Kevin Drum - April 2013

War With Syria Just Got a Step Closer

| Thu Apr. 18, 2013 12:03 AM EDT

It's possible that the biggest news of the week might not be either the Boston bombings or today's failure of gun legislation to pass the Senate. It might be this:

The Pentagon is sending about 200 troops to Jordan, the vanguard of a potential U.S. military force of 20,000 or more that could be deployed if the Obama administration decides to intervene in Syria to secure chemical weapons arsenals or to prevent the 2-year-old civil war from spilling into neighboring nations.

Troops from the 1st Armored Division will establish a small headquarters near Jordan's border with Syria to help deliver humanitarian supplies for a growing flood of refugees and to plan for possible military operations, including a rapid buildup of American forces if the White House decides intervention is necessary, senior U.S. officials said.

...The move marks the first deployment that Pentagon officials explicitly described as a possible step toward direct military involvement in Syria....U.S. officials say they have stepped up preparations because the Syrian civil war shows few signs of abating, and a political settlement that includes the departure of President Bashar Assad appears increasingly unlikely.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel insists that military intervention in Syria is still an "option of last resort," but once operations like this start to ramp up, they often acquire a momentum of their own. This is something to keep a very, very close eye on.

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Obama is Right: Today is Merely Round One in the Gun Fight

| Wed Apr. 17, 2013 9:22 PM EDT

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg said today that the Manchin-Toomey gun legislation failed because senators are afraid of the NRA:

Today's vote is a damning indictment of the stranglehold that special interests have on Washington. More than 40 US senators would rather turn their backs on the 90% of Americans who support comprehensive background checks than buck the increasingly extremist wing of the gun lobby.

The implication here is that there are a bunch of senators who wanted to vote for M-T, but didn't because they were afraid of retaliation from the NRA. For the most part, though, that's not really right. The NRA certainly has the power to make life miserable for politicians who vote against them, but here's their real power:

Generic support for gun control fell from 78 percent to 44 percent over the past two decades. Over that time, the NRA persuaded the public that gun control was a bad idea, and it paid off for them today. The upward blip in support following the Sandy Hook massacre is probably fairly ephemeral, but even if it's not, 58 percent support just isn't enough to pass contentious legislation. You generally need two-thirds or more. Even 70 percent support in 1994 was only barely enough to pass a modest assault weapons ban.

That's the power of the NRA. They've worked hard to get the public on their side, and that brings politicians along automatically. They don't really need to threaten conservative senators to get their support because conservative senators already agree with them. That agreement is strong enough that even a watered-down background check bill with 90 percent public support can't overcome a filibuster, and renewal of the assault weapons ban is just flatly out of the question.

President Obama was right to call this "round one." This kind of thing is a long-term fight for public opinion, and only after you get the public firmly on your side do you have any real chance of passing serious legislation. So the question today for liberals is simple: Is this issue important enough to keep banging away on it for years on end, the way the NRA does? If not, nothing will ever happen.

If You Have a Cash Cow, You Should Milk It

| Wed Apr. 17, 2013 5:43 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias thinks that Apple's strategy of earning very high margins on Mac desktops and laptops isn't very smart:

Apple already has an awful lot of cash. Getting even more cash is not particularly useful for any goal at this point (diminishing marginal utility). So they ought to do something. One smart thing to do would be to make a strategic investment in Mac OS market share since with its current rather small market share Mac profits are not a particularly important part of overall Apple profits, but Mac could and should be an important part of Apple strategy.

I'll play devil's advocate here. As I recall, Matt himself has made the point in the past that plowing money into a declining business usually doesn't make sense. If you make buggy whips, you should forget about trying to make a better or cheaper buggy whip. Just milk the product for all it's worth, return the profit to shareholders (or plow it into another product line), and shut the whole thing down when it finally gets too small to be worth running.

This is actually conventional wisdom, and my guess is that this is how Apple feels about Macs. Could they get more market share if they slashed prices? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Mac buyers tend to be devotees who are willing to pay more because they love Macs. Anyone who's truly price sensitive is never going to be a customer anyway—especially these days, when Windows and Mac OS have converged enough that, frankly, there's not a big difference between them.1

But the kicker is the fact that the PC market is declining, and no one thinks this is going to reverse in the long term. It's losing out to tablets and phones and Google glasses. Given that fact, why bother trying to increase your market share a point or two? There's no long-term benefit since the entire segment is doomed.

Now, there's still the question of what to do with the mountains of cash that Macs spin off, and it's pretty clear that Apple doesn't yet have any bright ideas on that front. Neither do I. But using it to buy more market share in a declining segment probably isn't the answer.

1Yes, I know this is going to start a flame war. Save your breath. I've used both Macs and Windows boxes, and modern versions work about equally well and have pretty similar feature sets. There are differences, some that favor Macs and some that favor PCs, and those of us who live and breathe tech will defend them against all comers. But for your average consumer, who just wants to browse the web and send some emails, they're about the same.

Should We Be Afraid of Debt Levels Above 30%?

| Wed Apr. 17, 2013 3:53 PM EDT

I wrote a quick post yesterday about the newly published criticism of Reinhart and Rogoff's famous finding that countries with debt levels over 90 percent of GDP tend to grow very slowly. I played it for laughs as an Excel error, mostly because I've been around Excel long enough that it wouldn't surprise me if someday we all end up dying in a thermonuclear war because of an Excel coding error. (This was a detail that WarGames got wrong.)

But of course, it's a serious issue too. R&R famously found that countries with debt levels over 90 percent stagnated almost completely for years. Their growth rate was zero. This result was trotted out endlessly as intellectual backup for policies focused on reducing the deficit instead of fighting the recession and putting people back to work. But when R&R's errors were corrected, it turned out that high-debt countries actually had growth rates of about 2 percent. That's slow, but not catastrophic. Dean Baker makes an interesting point about this:

It is true that in most of their specifications HAP [the authors of the critical study] found growth was slower in periods with debt levels above 90 percent of GDP than below, but the gap was relatively small and nowhere close to statistically significant. Furthermore, they found a much bigger gap in growth rates around debt-to-GDP ratios of 30 percent. If we think that R&R's methodology is telling us something important about the world then the take-away should be that we want to keep debt-to-GDP ratios below 30 percent.

The chart below, from the paper, shows this fairly dramatically. GDP growth falls steeply between debt levels of 0 and 30 percent, plateaus a bit, and then declines rather gently above 70 or 80 percent:

Needless to say, nobody argues that debt levels of 20 percent are dangerous. But if you take the R&R result seriously, why wouldn't you?

Generally speaking, this is evidence that most interpretations of R&R get things backward. Causality doesn't go from debt ---> slow growth, but from slow growth ---> debt. Countries that grow slowly tend to pile up debt faster. Debt is a symptom, not the disease itself.

On the other hand, I guess I wouldn't throw out R&R's results completely. Debt is a symptom, and although 90 percent isn't some kind of magical barrier, it does suggest that maybe you're doing something wrong. If you keep doing it wrong, investors might very well lose confidence and start demanding higher interest rates for your bonds, which could lead to a death spiral of sorts. The problem is that you never know just when this might happen. Maybe tomorrow, maybe ten years from now.

So growth is the answer. The question is how to get it. In the short term, more debt might be one piece of the puzzle.

UPDATE: UMass economist Arindrajit Dube dives deeper into R&R's dataset here, and concludes, unsurprisingly, that it's more consistent with the theory that low growth causes high debt than the other way around.

Quote and Chart of the Day: How to Respond to the Boston Bombings

| Wed Apr. 17, 2013 1:49 PM EDT

From Bruce Schneier, explaining what policymakers should do in response to the Boston bombings:

Nothing.

The chart below, adapted from a report by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism, explains why this is good advice:

Republicans Probably Aren't as Out of Touch With America as Polls Suggest

| Wed Apr. 17, 2013 12:10 PM EDT

Yesterday Greg Sargent linked to a poll showing that 70 percent of Americans think the Republican Party is "out of touch with the concerns of most people in the United States today." What's more, the public sides with Democrats and President Obama on a wide range of major issues. This prompts Sargent to ask a question:

At what point does failure to support proposals designed to address the problems facing the country — ones backed by majorities — create a serious enough general problem for the GOP, by contributing to an overall sense that the party has simply ceased being capable of compromising on solutions to the major challenges we face?

....Is there any point at which the party’s overall image — and its unpopular stances on specific issues — actually do begin to matter in some concrete way? Is there any point at which it becomes clear that the current GOP strategy — make a deal with Democrats on immigration, but nothing else — is insufficient? What would that look like? Anyone?

I thought about responding to this yesterday, but I didn't really have anything insightful to say. I still don't. I've written a bit about this before, most recently a few weeks ago when I noted that, in fact, moving steadily to the right has been a pretty successful strategy for the Republican Party over the past three decades. We liberals keep thinking they can't possibly take another step in that direction without imploding completely, and yet they keep taking step after step and they keep winning elections. They have control of the House; they have a chance to win control of the Senate in 2014; and although they've lost the past two presidential elections, they were both contests in which the fundamentals favored Democrats. They've also done very well at the state level.

Now, I do think you can make a case that Republicans have a serious problem with the presidency. The fundamentals may have been with Democrats in 1992, 1996, 2008, and 2012, but the fundamentals were with Republicans in 2000 and 2004 and they only won those elections by a whisker. That doesn't bode well for the GOP. Nevertheless, I think I'll wait until 2016 before I decide that they're well and truly doomed.

Still and all, what's the answer to Sargent's question? Polls really do seem to indicate that the public dislikes the Republican Party much more than it dislikes the Democratic Party. In particular, in the poll he cites above, only 51 percent say that Democrats are out of touch, compared to 70 percent who think Republicans are out of touch.

I can only guess. Partly, I think the filibuster gets some credit, because it prevents Republicans from really and truly enacting their most extreme agenda even when they have full control of the government, as they did from 2002-2006. At some level, voters understand this even if they don't understand Senate procedures. They understand that the loony talk from many Republicans never really translates into action, so they aren't very worried about it.

I also suspect that Republican success has a lot to do with Democratic failure. Voters may not agree with Republican priorities, but they aren't super thrilled with having Democrats in charge either. Rightly or wrongly, they're still afraid that Democrats will just raise taxes in order to fund a bunch of worthless programs that they don't understand and won't benefit from. Whatever else you can say about them, at least Republicans will put a brake on that.

Beyond that, don't forget that any poll's "out of touch" numbers will include right wingers who think the GOP is too centrist. The plain fact is that about 40 percent of Americans continue to identify as conservative. That's the same as it's been for decades, even though the definition of conservative has moved rightward. And it's twice as many as identify as liberal.

Democrats continue to have a weak brand. Contra Mitt Romney, they don't really offer voters much in the way of goodies, and even when they do offer some goodies with a program like Obamacare, they sell it so poorly that most people don't even understand what they're getting from it. Could that change? Maybe, though most of the big ticket social welfare programs are already in place, so there aren't tons of goodies left to hand out. That leaves small bore initiatives, and although those might poll well, they don't really turn out voters.

So what's left? Social issues. That's a liberal strong point right now, but the fact is that Republicans can adjust on social issues if they need to (gay marriage) and hang tight where they don't need to (gun control). If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, that might cause them some real problems, since the public does care about abortion, and isn't really on board with the kind of flat bans that the Republican base would insist on if it became legally doable. But that all depends on the Court.

Anyway, after all that, here's the short answer: Republicans aren't paying too big a price for being viewed as "out of touch" because the American public holds that view only weakly. That could change, but I'm not sure I see any signs of it happening in the near future.

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Gun Control Bill Is Dead

| Wed Apr. 17, 2013 10:53 AM EDT

It looks like background check legislation is dead:

The chief architects of the background check proposal, Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) and Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.), acknowledged Wednesday morning that they still don’t have the votes necessary to pass their amendment.

Signaling that his amendment could be near-dead, Manchin told NBC, “We will not get the votes today.”....In an interview Wednesday with the National Review, Toomey also said “As we sit here this morning, we don’t have the votes.”

Keep in mind that this was (a) a very watered-down proposal, and (b) included a whole slew of goodies for gun owners. And it still couldn't get 60 votes. And while its failure is obviously partly the fault of the filibuster rule, any bill that can only get about 55 votes in the Senate never had any chance in the House anyway.

How did this happen even though, as liberals remind us endlessly, 90 percent of the American public supports background checks? Because about 80 percent of those Americans think it sounds like a reasonable idea but don't really care much. I doubt that one single senator will suffer at the polls in 2014 for voting against Manchin-Toomey.

Gun control proposals poll decently all the time. But the plain truth is that there are only a small number of people who feel really strongly about it, and they mostly live in urban blue districts already. Outside of that, pro-gun control opinion is about an inch deep. This is a classic case where poll literalism leads you completely astray. Without measuring intensity of feeling, that 90 percent number is meaningless.

Elena Kagan Writes an Awesome Dissent

| Wed Apr. 17, 2013 1:07 AM EDT

Four years ago Laura Symczyk filed a collective action against Genesis Healthcare Corp., alleging that it broke the law by automatically deducting 30 minutes per shift for meal breaks even when employees worked during the breaks. Genesis made a $7,500 settlement offer to Symczyk personally, but admitted no liability to the rest of its workforce. It was an obvious attempt to make the case go away cheaply, and Symczyk declined the offer. Her suit then went to trial, where Genesis put up an odd defense: By allowing its offer to lapse, Genesis said, Symczyk no longer had a personal stake in the case, which was therefore moot and should be tossed out. A district court agreed, as did the Third Circuit Court. Eventually the case made its way to the Supreme Court, and today, Elena Kagan, writing in dissent, made her view plain:

That thrice-asserted view is wrong, wrong, and wrong again.... When a plaintiff rejects such an offer—however good the terms—her interest in the lawsuit remains just what it was be­fore.

....After the offer lapsed, just as before, Symczyk possessed an unsatis­fied claim, which the court could redress by awarding her damages. As long as that remained true, Symczyk’s claim was not moot, and the District Court could not send her away empty-handed. So a friendly suggestion to the Third Circuit: Rethink your mootness-by-unaccepted-offer theo­ry. And a note to all other courts of appeals: Don’t try this at home.

That's some fine opinion mongering there. But wait. Why was Kagan writing in dissent? Because the conservative majority, for hypertechnical reasons, decided that Symczyk had tacitly accepted that her claim was moot, and based its entire decision on that premise. Kagan again:

But what if that premise is bogus? The decision would turn out to be the most one-off of one-offs, explaining only what (the majority thinks) should happen [] when something that in fact never happens [] is errantly thought to have done so....Feel free to rele­gate the majority’s decision to the furthest reaches of your mind: The situation it addresses should never again arise.

Shazam! Anyone who can write a Supreme Court opinion like that is OK in my book. (Via Eugene Volokh.)

New Conservative Pet Rock is Born, Dies Before Any of You Even Got a Chance to Hear About It

| Tue Apr. 16, 2013 9:08 PM EDT

At 2 pm on Sunday I was over at a friend's house playing Settlers of Catan, a game I first heard of at 2 pm on Sunday. This obviously says something about my gaming acumen (Wikipedia informs me that 15 million copies have been sold since 1995), but at least I still have my political acumen, right?

Not so fast. About halfway through the game, another friend's iPhone alerted him to some breaking news: Democrats were blocking a resolution to honor Margaret Thatcher. "Idiots," he muttered, and I couldn't object. I'd never heard of this, even though I usually try to keep up with conservative pet rocks. We eventually joked that there must have been some fine print in the resolution ("...an inspiration to us all. Oh, and Obamacare is hereby repealed.") and continued playing. I lost.

Still, I kept wondering what was up with the Thatcher resolution. Politicians of all parties can be petty, but this really didn't sound like something Democrats would bother with. Today, I finally learned what was going on. It's a Senate thing (the House has already passed a resolution), and apparently it started making the rounds in conservative circles last Wednesday when a Heritage Foundation blog reported that "Democrats have a hold on the resolution." But The Hill reports today that it was all the result of a phrasing dispute between Mitch McConnell for Team R and Bob Menendez for Team D:

According to Democratic aides, the two senators were working together on language late last week, when Menendez made suggestions about a proposal from McConnell. These aides say Menendez was looking to remove language that could have been seen as "swipes" against other countries, and proposed those changes to McConnell.

....By late last week, there were reports that Menendez was "blocking" McConnell's resolution....But Democratic aides say they are not aware of any formal attempt to bring McConnell's language to the Senate floor, and that they thought they were still engaged in an effort to negotiate a final resolution. They also said they never heard back from McConnell's office about their suggested changes, and were "surprised" to read accounts that Menendez was blocking the resolution formally.

....As a result of the dispute, Democratic aides said that at least for now, Menendez is no longer working with McConnell on a resolution. Instead, Menendez introduced his own proposal on Tuesday, one that is longer than a resolution the House approved last week. While it does not mention the Falkland Islands dispute or nuclear weapons in Europe, Menendez's resolution does say that Thatcher "stood shoulder to shoulder with United States leaders against the Soviet Union and the threats posed by communism."

....GOP aides said that as of Tuesday, McConnell was expected to continue pressing for a vote on his proposal. That proposal does mention the Falklands Islands and U.S. weapons in Europe, while Menendez's resolution is silent on those issues. As of Tuesday, it was unclear which proposal, if any, would get a vote, or whether Senate leaders would look to find some compromise. The Menendez spokesperson said Menendez would not block McConnell's resolution if it came up now.

So I was right the first time: politicians of all parties can be petty. But only a truly in-depth investigation of this incident will reveal just which politicians are being the most petty.

As for the resolution itself, the Senate passed McConnell's version late today by unanimous consent. But I have no doubt that it will become a permanent part of conservative legend that Democrats once tried to block a resolution honoring Margaret Thatcher after she died. A hundred email chains and a thousand fundraising pitches will bloom because of this.

Yet Another Media Blackout

| Tue Apr. 16, 2013 6:24 PM EDT

Yesterday I linked to Jonathan Cohn's "The Hell of American Day Care," whose title pretty much speaks for itself. However, I didn't mention the framing device for his piece: a young mother named Kenya Mire, who was desperate to find day care for her daughter Kendyll and eventually put her in the hands of a woman named Jessica Tata. It turned out that Tata had a history of negligence, and one day left the children at her day care center alone while she went shopping. A pan of oil on a hot stove caught fire while she was gone, and the resulting blaze killed Kendyll and three other toddlers. It's a horrific story about the death of four small children and a neligent bureaucracy that allowed it to happen.

Today, Dylan Matthews interviewed Cohn about his story:

DM: How did you hear about the Tata case? How did you find Kenya Mire?

JC: I remember hearing about it when it happened. The topic was on my mind, so I followed it closely — along with some other stories like it from around the country. I was actually surprised the Houston story got so little national coverage. The local television stations were all over it. Two reporters from the Houston Chronicle did a terrific reconstruction of the day. But almost nobody outside of Texas seemed to notice.

As I learned later, the lack of national coverage was typical.

Very typical, I imagine. There was no partisan axe to grind, so nobody at the national level ever wrote a column about how the mainstream media was ignoring this grisly and obviously important case. Like a thousand other similar stories, it was a local story that stayed local. After all, poor kids get the shaft in dozens of different ways from a country that doesn't care enough to fund decent services for them. Where's the news value in that?