Kevin Drum - July 2012

Chances You Are Being Watched Rise to About 1 in 50

| Mon Jul. 9, 2012 11:09 AM EDT

The New York Times reports today on the spectacular rise of police requests for cell phone surveillance:

In the first public accounting of its kind, cellphone carriers reported that they responded to a startling 1.3 million demands for subscriber information last year from law enforcement agencies seeking text messages, caller locations and other information in the course of investigations.

....Because of incomplete record-keeping, the total number of law enforcement requests last year was almost certainly much higher than the 1.3 million the carriers reported to Mr. Markey. Also, the total number of people whose customer information was turned over could be several times higher than the number of requests because a single request often involves multiple callers.

In other words, it's likely that police at all levels have made surveillance requests on upwards of three or four million people. That's 2% of the adult population of the country.

Do law enforcement authorities really need to be tracking 2% of the adult population of the country? Color me pretty skeptical.

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Quote of the Day: Swiss Bank Account Edition

| Sun Jul. 8, 2012 9:19 PM EDT

From Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, expressing his opinion of Mitt Romney's love of Alpine banks:

I’ve never known of a Swiss bank account to build an American bridge, a Swiss bank account to create American jobs, or Swiss bank accounts to rebuild the levees to protect the people of New Orleans. That's not an economic strategy for moving our country forward.

I believe that O'Malley has won the competition for most references to "Swiss bank account" in a single sentence. That was the contest everyone was playing this morning on the Sunday talk shows, wasn't it? I'd know for sure, but I spent the morning watching tennis instead.

By the way, I have it on good authority that Roger Federer has placed his Wimbledon winnings in a Swiss bank account. What's his excuse?

Needed: An Econobox With a Nice Stick Shift

| Sun Jul. 8, 2012 12:41 PM EDT

Here's a Sunday question for y'all. A bit of a long shot, maybe, but here goes.

I'm thinking it's time for a new car. The repair bills on my current one are starting to piss me off. But here's the thing: my current car has an automatic transmission, the first one I've ever had, and I'm thinking I'd like to go back to a stick. It's just more fun to drive. However, I'm also planning to get a basic high-mileage econobox, and there's nothing more annoying than a mushy, vague stick. Or an overly touchy one. So here's the question: does anyone have advice on an econobox with a good manual transmission? Nice clutch, short-throw on the stick, finds gears easily, etc.? Help me out, hivemind.

Dog Groomers on California Occupational Licensing Radar

| Sat Jul. 7, 2012 10:35 AM EDT

Here is today's Yglesias bait:

California already licenses furniture upholsterers, private investigators and recreation guides. Now it wants to regulate pet groomers.

In a state that leads the country in the number of professions requiring a license, a bill moving through the Legislature has struck a nerve among those who clip Fido and Fluffy. Sen. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego), author of the proposed legislation....says the measure, known as SB 969, is intended to protect pets from untrained groomers. He said he drafted the bill after learning about lacerations, broken bones — and in one case, death — that some animals suffered during trips to their barbers.

"The pets really are the silent victims," Vargas said. "They can't tell you what happens."

What's unfortunate, I guess, is that this would all be unobjectionable if it were a voluntary certification program. If you want to pay more to take Fido to a certified groomer, go right ahead. If you want to save money, then don't. But critics are almost certainly right that a voluntary license would become a required license in pretty short order. After all, Vargas's proposal may be for a voluntary license right now, but that's only because he's failed to get support for a required license in the past.

What's more, if the program were voluntary I'm not sure why you'd need the state involved in the first place. If there's really a demand for this kind of certification, it seems likely that a trade association of some kind would set something up. And if there isn't, then why bother?

Bill Burton Explains Why Super PACs Have Such Lame Names

| Fri Jul. 6, 2012 5:37 PM EDT

When I read Robert Draper's piece this morning about Priorities USA Action, a Democratic super PAC, the first thought that popped into my head was, "Why do all these super PACs have such lame names?" As it turns out, though, PUSAA founder Bill Burton answered my question about halfway through:

It took several weeks for Burton and Sweeney to come up with a name for their start-up. To their irritation, every slogan they considered had already been trademarked by Republicans. “We gave our lawyer 10 more names,” Burton recalls. “Then like 50. We’re literally trying every combination of whatever. You can’t come up with a name that has the word ‘future’ in it that the Republicans don’t control. Romney’s Restore Our Future — that doesn’t even make sense, and that’s probably why they were able to get it.

So there you go.

Friday Cat Blogging - 6 July 2012

| Fri Jul. 6, 2012 3:23 PM EDT

On the left, Inkblot is entranced by a paper bag. Why? Is it because it was once full of takeout food from El Cholo, so it smelled inviting?

No. It's because Domino had taken up residence in its lovely, aromatic interior. This all went pear shaped a few minutes after I took this picture, and I really wish I'd still had the camera handy so I could have shot a video for you all. Basically, Inkblot kept inching closer to the bag until Domino had had enough, at which point she started hissing and batting at the bag. Every time she did, the bag made a sudden crinkling sound and Inkblot jumped out of skin. This continued for quite a while, with Inkblot never quite working up the courage to take a swat at Domino. He just kept poking his nose forward, and then suddenly jumping back, over and over and over. Words don't do it justice, but it probably wouldn't have played well on the campaign trail anyway. It was not his finest moment.

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Obama is Already Doing What Everyone Wants Obama To Do

| Fri Jul. 6, 2012 2:46 PM EDT

Last night I read an op-ed by Jonathan Rauch suggesting that President Obama should (a) adopt the Simpson-Bowles long-term deficit reduction plan, (b) propose some short-term fiscal stimulus, and (c) ask Congress to raise the debt ceiling for at least two years, so we don't go through last year's idiocy again for a while.

I thought about writing a response, mainly wondering why so many people fetishize Simpson-Bowles even though there are plenty of better plans out there, but I got lazy and didn't. And a good thing! Today Ezra Klein makes what's really the most obvious point of all:

Here’s the thing: The White House already released this plan. It was called “Living Within Our Means and Investing in the Future: The President’s Plan for Economic Growth and Deficit Reduction.”

They sent it to the Special Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction — better known as ‘the Supercommittee’ — back in September 2011. It included a large short-term stimulus in the form of the American Jobs Act, a longer-term fiscal retrenchment component based loosely on Simpson-Bowles, and, because the ‘Supercommittee’ was empowered to raise the debt ceiling when it greenlighted a plan, an end to further debt-ceiling shenanigans. You can read the whole thing here (pdf). The White House continued to push this proposal in its 2013 budget, which included most of the stimulus and deficit-reduction proposals included in this plan.

I don't think this kind of plan is the political winner Rauch thinks it is. I suspect he's mistaking Beltway conventional wisdom (and his own preferences) for the preferences of the rest of the country. But that's arguable. What's not really arguable is that Ezra is right: Obama has basically already done what Rauch wants him to do. We can quibble over the details — Is the AJA a big enough stimulus? Does Obama's plan reduce long-term spending enough? — but any way you look at it, Obama's plan is roughly what Rauch says he wants to see.

So why doesn't he know about it? Probably because it never got any love from the pundit class and it died as soon as Obama sent it to Congress. Nonetheless, Beltway centrists continue to think that if only Obama proposed another plan just like the one that already sank like a stone, this time it would really catch fire. But we never learn why.

In any case, here's my guess. The Rauch/Obama/Simpson/Bowles plan is going nowhere because (a) spending cuts are unpopular, (b) the masses don't really believe in Keynesian stimulus, and (c) the masses also don't really believe in promises to reduce the deficit "a few years down the road." That makes plans like this a very heavy lift. Whatever it is that voters are looking for, this isn't it.

Nobody Takes Conservative Wingnuttery at Face Value

| Fri Jul. 6, 2012 1:05 PM EDT

Jon Chait calls our attention to Robert Draper's piece in the New York Times Magazine this week about Priorities USA Action, a Democratic super PAC run by Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney. Here's a lovely little excerpt:

Burton and his colleagues spent the early months of 2012 trying out the pitch that Romney was the most far-right presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater. It fell flat. The public did not view Romney as an extremist. For example, when Priorities informed a focus group that Romney supported the Ryan budget plan — and thus championed “ending Medicare as we know it” — while also advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.

So there you have it. Voters simply refused to believe that the bare facts about the Ryan plan could possibly be true. Chait is cautious about what this means: "I wouldn’t overread this and assume that the Republicans have found the ultimate wormhole, advocating policies so outlandishly unpopular that opponents can’t persuade voters they’re real."

I agree. Sort of. But I do think that it points to something real: Over the past couple of decades, Republican leaders have become such stone ideologues, and have made outrageous proposals such a standard part of their stump speeches, that a lot of voters just don't take them seriously anymore. They view these things less as actual plans than as statements meant to show group affiliation. As the bar gets raised year after year, Republicans have to say ever more outrageous things to demonstrate that they're real conservatives, but it's still just blather. They don't actually intend to do any of this stuff if they get elected.

Independents might discover — too late — that they're wrong about this. But I suspect that's how they treat a lot of this stuff: as mere rote catechisms, professions of faith not meant to be taken literally.

Congress is Dysfunctional, Education Edition

| Fri Jul. 6, 2012 12:36 PM EDT

This may seem like a story about education policy, but I think it's actually a story about the breakdown of Congress:

In just five months, the Obama administration has freed schools in more than half the nation from central provisions of the No Child Left Behind education law, raising the question of whether the decade-old federal program has been essentially nullified.

On Friday, the Department of Education plans to announce that it has granted waivers releasing two more states, Washington and Wisconsin, from some of the most onerous conditions of the signature Bush-era legislation. With this latest round, 26 states are now relieved from meeting the lofty — and controversial — goal of making all students proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014.

....House Republicans have repeatedly protested the Obama administration’s use of waivers as an end-run around Congress.

My understanding is this: when NCLB was being debated in 2001, everyone understood that its goals were unattainable. Here in the real world, no matter how brilliant your teachers are and how solid your curriculum is, you'll never get 100% of your kids to pass a standardized test. NCLB set that 100% goal anyway because (a) "No Child" sounded a lot better in the bill's title than "No More Than a Few Children," and (b) everyone assumed that when the law was reauthorized after its first five years, Congress would lower the 100% number to something more reasonable.

But guess what? Reauthorization didn't happen in 2007. Then we had an election year. Then we had a financial crisis. Then Republicans decided to blindly oppose anything that President Obama favored. And the politics of the whole thing were gruesome. Just as no single party wants to be the one to cut Social Security benefits on its own, what party wants to be the one to lower educational standards on its own? If there's bipartisan cover, that's one thing, but if there's not, you're just opening yourself to obvious demagoguery. Which children do you want to leave behind, Senator Smith? Let's hear their names.

These days, of course, there's no such thing as bipartisan cover, and that means there's no real chance of rationalizing NCLB. At the same time, it's not realistic to declare 100% of America's schools as failures, which is what will happen in 2014 without any waivers. So waivers it is. But it's not because Arne Duncan is exercising tyrannical executive powers to nullify a law he doesn't like. It's because Congress is no longer able to do its job.

Quote of the Day: "Religious" Does Not Equal "Christian"

| Fri Jul. 6, 2012 11:43 AM EDT

From the Livingston Parish News, reporting on Rep. Valarie Hodges' sudden U-turn on Gov. Bobby Jindal’s voucher program for private schools in Louisiana:

Hodges mistakenly assumed that 'religious' meant 'Christian.'

Hodges, it turns out, thought the voucher program was just fine when it meant that state money would be going to Christian schools that deny evolution and sprinkle their lessons with lots of Bible verses. Then she found out that our pesky Constitution treats Islam as a religion too, which meant that Islamic schools would also qualify for vouchers.

Oops. But not to worry. I have little doubt that School Superintendent John White will figure out a way to "muddy the waters" so that Islamic schools somehow never quite seem to qualify.