Kevin Drum

Friday Cat Blogging - 27 June 2014

| Fri Jun. 27, 2014 3:15 PM EDT

Here is Domino peeking out from under one of Marian's sweatshirts. I guess cats just like caves. It's not like it's been chilly around here these days.

And now, I'm off to the dentist to see if we can finally install a crown. The first two didn't fit properly, so we're hoping third time's the charm. It will be nice to be able to chew on both sides of my mouth again.

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Are Tea Partiers Really Less Willing to Compromise Than Extreme Lefties?

| Fri Jun. 27, 2014 1:58 PM EDT

Ezra Klein writes today:

Hardcore conservatives agree with liberals on a lot. They just don’t want to compromise.

This is based on the Pew typology survey, which finds that "steadfast conservatives" oppose compromise by a 2:1 margin, while every other group favors compromise by at least a little bit. At the far left end of the spectrum, "solid liberals" favor compromise by 84-11 percent.

This is the same result that we've seen in lots of other surveys, and I sure wish someone would dig deeper into this. I can think of several questions:

  • Are folks on the far left really in favor of compromise? Or by "compromise" do they actually mean "the other side should back down in exchange for a few bones"?
  • Do extreme conservatives have good reason to be suspicious of compromise? A feeling of being sold out is a common trope on the right, but is it justified?
  • Are liberals in favor of compromise because they believe—correctly—that change is always incremental, which makes it sensible to accept an increment now in the sound belief that it will encourage a slippery slope toward further increments? (And likewise, are conservatives perfectly rational to oppose compromise for the same reason?)
  • In practice, when various real-world compromise positions are polled, are extreme liberals truly more willing to accept them than extreme conservatives?

You can probably guess that I'm a little skeptical of the entire notion that liberals are all sweetly willing to compromise. They certainly talk in a more conciliatory manner than tea partiers, and maybe in the end they really are more willing to swallow half a loaf. But I have my doubts. More research, please.

Most Americans Think Racial Discrimination Doesn't Matter Much Anymore

| Fri Jun. 27, 2014 12:40 PM EDT

On Thursday Pew released its latest "typology report," which breaks down Americans into seven different groups. I'm a little skeptical of these kinds of clustering exercises, but I suppose they have their place. And one result in particular has gotten a lot of play: the finding that more than 80 percent of conservatives believe that blacks who can't get ahead are responsible for their own condition.

But I think that misstates the real finding of Pew's survey: everyone thinks blacks who can't get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition. With the single exception of solid liberals, majorities in every other group believe this by a 2:1 margin or more. That's the takeaway here.

The other takeaway is that the news was a little different on the other questions Pew asked about race. The country is split about evenly on whether further racial progress is necessary, and large majorities in nearly every group continue to support affirmative action on college campuses. A sizeable majority of Americans may not believe that discrimination is the main reason blacks can't get ahead, but apparently they still believe it's enough of a problem to justify continuing efforts to help out.

Overall, though, this is not good news. It's obvious that most Americans don't really think discrimination is a continuing problem, and even their support for affirmative action is only on college campuses, where it doesn't really affect them. If that question were about affirmative action in their own workplaces, I suspect support would plummet.

I don't have any keen insights to offer about this. But like it or not, it's the base on which we all have to work. Further racial progress is going to be very slow and very hard unless and until these attitudes soften up.

President Obama Has Finally Learned the Limits of American Military Power

| Fri Jun. 27, 2014 11:59 AM EDT

I've been meaning to make note of something about Iraq for a while, and a story today in the LA Times provides the perfect hook:

A group of U.S. diplomats arrived in Libya three years ago to a memorable reception: a throng of cheering men and women who pressed in on the startled group "just to touch us and thank us," recalled Susan Rice, President Obama's national security advisor....But in three years Libya has turned into the kind of place U.S. officials most fear: a lawless land that attracts terrorists, pumps out illegal arms and drugs and destabilizes its neighbors.

....Now, as Obama considers a limited military intervention in Iraq, the Libya experience is seen by many as a cautionary tale of the unintended damage big powers can inflict when they aim for a limited involvement in an unpredictable conflict....Though they succeeded in their military effort, the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies fell short in the broader goal of putting Libya on a path toward democracy and stability. Exhausted after a decade of war and mindful of the failures in Iraq, U.S. officials didn't want to embark on another nation-building effort in an oil-rich country that seemed to pose no threat to Western security.

But by limiting efforts to help the new Libyan government gain control over the country, critics say, the U.S. and its allies have inadvertently helped turn Libya into a higher security threat than it was before the military intervention.

The view of the critics in this piece is pretty predictable: no matter what happens in the world, their answer is "more." And whenever military intervention fails, it's always because we didn't do enough.

But I don't think Obama believes this anymore. He mounted a surge in Afghanistan, and it's pretty plain that it's accomplished very little in the way of prompting reconciliation with the Taliban or setting the stage for genuine peace. Even lasting stability seems unlikely at this point. That experience made him reluctant to intervene in Libya, but he eventually got talked into it and within a couple of years that turned to shit too. Next up was Syria, and this time his reluctance was much more acute. There would be some minor steps to arm the anti-Assad rebels, but that was it. There was a brief moment when he considered upping our involvement over Syria's use of chemical weapons, but then he backed off via the expedient of asking for congressional approval. Congress, as Obama probably suspected from the start, was unwilling to do more than whine. When it came time to actually voting for the kind of action they kept demanding, they refused.

By now, I suspect that Obama's reluctance to support military intervention overseas is bone deep. The saber rattlers and jingoists will never change, but he never really cared about them. More recently, though, I think he's had the same epiphany that JFK had at one time: the mainstream national security establishment—in the Pentagon, in Congress, in the CIA, and in the think tanks—simply can't be trusted. Their words are more measured, but in the end they aren't much different from the perma-hawks. They always want more, and deep in their hearts the only thing they really respect is military force. In the end, they'll always push for it, and they'll always insist that this time it will work.

But I don't think Obama believes that anymore, and I think he's far more willing to stand up to establishment pressure these days. This is why I'm not too worried about the 300 advisors he's sent to Iraq. A few years ago, this might very well have been the start of a Vietnam-like slippery slope into a serious recommitment of forces. Today, I doubt it. Obama will provide some limited support, but he simply won't be badgered into doing more. Deep in his heart, he now understands that Iraq's problem is fundamentally political. Until there's some chance of forging a genuine political consensus, American troops just can't accomplish much.

Immigration Reform: It's Finally Officially Dead

| Fri Jun. 27, 2014 11:10 AM EDT

I've had a friendly argument with Greg Sargent for some months about whether immigration reform was dead, or was merely on life support and still stood a chance of resuscitation. But in a way, it may turn out we disagreed a little less than we thought. He points me today to this Politico story:

Last summer, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) privately told the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference that if reformers won the August recess, then Republicans would move a bill in the fall. But the Syria crisis, the government shutdown and the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov consumed attention through the end of 2013.

....As recently as this month, however, there was more movement in the House than previously known....But then Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) lost his Republican primary election. And young children from Central America crossed illegally over the southwestern border in record numbers. Those two unforeseen events killed any remaining chance for action this year.

....For their part, reformers underestimated how impervious most House Republicans would be to persuasion from evangelicals, law enforcement and big business, and how the GOP’s animus toward Obama over health care and executive actions would bleed into immigration reform.

Before last summer I didn't think immigration reform was irretrievably dead. I thought it was damn close, but it wasn't until fall that I was pretty sure it was, indeed, completely dead. And that's pretty much my read of what Politico says. (Though, as it happens, I wouldn't actually put much stock in John Boehner's promise to the NHCLC, since it sounds mostly like something he said merely to avoid gratuitously pissing off a constituency, even though he knew perfectly well the reformers weren't going to win the August recess.)

I'd say the last paragraph of the excerpt is key. The reformers may have kept up their hopes, but for some reason they simply didn't understand just how hellbent the tea partiers were against any kind of serious immigration reform. I, on the other hand, being a cynical liberal, understood this perfectly. They were never going to bend—not no how, not no way—and Boehner was never going to move a bill without them.

The canary in the coal mine was always Marco Rubio. He genuinely wanted reform; he genuinely worked hard to persuade his fellow conservatives; and he genuinely had credibility with the tea party wing of the GOP. But by the end of summer, he understood the truth: it wasn't gonna happen. At that point, he backed away from his own bill, and that was the death knell. No base, no bill. And by the end of summer, it was finally and definitively clear that the base just wasn't persuadable.

In any case, Republicans have now abandoned even the pretense of working on immigration reform, and Sargent says they'll come to regret this:

The current crisis is actually an argument for comprehensive immigration reform. But [Rep. Bob] Goodlatte — who once cried about the breakup of families — is now reduced to arguing that the crisis is the fault of Obama’s failure to enforce the law. Goodlatte’s demand (which is being echoed by other, dumber Republicans) that Obama stop de-prioritizing the deportation of the DREAMers really means: Deport more children. When journalist Jorge Ramos confronted Goodlatte directly on whether this is really what he wants, the Republican refused to answer directly.

....This is the course Republicans have chosen — they’ve opted to be the party of maximum deportations. Now Democrats and advocates will increase the pressure on Obama to do something ambitious to ease deportations in any way he can. Whatever he does end up doing will almost certainly fall well short of what they want. But determining the true limits on what can be done to mitigate this crisis is now on him.

I don't know what Obama is going to do. For years, he followed a strategy of beefing up enforcement in hopes of gaining goodwill among conservatives. In the end, all that accomplished was to anger his own Hispanic supporters without producing anything of substance. At this point, there's no downside to taking maximal executive action, so he might very well do that. But will he do it before or after the midterms? Or just give up and move on to other things? Hard to say.

No, Obamacare Didn't Tank the Economy Last Quarter

| Fri Jun. 27, 2014 12:50 AM EDT

For some reason, there's been a fair amount of attention paid to the impact of Q1's decline in health care growth on the latest GDP numbers, which were pretty dismal. The Wall Street Journal even figured out a way to blame it all on Obamacare. This is nonsensical, and in any case, the question of what happened is almost certainly pretty simple. Here's Dean Baker:

The NYT noted that a sharp drop in health care spending reduced the first quarter growth rate by 0.16 percentage points. It is important to recognize that this drop followed a surge in health care spending reported for the fourth quarter of 2013 that added 0.62 percentage points to growth in quarter....It is likely that the data overstated the actual increase in spending in the fourth quarter and therefore also overstated the drop in the first quarter. The average impact of health care spending on growth for the two quarters taken together is almost the same as over the prior four quarters.

Yep. I've illustrated this with a gigantic diagram showing raw health care expenditure figures below. In short, the Q1 decline is almost certainly just statistical noise. Pay no attention to the hyperventilating.

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Maybe Congress Will Now Move to Protect Email From Warrantless Searches

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 6:42 PM EDT

Brian Fung reports that yesterday's Supreme Court ruling protecting smartphones from warrantless searches may be having a ripple effect:

Members of Congress who back stronger protections for e-mail and other electronic communications have begun citing the Court's landmark privacy endorsement, in an attempt to add momentum to their own privacy legislation.

The push to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a decades-old law that allows cops to read your e-mails if they've lain dormant for more than 180 days, has the support of the Justice Department and 220 cosponsors of a House bill known as the Email Privacy Act. The proposal would force police to get a warrant if they want to look at a suspect's e-mail. Today, that type of inspection requires little more than a subpoena.

Remarkably enough, 138 of these cosponsors are Republicans and 82 are Democrats. This means it not only has majority support within the House as a whole, but it also has the support of considerably more than half the Republican caucus. That doesn't mean it can get by House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, but maybe if another hundred Democrats sign on, even Goodlatte will crumble in the face of a bill supported by three-quarters of the House.

Another Geopolitical Triumph For Vladimir Putin!

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 4:44 PM EDT

From the Guardian:

It was the document that started a revolution and ended up bringing Europe to the brink of war. Ukraine's association agreement with the European Union, a mainly economic document setting up a free trade area that nevertheless has political and strategic ramifications, will finally be signed on Friday.

Along with Georgia and Moldova, two other post-Soviet countries keen to move out of Moscow's orbit, Kiev will sign the deal with Brussels to establish a free-trade area and introduce a raft of measures designed to synchronise economies with EU nations, as well as improve rule of law and human rights.

Yep, that Putin is a geopolitical strategic mastermind, isn't he? Every country on Russia's border is now hellbent on better economic and military ties with the West. Nice work.

No, the Aereo Case Doesn't Endanger Cloud Computing Services

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 2:11 PM EDT

I'm puzzled by much of the commentary on the Aereo case. Much of it echoes a point in Scalia's dissent, namely that ruling against Aereo puts all sorts of cloud computing services at risk. After all, if it's a copyright infringement for Aereo to rent you an antenna and some hard disk space, then why shouldn't it be an infringement for, say, Google to rent you cloud storage that allows you to copy—and potentially share—copyrighted music?

I think David Post has the answer right:

The majority is at pains, in several places, to say that the case is just about broadcast television and the re-transmission of broadcast signals. Not about cloud storage, or streaming services, or gaming platforms, or anything else. Just broadcast TV, and what you may or may not do with over-the-air broadcast signals. Congress has made a choice about those signals; anyone who re-transmits them (like the cable companies do) has to pay royalties to the broadcasters. If that’s what it means ... the decision has nothing to say about any other content-delivery or content-storage platforms that deal with the vast array of non-broadcast-TV content.

The Aereo case turns almost entirely on the fact that Aereo was retransmitting TV signals, which are covered by a very specific statute. Despite Scalia's huffing and puffing, I simply don't see how this applies to cloud storage platforms.

Beyond that, there's another crucial distinction: Aereo was explicitly in the business of retransmitting content that was almost 100 percent copyrighted. That's fundamentally different from a third-party service—email, cloud storage, etc.—that can be used for infringing purposes but has a generally legitimate intent. The Supreme Court has ruled in cases like this before, and it's why VCRs and Gmail are still around even though people sometimes use them to copy and share copyrighted material with each other, while Napster is dead.

It's hard not to conclude that much of the opposition to the Aereo decision is based on a simple libertarian dislike of enforcing copyright law at all. But like it or not, commercial TV is almost entirely copyrighted content, and the stations that produce it have every right to control how it's distributed. The fact that current copyright law is overly expansive doesn't really affect that.

POSTSCRIPT: It's interesting that we've seen back-to-back decisions that, to my mind, were confirmed in diametrically opposite ways. In the Aereo case, Aereo thought it had discovered a clever loophole in copyright law, but the court ruled against them. The general intent of the law was more important. In the recess appointment case, Senate Republicans found a clever loophole to stay technically in session, and the court ruled that this was perfectly fine. The fact that it was a hypertechnical sham didn't move them.

Digital Privacy Is Fundamentally Different From Physical Privacy

| Thu Jun. 26, 2014 11:34 AM EDT

Tim Lee argues—or perhaps merely hopes—that yesterday's decision protecting cell phones from warrantless searches might signal a turning point for the Supreme Court's attitude toward digital information in general:

The government has typically pursued a simple legal strategy when faced with digital technologies. First, find a precedent that gave the government access to information in the physical world. Second, argue that the same principle should apply in the digital world, ignoring the fact that this will vastly expand the government's snooping power while eroding Americans' privacy.

....The government hoped the Supreme Court would take this same narrow, formalistic approach in this week's cell phone privacy case. It wanted the justices to pretend that rifling through the vast quantity of personal information on a suspect's cell phone is no different from inspecting other objects that happen to be in suspects' pockets. But the Supreme Court didn't buy it.

....The Supreme Court clearly recognizes that in the transition from information stored on paper to information stored in computer chips, differences of degree can become differences of kind. If the police get access to one letter or photograph you happen to have in your pocket, that might not be a great privacy invasion. If the police get access to every email you've received and every photograph you've taken in the last two years, that's a huge invasion of privacy.

This is a problem that's been getting more acute for years. The basic question is whether courts should recognize the fact that digital access to information removes practical barriers that are important for privacy. For example, the state of California keeps lots of records about me that are legally public: DMV records, property records, birth and marriage records, etc. In the past, practically speaking, the mere fact that they were physical records provided me with a degree of privacy. It took a lot of time and money to dig through them all, and this meant that neither the government nor a private citizen would do it except in rare and urgent cases.

In the digital world, that all changes. If a police officer has even a hint of curiosity about me, it takes only seconds to compile all this information and more. In a technical sense, they don't have access to anything they didn't before, but in a practical sense I've lost a vast amount of privacy.

In the past, the Supreme Court has rarely (never?) acknowledged this. In yesterday's cell phone case, they not only acknowledged it, they acknowledged it unanimously. Is it possible that this means they'll be applying a more skeptical view to similar cases in the future? Or even revisiting some of their past decisions in light of the continuing march of technology? We don't know yet, but it's certainly possible. Maybe the Supreme Court has finally entered the 21st century.