Kevin Drum - January 2013

Michael Gerson Pens a Modern Masterpiece

| Tue Jan. 15, 2013 3:53 PM PST

Jonathan Chait directs my attention to a remarkable Michael Gerson column today. It might set a new mainstream media record for compressing the largest number of conservative pathologies into the smallest possible space. First this:

In cliff negotiations, Obama had one overriding goal: to make Republicans vote for rate increases on the wealthy. For 20 years the refusal to raise taxes has been one of the core issues that held together the disparate groups of the GOP. If Obama saw his job as bringing together a broad coalition to fix the long-term debt problem, he would have maneuvered Democrats to take on some of their core issues as part of a package, just as Republicans had to do. But Obama did not view his job this way. He wanted Republicans to swallow their humiliation pure.

That's not even close to reality. Obama's first fiscal cliff offer was a $1.6 trillion bargain that included something like $600 billion in spending cuts. His second offer contained about $900 billion in spending cuts, including reductions in both Medicare and Social Security that Democrats would have had a hard time swallowing. This was only three weeks ago, but apparently Gerson has forgotten already.

Then he goes on to admit that refusing to raise the debt ceiling would be irresponsible. But:

Given this weak Republican position, Obama must be tempted by a shiny political object: the destruction of the congressional GOP. He knows that Republicans are forced by the momentum of their ideology to take positions on spending that he can easily demagogue. He is in a good position to humiliate them again — to expose their internal divisions and unpopular policy views. It may even be a chance to discredit and then overturn the House Republican majority, finally reversing his own humiliation in the 2010 midterms.

Holy cow! Obama might be tempted to expose Republicans' internal divisions and unpopular policy views? The fiend! And Republicans are helpless to resist because tea party crackpots the momentum of their ideology doesn't allow them to be reasonable. They literally have no choice except to surrender to fanaticism. What's next on Obama's agenda?

Force the GOP to surrender on the debt limit, with nothing in return. Require Republicans to accept new taxes in exchange for any real spending reductions. If they agree, their caucus is fractured (again). And if they refuse (which they are likely to do), paint them as obstructionists and extremists who are willing to destroy the economy/the nation’s credit rating/the military for their own ideological purposes.

Obama wants Republicans to accept new taxes in exchange for spending reductions? Apparently the man will stop at nothing. And we'll all pay the price:

There is one main downside to this approach. It delays any serious action on long-term debt for at least another two (and probably four) years. It is the path of a government that moves from fiscal crisis to crisis, gradually undermining global confidence that it can manage its own affairs. Etc.

Actually, America's finances aren't in bad shape.  Obama has already cut the deficit by about $2.4 trillion over the past couple of years, and he's stated repeatedly that he's willing to negotiate another $1.5 trillion as part of the sequestration talks. That would put the federal budget on a pretty sound footing. There's no Armageddon here unless the GOP insists on creating one.

So there you have it. Obama refused to negotiate over the fiscal cliff. His only goal is humiliation and unconditional surrender. The Republican position on taxes should be viewed as a law of nature, so it's unfair to expect them to back off their fanatic position by even a dime. And the end result of all this will be to turn the United States into another Greece.

Gerson has synthesized every Republican phantasm into a concise 800 words. This is how they view things. And then they wonder why they have so much trouble negotiating with someone whose policy views are still firmly rooted in the real world.

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Lead and Crime: A Linkfest

| Tue Jan. 15, 2013 12:56 PM PST

For the past couple of weeks I've been writing updates of various kinds to my article about the link between gasoline lead and violent crime. A reader suggested that I should collect everything in one place for ease of reference, and I thought that sounded like a good idea. So here it is.

Criminal Element. This is the original piece spelling out the detailed evidence that the rise and fall of gasoline lead in the post-World War II era was responsible for the rise of violent crime starting in the 60s and its subsequent decline starting in the 90s.

The story in a nutshell. Provides a brief version of the lead-crime story as an introduction to the full article.

It's not just lead. Emphasizes that lead is a major part of the crime story, but not the only part. Also: audio of my appearance on the Leonard Lopate show explaining the lead-crime connection.

The prison population is dropping. Declining exposure to lead starting in the mid-70s reduced the rate of violent crime 20 years later. Twenty years after that, as members of Generation Lead are being released from prison and aren't being replaced, the prison population has started to drop too.

Lead and murder. We have fairly good data on murder rates going back for a century, and it turns out the United States has had two epidemics of murder, the first in the 20s and 30s and the second in the 70s and 80s. When you account for both lead paint and gasoline lead, it turns out that lead can explain them both.

Crime in Chicago. Violent crime is up in certain parts of Chicago. Is lead responsible?

A response to Deborah Blum. A small correction, and another post emphasizing that although lead is an important part of the crime story, it's not the whole story.

International crime trends. Violent crime began to drop in the United States in the early 90s, about 20 years after we began reducing the lead content of gasoline. But how about other countries? Where can we expect to see crime drops in the future?

The Melissa Harris-Perry show. Video of me talking about lead and crime with Melissa Harris-Perry. Howard Mielke, a longtime lead researcher from Tulane University, is also on the show.

How did lead get into our gasoline in the first place? The whole fascinating story is right here, along with lessons for the future.

George Monbiot and Scott Firestone. Monbiot endorses the lead-crime theory and Firestone criticizes it. I respond, along with a brief summary of the multiple threads of research that support the lead-crime hypothesis. Followup here.

Baselines vs. crime waves. Lots of things contribute to baseline levels of crime. But lead is uniquely able to explain why there was such a huge rise of crime above the baseline during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, followed by an equally huge reduction back to the baseline in the 90s and aughts.

Big cities vs. small cities. Surprisingly, it turns out that once you reduce exposure to gasoline lead, big cities aren't really all that much more dangerous than small ones after all.

A response to Jim Manzi. This is a wonky post responding to Manzi's generic critique of econometric analysis of complex social issues.

Crime and race. In the postwar era, black children were exposed to much more lead than white children. This explains some of the racial differences in both crime rates and incarceration rates.

The Voting Wars Continue

| Tue Jan. 15, 2013 11:26 AM PST

Voter ID laws were a bit of a bust last year, but that was mostly because they came too late and ran into problems in the courts. Needless to say, that doesn't mean the Republican Party has given up on them. Nor have they given up on the idea of gaming the Electoral College to give themselves an artificial advantage in the 2016 election. Steve Benen rounds up the latest news here. This particular war didn't end in 2012. It was just getting started.

The Opportunity Cost of Playing Nice

| Tue Jan. 15, 2013 10:31 AM PST

I got an email this morning from a friend who, while agreeing that Obama's low schmoozability isn't really keeping anything from getting done in Washington DC, is still a bit concerned that Obama might be taking things too far. After all, if he's given up completely on having a decent relationship with the opposition, that might still have an effect on the margin.

At a first pass, that sounds unarguable. Other things being equal, friendly relationships certainly can't hurt, can they?

Actually, they can. The problem, I think, is in the opportunity cost. In the past, it was possible (according to legend, at least) for politicians to rip each other bloody in public and then head out for a beer afterward to laugh about it. But even if that's true, it's an era that's long gone—and not just in the White House. For better or worse, politicians of opposing parties just don't socialize much anymore.

So here's Obama's problem. He can continue to try to make nice with Republicans, figuring that even if it does no good, it probably does no harm either. But if he does that, he has to be reasonably friendly in public too. And that might carry a cost. It means he's given up one possible way of moving public opinion in his direction.

So in his second term, he seems to be making a different calculation. If trying to compromise gets you nowhere, maybe a more direct appeal to the American public will. And that means attacking Republican intransigence more directly. It's no sure thing this will work, of course, but it's worth a try given his utter failure to move Republicans even a smidgen during his first term. And guess what? He seems to have gotten a decent fiscal cliff deal out of it. He's starting to generate a bit of Republican nervousness toward using the debt ceiling as an opportunity for hostage taking. And his favorability ratings continue to creep upward. Being the bad cop doesn't seem to be doing any harm.

Political scientists will tell you this can't work because presidents don't really have much power to move public opinion. Maybe. But Obama seems to think it's worth a try, and I find it hard to disagree. One way or another, the tea party faction of the Republican Party has to be held accountable for its zealotry. Maybe a little plain talk is the best way to do that. And maybe Beltway sensibilities need to toughen up a bit.

Europe Has Apparently Given Up On Recovery

| Tue Jan. 15, 2013 9:46 AM PST

Matt Yglesias makes the point today that although the eurozone crisis appears to be over for the moment, the European economy is in shambles:

Worst of all, as Ambrose Evans-Pierce writes the European Central Bank seems to have entirely washed its hands of the situation, deciding that as long as there's no acute banking crisis they don't need to care about anything else. This is, among other things, exactly the attitude from the Trichet-Weber years that let the acute banking crisis develop. Over the long-term, it's all tied together. Banks and sovereigns can't be solvent if citizens don't have incomes, Germany can't export if Spain can't import.

It is remarkable how little we seem to have learned anything from the events of the past decade. On topic after topic, from war to climate change to the economy, it's as if we're frozen in amber. No matter what happens, we just keep on believing the same things. More here from Ryan Avent.

Debt Hawks Wrong Yet Again

| Tue Jan. 15, 2013 8:55 AM PST

Dan Drezner passes along yet another prediction from the VSPs that Paul Krugman can throw onto his bonfire of contempt for the Fox News interpretation of the economy. It turns out that all those warnings about China getting tired of propping up U.S. bond purchases because of our profligate ways were just so much hot air. Seeking Alpha explains:

China has actually decreased its short term U.S. bond holdings by 5.1%. China holds $US 3.7 billion short term U.S. paper. On June 2011 China held $US 4.9 billion of short term U.S. paper. So basically all the debt that China holds are long term treasuries now. Interesting to know, China had $US 200 billion in short term U.S. debt in May 2009. So they divested all short term paper to long term paper.

Drezner comments:

In other words, contrary to the fears of debt hawks in 2009 — including, it should be noted, Hillary Clinton — China has not exercised an iota of influence over the United States via its debt holdings. Indeed, the shifting pattern of their debt purchases strongly suggests that the Chinese have recognized the futility of such an approach.

While Beijing has recognized this truth, certain Very Serious People who write Very Serious Columns persist in being afraid of China's mythical debt leverage. So, on occasion, as a public service, this blog will continue to remind its readers that U.S. remains clothed in immense financial power.

Rising U.S. debt hasn't caused inflation. It hasn't sent interest rates skyrocketing. It hasn't reduced Chinese demand for American bonds. It hasn't reduced demand for long-dated bonds. Really, it hasn't done any of the things that conservatives have been predicting with apocalyptic fervor for the past four years.

And yet, we continue to take them seriously.

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Magical Thinking in the Press Corps

| Mon Jan. 14, 2013 11:51 PM PST

Dana Milbank joins the fantasy-based faction of the press corps that's still convinced President Obama could get more done if only he'd schmooze with Republican members of Congress a little more:

Arguably, Obama's no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy approach is good politics. His first-term experience made clear that he gained nothing from Republicans when he took a passive approach. Yet…it's tempting to wonder whether Obama could achieve more if he could establish personal connections with Republicans on Capitol Hill. But Obama disparaged the notion behind Calmes's question—that a better bedside manner could help his agenda.

"I like a good party," the president informed her after attesting to his "friendly guy" status. "Really what's gone on in terms of some of the paralysis here in Washington, or difficulties in negotiations, just have to do with some very stark differences in terms of policy."

That may be true, but until recent years, sharp disagreements were smoothed by personal ties. On Monday, by contrast, Obama showed unrelenting hostility toward the opposition, accompanying his remarks with dismissive shrugs and skeptical frowns.

I continue to wonder what it will take to put a stake through the heart of this hoary Beltway meme. It's true that Obama isn't the schmooziest president in history, but how much evidence do you need to convince yourself that schmooziness simply isn't the problem here? We know for a fact that Republicans constructed their strategy of total opposition before he was even sworn in. Eight days after his inauguration, House Republicans voted against the stimulus bill unanimously. In the Senate, Republicans embarked on a strategy of total opposition to everything from Day 1, filibustering every bill, every appointment, and every judge. Senate Democrats spent months negotiating over health care reform—without Obama playing a role—and eventually learned that Republicans never had the slightest intention of agreeing to anything. After winning control of the House in 2010, the GOP's top priority was to engineer a hostage crisis over the debt ceiling. This isn't arcane knowledge or ancient history. It's common knowledge.

Over the last four years, one thing has become crystal clear: The mere fact that Obama supports something almost guarantees united Republican opposition. Schmoozing doesn't matter. Golf dates don't matter. Invites to the White House bowling alley don't matter. Milbank implicitly admits as much, and yet he's still "tempted" to think that Obama could smooth things over if only he'd hoist a few more beers with Eric Cantor. After all, that kind of thing used to work.

This is magical thinking. The reason it doesn't work anymore isn't because Obama is insular. It doesn't work because the Republican Party has become a party of zealots. What does it take for DC columnists to finally admit that?

Front page image: Samantha Appleton/The White House

Afghan Officials Want Us Out of Afghanistan. So Let's Get Out.

| Mon Jan. 14, 2013 11:07 PM PST

The Washington Post reports that there's already disagreement between American and Afghan officials about exactly what "withdrawal" means:

Top Afghan officials said Obama’s pledge last week to remove U.S. troops from Afghan villages should apply to Special Operations forces charged with training the Afghan Local Police. But U.S. officials said they assumed that the policy would apply only to traditional military operations and would include an exemption for the police trainers, whose mission they see as critical to security throughout Afghanistan.

The dispute underscored just how difficult negotiations over a long-term security partnership could be during the next year. The disagreement, like others before it, centers on the fundamental question of what will keep Afghans safe: U.S. officials say the local police program thwarts insurgents, but Karzai insists that it invites attacks.

I know it's easy to get too simplistic about this stuff, but in this case I think simplistic is best. This kind of mission just flatly can't work if the host nation isn't cooperative. So it really doesn't matter how critical Americans think the training program is. If Afghan leaders are opposed to it, then it's time to stop. It's not worth risking a single American life for a program that has no chance of producing long-term results.

The U.S. mission in Afghanistan has failed. Maybe that's because of poor planning, or maybe it never had a chance of working regardless. At this point it no longer matters except as grist for lessons learned. It's time to get out.

Yes, There's a Business Model for Immense Riches With No Effort

| Mon Jan. 14, 2013 3:16 PM PST

This is so weird that I just have to comment on it. Via Tyler Cowen, it's Bruce Sterling, arguing that true artificial intelligence isn't in our future:

We’re no closer to “self-aware” machines than we were in the remote 1960s. Modern wireless devices in a modern Cloud are an entirely different cyber-paradigm than imaginary 1990s “minds on nonbiological substrates” that might allegedly have the “computational power of a human brain.” A Singularity has no business model, no major power group in our society is interested in provoking one, nobody who matters sees any reason to create one, there’s no there there.

Obviously I don't know any more than you do about whether or not we'll eventually create true AI. But no business model? Nobody interested in creating it? Nobody who even sees any reason to create it?

Huh? The business value of true AI is immense beyond measure. If you had it, you could run your business better than anyone else and far more profitably since you'd no longer need any human labor. And even if that weren't true, there are loads of people interested in creating it regardless. It doesn't even matter if there's a reason to create it. Lots of people are working their way toward that goal anyway.

I'm genuinely stonkered by this. If we never achieve true AI, it will be because it's technologically beyond our reach for some reason. It sure won't be because nobody's interested and nobody sees any way to make money out of it.

(As for the Singularity, a hypothesized future of runaway technological advancement caused by better and better AI, who knows? It might be the end result of AI, or it might not. But if it happens, it will be a natural evolution of AI, not something that happens because someone came up with a business model for it.)

Lead and Crime: How It Connects to Race

| Mon Jan. 14, 2013 12:03 PM PST

Kieran Healy wrote this weekend about Becky Pettit's new book, Invisible Men, which deals with the mass incarceration of young black men over the past three decades:

Two features stand out: its sheer scale, and its disproportionate concentration amongst young, unskilled black men....Pettit and others have been arguing for a long time that incarceration is by now a modal event in the life-course for young black men. Black men are more likely to go prison than complete college or serve in the military, and black, male, high-school dropouts are more likely to spend a year in prison than to get married. These social-structural changes have consequences for measuring and counting those involved.

Kieran has more to say about this at the link, but I want to add something else: this is, in part, almost certainly due to lead poisoning via both gasoline lead and lead paint in substandard housing. Here are some excerpts from Rick Nevin's 2007 paper on international crime trends:

In 1960, blacks occupied 15% of central city households and 56% of substandard central city housing.... Average 1976–1980 blood lead for black children ages 6–36 months was 50% above the average for white children....Those children were juveniles when the 1990–1994 black juvenile burglary arrest rate was 60% higher than the white rate, but the black juvenile violent crime arrest rate was five times higher and the black juvenile murder rate was eight times higher.

....Social trends cannot explain why the 1990s homicide decline was so pronounced among juvenile offenders, and especially black juveniles, but blood lead trends can. Blood lead prevalence over 30 mg/dL among white USA children fell from 2% in 1976–1980 to less than 0.5% in 1988–1991, as prevalence over 30 mg/dL among black children plummeted from 12% to below 1%. The white juvenile murder arrest rate then fell from 6.4 to 2.1 from 1993–2003, as the black juvenile rate fell from 58.6 to 9.7. That 83% fall in the black juvenile murder arrest rate occurred with just 36% of black children living in two-parent families in 1993, and in 2003.

Both gasoline lead and lead paint were most prevalent in the postwar era in the inner core of big cities, the former because that's where cars were densest and the latter because slumlords had little incentive to clean up old buildings. Because African-Americans were disproportionately represented in inner-city populations during the high-lead era, they were disproportionately exposed to lead as children. The result was higher rates of violent crime when black kids grew up in the 70s and 80s.

The tragedy of all this is hard to overstate. In the 40s and 50s we exposed black children to enormous amounts of lead—far more than white children were exposed to. Because of this, many more of them became violent later in life, and thus became the primary targets of the great American prison-building binge of the 70s and 80s. To this day, they are paying the price for our unwitting lead poisoning epidemic of the postwar years.

In the same way that violent crime rates between big and small cities have converged as lead was removed from gasoline, crime rates between whites and blacks have converged as well. For a variety of reasons they haven't converged entirely, largely because gasoline lead isn't the only causal factor here. But it almost certainly played a significant role.