Kevin Drum

Perhaps We Should Retire the Idea That Joe Biden Is "Authentic"

| Tue Oct. 6, 2015 5:20 PM EDT

Back in August, Maureen Dowd wrote several hundred words about what a horrible person Hillary Clinton is. No surprise there. She could pretty easily write a million if the Times gave her the space. But then, having obsessed over Hillary's sinister psyche for the thousandth time, she turned to the possibility of white knights jumping into the presidential race to save us all. In particular, there was Joe Biden, who was now reconsidering a run after the death of his son Beau:

When Beau realized he was not going to make it, he asked his father if he had a minute to sit down and talk....“Dad, I know you don’t give a damn about money,” Beau told him, dismissing the idea that his father would take some sort of cushy job after the vice presidency to cash in.

Beau was losing his nouns and the right side of his face was partially paralyzed. But he had a mission: He tried to make his father promise to run, arguing that the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.

It's a touching scene, but also an odd one: Dowd didn't attribute it to anyone. Not even "a friend" or "someone with knowledge of the situation." In Politico today, Edward-Isaac Dovere says there's a reason for that:

According to multiple sources, it was Biden himself who talked to her....It was no coincidence that the preliminary pieces around a prospective campaign started moving right after that column. People read Dowd and started reaching out, those around the vice president would say by way of defensive explanation. He was just answering the phone and listening. But in truth, Biden had effectively placed an ad in The New York Times, asking them to call.

....“Calculation sort of sounds crass, but I guess that’s what it is,” said one person who’s recently spoken to Biden about the prospect of running.

....At the end of August, while friends were still worrying aloud that he was in the worst mental state possible to be making this decision, he invited Elizabeth Warren for an unannounced Saturday lunch at the Naval Observatory. According to sources connected with Warren, he raised Clinton’s scheduled appearance at the House Benghazi Committee hearing at the end of October, even hinting that there might be a running-mate opening for the Massachusetts senator.

Needless to say, I don't have any independent knowledge of whether Dovere is right about this. But it sure sounds plausible, and it's a good illustration of why you should take claims of "authenticity" with a big shaker of salt. Biden is an outgoing guy and gets along well with the press. But that just means he's an outgoing guy who gets along well with the press. Authenticity has nothing to do with it.

It's one thing for people close to a candidate to leak information that makes their man look good—that's so common I'm not sure it even has a name—but for the candidate himself to use his son's death as a way of worming his way into a weekly column written by a woman who detests Hillary Clinton more fanatically than anyone this side of Ken Starr? I'm not quite sure what to call that, but authentic isn't it.

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Paul Krugman Explains the Latest Draft of the TPP

| Tue Oct. 6, 2015 2:35 PM EDT

Suppose there's a complex public policy proposal being debated and you want to know where you should stand. However, you really don't want to devote a huge amount of time to diving into all the details. There are just so many hours in the day, after all.

One possibility is to simply see what people on your side of the tribal divide think about it. But that's surprisingly unreliable. A better approach is to take a look at who's opposed to the proposal. That's what Paul Krugman does today regarding the final draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement:

What I know so far: pharma is mad because the extension of property rights in biologics is much shorter than it wanted, tobacco is mad because it has been carved out of the dispute settlement deal, and Rs in general are mad because the labor protection stuff is stronger than expected....I find myself thinking of Grossman and Helpman’s work on the political economy of free trade agreements, in which they conclude, based on a highly stylized but nonetheless interesting model of special interest politics, that

An FTA is most likely to be politically viable exactly when it would be socially harmful.

The TPP looks better than it did, which infuriates much of Congress.

Krugman describes himself as a "lukewarm opponent" of TPP who now needs to do some more homework. I'd probably call myself a lukewarm supporter. One reason is that the dispute resolution provisions, which provoked a lot of anger on the left, never struck me as either unusual or all that objectionable in practice. The IP stuff bothered me more, and that's been improved a bit in the final draft. It's still not great, but it's not quite as horrible as before. So you can probably now count me as a slightly stronger supporter.

But I wonder what Republicans will do? They're the ones who are ideologically on the side of trade agreements, and they've spent a lot of time berating President Obama for not putting more effort into trade deals. But with campaign season heating up, it's become more toxic than ever to support any initiative of Obama's. Plus Donald Trump is busily working his supporters into a lather about TPP. I wouldn't be surprised to see quite a few defections from the Republican ranks.

Here's One Simple Rule For Deciding Who the Media Covers

| Tue Oct. 6, 2015 1:38 PM EDT

Paul Waldman notes today that Marco Rubio is the latest beneficiary of the media spotlight. Why?

If history is any guide, the “outsider” candidates will eventually fall, and Rubio is the only “insider” candidate whose support is going up, not down. Scott Walker is gone, Jeb Bush is struggling, and none of the other officeholders seem to be generating any interest among voters. Rubio has long had strong approval ratings among Republicans, so even those who are now supporting someone else don’t dislike him. He’s an excellent speaker both with prepared texts and extemporaneously. When you hear him talk he sounds informed and thoughtful, and much less reactionary than his actual ideas would suggest. He presents a young, Hispanic face for a party that desperately needs not to be seen as the party of old white guys.

This is all true, but it gives the media way too much credit. Here's the rule they use for deciding who to cover:

  • If you're leading or rising in the polls, you get coverage.

That's it. All the other stuff about Rubio has been true all along, and nobody cared about him. Now he's rising in the polls and is currently in about fourth place. So he's getting coverage.

This happened first to Donald Trump, then to Ben Carson, then to Carly Fiorina, and now to Rubio. Bernie Sanders, oddly enough, remains fairly immune. Maybe this rule only applies to Republicans this year.

Let's Not Rewrite History on Gun Violence

| Tue Oct. 6, 2015 12:38 PM EDT

"This is something we should politicize," President Obama said last week after the gun massacre in Oregon. "It is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic." Jonah Goldberg is annoyed that Obama said this even though he's routinely spoken out against politicizing issues in the past. "He's not about to try building consensus on gun violence among people of good faith," Goldberg says. Then this:

Obama's comments on Thursday highlighted the problem with his approach to politics. He would rather go for everything he wants and get nothing, but keep the political issue, than make progress on common ground.

Virtually none of the proposals on his gun-control wish list — more comprehensive federal background checks, closing the gun show "loophole," etc. — would help bring down the homicide rate....Typically, mass killers don't buy guns at gun shows. And a CNN analysis found that a comprehensive background check system wouldn't have prevented any of the "routine" killing sprees Obama referred to, save one.

....After the Sandy Hook slaughter, there was a bipartisan consensus that more needed to be done on the mental health side. But Obama, fresh off reelection, rejected a piecemeal approach, largely preferring to go for a "comprehensive" solution. He ended up with nothing at all.

Um, what? Shortly after Sandy Hook, Joe Biden released the final report of his task force on gun violence. It contained recommendations in four areas, one of which was increased access to mental health services. Several bipartisan bills that targeted mental health did indeed get introduced, and I believe Obama supported all of them. So why didn't they pass? That's always hard to say, but the best guess is that it's because they all cost money, and Republicans were unwilling to vote for increased spending. So they died. Obama's preference for a "comprehensive" approach had nothing to do with it.

Beyond that, sure, Obama wanted comprehensive legislation. But in the end, this got whittled down to one thing: a bipartisan bill mandating universal background checks. It was watered down repeatedly, and was about as weak as possible by the time it finally got a vote. Despite massive public support, even from gun owners, it failed after an enormous effort to reach out to all those people of good faith Goldberg talks about. I think you can guess who voted against it.1

1It was 41 Republicans and 5 Democrats, in case you've forgotten.

Why Did Lindsey Graham Vote Against Hurricane Sandy Relief in 2013? Here Are Half a Dozen Guesses.

| Tue Oct. 6, 2015 11:41 AM EDT

South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham voted against a $51 billion aid bill for New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, but feels differently about federal aid for the devastating floods that have racked his state. "Let's just get through this thing, and whatever it costs, it costs," Graham told Wolf Blitzer yesterday. Blitzer then asked him why he had opposed Sandy relief:

"I'm all for helping the people in New Jersey. I don't really remember me voting that way," Graham said. Pressed further, he said: "Anyway, I don't really recall that, but I'd be glad to look and tell you why I did vote no, if I did."

Well, yes, he did indeed vote against Sandy aid. I don't know why he did it either, but I can take a few guesses:

  • He was pissed off over the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.
  • He was pissed off over the recently concluded fiscal cliff negotiations, which Republicans lost.
  • He was pissed off over the national debt and wanted to make a point about out-of-control spending before the upcoming debt ceiling showdown.
  • He was pissed off over sequester caps that prevented big increases in military spending.
  • He was pissed off over flood insurance provisions in the bill, which had been loudly denounced by the Club for Growth.
  • He was pissed off over alleged pork in the aid bill.

Alternatively, Graham didn't really think about it at all, which is why it's slipped his mind by now. Maybe he just vaguely figured the bill would pass, so this was a chance to demonstrate fiscal toughness without running the risk of being held personally responsible for enormous human suffering in New Jersey. After all, 35 other Republican senators voted against it too. So why not join them?

Thanks to the NSA, Data Sharing With Europe Just Got a Little Harder

| Tue Oct. 6, 2015 11:11 AM EDT

The long arm of Edward Snowden just got a little longer today:

Europe’s highest court on Tuesday struck down an international agreement that had made it easy for companies to move people’s digital data between the European Union and the United States. The ruling, by the European Court of Justice, could make it more difficult for global technology giants — including the likes of Amazon and Apple, Google and Facebook — to collect and mine online information from their millions of users in the 28-member European Union.

So what does this have to do with Snowden? Since 2000, a "Safe Harbor" agreement has allowed US companies to store personal data on European nationals as long as the companies comply with a specific set of rules to minimize abuse. At the time, it was commercial abuse that everyone had in mind. Today it's government abuse:

Tuesday’s decision stems from a complaint lodged in 2013 by Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems over Facebook’s compliance with EU data-privacy rules. In his charge filed to the Irish data-protection authority, the U.S. social-media company’s lead regulator in Europe, Mr. Schrems claimed that allegations by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden showed Facebook wasn’t sufficiently protecting users’ data because it is subject to mass surveillance in the U.S.

There are workarounds for this, but they're complicated and burdensome. What's more, efforts to reach an updated agreement will be difficult since the court ruling allows privacy regulators in every country to set up their own rules. This means that negotiations with the EU almost certainly have to include every national regulator who wants a voice, since each one can essentially veto an agreement in their own country.

Alternatively, the US could announce major reforms to its NSA spying programs. Just kidding, of course. We all know that's unpossible.

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Coming Soon: Quantum Computing on Your Desktop PC?

| Tue Oct. 6, 2015 12:44 AM EDT

Today has been pretty dull in the world of political news, so let's continue trawling other parts of the global knowledge ecosystem for interesting tidbits. This one looks potentially important:

For decades, researchers have been trying to build a computer that harnesses the enormous potential of quantum mechanics. Now engineers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia have overcome the final hurdle, by creating a quantum logic gate in silicon — the same material that today's computer chips are made from.

The newly developed device allows two quantum bits — or qubits — to communicate and perform calculations together, which is a crucial requirement for quantum computers. Even better, the researchers have also worked out how to scale the technology up to millions of qubits, which means they now have the ability to build the world's first quantum processor chip and, eventually, the first silicon-based quantum computer.

Quantum computing is sort of like fusion power: constantly right around the corner, but never quite there. The fundamental problem is that qubits suffer from decoherence unless they're kept completely isolated from their surrounding environment, which is pretty tough since they also need to communicate with other qubits in order to be useful. Researchers have gotten a lot better at controlling qubits in recent years, but as the UNSW paper points out, this has required the use of fairly exotic materials: "single photons, trapped ions, superconducting circuits, single defects or atoms in diamond or silicon, and semiconductor quantum dots."

By contrast, a two-qubit logic gate that can be implemented in silicon using standard lithographic techniques is a whole different matter. If this turns out to be for real, chips containing thousands or millions of qubits are finally within practical reach.

This would be very cool, though only for a certain subset of problems amenable to massive parallel processing. This is inherent in the difference between standard computers and quantum computers. A standard computer with, say, 50 bits, can be in any one of 250 states at a single time. That's about a quadrillion states. This state changes with every beat of the computer's internal clock, and eventually you get an answer to whatever problem you've programmed the computer to solve. By contrast, a quantum computer with 250 qubits can be in a quadrillion states simultaneously thanks to an aspect of quantum weirdness called superposition. Once you set up the program, you just collapse the quantum state and the answer is spit out instantly.

This is not the kind of thing you'd use to write an iPhone app. But it could be used to break some public-key encryption systems. It might also be useful for things like modeling protein folding, which is fundamentally a quantum problem that requires a tremendous amount of computing time using traditional computers. There's also potential for exponentially faster database queries.

And one other thing: it's possible that large-scale quantum computing could lead to breakthroughs in emulating human thought processes and speeding up the creation of artificial intelligence. Maybe.

Anyway, it's fascinating stuff, and it seems as if useful quantum computing may be finally getting within reach. If it does, it would blow away Moore's law for certain kinds of problems—possibly many more than we think once we get the hang of writing a whole different kind of code. In a few years, maybe we'll even get customer support voice recognition systems to work properly.

Do You Spend an Hour Waiting For Your Doctor?

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 10:51 PM EDT

A new study has been making the rounds today. Over at JAMA, a team of researchers used one survey to calculate average time spent in face-to-face time with a doctor and another survey to calculate total average "clinic time" (wait time plus doctor time). If you subtract doctor time from clinic time, you get average wait time. That's shown in the chart on the right.

But something isn't right here. The takeaway is that minorities tend to have longer wait times than whites, which wouldn't surprise me at all. (They also have longer travel times.) But even whites have an average wait time of one hour. That's nowhere near this white boy's experience for any of the doctors/medical systems I've ever been part of. What's more, other studies suggest that average wait time is around 20 minutes or so, which seems more likely.

So....I'm not sure what's going on here. Something about this study doesn't seem right, and I don't know if it's in the methodology or in the interpretation everyone is putting on it. In any case, if you read about this study, I'd take it with a grain of salt for the moment.

The World Has Gone Crazy Over Ad Blocking

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 9:37 PM EDT

It's pretty amazing. Ad blockers have been around forever. I've been using AdBlock Plus for nearly a decade and nobody ever cared. It was just a quiet little thing that a few power users knew about.

But as soon as Apple decided to allow ad blocking on the iPhone, suddenly the world went nuts. News headlines exploded. Half the sites I visit now check for ad blockers and hit me with guilt-inducing messages about how I'm bankrupting them if I decline to read their latest Flash creations and bouncing gif animations. Hell, I just got one of these messages on For a while, the Washington Post randomly declined to let me read their articles at all unless I removed my ad blocker.

I've got one question and one comment about this. The comment is this: Screw you, Apple. Everything was fine until you decided to barge in. The question is this: Is publisher panic over loss of ad revenue rational? Genuine question. I understand that mobile is where all the ad dollars are, and I understand that Apple accounts for a sizeable chunk of the mobile market. But is ad blocking ever likely to become a mass phenomenon, or will it continue to be used only by power users? I suppose there's no way to know. In any case, the recent hysteria over ad blocking sure does show the incredible PR power of Apple. If you take something that's been around forever—4G LTE, large screens, ad blocking—and slap it on an iPhone, everyone goes nuts. It's Apple's world and the rest of us are just pawns in the games they play.

California Legalizes Assisted Suicide For Terminal Patients

| Mon Oct. 5, 2015 4:20 PM EDT

After months of maintaining a stony silence about California's right-to-die bill, Gov. Jerry Brown signed it today:

The Golden Rule isn't always the best guide to public policy, but in this case I think it is. California has an obligation to make sure assisted suicide isn't abused, either by doctors rubber stamping requests or by friends or relatives pressuring sick patients to end their lives. Beyond that, though, deciding when and how to die is about as personal a decision as someone can make. It's not that assisted suicide doesn't affect other people—it does—but as a matter of public policy it's best for the state to remain resolutely neutral. This is something that should be left up to the patient, her doctor, and whichever of her friends, family, and clergy she decides to involve.

The text of the bill is here. Brown did the right thing today by signing it.