Kevin Drum - June 2013

Darrell Issa Wins Yet Another Chutzpah Award

| Wed Jun. 19, 2013 12:19 PM EDT

Rep. Darrell Issa says he is "deeply disappointed" that Rep. Elijah Cummings went ahead and released the full transcript of a House Oversight Committee interview with an IRS screening manager that Issa wanted to keep under wraps. Then this:

His own previous release of excerpts from this very same transcript undermines his claims that the Committee is somehow trying to keep some specific revelation from public view.

I'm not even sure what to call this. Chutzpah? Something else? Basically, Issa released a few highly misleading excerpts from the interview and repeatedly refused to release the whole thing. So Cummings released some excerpts on his own, and somehow this is supposed to be evidence that Issa wasn't trying to hide anything? Say what? I'll bet Nixon was sorry he didn't think of that defense.

While we're on the subject, though, I pulled a muscle last night reading the full transcript of this interview. (Seriously. It still hurts.) And for what it's worth, it really doesn't prove that there was no White House involvement in targeting tea party groups. The interviewee was a low-level manager of a screening group that does initial sorting into "buckets" of 75,000 applications per year. He made it clear that applications get only a cursory review in his group; that tea party applications were grouped together mostly for the sake of consistency; and that after three days his folks never see these applications again. He did state that he had no reason to think the White House was involved in the higher-level review of tea-party applications, but it was clear that he really had no way of knowing. It was way above his pay grade.

None of this is to say the White House was involved. There's never been any evidence of that, and based on what we know it's vanishingly unlikely. Republicans are just blowing smoke on this. Nonetheless, this particular transcript doesn't really tell us anything aside from the fact that a low-ranking manager was unaware of any political influence. But he probably wouldn't be even if there was.

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Most Americans Still OK With NSA Spying Programs

| Wed Jun. 19, 2013 11:34 AM EDT

Here's the latest polling on the NSA surveillance program:

Most Americans in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll support telephone and internet surveillance by the National Security Administration, but two-thirds also favor congressional hearings on the subject — indicating broad interest in more information about these activities.

The public by 58-39 percent supports the NSA collecting “extensive records of phone calls, as well as internet data related to specific investigations, to try to identify possible terrorist threats.” Support for the program is far higher among Democrats and liberals than among Republicans and strong conservatives, reversing Bush-era political divisions on issues of privacy vs. security.

It's now been two weeks since the original Guardian story, and several recent polls have produced similar results. For now, then, I think we can say that we have a pretty good idea of what the public thinks. They favor surveillance by about a 2:1 margin, and now that Obama is president that margin is much higher among Democrats than Republicans.

On interesting tidbit about this: on most issues these days, opinion among independents is closer to Democrats than to Republicans. On this one, just the opposite is true: Independents are aligned almost perfectly with the newly Foxified and skeptical Republicans. Politically speaking, this should be unsettling news for Democrats.

Angela Merkel Reveals Plot #5 Broken Up By NSA Surveillance

| Wed Jun. 19, 2013 11:06 AM EDT

Today, disclosures about NSA surveillance programs leapfrogged the Atlantic to Germany:

“We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information, not just in the United States but in some cases here in Germany,” Mr. Obama said during the news conference. “So lives have been saved.”

He did not provide any details. But Mrs. Merkel, who acknowledged that Germany has received “very important information” from the United States, cited the so-called “Sauerland cell” as an example of such anti-terrorism intelligence cooperation.

Hmmm. So I guess the Sauerland cell is example #5 of terrorist plots broken up via NSA surveillance. This dates back to 2006, though. Of the 50 plots that Obama mentioned today (following Gen. Alexander's testimony on Tuesday), I wonder how many of them have been broken up recently?

Less Lead Means Fewer Kids in Prison

| Wed Jun. 19, 2013 10:53 AM EDT

Brad Plumer reports that the incarceration rate for youths has plummeted 32 percent over the past decade:

Some of the drop has been driven by the general decline in crime and arrests across the country. But not all. Importantly, another chunk of the drop is due to the fact that nine states — including California, New York and Texas — have been experimenting with new policies to keep kids who commit minor offenses out of jail.

....Take California. Since 2007, the state began to close some of its detention facilities to save money. At the same time, the legislature outlawed confinement for kids who had only committed minor, non-violent offenses. And the state poured some of the savings into alternative programs (which can include drug treatment, home monitoring, or mental-health services).

This is good news. And loyal readers know one of the reasons, right? Our old friend lead. If lead is partially responsible for crime rates, then what you'd expect to see when lead density goes down is (a) a drop in crime, (b) followed a bit later by a drop in youth incarceration, (c) followed by a drop in adult incarceration. And that's exactly the pattern we've seen. Violent crime peaked in 1991 and then started dropping. Youth incarceration rates peaked and started dropping about a decade later. And now, a decade after that, adult incarceration rates are peaking and will almost certainly fall steadily in the near future.

If kids are fundamentally less violent than they used to be, there are fewer to lock up. And the ones who are locked up can often be held in different kinds of facilities. Eventually this will run its course as youth crime rates bottom out, but it probably has another decade or so to go. That's pretty good news.

CBO Report: Immigration Reform Would Reduce the Federal Deficit

| Tue Jun. 18, 2013 6:33 PM EDT

The Congressional Budget Office has scored the Senate's immigration reform bill, and the news is pretty good for deficit hawks. According to CBO estimates, the bill would:

  • Increase federal direct spending by $262 billion over the 2014–2023 period. Most of those outlays would be for increases in refundable tax credits stemming from the larger U.S. population under the bill and in spending on health care programs....
  • Increase federal revenues by $459 billion over the 2014–2023 period. That increase would stem largely from additional collections of income and payroll taxes....
  • Decrease federal budget deficits through the changes in direct spending and revenues just discussed by $197 billion over the 2014–2023 period.

Compared to its baseline estimates, CBO also projects that if the immigration bill is passed, GDP will increase a bit over the next decade; wages will go down a bit but then rise in the decade after that; capital investment will rise; and the productivity of labor and of capital will go up. All of these effects are fairly small, however. Economically, a pretty reasonable takeaway is that immigration reform would probably have a positive effect, but not a large one.

A Longer Look at Medical Inflation

| Tue Jun. 18, 2013 5:53 PM EDT

Eric Morath of the Wall Street Journal reports today that "U.S. health-care costs fell in May for the first time in almost four decades, the latest evidence that government policies and an expansion in generic drugs are constraining prices."

Maybe. But I'd like to push back on this once again. The chart on the right shows real medical inflation—that is, medical inflation above and beyond overall inflation. As you can see, over the past 30 years it's been on a noisy but fairly steady downward path. Each peak is lower than the previous one, and the same is true of each trough. If anything, though, this trend has slowed a bit over the past decade. It's still on a downward slope, but it strikes me as unlikely that government policies have had an awful lot to do with this.

For a somewhat more pessimistic view, take a look at the chart below, which goes back 60 years. Aside from the noise, what you mainly see is a spike in the 1980s, followed by a reversion to the long-term average of about 1.5 percent. In other words, it's possible that we overreacted to what turned out to be a fairly short-lived swell from about 1983 to 1993 and are now overreacting to the fact that we've returned to our long-term average. If this view is accurate, it means that medical inflation has been outrunning overall inflation by about 1.5 percentage points ever since the 1950s, and, roughly speaking, that's still the case. There's been a bit of a slowdown over the past decade, but only a bit.

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House Committee Conducts Lovefest With NSA Chief

| Tue Jun. 18, 2013 4:48 PM EDT

The House Intelligence Committee held a hearing today about the NSA's covert surveillance programs, and to demonstrate just how tough-minded they planned to be, here's what they called it:

How Disclosed N.S.A. Programs Protect Americans, and Why Disclosure Aids Our Adversaries

Fair and balanced! NSA's director testified that domestic surveillance had helped prevent over 50 "potential terrorist events":

In addition, the deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sean Joyce, listed two newly disclosed cases that have now been declassified in an effort to respond to the leaking of classified information about surveillance by Edward J. Snowden, a former N.S.A. contractor.

Mr. Joyce described a plot to blow up the New York Stock Exchange by a Kansas City man, whom the agency was able to identify because he was in contact with “an extremist” in Yemen who was under surveillance. Mr. Joyce also talked about a San Diego man who planned to send financial support to a terrorist group in Somalia, and who was identified because the N.S.A. flagged his phone number as suspicious through its database of all domestic phone call logs, which was brought to light by Mr. Snowden’s disclosures.

The Kansas City man is Khalid Ouazzani, who, as part of a plea bargain in 2010, admitted that he sent money to Al Qaeda. He was never charged with planning any attacks inside the United States, and the NYSE bombing was described as "nascent plotting," so it's hard to know just how serious this was. Still, at least Ouazzani actually did something. The San Diego man merely planned to send money.

So far, the government's examples of terrorist plots prevented by the NSA's surveillance programs have been pretty thin. Aside from these two, they've also taken credit for stopping David Headley and Najibullah Zazi. But Headley scouted locations for the 2008 Mumbai bombing, which was successful. So no points there, though NSA might have prevented Headley from doing further damage. As for Zazi, he was indeed planning suicide bombings on the New York subway, but it's unclear just how instrumental NSA surveillance really was in catching him.

None of this is to say that NSA's claims are false or that their surveillance programs are ineffective. But most of their claims are unverified, and the few they've made public appear to have been exaggerated. So take this all with a grain of salt.

Is John Boehner Bluffing on Immigration Reform?

| Tue Jun. 18, 2013 1:54 PM EDT

"I can't seem to persuade @ed_kilgore or @kdrum that Boehner may let immig reform pass w/mostly Ds," Greg Sargent tweets today. That's....sort of true. Here's Greg's latest in a series of blog posts making his case. It's a reponse to John Boehner's latest ironclad promise that he will never, ever, let immigration reform come to the House floor unless a majority of Republicans are convinced that it properly addresses border security:

There’s some interesting sleight of hand here. Note that Boehner seems more focused on enforcement and border security than on citizenship. The Speaker is claiming that if a majority of House Republicans thinks the emerging proposal isn’t tough enough on border security, then the House won’t vote on it. But the real Rubicon House Republicans must cross is the path to citizenship. What happens if a majority of House Republicans can’t support the path to citizenship, no matter how tough the border security elements are made? In that scenario, if Boehner holds to his vow, the House wouldn’t vote on anything that includes citizenship, right?....But the pressure on him to allow a vote will be very intense, from powerful GOP stakeholders such as the business community and wide swaths of the consulting/strategist establishment.

....I’m with Jonathan Bernstein: This all turns on whether enough Republicans privately want comprehensive reform to pass for the good of the party, even if they are not prepared to vote for it. If so, Boehner will let it go to the floor. Even if it must pass with mostly Dems. Don’t buy all the tough talk. Boehner himself doesn’t know how this is going to end.

This all relies on having a correct read of the internal machinations of the Republican caucus, and I won't even pretend to have any real insight into that. But just for scorekeeping purposes, here's the Cliff Notes version of Greg's argument:

  • The Republican establishment wants immigration reform to pass. The business community wants it because they'd rather have cheap legal labor than cheap illegal labor, and the smarter GOP eminences want it because they think—possibly correctly—that they can't win the presidency in 2016 if Hispanics keep voting overwhelmingly against them. And they really want to win back the presidency in 2016.
  • But the base of the party is dead set against immigration reform. They'll only accept it if (a) the border and citizenship requirements are tough, and (b) they believe that Republicans have fought hard to wring every last concession out of Democrats. They'll bolt at the first sign that they're being sold out.
  • Given that, Boehner (and Marco Rubio) have to sound relentlessly tough just to give the bill a chance.
  • But even if all this happens, lots of Republicans still won't be willing to risk the wrath of the tea-party base by voting in favor. Instead, they'd rather denounce the bill in public, while privately telling Boehner to bring it to the floor and get the damn thing over with. Let Democrats pass it with the help of just enough Republicans in safe seats that it seems plausibly bipartisan, thus salvaging the Hispanic vote. 

For this to work, of course, everyone has to sound genuinely outraged by the bill all the way to the bitter end. Their private acquiescences have to remain completely buried.

So do I buy this? I'm just not sure. It certainly sounds logical, but let's face it: logic is not a strong suit of the contemporary House Republican caucus. And I wonder just how many House leaders are truly convinced that the party is doomed without the Hispanic vote anyway? I have a sense that a lot of them are in the process of convincing themselves that this is just a bunch of elite Beltway hooey. Plus, I'm always sort of generally skeptical of these kinds of 11-dimensional chess arguments. Most politicians just aren't that devious.

But I guess we'll find out soon enough.

Texas Says No To Our Tacocopter Future

| Tue Jun. 18, 2013 12:51 PM EDT

As we contemplate a future in which the sky is black with tacocopters, state legislatures and civil libertarians are starting to weigh in. Tim Lee reports:

The Texas legislation illustrates the complexity of regulating private drone use. The legislation that Perry signed on Friday features a broad prohibition on public and private drone use followed by a long list of exceptions. For example, Texas allows drones to be used by “a Texas licensed real estate broker in connection with the marketing, sale, or financing of real property.” Oil and gas companies can use drones for “inspecting, maintaining, or repairing pipelines.” Utility companies can use drones for “assessing vegetation growth for the purpose of maintaining clearances on utility easements.” The legislation enumerates at least 19 circumstances where drone use is allowed.

This approach assumes the Texas legislature can anticipate all of the beneficial uses for drones. That’s probably not a good assumption — people often discover unanticipated applications for new technologies, and it will be cumbersome to amend the law every time someone thinks of a new drone application.

Margot Kaminski, a scholar at Yale Law School, describes the Texas approach to regulating privately operated drones as “kind of a disaster.” She warns that regulations of private drone use could raise First Amendment problems.

For example, “if you have a news organization hovering over a protest and videoing cops beating protesters, that’s really valuable for the First Amendment,” she says. The courts have already said that private citizens have a First Amendment right to video-record the activities of public officials. The same reasoning suggests that aerial recording of police conduct would be constitutionally protected.

I'm going to tentatively—very tentatively—speak up in favor of the Texas approach. First off, I don't think it assumes that they can anticipate every possible beneficial use of drones. Rather, it sets up a regime which assumes drones are bad unless proven otherwise. If you can sucessfully prove otherwise, then a new exemption will be written into the law.

Now, there are obviously problems with this. For starters, it's a certainty that exemptions will be granted mostly to deep-pocketed special interests, not to the most worthy causes. It's also, obviously, a pretty cumbersome approach. The Texas legislature may very well get tired someday of considering yet another plea from a drone-happy special interest. On the other hand, this might still be the best approach in the early going. Broader rules would almost certainly be better and fairer, but if Texas wants to keep a tight rein on drones until we have a better idea of what kind of rules we really want, that doesn't strike me as an unreasonable approach. It will be easier to lighten the regs later than it will be to tighten them if drone use gets out of control (as Texas's already long list of exemptions demonstrates).

As for Kaminski's concerns, I just don't get them at all. The First Amendment clearly allows broad regulations that aren't aimed specifically at restricting speech. If you want to fly a helicopter, you have to have a license and you have to obey the rules, even if you're a reporter covering a news event. Likewise, news organizations have to pay taxes and obey OSHA rules just like anyone else. They don't get a pass just because they're members of the press. A ban on drones that's genuinely based on broad safety and privacy concerns would almost certainly hold up in court.

At the risk of being called a Luddite, I'd say the thing to think about here is not what's possible today, but what's going to be possible in ten years. Drones are only going to get better and cheaper over time, and we need to think about what kind of regs we want in place when (a) anyone can buy a personal fleet of drones for the price of a washing machine; (b) small drones can fly for hours without recharging; (c) their surveillance capabilities are high quality; and (d) they're automated enough not to need much human control. Does it sound silly to think that a typical neighborhood could have hundreds or thousands of drones flying around? I don't think so. In fact, given my dyspeptic view of my fellow human beings, I'd say it sounds likely. Keeping a lid on this stuff until we're a lot more sure of the consequences doesn't really sound like such a bad idea to me.

Don't Believe the TTIP Hype

| Tue Jun. 18, 2013 12:07 PM EDT

More than likely, you've never heard of TTIP and don't care what it is. Well, it's the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a proposed new trade pact between the United States and Europe. Would it be a good thing if we cobbled together an agreement? Yeah, probably. But Jared Bernstein wisely counsels us not to believe the hype we're likely to hear about it:

I doubt that an actual TTIP (as opposed to the ones you’ll see simulated in coming months) would have a large effect of trade flows between us, because a) the deal will likely accommodate, not eradicate, initiatives like Airbus and their protection of treasured wines (and TV shows!), and b) again, the barriers just aren't that high, so I wouldn’t expect bringing them down to be a huge deal (average tariffs between us are around 3-4%). And of course, let the record show that we too subsidize our farms and our Boeings, and these subsidies have survived many a “free trade” agreement.

I could be wrong and this time trade barriers will fall like never before. My point here is that we don’t know, so we should avoid the usual claims—on either side—that are trotted out the minute some diplomat suggests a treaty. If you really want to get a feel for the impact of a deal like this, you actually have to slog through the negotiations. Assumptions about the textbook benefits of free trade won’t help you because in the real world nothing works like the textbooks, especially in this realm.

If you read any TTIP stories, you'll hear a lot about the nefarious French insistence on maintaining the "cultural exception." This refers to the French desire to protect French moviemakers, which is pitted against the ecumenical desire of Hollywood moguls to fill every theater in Paris with the latest Avengers flick. It makes for good conflict journalism—chauvinistic but art-loving French! greedy but audience-pleasing Americans!—but it's basically a sideshow. If Europeans want to continue resisting the tide of American cultural hegemony, that's not hard to understand. And the amount of money at stake is, in the grand scheme of things, small.

The more serious—and difficult—topics are going to be regulatory harmonization and the removal of various non-tariff barriers. But as Bernstein says, even if we make substantial progress on that stuff it's hardly going to usher in a golden age. It's worth doing, but everyone should keep their expectations about its job-creating power firmly in check.