Kevin Drum - May 2013

Quote of the Day: Robert Gates on "Cartoonish" Views of the Military

| Mon May. 13, 2013 8:15 AM PDT

From former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, on the endless speculations about what the military could have done to stop the Benghazi attacks:

It's sort of a cartoonish impression of military capabilities and military forces.

I guess Gates is no longer on Darrell Issa's Christmas card list. But if you want to know just how cartoonish most of this stuff has been, consider the infamous "stand down" theory. This is the suggestion that there were military forces available to send to Benghazi, but they were told by President Obama to stand down. The motivation for this is always murky, but presumably based on political considerations of some kind.

But the real giveaway about this whole thing is that it keeps changing whenever it's debunked. Originally, the story retailed by Charles Woods, the father of Benghazi victim Tyrone Woods, revolved around the notion that Obama had a live video feed of Benghazi and refused to let a fast-response team deploy even though he knew they could get there in time. That wasn't true, so another story developed that General Carter Ham was ready to send in a team, received an order to stand down, and was going to disobey orders and send them in anyway. But then his second in command apprehended him and told him that he was now relieved of duty. That wasn't true either. So then we got a story about a team in Tripoli that Obama refused to deploy. Then a story about a C-110 team in Croatia that could have gone in but wasn't allowed to. And finally, last week, a different story about a different team in Tripoli that could have gone in the next morning but didn't.

In other words, "stand down" has referred to at least five different things over the past several months. It doesn't matter if any of it is true. It doesn't matter if Obama was involved. It doesn't matter why the military made the decisions it did. If one story falls, there's always another "stand down" conspiracy theory to take its place. Cartoonish indeed.

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Who Will Own Our Future Robot Overlords?

| Mon May. 13, 2013 5:45 AM PDT

Robots! That's the topic of my latest piece in the current issue of the magazine. I've blogged on this subject a fair amount, but this is the first time I've tried to put everything together and explain what I really think robotics is likely to mean over the next few decades. Some of you are going to nod right along, some of you are going to think I'm crazy, and any economists in the audience are going to be rolling their eyes at my rather casual use of macroeconomic trend statistics to help make my point. But I'm pretty sure none of you will be bored.

So what is my point? First off, it's the obvious one that I think computer hardware and software are progressing fast enough that we're not very far away from true artificial intelligence. Along the way I break exciting new ground in describing Ray Kurzweil's "back half of the chessboard" analogy, which illustrates how continuous growth can look insignificant for a long time and then suddenly explode. After immense amounts of research, I decided on Lake Michigan as the key to my explanation of the chessboard analogy, but you'll have to click the link to see what this means. It even comes with a nifty little graphic that our art department created to illustrate how Lake Michigan is just like a digital computer.

Why spend so much time on all of this? Because whenever the subject of AI comes up, everyone wants examples but people like me can't come up with any. That's because AI doesn't exist yet. So we haul out Watson and driverless cars and so forth, and it all seems like pretty weak tea. But Lake Michigan explains why it's not. All these examples that seem pretty lame and not really very AI-like are exactly what you'd expect as mileposts along the road to AI. They aren't demonstrations of how far away we are, but exactly the opposite. They're demonstrations of how close we are. When this all finally happens, it's going to happen fast.

That's the first half of the piece. The second half is about what all this means. If AI is coming—and coming quickly—what does it mean for the economy? In the long run, it will be great, an era of both infinite leisure and material progress. But in the medium run I think the consequences will be fairly grim: more and more people will be put out of work, and no, there won't be new jobs that open up for them along the way. This will very decidedly not be a replay of the Industrial Revolution. What's worse, it will all happen so slowly that we're going to spend a long time denying what's unfolding before our eyes, and a whole lot of people are going to suffer because of it.

In fact, I think automation has been affecting our economy in nontraditional ways since about 2000 or so. Only by a tiny amount, though, which means it's impossible to demonstrate its impact conclusively. Still, you can amass evidence, and that's what I do. There may be other explanations for each of the trends I talk about, but when you put them all together I think the simplest collective explanation is that they point in the direction of automation already having a slight effect on employment and capital intensity. Slight but growing. Two or three decades from now, the Warren Buffetts of the world will own all the robots and a big chunk of the world will be permanently unemployed.

Do I prove this? Not by a mile. But in the end, I meant for this piece to be read as provocation more than anything else. So go ahead and be provoked, one way or the other. Click the link.

Here's Why Benghazi May Finally Have Legs

| Sun May. 12, 2013 5:33 PM PDT

Alex Koppelman takes a fresh look at the Benghazi affair this weekend and tries to come up with something outrageous about it. He doesn't, really, until he gets to the very end. So what is it that he finds most outrageous? Not, it turns out, the poor security in Benghazi; nor the military response to the attacks; nor even the editing of the infamous talking points. Not really. He pinpoints the outrage much more precisely, and I think it's instructive to read what he says:

This past November (after Election Day), White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that “The White House and the State Department have made clear that the single adjustment that was made to those talking points by either of those two institutions were changing the word ‘consulate’ to ‘diplomatic facility’ because ‘consulate’ was inaccurate.”

Remarkably, Carney is sticking with that line even now....This is an incredible thing for Carney to be saying. He’s playing semantic games, telling a roomful of journalists that the definition of editing we’ve all been using is wrong, that the only thing that matters is who’s actually working the keyboard. It’s not quite re-defining the word “is,” or the phrase “sexual relations,” but it’s not all that far off, either.

If Benghazi continues to have legs, it won't be because Fox is hyping it. They've been hyping it for eight months now. It won't be because the initial talking points were wrong. We've known that since the end of last September. It won't be because there were military assets on the night of the attacks that could have been used but weren't. This is the "stand down" conspiracy theory, which keeps morphing into something new whenever the old version is debunked, and it's long since been thoroughly hashed out. It won't be because references to al-Qaeda were removed from the final draft of the talking points. David Petraeus explained that last November. And it won't be because we learned that the editing of the talking points involved some squabbling between State and CIA. Nobody over the age of five is surprised or scandalized by that.

No, it will be because the small group of reporters who are credentialed to the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room feels aggrieved that the press secretary told them something to their faces that concealed a bit of unseemly bureaucratic squabbling. It doesn't matter if the subject matter itself was important. In this case, it wasn't: the nickel version is that the State Department objected to the CIA adding a sentence making sure everyone knew they had warned about possible attacks beforehand, a statement that was both gratuitous and off subject. But trivial or not, Carney misled the reporters in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room about this, and that makes it personal.

Never underestimate the power of a press corps that suddenly decides the story is personal. It may be a while before they let go of this.

The IRS Shoots Itself in the Foot, Then Reloads

| Sun May. 12, 2013 2:51 PM PDT

Here's the thing that really puzzles me about this whole business of the IRS targeting tea party groups for extra scrutiny: the agency's clumsy handling of the whole thing. And I'm being charitable by calling it "clumsy." I mean, did they really think they could just announce this during an ABA conference on Friday morning and that would be the end of it? Of course not. It's explosive. So why were they seemingly so unprepared for any followup questions?

It's very peculiar. Especially since the evidence suggests this affair probably wasn't quite as outrageous as it seems at first glance. Roughly speaking, what seems to have happened is that three years ago the IRS was facing an explosion of newly formed 501(c)4 groups claiming tax exempt status, something that's legal only for groups that are primarily engaged in promoting education or social welfare, not electioneering. So some folks in the Cincinnati office tried to come up with a quick filter to flag groups that deserved extra scrutiny. But what should that flag be? Well, three years ago the explosion happened to be among tea party groups, so they began searching their database "for applications with 'Tea Party,' 'Patriots,' or '9/12' in the organization's name as well as other 'political sounding' names." This was dumb, and when senior leaders found out about it, they put a quick stop to it:

On June 29, 2011, Lois G. Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt organizations, learned at a meeting that groups were being targeted, according to the [inspector general’s] report....Lerner instructed agents to change the criteria for flagging groups “immediately,” the report says.

The problem is that the explosion of 501(c)4 groups is a genuine problem: they really have grown like kudzu, lots of them really are used primarily as electioneering vehicles, and the IRS has been either unwilling or unable to regulate them properly. So the fact that some of the folks responsible for processing these applications were looking for a way to flag potentially dubious groups is sort of understandable.

But understandable or not, they bungled it horribly, leaving themselves open to equally understandable charges of politicizing the IRS. Conservative groups are as outraged as liberals would be if the Bush-era IRS were flagging groups with "environment" or "progressive" in their names. So even if, as seems likely, this whole thing turns out to have been mostly a misguided scheme cooked up by some too-clever IRS drones, it doesn't matter. Conservatives are right to be outraged and right to demand a full investigation. They suspect there might be more to it, and so would I if the shoe were on the other foot. We need to find out for sure whether this episode was just moronic, or if it had some kind of partisan motivation.

What's really unfortunate about all this is that it will probably put an end to any scrutiny of 501(c)4 groups, and that's a shame. The IRS should be scrutinizing them, and it should be doing it on an ongoing basis. More than likely, though, Congress will step in to neuter them completely on this score, and the current Wild West character of 501(c)4 fundraising will continue unabated.

Bonus Mother's Day Cat Blogging

| Sun May. 12, 2013 8:01 AM PDT

Happy Mother's Day! What better way to celebrate than to post a picture of my mother's cats? These are the two sibs, Tillamook and Ditto, claiming dibs on my mother's favorite chair. Because, after all, Mother's Day goes just so far, right?

Benghazi Talking Points: "A Bureaucratic Knife Fight Pitting State vs. CIA"

| Fri May. 10, 2013 7:14 PM PDT

Earlier today, my basic take on the Benghazi talking points was that they exposed some "unseemly bureaucratic squabbling combined with the usual mushiness that you get when an interagency process produces a series of drafts of sensitive information for public consumption." Glenn Kessler has more on this:

This basically was a bureaucratic knife fight, pitting the State Department against the CIA.

....First, some important context: Although the ambassador was killed, the Benghazi “consulate” was not a consulate at all but basically a secret CIA operation which included an effort to round up shoulder-launched missiles. In fact, only seven of the 30 Americans evacuated from Benghazi had any connection to the State Department; the rest were affiliated with the CIA....So, from the State Department perspective, this was an attack on a CIA operation.

....The talking points were originally developed by the CIA....[and clearly imply] that State screwed up, even though internally, it was known that this was a CIA operation. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland especially objects to the reference to previous warnings, saying it “could be abused by members [of Congress] to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings.”

....The final version of the talking points shows what happened: Just about everything was cut, leaving virtually nothing. The reference to “consulate” was also deleted, replaced by “diplomatic post.” From a bureaucratic perspective, it may have seemed like the best possible solution at the time. From a political perspective, it turned out to be a disaster.

I think this sounds almost certainly right: in a set of talking points that was supposed to be about what happened, CIA tried to add a paragraph that deflected blame for the debacle elsewhere. State objected since they considered this a CIA operation in the first place. Read the whole thing for Kessler's full explanation. And see David Corn here for his take on why today's news is bad for the White House even though the substance is thin: "This is not much of cover-up. There is no evidence the White House is hiding the truth about what occurred in Benghazi....But the White House has indeed been caught not telling the full story."

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Friday Cat Blogging - 10 May 2013

| Fri May. 10, 2013 11:55 AM PDT

As you can see, Domino is quite enjoying our 400 ppm world. She was rolling around in the sunshine yesterday while Marian pulled a few weeds, and then a dog walked by. This very much got her attention. She's OK with 400 ppm, but not so much with dogs.

Need more cats? Or, more accurately, do you need more cat? Click here for video proof that big cats like boxes every bit as much as your average housecat likes them.

Yesterday Was 400 ppm Day

| Fri May. 10, 2013 11:34 AM PDT

Well, we finally did it. We hit a new carbon dioxide milestone yesterday:

Scientific monitors reported that the gas had reached an average daily level that surpassed 400 parts per million — just an odometer moment in one sense, but also a sobering reminder that decades of efforts to bring human-produced emissions under control are faltering.

The best available evidence suggests the amount of the gas in the air has not been this high for at least three million years, before humans evolved, and scientists believe the rise portends large changes in the climate and the level of the sea.

This is from NOAA. The reading from the Scripps instruments for yesterday was 399.73 because they use local time, not Greenwich time. This gives them a slightly different 24-hour window that defines a "day."

But not to worry. They'll hit 400 soon too. And by next year, pretty much every day will be above 400. Congratulations, homo sapiens!

Chart of the Day: Student Loan Debt Crowding Out Mortgages

| Fri May. 10, 2013 10:37 AM PDT

A new report from the New York Fed describes a disturbing trend: student loan debt has increased so much that it's crowding out the ability of college graduates to buy homes. As the chart on the right shows, young workers with student loan debt—most of whom are college grads—used to take on mortgage debt at a higher rate than the rest of the population. This made sense, since they generally had higher incomes and better career prospects.

But that's been changing over the past few years. In 2012, for the first time, those without student loan debt actually took out mortgages at a higher rate than those with student loan debt. Annie Lowrey writes about this in the New York Times today:

“It is a new thing, a big social experiment that we’ve accidentally decided to engage in,” said Kevin Carey, the director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, a research group based in Washington. “Let’s send a whole class of people out into their professional lives with a negative net worth. Not starting at zero, but starting at a minus that is often measured in the tens of thousands of dollars. Those minus signs have psychological impact, I suspect. They might have a dollars-and-cents impact in what you can afford, too.”

Obviously there are other things going on here too. The housing crash may have had more of an impact on college grads, who decided to stay out of the market until it hit bottom. They also might have internalized the lessons of high debt levels better.

But spiraling loan debt probably plays a role too. This is one of those issues that continues to bedevil me, since I think there's a good case to be made that college is something individuals should pay for. It's going to reward them with lots of extra income, after all, so why should anyone else help subsidize it?

But as reasonable as that sounds, it's self-defeating in the end. Yeah, a college education is a boon for the person getting the education. But it's even more of a boon for society overall to have a big pool of college-educated workers. And it's a boon to have college-educated workers who don't spend the first decade of their working lives in a defensive crouch. This is an accidental experiment that's gone too far. The problem is, I'm not sure what we should do about it. Returning to the era in which state universities provided good quality, low-cost educations would sure be a start, though.

Finally, a Real Scandal for Conservatives to Chew On

| Fri May. 10, 2013 9:40 AM PDT

Hey, guess what? Conservatives now have a real scandal to tout! They've been complaining for a while that the IRS singled out tea party groups for audits, and it turns out they were right. Today, the IRS fessed up:

Organizations were singled out because they included the words "tea party" or "patriot" in their applications for tax-exempt status, said Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS division that oversees tax-exempt groups…"That was wrong. That was absolutely incorrect, it was insensitive and it was inappropriate. That's not how we go about selecting cases for further review," Lerner said at a conference sponsored by the American Bar Association.

"The IRS would like to apologize for that," she added.

Lerner said the practice was initiated by low-level workers in Cincinnati and was not motivated by political bias. After her talk, she told The AP that no high level IRS officials knew about the practice. She did not say when they found out. About 75 groups were inappropriately targeted. None had their tax-exempt status revoked, Lerner said.

In this case, conservatives will undoubtedly demand more information about how this happened, who was involved, and when top officials found out about it. And this time, they'll be right to.