Kevin Drum

It Turns Out That Ferguson Is Pretty Typical of America

| Wed Nov. 19, 2014 12:40 PM EST

The Ferguson police department famously arrests blacks at a rate three times higher than other races. A USA Today investigation shows just how commonplace that is:

At least 1,581 other police departments across the USA arrest black people at rates even more skewed than in Ferguson, a USA TODAY analysis of arrest records shows. That includes departments in cities as large and diverse as Chicago and San Francisco and in the suburbs that encircle St. Louis, New York and Detroit.

Those disparities are easier to measure than they are to explain. They could be a reflection of biased policing; they could just as easily be a byproduct of the vast economic and educational gaps that persist across much of the USA — factors closely tied to crime rates. In other words, experts said, the fact that such disparities exist does little to explain their causes.

Curious to know how your city fares? Click here and check out various places in your state. My hometown, it turns out, beats out Ferguson easily, arresting blacks at a rate nearly four times higher than other races. The difference, of course, is that Irvine is only 1.7 percent black to begin with, so there's hardly anyone here to complain about it. That makes it easy to ignore, but that's about all it means.

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Voter ID Laws: Terrible Public Policy, But Probably Pretty Feeble

| Wed Nov. 19, 2014 11:47 AM EST

Republican-led voter-ID laws may be pernicious, but Nate Cohn says there are three reasons to think their actual electoral impact is overstated:

To begin with, the true number of registered voters without photo identification is usually much lower than the statistics on registered voters without identification suggest. The number of voters without photo identification is calculated by matching voter registration files with state ID databases. But perfect matching is impossible and the effect is to overestimate the number of voters without identification.

....People without ID are less likely to vote than other registered voters. The North Carolina study found that 43 percent of the unmatched voters — registered voters who could not be matched with a driver’s license — participated in 2012, compared with more than 70 percent of matched voters.

....There’s no question that voter ID has a disparate impact on Democratic-leaning groups....[But] voters without an identification might be breaking something more like 70/30 for Democrats than 95/5. A 70/30 margin is a big deal, and, again, it’s fully consistent with Democratic concerns about voter suppression. But when we’re down to the subset of unmatched voters who don’t have any identification and still vote, a 70/30 margin probably isn’t generating enough votes to decide anything but an extremely close election.

When I looked into this a couple of years ago, I basically came to the same conclusion. Only a few studies were available at the time, but they suggested that the real-world impact of voter ID laws was fairly small. I haven't seen anything since then to suggest otherwise.

None of this justifies the cynical Republican effort to suppress voting via ID laws. For one thing, they still matter in close elections. For another, the simple fact that they deliberately target minority voters is noxious—and this is very much not ameliorated by the common Republican defense that the real reason they're targeted isn't race related. It's because they vote for Democrats. If anything, that makes it worse. Republicans are knowingly making it harder for blacks and Hispanics to vote because they vote for the wrong people. I'm not sure how much more noxious a voter suppression effort can be.

These laws should be stricken from the books, lock, stock and extremely smoking barrel. They don't prevent voter fraud and they have no purpose except to suppress the votes of targeted groups. The evidence on this point is now clear enough that the Supreme Court should revisit its 2008 decision in Crawford v. Marion that upheld strict voter ID laws. They have no place in a decent society.

At the same time, if you're wondering how much actual effect they have, the answer is probably not much. We still don't have any definitive academic studies on this point, I think, but Cohn makes a pretty good case. It's possible that Kay Hagan might have lost her Senate race this year thanks to voter ID laws, but she's probably the only one.

Why Scott Walker Might Be Our Next President

| Wed Nov. 19, 2014 10:38 AM EST

In 2012, I basically considered Mitt Romney a shoo-in for the Republican nomination. I figured that he'd hoover up most of the moderate votes—and despite all the breathless press accounts, moderates still account for at least half of GOP voters—plus a share of the tea partiers, and that was that. The rest of the field would destroy each other as they fought over their own sliver of the tea party vote, eventually leaving Romney battered and unloved, but triumphant.

Sure enough, that's what happened. But I don't see a strong moderate in the field right now. I suppose Jeb Bush and Chris Christie come the closest, but even if they run, they strike me as having some pretty serious problems. Romney was willing to adopt tea party positions across the board, even as he projected a moderate, adult persona, but neither Christie nor Bush will kowtow in quite that way. That's going to cause them problems, and Christie's fondness for showy confrontations is going to be an additional millstone around his neck. Either one might win, but neither seems like an especially likely nominee to me.

All this is a long way of explaining why I think Scott Walker is the frontrunner. He has a record of governance. His persona is generally adult. He doesn't say crazy stuff. Relatively speaking, he's attractive to moderates. But at the same time, the tea partiers love him too. The big strike against him, of course, is that he's lousy on TV. He's a terrible public speaker. And he's just boring as hell. However, Ed Kilgore perfectly explains why this doesn't make him another Tim Pawlenty or John Kasich:

This is why Walker is so very commonly compared to Tim Pawlenty in 2012; the Minnesotan was perfectly positioned to become the most-conservative-electable-candidate nominee in a large but shaky field. And he wound up being the first candidate to drop out, before a single vote (other than in the completely non-official Ames Straw Poll) was cast. His sin was congenital blandness, and the defining moment of his campaign was when he all but repudiated his one great zinger: referring to the Affordable Care Act as "Obamneycare."

But TPaw's demise does point up one big difference between these two avatars of the Republican revival in the Upper Midwest: nobody suspects Scott Walker may be too nice for his party. He may be bland, and a bad orator, but his bad intent towards conservatism's enemies is unmistakable. He's sorta Death by Vanilla, or a great white shark; boring until he rips you apart. I think Republican elites get that, and it excites them. But how about voters?

Mitt Romney managed to base nearly his entire campaign on hating Barack Obama more than anyone else. It worked. Whenever someone started to score some points against his sometimes liberalish record in Massachusetts, he'd just launch into an over-the-top denunciation of Obama and the crowd would go wild. Walker can do the same thing, but without the artifice. Unlike Romney, he really has been fighting liberals tooth and nail for the past four years, and he has the scars to prove it. This will go a long, long way to make up for a bit of blandness.

Besides, it's worth remembering that people can improve on the basics of campaigning. Maybe Walker will turn out to be hopeless. You never know until the campaign really gets going. But if he's serious, he'll get some media training and start working on developing a better stump speech. A few months of this can do wonders.

Predictions are hard, especially about the future. But if he runs, I rate Walker a favorite right now. If his only real drawback is Midwestern blandness—well, Mitt Romney wasn't Mr. Excitement either. Walker can get better if he puts in the work. And if he does, he'll have most of Romney's upside with very little of the downside. He could be formidable.

Today's Winner in Washington: The Filibuster

| Tue Nov. 18, 2014 8:24 PM EST

Today, Democrats blocked action to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. A few minutes later, Republicans blocked a bill to regulate the bulk collection of phone records by the NSA.

Both bills had majority support. Both failed thanks to filibusters. It's good to see that life is back to normal in Washington DC.

Today's Math You Can Use: Marijuana + Big Corporations = A Lot More Marijuana

| Tue Nov. 18, 2014 4:51 PM EST

Here's a good example of how cavalier snark can get the better of you. This is Kevin Williamson writing at National Review:

From the annals of issues that only intellectuals are capable of misunderstanding: Mark A. R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA, is worried that the drug trade might end up being dominated by people who care about making money. My experience with drug dealers suggests very strongly that they are a profit-seeking, entrepreneurial lot as it is.

Har har. Mark is a friend of mine, so I guess I'd be expected to defend him, but I'm pretty sure he didn't mean his short piece about the commercialization of pot to be an attack on the free market. Quite the contrary. In fact, he has a powerful appreciation of the efficiency of the market, and knows very well that drug gangs are actually pitifully incompetent at the basics of modern distribution and logistics. Put them in competition with Philip Morris or RJ Reynolds and they'd go out of business in a few months. At the same time, with a truly modern, efficient multinational corporation at the helm, sales and consumption of marijuana would most likely skyrocket.

Remember what happened to all those mom-and-pop stores when Walmart came into town? It would be about like that.

I don't even know that I agree with Mark about trying to keep pot away from the commercial sector. My guess is that it's not really workable. Still, his argument is simple: The free market is powerful. Big corporations are far, far more efficient than a bunch of hoodlums. So if big corporations start selling drugs, then drug use (and abuse) is going to increase. Maybe a lot. You might still favor complete legalization, and that's fine. But you should at least recognize that it comes with a likely cost, just as it did with cigarettes and alcohol.

Public Evenly Split on Immigration Action

| Tue Nov. 18, 2014 1:30 PM EST

So how does the public feel about President Obama changing immigration rules via executive action? Pretty evenly split, it turns out. According to a USA Today poll, Democrats want action now; Republicans want him to wait; independents are split down the middle; and the overall result is slightly in favor of waiting, by 46-42 percent.

In other words, pretty much what you'd expect. Politically, then, this probably holds little risk for Obama or the Democratic Party. Especially in light of this:

On one more issue, Americans are in agreement: The elections two weeks ago aren't going to make Washington work better. Just 15% predict Obama and the new Congress, now under solid Republican control, will work together more closely to reach bipartisan compromises.

The American public is pretty politically astute, I'd say. They may not be up to speed on all the details of policymaking, but when it comes to the big picture, they know a lot more than the Beltway pundits seem to.

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Isn't It About Time to Ask Republicans to Start Acting Like Adults?

| Tue Nov. 18, 2014 11:53 AM EST

David Brooks is unhappy that President Obama continues to be a liberal even though Democrats lost in this year's midterm election:

The White House has not privately engaged with Congress on the legislative areas where there could be agreement. Instead, the president has been superaggressive on the one topic sure to blow everything up: the executive order to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws.

....I sympathize with what Obama is trying to do substantively, but the process of how it’s being done is ruinous. Republicans would rightly take it as a calculated insult and yet more political ineptitude. Everybody would go into warfare mode. We’ll get two more years of dysfunction that will further arouse public disgust and antigovernment fervor (making a Republican presidency more likely).

This move would also make it much less likely that we’ll have immigration reform anytime soon. White House officials are often misinformed on what Republicans are privately discussing, so they don’t understand that many in the Republican Party are trying to find a way to get immigration reform out of the way. This executive order would destroy their efforts.

I continue to not get this train of thought. In 2006, Republicans lost. President Bush's first action was to order a surge in Iraq, which infuriated Democrats. In 2008, Republicans lost. They responded by adopting a policy of obstructing every possible action by Democrats—including even a modest stimulus package during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. In 2012, Republicans lost. They responded with brinkmanship over the fiscal cliff, a flat refusal to fill open judicial positions on the DC circuit court, and an endless bellowing rage over Benghazi and other manufactured outrages.

By comparison, all Obama is doing is something he's been saying he'll do for nearly a year. It's not even all that big a deal if you step back for a moment and think about it. Several million undocumented immigrants are going to be told they're officially free of the threat of deportation for a temporary period, as opposed to the status quo, in which they're effectively free of the threat of deportation. Don't get me wrong: it's a big deal for the immigrants affected. But in terms of actual impact on immigration policy writ large? It doesn't really do much.

And yet, this single action is apparently enough to—rightly!—put Republicans into warfare mode. If that's true, I can only conclude that literally anything Republicans don't like is enough to justify going into warfare mode. That's certainly been how it's worked in the past, anyway.

Look: Republicans can decide for themselves if they want to go to war. If they want to pass yet another bill repealing Obamacare, that's fine. If they want to sue the president over the EPA or immigration, that's fine. If they want to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, that's fine. I assume Obama will win some of these battles and lose others, but in any case will treat them as the ordinary cut and thrust of politics instead of declaring them calculated insults that have infuriated him so much he can't possibly ever engage with the GOP again. In other words, he'll act like an adult, not a five-year-old.

This is what we expect from presidents. Why don't we expect the same from congressional Republicans? Why are they allowed to stamp and scream whenever something doesn't go their way, and everyone just shrugs? Once and for all, why don't we demand that they act like adults too?

POSTSCRIPT: I didn't bother with Brooks' claim that Republicans are "privately" discussing real, honest-to-goodness immigration reform, but color me skeptical. If they want to engage on this subject, they need to discuss it with Obama, not between themselves. They've had plenty of time for that, and have never been willing to buck the tea party to get something done. Why would it be any different now? For more, I think Ed Kilgore has about the right take on this.

Here's an Interesting Twist on Social Security That Might Be Worth Trying

| Tue Nov. 18, 2014 10:29 AM EST

Via Matt Yglesias, here's a fascinating little study in behavioral economics. It involves Social Security, which currently allows you to retire at age 62, but offers you a higher monthly payment if you retire later. For example, if you retire at 62, your monthly benefit might be $1,500, but if you delay a year, your monthly benefit might go up to $1,600. Given average lifespans, the total payout works out the same in both scenarios.

But what if you offered retirees a different deal? What if, instead of a higher monthly benefit, you offered them a lump sum payout if they delayed retirement? In the example above, if you delay retirement to 63, you'll still get $1,500 per month, but you'd also get a $20,000 lump sum payout. Delay to age 70 and you'd get a lump sum of nearly $200,000. How do people respond to that?

It turns out that they delay retirement—or they say they would on a survey, anyway. Under the current scenario, people say they'd retire at 45 months past age 62, or 65 years and 9 months. Under the lump sum scenario, the average retirement age is about five months later. (A third scenario with a delayed lump sum payout motivates people to retire even later.)

Would people do this in real life if they were offered these options? Maybe. And it would probably be a good thing, as Yglesias explains:

Since the benefits would be actuarially fair, this would not save the government any money. But since people would be working longer, the overall size of the economy and the tax base would be larger. That extends the life of the Social Security Trust Fund, and helps delay the moment at which benefit cuts or tax increases are necessary. The overall scale of the change is not enormous, but it's distinctly positive and it's hard to see what the downside would be.

This is hardly the highest priority on anybody's wish list, but it's an intriguing study. And it would certainly be easy to implement. Maybe it's worth a try.

Congressional Democrats Back Obama on Immigration Reform

| Mon Nov. 17, 2014 6:00 PM EST

With the election safely over, congressional Democrats have regained their courage on immigration and are now urging President Obama to go ahead with an executive action on immigration reform. Here's an excerpt from a letter that several Democratic leaders in the Senate sent today:

The principle behind most of what Obama plans to do falls under the category of "prosecutorial discretion," which means he can decide where best to use the government's limited law enforcement resources. Just like previous presidents, he can decide that resources should be directed in a certain way, which effectively means that certain immigrants will be free to stay in the country simply because no one will be targeting them for deportation.

We can argue about just how far presidents should be allowed to go down this road, but basically it's something with a fair amount of precedent. This is clearly the focus of the letter from Senate Democrats, and although I'm not a lawyer, I'm pretty confident that the Justice Department will produce an adequate legal defense of Obama's constitutional authority in this area.

But what's probably most important goes unsaid—or perhaps merely implied—in the Senate letter: if you qualify for "deferred action," you can also get a work permit and a Social Security number. I don't quite understand the legal authority for this, but it's part of the mini-DREAM executive action Obama signed in 2012, so apparently it's on firm legal ground.

In any case, it now looks like Obama is not just firmly committed to this, but has the public support of key congressional Democrats as well. It's coming whether Republicans like it or not.

Kids Today Are No Dumber Than Their Elders

| Mon Nov. 17, 2014 3:01 PM EST

One of my little pet peeves—occasionally given expression on this blog—is the notion that kids today are dumber than they used to be. I'd say that both the anecdotal and statistical evidence suggest just the opposite, but it's hard to get good comparisons since children are tested constantly while adults almost never are. Every year we hear horror stories about how few teenagers can locate France on a map, but who's to say whether adults are any better? After all, we never get the chance to herd them into classrooms and force them to tell us.

Today, however, Andrew Sullivan points me to a lovely little tidbit that I can't resist passing along. As true evidence, it's pretty much worthless. But who cares? This is a blog! If I can't draw sweeping conclusions from minuscule data here, where can I? So here it is: a YouGov survey of a thousand adults asking them six grammatical questions. The results are on the right. As you can see, every age group did about equally well. In fact, if you average all six questions, the results ranged from 75 percent correct for the youngsters to 73 percent correct for the senior citizens. That's no difference at all.

So there you have it. The kids today are all right. Or alright. Or something. In any case, their grammar appears to be every bit as good as that of their elders.