Kevin Drum - August 2014

Friday Cat Blogging - 8 August 2014

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 1:50 PM EDT

Last week you could barely see Domino's face, so this week we get a close-up. Here she is outside in the summer sun enjoying a chin smooch from Marian.

In other cat news, click here to read about Coco, the lovely Siamese Wi-Fi sniffing cat from Virginia. If I tried this with Domino, she would sniff out my Wi-Fi and....that's about it. She doesn't roam much, and these days even less than usual. I don't think she's ventured more than ten feet from a doorway in years.

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Quote of the Day: The Bane of the Magic Asterisk

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 12:00 PM EDT

Brad DeLong on the debasement of budget policy since the Reagan era:

Ever since the start of 1981 and the miseducation of David Stockman, the bane of a sensible American fiscal policy has most often been the magic asterisk: the implicit claim that some policy that the politician dares not name or some magical Budget Fairy will fly down from above and make everything OK. When this magic asterisk is found, by my guess 90% of the time it is in budget "plans" from Republicans—but a good 10% of the time it is found in plans from Democrats (yes, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Gene Sperling, I am looking at you).

This has reached its zenith in the budget "plans" of Paul Ryan and his fellow tea partiers. I can't remember the last time I saw a budget plan from a Republican that was even remotely honest.

Marijuana Legalization Seems to Be Working Out....So Far

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 11:33 AM EDT

Here are a few typical headlines I've seen recently about Colorado's legalization of marijuana:

Washington Post: Since marijuana legalization, highway fatalities in Colorado are at near-historic lows

Vox: Marijuana legalization didn't stop Colorado's decade-long decline in teen pot use

HuffPo: If Legalizing Marijuana Was Supposed To Cause More Crime, It's Not Doing A Very Good Job

There's a phrase missing from all of these: "so far." I hope that pot legalization turns out great and every other state eventually follows the lead of Colorado and Washington. But honestly folks, it's early days yet. Legalization almost certainly has long-term dynamics and feedback effects that we simply won't know about for years. What happens during the first few months is all but meaningless. Even if the stories themselves are more nuanced, this ought to be reflected in the headlines too.

IBM Unveils Chip That's Maybe As Powerful As a Cockroach

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 10:37 AM EDT

IBM has announced a new chip that it says is a breakthrough in emulating the human brain:

"Power is the fundamental constraint as we move forward," says Horst Simon, deputy director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a major supercomputer user. "This chip is an indication that we are really at the threshold of a fundamental change in architecture."

....TrueNorth, IBM says, uses 5.4 billion transistors—four times more than a typical PC processor—to yield the equivalent of one million neurons and 256 million synapses. They are organized into 4,096 structures called "neurosynaptic cores," each able to store, process and transmit data to any other using a communications scheme called a crossbar.

The design is "event-driven," Mr. Modha says. That means that individual cores fire up only when they are needed, rather than running all the time. This scheme makes the chips more power efficient. Where a comparable standard microprocessor draws 50 to 100 watts per square centimeter, TrueNorth draws just 20 milliwatts, or thousandths of a watt, IBM says.

That's about as many neurons as a small insect has. You'd need something on the order of 100,000 of these chips to provide as many neurons as the typical human brain—though that's probably not really a meaningful number. If digital neurons are faster than chemical neurons, you might need fewer of them. You also don't need any of the neurons that are designed solely to keep the body physically alive. And traditional chips can pick up a lot of the load too. On the other hand, the 3-D structure of the brain provides some advantages you don't get from a 2-D chip.

In other words, who knows? Maybe you need 10,000, maybe you need a million. Maybe this whole approach will turn out to be a dead end. And we're still a long way off from developing the software to make this all work in any case.

Still: it's cool stuff. There are lots of different approaches to developing artificial intelligence, and this is certainly a plausible one. It probably won't take too long before we know whether it really holds the promise that AI researchers hope it does.

Obama's Intervention in Iraq Is All About the Kurds

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 9:48 AM EDT

Why did President Obama decide to re-engage militarily in Iraq? Was it to prevent the genocide of the Yazidi religious minority trapped on Mt. Sinjar? Partly, perhaps, but Max Fischer writes that the real motivation was to protect Iraq's northern Kurds:

If you are a member of ISIS, here is how you might hear Obama's message: Stay away from Iraqi Kurdistan, and the rest of northern Iraq is yours to keep. Based on Obama's words and actions so far, you would not be so wrong.

....Invading Iraq's Kurdish region, it turned out, was Obama's red line for ISIS. There are a few reasons why. The Kurdish region is far stabler, politically, than the rest of Iraq. (Kurds are ethnically distinct from the rest of Iraq, which is largely ethnic Arab; most Kurds are Sunni Muslims.) The Kurdish region, which has been semi-autonomous since the United States invaded in 2003 and has grown more autonomous from Baghdad ever since, also happens to be a much more reliable US ally than is the central Iraqi government. It has a reasonably competent government and military, unlike the central Iraqi government, which is volatile, unstable, deeply corrupt, and increasingly authoritarian.

....On a background briefing call with White House officials late on Thursday, the emphasis on defending Erbil came through loud and clear: the US is clearly designing its intervention around protecting the Kurdish region; any effect for the rest of Iraq is secondary, and was premised on Iraq's government first fulfilling some political commitments.

The effect, though, is to imply that the US will not intervene against ISIS if they remain on the correct side of the red line — effectively giving them the US go-ahead to continue terrorizing the vast territory in northern Iraq they've already seized.

In the Middle East, red lines don't always work so well. This one will obviously depend to a large degree on how competent the Kurdish militias turn out to be, and whether they can repel the ISIS troops with nothing more than a modest amount of aerial support from the US. Given the small size of the ISIS forces, and the reputation of the Kurdish Peshmerga, this certainly ought to be feasible. If even the Kurds are having trouble against ISIS, however, this suggests that ISIS is considerably stronger than anyone thought. Stay tuned.

Quote of the Day: Wall Street Judge Left With "Nothing But Sour Grapes"

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 4:37 PM EDT

A few years ago, federal district judge Jed Rakoff refused to approve an SEC settlement with Citigroup over charges that they had deliberately offloaded toxic mortgage securities into a special fund so that they could make money by betting against their own customers. Rakoff objected partly because he thought the SEC's proposed fine was too small—"pocket change," he called it—but mostly because there was no public reckoning of what Citigroup had done. Not only weren't they required to admit wrongdoing, they weren't required even to admit the bare facts of what they had done.

Sadly for Rakoff—and for the public—an appeals court overruled him, basically saying that the SEC had full discretion to reach any settlement it desired, and the judge's only real role was to make sure it wasn't tainted by collusion or corruption. Earlier this week, Rakoff backed off:

They who must be obeyed have spoken, and this Court's duty is to faithfully fulfill their mandate.

....Nonetheless, this Court fears that, as a result of the Court of Appeal's decision, the settlements reached by governmental regulatory bodies and enforced by the judiciary's contempt powers will in practice be subject to no meaningful oversight whatsoever. But it would be a dereliction of duty for this Court to seek to evade the dictates of the Court of Appeals. That Court has now fixed the menu, leaving this Court with nothing but sour grapes.

Quite so, and the SEC's long tradition of issuing wrist slaps to big Wall Street firms—and withholding all the details of their corruption from the public—is now safe once again. Apparently that kind of thing is only for the little people.

Of course, Congress could intervene, giving the SEC more manpower and demanding more accountability, but that's not going to happen either. After all, sometimes people say mean things about Wall Street firms. Surely that's punishment enough?

Via Michael Hiltzik, who has more at the link.

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Republicans Hate Obama, Therefore Obama Should Avoid Making Them Even Madder

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 1:40 PM EDT

Ron Fournier ponders the wisdom of President Obama issuing executive orders on immigration and tax inversions:

For argument's sake, let's say Obama is right on the issue and has legal authority to act. The big question is …

Would it be wrong to end-run Congress? Another way to put it might be, "Would more polarization in Washington and throughout the country be wrong?" How about exponentially more polarization, gridlock, and incivility? If the president goes too far, he owns that disaster.

Wait a second. If you think Obama is wrong on the merits, then naturally you'll oppose any new executive action. If you think he's right, but unfortunately lacks the constitutional authority to do anything about it, you'll also oppose any new executive action.

But what if he's both right and has the proper authority? That certainly sounds like the right formula for supporting executive action. But no. Obama still shouldn't do anything because....wait for it....it would cause more polarization, gridlock, and incivility.

I frankly doubt it, but leave that to one side for the moment. What Fournier is saying is that President Obama shouldn't do anything that might make Republicans mad. But this means the president is literally helpless: No proposal of his has any chance of securing serious Republican engagement in Congress, but he's not allowed to take executive action for fear of making them even more intransigent. Obama's only legitimate option, apparently, is to persuade Republicans to support his proposals, even though it's no secret that Republicans decided years ago to obstruct everything, sight unseen, that was on Obama's agenda. So that leaves Obama with no options at all.

And that means the next column will be all about Obama's lack of leadership. Count on it.

Notes Toward a Heuristic of Express Lane Ethics

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 11:34 AM EDT

Over at Vox, Andrew Prokop summarizes a new poll about Americans' ethical views. Here's one result:

The US public is staunchly opposed to the apparently widespread problem of supermarket express lane abuse, with a clear majority saying they think multiple pieces of the same fruit should count as multiple items. Strangely, though, 20 percent of respondents apparently think there should be different rules for different shoppers.

OK, that is strange. Why should there be different rules for different shoppers? Is the idea here that we should bend the rules for the elderly or the infirm? Or for pregnant women? Or what?

As for fruit, it depends, doesn't it? Surely a bunch of bananas still counts as one item? Or tomatoes on the vine? (Which I love because I adore the aroma of the vine.) How about two bunches of bananas? Does it make a difference if stuff is in a bag? Five apples in a plastic bag gets weighed as one item, whereas five apples rolling around in your basket have to be placed on the scale individually before the whole bunch of them gets weighed. Does that matter? Help me out here, hive mind.

National Guard Finally Dumps NASCAR

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 11:13 AM EDT

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is having a great year on the NASCAR circuit this year, but the National Guard is dumping him as a sponsor anyway. They say the reason is "significantly constrained resources." What does that mean?

The “significantly constrained resources” may be due to Senate hearings on the Guard’s profligate spending convened earlier this year. USA Today reported the Guard spent $26.5 million to sponsor NASCAR in 2012, “but failed to sign up a single new soldier to its ranks,” according to Senate documents. Between 2011 and 2013, the Guard spent $88 million, but “it is unclear how many new recruits, if any, signed up because of it.”

Wait. What? Not a single recruit? Let's go to the tape. Here's the original USA Today piece:

The Guard received 24,800 recruiting prospects from the program in 2012, documents show. In those cases, potential recruits indicated the NASCAR affiliation prompted them to seek more information about joining. Of that group, only 20 met the Guard's qualifications for entry into the service, and not one of them joined.

In 2013, the number of prospects associated with NASCAR dropped to 7,500, according to briefing materials for the Senate subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight led by McCaskill. The National Guard needs 1 million leads to meet its annual recruiting goal of 50,000 soldiers.

Wow. Out of 24,800 prospects, only 20 even met the Guard's qualifications. There are obviously some ripe pickings here for jokes about NASCAR fans, but if I make any of them I'll undoubtedly be accused of latte-sipping elitism. But surely someone will step up to the plate?

In any case, the core problem, apparently, is that the NASCAR audience is just too damn old. Sort of like Fox News. That's why the Army ditched them for drag racing:

Army analysis found better value in producing "leads," prospective recruits, by sponsoring National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) events, including drag racing. "Currently, only 5% of the NASCAR audience is made up of 18-24 year old males," Davis' memo says. "NASCAR is the highest cost per qualified lead and cost per engagement property in our portfolio; cost-per-lead is three times as expensive as the NHRA."

Kids these days.

How Many People Really, Truly Believe That Abortion Is Murder?

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 10:03 AM EDT

Do anti-abortion activists really think abortion is murder? Or is their opposition merely an expression of their broad discomfort with modern sexual and gender mores? Ed Kilgore concedes that the belief in abortion as murder is often sincere, but if that's the case, how do you explain Rep. Steve DesJarlais (R-TN)?

DesJarlais is a big antichoice, "pro-family" pol first elected (like so many other mistakes) in 2010. During his 2012 re-election campaign, evidence began leaking out through various outlets that he had a history of alleged spousal abuse, serial adultery, sexual relationships with patients and at least three occasions of encouraging a woman to have an abortion (twice his soon-to-be-former wife, once a patient). Much of these toxic allegations seem to have been confirmed when DesJarlais' divorce papers from his first wife were opened just after his 2012 re-election.

In dealing with this evidence, DesJarlais has allowed as how he made some mistakes in a "difficult period of his life," blah blah blah, and has denied pushing a lover to have an abortion (though not pushing his then-wife to have two of them). So without even the drama of a public confession and act of contrition, he's back to trying to pass laws telling other people how to live their sex lives.

I do not understand how anyone who actually thinks of abortion as a homicidal act can vote for someone—a medical professional no less—who admits to having encouraged it with no apparent great remorse. That it seems to have occurred as part of a pattern of systemic disregard for personal and professional ethical standards doesn't help.

I guess I don't share Kilgore's befuddlement, since I've never really believed that much of anyone really, truly thinks that abortion is murder. If you look at actions, rather than words, it just doesn't add up. Lots of people oppose abortion, but with very few exceptions, they very plainly don't react to it the same way they react to a genuine murder. Their emotional response gives the game away, even if they've convinced themselves otherwise intellectually.

DesJarlais is a good example. If he had encouraged the murder of two children—real murder, of kids who were a year or two old—he wouldn't merely be having a tough primary. Regardless of whether he had managed to avoid conviction for his acts, he wouldn't even be able to run for office, let alone be even odds to win. He'd be a pariah. That's how people react to actual killing. But it's not how they react to encouraging abortion. As long as DesJarlais is otherwise on the right side of the culture wars, it'll be shrugged off as unfortunate but not disqualifying.

So don't tell me that all the conservative Christians in DesJarlais' district believe that abortion is murder. They may say they believe it. They may even sincerely think they believe it. But they don't.