Kevin Drum - July 2013

The U.S. Army Drawdown in Afghanistan Is Being Obstructed by Customs Agents

| Wed Jul. 17, 2013 10:39 PM PDT

From the Washington Post:

An escalating dispute between the Afghan government and the United States over customs procedures has halted the flow of U.S. military equipment across Afghanistan’s borders....The Afghan government is demanding that the U.S. military pay $1,000 for each shipping container leaving the country that does not have a corresponding, validated customs form. The country’s customs agency says the American military has racked up $70 million in fines.

Wait a second. We invaded Afghanistan. Has there ever been a war in history where an invading army had to pay customs duties when it decided to leave? Surely this is a first?

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Executive Branch Filibusters Aren't Gone, Just Swept Under the Rug

| Wed Jul. 17, 2013 2:15 PM PDT

Jonathan Bernstein points out today that the Democratic victory over filibusters of executive branch nominees wasn't quite as total as some of the reporting has suggested. After all, Republicans didn't agree to stop the filibusters. They just agreed to provide 60 votes for cloture when needed:

Yup. There was a cloture vote this morning; forcing a cloture vote is already a form of filibuster. And then Republicans are insisting, as they did yesterday with Richard Cordray, to use at least a decent-sized chunk of post-cloture time....Without any filibuster at all, Harry Reid could call up the nomination, allow anyone who wanted to speak to do so, and then move ahead with a final confirmation vote; it would probably take one or two hours at most, and maybe a lot less if no record vote was called for.

What's different, post-deal, is that Republicans have apparently agreed that these filibusters will be limited -- that they will avoid defeating cloture on executive branch nominations, and thus allow Democrats to confirm those nominees as long as they have a simple majority. They can still filibuster, however, and it's not as if it's meaningless; it does, in fact, use up Senate floor time that could be used for something else, and it's not unusual for Senate floor time to be valuable.

This has always been an underappreciated facet of the Senate filibuster. Republicans routinely filibuster people and bills that they have no real problem with, which is why you occasionally have a filibuster one week followed by a 98-0 vote the next week to approve something (or someone). Why? Because it sucks up floor time, and the more time spent on useless stuff like this, the less time there is for passing actual legislation.

Bernstein's conclusion is that this puts Republicans in a pickle (five or six of them have to take one for the team and vote for cloture after each filibuster), so they should agree to simply institutionalize a 51-vote cloture for executive branch nominees. But he and I have disagreed about this for a long time. My conclusion is simpler: Reid should have gone nuclear and done away with executive branch filibusters entirely.

On a related note, this also explains why Republicans went along with this compromise. They didn't, as was widely reported, suffer an unconditional defeat. Not even close. Given the number of Senate confirmations required each year, the continued ability to delay Senate business for every nominee is a very powerful tool, and it's one they still have because Reid took his finger off the nuclear button.

Gang of 7 Planning to Offer New Immigration Compromise

| Wed Jul. 17, 2013 1:20 PM PDT

Greg Sargent has some details on a new bipartisan House plan that—maybe—has a chance of saving immigration reform. The key points appear to be:

  • Redefining the initial "provisional" legal status granted to undocumented immigrants as "probation."
  • Lengthening the path to citizenship from 13 years to 15 years.
  • Setting a hard trigger that would revoke everyone's probational status unless E-Verify is "fully operational" within five years.

That last one is the key, of course, and Sargent says he was "unable to determine who gets to say whether E-Verify is fully operational." Nonetheless, getting E-Verify operational is a reasonably achievable goal, so this might be acceptable to liberals. Overall, though, this compromise is mostly aimed at conservatives:

Ultimately, what this is all about is finding a way for House Republicans to get to conference negotiations with a bill that includes a path to citizenship. There is no telling whether a majority of House Republicans can bring themselves to embrace the above outline. But the thinking among Dems on the gang of seven is that even if this framework is much more onerous than the Senate bill, it provides at least a chance that Republicans will end up supporting something with citizenship in it. And getting to conference with a package that includes citizenship is preferable to the alternative, because it increases the chances of a good bill at the end.

Stay tuned.

Pie Chart of the Day: Police Are Tracking You 24/7

| Wed Jul. 17, 2013 11:40 AM PDT

The ACLU reports today that routine tracking and storage of license plate information is becoming increasingly common:

License plate readers would pose few civil liberties risks if they only checked plates against hot lists and these hot lists were implemented soundly. But these systems are configured to store the photograph, the license plate number, and the date, time, and location where all vehicles are seen — not just the data of vehicles that generate hits. All of this information is being placed into databases, and is sometimes pooled into regional sharing systems.

....More and more cameras, longer retention periods, and widespread sharing allow law enforcement agents to assemble the individual puzzle pieces of where we have been over time into a single, high-resolution image of our lives. The knowledge that one is subject to constant monitoring can chill the exercise of our cherished rights to free speech and association. Databases of license plate reader information create opportunities for institutional abuse, such as using them to identify protest attendees merely because these individuals have exercised their First Amendment-protected right to free speech. If not properly secured, license plate reader databases open the door to abusive tracking, enabling anyone with access to pry into the lives of his boss, his ex-wife, or his romantic, political, or workplace rivals.

The chart on the right is for Maryland: for every million license plates read, only 47 were even tentatively associated with actual serious crimes.

As with NSA phone records, this is something we have to figure out as a society. These kinds of databases almost certainly help to catch bad guys. Nobody knows how much they help, but it's probably nonzero. So is that worth it? Do we mind having government agencies track our public movements every minute of the day? Do we mind if they team up with the private sector to track our buying habits? Do we mind if they keep track of who we call, who we email, and who we send letters to? Do we seriously think that if we shrug our shoulders at this, that it won't someday be abused on a massive scale?

I don't. But I'm unsure of how my fellow citizens feel about this. Most of them don't really seem to mind as long as they think it keeps them just a little bit safer.

Capitol Records Architect Welcomes His New Neighbors

| Wed Jul. 17, 2013 8:52 AM PDT

For the past several years, Los Angeles has been embroiled in controversy over a plan to build a couple of office towers next door to the iconic Capitol Records building. Today in the LA Times, the guy who actually designed the Capitol Records building weighs in with a refreshingly reasonable take:

I've been stunned over the years that there is still a vacant parking lot next to Capitol Records. It would seem to me that somebody in 60 years might have gotten off the mark and done something with it.

Now there is a proposal to build next door, and people have objected to the height of the buildings, and to building anything next door to Capitol Records at all.

I'm not concerned about putting buildings of any scale next to Capitol Records. I don't think people walking along a street pay a lot of attention to anything above the third floor. It's insignificant from a pedestrian's point of view whether a building is 20 or 30 or 40 stories high. I think this building can nicely hold its own.

....If you only had a community of architects, you would have a desert. There is a community there, but you need to understand the economic drivers of the project. There are a developer's needs and wishes, the residents' needs and wishes, the community's needs and wishes. I think we have to have faith that there is an overlap, a richer solution that responds fully to all people's needs.

Great cities should always retain an awareness and appreciation of their history. But that doesn't mean preserving their landscapes in amber, as so often seems to be the goal of preservationists these days. LA is a city, not a national park, and Hollywood needs more density. Both the Capitol Records building and its famous underground recording chambers will be fine with some new neighbors.

Truth, Justice, and the Kryptonian Way

| Wed Jul. 17, 2013 8:37 AM PDT

Marian is in Virginia this week attending a class. Today, she emailed to let me know how things were going:

OMG. One of my co-students had no idea that Superman was from another planet. I thought that was universal knowledge. 

Clearly our schools are failing us. I blame the teachers unions.

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Quote of the Day: Congress Is Biggest Roadblock to Economic Recovery

| Wed Jul. 17, 2013 7:45 AM PDT

Preach it, Brother Ben:

The Federal Reserve’s chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, said Wednesday that Congress is the largest obstacle to faster economic growth, and he warned that upcoming decisions about fiscal policy could once again undermine the nation's recovery.

…Moreover, he said, Congress could make things worse later this year. "The risks remain that tight federal fiscal policy will restrain economic growth over the next few quarters by more than we currently expect, or that the debate concerning other fiscal policy issues, such as the status of the debt ceiling, will evolve in a way that could hamper the recovery," he said.

Needless to say, Republicans in Congress will pay no attention to the Republican-appointed Fed chairman. These days, they prefer getting their economic policy advice from Glenn Beck and the ghost of Andrew Mellon.

Chart of the Day: "Current Military Spending Is Lapping at Historic Highs, Not Lows."

| Wed Jul. 17, 2013 5:45 AM PDT

Remember chained CPI? It's every conservative's favorite measure of inflation. The government's statistical boffins like it because they say it measures inflation more accurately, and conservatives like it because it reduces future Social Security inflation adjustments. Everyone likes it!

Since it's so popular, Winslow Wheeler decided to apply chained CPI to historical Pentagon spending. The result is the green line in the chart below:

In a nutshell, what this shows is that even after the recent decline following the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense spending in 2015 will still be higher than it's been in the entire rest of the postwar period, aside from a single year at the height of the Reagan buildup. This is especially remarkable considering that in 2015 we won't be fighting any wars and we won't have a single major military competitor anywhere on the globe.

Should we measure defense spending instead as a percentage of GDP, as the Pentagon itself likes to do it? That's appropriate for some things, but it's really not here. The fact that our GDP has grown doesn't make the country any more expensive to defend. Nor is this an example of Baumol's disease, since we've considerably reduced the number of people in the armed forces over the past two decades.

Basically, we spend a boatload of money on defense, and the size of the boat has been steadily rising for more than 50 years. Policywise, Wheeler's conclusion is pretty simple: "Current military spending is lapping at historic highs, not lows."

Chart of the Day: Unemployment in Europe Is Catastrophically High and Still Getting Worse

| Tue Jul. 16, 2013 5:52 PM PDT

This is from the OECD's Employment Outlook 2013, and it shows the level of unemployment in the world's rich countries. Joblessness in Greece and Spain is at about 27 percent, higher than the United States suffered even during the depths of the Great Depression. Portugal, Ireland, Slovakia, and Italy are at somewhat less catastrophic levels, but still in dire shape.

But here's the worst part. See those white diamonds above each of the blue bars? That's the OECD forecast for the end of 2014. In nearly every case, it's equal to or higher than the current unemployment rate. Think about that: It's been five years since the financial crisis hit, and in lots of countries unemployment is still sky-high and getting higher. It's a ruinous and heartbreaking waste of human capital. The Economist has more here.

Let's Give McDonald's a Break, Okay?

| Tue Jul. 16, 2013 3:57 PM PDT

McDonald's is getting a lot of flak for producing a "Practical Money Skills" budget journal in association with Visa. But this mockery is seriously misplaced. Let's review the tape:

  1. Producing a simple monthly planning guide for low-income families is a good thing to do. Lots of low-income families have essentially no planning skills at all and need something extremely basic to help them out. If you think the McDonald's brochure is so simplistic as to be "condescending," you really, really need to get out more.
  2. The basic advice in the guide is this: Figure out your monthly take-home pay. Then list all your monthly expenses and subtract them from your income. Take what's left over and divide by 30. This is how much you have for daily expenses like food, clothing, entertainment, etc. Then use their spending journal to keep track of your actual daily expenses so you can see where your money is going. This is a perfectly sensible approach.
  3. The sample budget on the right has come in for the bulk of the criticism, but it doesn't deserve it. The fact that it has spaces for two incomes doesn't mean they assume you're working 80 hours a week. It means they're using an example in which two people in the family have jobs.
  4. The dollar amounts in the sample budget are generally fairly reasonable. Tim Lee has a rundown here of which ones make sense and which ones don't. (Nickel summary: Childcare is notably missing, and the health insurance figure is laughably low.)
  5. But you know what? Lots of people live on an income of $25,000. According to the census, this is the income of roughly a fifth of American families. And since this guide is aimed at low-income families, it makes sense to use sample figures that add up to $25,000. I mean, what should they have done? Assumed that everyone makes $50,000? Assumed that no one making $25,000 should receive realistic financial planning advice? Or what?
  6. What's more, the family in the example probably qualifies for both SNAP and EITC. That would increase their monthly income by a few hundred dollars.

I get that people think McDonald's is trying to put a happy face on the minimum wage jobs they offer. Maybe they are. But good advice is good advice no matter where it comes from, and the McDonald's guide offers an extremely conventional collection of good financial advice, the same kind offered by nonprofits everywhere. There's no reason to rake them over the coals for providing it.

In the meantime, if we want McDonald's workers to make more money, we need to keep fighting for a higher minimum wage, a more generous EITC, and better national healthcare. Practically speaking, that's the most likely path toward improving the lives of the working poor.