Kevin Drum - August 2013

In Syria, the Middle Course Is Our Worst Possible Option

| Tue Aug. 27, 2013 1:20 PM EDT

In the LA Times today, Ken Dilanian writes that plenty of foreign policy experts are skeptical about the effectiveness of lobbing a few cruise missiles against Syria:

Punitive strikes ineffective, even counterproductive, analysts say

In two major episodes in 1998, the U.S. government unleashed a combination of bombs and cruise missiles against its foes — Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq. In a more distant third case, in 1986, the U.S. bombed Moammar Kadafi's Libya.

The bombs and missiles mostly hit their targets, and the U.S. military at the time declared the attacks successful. But in the end, they achieved little. Two years after the U.S. bombed Tripoli, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 passengers and crew. Investigators later concluded that the U.S. attack was a primary motive for Kadafi to support the Lockerbie bombing. Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people in attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Hussein kicked out international weapons inspectors and survived despite sanctions until a U.S.-led invasion deposed him in 2003.

...."If the U.S. does something and Assad is left standing at the end of it without having suffered real serious, painful enough damage, the U.S. looks weak and foolish," said Eliot Cohen, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a former State Department official in the Bush administration, who has long been skeptical about reliance on air power.

This is the fundamental problem. All the evidence suggests that Obama is considering the worst possible option in Syria: a very limited air campaign with no real goal and no real chance of influencing the course of the war. You can make a defensible argument for staying out of the fight entirely, and you can make a defensible argument for a large-scale action that actually accomplishes something (wiping out Assad's air force, for example), but what's the argument for the middle course? I simply don't see one. It's the act of a president who's under pressure to "do something" from the know-nothings and settles on a bit of fireworks to buy them off and show that he has indeed done something. But it's useless. The strike itself won't damage Assad much and it won't satisfy the yahoos, who will continue to bray for ever more escalation.

If Obama wants to intervene in Syria, then he needs to make the case that we should intervene in Syria. But if he does, I hope he listens to this short video first:

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Has the Internet Raised or Lowered Healthcare Costs?

| Tue Aug. 27, 2013 12:39 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias writes about the awesome power of information technology to diagnose illnesses and save a trip to the doctor:

I was having a kind of weird problem with my left thumb over the course of the past few days....Finally I figured out that it looked to me like an infection of the cuticle....That brought me to a Wikipedia page...."paronychia"....led to a bit more Googling....typically happens to habitual fingernail biters (guilty) or people who've recently been in the water a lot (swimming pool on vacation).

Everyone basically agrees that this isn't a huge deal and that you can obtain some physical relief by occasionally soaking the thumb in hot water while waiting for it to clear up. I took that advice starting yesterday morning, and today I feel a lot better....So there we have it. In a small but real way, information technology reduced the cost of this particular health care service. Productivity for the win.

Obviously there are lots of things we aren't going to treat in this way, but I'm quite optimistic that information technology in the health care sector is going to do us a lot of good.

Obviously Matt is being a bit tongue-in-cheek here even as he makes a serious point. But I'd still like to know if his serious point is actually correct. Not about information technology in general—everyone knows how I feel about the future of robots—but about the effect of the internet on healthcare costs.

On the one hand, we have success stories like Matt's: The internet allowed him to self-diagnose his case of paronychia and avoid wasting a doctor's time. On the other hand, we have all the people who head to the internet and convince themselves that their finger is sore not because they hit it with a hammer last week but because they have some rare immune disorder whose symptoms on Wikipedia are eerily similar to theirs. So they head out to the doctor and demand a bunch of expensive tests.

How would you measure this? Good question. Perhaps there are places where internet service became available in half a neighborhood for some random reason but not the other half. Then you could compare the change in healthcare costs over the next few years between the two halves. Or something like that.

Alternatively, you could survey doctors. Are your patients better informed these days thanks to WebMD? Or have they become bigger hypochondriacs thanks to WebMD?

Anyway, I'm curious. A quick Google search turned up a couple of old studies that were moderately negative (basic findings: people are idiots and doctors don't like being challenged), but nothing even remotely definitive. As for myself, I'm not sure which way I'd bet. However, based on (a) my theory that the internet makes smart people smarter and dumb people dumber, and (b) the empirical fact that there are more dumb people than smart people, I guess I have a modest belief that the internet has been a net negative. Surely this is worth a closer look?

This Time Around, Obama Really Won't Negotiate Over the Debt Ceiling

| Tue Aug. 27, 2013 11:22 AM EDT

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said again this morning that President Obama's resolve on the debt ceiling is firm:

"What we need in our economy is some certainty. We don't need another self-inflicted wound," Lew said in a "Squawk Box" interview. "Congress should come back and they should act."

....The president is "not going to be negotiating over the debt limit," Lew told CNBC. "Congress has already authorized funding, committed us to make expenditures. We're now in a place where the only question is, will we pay the bills that the United States has incurred?" Answering his own question, Lew stressed there can be no question about that.

As part their budget-reduction strategy, Republicans have been trying to repeal and defund the president's health-care law. But Lew said the White House won't accept any delay or defunding of Obamacare.

It's pretty obvious that Obama regrets negotiating over the debt ceiling back in 2011, thus giving Republicans an expectation that he might do it again. At the time, I think Obama was genuinely eager to pass a Grand Bargain on long-term deficit reduction and viewed the debt ceiling as a good pretext, one that would make both Democrats and Republicans more likely to come to an agreement. In the end, that failed, and this time around there's really nothing Obama wants from Republicans. They had their chance at a serious debt-reduction deal and turned it down, and Obama obviously has no desire to waste his time with that again. Besides, with the deficit already plummeting, he doesn't need a deal anymore and couldn't get congressional Democrats to support one even if he did.

So he can stand firm pretty easily because there's nothing much Republicans can offer him. The only leverage they have is a government shutdown, and that isn't much of a threat. Both Obama and John Boehner know perfectly well that a shutdown would hurt Republicans more than it would hurt Democrats.

But that's logic, and logic is selling at a deep discount these days. The fever swamp wants a debt ceiling default, and there's a pretty good chance they're going to force one through. Boehner just doesn't have the clout or the influence to stop his lemmings from racing over the cliff. At this point, the most germane question probably isn't whether Republicans are going to force a default, but how long they'll hold out after they've done it. Just how badly do global markets have to panic before they finally come to their senses?

I don't know. But as long as we're on the subject, I'd like to add one pre-emptive note. The debt ceiling crisis is likely to renew calls for Obama to settle the whole thing unilaterally by issuing a trillion-dollar platinum coin. As you all know, my own view is that this is plainly illegal, but my view doesn't matter. What matters is that the platinum coin option only works if the Fed is willing to accept it on deposit, and this is something they've already said they wouldn't do. Like it or not, this means there is no platinum coin option. So let's not spill too much ink on it this time around, OK?

The Debt Ceiling Is Suddenly Only 8 Weeks Away

| Mon Aug. 26, 2013 7:59 PM EDT

Remember that debt limit donnybrook we were all expecting this December? Turns out everyone was being a wee bit too optimistic about that:

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told Congress on Monday that after mid-October, the government would be able to make payments "with only the cash we have on hand on any given day." In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio), Mr. Lew projected the Treasury would have roughly $50 billion on hand by mid-October, and said this level "would be insufficient to cover net expenditures for an extended period of time."

Mr. Lew also said that "on certain days, net expenditures could exceed such a cash balance," which might mean the government couldn't pay all its bills.

....The mid-October time frame is sooner than many on Capitol Hill had anticipated....Some believed that the government's improving fiscal condition, bolstered by rising tax revenue and money coming in from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, could give the Treasury even more time, potentially until sometime in December.

Politically, this means that Republicans don't really have the option of quickly passing a 2014 budget (or a short-term continuing resolution) and then taking some time off to plan for their latest round of debt ceiling hostage-taking at the end of the year. If mid-October really is the drop-dead date, it means that budget negotiations in late September and debt ceiling negotiations in early October pretty much run right into each other. It's Fiscal Cliff v2.0.

I don't quite know what this does to John Boehner's fragile attempts to keep the lunatic wing of his party under control. Nothing good, probably. I'm also not sure what it does to President Obama's promise not to negotiate over the debt ceiling. If all of this stuff get munged together, then everyone's going to get mighty hazy mighty fast about what exactly is being negotiated.

So that's that. Hazy is the new outlook. Stay tuned.

Repeat After Me: Always Adjust for Inflation. Always Adjust for Inflation.

| Mon Aug. 26, 2013 3:30 PM EDT

If I told you that the American economy grew by more than 50 percent during Jimmy Carter's presidency, you'd probably think I must be pulling a fast one. And you'd be right: inflation was high during Carter's term in office, so most of that growth is an illusion. Adjusted for inflation, the economy grew 13 percent.

Likewise, if I told you that California has more violent crime than Washington DC, you'd be equally skeptical. And rightly so: California just has a lot more people than Washington DC. Adjusted for population, DC's crime rate is three times higher than California's.

This is why reporters really, really need to stop writing stuff like this:

After 2½ years of budget battles, this is what the federal government looks like now: It is on pace, this year, to spend $3.455 trillion.

That figure is down from 2010 — the year that worries about government spending helped bring on a tea party uprising, a Republican takeover in the House and then a series of ulcer-causing showdowns in Congress. But it is not down by that much. Back then, the government spent a whopping $3.457 trillion.

This is just flatly deceptive. Adjusted for inflation and population growth, federal spending has declined by 8 percent since 2010. In current dollars, it's fallen from $11,800 to $10,900 per person.

The excerpt above comes from David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, who wants to make the point that for all the screaming and shouting over the budget during the past few years, the size of government hasn't really changed much. And that's fine. If he wants to, he can make that point by noting that all the fuss has produced only an 8 percent decline from record highs. But what he can't do—not honestly, anyway—is present nominal numbers in his lead and then again in a big chart, with only a tiny footnote to alert readers that he hasn't accounted for inflation, let alone population growth.

I don't have quite as big a problem with the rest of Fahrenthold's story as some do. He's basically making the point that Congress has a hard time cutting federal spending, and that's perfectly true. If the Post thinks its readers are interested in why that is, fine. But along with the usual collection of horror-story anecdotes (roads to nowhere, tiny subsidized airports, etc.) they have an obligation to present the big picture honestly. They didn't.

Conservatives Are Finally Admitting What Voter Suppression Laws Are All About

| Mon Aug. 26, 2013 1:55 PM EDT

North Carolina's new voter ID law is ostensibly designed to reduce voter fraud. That's the official story, anyway. But if that's the case, why did North Carolina also pass a whole bunch of other voting restrictions, including limits on early voting? Phyllis Schlafly, the doyen of right-wing crankery, explains that the reason was simple: "Early voting plays a major role in Obama's ground game....[It] is an essential component of the Democrats' get-out-the-vote campaign." Steve Benen comments:

Have you ever heard a political figure accidentally read stage direction, unaware that it's not supposed to repeated out loud? This is what Schlafly's published column reminds me of.

For North Carolina Republicans, the state's new voter-suppression measures are ostensibly legitimate — GOP officials are simply worried about non-existent fraud. The response from Democrats and voting-rights advocates is multi-faceted, but emphasizes that some of these measures, including restrictions on early voting, have nothing whatsoever to do with fraud prevention and everything to do with a partisan agenda.

And then there's Phyllis Schlafly, writing a piece for publication effectively saying Democrats are entirely right — North Carolina had to dramatically cut early voting because it's not good for Republicans.

Remember, Schlafly's piece wasn't intended as criticism; this is her defense of voter suppression in North Carolina. Proponents of voting rights are arguing, "This is a blatantly partisan scheme intended to rig elections," to which Schlafly is effectively responding, "I know, isn't it great?"

Actually, I doubt that Schlafly was very far off the reservation here. Generally speaking, I think conservatives have gotten tired of keeping up the pretense about the purpose of their voter suppression laws. Why bother, after all? It might make sense if they needed to convince a few Democrats to join their cause, but that's obviously hopeless. Alternatively, it might be necessary if they needed to maintain a legal fig leaf for future court cases, but the Supreme Court has ruled that purely partisan motivations for voting laws are A-OK. Finally, they might care about public opinion. And they probably do. But not much.

At this point, the jig is up. Everyone knows what these laws are about, and there's hardly any use in pretending anymore. In fact, the only real goal of the voter suppression crowd now is to provide a plausible legal argument that what they're doing isn't intentionally racist. That's really the only thing that can derail them at this point, and the best way to fight back is to shrug their shoulders and just admit that they're being brazenly partisan. That's what Texas attorney general Greg Abbott did in his brief supporting his state's voter suppression laws, and he did it with gusto. But if that's the official argument that you have to make in your legal briefs, there's not much point in denying it in other forums. You might as well just go with it.

Schlafly wasn't reading stage directions. She was reading from the script. It's just a new script, that's all.

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Why Air Strikes Against Syria Probably Won't Work

| Mon Aug. 26, 2013 12:36 PM EDT

A mother and father weep over their child's body who was killed in a suspected chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on August 21, 2013.

Over at WorldViews, Max Fisher provides the nickel arguments for and against air strikes against Syria. The case against is pretty straightforward: Air strikes won't change much of anything; there will be civilian casualties; and it's almost certain to lead to escalation. That's a pretty good case! So what's the case for strikes? Here it is:

1) A "punishment" strike against Assad’s forces for this month's suspected chemical weapons attack would make him think twice before doing it again....2) The international norm against chemical weapons matters for more than just Syria....When the next civilian or military leader locked in a difficult war looks back on what happened in Syria, we want him to conclude that using chemical weapons would not be worth the risk. 3) Even just the (apparently earnest) threat of U.S. strikes could change Assad's behavior.

This is basically a single argument dressed up three different ways: air strikes will deter future chemical attacks. The problem is that I don't believe it unless the strikes are absolutely devastating. Assad is plainly in a fight for his existence, and under circumstances like that nothing is likely to stop him except the certain knowledge that US retaliation would make his position worse than if he had done nothing in the first place. Air strikes might be defensible if we're willing to act on a scale that large, but make no mistake: we'd basically be committing ourselves to full-scale war against Assad.

It's possible that enforcing international norms against chemical attacks is important enough to make that worth it. But that's the question we should be asking ourselves. A "punishment" air strike is a joke, little more than a symbol of helplessness to be laughed off as the nuisance it is. If we want to change Assad's behavior, we'll have to declare war against him.

Report Says Russians Knew Edward Snowden Was Headed for Moscow

| Mon Aug. 26, 2013 11:18 AM EDT

The Washington Post passes along a report that the arrival of NSA leaker Edward Snowden in Moscow a couple of months ago didn't come as a surprise to Russian officials, as they claimed at the time. In fact, they helped set up his travel while Snowden was still in Hong Kong, expecting that he'd quickly catch a connecting flight to Havana:

The article in Kommersant, based on accounts from several unnamed sources, did not state clearly when Snowden decided to seek Russian help in leaving Hong Kong, where he was in hiding in order to evade arrest by U.S. authorities on charges that he leaked top-secret documents about U.S. surveillance programs.

....Kommersant reported Monday that Snowden purchased a ticket June 21 to travel on Aeroflot, Russia’s national airline, from Hong Kong to Havana, through Moscow. He planned to fly onward from Havana to Ecuador or some other Latin American country....Kommersant quoted unnamed Russian officials as saying the Cubans decided to refuse Snowden entry under U.S. pressure, leaving him stranded. That version stands in contrast to widespread speculation that the Russians never intended to let the former CIA employee travel onward.

The article implies that Snowden’s decision to seek Russian help came after he was joined in Hong Kong by Sarah Harrison, a WikiLeaks staffer who became his adviser and later flew to Moscow with him. Harrison, the article suggests, had a role in the making the plans. The article noted a statement released by WikiLeaks on June 23, shortly after the Aeroflot flight left Chinese airspace, which said Snowden was heading to a destination where his safety could be guaranteed.

This may or may not be true, so keep an open mind about it for now. It's just the latest in Snowden gossip.

Graphene: The 21st-Century Miracle Cure for Out-of-Work Lawyers

| Sun Aug. 25, 2013 12:18 PM EDT

Graphene is an exceptionally thin, strong, and transparent material that's a good conductor of heat and electricity. Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov won a Nobel Prize in 2010 for its discovery. Today, the Wall Street Journal reports on what this means:

"As soon as I find something, boom! I file a patent for it," says James Tour, a graphene expert at Rice University in Houston.

Apple has filed to patent graphene "heat dissipators" for mobile devices. Saab has filed to patent graphene heating circuits for deicing airplane wings. Lockheed Martin this year was granted a U.S. patent on a graphene membrane that filters salt from seawater using microscopic pores.

...."It's a land grab," says Mr. Tannock of Cambridge Intellectual. By trying to patent just about every finding, "you have the option for suing your competitors later and stopping them." Many graphene patent filings appear legitimate, but some seem speculative and others may be decoys to mislead rivals, he says.

Perhaps one of graphene's other miracle properties will turn out to be the ability to end the horrible job market currently faced by law school graduates.

Here's Why You Don't Know When Your Team Is Playing This Season

| Sun Aug. 25, 2013 12:58 AM EDT

Up until a few years ago, figuring out your college football team's schedule was easy. A week—or a month—before the season started, you'd just look it up. But then things changed. These days, if you're looking for something to stick on your refrigerator door before the start of the season, you'll find the schedule still in flux, with no kickoff time and no TV station listed for half the games. So what happened? The New York Times explains today:

The extent of ESPN’s influence over college football is literally displayed on the face of your ticket to next week’s game. Tickets to most games are printed with the date and the opponent’s name, but something is missing: the kickoff time. That is because ESPN, under its contracts with conferences, has the right to set kickoff times and wait until 12 days before game day, or in some cases only six, to inform universities.

Every Monday morning during the season, ESPN’s football brain trust meets in a war room in Building 12 on the network’s sprawling campus in Bristol, Conn., to consider options for upcoming games and make sure the hottest teams get the choicest time slots on each of its channels. After decisions are made, calls go out across the country, setting off a scramble on dozens of campuses as universities arrange everything from parking to security to team transportation.

....One of the most powerful people in the business of college football is a boyish, unassuming graduate of the University of Southern California named Ilan Ben-Hanan. His title is vice president of programming and acquisitions for college football at ESPN. What he really is, though, is the network’s master scheduler....Much of the schedule, of course, is determined by the colleges and conferences themselves. What’s more, ESPN’s contracts with conferences contain a variety of scheduling stipulations. Even so, the billions of dollars that ESPN pays for television rights allow it, in some cases, to decide what time games are played and to have a say in who plays whom and when.

Mr. Ben-Hanan’s mission, which embodies one of the central alchemies of ESPN, is to take all that information, what is set in stone and what is not, and create on-screen events as the season approaches and then unspools, week after week.....The network’s right to wait until as few as six days in advance before announcing which games it will show, and at what times, encompasses all but the first three weeks of the season, when game times are set far in advance.

So there you have it. The reason I don't know the kickoff time for all of USC's games this season is because of a USC graduate. And money, of course. Always money.

BY THE WAY: If you consider college football little better than satanic mills for the 21st century, consider this your thread to vent. Lately, I'm starting to agree with you anyway.