Kevin Drum - 2013

Corporate America is Still Pretty Happy With the GOP

| Wed Sep. 4, 2013 12:12 PM EDT

Eduardo Porter writes today about the apparently waning influence of the business community on the Republican Party. They haven't gotten their way on immigration reform, or on halting the debt ceiling fiasco, or on increased infrastructure spending. A big chunk of the business community was in favor of Obamacare too, but that certainly didn't cut any ice with Republicans. So what's going on?

Ed Kilgore thinks the argument is overblown:

One of the most important corollaries of the "constitutional conservative" ideology that is at the heart of Tea Party activism is the virtual divinization of limited-government and absolute property-rights nostrums as fundamental to the enduring character of the country as blessed by the Founders, natural law, and Divine Providence.

To put it another way, the rightward trend in the GOP has given far more to corporate America in an unshakable commitment to its long-term interests than it has taken away in occasional revolts against the business-community "line" on individual issues like immigration reform. Add in the corporate influence on the Democratic Party that has been fed by the drift of professional elites in their direction and the need to compete with the GOP financially, and there are few grounds for legitimate complaints from board-rooms. Even if Corporate America does lose a few political battles, it is doing quite well in the war.

Yep. The business community has three big issues it cares deeply about: low taxes, reduced regulation, and the demise of labor unions. Those things overwhelm every other desire, and the Republican Party is satisfyingly adamantine on all of them. What's more, the tea-party-ized GOP is, if anything, even more rock solid on them. That's worth a lot.

On the flip side, I think it's easy to overstate just how important issues like immigration reform are to corporate America. Sure, they're generally in favor of it. But honestly, most of them don't care because it doesn't affect them much, and for the rest the status quo isn't really all that bad. They can live with it. Ditto for the debt ceiling, which they probably view as a periodic bit of DC lunacy that has minor short-term impacts but not much more. And infrastructure tends to be a local issue more than a national one. As long as the trains and trucks and planes are still rolling, things are OK.

It would be genuinely interesting to see what happened if there was a conflict between a core business interest and a core tea party interest. But I'm not sure there are any. The conflicts are all at the margins, where the business community isn't fighting all that hard in the first place. I'm not quite sure if there's anything on the horizons that could ignite a genuine war.

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The Grand Bargain Is Dead, Dead, Dead

| Wed Sep. 4, 2013 11:29 AM EDT

Matt Yglesias writes today that the remarkable thing about Congress isn't that it can't cut deals on issues where the public is sharply divided—that's pretty understandable—but that it can't even cut deals on issues where there's a pretty strong public consensus:

Take the massive, entrenched, years-long dispute over taxes and the federal budget. If you go into the survey data, you find that there absolutely is not a firm partisan divide on this issue. 56 percent of self-identified Republican voters agree with Barack Obama that deficit reduction should involve both spending cuts and tax increases and 56 percent of self-identified Democratic voters endorse the view that deficit reduction should be mostly spending cuts.

You never want to exaggerate the significance of this kind of issue polling. But I think the message is clear. If key Republican leaders—John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, etc.—wanted to shake hands on a bargain that raised taxes a fair amount and cut spending by three or four times that amount, Obama would gladly take the deal and a strong cross-party majority of Americans would applaud....But the deal keeps not happening. It doesn't happen because at an elite level the Republican Party is much more strongly committed to an agenda of low tax cuts on the rich than are Republican Party voters.

Yglesias is obviously right about taxes, but I'm curious: Does everybody think that Obama is still gung-ho for a deal like this if he could get Republican agreement? It's pretty obvious that he was in 2011, and possibly even through the end of 2012. But spending has been cut a lot since then, and an improving economy is going to cut it even further over the next few years. Tough talk aside, I'm not sure that even Republicans really want to cut discretionary spending much anymore.

So that leaves medium and long-term mandatory spending. In other words, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. But Medicare reimbursements have already been cut by Obamacare, and were cut further by the sequester. Those cuts have been unpopular. Obamacare's cost-cutting provisions might reduce spending even further, and those provisions have also been unpopular. Likewise, Social Security could, in principle, be the target of a combination of benefit cuts and tax increases, but that's not very popular either, and at this point it's not really clear if either party is much in favor of it.

In other words, I'm curious about whether there's really any momentum left for a Grand Bargain on either side. I'd say probably not. I don't think Republicans want it. I don't think Democrats want it. And I don't think even Obama really wants it anymore. It's dead.

Vladimir Putin Shows His Softer Side

| Wed Sep. 4, 2013 10:27 AM EDT

With the G20 summit coming up, Vladimir Putin has suddenly decided that he should sound statesmanlike and reasonable. If the United States comes up with real evidence that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against Syrian rebels, he might decide to support punitive action after all:

“I don’t rule this out,” Putin said during a televised interview with First Channel, a Russian federal television network, and the Associated Press. “But I want to draw your attention to one absolutely principled issue: In accordance with the current international law, a sanction to use arms against a sovereign state can be given only by the U.N. Security Council.”

Putin said he will be convinced only by “a deep, detailed study of the issue and the real presence of evidence that could clearly prove who used what [weapons]."

“After that we will be ready to act in a most resolute and serious way,” he said. He did not say what actions he is considering.

OK. And how about all the recent chilliness with President Obama? Just a myth:

Putin said he still hopes for a meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg. Putin said he recalled previous meetings with Obama as “very constructive,” and praised the U.S. president as “a very interesting interlocutor and a business-like person.”

“It is easy to talk with him, because it is clear what the man wants. His position is clear, and he hears out the position of ... his opponent and reacts to it,” Putin said.

Western leaders, whether or not they support air strikes against Syria, pretty unanimously consider the Limbaugh/Putin position that the rebels conducted the gas attack ridiculous. I guess the prospect of a meeting where everyone considers your views laughable concentrates the mind wonderfully, so Putin decided to back off a bit. But is this just a temporary change of heart to get him through the summit without being mocked too much, or something more permanent? The former, I'd guess, but we'll see.

Today Brings Us Three Rays of Economic Sunshine

| Wed Sep. 4, 2013 1:11 AM EDT

Would you like some good news? Well, here you go. Manufacturing orders are way up:

The Institute for Supply Management’s survey of manufacturers showed its new orders index increased to 63.2 in August from 58.3 in July. It was the third consecutive monthly gain in demand and the highest reading since April 2011.

Auto sales are near record highs:

With numbers due out Wednesday, analysts have predicted that August will prove to be the best month for auto sales since before the recession....Automakers are ramping up production and hiring workers to keep pace with demand, which analysts project will result in as many as 16 million new-vehicle sales in 2013 — not far off the record 17 million sales achieved before the downturn.

And the housing market is coming back:

Private residential construction spending rose 0.6% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $334.58 billion, the Commerce Department said Tuesday....A rebounding housing market has boosted the economy–making homeowners feel more confident, driving spending on building materials and creating construction jobs.

The bad news is that this is all good news, but not great news. What's more, thanks to the drag of federal spending cuts, broader economic measures remain stuck in the OK range, not in the "catching up from a horrible recession" range. Still, it's all modestly promising stuff. And the car story includes this:

Boosted by the robust sales and healthy profits, automakers are planning to move long-discussed innovation from the test track to the road. General Motors has said it will develop a car by the end of the decade that will be able to drive itself in most circumstances. Nissan, meanwhile, has said it will introduce a driverless car by 2020.

Really? I'm usually the most rah-rah guy in the room when it comes to advances in AI, but even I wouldn't have guessed that truly autonomous cars would be ready before 2025 or so. I wonder just how autonomous these Nissan and GM cars will be by 2020? Really, truly able to accept a destination and just drive you there with no help? Or kinda sorta autonomous in most situations, but they still can't navigate in parking lots or in the fog? I guess we'll all find out in seven years.

Yet Another Obamacare Non-Horror Story

| Tue Sep. 3, 2013 6:35 PM EDT

Another day, another Obamacare horror story. The latest involves UPS, which has decided to eliminate health insurance for spouses who already get health coverage from their own employer. UPS has suggested that Obamacare was responsible for their decision, but I think Bloomberg has pretty much the right take on this:

It’s possible, of course, that UPS is using the health-care law as a smokescreen for cutting costs it wanted to cut anyway.

Ya think? I'd say it's a safe bet that every employer in America that raises copays or reduces coverage or ratchets up employee premiums is going to try to blame it on Obamacare as a way of deflecting worker resentment at the news. It's a pretty handy cudgel, after all. And right wing blatherers will all pitch in, painting it as the latest sign that President Obama is destroying America's healthcare system before our eyes.

Needless to say, the evidence doesn't really back this up. Will Obamacare have modest effects on some kinds of coverage and certain demographic groups? Sure. Are these effects either large or persistent? No. Jon Cohn provided the details a week ago:

UPS officials said that the company's actuaries expected overall employee health costs to rise by about 12 percent next year—and that about a third of that increase was in reaction to Obamacare....But those are basically one-time increases—the result of changes that will take place only as Obamacare gets underway.

....Even UPS officials caution that Obamacare’s role in this decision isn’t as big as some are making it out to be. “One way of saying this is that we are restructuring our benefits ‘because of the ACA’—but that’s not accurate,” Andy McGowan, a UPS spokesman, told me. “We are doing this because we are looking at many different factors adding to our costs, and ACA is one of them.”

So at worst, what we're looking at is Obamacare being responsible for a one-time cost increase of 4 percent—largely due to its requirement that health plans cover children until age 26, a provision popular enough that even Republicans claim to favor it nowadays. Considering that the cost of health premiums has nearly doubled in the last decade, this is neither a bombshell nor a sign of the imminent destruction of the American healthcare system. In fact, given Obamacare's likely long-term moderating effect on healthcare premiums, it's almost certainly going to end up as a net moneysaver for UPS.

But it won't stop health premiums from continuing to rise, and it won't stop companies like UPS from doing everything they can to reduce their healthcare spending. Big companies have been doing that for the past two decades, and they'll keep doing it for decades to come.

Americans Are Really, Really Not Excited About Air Strikes on Syria

| Tue Sep. 3, 2013 2:51 PM EDT

The latest polls are pretty damn negative about air strikes on Syria. According to ABC News, only 36 percent support a strike. According to Pew, the number is even lower: only 29 percent of Americans support military action. And take a look at this question from the Pew poll:

Ouch. Big majorities think an air strike will lead to further escalation and create a backlash against the United States. And only a third think it will discourage the future use of chemical weapons. No wonder so few people support the air strikes. President Obama has a helluva sales job ahead of him.

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From the Fever Swamps: Obama Planned the Syrian Gas Attacks

| Tue Sep. 3, 2013 2:21 PM EDT

Are you ready for the next big right-wing conspiracy theory? Sure you are! Naturally it's about Syria.

There have long been mutterings that the chemical attack in Ghouta was a false-flag operation. That is, the Syrian opposition actually carried out the attack, hoping that Bashar al-Assad would get blamed and President Obama would retaliate with a huge bombing campaign. But it's just been mutterings. Today, though, Rush Limbaugh upped the ante, jabbering on air about an article by Yossef Bodansky titled "Did the White House Help Plan the Syrian Chemical Attack?"

Got that? Not just a false flag operation that snookered the idiot-in-chief, but an operation actually put in motion by the White House. Bodansky, an Assad sympathizer who has previously suggested that the 1995 Oklahoma bombing was orchestrated by Iran and that Saddam's WMDs all ended up in Syria, tells a simple story. Starting on August 13, at a meeting between Syrian opposition leaders and representatives of Qatari, Turkish, and US intelligence, senior opposition commanders told everyone to expect "a war-changing development" which would soon lead to a U.S. bombing campaign in Syria. Shortly afterward, a huge cache of weapons was released to the rebels under the supervision of US intelligence, and they were told to get ready to use them. Sure enough, a few days later a major chemical attack took place and Assad got the blame:

The latest strategy formulation and coordination meetings took place on August 26, 2013. The political coordination meeting took place in Istanbul and was attended by US Amb. Robert Ford. More important were the military and operational coordination meetings at the Antakya garrison. Senior Turkish, Qatari, and US Intelligence officials attended in addition to the Syrian senior (opposition) commanders.

....The descriptions of these meetings raise the question of the extent of foreknowledge of US Intelligence, and therefore, the Obama White House....At the very least, they should have known that the opposition leaders were anticipating “a war-changing development”: that is, a dramatic event which would provoke a US-led military intervention.

[Evidence is then laid out that Syrian rebels really did launch the chemical attack and Assad had nothing to do with it.]

....How is that US Intelligence did not know in advance about the opposition’s planned use of chemical weapons in Damascus? It is a colossal failure. And if they did know and warned the Obama White House, why then the sanctimonious rush to blame the Assad Administration?

In summary: the Syrian opposition carried out the chemical attack, and they did it with the foreknowledge of the United States. Or maybe even worse: perhaps the United States actively coordinated the whole thing. As one eager Dittohead put it, "RUSH LIMBAUGH SAYS ADOLF OBAMA BEHIND NERVE GASSING OF SYRIANS!!!" That's an exaggeration, of course. Rush is just saying it's "a very possible scenario." Like Hillary Clinton's murder of Vince Foster.

This story hasn't produced a flashing red siren from Drudge yet, so I suppose it doesn't quite count as the fever swamp's latest pet theory. But I imagine that's coming soon.

Coming Soon: The End of Robocalls (Maybe)

| Tue Sep. 3, 2013 12:14 PM EDT

Someday, the robot revolution will create a paradise on earth.1 Before that happens, though, we need to defeat the hordes of evil robots who tirelessly call our phones trying to sell us ripoff home security systems or Medigap plans.2 Obviously the only way to stop a bad robot with a phone is with a good robot with a phone, so last year the FTC offered a $50,000 prize for the best anti-robocall invention. I missed this months ago when it was announced—shame on me!—but in April the FTC announced a pair of winners.

The "Best Solution" award went to Nomorobo, and takes advantage of a widely available (but not commonly used) feature that allows you to route phone calls to all of your phones at the same time. But instead of telling your phone company to ring your landline number and your cell number at the same time, you tell it to ring your landline number and the Nomorobo number at the same time. Inventor Aaron Ross explained it to the LA Times this morning:3

Tell us how it works.

If you have Simultaneous Ring on your phone and someone calls your number, that call is being split and goes first to a Nomorobo number. In real time, it's analyzing the caller ID and caller frequency across multiple phone lines. It's a red flag, for example, when the same phone number has made 5,000 calls to different numbers in the past hour. It's also a red flag when the same phone number is sequentially calling large blocks of phone numbers. Both scenarios indicate robocalling patterns.

If it detects a robocaller, the call is automatically disconnected before the consumer's phone even rings. Those numbers go onto a blacklist. If an incoming number doesn't appear on the blacklist, the software asks the caller to type in a number. If it's a human telemarketer, they'd respond. If it's a robocaller, they can't respond and the call is terminated.

Good idea! This will spawn an arms race between robocallers and Nomorobo, of course, just like the arms race between spammers and spam filters, but it seems like it has a lot of potential to cut down on robocalls considerably. There are problems, of course. For starters, you have to enable Simultaneous Calling with the Nomorobo number, and it's not clear how many people will actually do that. Nor is it clear who exactly is going to run this or how well it will scale if it becomes enormously popular. Nor do we know for sure how well the blacklist/whitelist concept will work in practice. What evidence do I have to provide that I'm a legitimate robocaller to get on the whitelist? And can it be scammed?

Ross says that Nomorobo will roll out this month, so I guess we'll find out soon. I'm eager to give it a try.

1Maybe.

2If you're a 20-something who would rather cut off your big toe than actually answer a phone call in the first place, you don't care about this. You may go about your business.

3No link, sorry. We're dealing with the LA Times here, the most frustrating news website in the nation. Stories in the print edition are often almost impossible to find online, and sometimes they simply aren't online at all. That's what happened to this one.

On Syria, Obama Is Torn Between Pragmatism and Idealism

| Tue Sep. 3, 2013 10:56 AM EDT

Why has the White House been dithering so loudly and longly about conducting air strikes against the Syrian regime to punish it for its chemical weapons attacks?

Good question. Here's another one: Why has the White House dithered for months about arming the Syrian rebels even though they promised to do so back in June? Adam Entous and Nour Malas of the Wall Street Journal provide a single familiar answer to both questions:

The delay, in part, reflects a broader U.S. approach rarely discussed publicly but that underpins its decision-making, according to former and current U.S. officials: The Obama administration doesn't want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate.

....The administration's view can also be seen in White House planning for limited airstrikes—now awaiting congressional review—to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons. Pentagon planners were instructed not to offer strike options that could help drive Mr. Assad from power: "The big concern is the wrong groups in the opposition would be able to take advantage of it," a senior military officer said. The CIA declined to comment.

....Many rebel commanders say the aim of U.S. policy in Syria appears to be a prolonged stalemate that would buy the U.S. and its allies more time to empower moderates and choose whom to support....Israeli officials have told their American counterparts they would be happy to see its enemies Iran, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and al Qaeda militants fight until they are weakened, giving moderate rebel forces a chance to play a bigger role in Syria's future. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been particularly outspoken with lawmakers about his concerns that weakening Mr. Assad too much could tip the scales in favor of al Qaeda-linked fighters.

Dan Drezner doesn't think Obama can keep up this balancing act for too long. Eventually he's going to have to take sides:

There are a lot of areas of foreign policy where different paradigms can offer the same policy recommendation, and there are a lot of foreign policy issue areas where presidents can just claim "pragmatism" and not worry about which international relations theory is guiding their actions. I'm increasingly of the view, however, that Syria is one of those areas where Obama is gonna actually have to make a decision about what matters more — his realist desire to not get too deeply involved, or his liberal desire to punish the violation of a norm. If he doesn't decide, if he tries to half-ass his way through this muddle, I fear he'll arrive at a policy that would actually be worse than either a straightforward realist or a straight liberal approach.

The policy of stalemate is brutal but pragmatic: America truly has no allies in this fight. Neither Assad nor most of the rebel elements are even remotely friendly toward the U.S.

Punishing Assad for using chemical weapons, by contrast, is extremely high-minded. That's an international norm that's worth enforcing even if it hurts U.S. interests in the short term.

So which will it be? Sordid pragmatism or high-minded idealism? If the stalemate theory is correct, this is the decision Obama has to make, and it's the reason he's so obviously torn about it.

Fred Pohl Dies at 93

| Mon Sep. 2, 2013 11:37 PM EDT

Sad news today:

Science fiction Grand Master Frederik Pohl has died, aged 93.

Pohl was one of last survivors of Science Fiction's “golden age” of the late 1930s and zearly 1940s, a time when he contributed to and edited pulp fiction magazines. He was also an important figure in the emergence of fandom, founding the “Futurians”.

A contemporary of Isaac Asimov, Jack Vance, James Blish and other Sci Fi royalty, Pohl's initial impact as a novelist came in collaboration with Cyril Kornbluth. The pair penned The Space Merchants, a work considered a classic for its satire depicting a future society run in part by advertising agencies and eerily prescient today in the age of search engine optimisation.

When i09 asked a bunch of folks in 2008 to recommend a science fiction novel that you should read before stepping into the voting booth, my choice was The Merchants' War, Pohl's mid-80s sequel to The Space Merchants. It doesn't quite describe the way politicians are marketed today, but it's close enough to be scary.

Pohl's novels in the 90s and beyond were mostly fairly mediocre, but when he was good he was one of the best. I'm not sure any science fiction writer has ever written three consecutive novels as good as Man Plus, Gateway, and Jem. He'll be missed.