Kevin Drum - July 2013

Let Us Now Pledge to Sign Ever More Pledges

| Wed Jul. 3, 2013 1:19 PM EDT

The problem with Twitter is that it's so full of snark and jocular banter that it's often hard to tell when something is serious. Then again, maybe this is actually a problem with real life, not with Twitter. Maybe real life has gotten so Onion-esque that it's hard to tell it apart from a Steven Wright standup routine.

To wit: Yesterday I saw a tweet roll across my screen about the Koch brothers insisting that conservatives fight any climate legislation unless it contained an equivalent tax cut. Hah hah. That's a laff riot.

But no. It's real. Of course it is. But here's what I don't get: what's the point? The pledge binds signers to "oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue." But every Republican in Congress has already signed Grover Norquist's pledge that binds them to oppose any legislation at all that includes a net increase in government revenue. So does this mean we're going to get a flood of sub-pledges from every wingnut group out there? Republicans must now pledge to oppose any legislation relating to abortion that includes a net increase in government revenue. Ditto for gun control legislation. And healthcare legislation. And environmental legislation. And mass transit legislation. And homeland security legislation. And food stamp legislation. Etc.

Well, why not? They don't have much else to do, do they?

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Obama Lets Loose on Evo Morales

| Wed Jul. 3, 2013 12:42 PM EDT

I'm late to this and I don't really have anything substantive to add, but just for the record:

Did we really, seriously, strong-arm the governments of France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy to deny the president of Bolivia permission to fly over their airspace? All because some moron in one of our intelligence services that supposedly tracks every communication on the planet decided that Evo Morales was serious when he joked about taking Edward Snowden home with him from Moscow?

If every country in South America responded by expelling every diplomat in every American embassy, it would hardly seem like an overreaction to me. This would have been outrageous and thuggish behavior even if Snowden had been in Morales' plane. But he wasn't, so it's actually outrageous, thuggish, and clownish. Jesus.

UPDATE: The original headline of this post was "Obama Finally Shows His Chicago Thug Side for Real." This was obviously a nod to the endless tea party invocations of Obama as a Chicago thug, but it's been taken by many as a racial dog whistle. I apologize for that, since it certainly wasn't my intent. I think the treatment of Morales's plane was outrageous behavior, and quite likely a result of pressure from the United States, but that's all.

Yep, They Also Know Who You Send Letters To

| Wed Jul. 3, 2013 12:10 PM EDT

A few weeks ago I idly wondered if people who shrugged their shoulders at the NSA keeping records of phone calls would be more upset if the NSA started up a program that tracked everyone's mail. "They didn't open letters to read them, they merely kept track of the address, return address, and postmark date for every piece of first class mail and every package that anyone sent anywhere." I wasn't asking about "mail covers," which target specific individuals, but the collection of postal metadata on everyone.

Well, guess what?

Leslie James Pickering noticed something odd in his mail last September: A handwritten card, apparently delivered by mistake, with instructions for postal workers to pay special attention to the letters and packages sent to his home.

....Mr. Pickering was targeted by a longtime surveillance system called mail covers, but that is only a forerunner of a vastly more expansive effort, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, in which Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year. It is not known how long the government saves the images.

....The Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program was created after the anthrax attacks in late 2001 that killed five people, including two postal workers. Highly secret, it seeped into public view last month when the F.B.I. cited it in its investigation of ricin-laced letters sent to President Obama and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. It enables the Postal Service to retroactively track mail correspondence at the request of law enforcement. No one disputes that it is sweeping.

“In the past, mail covers were used when you had a reason to suspect someone of a crime,” said Mark D. Rasch, the former director of the Justice Department’s computer crime unit, who worked on several fraud cases using mail covers. “Now it seems to be ‘Let’s record everyone’s mail so in the future we might go back and see who you were communicating with.’ Essentially you’ve added mail covers on millions of Americans.”

I guess now I'll get an answer to my question. I'm pretty sure I won't like it, though.

There's No Need to Panic Over the Obamacare Mandate Delay

| Wed Jul. 3, 2013 11:14 AM EDT

The Obama administration has decided to delay the employer mandate in Obamacare. Like the individual mandate, which requires individuals to buy insurance if they don't get it elsewhere, the employer mandate requires big employers to offer insurance to their employees. Most big employers already offer insurance, so the primary idea behind this wasn't to force laggards to step up to the plate. The idea was to maintain the status quo and make sure that employers currently offering insurance didn't drop it once Obamacare started up.

There were two basic reasons for this. The first was financial: if employers dropped insurance (figuring that employees could buy cheap subsidized policies on the exchanges), then more people would switch to Obamacare and the cost of Obamacare would go up. Matt Yglesias does a pretty good job of dismantling that justification here.

The second reason was a little more abstract: Obama had promised that if you got insurance from your employer, "nothing would change." Obviously that was never 100 percent true. When you enact a huge reform to a system as complex as healthcare, some people are going to see their options change. Still, as long as employers were required to keep providing insurance, Obama's claim was mostly true. It only became non-true if employers began dropping their group coverage in large numbers and forcing their employees onto the exchanges. Thus the mandate.

It's easy to look at all this and shake your hands at the cynicism of politics. But I guess I'm in a charitable mood this morning, because I don't see it that way. Everyone knows that Obamacare was a mashup of compromises from the start. That's politics. If you want something passed, you have to appeal to self-interest. Pharma wanted more drug sales. Hospitals wanted bigger subsidies. Doctors wanted to make sure their pay didn't go down. People who currently have insurance they like wanted to be sure that they wouldn't be forced into some strange new system. So if you want a healthcare reform bill to pass, you figure out a way to satisfy all those interest groups. And even when you do, your bill passes with a margin of exactly zero votes. Welcome to Washington DC.

If the employer mandate hadn't been in the bill, CBO would have scored its cost higher, which would have meant higher offsetting taxes. That would have made it a tougher sell. Likewise, Republicans would have ginned up public fear over the prospect that employers would all drop their group coverage en masse. That would have turned the middle class against the bill. Put those two things together and maybe you lose a few votes. Maybe you lose one vote. It doesn't matter. You can't afford to lose any.

That sucks. But it's the way things are and always have been, world without end. Everything is a compromise, and Obamacare is no different. Maybe someday we'll be able to fix this if Republicans ever get over their snit and decide to help improve Obamacare instead of dedicating their lives, fortunes, and sacred honors to the single-minded goal of sabotaging and destroying it. We might have to wait a while for that, though.

Open Season on Black Voting Has Officially Started

| Tue Jul. 2, 2013 10:57 PM EDT

Josh Marshall:

It is simply amazing to watch how Southern states, ruled by Republicans, have moved so quickly, after the Supreme Court's VRA decision to push through a series of new laws the only aim of which is to limit black voting: voter ID laws, ends to same day registration, early voting, weekend voting. Here's yet another example from North Carolina. But we noted numerous other examples within a day of the decision coming down.

Okay, sure, what did I expect? I've been writing about this for years. Everything I've written and so many other better than I could has predicted this. But still, to see it, it's another thing again. This is supposed to be the 21st century. And yet, in a broad swath of the society we're in an ersatz version of the late 19th century.

It is—and always has been—unclear to me how much of this is driven by straight-up anti-black animus and how much is purely partisan, with blacks as collateral damage. Probably some of both. But really, how much does it matter? Is outright racism really any worse than simply not giving a damn if your only route to harming Democratic Party interests happens to require making it more burdensome for blacks to vote?

I suppose, yes, it is worse. But not by all that much.

It's Pretty Unlikely That American Companies Pay Their CEOs on Expected Performance

| Tue Jul. 2, 2013 6:41 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias thinks it's hopeless to argue about whether American CEOs are overpaid:

Take CBS, which I write about in the column. They had almost $15 billion in revenue in 2011. So the value to the company of a CEO who can boost revenue 1 percent higher than a replacement-level CEO would to the company is about $150 million. So if you have a 50 percent confidence level that CEO Leslie Moonves is 1 percent better for the company than a replacement-level CEO, then you'd be justified in paying him as much as $75 million a year—making him "underpaid" with 2012 compensation of around $60 million.

As a practical matter, I agree. There are certain metrics that suggest CEOs are overpaid, and there are others that suggest they're just earning fair market value. We liberals can point to gigantic yachts and gold-plated toilet seats as ways of swaying public opinion on this subject, but we'll never win on empirical grounds.

Still, I want to use this as an opportunity bring up one of my longtime hobbyhorses. Ask yourself: What would we see if American companies were really paying their CEOs gigantic salaries based on a belief that a great CEO has a huge impact on earnings1 compared to the 2nd best CEO? Answer: we'd see genuine pay-for-performance packages. That is, Les Moonves's compensation would be set at a fairly modest level unless CBS performed objectively better than its peers, at which point his compensation would go up quickly.

Now ask yourself another question: how many Fortune 5000 CEOs are actually paid this way? Answer: not many. This suggests pretty strongly that neither companies nor CEOs are truly confident in their ability to do better than the 2nd best guy out there. And that in turn suggests that fat CEO pay packages are based on something else entirely.

1This is usually the metric companies actually care about. Or maybe stock price, or return on invested capital, or something like that. But probably not revenue.

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Republicans Are Missing the Point on Immigration Reform

| Tue Jul. 2, 2013 5:20 PM EDT

A couple of weeks ago I speculated about the conventional wisdom that the Republican Party badly needs immigration reform to pass:

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.

Today, Benjy Sarlin puts some meat on this speculation, reporting that a growing number of mainstream conservatives are starting to move away from the belief that Republicans are in a demographic death spiral if they can't win more Hispanic votes. Instead, they want to focus on winning a bigger and bigger share of the white vote:

At the moment, the anti-immigration argument appears to be gaining converts fast. On election night, Fox News anchor Brit Hume called the “demographic” threat posed by Latino voters “absolutely real” and suggested Mitt Romney’s “hardline position on immigration” may be to blame for election losses. On Monday, Hume declared that argument “baloney.” The Hispanic vote, he said, “is not nearly as important, still, as the white vote.”

Sean Hannity, a reliable bellwether on the right, has been on a similar journey since the fall. He announced days after President Obama’s re-election that he had “evolved” on immigration reform and now supported a “path to citizenship” in order to improve relations with Hispanic voters. Hannity has now flipped hard against the Senate’s bill.

....A new view on the right is taking hold: Romney lost because he didn’t go after whites hard enough.... Conservative commentators are convincing themselves they can find a few million more whites tucked between the couch cushions—at least enough for one more election. Two columnists have been particularly influential in this regard. Sean Trende at Real Clear Politics has argued that census data shows about 5 million mostly poor and rural white voters were “projected” to vote in 2012 based on population growth and past turnout but didn’t show up to the polls. Byron York, a columnist at the Washington Examiner, published a related piece noting that Romney would have lost even if he had racked up a majority of Latino voters.

Is this plausible? I doubt it. Sure, Republicans can reduce the non-white vote a bit by doubling down on their voter suppression strategy, and it might even work for a while. They might also be able to find some issues that directly boost the white vote by a percentage point or two. But look: Barack Obama almost certainly lost at least a few percentage points of the white vote because he's black. In 2016, Democrats will have a white candidate, and that will give them a small leg up with the white vote right off the bat. It really seems unlikely that any kind of white outreach program can be so fabulously successful that it will make up for that.

But in a way, this doesn't matter, because I think Republicans are missing the point. Conn Carroll, for example, tweets this response to Sarlin's story:

there is no "growing" argument that "GOP should give up on Latino voters." only the realization that pandering through amnesty won't work.

In a narrow sense, it's probably true that Republicans won't get much credit if immigration reform passes. But that's not what matters. What matters is that it eliminates immigration as an issue for Democrats. Democrats get tremendous mileage by demonizing Republicans and winning ever greater shares of the Hispanic vote. Once immigration reform passes, they can't do that. There will always be smaller issues out there, but they just won't have the same impact as immigration reform. Taking that off the table sucks the air out of the Dem balloon and gives Republicans a better chance of setting the terms of the political debate, both within and without the Hispanic community. That's why it's a net winner for them, not because they'll get "credit" for allowing it to pass.

2 Gigantic New NSA Revelations?

| Tue Jul. 2, 2013 2:31 PM EDT

Yesterday, Dana Liebelson pointed out "5 Intriguing New NSA Revelations From Edward Snowden." Read it! But I want to focus on just two of these things, which are way more than merely intriguing.

1. PRISM provides real-time access to email and chat.

A couple of days ago, the Washington Post released four more slides from the PowerPoint deck that describes the PRISM program. One of them is on the right, and it explicitly says that PRISM provides NSA analysts with real-time notification of email events and chat logins. The Post rather mysteriously says nothing more about this except that it "reflects the availability, confirmed by The Post's reporting, of real-time surveillance as well as stored content."

This is obviously important for its own sake, but also because it sheds some additional light on the contention that PRISM provides "direct access" to servers from Google, Microsoft, and others. If this stuff is truly available in real-time, then NSA really would have to have direct access. Alternatively, this slide could simply mean that PRISM retains records of events that were collected in real time by other NSA programs. But which is it?

2. All of your cellphone calls are being recorded.

This is from a speech that Glenn Greenwald gave last Friday:

Another document that I probably shouldn’t share since it’s not published but I am going to share it with you anyway—and this one’s coming soon but you’re getting a little preview—It talks about how a brand new technology enables the National Security Agency to redirect into its repositories one billion cell phone calls every single day.

....It doesn’t mean they’re listening to every call. It means they’re storing every call and have the capability to listen to them at any time and it does mean that they’re collecting millions upon million upon millions of our phone and email records.

What Greenwald is saying is that NSA doesn't just collect records of calls, it actually records a billion cellphone calls per day. Are these domestic calls, or only international calls? If it includes domestic calls, it's more explosive by an order of magnitude than anything else he's reported so far. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum Smackdown Watch: I Forgot About Disaggregation!

| Tue Jul. 2, 2013 1:45 PM EDT

Bob Somerby reminds me of something today that I'm embarrassed to have forgotten when I wrote about the latest NAEP test scores on Friday. I mentioned that scores among 9- and 13-year olds have increased steadily over the past four decades, but that scores among 17-year-olds haven't. That's a problem: higher test scores hardly matter if they wash out before kids leave high school.

Now, one caveat here is that fewer kids are dropping out of high school than in the past. That's a good thing, but by keeping marginal students in school it's also likely to reduce overall test scores. I'm not aware of anyone who's tried to estimate the impact that's had on test scores, but it's almost certainly nontrivial.

But what's really important—and what I forgot to mention—is that you have to disaggregate test scores to really understand what's going on. Let me give you an example from a different area: English literacy. Suppose you have 100 residents of the country, 90 of them native and 10 of them recent immigrants. Among the natives, English literacy runs at 90 percent. Among the immigrants it's 70 percent. This means that a total of 88 residents (81 + 7) are literate in English.

Now suppose the composition changes: we have 80 natives and 20 recent immigrants. And both groups are doing well! Native literacy has improved to 91 percent and immigrant literacy has improved to 75 percent. That sounds great, doesn't it? But what if you lump everyone together? Then it turns out that 88 residents are literate (73 + 15). It looks like there's been no progress at all. Literacy is up among all groups, but the rising share of immigrants has pushed down the average.

The situation is similar with school test scores, where blacks and Hispanics have historically scored worse than whites. Over the last four decades, scores have gone up among all three groups (as you can see in the table on the right), but the rising share of blacks and Hispanics has pushed down the average when you lump everyone together.

So the reality is that although there's still a dropoff between age 13 and age 17, once you disaggregate the scores it turns out that even 17-year-olds are doing better than in the past. Whites are doing a little better, and blacks and Hispanics are doing way, way better. There remains plenty of ground to be made up (whites still outscore blacks and Hispanics by about 20 points or so, which is roughly equivalent to two grade levels), but there's no question that there's been progress. You can read more here for both good news and bad about who's doing well and which time periods have shown the most progress.

For today, though, the moral of the story is: Always disaggregate! It's a big word, but a simple concept. Without it, you'll never understand the big picture.

Did Unleaded Gasoline Improve Educational Outcomes?

| Tue Jul. 2, 2013 12:48 PM EDT

One of my Twitter followers, @archeratlarge, asks:

Has anyone applied @kdrum's analysis of lead and crime to education outcomes?

I get asked this a lot, and it's a slow news day, so I'm going to semi-answer this. As it happens, a little bit of work has been done on this question, but not much. And there's a pretty good reason for that.

At first glance, this seems like an obvious thing to look at. The jury may still be out on the connection between lead and crime, but it's certainly not on lead's general effect on developing brains. There's overwhelming, and universally accepted evidence that exposing children to high lead levels reduces their IQs and contributes to learning disabilities. So reducing exposure to lead, as we did by introducing unleaded gasoline between 1975 and 1995, certainly ought to show up in school test scores, graduation rates, and so forth.

But there's an analytic problem that makes it hard to measure this. Let's take a look at crime first. Very few people are potential violent criminals. If you plot criminal tendencies on a bell curve, perhaps the rightmost 3 percent or so are likely to actually commit murder, rape, or assault.

But when you expose huge numbers of children to lead, as we did with leaded gasoline after World War II, what you're essentially doing is moving the bell curve to the right. For most people, that makes very little difference. But for a few who were already on the edge, it pushes them over into a life of violent crime. And when you move a bell curve, the area under the rightward tail increases a lot. The diagram below illustrates this:

What this means is that a small effect from lead can have a very big effect on the level of violent crime. Crime rates will double or triple, and this makes it amenable to statistical study. Because crime has so many different causes, it's still not easy to figure out what happened, but at least it's possible.

Education is exactly the opposite. In this case, we're dealing with big groups (nearly everyone graduates from high school) or averages (test scores, for example). Those move only slightly when the bell curve moves to the right:

You can see the problem. If, say, the average score on a test improves from 300 to 307 over the course of 20 years, it's too small an effect to isolate. The same is true if graduation rates increase from 75 percent to 79 percent. There are dozens of things that could plausibly cause this, and figuring out a way tease out the individual contribution of lead is all but impossible.

The decline of leaded gasoline almost certainly had an effect on educational outcomes. I'd guess that essentially no one doubts this. But because you're studying an entire student population, not just a tiny fraction at the right end of a bell curve, the effect is too small to study. It's probably there, but we're unlikely to ever put a number to it.