Kevin Drum - July 2013

Friday Cat Blogging - 26 July 2013

| Fri Jul. 26, 2013 2:00 PM EDT

Today is fun with wide-angle lenses day. In this picture, Domino is a giant among cats, ready to envelop the entire world in her Brobdingnagian paws. My sister wanted me to do something to commemorate the birth of Prince George Alexander Louis, and if I'd had a little cat-sized crown I would have plonked it on Domino's head. But I didn't. Maybe we'll do something for the christening.

UPDATE: From thersites in comments: "Looking at this photo, I understand how a mouse feels."

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Obama Should Commit to a Trillion-Dollar Infrastructure Plan

| Fri Jul. 26, 2013 1:27 PM EDT

Barry Ritholtz passes along the chart on the right from the McKinsey Global Institute. It shows how much various countries spend on infrastructure compared to future demand. On the far right, Japan is spending a lot more than it needs. On the far left, the United States is spending a lot less.

McKinsey figures our shortfall at about 1 percent of GDP. That's $160 billion. So a five-year project to build out our decaying infrastructure would cost roughly a trillion dollars. It would create jobs now; it would be ultra-cheap at current interest rates; and it would promote growth in the future.

That would be for roads, bridges, airports, rail lines, local transit, electrical grids, gas pipelines, internet backbones, water projects, and much more. A trillion dollars for infrastructure. That's what he should be fighting for.

One NSA Reform Proposal Has Failed, But There Are Plenty Still Making the Rounds

| Fri Jul. 26, 2013 12:42 PM EDT

In a normal court case, there are lawyers on both sides. But when the secret FISA court is deciding whether to approve the collection of phone records on 300 million Americans, only one side gets a lawyer. In fact, there's only one side, period. Greg Sargent reports on a proposal to fix this:

Dem Rep. Adam Schiff of California — one of the lawmakers leading the push for NSA reform — plans to introduce a new proposal that would deal with one of the worst problems with the programs: The fact that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court only hears from the government when deciding whether to authorize surveillance.

Schiff’s proposal will require the Privacy and Civil Liberties Board — an agency within the Executive Branch that is supposed to monitor the balance between anti-terror policies and civil liberties — to create a pool of attorneys with experience in Fourth Amendment or national security law to argue the side of the public when the government requests a surveillance warrant.

....“These attorneys that would have the same access to classified material and same right of appeal as would the government’s attorneys,” Schiff continued. He noted that the proposal was still being drafted, and key details — such as how to define the cases that would require this step, and how to ensure that the FISA court follows this directive — are still being worked out.

“There has to be a mechanism to ensure the presentation of contrary views,” Schiff continued. “If it is entirely left to the FISA court there won’t be a lot of public confidence in it.”

Justin Amash's amendment to defund the NSA's phone records program may have failed, but it might return in modified form later in the year. And Sargent reports on several other FISA reform proposals making the rounds of Congress as well. This is the legacy of Edward Snowden. I doubt that there will be any fundamental changes to the surveillance state we've built up over the past few decades, but we might get a little more transparency and a little more oversight. That's not much, but it's something.

Fake Facts Update: George Zimmerman and the 46 Calls

| Fri Jul. 26, 2013 12:38 PM EDT

Bob Somerby is not pleased:

We live in a culture which runs on fake facts....And one fact is plain above all:

Absolutely nobody cares! Paul Krugman won’t complain about this. Kevin Drum won't talk about this; neither will E. J. Dionne. And when our best and our brightest won’t mention this problem, this problem will fester and spread.

Hmmm. Should I be happy to be put in the same company as Paul Krugman? Or unhappy to be lumped in with all my fellow slugs who refuse to complain about fake facts?

Maybe both! The truth, of course, is that there are too many fake facts out there for any of us to pay attention to all of them. Krugman, Dionne, and I write about plenty of phony narratives, but plenty of them escape our gimlet eyes too. That's why it's a good idea to read lots of different bloggers. We all have our own hobbyhorses, and none of us covers everything. I mean, where has Bob been during the tsunami of liberal misreporting about that McDonald's budget planner?

Anyway, Bob's current example of fake facts is all about George Zimmerman and the 46 calls. Click the link for more.

The Cost of Austerity: 3 Million Jobs

| Fri Jul. 26, 2013 11:24 AM EDT

Here is the Congressional Budget Office's latest estimate of the economic benefit of eliminating sequestration:

Those changes would increase the level of real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.7 percent and increase the level of employment by 0.9 million in the third quarter of calendar year 2014 (the end of fiscal year 2014) relative to the levels projected under current law.

Spending cuts and tax increases since 2011 have cut the deficit by about $3.9 trillion over the next ten years. The sequester accounts for $1.2 trillion of that, about a third of the total. So a rough horseback guess suggests that the total effect of our austerity binge has been a GDP reduction of 2 percent and an employment reduction of nearly 3 million.

If the economy were running at full capacity, deficit slashing wouldn't have this effect. It would be perfectly appropriate policy. Unfortunately, Republicans don't believe in cutting spending during good times and increasing it during bad times. They believe in cutting it during Democratic presidencies and increasing it during Republican presidencies. That might not be so great for people who wish they had jobs right now, but then, that's never been the party's goal in the first place.

Conservatives Are Digging Very, Very Deep to Keep IRS "Scandal" Alive

| Fri Jul. 26, 2013 10:06 AM EDT

Conservative desperation to revive the IRS "scandal," which basically imploded in their laps weeks ago, continues apace. Steve Benen reports today that the latest is a scoop by the Daily Caller about a White House meeting with IRS chief counsel William Wilkins in 2012. The fact that this was trumpeted in the Caller is pretty much all you need to know about this supposedly nefarious meeting, but click the link if you want the (extremely boring) details of what really went on.

For sheer entertainment value, though, a friend passes along the fun and games on Fox last night:

So Greta Van Susteren has on an unfortunate Virginia organic farmer — not coincidentally, I'm sure, an attractive young blonde — who says she was audited by the IRS because of her affiliation with the Tea Party!

Under mild questioning, she admits that most of her apparently many disputes are in fact with the county government. Despite the headline and her flat assertion, she provided zero testimony or explanation for how her IRS problem might have anything to do with the Tea Party.

Never mind. One of her many accusations of outrageous government harassment is that the county fined her for having a birthday party for eight little girls on her farm! Oh, the horror! How could such a thing possibly be?

A birthday party! Tyranny has run amok. However, what millions of Fox watchers will never learn is that her dispute is actually over her refusal to pay for a $150 permit if she wants to use her farm for commerical activities (hosting events, selling other people's craft items) that it's not zoned for (i.e., growing and selling food). The county also wants to make sure that she has parking and bathrooms on the site. That's it. But it doesn't matter. Another urban legend on the right has been born, and it will now live forever.

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Supreme Court's Gutting of Voting Rights Act Unleashes GOP Feeding Frenzy

| Fri Jul. 26, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

When the Supreme Court recently gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, it did so under the theory that there was little evidence of continuing racial discrimination in the states that were required to get preclearance before changing their voting laws. Congress had rather pointedly disagreed when it renewed the VRA in 2006, but no matter. The Supreme Court knew better.

So how has that theory worked out? Normally we'd have to wait a while to find out. Even Citizens United, which gutted campaign financing law, took a few years before its full effect was obvious. But in this case, a few weeks has been enough. A couple of days ago, the North Carolina Senate voted to approve a Draconian set of changes to its voting laws, and there's not much question that final passage will come shortly. Check out this astonishing list of changes in the bill:

  • Require voter ID at polling places.
  • Reduce the early voting period from 17 days to 10 days.
  •  Prohibit counties from extending poll hours by one hour on Election Day even in extraordinary circumstances, such as in response to long lines. (Those in line at closing time would still be allowed to vote.)
  • Eliminate pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, who currently can register to vote before they turn 18.
  • Outlaw paid voter registration drives.
  • Eliminate straight-ticket voting.
  • Eliminate provisional voting if someone shows up at the wrong precinct.
  • Allow any registered voter of a county to challenge the eligibility of a voter rather than just a voter of the precinct in which the suspect voter is registered.

In the past, all of this would have required preclearance from the Justice Department, and it almost certainly would have been dead on arrival. But with the end of Section 5 there was nothing left to stop them, so the bill turned into a feeding frenzy of provisions designed to suppress voting among blacks, Hispanics, the poor, and the young. "What's happening in North Carolina," said Ed Kilgore, "is the product of a gang of ideologues led and funded by gazillionaire Art Pope who stormed the ramparts of a once-progressive state."

There is, needless to say, virtually no justification for any of this. "Election integrity" is the stated reason, but examples of voter fraud are vanishingly rare and no one in North Carolina has even bothered to pretend otherwise. They just want to reduce voting among any group that happens to support Democrats. If that means reducing the black and Hispanic vote—something that North Carolina's own Secretary of State has confirmed will happen—well, you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, can you?

So is there any hope of overturning this law? There's not much in North Carolina itself. But on Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would file a suit to halt a new voter ID law in Texas. "My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against such discrimination wherever it is found," he told an audience in Philadelphia, and a suit to stop North Carolina's law is likely too. So this is where the fight is headed. Section 5 is dead, and despite some early noises from congressional Republicans about passing a new version, there was never any serious chance of that happening. What's happening in North Carolina, after all, is part of a broad push by the Republican Party itself throughout the country. So now it's up to the Justice Department to go in after the fact and take these laws to court one by one. The Supreme Court seemed to think this was a perfectly adequate substitute for preclearance. We'll soon find out if they were serious when one of these challenges eventually wends its way onto their docket.

Chart of the Day: How the Rich and the Rest of Us Earn Our Money

| Thu Jul. 25, 2013 8:49 PM EDT

This won't come as any big surprise, but the chart below from the Tax Policy Center does a very nice job of showing how the rich are different from you and me. Most of us earn money from our jobs. Even up at the 90th percentile (about $150,000 or so), ordinary income makes up 77 percent of all cash earnings. Business and investment income make up only 9 percent. But in the top 0.1 percent, the domain of millionaires and billionaires, business and investment income make up 57 percent of cash earnings. As Jared Bernstein says, this explains a lot about economic policy preferences:

Think about these differences the next time you hear a politician explaining why we need to cut taxes on corporate income or capital gains....The framing is invariably “trickle-down”—such cuts will lift everybody’s fortunes—but the real motivation is what you see here. Once you get up to the very top of the income scale—the top 0.1% in the bar furthest to the right (as it were)—you’ve got two-thirds of their income coming from non-labor sources.

Low corporate and capital gains taxes, as well as cuts to top marginal rates, are always framed as crucial to economic growth. Conversely, high payroll taxes are always framed as crucial to keeping Medicare and Social Security fully funded. And maybe so. But it's quite a coincidence that all of these policies just happen to be precisely what benefits rich people the most, isn't it? Keep that in mind the next time you hear the latest self-serving bit of richsplaining from some Wall Street titan about taxes and the economy. You know the drill: job creators, incentive effects, globalization, capital formation, etc. etc. Just don't worry your pretty little head about the details, OK?

Al Qaeda Uses Ice Cream in Syrian Charm Offensive

| Thu Jul. 25, 2013 7:43 PM EDT

The Washington Post passes along the latest in charm offensives:

The media arm of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda affiliate, has been churning out videos featuring community gatherings in Syria during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan as the group battles to win hearts and minds. It is a far cry from the organization’s usual fare of video offerings, which includes public executions.

The headline on this piece is my favorite of the day, though it has some stiff competition from this one in the LA Times this morning:

British officials introduce Jane dough

The online hed is different, but click the link to see what it's about.

Hooray! Another Sports Team Gets Showered With Public Money!

| Thu Jul. 25, 2013 4:08 PM EDT

The city of Washington DC is investing $100 million in a new stadium for its soccer club. Why? Hard to say, really. The club's owners say they can't make a profit playing in aging RFK Stadium, but it's not really clear why that's the city's problem. In any case, what makes the whole deal palatable is that it's being done via a complicated land swap that includes some goodies for city residents. Matt Yglesias points out just how ridiculous this is:

Note that while we superficially have a story about sports subsidies here, the real devil's work is being done by accounting. Imagine we had already sold the Reeves Center to a private developer and moved the government offices across the river and had $100 million sitting around in a room somewhere. Now we're debating what to do with the $100 million. The option "use it to buy land and then give it for free to a soccer team" would probably not seem very appealing to people. But since selling the Reeves Center and moving the offices is a very good idea, including that swap as part of the bundle rather than considering it separately makes the plan look pretty good.

Actually, you never know. It might very well seem like a good idea. America's love affair with showering money on profit-making sports enterprises is a never-ending source of awe. Why on earth do we do it?1

1Don't even think of saying that it pays for itself by generating lots of additional business and tax revenues. Just don't.