Kevin Drum - April 2013

Why We Smoke

| Mon Apr. 22, 2013 12:41 PM EDT

Atrios:

Once upon a time you could smoke everywhere. Hell, high schools had smoking lounges. Everybody smoked. I actually remain a bit puzzled about why people start smoking these days. I'm not being judgmental, I'm just genuinely curious. When being a smoker involves always having to find a moment to duck out of wherever you are to light up outside, it just doesn't seem that fun anymore.

If I were less lazy I'd peruse the internet for supporting evidence, but I'm pretty sure the answer is: people start smoking as teenagers, and teenagers have always had to duck out of wherever they are to light up. So nothing much has changed on that front. And by the time they're old enough that smoking has become a pain in the ass, it's too late. They're already addicted.

Thus the vast amount of cigarette marketing aimed at young people, combined with similarly vast denials from the cigarette industry that they're doing any such thing.

UPDATE: I started to feel guilty about being so lazy and decided I should go ahead and dig up some Actual Facts™. That turned out to be surprisingly hard (i.e., it took more than the 60 seconds I figured it would). However, a pamphlet from the CDC here says, "Nearly 9 out of 10 smokers start smoking by age 18, and 99% start by age 26." I'm not sure what their source is, but I guess the CDC wouldn't lie to us, would it?

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Jihad and Tamerlan Tsarnaev

| Mon Apr. 22, 2013 12:01 PM EDT

Andrew Sullivan argues that the Boston bombings orchestrated by Tamerlan Tsarnaev were clearly an act of Islamic jihad:

One reason the Miranda rights issue is not that salient is that the evidence that this dude bombed innocents, played a role in shooting a cop, shutting down a city, and terrorizing people for a week is overwhelming and on tape. And yes, of course, this decision to commit horrific crimes may be due in part to “some combination of mental illness, societal alienation, or other form of internal instability and rage that is apolitical in nature.” But to dismiss the overwhelming evidence that this was also religiously motivated — a trail that now includes a rant against his own imam for honoring Martin Luther King Jr. because he was not a Muslim — is to be blind to an almost text-book case of Jihadist radicalization, most likely in the US.

....We see the sexual puritanism of the neurotically fundamentalist. We have his YouTube page and the comments he made in the photography portfolio. To state today that we really still have no idea what motivated him and that rushing toward the word Jihadist is some form of Islamophobia seems completely bizarre to me.

Please. Just stop this. What we know about Tamerlan Tsarnaev is that he was (a) Muslim and (b) enraged about something. Was he enraged, a la Sayyid Qutb, about the sexual libertinism of American culture? Was he enraged about perceived American support for Russia against Chechen rebels? Was he enraged about American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Was he acting on orders from a foreign terrorist group?

We don't know yet. Yes, there's plainly evidence of his growing Islamic extremism over the past three years. But if there's anything we've learned over the last week, it's that jumping to conclusions on this stuff is foolish. Our natural curiosity isn't a good enough reason to rush to judgment about Tsarnaev's motivations. Just wait. There's no harm in it. We'll find out soon enough.

Maureen Dowd and Presidential Leverage

| Mon Apr. 22, 2013 11:33 AM EDT

Maureen Dowd was widely pilloried over the weekend for writing this:

How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn’t know how to work the system....The White House should have created a war room full of charts with the names of pols they had to capture, like they had in “The American President.” Soaring speeches have their place, but this was about blocking and tackling.

Instead of the pit-bull legislative aides in Aaron Sorkin’s movie, Obama has Miguel Rodriguez, an arm-twister so genteel that The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker wrote recently that no one in Congress even knows who he is.

The president was oblivious to red-state Democrats facing tough elections. Bring the Alaskan Democrat Mark Begich to the White House residence, hand him a drink, and say, “How can we make this a bill you can vote for and defend?”

My objectivity about Dowd's advice is questionable, since I've been gobsmacked for years that the New York Times continues to publish her tedious rambles. I'm only surprised that her internal censor wasn't quite sharp enough to understand that this particular critique—Obama should do things like they do in the movies!—was laughable even by her standards.

Still and all, maybe this is a good oppportunity to talk—yet again—about presidential power in domestic affairs. Presidents obviously aren't powerless: they have agenda setting power, they have agency rulemaking power, and they're always at the table since nothing becomes law without their signature. This provides them with a certain amount of leverage. But not much. The truth is that presidents have never had all that much personal power in domestic affairs. Modern presidents have largely succeeded when they had big majorities in Congress (FDR, LBJ, Reagan, Obama's first two years) and failed when they didn't. That's by far the biggest factor in presidential success, not some mystical ability to sweet talk legislators.

But there's more to this. Dowd's real problem is that she hasn't kept up with either academic research or simple common sense over the past half century. She's still stuck in the gauzy past when presidents really did have at least a bit of arm-twisting power. LBJ's real source of success may have been an overwhelming Democratic majority in Congress, but it's also true that he really did have at least a few resources at hand to persuade and threaten recalcitrant lawmakers. The problem is that even those few resources are now largely gone. The world is simply a different place.

Party discipline, for example, is wildly different than it used to be. The party apparatus itself, which the president heads, has far less power than it used to have to compel support for a president's agenda. At the same time, parties are far more ideologically unified than in the past, which means that picking off a few members of the opposition party is much more difficult than it used to be.

And that's not all. Earmarks and pork barrel budgeting in general are largely gone. You can partly blame Obama for this state of affairs, since he was in favor of getting rid of earmarks, but this is something that affects all lawmaking, not just guns. The budget barons of the Senate simply don't have the power any longer to make life miserable for backbenchers who don't toe the president's line.

In fact, party leaders don't have very much power at all over backbenchers anymore. The days are long gone when newly elected members spent years quietly working their way up the seniority ladder and providing reliable votes for the party along the way. These days, they vote the way they need to vote, and there's very little anyone can do about it. Even threats to withhold fundraising are mostly empty. Party leaders need them more than they need party leaders, and everyone knows it.

Finally, there's the most obvious change of all: the decision by Republicans to stonewall every single Obama initiative from day one. By now, I assume that even conservative apologists have given up pretending that this isn't true. The evidence is overwhelming, and it's applied to practically every single thing Obama has done in the domestic sphere. The only question, ever, is whether Obama will get two or three Republican votes vs. three or four. If the latter, he has a chance to win. But those two or three extra votes don't depend on leverage. In fact, Obama's leverage is negative. The last thing any Republican can afford these days is to be viewed as caving in to Obama. That's a kiss of death with the party's base.

Obama may very well be a lousy negotiator. But honestly, that's just not a big factor here. He simply doesn't have much leverage of any concrete kind, and when it comes to soft leverage, his power is quite probably negative. That's life in modern Washington. Dowd needs to grow up and figure that out.

But I will congratulate her on one thing. As near as I can tell, she actually cares about gun control. Yesterday was the first time in years that I've read a column of hers where she actually seemed to care about anything substantive. Mostly she seems to be on autopilot, creating some juvenile wordplay first and then adopting whatever position makes the column easiest to write. So as bad as Sunday's column was, I'd have to grade it an improvement over her usual gig.

China Going Crazy for SUVs

| Mon Apr. 22, 2013 9:59 AM EDT

The SUV craze has hopped the Pacific Ocean and headed to China:

Gone are the days when buyers in China, the world’s largest car market since 2009, mostly purchased fuel-sipping compacts and subcompacts. Their shift toward larger and ever-more-numerous vehicles is not only driving up China’s oil import bill and contributing to pollution but is also fattening automakers’ profits — and manufacturers made clear over the weekend that they plan to infuse the market with large vehicles.

General Motors announced that it would introduce nine new or restyled S.U.V. models in China in the next five years, and disclosed that it would build four more factories and add 6,000 jobs to accommodate its ever-rising sales here.

This is why global consumption of oil doesn't respond very strongly to higher prices. As incomes go up in developing countries, demand for oil also goes up, and this offsets the reduction in demand due to higher oil prices. You can see this vividly in China, where incomes are increasing steadily and, sure enough, the newly emerging middle class wants SUVs even though world oil prices remain pretty high.

So what does reduce oil demand? Lower incomes, of course. Recessions reduce oil demand quite nicely. That's not the answer anyone wants, but it seems to be the correct one.

Chart of the Day: Why Global Recovery Has Been So Slow

| Sun Apr. 21, 2013 5:47 PM EDT

Over at Vox, a trio of IMF researchers summarize their explanation from the latest World Economic Outlook of why the recovery from the Great Recession has been so much slower than previous recessions. The two charts below tell most of the story:

  • In previous recessions, government expenditures in advanced economies continued to rise during the recovery period, helping to bootstrap a return to growth. This time, spending spiked up during the recession itself, but since then it's fallen. Austerity, not stimulus, has ruled the day.
  • Why? Probably because advanced countries entered the Great Recession with higher debt ratios than in the past. This is what's spooked governments into cutting back on spending.

Rightly or wrongly,1 most central governments have a limited tolerance for debt, and a high debt level therefore restricts their responses to a serious recession. That's what happened this time around, and it will be even worse next time if debt levels don't come down over the long term.

1But which is it, rightly or wrongly? Mostly it's wrong, especially in the short term during and after a serious recession, but it's not entirely wrong. There's certainly some point at which debt service can overwhelm a government, and if investors feel that a country is headed toward that point with nothing to stop it, they'll start demanding higher interest rates on government bonds. Needless to say, this just makes debt service problems even worse, leading to a death spiral of sorts. So the trajectory of debt probably matters, even if there's no special debt level at which things fall apart. This, along with the plain fact that governments are spooked by debt, whether we like it or not, is one of the reasons that long-term deficit reduction really is pretty important.

A Tax Everyone Can Love (But No One Actually Does)

| Sun Apr. 21, 2013 10:31 AM EDT

Doyle McManus writes today that a carbon tax would promote efficiency, reduce air pollution, slow climate change, and increase energy independence. What's more, conservative economists like the idea:

If it were part of a "revenue neutral" deal, in which all the taxes that came in were returned to the taxpayers some other way, it wouldn't cost a nickel. If it were part of a revenue-raising deal, in which some of the taxes didn't come back, it could help cut the federal deficit and reduce the national debt.

So let's consider this a test of the American political system: How long can Congress resist an idea this good?

How long indeed? Let's allow McManus himself to answer the question:

Until 2011, there was at least one conservative champion of a carbon tax in the House, Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.). But Inglis was defeated in the 2010 GOP primary by a tea party candidate who criticized him for believing in global warming. "I really am the worst commercial for this idea," said Inglis, who now runs a think tank promoting the carbon tax. "There are lots of Republicans [in Congress] who know better ... but they're not going to come out of their foxholes until they think it's safe."

Okey doke. Last year there were about 240 Republican House members. A grand total of one (1) supported a carbon tax. For this, he was primaried and lost. Today the number of Republican House members who support a carbon tax stands at zero (0).

So how long can Congress resist an idea this good? Probably a good long time.

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Who Will Immigration Reform Help More? Republicans or Democrats?

| Sat Apr. 20, 2013 7:54 PM EDT

The other day I was idly wondering whether immigration reform would be better for Republicans or Democrats. Politically, it's a zero-sum game, so it can't be both. And if, in the end, supporting immigration reform doesn't improve GOP electoral prospects, why should they bother supporting it?

Today, Andrew Gelman points to a piece written a couple of months ago by Alex Engler that takes a look at just this question. Engler assumed a voter turnout of 42 percent and then examined the 20 congressional districts for each party that were most likely to switch sides based on shifts in the Hispanic vote:

Based on this data, a dramatic shift in Hispanic support toward Democrats would have yielded startlingly small gains in the House. Under the 42 percent Hispanic voting scenario, a 10 percentage point shift toward Democrats would net only one additional seat....Conversely, shifts away from Democrats by Hispanics could be devastating. Under the 42 percent scenario....a 10 percentage point shift to the right would have handed Republicans 12 seats.

The basic insight here is that Democrats already get such a high percentage of the Hispanic vote that another few points wouldn't do them much good. But just the opposite is true for Republicans. The chart on the right shows this graphically. The area outlined in yellow represents congressional districts that are (a) heavily Hispanic and (b) in play. There are only a few currently in Republican hands, so even if immigration reform helps Democrats, it won't do them much good. But there are about 20 currently in Democratic hands. If depriving Democrats of immigration reform as an issue hurts them, Republicans could make significant gains.

This doesn't answer the question of which party immigration reform is likely to help. What it does say is that it's a no-lose proposition for Republicans. Even if it turns out to help Democrats more, Republicans aren't likely to suffer much because of it.

Of course, as Engler points out, the fact that immigration reform is likely to help the Republican Party doesn't mean that it's likely to help very many individual Republicans:

Most incumbent Republicans will not have a strong incentive to vote for an immigration bill containing a path to citizenship if a significant Hispanic population appears to be lacking in their districts. In fact, many conservatives may be far more concerned about primary challengers than Hispanic backlash.

On the other hand, the Republican Party as a whole has a tremendous opportunity to turn districts in their favor. If they can redefine themselves to the Hispanic population, starting with comprehensive immigration reform, they will be doing more than pouring water on the DCCC’s gunpowder—they will be stealing it for themselves.

This suggests that GOP party leaders probably should push hard to get Republican support for immigration reform. It also means that if they don't push hard, it's pretty likely to fail. It's an interesting analysis.

A Style Question on Filibusters for the Times and the Post

| Sat Apr. 20, 2013 10:51 AM EDT

On Thursday I wrote a post about this week's filibuster of universal background check legislation. My topic was the unwillingness of news outlets to call it a filibuster even though 60 votes were required for passage. Why the reluctance? The reason is that, technically, it wasn't a filibuster. Harry Reid negotiated a unanimous consent agreement with Mitch McConnell, and among other things they agreed that the background check amendment (along with all the other proposed amendments to the gun bill) would require 60 votes to pass.

Jonathan Bernstein objected. Here's his nickel summary of what happened:

  1. There's a filibuster.
  2. The two sides then decide how to settle the filibuster. The 60-vote threshold UC is an agreement on how to settle the filibuster. Not by waiting it out, not by a cloture vote, but by a 60-threshold vote.
  3. And then the vote itself both resolves the filibuster and resolves the issue. Under 60, the amendment is defeated by filibuster; over 60, it overcomes the filibuster, and also passes the amendment, all in one.

On Twitter, I joked that Bernstein and I disagreed only on petty details, not the actual question itself, since I think he's right that this should be called a filibuster. But petty details are what the blogosphere was invented for, and they're important here as a way of understanding why the press continues to refuse to call this week's events a filibuster.

The key question is a semantic one. What's the definition of a filibuster in the U.S. Senate? There are basically two approaches to this:

The strict rules-based approach. During the early 70s, in response to the increasing complexity of Senate life, a set of procedures emerged for conducting and resolving filibusters. Senators (usually from the minority party) were no longer required to actually speak to sustain a filibuster. Instead, they signaled their intent to filibuster by notifying their party leader to place a hold on a bill. Once this was done, the majority leadership would either negotiate a compromise or else schedule a cloture vote. If the cloture vote succeeded, the bill would proceed. If it failed, the bill died.

The broader academic approach. In the academic literature, the definition of a filibuster is broader. Here's Gregory Koger: "Filibustering is delay, or the threat of delay, in a legislative chamber to prevent a final outcome for strategic gain. The key features are the purpose (delay) and the motive (gain) and NOT specifying the legislature or the method."

Under the strict rules-based definition, what happened last week wasn't a filibuster. There was no hold and there was no cloture vote. Under the broader definition, what happened was clearly a filibuster. The method wasn't the classic one, but there was certainly a threat of delay in order to prevent a final outcome (passage of the background check amendment). The resolution was a unanimous consent agreement rather than a cloture vote, but that's immaterial. It's still a filibuster.

So here's the question: why has the press been so reluctant to describe modern filibusters as filibusters? The actual conduct of filibusters has changed over the years, but for some reason style guides haven't kept up. In fact, even 70s-style filibusters often aren't described as filibusters. Reporters seem to be stuck in an ancient era when a filibuster meant Jimmy Stewart performing a talkathon on the Senate floor, and they aren't willing to call anything else a filibuster.

But Bernstein is right. Times change and procedures change. In the past, senators would talk and the opposition would either try to wear them down or negotiate a compromise. That evolved into a more modern form with holds and cloture votes. Then it evolved yet again into an institutionalized form where filibusters are simply assumed and the two party leaders negotiate a unanimous consent agreement based on that assumption. (This is one reason why cloture votes have decreased recently even as the Senate has filibustered more and more bills. Steve Benen's chart on the right shows this.) Nonetheless, all of these things are filibusters. Only the methods differ.

So here's a question for the public editors of the Washington Post and the New York Times: why do your style guides continue to insist that only a very specific set of old-style obstruction tactics can be called a "filibuster"? Why not keep up with the reality of legislating? In the modern Senate, unanimous consent agreements are now a common method of declaring and resolving filibusters. So why not call them that?

Friday Cat Blogging - 19 April 2013

| Fri Apr. 19, 2013 1:47 PM EDT

Some weeks you need Friday catblogging more than other weeks. This is one of those weeks. Yesterday it was 80 degrees in the backyard, so that's where Domino spent the afternoon, soaking up the warmth while the rest of us worried about terrorist bombings, exploding fertilizer plants, and failed gun bills. If events get to be too much for you, I recommend staring at this picture and zoning out for a bit.

Tea Party Smells Blood In Immigration Fight

| Fri Apr. 19, 2013 12:55 PM EDT

Glenn Thrush and Reid Epstein report on one of the reasons that gun legislation failed in the Senate yesterday:

In the end, [] moderates and conservatives in the upper chamber said they simply couldn’t deal with a flurry of progressive issues at once — from gay marriage to immigration to guns....One senator told a White House official that it was “Guns, gays and immigration — it’s too much. I can be with you on one or two of them, but not all three.”

Some are taking this to suggest that voting against the gun bill gives conservatives a little more room to maneuver on immigration. So the silver lining here is that all the no votes on guns might mean a few more yes votes on immigration. Ed Kilgore is skeptical:

I wouldn't put much reliance on the idea that the demise of Manchin-Toomey is a blessing in disguise for progressives or for those still pining for a "bipartisan breeze" in Washington. For one thing, to continue the propitiation metaphor, the "base" is a jealous god, which views every act of ideological "betrayal" as sufficient to justify primary excommunication or primary challenges. For another, this fresh demonstration that "the base" has the power to compel party discipline on guns (only three Republicans joined former Club for Growth president Pat Toomey in the end) will make the desire to impose it on other subjects seem much more practicable. And third, to focus on the next issue coming up in the Senate, it's never been clear to me that the obsessive desire to find a way to detoxify the GOP among Latino voters--which is the elite factor driving the interest of Beltway Republicans in immigration reform--is shared that widely among hard-core conservative activists, who are more likely to think that insufficient ideological rigor continues to be the party's biggest problem.

I agree. Think about it from a liberal perspective. When the repeal of DADT passed in 2010, did we all breathe a sigh of relief and decide to give Democrats a pass on other legislation? Not a chance. On gay issues in particular, it simply convinced us that we were on the right side of history and that now was the time to push even harder than ever. On other issues, it didn't make much difference at all.

The same is true of the tea partiers. Winning produces energy, not apathy. Having smelled victory in the gun fight, they're now even more determined that they can win the immigration fight too. This was always going to be a very tight battle, and so far nothing has changed that.