Kevin Drum - May 2013

Word of the Month for May: BOLO

| Tue May 14, 2013 4:43 PM EDT

Here's my favorite part of the IRS scandal yet. According to the Inspector General's report, the Cincinnati office of the IRS developed an acronym for "Be On the Look Out." Yep, they turned it into BOLO. Apparently the spreadsheet which listed words and phrases that might indicate political activity became known as the "BOLO Listing." I expect this to take Twitter by storm any second now.

UPDATE: Pardon my ignorance. Turns out this is a standard police term. A "BOLO alert" is issued when police are trying to find someone suspected of a crime. I guess the IRS appropriated the term, they didn't invent it.

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What We Now Know About the CIA's Benghazi Turf War

| Tue May 14, 2013 2:19 PM EDT

The more we find out about the editing of the Benghazi talking points, the more the evidence points in one direction: this was a CIA fiasco from the start. As we all know by now, the Benghazi mission was primarily a CIA operation, and they were the ones responsible for security there. But when it came time to write up talking points for public consumption after the September 11 attacks, they immediately started trying to shift blame. Here is David Brooks writing about the role of State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland:

On Friday evening of Sept. 14, the updated talking points were e-mailed to the relevant officials in various departments, including Nuland....[She] noted that the talking points left the impression that the C.I.A. had issued all sorts of warnings before the attack.

Remember, this was at a moment when the State Department was taking heat for what was mostly a C.I.A. operation, while doing verbal gymnastics to hide the C.I.A.’s role. Intentionally or not, the C.I.A. seemed to be repaying the favor by trying to shift blame to the State Department for ignoring intelligence.

Marcy Wheeler had a more pungent assessment a few days ago:

In other words, the story CIA — which had fucked up in big ways — wanted to tell was that it had warned State and State had done nothing in response....The truthful story would have been (in part) that CIA had botched the militia scene in Benghazi, and that had gotten the Ambassador killed.

Today Jake Tapper tells us that previous reports about the role of Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes have also been mistaken. Rhodes didn't say anything to suggest that the White House was concerned with protecting the State Department's reputation. All he said was this: "We need to resolve this in a way that respects all of the relevant equities, particularly the investigation." The next day, when everyone got together to vet the talking points, they were stripped down to their final mushy state.

Greg Sargent has more here. This was, pretty clearly, a turf war, and the evidence increasingly suggests it was a war started by the CIA. The State Department has already largely owned up to its own failures in the ARB report released last year. So far, though, the CIA hasn't.

Today's Austerity Smackdown: US vs. UK

| Tue May 14, 2013 1:27 PM EDT

This chart is making the rounds today, so I might as well join in the fun. It shows how well the U.S. economy has recovered from the recession compared to Great Britain. The Tory approach in Great Britain has famously been based on austerity measures, and it sure doesn't seem to be working all that well. Karl Smith provides the caveats:

The UK has an infamous productivity puzzle, that has allowed it to add jobs even as GDP stalls. The UK is more closely tied to the crumbling Eurozone economy. The UK has seen its energy resources dwindle while the US has seen them explode. The United States has seen a good deal more austerity than its President would have liked.

All true, and these things point in different directions. That said, austerity doesn't seem to be working in Britain and it's not working in the rest of Europe either. So why are Republicans so hellbent on emulating them?

Final Ultrawonky Stat Geek Analysis of the Oregon Medicaid Study

| Tue May 14, 2013 11:12 AM EDT

If you really want to understand the shortcomings of the Oregon Medicaid study, you should be reading Austin Frakt and Aaron Carroll over at The Incidental Economist. Frakt has one final post today in which he goes ultrawonky and calculates just how underpowered the study was if it wanted to get statistically significant results on the diabetes markers. It's way over my head, so I'll just pass along the headline result: the study was underpowered by at least a factor of 23. That is, the researchers would have needed a sample size 23 times larger than they had in order to find the results they were looking for.

The full writeup is here. Bottom line: this study was just too small. The fact that it didn't find statistically significant results doesn't really tell us anything at all, either good or bad, about the effect of Medicaid on health outcomes.

A Taxonomy of Scandals

| Tue May 14, 2013 10:49 AM EDT

"White House Under Siege" is too juicy a narrative to pass up, especially during a slow news period, so that's what we're getting right now. But there are scandals and then there are "scandals." The three that are currently erupting are all quite different. Let's categorize them:

Benghazi. The truth is that this is no more of a scandal than it's ever been. Right now Republicans are doing their best to keep this carnival act going, but President Obama was pretty much right yesterday when he said there's no there there. That remains true even if Jay Carney was a little less than candid last November about the editing process of the infamous talking points. This whole thing is basically a fever dream invention of the right, and the public doesn't seem any more interested in it today than it ever has been.

AP phone records. This is a policy scandal, perhaps, but not an abuse of power or example of corruption. As near as I can tell, the Justice Department followed the law scrupulously here, obtaining a warrant for the records and then informing AP of the warrant afterwards. Lots of people, including me, happen to think the law that allows this is a bad one, but that's an argument about the PATRIOT Act and its followups. From a political point of view, Republicans are going to have a hard time making much hay with this because (a) most of them support the law that allows DOJ to do this, and (b) the American public doesn't think very highly of the press and probably isn't very outraged that they can have their phone records collected just like anyone else.

IRS targeting of tea party groups. This one is a genuine scandal, and it's one that plays right into Republican hands. It's also one that will resonate with the public. Politically, the question is whether the president can get out ahead of it. If he's found to have had no hand in the original targeting, and is perceived as being sufficiently zealous in cracking down on it, it might not hurt him much. We'll see.

There's one wild card in all this: the media. They finally got personally annoyed over Benghazi when the spotlight turned to things that Jay Carney had told them personally, and the AP warrant also directly affects them. If this episode feeds into further media disenchantment with Obama, that could affect his press coverage going forward. In the end, that could end up being the worst fallout of all from this stuff.

Robots, Mass Unemployment, and Riots in the Streets

| Tue May 14, 2013 9:46 AM EDT

You can never get too much robot punditry, can you? So here are two more followups from my magazine piece on the coming rise of smart machines. First, an interview with Dylan Matthews over at WonkBlog. Here's my take on what happens as we disemploy more and more people along the road to our eventual robot paradise:

It seems like if you have a huge section of people who are unemployed, who don't really have resources but have a lot of spare time, then there's a possibility of really huge political mobilizations on the part of those people, like you see in countries nowadays with mass unemployment.

I think that's likely to be one of the things that happens along the way. Societies that suffer from mass unemployment, the history of what happens to those societies is not a bright one. At some point you have to respond, and there's going to be a lot of resistance to responding because of ideology, because of politics, because of pure greed, but eventually we are going to respond to this. It's going to be obvious what's happening, that people are unemployed due to no fault of their own, and that we have to respond.

In the meantime, we're going to resist responding, and we're probably going to resist responding very very strongly, because rich people don't like giving up their money. We're in for a few decades of a really grim fight between the poor, who are losing jobs, and the rich, who don't want to give up their riches.

OK, fine, that wasn't the most lucid description of the problem ever. In a few years a robot will be able to make a better fist of it. But you get the idea. The big question is: how long will it be before everyone finally caves in and admits that something new is happening, and we're not just suffering from the same old economic problems as we have in the past?

And if that's all a little too heavy for you, check out Ryan Jacobs' brief history of awesome robots, from RUR to LS3. Here's hoping that our future is more R2D2 and less Terminator.

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Fed Monitoring of Terror-Related Phone Calls Finally About to Get Some Attention

| Mon May 13, 2013 5:01 PM EDT

My Twitter feed has become almost totally consumed by reaction to today's story about the government obtaining records of phone calls made by AP reporters:

The records obtained by the Justice Department listed outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters....In all, the government seized the records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012.

....The government would not say why it sought the records. U.S. officials have previously said in public testimony that the U.S. attorney in Washington is conducting a criminal investigation into who may have provided information contained in a May 7, 2012, AP story about a foiled terror plot. The story disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al-Qaida plot in the spring of 2012 to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the United States.

The government has been obtaining phone records like this for over a decade now, and it's been keeping their requests secret that entire time. Until now, the press has showed only sporadic interest in this. But not anymore. I expect media interest in terror-related pen register warrants to show a healthy spike this week.

That could be a good thing. It's just too bad that it took monitoring of journalists to get journalists fired up about this.

A Small Rant About the Meaning of Significant vs. "Significant"

| Mon May 13, 2013 1:44 PM EDT

Jim Manzi has a long blog post today about the Oregon Medicaid study that got so much attention when it was released a couple of weeks ago. Along the way, I think he mischaracterizes my conclusions, but I'm going to skip that for now. Maybe I'll get to it later. Instead, I want to make a very focused point about this paragraph of his:

When interpreting the physical health results of the Oregon Experiment, we either apply a cut-off of 95% significance to identify those effects which will treat as relevant for decision-making, or we do not. If we do apply this cut-off...then we should agree with the authors’ conclusion that the experiment “showed that Medicaid coverage generated no significant improvements in measured physical health outcomes in the first 2 years.” If, on the other hand, we wish to consider non-statistically-significant effects, then we ought to conclude that the net effects were unattractive, mostly because coverage induced smoking, which more than offset the risk-adjusted physical health benefits provided by the incremental utilization of health services.

I agree that we should either use the traditional 95 percent confidence or we shouldn't, and if we do we should use it for all of the results of the Oregon study. The arguments for and against a firm 95 percent cutoff can get a little tricky, but in this case I'm willing to accept the 95 percent cutoff, and I'm willing to use it consistently.

But here's what I very much disagree with. Many of the results of the Oregon study failed to meet the 95 percent standard, and I think it's wrong to describe this as showing that "Medicaid coverage generated no significant improvements in measured physical health outcomes in the first 2 years."

To be clear: it's fine for the authors of the study to describe it that way. They're writing for fellow professionals in an academic journal. But when you're writing for a lay audience, it's seriously misleading. Most lay readers will interpret "significant" in its ordinary English sense, not as a term of art used by statisticians, and therefore conclude that the study positively demonstrated that there were no results large enough to care about.

But that's not what the study showed. A better way of putting it is that the study "drew no conclusions about the impact of Medicaid on measured physical health outcomes in the first 2 years." That's it. No conclusions. If you're going to insist on adhering to the 95 percent standard—which is fine with me—then that's how you need to describe results that don't meet it.

Next up is a discussion of why the study showed no statistically significant results. For now, I'll just refer you back to this post. The short answer is: it was never in the cards. This study was almost foreordained not to find statistically significant results from the day it was conceived.

Why the Digital Revolution Won't be a Rerun of the Industrial Revolution

| Mon May 13, 2013 12:06 PM EDT

Whenever you talk about smart machines taking all our jobs, the usual pushback is that you're being a Luddite—an argument that's especially appropriate this year since it's the 200th anniversary of the end of the Luddite movement. (Well, the 200th anniversary of the trial and conviction of the alleged ringleaders, anyway.) The basic argument is that all those skilled weavers in 1813 thought that power looms would put them out of jobs, but they were right only in the most limited way. In the long run, those power looms raised standards of living so much that everyone found jobs somewhere else (working in steel mills, building cars, operating power looms, etc.). So there was nothing to worry about after all.

But the Digital Revolution won't be a rerun of the Industrial Revolution. I take a crack at explaining this in "Welcome, Robot Overlords," and it turns out that Karl Smith was an easy sell because he already believes the same thing. Here's his take:

Creating things is a matter of rearranging atoms. Broadly speaking, you need two things to do this — a power system to overcome the gravitational and electromagnetic forces that tend to hold atoms in their relative positions and a control system to guarantee that atoms wind up in the right place.

The industrial revolution was about one thing — more power! But, more power means the need for more control. Hence, the Industrial Revolution meant a rapid increase in the demand for human brains, not decrease.

Smart machines provide both the power system and the control system in one convenient package. You can still argue that displaced humans will end up doing something else—we just don't know what yet—but it's a tough argument to win. If you agree that artificial intelligence will be real someday soon, then by definition smart machines will be able to do just about anything that humans can do. The answer to "Humans will do X," for any value of X, is "But robots can do that too." That wasn't true of the Industrial Revolution.

If you don't believe that AI is around the corner, then there's no argument to have here (aside from why you think AI is so far off). But if you do, then we have some serious questions to ponder about the future of work, the future of money, and the future of democracy. That's what my piece is mainly about.

Investigate the IRS? Investigate Everybody!

| Mon May 13, 2013 11:32 AM EDT

Peter Kirsanow thinks that L'Affaire IRS (501gate? Cincygate? Teagate?) should be thoroughly investigated. I'm on board with that. But Kirsanow wants to go further. Much, much further:

But the investigation shouldn’t be limited to the IRS. Until last week, the IRS was denying that conservatives were being targeted by the agency. Now we know those denials were completely false. What about the Department of Labor, or for that matter, any federal agency with authority to investigate, regulate, or fine individuals and businesses? With few exceptions, the permanent bureaucracy in Washington leans heavily left. If IRS employees could target conservatives, what prevents the same mindset from prevailing in other agencies?

Congress must use its time and resources judiciously. But it would be shortsighted not to take seriously the complaints that citizens — regardless of ideology — have made about other agencies as well. Hey, we conservatives might be paranoid. But it looks like this time someone was, indeed, out to get us.

Good idea. This could be an excellent WPA-style works program, and it's one that Republicans in Congress would be willing to fund generously. I recommend a citizen investigating force of at least 3 million drawn from all walks of life. There's no sense in thinking small here.