Kevin Drum - May 2013

Quote of the Day: Apostrophe Eradication in America

| Wed May. 15, 2013 10:33 PM PDT

From Barry Newman of the Wall Street Journal, explaining why it's Earl's Court in London but Earls Court in Bloomington:

The U.S., in fact, is the only country with an apostrophe-eradication policy. The program took off when President Benjamin Harrison set up the Board on Geographic Names in 1890. By one board estimate, it has scrubbed 250,000 apostrophes from federal maps. The states mostly—but not always—bow to its wishes....The committee has granted only five possessive apostrophes in 113 years: Martha's Vineyard, Mass.; Ike's Point, N.J.; John E's Pond, R.I.; Carlos Elmer's Joshua View, Ariz.; and—in 2002—Clark's Mountain, Ore.

It's an apostrophe apocalypse! And there's no appeal from the Borglike efficiency of the naming board: "We don't debate the apostrophe," says Jennifer Runyon, one of the committee's three staffers. Resistance is futile.

(Except for Clark's Mountain. How did that one get through? I sort of understand the other four exceptions, but what kind of clout did the Clark's people bring to bear in order to browbeat their way into apostrophe nirvana?)

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White House Releases Benghazi Email Dump

| Wed May. 15, 2013 3:58 PM PDT

The White House has released a dump of the email conversation that eventually produced the Benghazi talking points that were requested by Congress and then used by Susan Rice in her Sunday morning talk show interviews. The full set is here. Seven in particular struck me as interesting:

UPDATE: Amanda Terkel has more on State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland's objection to including a paragraph about previous CIA warnings regarding the threat of extremists in Benghazi:

Senior administration officials on Wednesday said that Michael J. Morell, then the deputy director of the CIA, also wanted that line removed, separately from Nuland. Morell believed it was irrelevant to the message of the talking points -- what happened in Benghazi -- and unprofessional to include those warnings but not allow State Department officials to include how they had responded to them.

Separate from Wednesday's document release, the CIA recently conducted an internal review of how and why the talking points were changed -- a move that also came in response to the continuing questions from Congress. That review showed that many changes were made to the original talking points -- drafted by a senior officer -- over concerns about accuracy, an FBI investigation and other bureaucratic matters.

Senior administration officials, discussing that internal review, relayed that some CIA officials didn't like that the original draft of the talking points said the government "know[s] that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa'ida participated in the attack," because at that time it was premature to name those responsible for the attacks.

Their concerns at other times were more mundane. For example, CIA officials also decided to change the phrase "attacks in Benghazi ... evolved into a direct assault against the US Consulate" to "demonstrations in Benghazi" because they believed "attacks" and "assault" were synonymous, making the phrase illogical.

CIA officers also removed the reference to al Qaeda in order not to prejudge the outcome of a FBI investigation into the incident. A reference to another terrorist group, Ansar al-Sharia, was left in, but later removed at the request of the State Department; the CIA agreed with that decision, again so as not to hinder the FBI investigation.

Yep, Immigrants Are Doing the Work We Won't

| Wed May. 15, 2013 3:09 PM PDT

Via Dylan Matthews, here's a chart from a study that looks at the experience of the North Carolina Growers Association in hiring native-born workers. NCGA is required to heavily advertise for native workers before their applications for H-2A guest worker visas are approved, but these efforts seldom pay off. Even when unemployment was at its height in 2011, they received a grand total of only 268 referrals. They hired 90 percent of the applicants, but only 163 showed up for work on their first day—and that was the best response in NCGA's history. The chart below shows what happened next:

Within two months, 80 percent of the native workers had quit. By the end of the growing season, only seven were left.

Now, as Matthews notes, this report doesn't exactly come from a neutral source. It's from a pro-immigration group working with a group of pro-immigration farmers. But unless they're flat-out lying here, the numbers are pretty compelling. Most Americans just aren't willing to do backbreaking agricultural labor for a bit above minimum wage, and if the wage rate were much higher the farms would no longer be competitive.

Anyone want to send me some contrary evidence? I'd be interested to see it. But all the evidence I've seen in the past points in the same direction as this study: it's all but impossible to get native workers to fill field labor jobs. Immigrants really are doing the work we won't.

Former NSC Spox Talks About the Talking Points

| Wed May. 15, 2013 12:17 PM PDT

Greg Sargent asked Tommy Vietor, who recently stepped down as the spokesman for the National Security Council, to provide his take on the whole Benghazi talking points affair. He got a long email in return in which Vietor admits some errors in how things were handled, but defends the NSC's role in reconciling the various interests of different agencies: "the fact that the government edited these points," he says, "isn’t surprising or at all nefarious – it’s routine." Plus this:

One of the most frustrating parts of this discussion is the degree to which people now dismiss the impact of the Innocence of Muslims video. Our embassies in Cairo, Yemen and Sudan were attacked and seriously damaged. A western restaurant was torched in Lebanon. Dozens of countries experienced protests where scores of people died. Our troops in Afghanistan had to reduce their operational tempo and exposure as a preventative measure. Today, people act like the administration invented the issue. A 30-second scan of headlines from that week shows otherwise.

....Some allege that edits were made in an effort to downplay the role of al Qaeda or to try and sell a political narrative of rapidly normalizing ties with Libya. That’s just not true....The charge that there was an administration effort to “sell” a normalization narrative in Libya is nonsensical. There just isn’t a political angle here. No voter went to the polls thinking, I don’t like Obama, but boy we have a much better relationship with Tripoli now than we did a few years ago so he’s getting my vote. It’s just silly.

These two points can hardly be made strongly enough. There's no question that the "Innocence of Muslims" video played a big role in outbreaks of violence across the Middle East during the week of September 11—including the protests in Cairo—and the CIA talking points suggested from the very beginning that the violence in Benghazi was "spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo." So when Susan Rice suggested that the video had played a role in sparking the Benghazi attacks, she was repeating something that, at the time, was disputed by no one in the intelligence community. See Bob Somerby for more on this.

It's also true that the entire alleged motivation for downplaying terrorism has never made any sense. Vietor is precisely correct when he says that although the Obama administration "talked about how al Qaeda core in Afghanistan and Pakistan had been decimated," they were also very clear "that there was a growing threat from AQAP and other affiliates." The idea that, somehow, downplaying the terror angle would help Obama's election chances never made any sense from the start. It's just partisan nitwittery.

Anyway, read the whole thing. Vietor's take is interesting throughout.

Obama to GOP: Put Up or Shut Up on DOJ Investigation

| Wed May. 15, 2013 9:57 AM PDT

From NYT reporter Charlie Savage, via Twitter:

I'm terminally bored with our current scandal hat trick, which in record time has reached the meta-stage where it produces no actual fresh news, just a steady flow of lazy thumbsuckers about how President Obama is now inundated with scandals. This despite the fact that Benghazi is still the nothingburger it's always been, and everyone knows it; the DOJ episode is a policy debate, not a scandal; and it's vanishingly unlikely that Obama had even the most tenuous connection to the IRS targeting of tea party groups, the only genuine scandal in the bunch.

Still, this is an interesting tidbit of news from Savage, both on substantive and political grounds. Substantively, Obama is making the point that legislation has been introduced before, and can be introduced again, that would restrict DOJ's ability to target the phone records of media organizations. In 2010, such legislation was introduced, and died when it was filibustered by Republicans in the Senate. More generally, media organizations have been lobbying for a federal shield law for decades, and Congress has been resolutely unwilling to pass one, even though nearly every state has a shield law of one sort or another.

Politically, Obama is basically daring Republicans to put their money where their mouths are. You want to make the DOJ leak investigation into an issue of executive overreach? Fine. Then rein it in. Pass a law making it clear what DOJ can and can't do in leak investigations.

This is a win-win for me. If Republicans take Obama up on his offer, then we get a law I approve of. If they don't, then they need to shut up. What's not to like?

UPDATE: It's not just on Twitter anymore! Savage's piece for the Times is now up.

UPDATE 2: Several people have pointed out that this bill doesn't provide the press with much protection in national security cases, so even if it had been in effect it wouldn't have had much impact on the DOJ subpoena of AP phone records. That's true, but I still think this is a worthwhile effort. Congress can certainly provide the press with increased protection in national security cases if it wants to, and that's the point of all this. Do they want to? Let's find out. I want to know which side of this issue everyone is really on.

No, the Federal Government is Not Like a Shark

| Wed May. 15, 2013 9:32 AM PDT

In a response to Jonah Goldberg, Charles Cooke admits that sharks aren't actually all that dangerous:

Still, it’s best to presume that every single shark you meet is going to eat you. My view is that, because a shark can eat you, and has eaten people in the past, you should have, as per the definition that you provided, ”suspicion and mistrust of people or their actions without evidence or justification” — or, rather, of sharks and their actions

....The bottom line is that we should treat government as we should sharks: As George Washington is supposed to have said, “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” Even he couldn’t have imagined how dangerous and fearful governments could become.

My problem is that I’m not sure that the alternative to paranoia is reason. Is the way in which most people trust “reasonable”? No, not in the slightest. If people are going to be unreasonable — and they certainly are – it’s better that they’re unreasonably scared....There are no black helicopters and there may never be any black helicopters. But isn’t it positive that people are worried about them?

Well, I agree with Cooke about sharks. But there's a pretty important missing point here: for most of us, there's zero upside to palling around with sharks and zero downside to being unreasonably scared of them. So sure: you should avoid sharks at all costs. Why wouldn't you?

Needless to say, the same is not true of government, no matter how much conservatives like to think otherwise. It provides many useful services! I like the fact that police keep me safe, paved roads let me go places, pensions and healthcare are available to me when I get old, and government agencies keep my air, water, and food tolerably clean and safe. There are genuine tradeoffs to be made here, which means that reason really is the only non-insane way to evaluate what kind of government we want. Even coming from National Review, I'm a little surprised that apparently someone needs to make this rather obvious point.

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Is Our Robot Paradise Already Here?

| Wed May. 15, 2013 8:00 AM PDT

Ashok Rao has a response to my robot article that, unfortunately, I don't entirely understand. But there are bits and pieces I'd like to respond to, so let's get to it. First off, the main point of my piece is that even if a robot paradise awaits us in the future, a lot of people are going to be put out of work in the meantime, and rich people are going to resist income redistribution to address this. Here's Rao:

What Drum ignores is, the Great Redistribution has already started. Our tax code was designed for a bygone era and, therefore, obscures the immense change technology has created in the past ten years. Redistribution in the form of pure consumer surplus. The web application system allows us, for the first time, to quench our materialistic desires for free.

Well, I sure hope I didn't ignore this. I didn't mean to. In fact, I devoted a considerable part of my piece to exactly this, though from the flip side of the coin. The economic effects of smart machines, I argued, started around 2000, and we've been seeing the disemployment effects ever since. The impact so far has been tiny, but real.

Now, Rao usefully points out the mirror image of my point, namely that the rise of automation has positive consumer effects too. However, I think we'd be well advised to take a closer look at just who benefits from this. The problem is that disemployment hits a certain class of people, while the consumer surplus generated by the web economy primarily benefits a different class. Nor is the web economy free. It's cheap, certainly, but not free. Nor is it enough. Even if we can immerse ourselves in the web all we want for low cost, we still need to eat, clothe ourselves, live somewhere, and so forth. Until our future robot paradise arrives, this is a big deal. If you lose your job to a robot, your net economic position is going to be sharply worse than it used to be.

The last few paragraphs of Rao's essay sound interesting, and I'd like to engage with them, but unfortunately I didn't understand what he was getting at. It's unclear how much of it is being attributed to me and how much is stuff he himself believes. However, this part is clear enough:

But there is no “dimly lit tunnel”. There will be manual jobs: until there aren’t. The future will be a cornucopia of thought, refinement, ideology, and science. For the first time, millions can enter the “thinking classes”, no longer tethered to labor as a need of production. No longer tethered to the capitalist machinery that hitherto made us rich. Thusly, we won’t be living in Fukuyama’s nostalgic sense of an ahistoric world, either. Rather, the rich social and intellectual interactions unlocked will generate the most amazing cascades of culture at a sophistication never-before-seen.

I very much doubt this. The vast majority of humans have neither the skills nor the desire for this. Rao may be right about "millions," but that represents just a tiny fraction of the human race. What about the rest of us?

Our Amazing Slowdown in Healthcare Spending Growth

| Tue May. 14, 2013 10:05 PM PDT

The growth rate of healthcare spending, which once seemed to be putting us on a path to national bankruptcy, seems to be abating pretty seriously lately. Jon Chait comments:

The general conservative response to date has involved ignoring the trend, or perhaps dismissing it as a temporary, recession-induced dip likely to reverse itself. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal editorial page offered up what may be the new conservative fallback position: Okay, health-care costs are slowing down, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the huge new health-care reform law. “It increasingly looks as if ObamaCare passed amid a national correction in the health markets,” the Journal now asserts, “that no one in Congress or the White House understood.” It’s another one of those huge, crazy coincidences!

My take is a little different: I think the Journal is wrong to suggest that we're merely in the middle of a temporary correction, and Chait is wrong to imply that Obamacare has played a role in the slowdown of healthcare spending. Take a look at the chart below, which is a home-brewed version of one that's cropped up in a lot of places recently. I took the CMS figures for per-capita national healthcare consumption expenditures and compared its year-over-year growth rate with the inflation rate. A high number means healthcare spending is growing faster than inflation. The chart is noisy, but the pattern is pretty clear: the growth rate of healthcare spending has been on a pretty steady downward trend for three decades. If it keeps following the current trendline, per-capita healthcare spending will be growing at the same rate as general inflation by around 2020 or so:

For a more rigorous look at this over just the past decade, check out "When the Cost Curve Bent," described here by Sarah Kliff. Standard caveats apply: the trendline might not keep going down; more people will still mean higher healthcare spending; and recent data might be artificially depressed by the recession and the sluggish recovery.

Bottom line: I think the moderation of healthcare spending growth has been going on for quite a while. And while Obamacare may very well accelerate this trend, it's too early to say it's had any effect yet. At the same time, Chait's more general mockery of the Journal's about-face on this subject is fully merited:

Of course, it’s not just that the Journal didn’t predict the health-care cost slowdown. The Journal insisted it couldn’t possibly happen. Indeed, it insisted that Obamacare would destroy — was already destroying — any possible hope for a health-care cost correction, and would instead necessarily lead to a massive increase in health-care inflation.

That's been the party line on the right all along. Along with hyperinflation and spiraling interest rates, I think we can put this squarely in the basket of stuff they just don't get.

IG Report Says IRS Has No Idea What Its Own Rules Mean

| Tue May. 14, 2013 6:56 PM PDT

The Inspector General's report on the targeting of tea party groups by the IRS is now out, and I was hoping there might be some interesting tidbits now that we can see the whole thing. Not really, though. Mainly, it paints a drearily predictable picture of bureaucratic FUBARism, with various groups in various places either misunderstanding each other; not responding to each other; or assuming that stuff was getting done that, in fact, wasn't getting done. Anyone who reads Dilbert regularly gets the picture.

But the soporific paragraph below actually tells us something pretty important. In fact, it's the heart of the whole issue:

In April 2012, the Senior Technical Advisor to the Acting Commissioner, Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division, along with a team of EO function Headquarters office employees, reviewed many of the potential political cases and determined that there appeared to be some confusion by Determinations Unit specialists and applicants on what activities are allowed by I.R.C. § 501(c)(4) organizations. We believe this could be due to the lack of specific guidance on how to determine the “primary activity” of an I.R.C. § 501(c)(4) organization. Treasury Regulations state that I.R.C. § 501(c)(4) organizations should have social welfare as their “primary activity”; however, the regulations do not define how to measure whether social welfare is an organization’s “primary activity.”

Did you get that? IRS regs say that 501(c)4 groups can't primarily be engaged in political activity. Instead, their "primary activity" has to be social welfare. To call this vague would be a disservice to mirages and chimeras everywhere. How the hell are actual human beings sitting in cubicles in Cincinnati supposed to decide whether a group is planning to spend more than 50 percent of its time engaged in something other than social welfare? For that matter, how are they supposed to decide what "social welfare" is in the first place?

The IG report recognizes this, and Recommendation 8 in its audit is that this really needs to get resolved at a policy level, not a line level:

Recommend to IRS Chief Counsel and the Department of the Treasury that guidance on how to measure the “primary activity” of I.R.C. § 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations be included for consideration in the Department of the Treasury Priority Guidance Plan.

Good luck with that! Frankly, I think it's a mug's game. There's really no way to define this in any kind of rigorous way, and even if you could, how would you apply it to organizations that are merely applying for 501(c)4 status? In the wake of Citizens United, this whole section of the Internal Revenue Code is a definitional witch's brew that admits of no sensible resolution. If we had a functioning Congress, I'd suggest that they should address this from the ground up and provide a set of guidelines that makes sense in the modern world. But I don't suppose that's very likely, is it?

BREAKING: United States No Longer Going Bankrupt

| Tue May. 14, 2013 3:05 PM PDT

The CBO has released its latest budget projections, and guess what? The medium-term national debt has stabilized. Hooray!

You might still not be happy about this. Maybe you won't be happy until debt drops back down to Carter-era levels. That's fine. It's a free country, after all. But for the next decade, at least, the trendlines are no longer shooting upward, and if the economy continues to improve the trendlines will look even better. So no more screaming about how the country is going bankrupt, OK?