Kevin Drum - March 2013

Small Ball Gun Legislation Nearing a Vote in the Senate

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 1:02 PM EST

I didn't get around to blogging about this at the time, but Greg Sargent noted yesterday that there's a possibility of progress on gun legislation:

Later today, Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, will roll out a compromise proposal — with bipartisan support — on a key piece of Obama’s gun control agenda: The measure designed to crack down on gun trafficking and so-called “straw purchasers.”

Senate aides familiar with the talks tell me that Senator Susan Collins will support the measure today — a real breakthrough in terms of getting Republican support for significant legislative action on guns.

Sure enough, the bill was introduced and the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on it tomorrow.

This is good news, but I think I'd hesitate to call it a real breakthrough, even if it does get broad Republican support. Gun trafficking and straw purchases were all part of the Fast & Furious scandal, the GOP's pet rock of 2011-12, and my guess is that if Republicans support this legislation, they'll mainly sell it to their constituents as a response to a scandal that proved the ATF was poorly managed and out of control. It gives conservatives a reason to declare some kind of victory in the longrunning F&F saga, which ended in disappointment for them when multiple investigations suggested it was just a run-of-the-mill cockup, not a Watergate-level coverup from the Obama administration. It also doesn't really encroach on any of the NRA's biggest taboos. High-capacity magazines, assault weapon bans, and universal background checks are still light years away from getting any Republican support.

So sure, this is nice. But it's a one-off, and not a very important one-off. We still have a lot of work ahead before we make any real inroads into the power of the gun lobby.

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Sure, the Dow is a Lousy Index. Go Ahead and Celebrate Its All-Time High Anyway.

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 12:01 PM EST

Matt Yglesias says the Dow Jones Industrial Average is a dumb way to measure the stock market because it's weighted by price instead of by market cap. True enough. But as he also points out, it's carefully constructed to mimic properly constructed indexes, so it's not that bad, really. Still, if you want to see how the stock market is really doing, the S&P 500 is a better bet. And guess what? It's getting close to its all-time high too, just like the Dow.

In real terms, this isn't very impressive, since it means that if you bought a share in an S&P 500 index fund in 1998, it would have produced about zero return over the past 15 years in inflation-adjusted terms. Still, growth is growth. For everyone near retirement who saw the value of their 401(k) plummet during the financial crash, you've made up most of what you lost. It would be nicer if you'd also seen some growth in your assets, but at least you're not too far in the hole anymore.

The Anti-Science Left vs. the Anti-Science Right

| Mon Mar. 4, 2013 7:25 PM EST

Today, Chris Mooney takes on the idea that both liberals and conservatives are equally anti-science. He admits that some anti-science views are more common on the left than on the right, and he specifically mentions attitudes toward GM foods, nuclear power, vaccines, and the biological basis of human behavior. But since I think he buries the lead a bit, I want to put it front and center. Here's the big difference between the two sides:

What's striking about each of these cases is that on the left, you fail to see a mainstreaming of anti-science views. Indeed, the Obama administration is very pro-nuclear! And that's typical: What you get on the left is a heck of a lot of dissension and pushback against those who are making scientifically questionable claims—and, as has clearly occurred in the vaccine case, the ultimate banishment of these bad ideas from intellectually serious company.

And what that means is that anti-science doesn't shape policy in the same way on the left.

Exactly. There are certainly areas where lefty activists are at odds with the mainstream of scientific opinion. For the most part, though, there's very little pandering to these groups. There are plenty of liberals who side with the science community and push back hard against the activists. You find very little of that on the right.

What's even more important is that these views very seldom affect public policy until and unless they get widespread support from mainstream scientists. Last year, even a petition that did nothing more than ask the FDA to require labeling of GM foods—just about the mildest anti-GM position possible—was able to muster the support of less than a quarter of the Democratic caucus in Congress. For better or worse, this kind of stuff simply doesn't get much political traction until the scientific community is on board with it.

There are other differences too, but this is the big one. Lots of people are going to disagree with the scientific consensus on lots of different subjects. But only one party has decided to turn it into a war.

Are Republicans Now Praising the EITC?

| Mon Mar. 4, 2013 3:10 PM EST

In the New York Times this weekend, former Obama advisor Christina Romer writes that she's not a big fan of raising the minimum wage:

We could do so much better if we were willing to spend some money. A more generous earned-income tax credit would provide more support for the working poor and would be pro-business at the same time....Why settle for half-measures when such truly first-rate policies are well understood and ready to go?

Over at National Review, Patrick Brennan comments:

This obliquely raises an important point: Conservatives rightly praise the EITC, especially right now as an alternative to a higher minimum wage, but increasing it will cost the federal government money. For someone holding Romer’s views of our levels of debt and deficits, that is not much of a problem (she also suggest more spending on early-childhood education). But for the bulk of conservatives right now, it is, and that should be considered when suggesting the EITC as a counter to the president’s plan — it would be a non-negligible expansion of federal spending, though one that would in large part go to help the poor, blunting, perhaps, some criticisms of GOP budgeting priorities.

Did I miss something? Are conservatives now pretending to praise the EITC? They've mostly been sworn foes for the past two decades, so if they're now big fans I must have missed the conversion. Hell, last year they were mostly complaining about the poor not paying enough in income taxes, something that's true mostly because of the EITC.

In any case, I'll bet that Obama would be delighted to raise the EITC instead of the minimum wage. The reason he didn't bother suggesting it is that he knows perfectly well that Republicans would vote it down instantly. Conversely, raising the minimum wage has a slightly better chance of passage because (a) it's popular and (b) employers have to pay it, not the federal government.

Right? Am I missing anything here?

John Roberts is Probably Right About Black Voter Turnout in Mississippi

| Mon Mar. 4, 2013 1:59 PM EST

In oral arguments about the Voting Rights Act last week, Chief Justice John Roberts pressed attorneys on which state had a better record of turning out African-American voters. Was it Massachusetts or Mississippi? The answer appears to be Mississippi, but NPR's Nina Totenberg suggests this might be a statistical illusion caused by small sample sizes in a Census survey:

The number of black citizens eligible to vote in Massachusetts is 236,000, while it is 721,000 in Mississippi, more than three times that number. Therefore, according to Census officials, when looking at the estimated turnout rate in Massachusetts, the voting percentage for African-Americans at first blush is estimated at 39.3 percent. But the margin of error is 11.5 percentage points, meaning that the black voter turnout actually could be as high as 50.8 percent (or, conversely, as low as 27.8 percent).

Now, look at Mississippi, where black turnout is listed at 48.7 percent. But because of the large size of the African-American population that was sampled, the margin of error is only 5.4 percentage points.

Steve Benen comments:

For Roberts, Mississippi clearly tops Massachusetts. But given the small sample size, it's equally plausible, statistically speaking, that Massachusetts has an African-American voter turnout rate that's 7.5% better than Mississippi's. Totenberg added, "Bottom line, as Census officials told me, these numbers are simply not reliable for state-by-state comparisons because of the high margins of error in some states."

I have to take Roberts' side here. It's true that the sample sizes in the Census surveys are small, which means their results shouldn't be considered authoritative. Still, it's really not "equally plausible" that Massachusetts might be doing better than Mississippi. I don't have the data to plug into a two-sample z-test to figure this out, but my horseback guess is that there's maybe a 5 percent chance that the Census results are merely due to sample error and Massachusetts is truly doing better than Mississippi. The most probable true result, by far, is that Mississippi really does have a higher percentage turnout among its black population than Massachusetts does.

Totenberg's premise is similar to the "statistical tie" beloved of horserace analysts during presidential campaigns. But as we all know, it doesn't really work there either.

Senator Leahy and the Blue Slips

| Mon Mar. 4, 2013 1:24 PM EST

Fellow MoJoer Nick Baumann tweets that "too much of the coverage of Obama and judges has not mentioned Sen. Leahy and the blue-slip rule." That's true! One of the Senate's oldest traditions is that judicial nominees require approval from their home-state senators before they can move forward, and that approval comes in the form of a blue slip returned to the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. The recent history of the blue slip is surprisingly slippery, if you'll excuse the pun, but here's my best take at a handy potted history of the blue-slip rule:

Pre-1994: Generally speaking, only one blue-slip is needed for a nominee to move forward.

1995-2000: Republicans take control of Senate and decide that two blue slips should be required. This makes it easier to kill Clinton nominees.

2001: George Bush is elected president. Republicans no longer want to make it easy to block nominees, so they return to the rule that only one blue-slip is required to move forward.

2001-02: Jim Jeffords defects, putting Democrats back in control of the Senate. They return to the rule requiring two blue-slips to proceed.

2003: Republicans win back control of the Senate. They up the ante by effectively moving to a zero blue-slip rule: they'll allow hearings on nominees even if no senators return blue-slips. Democrats threaten to filibuster over this rather obvious abuse of power and insist on a return to the two blue-slip rule.

2007-Present: Democrats win control of the Senate and Pat Leahy of Vermont becomes chairman of the Judiciary Committe. Leahy is a traditionalist who maintains the two blue-slip rule.

In addition to plenty of other things, this is one of the reasons that it's been so hard for Obama to move judges through the Senate. When they were in power, Republicans were pretty aggressive about changing the blue-slip rule to suit their needs. Leahy hasn't done that: he's maintained the two blue-slip rule even though it hurts Obama's nominees thanks to aggressive Republican refusal to approve even moderate judges. Here's Leahy last year:

As Chairman of this Committee, I have steadfastly protected the rights of the minority. I have done so despite criticism from Democrats. I have only proceeded with judicial nominations supported by both home state Senators. That has meant that we are not able to proceed on current nominees from Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Louisiana. I even stopped proceedings on a circuit court nominee from Kansas when the Kansas Republican Senators reversed themselves and withdrew their support for the nominee. I had to deny the Majority Leader’s request to push a Nevada nominee through Committee because she did not have the support of Nevada’s Republican Senator. I will put my record of consistent fairness up against that of any Judiciary chairman.

Would Democrats be better off if Leahy was more flexible on blue slips? Or, even in the face of historic GOP obstructionism—nominees who get two blue slips these days still risk being filibustered even though not a single senator actually objects to them—should Democrats maintain the rule they insisted on when Republicans were in power? You can make up your own mind about this. But it's definitely part of the whole story.

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Here's One Reason It's So Hard to Pass Liberal Legislation

| Mon Mar. 4, 2013 11:43 AM EST

Via Dylan Matthews, here's an interesting set of charts from a pair of researchers who studied how people feel about various issues vs. how politicians think they feel. The left-hand chart, for example, shows opinions about universal health care. In districts where 50 percent of the voters supported it, liberal politicians estimated that only 45 percent supported it, while conservative politicians estimated that only about 30 percent supported it. This same gap shows up across the entire spectrum, and for a wide variety of issues.

As always, this is one data point from one study. But it certainly seems to suggest either that conservative voters are a lot louder than liberal voters or that politicians themselves simply don't understand how quickly some of these attitudes are changing. Needless to say, if these results are generally true, it tells us a lot about why it's so hard to get liberal legislation passed.

Obama Plans to Pick Up the Pace on Judges

| Mon Mar. 4, 2013 12:36 AM EST

Liberals have been griping for a long time that President Obama bears some of the blame for the slow pace of judicial confirmations during his first term. Sure, Republicans in the Senate have been obstructionist, but Obama himself has nominated many fewer judges than other presidents have during their first years in office. Apparently that's about to change:

Reelected with strong support from women, ethnic minorities and gays, Obama is moving quickly to change the face of the federal judiciary by the end of his second term, setting the stage for another series of drawn-out confrontations with Republicans in Congress.

The president has named three dozen judicial candidates since January and is expected to nominate scores more over the next few months, aides said. The push marks a significant departure from the sluggish pace of appointments throughout much of his first term, when both Republicans and some Democrats complained that Obama had not tried hard enough to fill vacancies on federal courts.

That's good to hear. The rest of the piece is about how diverse Obama's selections have been, along with some Republican comments about how, you know, they don't object to diverse judges, but they are concerned about whether this is just affirmative action in disguise, so maybe we're not getting the high quality of judges that we should be, blah blah blah. But I liked this comment from the lefty side of the aisle:

Liberal groups have been pressuring the White House to look for diversity not just in race, gender or sexual orientation, but also in professional experience. They want fewer corporate lawyers from white-shoe firms and more public defenders and lawyers from outside what is sometimes called the “judicial monastery.”

Yay! Fewer corporate attorneys, please. Fewer Ivy League grads, please. Fewer Wall Street professionals, please. There are plenty of good judges with other backgrounds.

Good News of the Day: Gay Marriage in California

| Sat Mar. 2, 2013 12:41 PM EST

According to the latest Field Poll, approval of gay marriage in California is continuing its accelerated pace of the past few years. Between 1977 and 2006, the number of people who approve of same-sex marriage increased slowly but steadily at the rate of about half a percentage point per year. Since 2006, however, approval has skyrocketed from 44 percent to 61 percent, a little over two percentage points per year.

The latest poll confirms this growth rate: the number approving has gone up from 59 percent to 61 percent in just one year. We're now very close to the two-thirds tipping point that's a good rule of thumb for getting major legislation passed consistently. Even as we wait for Proposition 8 to wend its way through the court, it's pretty obvious that within a year or two it won't matter. An initiative to make gay marriage legal will barely even be controversial and would pass by a wide margin if it were on the ballot.

James Fallows on Threat Inflation

| Fri Mar. 1, 2013 11:48 PM EST

James Fallows has some things to say about the Iraq War as we near the tenth anniversay of the invasion. Go read. This was the most resonant bit for me:

As I think about it this war and others the U.S. has contemplated or entered during my conscious life, I realize how strong is the recurrent pattern of threat inflation. Exactly once in the post-WW II era has the real threat been more ominous than officially portrayed. That was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the world really came within moments of nuclear destruction.

Otherwise: the "missile gap." The Gulf of Tonkin. The overall scale of the Soviet menace. Iraq. In each case, the public soberly received official warnings about the imminent threat. In cold retrospect, those warnings were wrong — or contrived, or overblown, or misperceived. Official claims about the evils of these systems were many times justified. Claims about imminent threats were most of the times hyped.

We're all going to use the anniversary as a reason to cast blame and demand accountability from everyone who was wrong ten years ago. That's fine. But it's more important, I think, to try to learn some actual lessons, and this is the key one. The lesson isn't that threats are never real. The lesson is that, nine times out of ten, the official account of the threat is overblown by at least half.

So keep that in mind for the next war. If you listen to the war supporters, and their case still sounds reasonable even after you discount everything they say by 50 percent or more, then maybe you should support military action. But that ought to be your standard. Your default assumption should be that they're overstating the threat by at least that much.