Kevin Drum

Quote of the Day: "That Could Have Been Any One of Us"

| Tue Dec. 23, 2014 8:42 PM EST

From Michelle Conlin of Reuters, who interviewed 25 active-duty and retired black NYPD police officers, nearly all of whom said they themselves had been treated harshly by fellow cops when they were out of uniform:

At an ale house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn last week, a group of black police officers from across the city gathered for the beer and chicken wing special. They discussed how the officers involved in the Garner incident could have tried harder to talk down an upset Garner, or sprayed mace in his face, or forced him to the ground without using a chokehold. They all agreed his death was avoidable.

Said one officer from the 106th Precinct in Queens, “That could have been any one of us.”

It shouldn't be too hard to hold two thoughts in our minds at once. Thought #1: Police officers have an intrinsically tough and violent job. Split-second decisions about the use of force come with the territory. Ditto for decisions about who to stop and who to keep an eye on. This makes individual mistakes inevitable, but as a group, police officers deserve our support and respect regardless.

Thought #2: That support shouldn't be blind. Conlin reports that in her group of 25 black police officers, 24 said they had received rough treatment from other cops. "The officers said this included being pulled over for no reason, having their heads slammed against their cars, getting guns brandished in their faces, being thrown into prison vans and experiencing stop and frisks while shopping. The majority of the officers said they had been pulled over multiple times while driving. Five had had guns pulled on them."

Respect for the police is one of the foundation stones of a decent and orderly society. But police work is one of several professions that are inherently coercive and invest their members with tremendous amounts of sometimes unaccountable power over the rest of us. It's equally a foundation stone of a decent and free society to maintain vigilant oversight of professions like this, and to deal vigorously with the kinds of systemic problems that the routine exercise of power and authority makes unavoidable. Belief in the latter does not exclude belief in the former.

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Smile! You're on Cop Cam!

| Tue Dec. 23, 2014 2:51 PM EST

Seattle police have made the decision to adopt body cameras, but this means they need to find an automated way to blur out things like faces and license plate numbers before the footage becomes public. Dara Lind comments:

But as police departments move cop cams into the field, the an important question becomes whether there are things that shouldn't be recorded to protect civilians' privacy. And if so, who controls the footage?....As reported in Slate, the programmers that participated in the hackathon focused on ways to automatically redact police footage so that, for example, civilians' faces and license plate numbers were blurred.

The fundamental appeal of automatic redaction for a city government is pretty clear. If you can write an automated program that takes care of any privacy concerns, you can release body-camera footage to the public en masse. Without an automated solution, the city would have to rely on the police department to edit the footage — which opens the door to manipulation.

En masse? I wonder where this leads? If I get pulled over for speeding in Seattle, the encounter will be saved on video. Does that get released to anyone who wants to see it? Does every encounter with a police officer become public? How long will police departments be required to save video records? What kind of indexing requirements will be imposed? Will they all be accessible as public records via Freedom of Information requests?

These are good questions to ponder. Body cameras for police forces are a good idea, but there are downsides as well as upsides.

Everyone Wants the Cuba Embargo to End

| Tue Dec. 23, 2014 1:44 PM EST

According to the latest Washington Post/ABC poll, 64 percent of the American public supports establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. And even greater numbers want to get rid of the trade embargo:

Those are remarkable numbers. Everyone supports an end to the embargo by wide margins, even Republicans. I checked all the other crosstabs, and it turns out that ending the embargo is supported by all parties, all ideologies, all sexes, all ages, all races, all education levels, all incomes, and all regions.

The only subgroup that opposes it—barely—is conservative Republicans, who make up about 17 percent of the population. So naturally that means the embargo will stay in place. It no longer really matters what the other 83 percent of us think.

Let Us Now Praise Obama's Economic Policies

| Tue Dec. 23, 2014 12:38 PM EST
President Barack Obama stands with outgoing Fed Chair Ben Bernanke and current Chair Janet Yellen.

Steve Benen evaluates recent economic news by the standards of Republican promises from two years ago:

  • The Romney Standard: Mitt Romney said during the 2012 campaign that if Americans elect him, he’d get the unemployment rate down to 6% by 2016. Obama won anyway and the unemployment rate dropped below 6% two years faster.
  • The Gingrich Standard: Newt Gingrich said during the 2012 campaign that if Americans re-elected the president, gas prices would reach $10 per gallon, while Gingrich would push gas down to $2.50 a gallon. As of this morning, the national average at the pump is a little under $2.38.
  • The Pawlenty Standard: Tim Pawlenty said trillions of dollars in tax breaks would boost economic growth to 5% GDP. Obama actually raised taxes on the wealthy and GDP growth reached 5% anyway.

Is this fair? Meh. Maybe, maybe not. But there's not likely to be a whole lot of news to blog about today, so why not poke holes in some Republican balloons instead? As Benen says, "By the party’s own standards, Obama is succeeding beautifully. They established the GOP benchmarks and now the Democratic president is the one meeting, and in some cases exceeding, the Republicans’ goals."

The downside of all this is that in the past Democrats haven't promoted their own economic policies plainly enough to get credit now that the economy has finally turned around. Republicans, by contrast, simply cut taxes and then loudly and relentlessly repeat their promise that the economy will improve. Eventually it does, of course. Maybe not a lot, and maybe not for long, but economies always improve eventually. If Kansas ever manages a quarter or two of decent growth, for example, you can be sure that Gov. Sam Brownback will be crowing about it for the rest of his political career.

To some extent, of course, Democrats were stymied in their economic policy, which gave them less to brag about back in 2009. And five years is a long time to wait for a recovery. Still, Dems did pass a stimulus; enact a payroll tax holiday; extend unemployment benefits; pass Obamacare; reform Wall Street; raise taxes on the rich; and pass several jobs bills. It's true that this laundry list doesn't quite have the simple oomph of "Tax cuts will bring the economy roaring back to life!" But it is an economic program, and eventually it got us to where we are today: a pretty good recovery, and one that looks like it might be sustainable since it's not built on the sandy foundations of tax cuts and deficits. Democrats should be louder about demanding more credit for all of this.

Happy Holidays! Economic Growth Finally Starting to Look Robust.

| Tue Dec. 23, 2014 10:32 AM EST

Hey, take a look at this. Yet another revision is in, and the Commerce Department now estimates that third-quarter GDP grew at a sizzling 5.0 percent rate, following a nearly-as-good 4.6 percent rate in the second quarter. Part of this is still a make-up for poor growth in the first quarter, but it's good news nonetheless. The economy really does seem to have found a new gear this year:

Tuesday’s report showed stronger-than-expected spending by U.S. consumers, particularly on services like health care. Fixed nonresidential investment also was revised up, signaling more spending by businesses on new buildings and research and development.

“There is a positive feedback loop going on at the moment,” Mike Jakeman, global analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, said in a note. “Job creation is running at the strongest rate for 15 years. More people in work means more income, which means more private spending, which means more business investment, which means more hiring.”

Corporate profits are also up, and the stock market is at new highs every day. Wage growth still needs to get stronger, but it showed signs of life last quarter. All things considered, five years after the Great Recession technically ended, we're finally doing pretty well.

Putin Ally Says Putin Needs to Make Peace With West

| Tue Dec. 23, 2014 1:01 AM EST

Things that make you go hmmm:

Russia faces a “full-blown economic crisis” next year that will trigger a series of defaults and the loss of its investment-grade credit rating, a respected former finance minister has warned. Real incomes will fall by 2-5 per cent next year, the first decrease in real terms since 2000, said Alexei Kudrin, a longtime ally of President Vladimir Putin and widely tipped to succeed Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister.

....In unusually blunt comments for an establishment figure, he also called on Mr Putin to do what was necessary to improve relations with the west: “As for what the president and government must do now: the most important factor is the normalisation of Russia’s relations with its business partners, above all in Europe, the US and other countries.”

This gets to be a little like old-school Kremlinology, but I wonder what it means when a longtime Putin ally publicly suggests that Russia needs to mend relations with the West, and do it pronto? Is this really an independent act of truth-telling? Or some kind of semi-sanctioned trial balloon designed to start shifting domestic public opinion? I suppose it's most likely the former, especially considering this little tidbit:

Last March, the Russian leadership considered the possible consequences of sanctions against Russia in connection with the crisis in Ukraine, Civil Initiatives Committee Chairman Alexei Kudrin said...."I provided my assessment of the consequences. The president and prime minister listened to them. I simply paraphrased them and then submitted them in written form to the president's aide," he said.

His report included three possible scenarios for developments in connection with the enactment of sanctions against Russia, Kudrin said.

Hmmm again. This is basically noted without comment, since I don't really quite know what to make of it.

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Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

| Mon Dec. 22, 2014 3:18 PM EST

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Someone Needs to Invent a Great Non-Opioid Painkiller

| Mon Dec. 22, 2014 12:39 PM EST

Austin Frakt writes about the stunningly widespread use and abuse of narcotic painkillers in the US:

Opioids now cause more deaths than any other drug, more than 16,000 in 2010. That year, the combination of hydrocodone and acetaminophen became the most prescribed medication in the United States. Patients here consumed 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone, the opioid in Vicodin. They also consumed 80 percent of the world’s oxycodone, present in Percocet and OxyContin, and 65 percent of the world’s hydromorphone, the key ingredient in Dilaudid, in 2010. (Some opioids are also used to treat coughs, but that use doesn’t seem to be a major factor in the current wave of problems.)

When I got out of the hospital a couple of months ago, I was in considerable pain. The answer was morphine. For about two weeks, I took a couple of low-dose morphine tablets each day. Then the pain eased and I stopped.

I resisted the morphine at first, and my doctor had to argue me into using it regularly. "You broke a bone in your back," she told me. "Your pain is legitimate. We have a lot of experience treating pain with morphine, and you'll be all right."

I finally listened, and the morphine did indeed work as advertised. But it somehow got me thinking. Morphine? That's the best we can do? This stuff was invented 200 years ago. And while there are newer painkillers around, they're all opioids of one kind or another with all the usual horrible side effects1. How is it that in over a century of research, we still know so little about pain that we haven't been able to create a powerful, non-opioid painkiller?

I'm not really going anywhere with this. I'm just curious. Are there any good books, or even long magazine articles, about this? Why is that even after gazillions of dollars of effort, we're still relying on variants of the opium poppy for serious pain relief? It's the 21st century. How come we can't do better?

1Addiction, nausea, wooziness, constipation, etc.

There Is No Higher Ed Bubble. Yet.

| Mon Dec. 22, 2014 10:51 AM EST

Is there a higher-education bubble? Will technology produce cheaper, better alternatives in the near future? Are kids and parents finally figuring out that if Bill Gates can drop out of Harvard and become the richest man in the world, maybe an Ivy League degree isn't actually worth 50 grand a year? Dan Drezner thinks the whole idea is ridiculous, and he's willing to put his money where his mouth is:

If, in fact, there really is a higher ed bubble, it should pop before 2020. And if it does pop, then tuition prices for college should plummet as demand slackens. After all, that’s how a bubble works — when it deflates, the price of the asset should plummet in value, like housing in 2008. So who wants to bet me that an average of the 2020 tuition rates at Stanford University, Williams College, Texas A&M and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell will be lower than today?

I’m open to changing the particular schools, but those four are a nice distribution of private and public schools, elite and not-quite-as-elite colleges, with some geographic spread. Surely, true believers in a higher ed bubble would expect tuition rates at those schools to fall.

I really don’t think that will be the case. So anyone who believes in a higher ed bubble should be happy to take the other side of that bet.

Not me. I'd be willing to bet that eventually artificial intelligence will basically wipe out the demand for higher education completely. But "eventually" means something like 30 years minimum, probably more like 40 or 50. Maybe even more if AI continues to be as intractable as some people think it will be.

In the meantime, Drezner is right: the vast, vast majority of college students don't want to strike out on their own and try to become millionaire entrepreneurs. They just want ordinary jobs. And that's a good thing, since if everyone wanted to run their own companies, entrepreneurs wouldn't be able to find anyone to do all the non-CEO scutwork for their brilliant new social media startups.

So if something like 98 percent of college grads are aiming for traditional jobs in which they work for somebody else, guess what? All those somebody elses—which probably includes most of the people who think there's a higher-ed bubble—are going to want to hire college grads. They sure don't want to hire a bunch of losers who were too dim to drop out and become millionaires and couldn't even manage the gumption to accrue 120 units at State U, do they?

Look: the rising cost of higher education has multiple causes, but it's mostly driven by two simple things. At public schools, it's driven by declining state funding, which transfers an increasing share of the cost of higher ed onto students. Unfortunately, I see no reason to think this trend won't continue. At private schools, it's driven by the perception of how much a private degree is worth—and right now, all the evidence suggests that even with fairly astronomical tuitions at elite and semi-elite universities, the lifetime value of a degree is still worth more than students pay for it. Universities understand this, and since these days they mostly think of themselves not as public trusts, but as businesses who simply charge whatever the traffic will bear, they know they still have plenty of headroom to increase tuition. So this trend is likely to continue as well.

If I had to guess, I'd say that there's a class of 2nd or 3rd tier liberal arts colleges that might be in trouble. They have high tuitions, but the value of their degree isn't really superior to that of a state university. They might be in trouble, and if Drezner added one of these places to his list it might make his bet more interesting.

But he'd still win. He might lose by 2040, but he's safe as long as he sticks to 2020.

When Will China Finally Get Tired of Propping Up North Korea?

| Mon Dec. 22, 2014 9:53 AM EST

The United States might not have much leverage over North Korea, but China does. Virtually all of North Korea's external trade is with China, and Chinese support is pretty much all that keeps North Korea from collapsing. This means that when the United States wants to pressure Pyongyang, it has limited options as long as Chinese support of the regime remains strong. But how long will that support last? Over the weekend, Jane Perlez of the New York Times reported that it might finally be faltering:

When a retired Chinese general with impeccable Communist Party credentials recently wrote a scathing account of North Korea as a recalcitrant ally headed for collapse and unworthy of support, he exposed a roiling debate in China about how to deal with the country’s young leader, Kim Jong-un.

....The parlous state of the relationship between North Korea and China was on display again Wednesday when Pyongyang commemorated the third anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il, the father of the current leader, Kim Jong-un, and failed to invite a senior Chinese official.

The last time a Chinese leader visited North Korea was in July 2013 when Vice President Li Yuanchao tried to patch up relations, and pressed North Korea, after its third nuclear test in February 2013, to slow down its nuclear weapons program. Mr. Li failed in that quest....After the vice president’s visit, relations plummeted further, entering the icebox last December when China’s main conduit within the North Korean government, Jang Song-thaek, a senior official and the uncle of Kim Jong-un, was executed in a purge. In July, President Xi Jinping snubbed North Korea, visiting South Korea instead. Mr. Xi has yet to visit North Korea, and is said to have been infuriated by a third nuclear test by North Korea in February 2013, soon after Kim Jong-un came to power.

So does this mean that China might help us out in our current dispute with North Korea over the Sony hack? Probably not—or not much, anyway. North Korea's very weakness is also its greatest strength: if it collapses, two things would probably happen. First, there would be a flood of refugees trying to cross the border into China. Second, the Korean peninsula would likely become unified and China would find itself with a US ally right smack on its border. Given the current state of Sino-American relations, that's simply not something China is willing to risk.

Not yet, anyway. But who knows? There are worse things in the world than a refugee crisis, and relations with the US have the potential to warm up in the future. One of these days North Korea may simply become too large a liability for China to protect. If that ever happens, North Korea's lifespan can probably be measured in years or months.