Kevin Drum - 2013

Friday Cat Blogging - 8 November 2013

| Fri Nov. 8, 2013 4:00 PM EST

Here is Domino staring up into the camera as she prepares to jump onto the couch. This is always a huge production. The sofa is a grand total of 18 inches off the ground, but she walks back and forth, meows piteously, gets on her hind legs to look at the cushions, then walks back and forth some more, and then some more—and then, finally, after a bit of butt twitching and tail swishing, finally makes her grand entrance. You'd think she was Evel Knievel preparing to jump the Grand Canyon or something.

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President Obama Doesn't Much Care What Benjamin Netanyahu Thinks Anymore

| Fri Nov. 8, 2013 1:53 PM EST

The United States and its allies appear to be close to an interim deal with Iran, one that would modestly ease some of the economic sanctions currently in place in return for some kind of freeze on its centrifuge activities. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is apoplectic at the prospect of a deal, but no one seems to be paying much attention to him. Jeffrey Goldberg explains why:

Two reasons. The first reason is that U.S. President Barack Obama has him boxed in. Netanyahu can’t launch a unilateral strike on Iran now that the U.S. is actively negotiating with its leaders.

....The second reason is one Netanyahu, so far at least, has refused to comprehend. His unwillingness to permanently freeze settlement growth on the West Bank, to make the sort of grand gesture toward the Palestinians that would advance the peace process, has caused even those in Washington and Europe who are sympathetic to his stance on Iran to write him off as generally immovable and irrational.

....Netanyahu argues that these are two separate issues, and he’s correct. Except that, in the world of international diplomacy, they are inextricably linked. The Obama administration hears Netanyahu’s demands for more action on Iran and tries — so far, fairly successfully — to meet that call for action. But when the Obama administration turns around and asks Netanyahu to make the sort of gestures that might advance the peace process, it more often than not gets stonewalled.

I'd put it more simply. Netanyahu has made it clear that he's just flatly opposed to any plausible bargain at all. His idea of a deal is that Iran first destroys its entire nuclear infrastructure and then—maybe—sanctions should be eased or lifted. This is pretty plainly not a deal that any national leader in his right mind would ever accept, and Netanyahu knows it. So he's essentially saying that no deal should ever be made with Iran.

Given an attitude like that, who's going to take him seriously? Nobody. Add to that an unending string of personal affronts against President Obama, and it's a credit to Obama's self-control that he's still willing to talk to Netanyahu at all. Obama has been endlessly accommodating toward Netanyahu's interests, and it's gotten him nothing in return but condescending lectures and blunt dismissals. So now he's acting on his own. More here from Andrew Sullivan.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in October

| Fri Nov. 8, 2013 12:44 PM EST

The American economy added 204,000 new jobs in October, but about 90,000 of those jobs were needed just to keep up with population growth, so net job growth clocked in at 114,000. That's not bad. In addition, revisions to previous months increased previous estimates for August and September by 60,000 new jobs. That's the good news.

The bad news is that the labor force participation rate fell, and the headline unemployment rate increased from 7.24 percent to 7.28 percent. However, unlike the job growth numbers, this is based on a separate survey that counts furloughed government workers as unemployed, so it's not very meaningful. It will bounce back down next month.

Overall, then, the news was reasonably good, if not spectacular, but tainted by some artificial job losses due to the shutdown. We'll have to wait until next month for a clearer picture.

Lara Logan Admits Her Benghazi Report Was a Mistake

| Fri Nov. 8, 2013 11:44 AM EST

Lara Logan appeared on This Morning a few hours ago to admit that she had been misled by Dylan Davies, a security manager who told her a dramatic story two weeks ago about his actions on the night of the Benghazi attacks last year. Logan made Davies the centerpiece of a 60 Minutes segment about Benghazi, and shortly after it aired we learned that an after-action "incident report" contradicted Davies' on-air account. Today, Norah O'Donnell asked the question that's been on my mind ever since:

O'DONNELL: Last Thursday, The Washington Post ran a report that questioned the central parts of what Davies had told you. They cited this incident report right after the attack that he gave to Blue Mountain, the security firm that he worked for. He told them that he never made it to the compound, that he was at his villa there. Did you know about that report, that incident report?

LOGAN: No, we did not know about that incident report before we did our story. When The Washington Post story came out, he denied it. He said that he never wrote it, had nothing to do with it. And that he told the FBI the same story as he told us. But as we now know, that is not the case.

So here's what we know. Davies never told Logan about the incident report. He never told the co-author of his memoir about the incident report. When the content of the report was revealed, he invented an entirely implausible story about lying to his supervisor in the report because he respected him so highly and didn't want him to know that he'd disobeyed orders not to approach the compound. And yet, in a story that should have set off all sorts of alarms in the first place, this still didn't set off any alarms for Logan. She continued to defend Davies and her reporting until news emerged yesterday that the incident report matched what Davies had told the FBI in a debriefing shortly after the attack.

In her report, Logan also failed to mention that Davies' book about Benghazi is being published by a sister corporation of CBS, one that specializes in right-wing nonfiction. "We killed ourselves not to allow politics into this report," Logan told the New York Times, but somehow that little tidbit about Davies' publisher was inadvertently left out of her 60 Minutes segment.

I don't know what's going on here, but it was clear from the moment the segment aired that Logan was heavily invested in a Benghazi narrative of some kind. I'm not even sure what it is, but Davies was an iffy source from the start, and the other two folks she interviewed were well-known Benghazi critics who had told their stories many times before. They had nothing new or very interesting to say, and there were lots of reasons to be skeptical about their accounts. But Logan never mentioned any of that. She just offered them up as unimpeachable sources.

Something isn't right here. This wasn't a deeply reported segment that took a year to prepare. Nor was it the product of a neutral reporter. CBS needs to investigate what happened, and they need to do it with the same thoroughness that they investigated Dan Rather and Mary Mapes five years ago when they got snookered on the George Bush National Guard story that they obviously wanted to believe just a little bit too badly. Something like that seems to have happened here too.

Chart of the Day: The Price of Austerity

| Fri Nov. 8, 2013 7:00 AM EST

Paul Krugman is attending the annual IMF research conference and reports that the presentations have covered a wide range of topics:

It’s pretty clear, however, that the blockbuster paper of the conference will be one that focuses on the truly ugly: the evidence that by tolerating high unemployment we have inflicted huge damage on our long-run prospects.

How so? According to the paper (with the unassuming title “Aggregate Supply in the United States: Recent Developments and Implications for the Conduct of Monetary Policy”), our seemingly endless slump has done long-term damage through multiple channels. The long-term unemployed eventually come to be seen as unemployable; business investment lags thanks to weak sales; new businesses don’t get started; and existing businesses skimp on research and development.

....The evidence is overwhelming that by failing to respond effectively to mass unemployment — by not even making unemployment a major policy priority — we’ve done ourselves immense long-term damage. And it is, as I said, a bitter irony, because one main reason we’ve done so little about unemployment is the preaching of deficit scolds, who have wrapped themselves in the mantle of long-run responsibility — which they have managed to get identified in the public mind almost entirely with holding down government debt.

The authors of the study conclude not merely that GDP growth slowed down during the recession and its aftermath—that's pretty obvious—but that potential GDP has also taken a hit from our continued economic weakness. In other words, even running at full tilt our economy's productive capacity is now about 7 percent below its pre-crisis trend level—which represents a loss of about $3,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country. This is the price we're paying for four years of austerity mania.

"60 Minutes" Getting Ready to Eat Crow Over Benghazi Report

| Thu Nov. 7, 2013 9:45 PM EST

From the New York Times earlier today:

Dylan Davies, a security officer hired to help protect the United States Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya, told the F.B.I. he did not go there the night terrorists attacked it on Sept. 11, 2012, an account that contradicts a version of events he gave in a recently published book and in an interview to the CBS News program “60 Minutes.”

From CBS a few minutes ago:

60 Minutes has learned of new information that undercuts the account told to us by [Davies] of his actions on the night of the attack on the Benghazi compound. We are currently looking into this serious matter to determine if he misled us, and if so, we will make a correction.

Roger that. I'll be waiting for an extensive investigation into how 60 Minutes let itself get snookered yet again.

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New NAEP Scores Show Continued Improvement in American Schools

| Thu Nov. 7, 2013 4:32 PM EST

Good news, ed geeks! The 2013 NAEP scores for reading and math are out today. Here's the executive summary: math scores are up 1 point since 2011 for both 4th and 8th graders. Reading scores are up 2 points for 8th graders and are flat for 4th graders.

I'll probably dig into this in more detail later, but for now here's a quick taste. The table below shows the 8th grade math results for all states. It's sorted by black scores, so you can see which states seem to do the best job of educating their black students. If you want to know how or why some states do better than others, I have no answers for you right now. This is just raw data. Enjoy.

UPDATE: Sorry, I screwed up and posted 4th grade scores instead of 8th grade scores. It's been corrected now.

America Got a Bit More Liberal This Week

| Thu Nov. 7, 2013 2:33 PM EST

E.J. Dionne says the country became a lot more liberal this week:

Republicans took a big step back from the tea party. An ebullient progressive was elected mayor of New York City. And a Democrat was elected governor of Virginia after campaigning unapologetically as a supporter of gun control and a liberal on social issues

The one bright spot for Republicans, Chris Christie’s landslide reelection in New Jersey, was won precisely because Christie ran briskly away from the party’s right wing....And in the one direct intraparty fight over the GOP’s future, a tea party candidate lost a primary in Alabama to a more traditional conservative.

That's....plausible. The number of data points is small enough that I'm reluctant to draw any broad conclusions here, but at the very least, it's true that the tea party wing of the GOP had very little to celebrate on Tuesday. There are now a growing numbers of signs that Republicans have finally bumped up against a wall on their right flank and have to pull back a bit if they want to stay electorally relevant. If that's true—a big if—it would be a fairly historic development for a party that's moved steadily to the right for more than 40 years and has prospered the entire time.

I might add that they've prospered despite persistent warnings from us lefties, who have spent virtually this entire period convinced that Republicans couldn't possibly get any more conservative than they already were. We've been wrong every single time so far, so I'd take this time with a grain of salt too.

Still, there has to be a limit somewhere. Maybe 2010 really did represent peak conservatism after all, and 2013 is yet another tidbit of evidence that moderation is the only strategy left to the Republican Party if it wants to keep winning elections. Wait and see.

Quote of the Day: Ethics Violations Now Part of Standard Career Track for Conservatives

| Thu Nov. 7, 2013 1:19 PM EST

From Dan Drezner, commenting on the twin cases of Rand Paul and Elizabeth O'Bagy:

It seems a bit odd that it's apparently impossible for someone on the right to commit a serious ethical breach and go 48 hours without... landing a cushy new gig.

Quite so. At least Eliot Spitzer waited nine months before giving birth to his Slate gig. Show some contrition, people.

Medical Innovation is Sluggish, But Don't Blame Obamacare

| Thu Nov. 7, 2013 12:50 PM EST

Megan McArdle is concerned that the price controls in Obamacare might stifle the pace of medical innovation. Today, she passes along a report in the Wall Street Journal about health care startups:

The only way to find out, of course, is to wait (though really, we’ll still end up arguing: If medical innovation falls, the law’s supporters can always say it would have fallen anyway; if it goes up or stays steady, the opposition can always argue that it would have risen further). But here’s one sign to watch: Venture-capital investment in medical technology seems to be falling fast.

Is this related to Obamacare? Frustratingly, it’s hard to tell. It’s not mentioned among the reasons cited in the Wall Street Journal article. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not among the reasons that venture capitalists are disinvesting; it just means it wasn’t mentioned. And one supposes that a tax on medical devices and a more stringent cost-control environment could hardly help.

I agree that innovation is a canary in the coal mine for the health care industry, and it's one we should keep a close eye on. But I don't think the evidence suggests that Obamacare is playing any role in our current investment slowdown.

Take a look at the two charts on the right. The top one is from the Journal article about venture capital investment, and as you can see, VC funding in biotech (the pink line) and medical devices (the dark blue line) peaked in 2007 and then started declining. There's really no way that Obamacare can be at fault for that.

The bottom chart comes from Research America, and it's an estimate of total health care investment. Again, as you can see, investment from private industry (the red line) flattened out starting in 2008. If these numbers were adjusted for inflation, they'd probably show a small drop.

But again, a trend that started in 2008 can hardly be blamed on Obamacare. The far more likely culprit here is a combination of well-known problems in health care research, which has been suffering from innovation problems for a while, and the recession, which slowed investment in a lot of areas. The federal government might have picked up some of the slack in basic research, but after a short-lived stimulus burst in 2009, federal research funding has been declining too, thanks to budget cutbacks and the sequester.

Pharmaceutical R&D has been troubled for some time, as significant new developments have become harder and harder to come by. That's a problem. To add to that, the financial crisis has slowed down business investment in recent years. That's also a problem. But it's a stretch to suggest that Obamacare is related to either of them.

POSTSCRIPT: It's worth mentioning that pretty much everyone agrees that we need to control the spiraling growth of health care spending. It's like motherhood and apple pie. But one man's growth is another man's profit. Regardless of how we do it, if health care spending slows, then investment in the health care sector is likely to slow down too. I'm not sure how you get around that, aside from funding more R&D via the federal government.