Kevin Drum

Maybe Obama Can Change the Way We Think About War

| Mon Sep. 15, 2014 11:43 AM EDT

Over the weekend, Peter Baker wrote a story about President Obama's cautious, calculated approach to the fight against ISIS. It is, Obama says, a reaction against the frenzied buildup to the Iraq War in 2002-03:

In his own way, Mr. Obama said, he had seen something similar, a virtual fever rising in Washington, pressuring him to send the armed forces after the Sunni radicals who had swept through Iraq and beheaded American journalists. He had told his staff, he said, not to evaluate their own policy based on external momentum. He would not rush to war. He would be deliberate.

“But I’m aware I pay a political price for that,” he said.

His introspection that afternoon reflected Mr. Obama’s journey from the candidate who wanted to wind down America’s overseas wars to the commander in chief who just resumed and expanded one....He alternated between resolve as he vowed to retaliate against President Bashar al-Assad if Syrian forces shot at American planes, and prickliness as he mocked critics of his more reticent approach to the exercise of American power.

“Oh, it’s a shame when you have a wan, diffident, professorial president with no foreign policy other than ‘don’t do stupid things,’ ” guests recalled him saying, sarcastically imitating his adversaries. “I do not make apologies for being careful in these areas, even if it doesn’t make for good theater.”

....This account of Mr. Obama’s thinking as he arrived at a pivotal point in his presidency is based on interviews with 10 people who spoke with him in the days leading up to his speech Wednesday night....The president invited a group of foreign policy experts and former government officials to dinner on Monday, and a separate group of columnists and magazine writers for a discussion on Wednesday afternoon.

What I'm curious about is why Obama is so intent on making this public. Obviously you don't invite a bunch of columnists and reporters for a chat—off the record or otherwise—unless you intend for everyone in the world to hear what you said. In fact, this is a bit of theater in its own right, since a supposedly "private" meeting is bound to get more attention than a garden-variety interview.

So....why? Is it something of a sop to his base, trying to assure them that he's not planning to let the current fight morph into Iraq War 2.0? Is it hubris, making sure everyone in the foreign policy community knows that he doesn't care what they think? Is it a deliberate jab against the media and its complicity in ramping up war fever? Or does he truly think that the Beltway punditocracy will respond favorably to this kind of thing?

It's all very strange. It's obvious that Obama truly believes he's being cautious and wants everyone to know that this is deliberate, not merely the ramblings of a tortured executive who can't make up his mind. Perhaps he's trying his best to normalize this kind of decisionmaking about war, since it's basically unheard of in modern history. If that's the case, then I wish him the best of luck.

And you know what? He might actually be having an effect. He might really be embarrassing a few people into facing up to their tacit assumption that the only kind of strong foreign policy is one that involves both liberal use of the military and plenty of Churchillian rhetoric to go along with it. Maybe he really is normalizing a more levelheaded approach to the world's problems. That would certainly account for the almost insane gibbering we've been getting lately from folks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both of whom have apparently been driven mad at the thought that all-war-all-the-time might be losing its appeal as the default foreign policy of serious people. Who knows? Maybe a few serious people are even starting to see it for the folly that it actually is.

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There's an Easier Way to Get Rid of Plastic Bags

| Mon Sep. 15, 2014 10:24 AM EDT

Katie Rose Quandt explains why banning plastic bags is no panacea:

Although plastic bags' manufacture is relatively energy intensive (according to the Australian government, a car could drive 36 feet with the amount of petroleum used to make a single plastic bag), other kinds of bags use even more fossil fuel. A heavy-duty, reusable plastic bag must be used 12 times before its global warming impact is lower than continuing to use disposable bags, according to a study by the UK Environment Agency. A cotton bag takes 132 uses, and a paper bag—which will still be legal with California's ten-cent fee—must be used four times before its global warming impact is less than using single-use bags.

What a mess. Carbon taxes are no panacea either, but this is a pretty good example of why they're so useful. Instead of sponsoring endless studies of the carbon impact of various bags—and then trying to educate consumers about these studies—just tax carbon and forget about it. The carbon-intensive bags will rise in price and eventually, if plastic bags really are the worst option, they'll get priced out of the market. No muss, no fuss. And if consumers decide to pay for them anyway, that's not a big problem either. It just means they'll have less money to spend on other carbon-intensive activities. One way or another, it will come out in the wash.

The downside, of course, is that this only accounts for carbon. If you want to ban plastic bags for other reasons, then you'll just have to go ahead and ban them. But that's true of everything. A carbon tax doesn't solve every problem on the planet, but it does quickly and cleanly provide a price signal that reduces the demand for carbon-intensive products.

And it's a pretty market-friendly mechanism, too, so conservatives ought to like it. Except for the fact that it is, unquestionably, a tax, and we all know that taxes are verboten as long as a single Republican with breath in his body remains in Congress. So we'll get no carbon tax in the foreseeable future, even though it would be good for the planet; allow us to cut taxes in other areas; and make everyone's lives easier. Maybe someday.

How Should the NFL Handle Domestic Violence Cases in the Future?

| Sun Sep. 14, 2014 12:07 PM EDT

I was browsing the paper this morning and came across an op-ed by sports writer Jeff Benedict about Ray Rice and the NFL's problem with domestic violence. After the usual review of the league's egregious mishandling of the Rice incident over the past few months, we get this:

So this nagging truth remains: It should not take a graphic video to get the NFL to do the right thing. For too long the NFL has had an antiquated playbook when it comes to players who commit domestic violence.

....NFL players aren't like men in the general population, especially in the eyes of children. Rather, NFL players are seen as action heroes who epitomize strength, athleticism and toughness. That's why so many kids emulate them. And that's why one instance of a celebrated player using his muscle to harm a woman is too many.

Etc.

I read to the end, but that was about it. And it occurred to me that this piece was representative of nearly everything I've read about the Rice affair. There was lots of moral outrage, of course. That's a pretty cheap commodity when you have stomach-turning video of a pro football player battering a woman unconscious in an elevator. But somehow, at the end, there was nothing. No recommendation about what the NFL's rule on domestic violence should be.

So I'm curious: what should it be? Forget Rice for a moment, since we need a rule that applies to everyone. What should be the league's response to a player who commits an act of domestic violence? Should it be a one-strike rule, or should it matter if you have no prior history of violence? Should it depend on a criminal conviction, or merely on credible evidence against the player? Should it matter how severe the violence is? (Plenty of domestic violence cases are much more brutal than Rice's.) Or should there be zero tolerance no matter what the circumstances? How about acts of violence that aren't domestic? Should they be held to the same standard, or treated differently? And finally, is Benedict right that NFL players should be sanctioned more heavily than ordinary folks because they act as role models for millions of kids? Or should we stick to a standard that says we punish everyone equally, regardless of their occupation?

Last month the NFL rushed out new punishment guidelines regarding domestic violence after enduring a tsunami of criticism for the way it handled Rice's suspension. Details here. Are these guidelines reasonable? Laughable? Too punitive? I think we've discussed the bill of particulars of the Ray Rice case to exhaustion at this point, so how about if we talk about something more concrete?

Given the circumstances and the evidence it had in hand, how should the NFL have handled the Ray Rice case? And more importantly, how should they handle domestic violence cases in general? I'd be interested in hearing some specific proposals.

Friday Cat Blogging - 12 September 2014

| Fri Sep. 12, 2014 2:55 PM EDT

A few of you have written to ask if we plan to get another cat. The answer is probably yes, but not immediately.  And what does "not immediately" mean? There's no telling. A new cat could walk into our lives tomorrow, or it might take a little while longer. We'll see.

In the meantime, my mother's cats continue to be perky and photogenic, and ever since she learned how easy it is to take pictures with her iPad and email them directly to me, I've been getting more photos of her brood. Below you can see the latest. Mozart has pretty plainly settled in to alpha cat status, and Ditto just as plainly isn't quite sure he's happy about that. But it's too late. Ditto has the bulk, but I think Mozart has whatever indefinable feline quality it is that makes him boss. It's his house now.

If You Want Good Workers, You Need to Pay Market Wages

| Fri Sep. 12, 2014 1:28 PM EDT

Today the Wall Street Journal is running yet another article about the inability of manufacturing companies to attract good employees. And Dean Baker is annoyed:

If employers can't get enough workers then we would expect to see wages rising in manufacturing.

They aren't. Over the last year the average hourly wage rose by just 2.1 percent, only a little higher than the inflation rate and slightly less than the average for all workers. This follows several years where wages in manufacturing rose less than the economy-wide average....If an employer wants to hire people she can get them away from competitors by offering a higher wage. It seems that employers in the manufacturing sector may need this simple lesson in market economic to solve their skills shortage problem.

The chart on the right shows what Baker is talking about. It's a slightly different series than the one he uses in his post, but it makes the same point. Manufacturing wages are rising more slowly than in the rest of the economy. If manufacturing companies are really desperate for qualified workers, they have a funny way of showing it.

Now, it's possible that what they really mean is that they don't think they can be competitive if they have to pay higher wages. So they want lots of well-qualified employees to work for below-market wages. And who knows? That's possible. But if that's really the problem, then apprentice programs and skills training aren't likely to solve it.

Quote of the Day: Salt Your Pasta Water, Capiche?

| Fri Sep. 12, 2014 11:53 AM EDT

From Starboard Value LP, a private investment firm critical of Olive Garden's current management:

If you Google "How to cook pasta", the first step of Pasta 101 is to salt the water. How does the largest Italian dining concept in the world not salt the water for pasta?

Quite so. On the other hand, Starboard refers to Olive Garden as an "Italian dining concept," which is a strike against them. So I guess I don't know who to root for in this monumental battle for control of low-quality quasi-Italian food.

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Surprise! Our Arab Allies Aren't Really Going to Do Anything to Help Us Fight ISIS

| Fri Sep. 12, 2014 10:43 AM EDT

Here is the least surprising story of the day:

Many Arab governments grumbled quietly in 2011 as the United States left Iraq, fearful it might fall deeper into chaos or Iranian influence. Now, the United States is back and getting a less than enthusiastic welcome, with leading allies like Egypt, Jordan and Turkey all finding ways on Thursday to avoid specific commitments to President Obama’s expanded military campaign against Sunni extremists.

....The tepid support could further complicate the already complex task Mr. Obama has laid out for himself in fighting the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria: He must try to confront the group without aiding Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, or appearing to side with Mr. Assad’s Shiite allies, Iran and the militant group Hezbollah, against discontented Sunnis across the Arab world.

If Arab countries just flatly didn't want to support our anti-ISIS effort, that wouldn't be surprising. American intervention in the Middle East hardly has an enviable history of success. It would be entirely understandable if they just wanted us to keep our noses out of things.

But that's not what's going on. It's not that they don't want American intervention. Many of these countries have been practically begging for it. The problem is that they want our help solely in support of their own sectarian and nationalist pursuits. They want America to commit an endless well of troops and arms in service of ancient enmities and murderous agendas that they themselves are unwilling to commit their own troops and money to. And for some reason, we keep playing along with the charade.

Fighting ISIS isn't really part of this agenda. It's Sunni; it's anti-Assad; and it's far away. Most of our putative allies in the Middle East either don't care very much about it or have actively supported it in the past. They'll pay lip service to destroying it now because they don't want to break with the United States entirely, but that's about it. It's just lip service.

By tomorrow they'll be back to privately griping that we haven't turned Iran into a glassy plain or something. And then, like a couple who knows their marriage is broken but can't quite bear the thought of divorce, we'll be back to stroking their egos and promising that we really do share their interests. We don't, thank God: we're not quite that depraved. We just want their oil and a sort of unstated tolerance of Israel.

It never changes. Next year the details will be slightly different, but we'll go through the same dance all over again. Hooray.

A Wee Question About That Residual Force Everyone Keeps Blathering About

| Thu Sep. 11, 2014 1:28 PM EDT

Here's something I don't get. Republicans seem to universally hold the following two opinions about Iraq and ISIS:

  1. President Obama is to blame for the military success of ISIS because he declined to keep a residual force in Iraq after 2011.
  2. In the fight against ISIS, we certainly don't want to send in combat troops. No no no.

"Residual force" has become something of a talisman for conservative critics of Obama's Iraq policy. It's sort of like "providing arms," the all-purpose suggestion for every conflict from hawks who know the public won't stand for sending in ground troops but who want to support something more muscular than sanctions. It's a wonderful sound bite because it sounds sensible and informed as long as you don't think too hard about it (what arms? for whom? is anyone trained to use them? etc.). Luckily, most people don't think too hard about it.

"Residual force" sounds good too. But if we don't want boots on the ground in the fight against ISIS, what exactly would it have done? Hang around Baghdad to buck up the morale of the Iraqi forces that came fleeing back after encountering ISIS forces? Conduct ever more "training"? Or what? Can someone tell me just what everyone thinks this magical residual force would have accomplished?

Not-Quite-Supermoon Blogging - 7 September 2014

| Thu Sep. 11, 2014 12:04 PM EDT

I didn't actually get around to hauling out my camera for Monday's supermoon (how many of these things do we get every year, anyway?), but I did snap a few pictures on Sunday. So in the spirit of better late than never, here's one of them. The clouds and the colors were kind of interesting, even if the picture itself is so-so.

Workplace Wellness Programs Are Just an Excuse to Lower Your Pay

| Thu Sep. 11, 2014 11:41 AM EDT

I don't like workplace wellness programs. This isn't because I think they do no good. It's because I don't like the idea of employers deciding that they can dictate my personal health choices. Or any of my other personal choices, for that matter. Maybe it's for my own good, but so what? Lots of things are for my own good. Nonetheless, I'm an adult, and I get to choose these kinds of things for myself, even if I sometimes make bad choices.

Today, however, Austin Frakt and Aaron Carroll delight me by surveying the literature on wellness programs and bolstering my personal pique with actual facts. It turns out that wellness programs, in fact, generally don't do any good:

Rigorous studies tend to find that wellness programs don’t save money and, with few exceptions, do not appreciably improve health. This is often because additional health screenings built into the programs encourage overuse of unnecessary care, pushing spending higher without improving health.

However, this doesn’t mean that employers aren’t right, in a way. Wellness programs can achieve cost savings — for employers — by shifting higher costs of care onto workers. In particular, workers who don’t meet the demands and goals of wellness programs (whether by not participating at all, or by failing to meet benchmarks like a reduction in body mass index) end up paying more. Financial incentives to get healthier sometimes simply become financial penalties on workers who resist participation or who aren’t as fit. Some believe this can be a form of discrimination.

This is basically what I've long suspected. For the most part, wellness programs are a means to reduce pay for employees who don't participate, and there are always going to be a fair number of curmudgeons who refuse to participate. Voila! Lower payroll expenses! And the best part is that employers can engage in this cynical behavior while retaining a smug public conviction that they're just acting for the common good. Bah.

Did I mention that I don't like workplace wellness programs?