Kevin Drum - October 2012

Iranian Oil Exports Continue to Plunge

| Fri Oct. 19, 2012 2:20 PM EDT

Stuart Staniford catches us up today on Iranian oil production, which is falling like a rock. During 2009-10, Iran was producing about 3.7 million barrels per day. Today, they're producing about 3.1 million bpd. Almost all of this decline represents a drop in exports, which in turn represents a loss of roughly $20 billion per year in revenue. As a percent of GDP, that's about the equivalent of $600 billion for the United States. In other words, sanctions are hurting them.

Also: cyber war! "Since we are placing the Iranians under very severe pressure with sanctions, they have the motivation to learn quickly and cyberattacks are very cheap." I'm a little less concerned with Iranian cyberattacks than Stuart is, but in the long term there's no question that this is a growth industry.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Quote of the Day: Peter King Thinks Four Minutes Is Too Long to Talk Without Mentioning Terror

| Fri Oct. 19, 2012 1:27 PM EDT

Steve Benen directs my attention to Rep. Peter King (R-NY), who has a whole new criticism of President Obama's handling of the Benghazi attacks:

As far as it being an act of terror, the president was almost four minutes into his statement on September 12th before he mentioned an act of terror.... It wasn't until he was well into the remarks.

Uh huh. This is a new record. Republicans have been trying for weeks to gin up national outrage over the fact that it was several days before we knew for sure what had happened in Benghazi. They never got much traction with this line of faux umbrage — largely because there really was legitimate confusion about what happened — and fairly or not, Candy Crowley put a stake through its heart on Tuesday when Mitt Romney stupidly repeated an echo chamber attack without bothering to check whether it was actually true.

Now, instead of moving on, King is doubling down. For some reason, Republicans think it's outrageous that Obama didn't instantly know what had happened in Benghazi. They think it's outrageous that he didn't immediately jump to conclusions in the absence of firm facts. And now King thinks it's outrageous that in his Rose Garden speech, Obama took four full minutes to suggest that it was an act of terror.

Conservatives are obsessed with the idea that we demonstrate weakness unless the word "terror" is applied instantly to every attack against the United States. But it's a loser. It worked great during the Bush years, but not so much anymore. Give it a rest, guys.

Sorry, but Mitt Romney's Abortion Absolutism Is Fair Game

| Fri Oct. 19, 2012 12:48 PM EDT

In a primary debate earlier this year, Anderson Cooper asked: "If hypothetically Roe versus Wade was overturned, and the Congress passed a federal ban on all abortion, and it came to your desk, would you sign it? Yes or no?" Mitt Romney said he'd be delighted to sign such a bill, and the Obama campaign is making hay with this in the ad on the right. Michael Scherer thinks it's a cheap shot:

Here is the transcript, from a Republican debate on Nov. 28, 2007:

....Romney: Let me say it. I’d be delighted to sign that bill. But that’s not where we are. That’s not where America is today. Where America is, is ready to overturn Roe v. Wade and return to the states that authority. But if the Congress got there, we had that kind of consensus in the country, terrific.

Romney conditions his support for this hypothetical bill on an America that does not exist, or one in which there is “such a consensus in this country that we said, we don’t want to have abortion in this country at all, period.” He also says clearly, “that’s not where we are.” In other words, he does not say that he would push against popular opinion to support such a bill. He is also silent on whether his ban would include exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. Obama supporters say he doesn’t need to be explicit about exceptions, since the question is about “all abortions.” But the history of abortion debates within the Republican Party suggests otherwise.

I don't really see Scherer's point here. It's true that Romney thinks (accurately) that no flat ban on abortion is likely to cross the president's desk in the near future. So in the sense of trying to figure out what will actually happen over the next four or eight years, it's probably true that a President Romney wouldn't have a chance to sign a flat ban on abortion.

But that's only half of what any election is about. The other half is about what a prospective candidate wants to do. I don't think the United States will ever return to the gold standard, for example, but the fact that Ron Paul supports it tells me that he's a crank. That's reason enough not to vote for him.

Likewise, even if Romney never has the opportunity to sign a nationwide ban on abortion, he's obviously saying that he'd like to if he ever got the chance. What's more, Romney probably would get a chance to overturn Roe v. Wade by appointing a Sam Alito clone to the Supreme Court, and he knows very well that this would result in plenty of states flatly banning abortion. This tells me he's an abortion extremist, and it tells me a lot about who he is. It's fair game.

As for whether Romney, in his heart of hearts, wants to ban all abortions nationwide, or would reject a bill unless it made exceptions for rape and incest, who knows? Romney is obviously willing to fudge the question depending on what audience he's talking to, and it's hardly dirty pool for the Obama campaign to take advantage of that. The ambiguity in the Obama ad is a direct result of the ambiguity in Romney's position.

Obama Continues to Bounce Back

| Fri Oct. 19, 2012 11:57 AM EDT

Polling guru Nate Silver tweets me a series of early birthday presents:

Obama had a strong day of polls in swing states today. He's up a fair bit in our forecast, to 70.4% from 65.7%.

Also, the polls with the most recent field dates generally suggest more strength for Obama than those from earlier in the week.

National polls published in past 24 hours: Obama +3.2, Obama +3, Obama +3, Obama +1, Obama +0.6, Obama +0.5, TIE, Romney +7.

I don't think there's much question that Obama has started bouncing back from the slide that started in late September. The weird Gallup tracking poll is the only one that still has Romney ahead, but the bulk of the polls show Obama now leading both nationally and in the key swing states. For what it's worth, my rough take has always been that Obama has about a two-thirds chance of winning, and I still think that. Nothing so far has really changed my mind.

In other news, Todd Akin continues to suck wind in Missouri. This is bad for my forecasting batting average, but I find that I can bear up surprisingly well under the strain.

You Don't Work as Hard as You Think You Do

| Fri Oct. 19, 2012 11:14 AM EDT

Via Matt Yglesias, here's an interesting BLS study about how many hours people say they work vs. how many hours they actually work. This is actually sort of a pet topic of mine. My experience is solely with white-collar offices, but for years I noticed that my colleagues routinely overestimated how many hours they worked. As it happened, I frequently worked a little late and a little on weekends, so I had a good sense of just how many people were in the building after 6 pm or on Saturdays. Answer: virtually no one. You could fire a cannon through the place and not risk hitting anyone. And yet, people routinely thought they worked something like 50 hours a week.

But guess what? 50 hours a week is actually a lot. It means working until 7 pm every night. Or it means working until 6 pm every night and then working a solid chunk of hours on Saturday. And there just weren't many people who did that. (Nor was much work being done at home. You'll just have to trust me on that.) The numbers are even worse for 60 hours a week. You'd have to work 10-hour days routinely and a good chunk of hours on both weekend days. There are people who do this, but honestly, not all that many.

Anyway, the chart below demonstrates this graphically. It shows the gap between hours reported and hours actually worked:

As you can see, people who report working 50 hours a week typically overestimate by about 5 hours. My take on this has always been simple. If you stay late a couple of days a week, it feels like a strain. You feel like you've really put in the hours. And since, in the modern work environment, 50 hours sounds only moderately hardworking (60 hours is the lower bound for real workaholics), that's what you convince yourself you worked that week. But the truth is that two or three late nights actually adds up to maybe 45 hours or so.

At the high end it gets even worse: 75 hours is 10-11 hours every day, or 12-13 hours six days a week. Not many people really do that. But if you work 60 hours a week, the truth is that you're working a helluva lot of hours. That's 10-hour days six days a week. But since 60 hours is just your basic workaholic level, and you feel like you're doing more than basic workaholic hours, you figure you must really be working 70 or 80 hours a week.

There are some people who really do work these kinds of hours, of course. And there are people who work multiple jobs and put in lots of hours. But among your typical hardworking office types, bragging on your hours comes with the territory. As with other kinds of bragging, however, you should take it with a grain of salt.

Chart of the Day: Who's Afraid of Chris Matthews?

| Fri Oct. 19, 2012 10:45 AM EDT

Seth Masket passes along a chart today showing which members of Congress are most likely to appear on Hardball. Among Democrats, it turns out that liberals and moderates are about equally likely to appear. Among Republicans, conservatives appear all the time but moderates are nearly absent. Why?

Hell if I know. But if I had to guess, I'd say that moderate Republicans have so little influence that there's no point in talking to them. Second guess: moderate Republicans are boring, so Chris Matthews is uninterested in them. He'd rather book fire-breathers that he can mock. Third guess: moderate Republicans usually don't have safe seats and figure that appearing on a liberal chat show is a lose-lose proposition for them.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

FTC Offers $50,000 Prize to End Robocalls

| Thu Oct. 18, 2012 8:57 PM EDT

Economists have long touted the value of prizes to motivate innovation. One of the most famous recent examples is the X Prize, a $10 million prize that was promised to the first private team that could safely launch a three-passenger craft 100 kilometers into space twice within two weeks. The prize was eventually won in 2004 by Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne.

Today, the FTC announced a prize for a far more worthy cause:

After years of using traditional regulatory tools to block billions of illegal marketing calls, the FTC says, the agency is launching a public contest in search of new technical solutions.

The prize: $50,000.

....The agency will be taking entries between Oct. 25 and Jan. 17. Judges will score proposals based on workability (worth 50 percent), ease of use (worth 25 percent) and the idea’s potential for a wide rollout (worth 25 percent). Applicants can submit ideas to block pre-recorded marketing calls on landlines, cellphones or both.

Hooray! Seriously. I don't know if this will work, and I don't know if $50,000 is enough, but this is a great idea. It's exactly the kind of thing that might prompt some unappreciated genius to come up with a harebrained idea that's just crazy enough to work. We should do more stuff like this.

How the Fiscal Cliff Will Reenergize President Obama

| Thu Oct. 18, 2012 3:05 PM EDT

I'm a little tired of the whole "fiscal cliff" meme, but I suppose we all blog about the news we have, not the news we wish we had. And today, the Washington Post informs us that if President Obama is reelected he's going to go medieval on House conservatives who refuse to extend the Bush tax cuts for the middle class unless tax cuts for the rich are included in the package:

Freed from the political and economic constraints that have tied his hands in the past, Obama is ready to play hardball with Republicans, who have so far successfully resisted a deal to tame the debt that includes higher taxes, Obama’s allies say.

In the days after the November election, the tables will be turned: Taxes are scheduled to rise dramatically in January for people at all income levels, and Republicans will be unable to stop those automatic increases alone.

....Some Republicans — such as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a tea-party favorite — have conceded that an Obama election victory would amount to a mandate to raise the top rates. But [John] Boehner recently ruled out that idea, and senior GOP aides say letting the top rate rise, even briefly, above 35 percent is a line party leaders cannot cross.

This is a scenario that Jon Chait has been writing about for quite a while. On December 31, he thinks, Obama can simply let the Bush tax cuts expire and then start with a clean slate. At that point, Obama is the one with all the leverage:

On January 1, 2013, we will all awake to a different, substantially more liberal country. The Bush tax cuts will have disappeared, restoring Clinton-era tax rates and flooding government coffers with revenue to fund its current operations for years to come. The military will be facing dire budget cuts that shake the military-industrial complex to its core.

....All this can come to pass because, while Obama has spent the last two years surrendering short-term policy concessions, he has been quietly hoarding a fortune in the equivalent of a political trust fund that comes due on the first of the year. At that point, he will reside in a political world he finds at most mildly uncomfortable and the Republicans consider a hellish dystopia. Then he’ll be ready to make a deal.

Leading up to the New Year, there will be a concerted effort to preempt this policy shift, by bringing the two parties together to consummate a version of the endlessly touted (but little-understood) Bowles-Simpson agreement that GOP House members rejected....

Chait believes that Obama will refuse to make a Bowles-Simpson-ish deal during 2012 because he knows that his leverage will be far greater once the Bush tax cuts are finally gone. "I know what Obama-land looks like when it’s under the spell of bipartisan delusions," he says, and after the gut punch the White House took during the debt ceiling fiasco, he's convinced they're no longer under any delusions about Republican obstructionism. So this time, Obama will just wait calmly until January 1st, and then let Republicans twist in the wind if they refuse to negotiate. Eventually they will, and Obama will win because he holds all the cards.

Maybe! Obviously this scenario depends on Obama winning reelection, but it also depends on Democrats holding firm. If Republicans can peel off a few centrist Dems in the Senate and pass some kind of deal, Obama might be hard pressed to hold out. Nonetheless, I think Chait is basically right. A freshly reelected Obama has little reason to waste time negotiating in December (though he'll probably have to pretend just for the sake of form), when he knows that January produces a whole new ballgame. And unlike 2010, when the economy was fragile and January heralded a new Republican majority, 2012 will be just the opposite.

Republicans won't concede on taxes unless their backs are to the wall and they no longer have any choice. Obama probably gets that. We can all hope, anyway.

Google Has a Bad Quarter, Trading Halted

| Thu Oct. 18, 2012 1:04 PM EDT

Google earnings are out, and they're bad. The Motorola acquisition has hurt them, costs are up, and ad revenue increased only modestly. Naturally, their stock price immediately plunged:

Google shares fell fast after the release and are now halted. The stock dropped as much as 11% to $676 before bouncing back and being halted at $687.30, down 9%.

Wait a second. What am I missing here? Trading has been halted because Google shares dropped 9%? That hardly seems like a halt-worthy decline. I wonder what else is going on?

2nd Circuit Court Strikes Down DOMA

| Thu Oct. 18, 2012 12:12 PM EDT

Here's some good news. A three-judge panel of the conservative 2nd Circuit Court has struck down the odious Defense of Marriage Act on a 2-1 vote. The opinion was written by Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs, a very conservative appointee of the first George Bush. Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress has the news:

This is a really big deal. Jacobs is not simply saying that DOMA imposes unique and unconstitutional burdens on gay couples, he is saying that any attempt by government to discriminate against gay people must have an “exceedingly persuasive” justification. This is the same very skeptical standard afforded to laws that discriminate against women. If Jacobs’ reasoning is adopted by the Supreme Court, it will be a sweeping victory for gay rights, likely causing state discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation to be virtually eliminated. And the fact that this decision came from such a conservative judge makes it all the more likely that DOMA will ultimately be struck down by the Supreme Court.

This ruling makes it likely that the Supreme Court will take on DOMA in the fairly near future. Stay tuned.