Kevin Drum - April 2014

Quote of the Day: CO2? What CO2?

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 4:59 PM EDT

From Les Woodcock, a former professor at the University of Manchester’s School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science, explaining why he thinks climate change is a crock:

There is no reproducible scientific evidence CO2 has significantly increased in the last 100 years.

There are many things that a climate skeptic could say. Some are more ridiculous than others, however, and on a scale of 1 to 10, this one is an 11. There are no complicated computer models involved in calculating atmospheric CO2. You just measure it. For pre-modern data, you use ice cores. That's it. Two centuries ago, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was about 280 ppm. Last year it crossed the 400 ppm mark. This is about as controversial as germ theory. Here's the chart:

Now, it's fair to ask why you should care about the fact that some random elderly former professor is badly confused about a simple and uncontroversial measurement. Answer: because there are plenty of people who don't care about evidence one way or another and are willing to glom onto anyone who tells their audience what it wants to hear. "Professor Woodcock is the latest scientist to come out against the theory of man-made global warming," crows Breitbart.com. "Former NASA Scientist: Global Warming is Nonsense," tweets tea party hero Erick Erickson. "Another Scientist Dissents!" screams Climate Depot.

"I literally cannot imagine a statement that would be more scientifically incorrect and humiliating than the one Professor Woodcock made," says Ryan Cooper, from whom I learned about this. "It's like saying you don't believe in the existence of cheese....It's no wonder that only six percent of scientists are Republican."

Nonetheless, there you have it. In the tea party precincts of the conservative movement, even the simplest version of reality doesn't matter. If cheese denial is how you demonstrate you're part of the tribe, then anyone who denies cheese is a hero. The fact that you happen to be happily munching away on a slice of pizza at the time doesn't faze you at all.

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An Awful Lot of People Seem to Have Fibbed About Responding to the Heartbleed Bug

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 1:19 PM EDT

Via Hayley Tsukayama, check out this question about the Heartbleed bug from Pew Research:

That's pretty impressive, no?

"I think it’s a pretty striking number," said Lee Rainie, the center's director, in an e-mailed statement....Rainie added that the urgency of the coverage likely prompted people to act quickly to address the issue. "We didn’t ask people how they'd heard about Heartbleed, but I'd guess that it was a combination of media coverage plus chatter in users’ networks via social media and e-mail," he said. "And much of what we were seeing was the basic message, 'This one is really serious and you need to respond.'"

I too think this is a pretty striking number. But I don't believe it for a second. If you had security consultants make personal house calls to every internet user in the United States, I don't think 61 percent would change their passwords. I would frankly be surprised if 61 percent of internet users even know how to change their passwords.

Am I being too cynical? Maybe. But what I'm curious about is where this number comes from. Since I doubt that the real number of password changers is even half of the Pew number, why did so many people fib about it when a pollster called them? And what does that say about how people respond to pollsters in general?

Here's the Easiest Way to Fund the Interstate Highway System: Just Restore the Damn Gas Tax

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 12:40 PM EDT

With a few exceptions, the interstate highway system is blissfully toll-free. That may be about to change:

With pressure mounting to avert a transportation funding crisis this summer, the Obama administration Tuesday opened the door for states to collect tolls on interstate highways to raise revenue for roadway repairs.

....The question of how to pay to repair roadways and transit systems built in the heady era of post-World War II expansion is demanding center stage this spring, with projections that traditional funding can no longer meet the need. That source, the Highway Trust Fund, relies on the 18.4-cent federal gas tax, which has eroded steadily as vehicles have become more energy efficient.

....With the trust fund about to run into the red and the current federal highway bill set to expire Sept. 30, Congress cannot — as its members often note — keep “kicking the can down the road.”

Hold on. It's true that we're using a bit less gasoline than in the past. But that's not why the Highway Trust Fund is in dire shape. It's in dire shape because the federal gas tax has been cut nearly in half since it was last changed two decades ago. In 1993 dollars, it's now about 11 cents per gallon. If it had just kept up with inflation, highway funding would be in fine shape.

Now, there's arguably a good reason to allow tolls. Basically, it makes driving on interstates more of a pain in the ass, which probably means marginally less driving on interstates. And less driving is good for the planet. So if you think that making it less convenient to drive is a good idea, tolls might help.

But you know what else would cut down on driving? Gas taxes restored to 1993 levels. So what's the point of dicking around instead with tolls and corporate tax reform and all that? The answer, of course, is Republicans, who have sworn a blood oath never to raise taxes, even if "raising" actually means "keeping them at the same level." So instead of just bumping up the gax tax by a dime or two and then indexing it to inflation—no muss, no fuss—we're going to play a bunch of idiotic and annoying games merely to keep our roads in decent repair.

Thanks, Republicans. I appreciate it.

Anger at the Plutocracy Isn't Strong Enough to Make a Big Difference in November

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 10:38 AM EDT

Greg Sargent writes today that the Democratic strategy of going after the Koch brothers isn't about the Kochs per se, but "a gamble on what swing voters think has happened to the economy, and on the reasons struggling Americans think they aren’t getting ahead":

Dems are making an argument about what has happened to the economy, and which party actually has a plan to do something about it. Today’s NBC/WSJ poll finds support for the general idea that the economy is not distributing gains fairly and is rigged against ordinary Americans....The Democratic case is that the all-Obamacare-all-the-time message is merely meant to mask the GOP’s lack of any actual affirmative economic agenda, and even reveals the GOP’s priorities remain to roll back any efforts by Dems to ameliorate economic insecurity.

....I don’t know if the Dem strategy will work.

I think Sargent's skepticism is warranted. The problem is that the NBC/WSJ poll he mentions doesn't find an awful lot of evidence for seething anger. Here are the basic results:

Those are not really huge margins. The first question in particular is one they've been asking for two decades, and 55-39 is a very typical result, especially during times of economic weakness.

Given this, and given the extreme difficulty of a party in power taking advantage of economic discontent, will the Democratic strategy of bludgeoning Republicans over their plutocratic leanings work? I doubt it. Specific agenda items like a higher minimum wage, health care success stories, and universal pre-K seem more likely to work. At the margins, a bit of Koch bashing and a few high-profile Wall Street indictments might help a bit too, but only as an added fillip.

Oh, and a nice, short, decisive war against some minor global bad guy would also do wonders. In October, maybe.

No, the New Benghazi Emails Don't Demonstrate a White House Cover-Up

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 10:05 AM EDT

Wait a second. Is a National Review editor allowed to say this about Benghazi?

On the totality of the evidence we have so far, the White House took the intelligence community and diplomatic community’s estimate, which was relatively uncertain, bereft of much detail, and turned out days later to be quite wrong, and played up certain parts of it to avoid questions about their counterterror strategy and the situation in Libya. That isn’t being as straightforward with the American public as they could or probably should have been; it’s also not a lie or a cover-up.

This is a response to Charles Krauthammer's bombastic insistence yesterday that newly released Benghazi emails had revealed "a classic cover-up of a cover-up." But as Patrick Brennan says, they show no such thing.

You know, if conservatives had stuck to a reasonable line like this one in the first place, they could have caused President Obama a lot more damage. Did the White House "play up certain parts" of the Benghazi story in order to "avoid questions about their counterterror strategy"? I'd quibble over some of the details here, but that's fair enough. And there are certainly legitimate questions—although they cut a bipartisan swath—about how security was handled in Libya before the attacks.

Stick to that stuff and you have a story that resonates—and not in a good way for Obama. Take the Krauthammer route, and you get cheers from the Fox News faithful but not much else. That's why no one but a hard core of loons and fanatics cares about Benghazi anymore.

Pope Francis Convenes Vatican Synod on Family and Sex

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 9:09 AM EDT

Hmmm. Is Pope Francis about to convene Vatican III? Not quite, but we're getting something along similar lines later this year:

On Pope Francis' orders, the Vatican will convene an urgent meeting of senior clerics this fall to reexamine church teachings that touch the most intimate aspects of people's lives....The run-up to the synod has been extraordinary in itself, a departure from usual practice that some say is a mark of the pope's radical new leadership style, and a canny tactic to defuse dissent over potential reforms.

....Within a few months of his election last year, Francis directed every diocese in the world to survey local attitudes on family and relationships and report back to the Vatican, a canvassing of a sort that few of the faithful can recall previously....The exercise reflects Francis' desire for less centralized and more responsive decision-making, mirroring his own self-described evolution from a rigid, authoritarian leader as a young man into one who consults and empathizes.

....Taking the public temperature also brings tactical advantages. Nobody at the Vatican will be surprised to learn that vast numbers of Catholics disobey its ban on premarital sex and birth control, or that some are in gay partnerships. Setting down those realities irrefutably on paper, however, could strengthen a bid by Francis to soften the church's official line and put pressure on bishops inclined to resist, including some in the United States and many in Asia and Africa, conservative areas where the church has been growing.

The story is careful to say that no one expects any large doctrinal changes from this synod. Catholic teaching on gay marriage, divorce, women priests, and contraception will likely remain unchanged. Still, even baby steps would be welcome. Stay tuned.

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US Economy Tanks Completely in the First Quarter

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 8:35 AM EDT

The economy took a huge dive in the first quarter. It grew at such a slow annualized rate, 0.1 percent, that I had to enlarge my usual FRED chart just so you could see the tiny bar on the far right. The full BEA report is here.

So what happened? Consumer expenditures actually increased reasonably well. Government consumption was about flat, which isn't too unusual these days. But fixed investment—including housing—tanked, inventories shrank, and exports plummeted. That was enough to swamp the strong gains in consumer spending.

It's hard to draw any positive conclusions from this. Cold weather is getting some of the blame, but I always take weather-based excuses with a big grain of salt. Basically, the economy is still really sluggish. Job growth is OK but not great and wage growth is positive but only barely. Despite that, here's what the Wall Street Journal has to say:

The latest figures come as Federal Reserve officials conclude at two-day meeting Wednesday. The numbers aren't likely to have a large influence on policy, given the expectations for improved growth later in the year. Officials, however, are closely monitoring inflation measures. Persistently low inflation could complicate the Fed's decisions about how to wind down its bond-buying program this year and when to raise benchmark interest rates from near zero.

Yeesh. Crappy GDP growth, sluggish job growth, and persistently low inflation "aren't likely to have a large influence on policy." Then what the hell would have a large influence on policy? Needless to say, a GDP report like this is music to Republican ears, so we certainly can't expect Congress to react in any productive way. That means the Fed is all we've got. But apparently we don't have them either.

Here's Why Wisconsin's Voter ID Law Got Struck Down

| Wed Apr. 30, 2014 12:29 AM EDT

Judge Lynn Adelman, a federal district judge in Wisconsin, struck down that state's voter ID law today. This was despite the Supreme Court's 2008 decision in Crawford v. Marion County that Indiana's voter ID law was justified. So what was different this time?

In a word, better arguments from one side. In Crawford, the state presented virtually no evidence that in-person voter fraud was a problem in Indiana—but neither did the plaintiffs provide much evidence that a voter ID law presented a serious obstacle to voting. Given this, the state's interest in preventing voter fraud—even if that interest was more speculative than real—carried the day.

This time, the state once again produced virtually no evidence that in-person voter fraud was even a potential problem. But the judge was presented with loads of evidence that the burden of obtaining a photo ID was, in fact, quite high for low-income voters in particular. Since Crawford mandated the use of a balancing test to assess whether a photo ID law was justified, that made the difference and Wisconsin's law was struck down.

The full opinion is here. Below are a few excerpts that explain Adelman's reasoning. It's worth a read because I wouldn't be surprised if another photo ID case makes it to the Supreme Court sometime in the next few years. If it does, better arguments about the burden imposed by ID laws will be key to any reconsideration of Crawford.

Is there any serious evidence of in-person voting fraud that could be prevented by a photo ID law?

The evidence at trial established that virtually no voter impersonation occurs in Wisconsin. The defendants could not point to a single instance of known voter impersonation occurring in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past. The only evidence even relating to voter impersonation that the defendants introduced was the testimony of Bruce Landgraf, an Assistant District Attorney in Milwaukee County....The most Landgraf’s testimony shows is that cases of potential voter-impersonation fraud occur so infrequently that no rational person familiar with the relevant facts could be concerned about them. There are over 660,000 eligible voters in Milwaukee County, and if the District Attorney’s office finds two unexplained cases each major election, that means that there is less than one questionable vote cast each major election per 330,000 eligible voters. The rate of potential voter-impersonation fraud is thus exceedingly tiny.

How heavy a burden is it to obtain a state-issued photo ID?

In light of the fact that a substantial number of the 300,000 plus voters who lack an ID are low income, Act 23's burdens must be assessed with reference to them rather than with reference to a typical middle- or upper-class voter....For almost all low-income voters who lack an ID, the easiest ID to obtain will be the free state ID card, which is issued by the DMV....To prove name, date of birth and United States citizenship, most people will need to produce a birth certificate. The evidence at trial showed that a substantial number of eligible voters who lack Act 23-qualifying IDs also lack birth certificates.

....Assuming the person is able to determine what he or she needs to do to obtain an ID, the person must next consider the time and effort involved in actually obtaining the ID. This will involve at least one trip to the DMV. There are 92 DMV service centers in the state. All but two of these close before 5:00 p.m. and only one is open on weekends. So, it is likely that the person will have to take time off from work. The person will either need to use vacation time if it’s available or forego the hourly wages that he or she could have earned in the time it takes to obtain the ID....The person will also have to arrange for transportation.

....A person who needs to obtain a missing underlying document is also likely to have to pay a fee for the document. For some low-income individuals, it will be difficult to pay even $20.00 for a birth certificate.

....Given the obstacles identified above, it is likely that a substantial number of the 300,000 plus voters who lack a qualifying ID will be deterred from voting. Although not every voter will face all of these obstacles, many voters will face some of them, particularly those who are low income....In light of the evidence presented at trial, it is also clear that for many voters, especially those who are low income, the burdens associated with obtaining an ID will be anything but minor. Therefore, I conclude that Act 23 will deter a substantial number of eligible voters from casting a ballot.

How does the burden of obtaining ID balance against the state interest in preventing voter fraud?

There is no way to determine exactly how many people Act 23 will prevent or deter from voting without considering the individual circumstances of each of the 300,000 plus citizens who lack an ID. But no matter how imprecise my estimate may be, it is absolutely clear that Act 23 will prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes....Thus, Act 23's burdens are not justified by the state’s interest in detecting and preventing in-person voter impersonation. Moreover, because the state’s interest in safeguarding confidence in the electoral process is evenly distributed across both sides of the balance—a law such as Act 23 undermines confidence in the electoral process as much as it promotes it—that interest cannot provide a sufficient justification for the burdens placed on the right to vote.

Religious Conservatives Tend to Be Pretty Old

| Tue Apr. 29, 2014 4:02 PM EDT

There's nothing surprising here, but Brookings has a new report out about the fate of religious progressives in the political arena (short version: things don't look too hot), and it includes the data on the right about the demographics of religion in America.

Bottom line: religious conservatives are old. Nearly two-thirds are over 50. Conversely, the unaffiliated are young: two-thirds are under 50. But what does this mean? There are two possibilities:

  • Religious conservatives are a dying breed. Once the boomers start dying off, so will the Christian Right.
  • Religious folks get more conservative as they get older, so these demographic numbers won't change much over time. When the Gen Xers pass 50, they're going to start attending megachurches too.

Take your pick.

A Short Primer on American Preferences in Foreign Policy

| Tue Apr. 29, 2014 11:28 AM EDT

The American public largely seems to approve of President Obama's specific foreign policy choices. They want to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan; they don't want to go to war in Syria; they don't want troops on the ground in Ukraine; and they support serious negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program.

And yet, paradoxically, they don't think much of Obama's foreign policy in the aggregate. Overall approval ratings for his foreign policy are stuck at roughly George W. Bush levels. What's going on?

With the benefit of my vast experience reading the mood of the American public, I'd like to explain what's going on. This should save our nation's pundits millions of windy words trying to invent sophisticated explanations that make them look smart. Here it is:

The American public really likes short, decisive wars that the United States wins conclusively. A couple of weeks is good. A month or two is pretty much the outside limit.

That's it! Now you understand foreign policy. Grenada: good! Panama: good! Gulf War: not bad! Kosovo: pushing it. Iraq: horrible. Syria and other places where we fail to intervene at all: massive cognitive dissonance. War is bad! But we want to kick the bad guys in the butt! Does not compute! President is failing....failing....failing....

This has been a public service announcement. Are there any questions?