Kevin Drum - May 2013

Here's Why the Government Went Ballistic Over the AP Leak

| Fri May 17, 2013 12:01 PM EDT

The subpoena of AP phone records over what seems like a fairly routine leak has puzzled me from the start. Why did the administration go so ballistic over this? Today, the LA Times helps me understand what was going on. Apparently the leak compromised the efforts of an al-Qaeda mole who had been recruited by British intelligence and was one of our prized assets:

His access led to the U.S. drone strike that killed a senior Al Qaeda leader, Fahd Mohammed Ahmed Quso, on May 6, 2012. U.S. officials say Quso helped direct the terrorist attack that killed 17 sailors aboard the U.S. guided-missile destroyer Cole in a Yemeni harbor in October 2000.

The informant also convinced members of the Yemeni group that he wanted to blow up a U.S. passenger jet on the first anniversary of the U.S. attack that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. They outfitted him with the latest version of an underwear bomb designed to pass metal detectors and other airport safeguards, officials say.

The informant left Yemen and delivered the device to his handlers, and it ultimately went to the FBI's laboratory in Quantico, Va. Intelligence officials hoped to send him back to Yemen to help track more bomb makers and planners, but the leak made that impossible, and sent Al Qaeda scrambling to cover its tracks, officials said.

Jack Shafer speculates a bit further:

The AP states in the article that it published only after being told by “officials” that the original “concerns were allayed.”....That may be the case, but the government was still incensed by the leak. In fact, it appears that officials were livid. As my Reuters colleagues Mark Hosenball and Tabassum Zakaria reported last night, the government found the leak so threatening that it opened a leak investigation before the AP ran its story.

Now, what would make the Obama administration so furious? My guess is it wasn’t the substance of the AP story that has exasperated the government but that the AP found a source or sources that spilled information about an ongoing intelligence operation and that even grander leaks might surge into the press corps’ rain barrels.

And that's the key. The AP story itself didn't mention anything about a double agent. But apparently, the fact that AP had found itself a leaker got officials scared that the existence of the mole might become public. And as Shafer documents at length, that's exactly what happened:

What not for the U.S. government to like here?

To begin with, the perpetrators of a successful double-agent operation against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would not want to brag about their coup for years. Presumably, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will now use the press reports to walk the dog back to determine whose misplaced trust allowed the agent to penetrate it. That will make the next operation more difficult. Other intelligence operations — and we can assume they are up and running — may also become compromised as the press reports give al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula new clues.

Likewise, the next time the CIA or foreign intelligence agency tries to recruit a double agent, the candidate will judge his handlers wretched secret keepers, regard the assignment a death mission and seek employment elsewhere.

Last, the leaks of information — including those from the lips of Brennan, Clarke and King — signal to potential allies that America can’t be trusted with secrets. “Leaks related to national security can put people at risk,” as Obama put it today in a news conference.

The ultimate audience for the leaks investigation may not be domestic but foreign. Obviously, the government wants to root out the secretspillers. But a country can’t expect foreign intelligence agencies to cooperate if it blows cover of such an operation. I’d wager that the investigations have only begun.

You can decide for yourself whether the government's reaction to all this was reasonable and proper. But for the first time I feel like I understand what might have motivated them, and I thought I'd pass that along.

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Competitive Pricing in Oregon is a Test Case for Obamacare

| Fri May 17, 2013 9:32 AM EDT

Bad news about the implementation of Obamacare seems to pop up relentlessly. So here's some good news to balance it out. Once the exchanges get up and running, insurance companies for the first time will be offering similar products with very public prices, and in Oregon those prices vary from $169 a month to $422 a month for the same standard plan. Here's what happened last week when those prices went online:

On Thursday, a comparison of proposed 2014 health premiums became public online, causing two insurers to request do-overs to lower their rates even before the state determines whether they're justified.

The unusual development was sparked by a comparison that used to be impossible because plan benefits varied so widely. But under the federal reforms that take effect Jan. 1, health insurance is mandated and every insurer must offer certain standard plans.

....Providence Health Plan on Wednesday asked to lower its requested rates by 15 percent. Gary Walker, a Providence spokesman, says the "primary driver" was a realization that the plan's cost projections were incorrect. But he conceded a desire to be competitive was part of it.

A Family Care Health Plans official on Thursday said the insurer will ask the state for even greater decrease in requested rates. CEO Jeff Heatherington says the company realized its analysts were too pessimistic after seeing online that its proposed premiums were the highest.

The news isn't all good. Overall, rates in the individual market are likely to go up because insurance companies have to cover those with preexisting conditions and are required to offer a minimum set of benefits. But transparency is also likely to drive prices of some policies down. That's competition, baby.

The US Murder Rate Is on Track to Be Lowest in a Century

| Fri May 17, 2013 12:32 AM EDT

This is fairly preliminary data, but Rick Nevin reports that if current trends keep up, we'll end 2013 with the murder rate in America at its lowest rate in over a century.

Analytically speaking, murder is an especially interesting crime because we have pretty good homicide statistics going all the way back to 1900. Most other crimes have only been tracked since about 1960. And if you look at the murder rate in the chart below (the red line), you see that it follows an odd double-hump pattern: rising in the first third of the century, reaching a peak around 1930; then declining until about 1960; then rising again, reaching a second peak around 1990. It's been dropping ever since then.

This is the exact same pattern we see in lead ingestion among small children, offset by 21 years (the black line). Lead exposure rises in the late 1800s, during the heyday of lead paint, reaching a peak around 1910; then declines through World War II; and then begins rising again during our postwar love affair with big cars that burned high-octane leaded gasoline. Lead finally enters its final decline in the mid-70s when we begin the switch to unleaded gasoline.

This is powerful evidence in favor of the theory that lead exposure in childhood produces higher rates of violent crime in adulthood. It's one thing to have two simple curves that match up well. That could just be a coincidence. But to have two unusual double-humped curves that match up well is highly unlikely unless there really is an association. Put that together with all the statistical evidence from other countries; plus the prospective studies that have tracked lead exposure in individual children from birth; plus the MRI scans showing the actual locations of brain damage in adults who were exposed to lead as children—put all that together and you have a pretty compelling set of evidence. Lead exposure doesn't just lower IQs and hurt educational development. It also increases violent tendencies later in life. If we want less crime 20 years from now, the best thing we can do today is clean up the last of our lead.

It's Official: Those Bogus Email Leaks Came From Republicans

| Thu May 16, 2013 8:59 PM EDT

It's not as if we didn't know this already, but today Major Garrett made it official: last week's leaks that misquoted the Benghazi emails came directly from Republicans. Here's the report on the CBS Evening News:

On Friday, Republicans leaked what they said was a quote from Rhodes: "We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don't want to undermine the FBI investigation." But it turns out that in the actual email, Rhodes did not mention the State Department.

....Republicans also provided what they said was a quote from an email written by State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland. The Republican version quotes Nuland discussing, "The penultimate point is a paragraph talking about all the previous warnings provided by the Agency (CIA) about al-Qaeda's presence and activities of al-Qaeda." The actual email from Nuland says: "The penultimate point could be abused by members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings."

The CIA agreed with the concerns raised by the State Department and revised the talking points to make them less specific than the CIA's original version, eliminating references to al Qaeda and affiliates and earlier security warnings. There is no evidence that the White House orchestrated the changes.

So here's what happened. Republicans in Congress saw copies of these emails two months ago and did nothing with them. It was obvious that they showed little more than routine interagency haggling. Then, riding high after last week's Benghazi hearings, someone got the bright idea of leaking two isolated tidbits and mischaracterizing them in an effort to make the State Department look bad. Apparently they figured it was a twofer: they could stick a shiv into the belly of the White House and they could then badger them to release the entire email chain, knowing they never would.

But it was typical GOP overreach. To their surprise, the White House took Republicans up on their demand to make the entire email chain public, thus making it clear to the press that they had been burned. And now reporters are letting us all know who was behind it.

This has always been the Republican Party's biggest risk with this stuff: that they don't know when to quit. On Benghazi, when it became obvious that they didn't have a smoking gun, they got desperate and tried to invent one. On the IRS, their problem is that Democrats are as outraged as they are. This will force them to make ever more outrageous accusations in an effort to find some way to draw a contrast. And on the AP phone records, they have to continually dance around the fact that they basically approve of subpoenas like this.

A sane party would take a deep breath and decide to move on to other things. But the tea partiers have the scent of blood now, and it's driving them crazy. Thus the spectacle of Michele Bachmann suggesting today that it's time to start impeachment proceedings.

The GOP's adults can't keep their lunatic fringe on a leash, which means it's only a matter of time until they make fools of themselves on all three of the pseudoscandals that are currently lighting up the airwaves. The Republicans have met the enemy, and it is them.

Republicans Debate Their Ransom Demand For Next Hostage-Taking Opportunity

| Thu May 16, 2013 6:01 PM EDT

Lori Montgomery reports today that House Republicans no longer plan to block a debt-limit increase that would force the government into default. Hooray! They do plan to ask for a pound of flesh in return, though. But what? They met yesterday to spitball some ideas:

At the meeting, 39 lawmakers lined up at microphones to offer suggestions. They ranged from tax and entitlement reform to approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to passage of a bill that would require congressional approval for any federal regulation that would impose more than $100 million in new costs on business.

At least one person wanted to take on late-term abortion in the wake of the conviction of Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell. Others suggested repeal or delay of Obama’s health-care initiative. But for the most part, lawmakers tried to be “realistic,” aides said, suggesting measures that could reasonably be expected to both improve the economy and pass the Democratic Senate.

Well, I'm glad to hear that Republicans plan on being realistic—though the fact that they're discussing this at all implies that they are, in fact, willing to block a debt limit increase and force the government into default. You can't have it both ways, after all. A hostage only does you any good if you make a credible threat to shoot him unless the ransom is paid.

So let's make one thing clear: President Obama would be insane to even hint that he's willing to bargain over this. That would institutionalize the whole idea that the debt ceiling should be a grand hostage-taking tool every time it comes up. This time around, he just needs to say no, and stick to it. I'm even willing to toss my principles in the gutter and go the trillion-dollar platinum coin route if that turns out to be the only option available. Enough's enough.

The Psychology — And the Cynicism — Behind Austerity

| Thu May 16, 2013 2:57 PM EDT

In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, Paul Krugman tries to explain the psychology that produces the impulse toward austerity as the cure for economic recessions:

Everyone loves a morality play. “For the wages of sin is death” is a much more satisfying message than “Shit happens.” We all want events to have meaning.

When applied to macroeconomics, this urge to find moral meaning creates in all of us a predisposition toward believing stories that attribute the pain of a slump to the excesses of the boom that precedes it—and, perhaps, also makes it natural to see the pain as necessary, part of an inevitable cleansing process....By contrast, Keynesian economics rests fundamentally on the proposition that macroeconomics isn’t a morality play—that depressions are essentially a technical malfunction. As the Great Depression deepened, Keynes famously declared that “we have magneto trouble”—i.e., the economy’s troubles were like those of a car with a small but critical problem in its electrical system, and the job of the economist is to figure out how to repair that technical problem.

....I’d argue that Keynes was overwhelmingly right in his approach, but there’s no question that it’s an approach many people find deeply unsatisfying as an emotional matter. And so we shouldn’t find it surprising that many popular interpretations of our current troubles return, whether the authors know it or not, to the instinctive, pre-Keynesian style of dwelling on the excesses of the boom rather than on the failures of the slump.

I think Krugman is subtly wrong here. Or maybe not all that subtly. In the United States, at least, I'd argue that plenty of ordinary people view the economy the way he describes it here. They think of the macroeconomy as merely a jumbo version of a household economy, and they know that when a household overspends and goes into debt, it really does have to pay a price. It has to cut back on consumption and start paying down its debt. The moral conclusions from this are both obvious and justifiable, and they figure the same thing is true of the national economy.

But is this what elites believe? Some do, probably. But I think for most of them, austerity is just a convenient facade. Their real motivation is simpler: they want to cut spending on the poor. Unfortunately, they've learned that this appeals only to voters who are already hardcore conservatives. To win over a broader audience, they need to appeal to the conventional view that a high debt level betrays a lack of national discipline and needs to be corrected at a national level. Like a household that spent too much redecorating its kitchen with a home equity loan, the country has spent too much and now needs to cut back. For most people, this argument is far more palatable than a simple appeal to cut spending.

So yes: a lot of people view the economy as a morality play. But among conservative elites, I suspect there's less of this than you might think. Rather, it's used primarily as a cynical way of getting the spending cuts they want without overtly bashing the poor.

POSTSCRIPT: And what about liberal elites? Beats me, but if I had to guess I'd say that too many of them were burned by the 70s and have remained in a fetal crouch ever since. For them, every recession is a rerun of the 70s and needs the same kind of medicine if we want to recover. It's kind of sad, really.

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Guest Workers and Farm Labor: A Followup

| Thu May 16, 2013 12:17 PM EDT

Yesterday I wrote a post about a study showing that even when unemployment was high, native-born Americans weren't willing to take jobs picking crops. "Most Americans just aren't willing to do backbreaking agricultural labor for a bit above minimum wage," I said, "and if the wage rate were much higher the farms would no longer be competitive."

I got some pushback on this this. First, from reader BE:

Competitive against whom? If immigrant labor weren't available and Americans weren't willing to work that hard for that wage, the competitive landscape would change. Some crops might become less competitive relative to other crops and food prices might rise a bit (not much, though: according to the USDA, all farm and agribusiness wages account for less than 3% of food costs), but since farms would be competing against other farms, the change wouldn't make farms uncompetitive against each other.

That's a good point, though that 3 percent figure is an average that includes processed food. It's higher for fresh food, and higher for some crops than for others. That said, raising the wage of field workers wouldn't raise overall food prices very much. Food from other countries would become more competitive than it is now, but maybe not by very much.

Next up is reader DS, who makes the same point plus another one:

Farm laborers in Australia make much more than American ones. And yet they still have a functional agricultural sector. It turns out that allowing companies to import an unlimited number of foreign workers desperate to work at a wage of epsilon will create shitty working conditions and low wages!

Labor costs as a percentage of consumer cost of most fruits and veggies are pretty tiny. Even for fruits like raspberries, they're on the order of 15-20%, and for most crops they're much lower. You could double or triple labor prices and, even if all the costs are passed off to consumers and there are no productivity boosts, there still wouldn't be particularly large increases in produce prices.

This is not a subject that I've spent a lot of time on, so I'm mostly passing this along without comment.

Filibuster Mania Hits the Labor Department

| Thu May 16, 2013 11:34 AM EDT

Steve Benen rounds up the last few months of filibuster-mania for us:

In recent months, we've already seen the first-ever filibuster of a cabinet nominee and a filibuster of a CIA nominee. Republicans have filibustered judicial nominees they don't like and judicial nominees they do like. GOP senators have promised to use filibusters to stop the Obama administration from enforcing the law as it relates to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and to stop the president's nominee to lead the ATF and the EPA. All of this represents a level of abuse without precedent, and blocking Perez would only add weight to the argument that the status quo is untenable.

Next up is Tom Perez, Obama's nominee to head up the Labor Department. Republicans have delayed and obstructed and played games with the committee rules, all the time trying to create a sense of scandal among the Fox News set with some manufactured outrage over an obscure housing case. But Perez's nomination has finally reached the Senate floor, and now it's time for them to decide if they're going to filibuster yet another high-level executive branch appointment.

I halfway hope they do. Eventually, something needs to shake up centrist Dems from their dogmatic slumber and get them mad enough to change the filibuster rules. A few more like this might just do it.

Should President Obama Fire Eric Holder?

| Thu May 16, 2013 10:56 AM EDT

Michael Tomasky wants Eric Holder's head on a platter:

Did I, as a liberal columnist who called immediately on President Obama to seek Eric Holder’s resignation over the Associated Press scandal, provide aid and comfort to the enemy? First of all, I don’t care—what happened struck me as a serious abuse of power....And second, no, I don’t think I provided them aid and comfort anyway. In fact I think recent history shows beyond a doubt that foot-dragging and avoidance are the true aid-and-comforters; they always, always, always make these things worse.

…Obama may want to keep Holder because he thinks he’s a fine attorney general, and if that’s the case, well, then I guess it’s the case. But if he thinks this scandal is bad and Holder’s response is lame, he should cut him loose, and the sooner the better. I dispute in the strongest possible terms the mentality that says, “But that would just be giving the GOP a scalp.” No. It would be showing the American people, most of whom don’t think in terms of scalps, that some things cross your own moral line. It invests you with character.

A couple of things leap immediately to mind. First, I suspect that Obama heartily approves of what the Justice Department did in the AP leak investigation. It's probably a fantasy to believe that either Holder or DOJ were off the reservation here. Second, I suspect that the American public doesn't view this as a scandal in the first place, so firing Holder wouldn't do Obama any good. The public's view of the press is pretty dim—television news in particular ranks right up there with banks and HMOs—and I'll bet a sizable majority actively approves of reining in those elitist media bellyachers who are constantly hiding behind the skirts of the First Amendment as they carelessly compromise national security by publishing leaks of terrorist investigations.

Needless to say, this isn't my view. But the media is in a huge lather about the AP case because it affects the media, and I have a feeling that we journalist types are vastly overestimating how strongly the public is on our side over this. Sometime soon I imagine we'll get a few polls with a few different question wordings that will give us some idea of where we stand. Just don't be surprised if it turns out the public doesn't think as highly of us as we ourselves do.

New Frontiers in Stigmatizing Others

| Thu May 16, 2013 9:57 AM EDT

Walking down the street the other day, Keith Humphreys ran into two people who were carrying on animated conversations about societal ills to no one in particular:

One works as a cashier at the pharmacy I use and the other is a long-term psychiatric patient with schizophrenia. One had on a barely visible Bluetooth, the other has been engaged in discussions with imagined others long before the technology was invented.

But without my prior contacts with these two people, I would never have known that one of them had a serious mental illness. These fortuitous encounters make me wonder if these new technologies have an unintended but welcome destigmatizing function. Where before people might have shunned a mentally ill person who seemed to be talking to himself, today they usually assume that he’s just chatting on a BlueTooth or similar device.

Unintended consequences! But I've had the same thought myself, though I confess sometimes in the opposite direction. Perhaps the mentally ill are now being unfairly stigmatized as political obsessives who watch too much cable TV?