Kevin Drum

Cuba Is Cautiously Hopeful and You Should Be Too

| Wed May 27, 2015 9:00 AM EDT

Friend of the blog Jay Jaroch recently spent some time in Cuba. Here's the first of three posts about what he observed while he was there.


If you’re looking for a country that has solved the problem of income inequality, look no further than Cuba, where everyone has next to nothing. And that’s not snark. It’s an economic reality that quickly presents itself to any Westerner who spends some time there, as I did this month.

Soon after President Obama loosened the travel restrictions, domestic debate about Cuba’s economic future in a post-embargo world split into two predictable camps: those who worried that America would “ruin” Cuba with a heavy dose of fanny-packed tourists and Panera Breads, and those who dismissed this as the “fetishization of poverty” and welcomed the introduction of American-style capitalism as a long overdue tonic. The reality is that these are mostly debates Americans are having about their views of America. Cubans, one quickly learns, are too economically desperate to care.

Havana is unique and dilapidated and strangely beautiful. You almost admire it in the same way you would distressed furniture, or Keith Richard’s face. Havana looks a bit like a hurricane hit the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1965 and no one bothered to clean it up. Zoom in and you’ll find men standing in front of a partially collapsed building holding menus imploring you to come to their paladares next to stray dogs fucking in the street next to a group of Canadian tourists in faux revolutionary berets next to a woman selling fruit from a cart that most Americans wouldn’t eat on a dare. It’s all here.

Without exception, the Cubans I talked to welcomed the thawing of relations with the US, and even more so the coming influx of American tourists. One quickly learns why: because too much of their day-to-day economy is reliant on tourist dollars and euros. America is simply the biggest account they could land, and that’s why they’re hopeful. Also cautious, and not so much because they’re worried about Starbucks; it's because they’re worried their government will mismanage their chance at a better life. The sense was: Raul is finally allowing for some small, common-sense reforms that would have been impossible under Fidel. President Obama is allowing for some small, common sense reforms that will allow Cubans greater access to American dollars. Let’s not screw this up. (More on that tomorrow.)

Outside Havana, the economic stagnation is even more acute. In Cienfuegos, a middle school English teacher named Alex, who had never spoken to an American before, wanted to know what a teacher of his experience would make in Los Angeles. I told him around $75,000 a year. “$75,000 American dollars,” he replied, shaking his head. “I earn 18 dollars a month.” Alex was hardly unique—monthly salaries in Cuba run from about $14 to $20.

In Trinidad, a city about five hours southeast of Havana, an older man sitting in his doorway stopped me on my way down the street. He wanted me to give the Americans a message: “Hay mucha musica, pero nada de trabajo.” We have lots of music, but no work.

This jibed with what I’d seen of Trinidad. Other than the jobs related to tourism, I couldn’t discern any other source of employment. Pablo, my host in Trinidad, was a civil engineer by trade, but a taxi driver by necessity. On one trip through town I asked him what jobs were available to locals beyond the tourist trade. He replied that there weren’t any. I found that hard to believe so I asked the same question of an art gallery employee. I got the same answer—there aren’t any other jobs. The only money coming in to that part of the country came from abroad, either in the form of remittances from family members or from tourism. We were, quite literally, the only game in town.

In some respects, both sides of the American debate can stand down. Cuba is neither ready for Pizza Hut nor gearing up for broad-based market reforms. Yes, Cuba is changing. People who had been there five or even two years before would tell me how much had already changed. But the reality is that they’re starting, slowly, to dig out from a half century deep hole. The infrastructure is in such disarray that they couldn’t take a large scale influx of American tourists if they wanted to. And they want to.

No one really knows what happens next. But this much seems clear: if you want to see what Cuba was like under socialism, you can come next year. You can come in three years. Five. Ten. It will still be there.

Next: What Cubans think of Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio.

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Judges Are Just Extensions of Political Parties These Days

| Tue May 26, 2015 5:33 PM EDT

From a post by Dara Lind about a court ruling on President Obama's immigration plan:

The two Republican-appointed judges hearing the case sided against the administration, while the Democratic-appointed judge on the panel sided with the White House.

How many times have we read sentences exactly like this? It's a wonder that anyone in the country still believes that federal judges are honest brokers these days.

How Many US Troops Will Be In Iraq By the Time Obama Leaves Office?

| Tue May 26, 2015 1:10 PM EDT

Over the past few days I've been trying to catch up with the fall of Ramadi and what it means for the war against ISIS. But it's not easy figuring out what really happened.

According to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Ramadi was yet another debacle for the Iraqi military: "What apparently happened is the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered; in fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force. That says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight ISIL and defend themselves."

The inevitable Kenneth Pollack, however, says that just isn't the case:

I think it important to start by putting the fall of Ramadi in its proper perspective. Da’ish [ISIS] forces have been battling for Ramadi since December 2013, so while the denouement may have come somewhat suddenly and unexpectedly, this is not a new front in the war and it ultimately took Da’ish a very long time to take the city. Although Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) did eventually retreat from the town and abandoned at least some heavy weapons doing so, most reports indicate they fell back to defensive positions outside the town. They did not simply drop their guns and run pell-mell, as many did in June 2014.

So what does Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi think? He's certain that Carter was fed bad information. Iraqi troops, he says, are just fine: "They have the will to fight, but when they are faced with an onslaught by [the Islamic State] from nowhere . . . with armored trucks packed with explosives — the effect of them is like a small nuclear bomb — it gives a very, very bad effect on our forces,” he said.

Contra Pollack, then, Abadi thinks ISIS did indeed come "from nowhere." Also, he wants us to know that his troops have the will to fight, but not when facing an enemy that uses actual weapons. Or something.

Beyond this, all the usual suspects blame the whole thing on President Obama and his usual weak-kneed reluctance to support our friends overseas. Unfortunately, that matters, regardless of whether or not it's just reflexive partisan nonsense. When it's loud enough and persistent enough, it starts to congeal into conventional wisdom. And if conventional wisdom says that things aren't going well in the war against ISIS, then the pressure to do something ratchets up steadily—and not just from the usual suspects. The pressure also comes in more reasonable form from sympathetic critics. For example here, from Doyle McManus of the LA Times, and here, from Pollack himself.

Zack Beauchamp thinks this friendly criticism matters a lot. Here he is responding to Pollack's piece:

First, Pollack is right on certain points. For example, the US campaign to equip some Sunni fighters hasn't panned out very well....Second, critics like Pollack are going to jack up the pressure on the administration to put American troops in harm's way. Pollack wants Obama to put American forces on the front lines to more accurately call in US airstrikes. He blames the administration's insistence "that not a single American be killed in this fight" for why this hasn't happened.

It's true that the administration has strongly resisted putting American troops in combat positions. That's because they're trying very hard to avoid slouching toward another Iraq war, with a large and growing US combat force that very well might do more harm than good. No combat troops is a red line designed to prevent that escalation.

....The foreign policy consensus in Washington is relatively hawkish, so problems with US interventions tend to be seen as problems resulting from not using enough force or committing enough resources. The more the elite consensus shifts against Obama, the more political pressure to escalate will mount. Obama probably will resist it, but the costs of doing so are going up — as Pollack's piece demonstrates.

So now I feel like I've caught up a bit on this. And it hardly matters. It's the same old stuff. On the surface, everyone agrees that this is an Iraqi fight and Iraqis need to fight it. But of course our training of Iraqi troops is woefully inadequate—something that should come as no surprise to anyone who remembers that a decade wasn't long enough to train Iraqi troops back when George Bush was running things. If Obama could make it happen within a few months, he really would be a miracle worker.

But if our training mission isn't working, the alternative is wearily obvious: more American boots on the ground—which is to say, on the front lines. And again, this comes as no surprise. Anyone who was paying attention knew that Obama's lightweight training-first strategy was likely to take years. We also knew that virtually no one in Washington has that kind of patience. Six months is the usual limit. So even among centrists and moderate hawks, pressure is going to grow to adopt a more aggressive strategy. And that means more Americans fighting on the front lines. And when that isn't enough, even more Americans.

Can Obama resist this pressure? If anyone can, it would be him. But I'm not sure that even he can hold out for too long.

Sen. Lindsey Graham: Iranians in Pool Halls Are All Liars

| Tue May 26, 2015 11:20 AM EDT

Lindsey Graham is the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the US Senate. Here he is, slipping into his Mr. Hyde role:

Senator Lindsey Graham, the first speaker Friday morning, appearing from Washington via video, spoke of losing his parents as a teenager, working in a pool hall and having to help raise his younger sister — and how it relates to his leadership style.

"Everything I learned about Iranians I learned working in the pool room," he said. "I met a lot of liars, and I know Iranians are liars."

Well, there you have it. It's not entirely clear to me how you'd become so adept at spotting liars in an open game like pool, but I guess ol' Lindsey managed it.

In any case, this is certainly the level of nuance and understanding of world affairs that we're getting accustomed to from the Republican presidential field—and it's only May. By the time, say, September rolls around, they're going to be competing with each other the same way they did four years ago over border security. It won't be long before we start hearing about nukes, giant domes, and Iron Curtain 2.0. Should be lotsa fun.

Chart: America Is More Liberal Than Politicians Think

| Sun May 24, 2015 11:28 AM EDT

Here's a fascinating tidbit of research. A pair of grad students surveyed 2,000 state legislators and asked them what they thought their constituents believed on several hot button issues. They then compared the results to actual estimates from each district derived from national surveys.

The chart on the right is typical of what they found: Everyone—both liberal and conservative legislators—thought their districts were more conservative than they really were. For example, in districts where 60 percent of the constituents supported universal health care, liberal legislators estimated the number at about 50 percent. Conservative legislators were even further off: They estimated the number at about 35 percent.

Why is this so? The authors don't really try to guess, though they do note that legislators don't seem to learn anything from elections. The original survey had been conducted in August, and a follow-up survey conducted after elections in November produced the same result.

My own guess would be that conservatives and conservatism simply have a higher profile these days. Between Fox News and the rise of the tea party and (in the case of universal health care) the relentless jihad of Washington conservatives, it's only natural to think that America—as well as one's own district—is more conservative than it really is. But that's just a guess. What's yours?

So How Did My Experiment Turn Out?

| Sat May 23, 2015 1:42 PM EDT

On Monday I announced that this was Experiment Week. Today is Saturday, and Science™ has spoken.

It turns out that I'm kinda sorta OK for about four or five hours in the morning. As long as I rest every hour or so, I can indeed write a couple of light blog posts, take a walk around the block, and shower and shave. That's the good news.

However, the deadline for my second walk of the day is about 2 pm. On Monday I walked at 5 pm, and when I was done I felt like I'd just run a marathon. It took me all evening to recover. On Tuesday I walked at 4 pm. This time it felt like I'd run a mile, and I recovered in about an hour. Basically, I've learned that my body wants to crash at about 2 pm every day. Maybe I doze for a couple of hours, maybe I actually sleep a bit, but either way I'm good for nothing. By 5 pm I'm back up, but all my chemo side effects have started to get worse. The neuropathy is worse, the nausea is worse, and the fatigue is worse. This continues until bedtime, getting steadily worse the entire time.

So that's that. I have the energy for light activity from about 7 am to 2 pm. Then I collapse, and when I get up I spend the next five or six hours enduring crappy side effects of the chemo. Oh, and this includes a terrible taste in my mouth that never goes away. Ugh.

But it could be worse! In fact, it's been worse before. Still, it's frustrating that recovery seems to come so slowly. I don't know if I'll be spending another week like this or another couple of months. All I can do is wait and see.

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Ireland Is Latest Country to Approve Gay Marriage

| Sat May 23, 2015 11:38 AM EDT

I don't have anything profound to say about this, but it's just a nice piece of good news. And I could use some good news these days:

Irish voters have resoundingly backed amending the constitution to legalize gay marriage, leaders on both sides of the Irish referendum declared Saturday after the world’s first national vote on the issue.

As the official ballot counting continued, the only question appeared to be how large the “yes” margin of victory from Friday’s vote would be. Analysts said the “yes” support was likely to exceed 60 percent nationally when official results are announced later Saturday.

Congratulations to Ireland. This is both a human and humane gesture in a world that could use more of them.

For the First Time Ever, Social Conservatives No Longer Outnumber Social Liberals in America

| Fri May 22, 2015 12:40 PM EDT

Via Ed Kilgore, here's an interesting chart from the good folks at Gallup:

What's interesting about this is that the change is due almost entirely to Democrats and Democratic leaners. Since 1999, that group has gone from 35 percent socially liberal to 53 percent, and from 20 percent socially conservative to 14 percent conservative.

Republicans and Republican leaners, by contrast, have barely budged. In the 2015 polling there's a slight dip in conservative ID and a slight spike in moderate ID, but it's probably just noise. Generally speaking, the lines are pretty flat over the past couple of decades.

So why have Democrats changed so much? Perhaps it's the impact of Millennials. Perhaps it's the impact of gay marriage, which Democrats have been far more willing to accept than Republicans. Maybe MSNBC and liberal blogs have had a bigger impact than I would have guessed. I'm not sure. But the increase has been steady enough that it can't be blamed on any specific event, like the Bush presidency or the financial crisis.

In any case, this really is a milestone. For a long time, one of the rocks of political analysis in America has been the simple fact that conservatives outnumber liberals. That's been true since at least the 60s, and probably for the entire postwar period—and it's been a perpetual millstone around Democratic necks. They couldn't win national elections just by getting the liberal vote and a little bit of the center-right vote. They had to get a lot of the center-right vote.

But it now looks like that era is coming to an end. With social issues increasingly defining politics, a social liberal is, for all practical purposes, just a plain old liberal—and the trend of increasing liberal ID is already underway. It's still got a ways to go, but the liberal-conservative gap is definitely closing. This probably goes a long way toward explaining why Hillary Clinton and other Democrats seem much more willing to move left than in the past. It's because they no longer think they have to capture a huge chunk of the moderate vote to win. They still need some moderates in their camp, but they no longer need to capture two-thirds or more of them. Like Republicans, they can make do with half or even a bit less.

UPDATE: The headline initially just said "liberal" and "conservative" without mentioning that it was about social liberals and conservatives. Too much shorthand. Sorry about that. I've changed the headline and a few words of the text to make everything clear.

Friday Cat Blogging Counterpoint: I Don't Care About Your Cute Cat

| Fri May 22, 2015 12:34 PM EDT
Hang in there, non-cat-lovers!

While Kevin Drum is focused on getting better, we've invited some remarkable writers, thinkers, and Friends of Kevin to contribute posts and keep the conversation going. Today, in the spirit of open debate, we interrupt our regularly scheduled cat blogging for a counterpoint by writer, editor, podcaster, speaker, chartisan, newsletterer, and former MoJoer Ann Friedman.

I don't like cats. And it's even worse than you think: I don't like dogs, either. In fact, I have virtually no interest in animals at all—even eating them. I am really happy that you are comforted by the presence of your dog. I am thrilled that you and your cat "rescued each other." But, no, I do not want to cuddle with or even see photos of your pet. And please don't bother sending me that video of baby red pandas cuddling each other or a lion reuniting with its long-lost human pal.

I feel nothing.

On this point, especially among my feminist peers on the internet, I am in the minority. In honor of the man who pioneered Friday cat blogging, I'm going to reckon with the fact that I am just not very interested in furry creatures. The last time I wrote about this was seven years ago, in ancient internet times when I was a blogger for Feministing and dared to do some "Friday anti-catblogging." The commenters weren't having it. "I honestly think that there is a valuable conversation to be had about the correlation of cat-hating with misogyny," one wrote.

Friday Cat Blogging - 22 May 2015

| Fri May 22, 2015 12:00 PM EDT

One of the reasons we got a pair of sibling cats last year is because I've always wanted a couple of cats who would sleep together in an adorable little kitty pile. And that's worked out pretty well. Is there anything cuter than Hilbert and Hopper snoozing together in the picture below? I don't think so. I really don't.