Kevin Drum - April 2013

Tea Party Smells Blood In Immigration Fight

| Fri Apr. 19, 2013 10:55 AM PDT

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. 

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Boy Scouts Poised to Admit Gay Members

| Fri Apr. 19, 2013 10:34 AM PDT

Today's news from the Boy Scouts:

The Boy Scouts of America called to end a long-standing ban on openly gay members, a spokesman said on Friday, but the organization's board must still vote in May on whether to ratify the resolution. If the vote is approved, "no youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone," Deron Smith, the organization's spokesman, told Reuters.

...."This is a historic change for the Boy Scouts," said Patrick Boyle, whose 1994 book "Scout's Honor" examined sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts of America. "You have a more than hundred-year-old organization changing what it considered a fundamental belief just a decade ago. That says a lot about the Scouts and a lot about how far the gay rights movement has come in the United States."

One of the key drivers of the continuing anti-gay policy from the Boy Scouts has been the fact that so many scout troops are sponsored by the Mormon Church. But the longtime Mormon fight against gay marriage, and specifically its support for California's Proposition 8 in 2008, has been a "PR fiasco" for them. As Stephanie Mencimer reported for us a few days ago, this has led to some changes:

In the five years since the LDS church sent busloads of the faithful to California to canvass neighborhoods, and contributed more than $20 million via its members to support the initiative, it has all but dropped the rope in the public policy tug of war over marriage equality. The change stems from an even more remarkable if somewhat invisible transformation happening within the church, prompted by the ugly fight over Prop. 8 and the ensuing backlash from the flock.

....In response to the anger within Mormon ranks over Prop. 8, the president of the Oakland, California, stake (a stake is akin to a Catholic diocese) began organizing gatherings of gay and straight members to try to bridge the differences. In September 2010, the disgruntled church members received a private audience with one of the church's top officials, Marlin Jensen, who serves as the LDS's historian....After listening to them talk, Jensen did something almost unheard of in a church whose strict authoritarian hierarchy is unaccustomed to being challenged from below: He apologized "for the pain that Prop. 8 caused [us]," Mayne recalls, choking up at the memory. It was, he says, a "very meaningful event."

The apology from a high church official turned out to be just the beginning of a cultural shift toward greater acceptance of gays and lesbians within LDS ranks. In 2011, Mayne was called to serve as an official of his local San Francisco ward, as an openly gay man. It was a historic appointment in an institution with a long history of excommunicating openly gay members, which it referred to as people who were "afflicted" with same-sex attraction.

Officially, the LDS church hasn't changed its policies, but I imagine that behind the scenes its opposition to gay scouts has been considerably tempered in the past few years. This probably played a significant role in today's decision.

Immigration Reform Took a Hit Today

| Fri Apr. 19, 2013 9:21 AM PDT

The anti-immigration right has jumped on this morning's news to argue that this is not the time to loosen our immigration laws. After all, the two guys who set off bombs at the Boston Marathon have turned out to be a pair of immigrants. As radio host Bryan Fischer says, "Time to tighten, not loosen, immigration policy." Greg Sargent comments:

It’s unclear thus far how widespread the effort among conservatives will be to connect the Boston bombing suspects to the immigration reform debate. But it’s certainly something that bears watching. If this argument picks up steam, it will be another indication of how ferocious the resistance on the right to immigration reform is going to get.

I think it's safe to say that this argument will pick up steam. Why wouldn't it, after all? It's a gut punch to the idea that immigrants are no more dangerous than natives, and it doesn't matter which side logic is on. It's a strong appeal to emotions, and it's probably an effective one.

A few days ago, someone asked: Who are you secretly hoping the bombers turn out to be? My answer was, whatever kind of person is least likely to have any effect whatsoever on public policy. Chechnyans with a grudge of some kind actually fit this bill fairly well, and since the immigration debate is focused mostly on Mexico it might not even have too much impact there. Still, it will have some effect. I don't know if today's news will kill immigration reform, but a bill that was on a knife edge already doesn't need any further setbacks. This is going to hurt its chances.

The Next Step in Social Media Pranking

| Fri Apr. 19, 2013 8:45 AM PDT

Dave Weigel reports that a fellow with the Twitter handle @FootyTube_ quickly changed his handle last night to @Dzhokhar_ and swapped out his avatar for a thumbnail of the suspect in the Boston bombings. That's hilarious!

Or not. But I predict a growth industry in this kind of thing. FootyTube's idiocy was easy enough to see through, but someone out there now has the bright idea of creating a Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr/etc. account and populating it over time with grievances of some kind. Islamic, gun nut, anti-tax, libertarian, PETA, whatever. Just create a nice long chain of posts and then wait for the next terrorist attack. As soon as pics and names are available, switch the account name, make it public, and wait to be discovered.

Actually, I'm a little surprised this hasn't happened yet. It takes some planning ahead and could be a little tedious, but surely there are plenty of bright high school juniors who are bored enough to think this would be a pretty cool prank?

Life Was Riskier a Century Ago Than It Is Today

| Fri Apr. 19, 2013 8:33 AM PDT

Karl Smith argues that the increasing stability of modern life might be making us more bubble prone:

Let's imagine a simple model where we have two sources of risk. There is background you cannot avoid. And, there is personal risk that you create by through your own choices.

Policy makers have since Thomas Hobbes been attempting to drive down background risk. They have largely been successful. As a result our lives are getting more and more stable.

As that happens, however, folks are going to tend to take on more personal risk. There is a tradeoff between risk and reward tradeoff. As you face less background risk for which you not rewarded it makes sense to go for more personal risk for which you are rewarded.

....Said another way, attempts to prevent bubbles from forming will only make folks more complacent about bubbles. Eventually, a bubble will slip through the cracks. However, folks will deny it’s a bubble, because don’t you know, bubbles are a thing of the past. Even as it grows to massive proportions the smartest minds will argue that it only looks like a bubble. If it were a real bubble, surely the Fed would have popped it by know.

Hmmm. That flew by a little fast. Are we really so sure that as society becomes less risky in general, individuals respond by taking more personal risks? It's certainly possible, but what's the evidence?

Let's think about this by looking at a different example. Liberals like to argue that strong social welfare policies encourage risk taking. One reason not to quit your job and start up a cupcake chain, for example, is that you'll lose your big-company health insurance, thus multiplying the financial risk you're already taking by setting out on your own. Under this theory, universal healthcare makes entrepreneurship more likely since it removes one source of catastrophic risk from your decision.

Needless to say, I like this theory. Unfortunately, I've never been able to find any evidence that it's true. And conservatives have an entirely different view: they believe that social welfare policies breed weakness and dependence. The more that you come to depend on government to take care of you, the less likely you are to feel motivated to do anything risky.

My own suspicion is that neither of these is quite true, but what is true is that as societies become richer, people are less motivated to take personal risks. You simply have too much to lose. I'd also argue that as societies become more educated, they tend to take fewer stupid risks.

But this is a two-edged sword. People in richer societies also have better safety nets when they fail, both personal (family, friends, etc.) and government-based (bankruptcy laws, safety net programs). And while we highly educated types might take fewer obviously stupid risks, perhaps we make up for this by taking more highly sophisticated risks that only seem less stupid on the surface.

So which is it? I don't know, and I don't think we can figure it out by arguing from first principles. Overall, though, my intuition tells me that my personal vulnerability to other people's risky behavior is less today than it was a hundred years ago.

In any case, I'd like to see some evidence on this score. Do rich countries tend to breed more risk taking than poor countries? Has risk taking increased over the past few centuries? How do you even measure risk taking, anyway? A Wall Street trader risking a billion dollars is obviously taking a bigger absolute risk than an Indian peasant who takes out a $100 loan to buy a bicycle, but on a personal level they might actually be about the same. So what's the right way to calculate this?

Did Gun Legislation Fail Because of a Filibuster?

| Thu Apr. 18, 2013 5:33 PM PDT

Bob Somerby wants to know why the Manchin-Toomey background check bill failed in the Senate even though it received 54 votes:

All through the Post, reporters and analysts referred to “the 60-vote threshold required for approval.” But no one ever tried to explain where that threshold came from....The Post’s news report didn’t try to explain where that threshold came from. Neither did its analysis piece. 

....After that, we read the New York Times, including its featured news report on the front page. After reading that report, we realized that we were no longer sure....Sixty votes were “needed under an agreement between both parties?”....Do you have any idea what that means? Frankly, we do not, though [Jonathan] Weisman makes it sound like this was not a typical filibuster. He makes it sound like Democrats agreed to a special threshold in part to defeat that amendment they didn't favor.

Here’s our question: Did the practice known as a “filibuster” create the need for the sixty votes? That’s what we would have thought last night. By this morning, we no longer knew. And our big press organs were working hard to keep us all in the dark.

Maybe some of you are wondering the same thing. Was this a filibuster? If so, why not say so?

Here's the answer: over the past few years, as the use of the filibuster has become routine, it's become common to speed things up a bit by adopting unanimous consent agreements under which both sides agree that a piece of legislation will require 60 votes to pass but won't require all the usual procedural hurdles of an actual filibuster. This is often convenient for both parties.

That's what happened in this case. The party leaders negotiated a unanimous consent agreement which specified that 60 votes were required to proceed to debate on Manchin-Toomey. It didn't get those 60 votes, so it failed. [UPDATE: This agreement also applied to all the other amendments to the gun bill, both Democratic and Republican. That's why they all failed.]

This puts reporters in a bind. Here are their options:

  1. Explain the whole thing: a UC was negotiated; it required 60 votes on a motion to proceed; the motion failed because it got only 54 votes. Unfortunately, this will leave readers confused unless you also explain why Harry Reid agreed to such terms in the first place. The answer is that if Reid didn't, then Republicans would formally filibuster the bill. 60 votes would still be required and a bunch of other procedural hurdles would be put in place. Reid was better off negotiating the UC.
  2. Chalk it up to "Senate procedures" or something like that and move on. This is short and sweet, but it risks leaving a lot of readers scratching their heads and wondering what really happened.
  3. Just call it a filibuster. For all intents and purposes, that's what it is, and it's the threat of a filibuster that prompted the UC in the first place. Technically, however, it's not a filibuster, so reporting it as one isn't precisely correct.

You can see the problem: none of these is really satisfactory. #1 is out of the question. It's simply too long. #2 is unsatisfying. It doesn't really explain what happened. #3 gets the guts of the explanation right, but it's technically inaccurate.

Along with James Fallows, I guess I'd opt for #3. It's a very minor inaccuracy, I think, since the whole point of the unanimous consent agreement is to incorporate the voting requirements of a filibuster. So far, though, I don't know of any newspapers that have decided to go this route. That leaves option #2, so that's what we usually get. It may leave readers completely uninformed, but it's technically accurate. Apparently most copy desks think that's a reasonable tradeoff.

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The Reinhart/Rogoff Episode Shows Us Why Data Openness is So Important

| Thu Apr. 18, 2013 3:30 PM PDT

What's the most important takeaway from this week's kerfuffle over the errors in the Reinhart/Rogoff dataset? Obviously there are public policy implications, since R&R concluded that debt levels above 90 percent of GDP lead to a sharp dropoff in economic growth. This provided important intellectual support during the past few years for the belief that it's more important to focus on deficit reduction than on unemployment and fiscal stimulus.

In the end, though, although R&R's results were important, they probably weren't crucial. As Jared Bernstein notes, deficit hawks were "using research findings the way a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not for illumination. If the R&R lamppost turns out to be wobbly, the austerions [] will find another one. In this town, I’m sorry to say, you can pretty much go think-tank shopping to buy the result you seek."

I agree. R&R's results were convenient to have, but not crucial. People who are dedicated to cutting spending, either for political or ideological reasons, would simply have trotted out other justifications if R&R's study hadn't been available.

More important, then, may be the light this shines on the fact that an awful lot of research is based on datasets that are kept private. Megan McArdle pinpoints both the reason for this and the dangers involved:

There are a lot of private data sets out there these days, and a lot of work being produced off of them. Why can't more of us see it?

Mostly, I suspect, because of the economics of the thing. Assembling a nice private data set is a huge amount of work. You want to be able to mine that work for publishable insights. Very little professional credit accrues to the guy who built a great dataset which everyone else uses to generate elegant new findings. The credit goes to the authors of the elegant new findings. Which means that once you've built a dataset, you want to keep the thing to yourself as long as possible.

....Unfortunately, there's always the possibility that "I want to hold onto it as long as possible so I can publish" can be a cover for "I need to hold onto it as long as possible because if anyone else sees it, it will rapidly become obvious that my results aren't very robust." Or, in some cases, for "There are no results because I made the whole thing up."

This was an issue that was front and center during Climategate. Climate skeptics were unhappy that the raw data collected by various research groups (mostly using public money) wasn't made available to them, and they made the reasonable point that if your analysis is correct, you shouldn't be afraid to share the underlying data. Professional researchers, for their part, were reluctant to make their data available because they knew it would generate an enormous flurry of amateur debunkings that they'd have to waste their time picking apart. In the end, though, releasing the data didn't make much difference because it turned out the professionals were interpreting it correctly.

This is why the R&R incident might be more important for the cause of openness. It's not just that critics found errors in the dataset once they got hold of it. Even more important might be the fact that once the raw data was available, they were motivated to do certain types of analysis that R&R didn't do. For example, they discovered that R&R's results were quite fragile, changing dramatically with the addition or subtraction of just a few observations. They also found that, far from showing a sharp drop in growth when debt passes 90 percent of GDP, the data actually showed a sharp drop between 0-30 percent of GDP and only a rather leisurely decline above 70 percent. Finally, and perhaps most important, UMass economist Arindrajit Dube took a closer look at what the data said about causality, and produced persuasive evidence that R&R's own data suggested not that high debt leads to low growth, but that low growth leads to high debt. R&R could have performed the same analysis, but for some reason they weren't interested in it.

As long as the dataset was private, nobody would ever have known any of these things. We could have guessed them—and a lot of people did—but we wouldn't have had any evidence. Now we do. Unfortunately, as McArdle says, "the incentives are all wrong for data openness." This episode suggests why it might be worthwhile to try to change those incentives.

Obama Wants Conservatives to Know that Immigration Reform Won't Be a Rerun of 1986

| Thu Apr. 18, 2013 12:06 PM PDT

What are the odds that immigration reform will pass? Opposition has already started to mobilize from, among others, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, who noted the other day, "We've seen this movie before — 27 years ago, remember?" Ed Kilgore comments:

Shelby, of course, is alluding to a "scandal" that most people outside conservative activist circles are at best dimly aware of: the 1986 immigration law that sold "amnesty" under the false flag of reform.

I guess this is true: most people who are neither conservative activists nor political junkies don't really remember the 1986 immigration bill. But make no mistake: it's profoundly driven the approach toward immigration reform from both left and right. Among tea partyish conservatives, the 1986 bill is universally considered one of the great betrayals of all time. They were promised tougher border security in return for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but in the end they got only a wave of newly legalized immigrants flooding into their towns and schools. The tougher border security was a mirage, discarded almost immediately, which naturally led to yet another new wave of Mexicans crossing the border illegally and yet another call for a path to citizenship for them. As far as conservatives are concerned, they were played for suckers in 1986, and they're not going to fall for this con again.

President Obama has done his best to blunt this anger by spending his first term getting tough on undocumented immigrants. E-Verify has been ramped up; deportations have become harsher and more intensive; fences have been built; and funding for the border patrol has been increased. Liberals have been incensed with much of this, but the result—with a big assist from the recession—has been a sharp decline in illegal immigration over the past few years. Generally speaking, Obama's entire strategy with immigration reform has revolved around proving that he doesn't plan a rerun of 1986. This time, he's saying, there really will be tougher border security and tougher employer checks to go along with the path to citizenship.

Will this work? Conservatives have not been notably willing to credit Obama with much good faith in the past, and even Marco Rubio can only do so much to change that. Nevertheless, this has been the plan all along, and now we get to see if it works. If Obama can convince enough conservatives that he'll be tougher than Reagan on border security, then immigration reform has a chance. If not, it will probably fail.

Arkansas Moving Forward With Plan to Accept Medicaid Expansion

| Thu Apr. 18, 2013 9:59 AM PDT

Speaking of Obamacare, it looks like the Arkansas plan to accept its expansion of Medicaid coverage is on track. This is good news coming from a conservative state. I'm agnostic about whether their proposal to privatize delivery is a smart idea—probably not, since it will increase costs, though you never know—but it's nice to see that it's going forward one way or the other.

Obamacare Has Its Problems, But It's Basically On Track

| Thu Apr. 18, 2013 9:28 AM PDT

Peter Suderman reacts to Sen. Max Baucus's latest complaint about the implementation of Obamacare:

If there’s any one legislator who can legitimately claim to be the law’s author, it’s Baucus. So it’s worth paying attention when Baucus says that he thinks the process of setting up the law’s health insurance exchanges is marching towards catastrophe.

There's no question that Obamacare faces difficulties. It's an imperfect law with a lot of moving parts, and it's also facing tremendous resistance from Republicans around the country, who are doing everything they can to delay, defund, and just generally sabotage it. Put those two things together and smooth sailing was never in the cards.

But "catastrophe" is stretching things a bit. Baucus is, and has been, concerned about the implementation of Obamacare for some time. Yesterday, at a Senate hearing, he confronted HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius with his concerns, but this is really nothing new. Oversight is his job, and Baucus is worried that people don't yet understand the law well and are going to be confused once the exchanges open up:

Ms. Sebelius replied that the department takes its outreach and education efforts “very, very seriously” and was currently recruiting consumer “navigators” to help with enrollment, but that it is hamstrung in part because it did not get additional resources for those efforts in the 2013 continuing resolution to fund the government.

“Having said that, we have engaged in efforts with the Small Business Administration, which is doing regular meetings around the country with our regional personnel, and we just released a request for proposals for on-the-ground navigators, individuals who come out of the faith community, the business community, the patient community, the hospital community who will be available to answer questions,” she said. “We also understand that people have a lot of questions and are deploying as many resources as we can to answer those questions and get folks ready to engage in open enrollment on Oct. 1.”

....Ms. Sebelius replied several times that officials were “definitely on track to implement the law as it is anticipated and have open enrollment start in every state in the country on Oct. 1st.”

I don't expect the implementation of Obamacare to go smoothly. It's big, it's complex, it's underfunded, and Republicans desperately want it to fail. This makes problems inevitable. Nevertheless, pouncing on every reported hitch as a harbinger of doom is taking schadenfreude too far. HHS has consistently claimed that they'll be ready to go by October 1. Maybe that's overoptimistic. But although it will probably take several years for Obamacare's uptake rate to reach its goal, I'll bet that by this time next year it will be up and running and basically doing its job. It's a little early to be writing its obituary.