Kevin Drum

Thanksgiving Cat Blogging - 27 November 2014

| Thu Nov. 27, 2014 12:00 PM EST

This year we have new catblogging stars, and thus new cats dreaming about the traditional turkey clipart. In case you're curious, no, I didn't pose Hilbert. This is his natural way of sleeping.

Have a nice day, everyone, and please avoid doing any shopping. Tomorrow is early enough. Happy Thanksgiving.

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I'm Pretty Thankful This Year. Here's Why.

| Thu Nov. 27, 2014 6:00 AM EST

You might not expect someone who was diagnosed with cancer a few weeks ago to be feeling especially thankful right now. And it's true that I'm not excited about either the cancer itself or the fairly miserable effects of the weekly chemotherapy that's treating it. Nevertheless, this episode of my life has gotten me thinking about thankfulness, and it's been on my mind for a while now. I know this is a little out of character, but allow me to share this with you in my usual bloggish way today.

The whole thing started on the evening of October 17th, when I sneezed hard and injured my back. On the morning of Saturday the 18th I couldn't move enough to get out of bed. Here's what happened next.

Marian called 911. Within ten minutes a troop of firefighters and paramedics were at our door. They hauled me downstairs on a stretcher, and ten minutes later I was in the emergency room. Over the next couple of hours I was tended to by an attentive staff of nurses and doctors. Blood was drawn, X-rays were taken, painkillers were administered. By a little after noon, a preliminary diagnosis of possible multiple myeloma had been made and I was admitted to the hospital.

The hospital was clean and efficient. My room was comfortable and private and had plenty of room for visitors. Over the course of the next few days, a rotating squadron of nurses took care of me. Biopsies were done. Medication was prescribed. A kyphoplasty was performed to stabilize my back. The myeloma diagnosis was confirmed on Thursday, and I was started on chemotherapy a few hours later. It was superb, unstinting care.

The day after I was released from the hospital, Marian and I went shopping and spent several thousand dollars on new furniture that my back could tolerate. A few days after that we got an enormous bill for the hospital stay, but it was nearly entirely paid for by insurance. The balance was something we could easily afford.

In short, everything that happened after that fateful sneeze has demonstrated just how lucky I am. I got immediate, skilled treatment. I have great health insurance. I have a good job and no money problems. I work at home and can set my own hours—and I even have a job I like so much it actually helps me weather the treatment. I work for editors who are completely understanding about what I'm going through and want only for me to recover. I have family and friends who care about me and are endlessly willing to help. And most of all, I have a wife who loves me and is always, always, always there for me.

There is nothing more I could want. I'm even thankful for the sneeze. It hurt like hell, but it's the thing that got me to the hospital in the first place. Without it, I wouldn't be recovering as I write this.

So sure: cancer sucks. But how many people who go through it have all this? Not many. Some have money problems. Some have work problems. Some are on their own. Some have lousy or nonexistent health insurance. Some get inadequate treatment. I have none of those problems. I am lucky almost beyond belief.

And one more thing: health care is suddenly a lot more real to me than ever before. Sure, I've always favored universal health care as a policy position. But now? It's all I can do to wonder why anyone, no matter how principled their beliefs, would want to deny the kind of care I've gotten to even a single person. Not grudging, bare-bones care that's an endless nightmare of stress and bill collectors. Decent, generous care that the richest country in the richest era in human history can easily afford.

Why wouldn't you want that for everyone? It beggars the imagination.

In any case, that's what I got—that and a lot more. And I am thankful for it. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Europe Wants To Make Its Memory Hole Global

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 11:51 AM EST

Europe's infamous right to be forgotten is on track to become truly Orwellian:

Europe’s privacy regulators want the right to be forgotten to go global. In a new set of guidelines agreed Wednesday in Brussels, the body representing the EU’s 28 national privacy regulators said that search engines should apply the bloc’s new right to be forgotten to all of their websites.

....Google may consider a way to apply the ruling on Google.com without applying it globally [...] by returning different results depending on whether the person is searching from an Internet Protocol address located within the EU. But it is unclear if such a move would satisfy regulators, as it would only make it harder to sidestep the ruling inside the EU, not globally.

“These are fundamental rights. My rights don’t go away at the border,” one data-protection official said of the idea of using IP addresses to apply the rule.

I understand that the EU has a more expansive view of personal privacy than the US and other countries. What's more, I'm generally on their side in this battle when it comes to truly personal information. Both corporate and government collection of personal buying habits, internet browsing patterns, and so forth deserve to be reined in.

But here we're talking about largely public information. It's bad enough that the EU is insisting that people not only have a right to control genuinely personal data, but also have a right to shape attitudes and perceptions that are based on public record. It's even worse that they're now trying to impose this absurdity on the entire planet. If they insist on having a continent-wide memory hole, I guess that's their business. But they sure don't have the right to foist their insistence on artificially altering reality on the rest of us. Enough's enough.

Under Pressure From Obama, France Delays Warship Sale to Russia

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 10:38 AM EST

I confess that I'm surprised to read this:

France has put on hold a controversial deal to supply Russia with two high-tech amphibious assault ships following international concern over Moscow's military involvement in Ukraine

....After months of wait-and-see messages from the French, Hollande's declaration Tuesday was at least clear: It would not be appropriate to deliver the control-and-command vessels given the current conflict between Moscow-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine, he said.

....In June, Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, had insisted that the contract had been signed and sealed and had to be honored. On Tuesday, following months of pressure from the United States, Fabius appeared to have changed his mind.

Huh. I guess the weakling Obama really is working quietly behind the scenes on stuff like this, and really does still have some clout on the international stage. Who knew?

Obama Has Really Gotten Inside the GOP's Head

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 9:50 AM EST

Jeremy Peters writes in the New York Times today that the tea party has morphed from an enraged bunch of economic populists to an enraged bunch of anti-immigration zealots. And by cracky, they want Republicans to crush the tyrant Obama for his immigration insolence, and they want it done now:

Satisfying the conservative base will be difficult. Tea Party activists are not likely to sit patiently while a lawsuit works its way through the courts. And many have already expressed skepticism about the Republican leadership’s willingness to see through a fight over appropriations.

....“Yes, there’s a risk to overreacting, but there’s a risk to underreacting as well,” said Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. “And I fear that’s the way the congressional leadership is leaning.” Mr. Lowry suggested one way Congress could react. “If I were John Boehner,” he said, referring to the House speaker, “I’d say to the president: ‘Send us your State of the Union in writing. You’re not welcome in our chamber.’ ”

Oh man, I can't tell you how much I wish they'd actually take Lowry up on his suggestion. Can you imagine anything that would strike middle America as pettier and more pointlessly vindictive than this? Anything that would seem feebler and more futile? Anything that could possibly be more evocative of a five-year-old throwing a tantrum?

I guess you could if you put your mind to it. But it would be hard. Obama is really inside their heads, isn't he?

(Via Steve Benen.)

GOP Takes Revenge Over Immigration Order in Tax Bill. Obama Tells Them to Pound Sand.

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 11:59 PM EST

Danny Vinik describes the tax extender package currently wending its way through Congress:

Imagine somebody asked you to imagine the worst possible deal on taxes. It'd probably have the following qualities:

It would be bad for the environment.

It would be bad for the deficit.

It would give short shrift to the working poor.

And it would be a bonanza for corporations.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to conjure up such a package. Congressional Republicans already have. And for some unfathomable reason, Senate Democrats including Harry Reid seem inclined to go along—although the White House has vowed to veto such a deal if Congress goes ahead and passes it.

Actually, there's nothing all that unfathomable about what's going on. The tax extender bill may be a dog's breakfast of legitimate tax provisions running interference for a long laundry list of indefensible giveaways and corporate welfare, but it's always been supported by both parties and it would have passed long ago if not for an outbreak of routine sniping over amendments and 60-vote thresholds last spring. That aside, the whole thing is a perfect bipartisan lovefest. Republicans and Democrats alike want to make sure that corporations continue to get all their favorite tax breaks.

In fact, the only thing that's really new here is the nature of Obama's veto threat. He's made the threat before, but primarily because the extenders weren't being paid for and would add to the deficit. The fact that middle-class tax breaks might not also be extended was sort of an afterthought. Now, however, that's front and center:

The emerging tax legislation would make permanent 10 provisions, including an expanded research and development tax credit....a measure allowing small businesses to deduct virtually any investment; the deduction for state and local sales taxes....tax breaks for car-racing tracks....benefits for racehorse owners.

....Left off were the two tax breaks valued most by liberal Democrats: a permanently expanded earned-income credit and a child tax credit for the working poor. Friday night, Republican negotiators announced they would exclude those measures as payback for the president’s executive order on immigration, saying a surge of newly legalized workers would claim the credit, tax aides from both parties said.

So there you have it. This bill is the first victim of Republican frothing over Obama's immigration order. As revenge, they left out Democratic tax priorities, and Obama is having none of it.

This is all part of the new Obama we've seen since the midterm election, which seems to have had an oddly liberating effect on him. Over the course of just a few weeks he's been throwing sand in Republican faces with gleeful abandon: cutting climate change deals with the Chinese; demanding full net neutrality regulations from the FCC; issuing an executive order on immigration; and now threatening to veto a Republican-crafted bill unless they include expanded EITC and child tax credits. It's as though he's tired of their endless threats to go nuclear over every little thing and just doesn't care anymore. Go ahead, he's telling them. Make my day.

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A Nuclear Deal With Iran Probably Won't Happen

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 5:56 PM EST

Over at Foreign Affairs, Aaron David Miller and Jason Brodsky run through four reasons that we failed to reach a nuclear deal with Iran by this weekend's deadline. This is the key one:

An internal IAEA document that was prepared in 2009 detailed an April 1984 high-level meeting at the presidential palace in Tehran in which Khamenei — then president of Iran — championed a decision by then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to launch a nuclear weapons program. According to the account, Khamenei said that "this was the only way to secure the very essence of the Islamic Revolution from the schemes of its enemies, especially the United States and Israel."

....The fact is that Iran knows what it wants: to preserve as much of its nuclear weapons capacity as possible and free itself from as much of the sanctions regime as it can. The mullahs see Iran’s status as a nuclear weapons state as a hedge against regime change and as consistent with its regional status as a great power. That is what it still wants. And that’s why it isn’t prepared — yet — to settle just for what it needs to do a deal. Ditto for America. And it’s hard to believe that another six months is going to somehow fix that problem.

This is why I'm skeptical that a deal can be reached. Iran wants to have nuclear weapons capability. The United States wants Iran to verifiably abandon its nuclear ambitions. Everything else is just fluff, and it's hard to see a middle ground here.

This doesn't mean an agreement is impossible. Maybe there really is some halfway point that both sides can live with. It sure isn't easy to see it, though. The disagreement here is just too fundamental and too definitive. One side wants to be able to build a bomb, and the other side wants exactly the opposite. How do you split that baby?

Is Obama Trolling Republicans Over Immigration?

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 12:07 PM EST

Jonah Goldberg is unhappy with President Obama's immigration order, but he's not steaming mad about it. And I think this allows him to see some things a little more clearly than his fellow conservatives:

Maybe President Obama is just trolling?

....As Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution notes, Obama "could've done all this quietly, without making any announcement whatsoever." After all, Obama has unilaterally reinterpreted and rewritten the law without nationally televised addresses before. But doing that wouldn't let him pander to Latinos and, more important, that wouldn't achieve his real goal: enraging Republicans.

As policy, King Obama's edict is a mess, which may explain why Latinos are underwhelmed by it, according to the polls. But that's not the yardstick Obama cares about most. The real goal is twofold: Cement Latinos into the Democratic coalition and force Republicans to overreact. He can't achieve the first if he doesn't succeed with the second. It remains to be seen if the Republicans will let themselves be trolled into helping him.

Don't get me wrong. I'm pretty certain that Obama did what he did because he really believes it's the right thing to do. Goldberg just isn't able to acknowledge that and retain his conservative cred. Still, somewhere in the Oval Office there was someone writing down pros and cons on a napkin, and I'll bet that enraging the GOP caucus and wrecking their legislative agenda made it onto the list of pros. So far, it looks like it's probably working. But if Republicans are smart, they'll figure out some way to follow Goldberg's advice and rein in their worst impulses. If they go nuts, they're just playing into Obama's hands.

Economic Growth Starting to Show Real Signs of Life

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 10:48 AM EST

The latest numbers from the Commerce Department show that GDP increased faster than we thought in the third quarter of 2014. Growth clocked in at 3.9 percent, an increase from the original estimate of 3.5 percent. "The economy expanded at its fastest pace in more than a decade," says the Wall Street Journal. "The combined growth rate in the second and third quarters was 4.25%, the best six-month reading since 2003."

This is true, but a bit misleading since both quarters were making up for a dismal first quarter in which GDP fell by 2.1 percent. Still, even if you look at things in a more defensible way, economic growth is unquestionably picking up. The chart on the right uses a 5-quarter moving average to smooth out individual quarters that might be unusually high or low, and the trajectory of the economy is clearly on the rise. You still can't really say that things are booming, and it continues to be true that the labor market is loose and wages are pretty stagnant. Nonetheless, since 2011 growth has increased from about 1.8 percent annually to about 2.8 percent annually. Things are picking up.

If Europe can ever manage to get its act together, we might finally start really digging ourselves out of the Great Recession. I'm not sure I see any signs of that happening soon, though.

More Patents Does Not Equal More Innovation

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 11:18 PM EST

Via James Pethokoukis, here's a chart from a new CBO report on federal policies and innovation. Needless to say, you can't read too much into it. It shows the growth since 1963 of total factor productivity (roughly speaking, the share of productivity growth due to technology improvements), and there are lots of possible reasons that TFP hasn't changed much over the past five decades. At a minimum, though, the fact that patent activity has skyrocketed since 1983 with no associated growth in TFP suggests, as the CBO report says dryly, "that the large increase in patenting activity since 1983 may have made little contribution to innovation."

The CBO report identifies several possible innovation-killing aspects of the US patent system, among them a "proliferation of low-quality patents"; increased patent litigation; and the growth of patent trolls who impose a substantial burden on startup firms. The report also challenges the value of software patents:

The contribution of patents to innovation in software or business methods is often questioned because the costs of developing such new products and processes may be modest. One possible change to patent law that could reduce the cost and frequency of litigation would be to limit patent protections for inventions that were relatively inexpensive to develop. For example, patents on software and business methods could expire sooner than is the case today (which, with renewals, is after 20 years), reducing the incentive to obtain those patents. Another change that could address patent quality, the processing burden on the USPTO, and the cost and frequency of litigation would be to limit the ability to obtain a patent on certain inventions.

Personally, I'd be in favor of limiting software and business method patents to a term of zero years. But if that's not feasible, even a reduction to, say, five years or so, would be helpful. In the software industry, that's an eternity.