Kevin Drum - August 2014

How Is Robin Williams Like Hillary Clinton?

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 11:39 PM EDT

Tonight's Maureen Dowd column begins with an anecdote about an interview she once did with Robin Williams:

As our interview ended, I was telling him about my friend Michael Kelly’s idea for a 1-900 number, not one to call Asian beauties or Swedish babes, but where you’d have an amorous chat with a repressed Irish woman. Williams delightedly riffed on the caricature, playing the role of an older Irish woman answering the sex line in a brusque brogue, ordering a horny caller to go to the devil with his impure thoughts and disgusting desire.

I couldn’t wait to play the tape for Kelly, who doubled over in laughter.

So when I think of Williams, I think of Kelly. And when I think of Kelly, I think of Hillary, because Michael was the first American reporter to die in the Iraq invasion, and Hillary Clinton was one of the 29 Democratic senators who voted to authorize that baloney war.

That's, um, quite a segue. I wonder if there's anything left in the world that doesn't remind Dowd of Hillary Clinton?

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Is It Time for Obama to Change Course on Iraqi Kurdistan?

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 4:59 PM EDT

Jonathan Dworkin, who has spent quite a bit of time in Iraqi Kurdistan, thinks the Obama administration is pursuing a failed strategy in Iraq:

In Kurdistan examples are everywhere of the failure of American diplomacy. Refugees have been a problem for months, but only in the last few days has our government gotten serious about providing large scale material support to the Kurds....On the economic front the State Department has gone out of its way to be unhelpful. The Kurdish government is in a desperate economic situation due to the refugee crisis, the security crisis, and the central government’s refusal to share oil revenue.

....The Obama team has adopted Maliki’s line, in essence arguing that Kurdish oil undermines Iraqi unity. That’s an idea that has become increasingly ridiculous with each setback in Baghdad....But the idea of Kurds breaking away from Iraq was anathema to the Obama team....The result is ongoing economic strangulation at precisely the moment the Kurds are being attacked by ISIS. Government salaries haven’t been paid in months. One physician friend in Sulaimania wrote to me that the doctors are working for free. There have also been acute fuel shortages.

Security is the most obvious area where American soft power has failed. For months now the Kurds have been lobbying for a more coordinated approach against ISIS, and they have gotten the cold shoulder over and over. The Obama team was content to arm a disloyal and unreliable Iraqi Army, and they were perplexed when those heavy weapons ended up under ISIS control. But they refused to coordinate significant weapons procurement for the Peshmerga, despite increasingly desperate appeals, until the ISIS rampage forced them to change tack this past week.

I think the highlighted sentence is key. From a diplomatic point of view, the United States either supports a unified Iraq controlled by a central government in Baghdad, or it supports a federal Iraq in which Kurdistan is largely independent. For better or worse, the US made the decision long ago to support a unified Iraq, and that's not a decision that can be reversed lightly. Everything else flows from this.

Is this incompetent? I don't think that's fair. Countries simply can't change tack on major issues like this when their allies are in trouble. And like it or not, Baghdad is our chosen ally. It may be that there's more we could do to quietly help the Kurds behind the scenes, but it's hard to imagine anything serious changing as long as we officially support the authority of the central government in Baghdad over all of Iraq.

In other words, all of the things Jonathan mentions are part of an entirely coherent strategy. Wrong, maybe, but coherent. Rather than commenting on them separately, then, we should be focusing on the bigger picture: Is it finally time for the US to end its opposition to an independent—or semi-independent—Kurdistan? Jonathan made the case for that a couple of months ago here, and I can't say that I forcefully disagree with him. Certainly we ought to be giving this a more public airing. "When we're dropping bombs on a place," Jonathan told me via email, "it should force some conversation about the broader strategy." It's hard to argue with that.

The Strange History of Tacos and the New York Times

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 12:08 PM EDT

Neil Irwin does a bit of interesting gastronomic sleuthing today using a New York Times tool that counts the number of mentions of a word in the archives of the Times. The question is, how fast do new food trends go mainstream? Take, for example, fried calamari:

Now, of course, every strip-mall pizza place and suburban Applebee’s serves fried calamari. But not all that long ago it was an exotic food. The term “fried calamari” did not appear in the pages of The New York Times until 1975, according to our nifty Times Chronicle tool, and didn’t show up frequently until the 1980s. Lest you think it is only a change in vocabulary, the term “fried squid” made only a couple of scattered appearances before that time.

Fried calamari made a voyage that dozens of foods have made over the years: They start out being served in forward-thinking, innovative restaurants in New York and other capitals of gastronomy. Over time, they become more and more mainstream....In the last decade alone, the list includes tuna tartare, braised short ribs, beet salad and pretty much any dish involving pork belly, brussels sprouts or kale. In an earlier era, the list might include sun-dried tomatoes, pesto and hummus.

Fascinating! But readers with long memories will recall that I was surprised at how recently tacos became mainstream. In 1952 they were apparently uncommon enough that the Times had to explain to its readers what a taco was. So how about if we use this nifty new search tool to get some hard data on taco references? Here it is:

Sure enough, there are virtually no mentions of tacos in the 40s and 50s. There's a blip here and there, but they don't really get commonly mentioned until the 70s.

But that's not what's interesting. Back in 1877, a full 3 percent of all Times articles mentioned tacos! In fact, tacomania was a feature of the Times during all of the 1870s and 1880s, before suddenly falling off a cliff in 1890. What's up with that? Why did tacos suddenly become verboten in 1890? Did a new editor take over who hated tacos? And what's the deal with the blip from about 1917 to 1922? Did World War I produce a sudden explosion of interest in tacos?

This is very weird. Does anyone have a clue what's going on here?

UPDATE: On Twitter, Christopher Ingraham suggests that this is an artifact of bad text recognition of ancient microfilm. I don't have access to the full version of Times Chronicle, but a look at some of the summaries of articles that allegedly mention tacos makes this seem like a pretty good guess. It's quite possible that there are no genuine mentions of tacos until the 40s or 50s.

This is a sadly boring explanation, but it seems pretty likely to be right. However, I'm still curious about the sudden dropoff in 1890 (did archive copies suddenly improve? did the Times start using a different font?) and the blip after World War I.

Childhood Lead Exposure Causes a Lot More Than Just a Rise in Violent Crime

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 11:16 AM EDT

Jessica Wolpaw Reyes has a new paper out that investigates the link between childhood lead exposure—mostly via tailpipe emissions of leaded gasoline—and violent crime. Unsurprisingly, since her previous research has shown a strong link, she finds a strong link again. But she also finds something else: a strong link between lead and teen pregnancy.

This is not a brand new finding. Rick Nevin's very first paper about lead and crime was actually about both crime and teen pregnancy, and he found strong correlations for both at the national level. Reyes, however, goes a step further. It turns out that different states adopted unleaded gasoline at different rates, which allows Reyes to conduct a natural experiment. If lead exposure really does cause higher rates of teen pregnancy, then you'd expect states with the lowest levels of leaded gasoline to also have the lowest levels of teen pregnancy 15 years later. And guess what? They do. The chart on the right shows the correlation between gasoline lead exposure and later rates of teen pregnancy, and it's very strong. Stronger even than the correlation with violent crime.

None of this should come as a surprise. The neurological basis for the lead-crime theory suggests that childhood lead exposure affects parts of the brain that have to do with judgment, impulse control, and executive functions. This means that lead exposure is likely to be associated not just with violent crime, but with juvenile misbehavior, drug use, teen pregnancy, and other risky behaviors. And that turns out to be the case. Reyes finds correlations with behavioral problems starting at a young age; teen pregnancy; and violent crime rates among older children.

It's a funny thing. For years conservatives bemoaned the problem of risky and violent behavior among children and teens of the post-60s era, mostly blaming it on the breakdown of the family and a general decline in discipline. Liberals tended to take this less seriously, and in any case mostly blamed it on societal problems. In the end, though, it turned out that conservatives were right. It wasn't just a bunch of oldsters complaining about the kids these days. Crime was up, drug use was up, and teen pregnancy was up. It was a genuine phenomenon and a genuine problem.

But liberals were right that it wasn't related to the disintegration of the family or lower rates of churchgoing or any of that. After all, families didn't suddenly start getting back together in the 90s and churchgoing didn't suddenly rise. But teenage crime, drug use, and pregnancy rates all went down. And down. And down.

Most likely, there was a real problem, but it was a problem no one had a clue about. We were poisoning our children with a well-known neurotoxin, and this toxin lowered their IQs, made them into fidgety kids, wrecked their educations, and then turned them into juvenile delinquents, teen mothers, and violent criminals. When we got rid of the toxin, all of these problems magically started to decline.

This doesn't mean that lead was 100 percent of the problem. There probably were other things going on too, and we can continue to argue about them. But the volume of the argument really ought to be lowered a lot. Maybe poverty makes a difference, maybe single parenting makes a difference, and maybe evolving societal attitudes toward child-rearing make a difference. But they probably don't make nearly as much difference as we all thought. In the end, we've learned a valuable lesson: don't poison your kids. That makes more difference than all the other stuff put together.

Bank Robber Adds New Dimension to Old Definition of Chutzpah

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 10:30 AM EDT

Woman helps rob bank in elaborate scheme, then files workers comp claim for PTSD. She's now facing charges of insurance fraud in addition to the nine years in a federal penitentiary she's already earned. Welcome to California.

Obama Should Speak Now in Support of the War Powers Act

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 5:09 PM EDT

How long are we going to be conducting air strikes against the ISIS insurgents in Iraq? On Saturday, President Obama made it clear that this depends on how long it takes for Iraqis to form an "inclusive government" that commands enough support to mount its own military offensive. Iraq's problem, he said, is first and foremost a political one. Until that's addressed, American air strikes are just a stopgap.

Fair enough. Still, how about an answer to the question?

Q Mr. President, for how long a period of time do you see these airstrikes continuing for? And is your goal there to contain ISIS or to destroy it?

THE PRESIDENT: I’m not going to give a particular timetable, because as I’ve said from the start, wherever and whenever U.S. personnel and facilities are threatened, it’s my obligation, my responsibility as Commander-in-Chief, to make sure that they are protected. And we’re not moving our embassy anytime soon. We’re not moving our consulate anytime soon. And that means that, given the challenging security environment, we’re going to maintain vigilance and ensure that our people are safe.

....Q Is it possible that what you’ve described and your ambitions there could take years, not months?

THE PRESIDENT: I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks, if that’s what you mean. I think this is going to take some time....I think part of what we’re able to do right now is to preserve a space for them to do the hard work that’s necessary. If they do that, the one thing that I also think has changed is that many of the Sunni countries in the region who have been generally suspicious or wary of the Iraqi government are more likely to join in, in the fight against ISIS, and that can be extremely helpful. But this is going to be a long-term project.

In other words, Obama is claiming that he's (a) protecting our consulate in Erbil, and (b) that protecting American embassies is a constitutional responsibility, which is what gives him the authority to continue the air offensive.

This is a problem because, let's face it, in practically every war zone in the world there's an American embassy or some American citizens who can be colorably said to be in danger. If that's all it takes to justify long-term military action, then the president really does have a free hand to mount military campaigns anywhere, anytime, and for any reason.

I believe that Obama has truly become more skeptical about the effectiveness of American military power since he first took office. But that's not enough. If he really wants to make a difference, he should use this opportunity to explicitly weigh in on the side of the War Powers Act. This wouldn't legally bind future presidents to do the same, but it would set a precedent that would make the WPA more difficult to ignore. And it shouldn't be hard for Obama, who specifically addressed the issue of air strikes in 2007 and did so in no uncertain terms: "The President," he said, "does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

Obama should use this opportunity to definitively acknowledge that the War Powers Act is binding on the president; that it applies to situations like this; and that therefore he needs congressional authorization to continue air strikes beyond 60 days. It's the right thing to do for both the executive branch, which should not have unconstrained warmaking powers, and for the legislative branch, which should be required to carry out its constitutional duties instead of merely whining about executive actions without ever having to commit itself to a course of action.

It's not too late to do this. But it will be soon.

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Does the 6-Year Itch Spell Doom for Obama?

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 2:50 PM EDT

The theory of the six-year itch is well-known phenomenon: American presidents suffer all too often during their second terms from an onslaught of scandals that hobble their ability to act. Larry Summers thinks this is a good reason to ditch the limit of two four-year terms and instead switch to a single six-year term. Jonathan Bernstein isn't buying it:

He can point to all sorts of second-term miseries going back to Franklin Roosevelt. But the apparent pattern doesn't hold up that well. A classic example is Richard Nixon. Yes, Watergate dominated and ruined Nixon's second term, but the series of abuses of power that cost him the presidency—and the initial cover-up—occurred during his first term. Similarly, George W. Bush's second term was spoiled to a great extent by the Iraq war (which Summers bizarrely omits from his summary); Iraq, too, was a first-term decision.

Quite right. But I'm not sure this makes the point Bernstein wants it to make. Back in 2004 I predicted that if George Bush were reelected, he'd suffer through a bunch of scandals, and that turned out to be right. I suggested there were three reasons that second terms tended to be overrun by scandal, and this was No. 2:

Second, there's the problem that second terms are, well, second terms. It takes more than two or three years for a serious scandal to unfold, and problems that start to surface midway through a president's first term usually reach critical mass midway through his second term…George Bush is especially vulnerable to this since his first term already has several good candidates for scandals waiting to flower. Take your pick: Valerie Plame? The National Guard? Abu Ghraib? Intelligence failures? Or maybe something that hasn't really crossed anybody's radar screen yet, sort of like the "third-rate burglary" at the Watergate Hotel that no one took seriously in 1972.

I think Bernstein and I are saying similar things here. In Bush's case, there were indeed some new problems in his second term: Katrina in 2005 and several assorted scandals that revolved around Jack Abramoff in 2006. The same has happened to Obama. Regardless of whether you think that things like Fast & Furious or Solyndra were genuine scandals (I don't), they have the same effect. More recently, you can add the IRS and Benghazi. And again, regardless of whether these are real scandals or invented ones, they work the same way. Low-information voters don't always pay attention to whether a scandal is "real." They just keep hearing about one thing after another, and eventually conclude that where there's smoke there's fire.

As it happens, I'd say that Obama has done a remarkably good job of running a clean administration, and I suspect that scandalmania isn't actually hurting him much. Despite the best efforts of Republicans to pretend otherwise, there's just not much there. You can hate his policies or his personality or his competence or his leadership ability, but the truth is that he's run a pretty clean shop on the scandal front.

Still, if you accept the general proposition that scandals tend to pile up over time, that means you're likely to have a fairly impotent president by year six. And maybe that means a single six-year term would be for the best.

The problem with this is that there's not much evidence for it. If six years really is some kind of magic scandal number, then you'd expect to see it at work elsewhere. But do you? How about in Britain, which has indeterminate terms? Or Germany, where Angela Merkel is heading into her ninth year in office? Or in cities and states without term limits? More generally, in other jurisdictions with different terms, how much evidence is there that voters become highly sensitive to mounting scandals by year six?

Not much, I think, though I suspect that voters do just generally get tired of politicians and parties after about six years or so. After all, by then it's clear that all the stuff they promised won't happen, so why not give the other guys a shot? Hell, lots of people are complaining these days about Obama failing to bring postpartisan peace and harmony to Washington, DC, as if there were much he could ever have done about that in the face of unprecedentedly unanimous obstruction from Republicans starting on day one. But still: He did say that was one of his goals, and he sure hasn't delivered it. So let's throw him out. The next president will be able to do it for sure. Right?

Lindsey Graham Lays Down a Terrorism Marker

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 11:07 AM EDT

Lindsey Graham says that if we don't attack "ISIS, ISIL, whatever you guys want to call it"—and attack them right now—they'll be attacking us on American soil before long. "This is about our homeland," he said yesterday. Steve Benen correctly interprets Graham's remarks:

In this case, Graham seems to be laying down a marker: if members of the Islamic State, at some point in the future, execute some kind of terror strike on Americans, Lindsey Graham wants us to blame President Obama — because the president didn’t stick to the playbook written by hawks and neocons.

I don't think anyone is actively hoping for a terrorist attack on American soil. Just as I don't think anyone was actively hoping to keep the American economy in ruins back in 2009. Still, these are cases where ideology and politics line up nicely: if something bad does happen, Republicans want to lay down a marker making sure that everyone knows whose fault it is.

Sometimes this doesn't work: Republicans confidently predicted doom in 1993 when Bill Clinton raised taxes, for example. But wrong predictions are quickly forgotten. Occasionally, however, predictions are right, and then they can be milked forever. When Ronald Reagan insisted that tax cuts would supercharge the economy, and the economy then dutifully improved, his reputation was cemented forever—even though tax cuts played only a modest role in the economic recovery of the 80s.

Another major terrorist attack on the American homeland is bound to happen sometime. Who knows? It might even happen within the next year. And make no mistake: if it does happen, Lindsey Graham wants to make sure you know who to blame. If it doesn't happen, well—look! Gay climate Obamacare!

Is There a Hillary Doctrine?

| Mon Aug. 11, 2014 10:21 AM EDT

Jeffrey Goldberg's interview with Hillary Clinton is being taken as an effort by Hillary to distance herself from President Obama. Here's the most frequently quoted snippet:

HRC: Great nations need organizing principles, and “Don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organizing principle. It may be a necessary brake on the actions you might take in order to promote a vision.

....JG: What is your organizing principle, then?

HRC: Peace, progress, and prosperity. This worked for a very long time. Take prosperity. That’s a huge domestic challenge for us. If we don’t restore the American dream for Americans, then you can forget about any kind of continuing leadership in the world. Americans deserve to feel secure in their own lives, in their own middle-class aspirations, before you go to them and say, “We’re going to have to enforce navigable sea lanes in the South China Sea.”

I've seen the first part of this excerpt several times, and each time I've wondered, "So what's your organizing principle." When I finally got around to reading the interview, I discovered that this was Goldberg's very next question. And guess what? Hillary doesn't have one.

She's basically hauling out an old chestnut: We need to be strong at home if we want to be strong overseas. And that's fine as far as it goes. But it's not an organizing principle for foreign policy. It's not even close. At best, it's a precursor to an organizing principle, and at worst it's just a plain and simple evasion.

It so happens that I think "don't do stupid stuff" is a pretty good approach to foreign policy at the moment. It's underrated in most of life, in fact, while "doctrines" are mostly straitjackets that force you to fight the last war over and over and over. The fact that Hillary Clinton (a) brushes this off and (b) declines to say what her foreign policy would be based on—well, it frankly scares me. My read of all this is that Hillary is itching to outline a much more aggressive foreign policy but doesn't think she can quite get away with it yet. She figures she needs to distance herself from Obama slowly, and she needs to wait for the American public to give her an opportunity. My guess is that any crisis will do that happens to pop up in 2015.

I don't have any problems with Hillary's domestic policy. I've never believed that she "understood" the Republican party better than Obama and therefore would have gotten more done if she'd won in 2008, but I don't think she would have gotten any less done either. It's close to a wash. But in foreign policy, I continually find myself wondering just where she stands. I suspect that she still chafes at being forced to repudiate her vote for the Iraq war—and largely losing to Obama because of it. I wouldn't be surprised if she still believes that vote was the right thing to do, nor would I be surprised if her foreign policy turned out to be considerably more interventionist than either Bill's or Obama's.

But I don't know for sure. And I probably never will unless she gets elected in 2016 and we get to find out.

The Majesty of the Law, Rare Wine Edition

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 10:32 PM EDT

Rudy Kurniawan is a rare wine dealer who was convicted of defrauding his billionaire clients by pouring cheap wine into faked-up bottles and pawning them off as rare vintages. Yesterday he was sentenced to 10 years in prison despite his attorney's plea for leniency:

“Nobody died,” Mr. Mooney said. “Nobody lost their job. Nobody lost their savings.”

Judge Richard M. Berman interrupted him to ask, “Is the principle that if you’re rich, then the person who did the defrauding shouldn’t be punished?”

Stanley J. Okula Jr., a federal prosecutor, said it was “quite shocking” that Mr. Mooney was arguing for a different standard for those who have defrauded rich people. “Fraud is fraud,” he said. “There is no distinction in the guidelines, or in logic, for treating it differently.”

Quite right. As we all know, the law treats the rich and the poor equally. And the rich especially equally.