really huge happens between now and November.

UPDATE: Using a similar methodology to mine, Alan Abramowitz's model gives Obama about 50.5% of the popular vote.

Yesterday's Romney Gaffe Was Real, Not Fabricated

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 10:47 AM EDT

Mitt Romney's verbal stumbles in London yesterday probably won't have much long-term impact on the presidential campaign. Still, Dave Weigel points out something interesting about them. The best-known gaffes of the past few months have been mostly fabricated by the opposing campaign trying to make hay out of something that only barely exists. But not this time:

Compare this to what the British press has termed the "Romneyshambles." By chance, I was in a BBC studio yesterday morning to do a radio interview with another outlet. Non-reporter staff — people who did not cover the campaign, much less work on it — were chattering about Mitt Romney. The general tone was that, yes, they'd had some problems staging the Olympics, but that was up to them to talk about, not some American who'd run his own Olympics 10 years earlier. As I waited, I saw Prime Minister David Cameron — who is, remember, the first Conservative PM since 1997 — make a backhanded slap at Romney. "Of course it's easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere," he said. Later, like everybody else, I saw London Mayor Boris Johnson — also a Conservative! — make fun of "some guy named Mitt Romney" in front of a massive Olympics crowd.

There was no rival campaign cooking this up. There was no social media director making sure people tweeted it, or hashtagged it, or Google+'d it, if Google+ is still a thing. British Conservatives and media actually got pissed off at what they heard as an unhelpful insult. We've suffered through so many phony gaffes, we'd forgotten what a real one looked like.

That's an interesting point. As interesting as we're likely to get, anyway. And who knows? The fact that it's real, and that Romney followed it up with a series of other odd, Palinesque gaffes, has the potential to make a small dent in Romney's only real strength as a candidate: the notion that he's smart, disciplined, and well-briefed. Not so much, it turns out.

But for my money, if you're looking for a classic "gaffe," the kind that reinforces what everyone thinks of a candidate already, it was this cringe-inducing response to a question about the dressage competition:

I have to tell you, this is Ann’s sport. I’m not even sure which day the sport goes on. She will get the chance to see it, I will not be watching the event. I hope her horse does well.

This was painful to hear. I mean, what would any normal husband do if his wife were involved in an Olympic competition, even one he personally found boring? He'd attend! He'd cheer! That's what married people do. But Romney has been taking some flak for being a rich dude lately, and he's obviously calculated that being associated with a multimillion-dollar sport — and an obscure, sort of prissy one at that — wouldn't do his campaign any good. So he threw his own wife under the bus. Mitt Romney is willing to be whatever the electorate wants him to be, and apparently he crunched the numbers in his head and decided that America's heartland voters didn't want him to be associated with his wife's sport.

It's a trivial thing, but still, in its own trivial way it's really contemptible behavior, even for a guy who long ago decided he'd do anything to become president. The first time I read that quote I recoiled, and I still do a day later even after I've seen it a dozen times. What a gutless little weasel.

Later Today We'll Finally Know Who's Going to Win in November

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 10:04 AM EDT

GDP was up 1.5% last quarter. That's not so good. On the other hand, it's better than expected. And first quarter GDP was revised upward.

Later today people will all start diving into the numbers and trying to build detailed narratives around the housing sector or the tradeable sector or the state of the household appliances market or whatnot. But you know what this really means? We now have numbers for all the political scientists to plug into their election models so they can tell us who's going to win in November. Isn't that exciting? 

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New Study Shows That Medicaid Expansion Really Does Save Lives

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Most of the recent conversation about Medicaid expansion has been about costs. If states decide not to participate in Obamacare's expansion of Medicaid, how much will it save the federal government? If they do decide to participate, how much will it cost the states?

But what about the benefits? What happens when more people are eligible for Medicaid? I usually caution people not to focus too much on death rates when they look at questions like this, since mortality is notoriously hard to measure. What's more, the value of reliable medical care shows up far more in quality of life than it does in raw death rates. Decent dental care may not extend lifespans enough to show up in gross mortality statistics, but it's sure as hell still worthwhile for the folks who get to keep their teeth intact.

That said, preventing unnecessary deaths is still an important metric of decent access to medical care. So how does Medicaid stack up on this score? A trio of Harvard researchers tackled that question by looking at three states that expanded Medicaid eligibility between 2000 and 2005 (Arizona, Maine, and New York) and comparing their change in mortality rates with nearby states that didn't expand Medicaid eligibility. The chart below shows the results. In the expansion states, Medicaid enrollment went up dramatically, from 8% to 13% of the population. At the same time, mortality rates went down substantially, from 320 per 100,000 to 300 per 100,000.

As usual, you should interpret these results cautiously. Three states is a small sample, and the results are dominated heavily by strongly positive results in New York (in fact, mortality actually went up in Maine). Still, this study strongly suggest that Medicaid expansion really does extend lives. It's a helluva bargain for states that participate.

Antonin Scalia Doesn't Think the American Public Can Be Trusted to Watch Televised Supreme Court Proceedings

| Thu Jul. 26, 2012 3:50 PM EDT

C-SPAN's Brian Lamb recently asked Antonin Scalia why he opposed televising Supreme Court proceedings:

I'm against it because I do not believe [...] that the purpose of televising our hearings would be to educate the American people. That's not what it would end up doing. If I really thought it would educate the American people, I would be all for it. If the American people sat down and watched our proceedings gavel to gavel [...] they would be educated. But they wouldn't see all of that.

Your outfit would carry it all, to be sure, but what most of the American people would see would be 30-second, 15-second takeouts from our argument, and those takeouts would not be characteristic of what we do. They would be uncharacteristic.

But now what we see is an article in a newspaper that's out of context with what you say is 

That's fine, but people read that and they say, well it's an article in the newspaper, and the guy may be lying, or he may be misinformed. But somehow when you see it live, an excerpt pulled out of an entire — when you see it live, it has a much greater impact. No, I am sure it will miseducate the American people, not educate.

I don't especially want to pick on Scalia here, since I'll bet that most of the other justices agree with him, but there's an arrogance here that's really pretty stunning. He thinks the American public doesn't deserve televised coverage because the American public might misuse it. Which is to say, they'd use it in ways that Antonin Scalia thinks is unfair.

There's an argument to be made that televising judicial proceedings encourages both judges and lawyers to play to the cameras in ways that are damaging to the cause of justice. I find this only partly compelling in the case of jury trials, and not really compelling at all in appellate courts. Still, it's a legitimate argument. But complaining that the American public won't give your proceedings the deference you think they deserve? That the media might dare to play short snippets of your arguments? Color me very unimpressed.

UPDATE: Last sentence changed to "the media might dare...." Commenters are right about that.

And let me add: it's not that Scalia is wrong. Of course the media will do stupid stuff. Of course they'll play the most incendiary snippets they can find. Of course Super PACs will do the same. And of course most of the public won't ever bother to truly understand all the details of the proceedings.

So what? Nobody thinks that's a good reason to limit access to any other branch of government. Politics is a messy game. It's often unfair. That's life, and in a democracy the public should get to see it unfold regardless of whether you think they're smart enough to appreciate it.

Suppose the Supreme Court were hearing a case in which some government body wanted to restrict public access to hearings. Do you think they'd buy an argument that the limits were reasonable because the public and the media would just abuse full access and couldn't be trusted to treat it with the proper intellectual respect? I don't.

Mitt Romney Needs to Start an Apology Tour, Pronto

| Thu Jul. 26, 2012 11:39 AM EDT

I suppose this doesn't matter much in the grand scheme of things, but for a guy supposedly dedicated to shoring up the Anglo-American special relationship, Mitt Romney sure has managed to screw the pooch a remarkable number of times in a mere 24 hours. It's almost Palinesque, in a lower key kind of way. Andrew Sullivan has the details.

Rahm Emanuel Needs to Back Off on Chick-fil-A

| Thu Jul. 26, 2012 11:23 AM EDT

Glenn Greenwald is appalled that Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Boston mayor Thomas Menino are trying to block Chick-fil-A from opening stores in their cities because the company's CEO opposes gay marriage:

If you support what Emanuel is doing here, then you should be equally supportive of a Mayor in Texas or a Governor in Idaho who blocks businesses from opening if they are run by those who support same-sex marriage — or who oppose American wars, or who support reproductive rights, or who favor single-payer health care, or which donates to LGBT groups and Planned Parenthood, on the ground that such views are offensive to Christian or conservative residents. You can’t cheer when political officials punish the expression of views you dislike and then expect to be taken seriously when you wrap yourself in the banner of free speech in order to protest state punishment of views you like and share. Free speech rights means that government officials are barred from creating lists of approved and disapproved political ideas and then using the power of the state to enforce those preferences.

I'll confess that I can imagine exceptions to this rule. If the Westboro Baptist Church or the KKK wanted to open a hamburger joint in Irvine, my dedication to the First Amendment would be pretty sorely tested. I suppose I'd let them in, but I won't pretend that I might not scrutinize their applications a little more closely than usual, hoping to find a reason to turn them down.

That aside, there's really no excuse for Emanuel's and Menino's actions. If you don't want to eat at Chick-fil-A, don't eat there. If you want to picket them, go ahead. If they violate the law, go after them. But you don't hand out business licenses based on whether you agree with the political views of the executives. Not in America, anyway.

On a related note, what makes this whole situation so weird is that Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy has always opposed gay marriage. He's a devout Southern Baptist, just like his father, who founded the company. The place is closed on Sundays, for crying out loud. There's just nothing new here.