Kevin Drum - May 2013

Exciting New Book From Paul Ryan Will Be Like Every Other Right-Wing Book of the Past Decade

| Wed May. 22, 2013 11:42 AM PDT

Paul Ryan is writing a book!

So far, Ryan has been doing the writing by himself. The early theme of the draft is a broad discussion of American renewal, with an emphasis on the Republican future and the party’s need to articulate what he calls the “American idea.”

So....it's going to be like every other book ever written by a conservative in the past decade. I can hardly wait.

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Quote of the Day: The Pervasiveness of Bad Ideas

| Wed May. 22, 2013 9:51 AM PDT

From Mark Thoma, commenting on Paul Krugman's evisceration of sloppy and ill-informed counterintuitiveness:

The degree to which bad/false ideas can be used to support political goals is still pretty frustrating.

I don't think I really have anything to add to that. I don't expect it to change anytime soon, though.

Making Deposits in the Sleep Bank

| Wed May. 22, 2013 9:36 AM PDT

Today, the Wall Street Journal tells us that, within limits, extra sleep can make up for missed sleep. Plus this:

Recent data suggests that banking sleep in advance of a long night can actually offset upcoming sleep deprivation. "If you knew you were going to give birth on a particular day, for example, you could sleep for 10 hours a day for multiple days before the event, and be fine," he says. Just plan ahead.

Just plan ahead! Who are these people, anyway? Can most of us really just choose to sleep ten hours for a few days in a row even if we don't really need it? Hell, I can't do it even when I do need it. Which has been for approximately the past 20 years.

On the other hand, I'm also pretty unlikely to be giving birth anytime soon, so I guess it all evens out.

Here's How to Fool People Into Thinking They Know More Than They Do

| Wed May. 22, 2013 9:20 AM PDT

Which do you learn more from? A presenter with good speaking skills and professional visual aids, or someone reading badly from prepared notes? Oddly enough, a team of psychologists actually decided to test this. Their test subjects, as usual, were university students:

Afterwards the students answered questions about how much they felt they had learned. As expected, students who had watched the lecturer with better presentation skills expected to remember more of the material, believed that they understood the material better, and rated their interest and motivation more highly than the students who watched the dud instructor.

The twist came when the students took a test that investigated their memory and understanding of the Calico cats concept. The students who watched the skillful (or “fluent”) lecturer barely outperformed the students who watched the “disfluent speaker.” But they did much poorer than they expected to do, whereas the other group did about as well as they expected.

If these results hold up, it means that flashy, TED-style lectures don't actually impart any more knowledge than boring old-school lectures. But they do make you more confident that you learned something. Is that worthwhile all by itself? Or is it better to have a proper grasp of just how much you really know? I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

POSTSCRIPT: And what's this business about calico cats? Well, that was the subject of the test lecture. Roughly speaking, cats are white by default, and their two sex chromosomes each add a color to their coat. Color is carried on the X chromosome, so female (XX) cats can potentially be tricolored (orange, black, and white). Male (XY) cats max out at two colors (white plus one other). So with rare exceptions, only female cats can be calicos.

POSTSCRIPT 2: Are you thirsting for a political angle to this? Well, Fox News is pretty well known for pioneering a much flashier, more visual approach to the news. Does this turn Fox watchers into tedious blowhards who think they know more than anyone else even though they don't? I report, you decide.

Looking For a Benghazi Talking Points Villain? It Was David Petraeus, Not Barack Obama

| Tue May. 21, 2013 9:31 PM PDT

After reading through the Benghazi "talking points" emails and doing some additional reporting, Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung confirm what's been pretty obvious for a while now. The House committee that originally asked for the talking points wanted only some basic facts so that no one would mistakenly disclose classified information to the press, but CIA Director David Petraeus—"a master of the craft of media cultivation"—understood the reputational stakes immediately and acted accordingly:

A close reading of recently released government e-mails that were sent during the editing process, and interviews with senior officials from several government agencies, reveal Petraeus’s early role and ambitions in going well beyond the committee’s request, apparently to produce a set of talking points favorable to his image and his agency.

The information Petraeus ordered up when he returned to his Langley office that morning included far more than the minimalist version that Ruppersberger had requested. It included early classified intelligence assessments of who might be responsible for the attack and an account of prior CIA warnings — information that put Petraeus at odds with the State Department, the FBI and senior officials within his own agency.

This was especially galling to the other participants in the review process because (a) the Benghazi annex was a CIA installation and CIA was responsible for its security, (b) the talking points were supposed to be limited to what we knew about the attack, and (c) the whole point of producing the talking points was to avoid endangering the investigation by revealing classified information about suspects and methods.

In the end, as Wilson and Young point out, "The only government entity that did not object to the detailed talking points produced with Petraeus’s input was the White House, which played the role of mediator in the bureaucratic fight that at various points included the CIA’s top lawyer and the agency’s deputy director expressing opposition to what the director wanted." This entire controversy has been much ado about nothing from the beginning, but if you absolutely insist on singling out a villain, the choice is now pretty obvious. David Petraeus was the Machiavellian manipulator of the narrative here, not Barack Obama.

The Most Absurd Religious War in Geek History is in the News Today

| Tue May. 21, 2013 4:53 PM PDT

The creator of the GIF, Steve Wilhite, caused a firestorm today by weighing in on the correct pronunciation of his creation:

He is proud of the GIF, but remains annoyed that there is still any debate over the pronunciation of the format. “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” Mr. Wilhite said. “They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”

This is not the first time Wilhite has handed down this decree. It's never been the end of the story before, and needless to say, it was not the end of the story this time either. But I bring this up not to declare my own allegiance, but to ask a different question. I need some honest input from old timers here.

As near as I can remember, controversy over the pronunciation of GIF has existed practically from the day of its birth. Nevertheless, my recollection is that 20 years ago, most people pronounced it JIF. The hard-G contingent was a distinct minority. But that seems to have changed over time. Today, my sense is just the opposite: most people pronounce it with a hard G, and the Jiffies are now a small rump fighting a rearguard action.

Everyone has such strong opinions about what the pronunciation should be that it's hard to solicit opinions on the purely empirical question of how it has been pronounced. But I'm going to ask anyway. Please don't bother answering unless you were born before 1970. For those of you who were, and especially for those of you who worked in the tech industry in the 80s and 90s, what's your recollection? Has the favored pronunciation changed, or has the hard G always been the more popular choice?

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How the World's Dullest Story Became the Target of a Massive Leak Investigation

| Tue May. 21, 2013 2:07 PM PDT

Four years ago, Fox News reporter James Rosen wrote a story saying the CIA had learned that North Korea planned to carry out a nuclear test if the UN approved additional sanctions:

What's more, Pyongyang's next nuclear detonation is but one of four planned actions the Central Intelligence Agency has learned, through sources inside North Korea, that the regime of Kim Jong-Il intends to take — but not announce — once the Security Council resolution is officially passed, likely on Friday. The other three actions include the reprocessing of all of the North's spent plutonium fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium; a major escalation in the North's uranium-enrichment program; and the launching of another Taepodong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile.

The Justice Department immediately launched a leak investigation, which culminated in charges against Rosen's source, Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, an analyst at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who had been detailed to the State Department. As part of this investigation, DOJ tracked Rosen's movements and subpoenaed his phone records. Journalists are apoplectic about this, but Jack Shafer wonders just what Rosen thought he was doing:

Although Rosen's story asserts that it is "withholding some details about the sources and methods ... to avoid compromising sensitive overseas operations," the basic detail that the CIA has "sources inside North Korea" privy to its future plans is very compromising stuff all by itself. As Rosen continues, "U.S. spymasters regard as one of the world's most difficult to penetrate."

Hmmm. There's really no other way to get information this detailed except from a source inside North Korea, so it's not clear to me that Rosen really gave anything away with that line. At the same time, it's not clear why Rosen published this story at all. As Michael Tomasky says:

No offense intended to Rosen, but...I don't even see where that's such big news. Of course North Korea was going to do something to protest a UN sanctions vote. Do what? Well, missile tests is what it's been doing for the last several years now to scare people, so...a missile test. I mean, if I'd read that on June 11, 2009, I'd have stopped after three paragraphs and thought tell me something I don't know. So why was the government so up in arms about it in the first place?

Tomasky's point is that it's outrageous that DOJ would go ballistic over a story that basically revealed nothing. But that misses the point. The story is completely uninteresting. And yet, by its very publication, it alerted North Korea to a possible mole in high places. So why would you run a piece like this? Here's Josh Marshall:

It’s difficult for me not to be more shocked by the self-interested preening of fellow journalists over a comically inept reporter and source than the arguable dangers this episode holds for press freedoms. Indeed, I’ve tried and failed. I can’t.

I don't like the fact that the Obama administration has been so aggressive at investigating leaks, and so aggressive at targeting reporters when they do. But it's stuff like this that prevents the American public from sympathizing much. When they look at a case like this, most of them don't see the government eroding a reporter's First Amendment rights. They see a reporter recklessly divulging legitimately sensitive information and destroying a career in the process —and apparently doing it just for the hell of it.

I still don't condone the DOJ actions in this case—especially since they basically had Kim's confession and didn't really need Rosen's phone records—but at the same time I'd sure be interested in hearing Rosen's defense. What was he thinking when he did this?

Are Republicans Getting Ready to Shoot Themselves in the Foot?

| Tue May. 21, 2013 11:34 AM PDT

Greg Sargent has been arguing for a while that Republicans run the risk of turning off voters if they go overboard on scandalmania. A new Washington Post poll bolsters his argument:

The Post poll finds a majority believes the Obama administration is trying to “cover up” facts about the IRS scandal and that a plurality thinks it is trying to cover up Benghazi facts. These numbers are at odds with yesterday’s CNN poll, which found more Americans think Obama is being truthful. But that aside, in spite of these negative findings about the scandals, the Post poll also finds that Obama’s approval rating is holding steady, at 51 percent, and the economy may be the reason why: Majorities believe the economy is beginning to recover and are optimistic about where the economy will go in the next year.

I'll play devil's advocate here. First, I think 1998 was probably unique: The nature of the scandal was clear to everyone and a majority of Americans simply didn't think it was very serious. The nature of our current set of contretemps isn't yet clear, and the Post poll makes it plain that most Americans do take them seriously. As we learn more, there's every chance that the public could view them as even more serious. In fact, they probably will. After all, a big pile of scandals in the sixth year of a presidency usually spells trouble. 1998 is the sole exception, and I wouldn't hang too much on it.

Second, there's overreach and then there's overreach. In 1998, Republicans didn't just go a little overboard, they actually impeached Bill Clinton. As long as Republicans steer clear of impeachment this time around, they should be OK. 

Third, I'd like to see the crosstabs for the Post poll. How partisan are the results? Where do independents stand? If this is already a pure partisan battle, it won't go anywhere. But if Democrats are wavering, or if independents are mostly agreeing with Republicans, that could spell trouble.

Finally, approval ratings have a certain amount of inertia. It's possible that there just hasn't been time yet for all of this stuff to affect Obama's approval rating. It may well start to suffer in the coming months, even if the economy does keep improving.

Do I actually believe all this? Sort of. But Republicans still have several problems. First, they're having a hard time tying anything serious to President Obama, and I don't expect that to change. Second, even if they avoid going down the impeachment rabbit hole, they show all the signs of a party just itching to shoot itself in the foot. The bogus email leaks are a case in point: you lose the press when you pull stunts like that. Finally, this is all happening too early. Maybe Republicans can keep up the outrage for a few months, but a year and a half? I really have a hard time seeing that.

Right now, Republicans are benefiting from a press corps that's offended by the AP subpoenas and Jay Carney's evasions over the Benghazi talking points. But their pique won't last forever. In the end, Sargent is probably right: these "scandals" are going to fade, and Republicans are going to get more and more desperate to keep them in the spotlight. That's pretty likely to lead them down a road to disaster.

Congress Can Make Apple Pay Any Taxes It Wants To

| Tue May. 21, 2013 9:17 AM PDT

Sen. Rand Paul, obviously trying to follow up on the roaring success of his "Stand With Rand" filibuster, decided to go all #slatepitchy yesterday during hearings that revealed the stupendous extent of Apple's tax avoidance strategies:

I am offended by the tone and tenor of this hearing. I am offended by a $4 trillion government bullying, berating and badgering one of America's greatest success stories.

....I am offended by the spectacle of dragging in here executives from an American company that is not doing anything illegal. If anyone should be on trial here, it should be Congress.

I frankly think the Committee should apologize to Apple. I frankly think Congress should be on trial here for creating a bizarre and byzantine tax code that runs into the tens of thousands of pages, for creating a tax code that simply doesn't compete with the rest of the world.

I'm amused that a congressional investigation becomes "bullying, berating and badgering" when the topic happens to be taxes, but I'll allow Paul his histrionics. Because, roughly speaking, he's right. Congress sets the rules, and if they want to make sure Apple pays its taxes, all they have to do is write laws that require it.

That said, Paul's outrage is more than a little hard to take here since it's people like him that have been so successful at preventing Congress from writing a decent corporate tax code in the first place. His only concern is slashing taxes, not rationalizing them, and if someone introduced a bill to make Apple pay its fair share into the voracious federal maw, Paul would undoubtedly be grandstanding yet again with another filibuster. He doesn't really deserve to be taken very seriously on this subject.

Still, it's true that, in theory, Congress can address this anytime it wants. They set the rules, and they don't really have much standing to complain when companies exploit those rules to pay as little in taxes as possible. After all, what do you expect them to do?

The Fight For Our Precious Bodily Fluids

| Tue May. 21, 2013 8:17 AM PDT

With Oregon in the healthcare news so much lately, it's only fitting that Portland is holding a vote today on water fluoridation. Sarah Kliff reports:

The fluoride vote will happen Tuesday and the most recent polls have the anti-fluoride camp up 50 percent to 43 percent. If Portland voters reject fluoridated water, it will follow in the path of many cities before it. Forty-four cities around the world — largely in the United States, Australia and Canada — have passed anti-fluoridation policies this year, according to the Fluoride Action Network.

I've always had a bit of a soft spot for fluoridation opponents. Not because I think fluoridation is harmful or ineffective. The evidence is overwhelming that it's neither, and Portland would be nuts to vote against it. And not because I have any sympathy for the John Birch Society loons who think fluoridation is some kind of global conspiracy theory.

No, it's just because I have a bit of sympathy for the slippery slope argument. This argument is simple: The goal of a water agency should be to provide clean water, period. So chlorine is fine because that's part of the core mission of making sure water is clean. But once you decide you can add other stuff because it provides some kind of societal benefit, where does it stop? If you can add fluoride, why not statins? Or anything else that a majority of the population thinks is a good idea?

Now, that said, I've never had more than a bit of sympathy for slippery slope arguments of any kind. The key question is whether or not we're actually likely to fall down the slope. We're human beings with intelligence and agency, after all, not rocks on a hillside. I believe, for example, that human beings are naturally cruel to outsiders, especially during war, so we need the strongest possible taboos against torture and ill treatment of prisoners. Even the smallest crack is likely to open the floodgates of rage and revenge. But fluoridation isn't like that. Are people really likely to start filling up their municipal water supplies with anything that sounds good once they've taken the fatal first step with fluoride? I don't think so, and history suggests I'm right not to worry too much about that. So fluoridation is fine.

Still, I sort of get the fear. And for those of you who think the fear is just some right-wing rube thing, take a look at the map on the right. The areas of the country with the highest fluoridation rates? The South and the Midwest. The areas with the lowest rates? The Northeast and the Pacific Coast.