Kevin Drum

Here's How Fact Checking Exits the Real World and Enters Wonderland

| Wed Oct. 1, 2014 10:36 AM EDT

So here's the big controversy of the day out in our nation's heartland. Joni Ernst, running for a Senate seat in Iowa, is one of 21 Republicans who voted in favor of a "personhood" amendment to the state constitution. It says that "the inalienable right to life of every person at any stage of development shall be recognized and protected."

That seems clear enough. It means life begins at conception, and that embryos will have the same legal protections as you and me. Ernst's opponent, Bruce Braley, concludes, logically enough, that this would ban certain forms of contraception, prevent people from getting in vitro fertilization, and lead to the prosecution of doctors who perform those procedures.

Ernst says this is nonsense. "That amendment is simply a statement that I support life," she says. Why, it's just a nothingburger! Sort of like a resolution endorsing apple pie or Mother's Day.

Today, Glenn Kessler wades into this dispute. He dings Ernst for "straining credulity" about the intent of the amendment, but he also has harsh words for Braley:

Braley goes too far with his scary scenarios, especially because he repeatedly said the amendment “would” have the impact he described. Ernst is on record of not opposing contraception—though she also favors punishing doctors who perform abortions. We concede that the legal terrain in murky, and the impact uncertain. But that’s all the more reason not to speak with such certainty. Braley thus earns Two Pinocchios.

Ed Kilgore is dumbfounded by this kind of treatment, and so am I. I just don't get it. Kessler is not some babe in the woulds. He knows perfectly well exactly what the intent of this amendment is. It's possible, of course, that Democrats in Iowa will prevent Republicans from enacting enabling legislation. Or that the US Supreme Court will stand in the way. But why does that matter when the intent is so clear? Ernst may say that "I will always stand with our women on affordable access to contraception," but that's plain and simple weaseling. And it doesn't even matter. Republicans in the legislature can keep their hands completely clean and simply let activists take things to court. With an amendment like that in place, no judge could turn away a suit that asked for a ban on abortions or in-vitro fertilization or certain forms of contraception.

As Kilgore says, "Encouraging this lack of accountability, and engaging in the worst form of false equivalency, is just a sin." All Braley is doing is calling out Ernst for the obvious implications of an amendment she supports. It's not merely a "statement" and she knows it. But in our topsy-turvy world of fact checking, Braley's plain description of the obvious real-world impact of Ernst's amendment is somehow deemed more of a lie than Ernst's slippery prevarications in the first place.

I don't understand this. This isn't a debating society. It's not la-la land. It's the real world, and it's not partisan sniping to say that we all know what this stuff means in the real world. Shouldn't that be the domain of a fact checker?

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You Insult Henry Kissinger At Your Peril

| Wed Oct. 1, 2014 12:41 AM EDT

Newly declassified documents show that Fidel Castro pissed off Henry Kissinger so badly that he drew up plans to "clobber the pipsqueak":

Mr. Kissinger, who was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977, had previously planned an underground effort to improve relations with Havana. But in late 1975, Mr. Castro sent troops to Angola to help the newly independent nation fend off attacks from South Africa and right-wing guerrillas.

That move infuriated Mr. Kissinger, who was incensed that Mr. Castro had passed up a chance to normalize relations with the United States in favor of pursuing his own foreign policy agenda, Mr. Kornbluh said.

“Nobody has known that at the very end of a really remarkable effort to normalize relations, Kissinger, the global chessboard player, was insulted that a small country would ruin his plans for Africa and was essentially prepared to bring the imperial force of the United States on Fidel Castro’s head,” Mr. Kornbluh said.

“You can see in the conversation with Gerald Ford that he is extremely apoplectic,” Mr. Kornbluh said, adding that Mr. Kissinger used “language about doing harm to Cuba that is pretty quintessentially aggressive.”

Yep, that's everyone's favorite geopolitical strategic master at work. Kissinger considered Castro's actions to be a personal insult, so he began drawing up plans for the US military to blockade Cuba, mine its harbors, and potentially touch off a war with the Soviet Union. Because that's what you do when a small country irritates Henry Kissinger. Amirite?

Mitt Romney Takes Another Crack at Explaining the 47 Percent

| Tue Sep. 30, 2014 5:48 PM EDT

In a recent interview with Mark Leibovich, Mitt Romney offered up a new excuse for foolishly venting to a supporter during the 2012 campaign about the perfidy of the "47 percent" (i.e., the folks who take no personal responsibility for their lives and just want lots of free bennies from the government). Here it is:

Romney told me that the statement came out wrong, because it was an attempt to placate a rambling supporter who was saying that Obama voters were essentially deadbeats. “My mistake was that I was speaking in a way that reflected back to the man,” Romney said. “If I had been able to see the camera, I would have remembered that I was talking to the whole world, not just the man.” I had never heard Romney say that he was prompted into the “47 percent” line by a ranting supporter. It was also impossible to ignore the phrase “If I had to do this again.”

David Corn calls bullshit:

That supporter was not rambling. Here's what he asked: "For the last three years, all everybody's been told is, 'Don't worry, we'll take care of you.' How are you going to do it, in two months before the elections, to convince everybody you've got to take care of yourself?" That was a straightforward query, succinctly put, not rambling at all. It was Romney who took the point to the next level and proclaimed that a specific number of Americans were lazy freeloaders who could not and would not fend for themselves.

But I don't think this is fair. "Rambling" and "ranting" are Leibovich's words, not Romney's. All Romney says is that he was "speaking in a way that reflected back to the man." And that's true. In fact, this was pretty much my guess about what really happened that night, and I suggested at the time that it revealed a lot about Romney's execrable people skills. After all, every candidate has to interact with true believers, many of whom are also rich donors.

A politician with even a tenuous grasp on how to handle this kind of pressure knows what to do: you redirect. You can't tell these folks they're crazy, of course....But you can't really agree with them either....So you soothe. I get where you're coming from. And then you back away. Maybe you blame it on polling data....Maybe you change the subject....Maybe you appeal to authority.

....But you handle them. Except that apparently Romney can't. And that's pretty weird, isn't it? He has more experience handling the titanic egos of rich people than anyone in politics. If anyone should be able to stroke big-dollar donors without saying anything stupid, it ought to be Mitt Romney.

This is basically what Romney is fessing up to. He wanted to pander to this questioner, but he didn't have the skills to do that off-the-cuff in a safe way. So, since he thought he was speaking privately, he just went ahead and gave him the full pander instead.

Whether Romney really believed what he was saying is sort of irrelevant. I figure he probably did—sort of—though I suspect that if he'd been in a different mood he would have said something a little different. But what we really learned from this episode is that Romney had neither the guts to stand up to a rich donor nor the people skills to soothe and redirect in a safe way. In other words, he's not really the kind of guy you want to be president of the United States.

Peak Oil Is All About Cheap Oil

| Tue Sep. 30, 2014 1:37 PM EDT

Russell Gold writes in the Wall Street Journal that perhaps the idea of peak oil is a myth. After all, technology keeps getting better and better, allowing us to extract more oil from old fields. Of course, it's expensive to do business this way:

When the oil industry overcomes an obstacle and boosts oil production, costs typically increase. That opens the door for a better and cheaper energy source that will eventually displace crude oil.

So at some point, the cost of getting more and more oil likely will get so high that buyers can't—or won't—pay....Already, economics is bringing about some changes. Despite the abundance of oil that fracking has delivered, global oil prices remain high. This has kept the door wide open for alternative sources of energy and spending on energy efficiency.

...."There will be peak oil, but it will be [because of] peak consumption," says Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, an energy and climate think tank in Oakland, Calif. "What we all want is to move to better, cheaper and cleaner sources of energy."

This is a good example of a common misconception about peak oil. The theory has never really been about the absolute limit of oil in the ground—though, of course, there is an eventual limit—it's been about the amount of oil that can be profitably extracted. Older fields, where you literally just have to drill a hole in the ground and wait for a gusher, are cheap fields. As the older fields play out, we have to use new technology to extend their lives. And we also have to look for oil in other, more expensive places: polar oil, deep-sea oil, tar sands, and so forth. As we do this, oil gets more and more expensive.

There's nothing new about this. The peak oil debate has never really been about how much oil is in the ground. It's always been about (a) how much oil we can pump on a daily basis and (b) how much it costs to get it above ground. And as Gold points out, even with all the hoopla about fracking, the price of oil is still very high. That's because new technologies are barely keeping up with the exhaustion of older fields.

But there's more to this. It's true, of course, that as oil gets more expensive it naturally motivates a switch to other energy sources. In that sense, peak oil takes care of itself. We'll switch to gas, and then to solar, and maybe someday to fusion. And we'll do it naturally as those sources of energy become cheaper than oil.

In the meantime, however, there's a big problem: declining spare capacity. The real medium-term danger of peak oil lies in the fact that the world is currently pumping oil at close to full capacity. Nor is this likely to change soon, since the developing world has a huge appetite for oil even at current prices. So what happens when there's a supply disruption somewhere? The answer, unfortunately, is that any blip in supply, whether from political unrest, terrorism, or merely unforeseen natural events, can cause prices to carom wildly. A world with $100 per barrel oil is bad enough, but a world in which a single pipeline meltdown could cause prices to skyrocket to $300 per barrel for a few months and then back down is far worse.

Will this happen? No one knows. Iraq has more pumping capacity if they can solve their political problems. Iran has more pumping capacity if they can make a nuclear deal with the West and re-enter the global market. Fracking is still on the rise, and probably will be for the rest of the decade. But oil prices spiked even during the Libya war, and that was a pretty modest supply disruption.

In other words, no one knows for sure. I certainly don't. But the fact that demand is bumping up against supply—and will continue doing so even if supply increases—represents the real danger, economically speaking. With no spare capacity, a modest disruption in supply can cause oil prices to spike, and there's a lot of evidence to suggest that oil price spikes are at least partially responsible for every global recession of the past 40 years. That's peak oil for you.

We Are In Love With War

| Tue Sep. 30, 2014 12:29 PM EDT

I'm going to make this short because I simply don't have a thousand-word essay in me about war fever. But the more I think about our campaign against ISIS, the more dismayed I become. I always figured that if the time ever came when a president wanted to bomb Iran, it would be pretty easy to whip up the usual war frenzy over it. That's been baked into the cake for a long time. But Iraq? And without even a very big push from President Obama? I mean, for all that I'm not happy over his decision to go back to war in Iraq, he's been relatively sober about the whole thing.

But it barely matters. The mere concrete prospect of a new war was all it took. According to polls, nearly two-thirds of Americans are on board with the fight against ISIS and nearly half think we ought to be sending in ground troops. That's despite the fact that practically every opinion leader in the country says in public that they oppose ground troops. At this point it would take only a tiny shove—a bomb scare, an atrocity of some kind, pretty much anything—and 70 percent of the country would be in full-bore war frenzy mode.

It's like we've learned nothing from the past decade. Our politicians are in love with war. The public is in love with war. And the press is really in love with war. It just never ends.

Intel Community Dusts Itself Off and Casually Shows Obama Who's Boss

| Tue Sep. 30, 2014 10:49 AM EDT

A friend brings to my attention this New York Times piece:

By late last year, classified American intelligence reports painted an increasingly ominous picture of a growing threat from Sunni extremists in Syria, according to senior intelligence and military officials. Just as worrisome, they said, were reports of deteriorating readiness and morale among troops next door in Iraq.

But the reports, they said, generated little attention in a White House consumed with multiple brush fires and reluctant to be drawn back into Iraq. “Some of us were pushing the reporting, but the White House just didn’t pay attention to it,” said a senior American intelligence official. “They were preoccupied with other crises,” the official added. “This just wasn’t a big priority.”

He comments:

Look, if you publicly throw the intel community under the bus, they're going to come back at you. They have better access to the press. They have careerists with longstanding media relationships that they know how to work and how to shape their stories....Plus, you're giving Republicans wonderful fuel for their absolute strongest subject — bar none — national security: Obama is fighting (insert intelligence community / generals / Secret Service / other military service), more than ISIS.

The idiocy of picking this fight in public is pretty unnerving frankly.

There's not much point in dwelling on this forever, but Obama's comment blaming the intel community for misjudging ISIS absolutely blanketed every news outlet in the country last night. It really does make you wonder what's going on over in the West Wing. Was Obama's comment on Sunday just a dumb mistake? Does he really have contempt for the intelligence community? Did he somehow think he could get away with blaming them and not getting any blowback? Or what?

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Here's Why Obama Fumbled on the Economy Last Night

| Mon Sep. 29, 2014 7:17 PM EDT

Paul Waldman asks us to imagine what's going to happen the next time there's some kind of Islam-inspired terror attack on American soil:

The news media would amp up the fear to levels we haven't seen in the last decade, encouraging everyone to look for sleeper cells lurking down at the Piggly Wiggly. Republicans would of course unite behind President Obama in our time of mourning—kidding! They'd go on TV to denounce him for being so weak that the evildoers struck us in our very heart, and proclaim not only that the blood of the victims is on the hands of every Democrat, but that more attacks are coming and we're more vulnerable than we've ever been. Dick Cheney would emerge snarling from his subterranean lair to warn us that this is only the beginning and we really need to start bombing at least five or six more countries. Senator Lindsey Graham, who has already said about ISIL that "this president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home," might just tear off his shirt and scream, "We're all gonna die! We're all gonna die!" right on Fox News Sunday.

Now bear with me a for a moment. Here's a seemingly unrelated story about Sam Brownback's effort to spur economic growth in Kansas by lowering taxes on the rich and cutting back on welfare:

As he runs for reelection, Brownback is finding that what he once called a “real live experiment” in red-state governance is struggling to produce the benefits he had promised....In an interview on his way to Dodge City — where he would sign legislation creating a “National Day of the Cowboy” — Brownback said he regretted referring to his plans as an experiment. But he defended his tenure, saying it represented a Ronald Reagan-style approach to governance that eventually would rebuild Kansas’s economy after a long slide.

“I wish I could take that back, because I don’t consider this an experiment,” he said. “So many people on the left really want this to fail. . . . This is a long-term strategy to make us more competitive.

Democrats and Republicans are both good at some things and bad at others. One of the things that Republicans are good at is making—and repeating over and over and over—firm predictions about the outcomes of their policy preferences. If you fail to wage eternal war in the Middle East, there will be a terrorist attack in the United States. If you lower taxes, the economy will improve. Etc.

These are easy things to understand for voters. And guess what? Eventually there will be a terrorist attack. Eventually the economy will improve. So when those things happen, Republicans have a nice, simple story already planted in the public mind that allows them to take credit or place blame for it.

Democrats are not so good at this. President Obama fumbled last night on 60 Minutes when he tried to take credit for the improved state of the economy compared to when he took office. Partly, of course, this is because the economy is only in so-so shape. But it's also because Democrats have no simple, pre-digested narrative. They never said—over and over and over—that if we passed a stimulus bill, the economy would improve. Or that if we rescued GM, the economy would improve. Or that if we raised taxes on the wealthy, the economy would improve. Instead, Democrats had sort of a dog's breakfast of policy choices that they endorsed, but never made into a centerpiece of a claim about economic recovery. So now, when the economy is recovering, nobody really gives them any credit.

Now, this may be a more honest way of conducting our affairs. Most government policies really do have only a modest effect on economic growth. Likewise, most government policies have only a modest effect on the chances of someone eventually pulling off a terrorist attack. But honest or not, it means voters don't associate Democrats with much of anything. They don't give them credit for improving the economy, for example, or for preventing terrorist attacks. And honest or not, it's political malpractice.

Report: Secret Service Lied About White House Fence Jumper

| Mon Sep. 29, 2014 4:41 PM EDT

Omar Gonzalez, the White House fence-jumper from earlier this month, apparently surprised the guard at the front door because a nearby alarm box had been muted:

After barrelling past the guard immediately inside the door, Gonzalez, who was carrying a knife, dashed past the stairway leading a half-flight up to the first family’s living quarters. He then ran into the 80-foot-long East Room, an ornate space often used for receptions or presidential addresses.

Gonzalez was tackled by a counter-assault agent at the far southern end of the East Room. The intruder reached the doorway to the Green Room, a parlor overlooking the South Lawn with artwork and antique furniture, according to three people familiar with the incident.

Secret Service officials had earlier said he was quickly detained at the main entry. Agency spokesman Edwin Donovan said the office is not commenting due to an ongoing investigation of the incident.

So....they just lied?

On a related note, I wonder who the whistleblowers are that have been feeding all this stuff to WaPo's Carol Leonnig? Not that it matters, I suppose, but I'm curious about whether it's folks who are appalled by the security lapses or folks who have some other kind of axe to grind.

Here's Yet Another Rage-Inducing Scam in the American Health Care System

| Mon Sep. 29, 2014 1:03 PM EDT

Here is your statistic of the day:

The average salary of an emergency room physician was $311,000 in 2014, rising from $247,000 since 2010 — a period when many other types of doctors experienced declines in salaries, according to Merritt Hawkins, a physician staffing firm.

Why is this? A shortage of ER physicians? More emergencies? Higher standards for ER work?

Nope. Elisabeth Rosenthal's latest rage-inducing piece about America's health care system1 suggests the reason is far more corrupt. Apparently one of the great trends in American health care2 is to outsource ER staffing. This means that even if you're careful—possibly while in great pain or barely even coherent—to show up at an in-network ER covered by your insurance plan, there's a pretty good chance that the actual doctors who attend you aren't in your network. Naturally, this being American health care,3 you have no choice in this matter even if you're savvy enough to know about the whole in-network and out-of-network distinction. And as we all know, out-of-network docs in the American health care system4 are basically allowed to charge any prices they want. And they do.

This is a great scam for everyone. Presumably hospitals save money because freelance ER docs cost them less. And the ER docs cost less because they know they'll be able to run the ol' out-of-network scam on lots of patients, thus raking in the bucks. It's a win-win.

As a result, during a period of economic stagnation that produced zero wage growth for everyone else, ER docs are now making $64,000 more than they did four years ago. And they're doing this by preying on the most vulnerable, most easily scammable members of society: folks who are flat on their backs and almost by definition unable to understand what's going on around them. Not that it would matter if they did, of course. The law provides no recourse even if you don't like this system. That's the way things roll in the American health care system.5

If this kind of stuff doesn't make you pop a vein, I'm not sure what would. It's right on a par with the telemarketing ghouls who prey on senior citizens with dementia. Except that these guys wear white coats and are welcomed into all the best country clubs.

1Best in the World, Baby.™

2Best in the World, Baby.™

3Best in the World, Baby.™

4Best in the World, Baby.™

5Best in the World, Baby.™

Republicans Once Again Favored to Take Control of the Senate

| Mon Sep. 29, 2014 12:00 PM EDT

Remember my post a couple of weeks ago saying that Republicans were no longer favored to take control of the Senate? Well, recent polls have not been kind to the Ds, and now everyone—including Sam Wang—agrees that Republicans are once again favored. Here's the Vox aggregation of aggregators:

You may now either celebrate or else sharpen up your seppuku knives, depending on your partisan leanings. But keep one thing in mind: two weeks ago, only one pollster out of six thought Republicans were favored. Today six out of six think Republicans are favored. Things can change mighty fast, and there's still more than a month to go before Election Day. Your guess is as good as mine whether Joni Ernst can go five consecutive weeks without letting the crazy show.