Kevin Drum

Benghazi Committee Passes 700-Day Milestone

| Fri Apr. 8, 2016 1:01 PM EDT

House Democrats pointed out today that the Select Committee on Benghazi has now been cranking along for 700 days. Steve Benen comments:

To put this in context, the 9/11 Commission, investigating every possible angle to the worst terrorist attack in the history of the country, worked for 604 days and created a bipartisan report endorsed by each of the commission’s members....Rep. Trey Gowdy’s (R-S.C.) Benghazi panel has also lasted longer than the investigations into the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Iran-Contra scandal, Church Committee, and the Watergate probe.

What Steve fails to acknowledge, of course, is that Benghazi is far more important than any of these other events. So naturally it's going to take longer. I'm guessing that 914 days should just about do the trick.

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Bernie Sanders Has Really Pissed Off Margaret Archer

| Fri Apr. 8, 2016 12:14 PM EDT

Bernie Sanders is headed to the Vatican:

Whether or not the pope shares the Vermont senator's enthusiasm for Eugene Debs, he's "feeling the Bern" enough to have invited the Jewish presidential candidate to speak at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, during a conference on social, economic, and environmental issues. Sanders will head to Rome immediately after the April 14 Democratic debate in Brooklyn.

But apparently the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences is decidedly not feeling the Bern:

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders reached out to obtain his invitation to the Vatican and showed "monumental discourtesy" in the process, a senior Vatican official said.

"Sanders made the first move, for the obvious reasons," Margaret Archer, president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, which is hosting the conference Sanders will attend, said in a telephone interview. "I think in a sense he may be going for the Catholic vote but this is not the Catholic vote and he should remember that and act accordingly—not that he will."

Huh. I wonder what Bernie did to piss off Margaret Archer? Maybe it has something to do with his views on conflation:

Margaret Archer argues that much social theory suffers from the generic defect of conflation where, due to a reluctance or inability to theorize emergent relationships between social phenomena, causal autonomy is denied to one side of the relation. This can take the form of autonomy being denied to agency with causal efficacy only granted to structure (downwards conflation). Alternatively it can take the form of autonomy being denied to structure with causal efficacy only granted to agency (upwards conflation).

…In contradistinction Archer offers the approach of analytical dualism. While recognizing the interdependence of structure and agency (i.e. without people there would be no structures) she argues that they operate on different timescales. At any particular moment, antecedently existing structures constrain and enable agents, whose interactions produce intended and unintended consequences, which leads to structural elaboration and the [etc. etc.]

Does that help? No? Sorry about that. I guess someone will have to ask Archer just what Bernie did that was so monumentally discourteous. Was it merely asking for an invitation in the first place? Is it the fact that Bernie is pro-choice? Or something more? We need someone to dig into the Vatican gossip machine and let us know.

UPDATE: Apparently this is all part of some vicious infighting among the Vatican's social scientists:

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was invited to speak at an April 15 Vatican event by the Vatican, a senior papal official said on Friday....He said it was his idea to invite Sanders.

A Bloomberg report quoted Margaret Archer, president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, as saying that Sanders had broken with protocol by failing to contact her office first. "This is not true and she knows it. I invited him with her consensus," said [Monsignor Marcelo Sanchez] Sorondo, who is senior to Archer.

An invitation to Sanders dated March 30, which was emailed to Reuters, was signed by Sorondo and also included Archer's name.

Well then.

It's Been Quiet Lately. Maybe a Little Too Quiet...

| Fri Apr. 8, 2016 11:53 AM EDT

Didn't there used to be some guy named Donald Trump running for president? Whatever happened to him? It seems like days since I've heard a desperate cry for attention from the campaign trail.

CEO Pay Down in 2015, But Still Higher Than Its Bubble Heights

| Fri Apr. 8, 2016 11:28 AM EDT

Sad news today from the Wall Street Journal. Among CEOs of big companies, stock-based pay was up 7 percent last year and cash pay was up 2 percent. But thanks to slower growth of CEO pensions, overall compensation was down 4 percent.

But perhaps CEOs will be mollified by the broader picture, which you can see in the chart on the right. CEO pay is up about 44 percent since 2007 in nominal terms, and up about 38 percent when you account for inflation. For ordinary workers, pay has decreased 5 percent since 2007 when you account for inflation.

For anyone wondering why Bernie Sanders has struck such a chord with the electorate, this pretty much tells the story. The Great Recession sure didn't affect everyone equally, did it? Ordinary schlubs paid a high price, but the folks with the most lavish pay to begin with just shrugged it off like it never happened. If the rich wonder why calls to tax high incomes at 90 percent sound pretty good to a lot of people, this should clue them in.

Yawn. Yet More Good Obamacare News

| Thu Apr. 7, 2016 7:33 PM EDT

There's so much good news about Obamacare, you really are getting tired of winning all the time, aren't you? Well, here's the latest:

This is courtesy of Gallup. It shows that after a couple of modest increases in the uninsured rate at the end of 2015, the start of a new year produced a new surge of people into Obamacare, driving the uninsured rate down to 11 percent. That's a new record low.

As always, don't try to compare this directly to the CDC figures for the uninsured. Gallup counts everyone over 18. CDC counts everyone under age 65. Because of this, the Gallup number is generally about one percentage point lower than CDC.

Maybe Atrios Is Right About Driverless Cars

| Thu Apr. 7, 2016 5:47 PM EDT

A couple of weeks ago we bought a Neato robotic vacuum. It wouldn't operate for more than five minutes at a time, so I called tech support. They were very nice, and said I had to "calibrate the battery." Huh. I did that, and it got better, but then it wouldn't return to its base. Calibrate it again, they said. So I did, and it started returning home. But then it started running into a wall and getting stuck. I don't know why. It was just a bare wall. But the robot apparently wanted to climb up to the ceiling or something, and you know how robots are once they get an idea in their heads. Then it went under a chair and refused to come out.

So I returned the Neato and went to Fry's, where I bought a Roomba. Much better! It worked the first time with no problems—except for one thing: it would only clean one room. Apparently some bright spark in the Roomba marketing department asked engineering to write a bit of additional firmware that would cripple the device so they could call it a new model and sell it at a new price point. But this makes it fairly useless, since the whole point of a device like this is to schedule it and forget it.

But I tried it anyway. Oddly, it worked OK upstairs, where there are many hallways and rooms. Downstairs, though, it would only clean the living room. I moved it to the kitchen, but no dice: it made a beeline for the living room and cleaned it again. So I tried one more time. Success! It started cleaning the kitchen. But then it developed a grudge against our dishwasher. I wish I had video of this, but basically it went nuts. It banged into it, circled around angrily, got up on its hind wheels (seriously) and banged away some more. It was pissed. I watched it do this for more than five minutes before I shut it off. I was afraid it would eventually wreck the dishwasher. It's going back to Fry's tomorrow.

For some time Atrios has been saying that driverless cars are a fantasy. I think he's crazy. But I have to score this round in his favor. Robotic vacuums travel at about 1 mph; they don't have to avoid other robotic vacuums; nothing in their path moves; and all they have to do is crudely recognize obstacles and map a way around them. And yet, after ten years of development, they still can't do it reliably. Maybe driverless cars really are a fantasy.

But I have good tech news too. Many years ago I got tired of the lousy keyboards that come with modern computers, and bought an old IBM mechanical keyboard. It was nice, but it was so loud I stopped using it. The noise was so overpowering that it almost made conversation impossible.

Last week I decided to try again. You may not be aware of this, but thanks to gamers there's been a renaissance in high-quality mechanical keyboards. The one I bought was insanely expensive (about $150), but also had some other features I wanted, and it's killer. For the cognoscenti among you, it uses Cherry MX brown switches, and I love it. It has a great feel, but the sound is muffled just enough that it won't wake the neighbors.

It even advanced the cause of journalism. Once I tried it out, I was so eager to type something substantial that I finally got back to a story I'm writing for the next issue of the magazine. It's all finished now, and you're probably going to hate it. Everyone's going to hate it. But at least it was created using a really nice keyboard.

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Does It Really Matter if Bernie Called Hillary Unqualified?

| Thu Apr. 7, 2016 2:54 PM EDT

Josh Marshall weighs in on the flap over Bernie Sanders saying that Hillary Clinton is unqualified to be president:

Various things Clinton said can be reasonably interpreted as questioning whether Sanders is up to the job of the presidency. But it is an entirely different matter when an opponent, in his own voice, says flatly his challenger is "unqualified" to serve as President of the country. That's something that cannot be unsaid. If Clinton is the nominee, it will undoubtedly be a staples of GOP stump speeches in the Fall. These are simple realities of political campaigns.

I'm curious about something: is this actually true? I hear it every four years. At some point, the primary races always get a little (or a lot) nasty, and the candidates start saying things that seem like they'd be great fodder for attack ads by the other side in the general election. But are they? Do these kinds of comments ever end up as a major theme in political ads?

I never see it. Of course, I live in California, and nobody ever bothers advertising here. Still, I never really hear about it elsewhere either. By the time the general election comes along, both sides have far more important attacks to make. And they probably assume—rightly—that most undecided voters don't care much what some angry primary opponent said six months before.

I'd prefer that both Bernie and Hillary dial it back a notch. But is Donald Trump really going to attack Hillary by showing footage of Bernie saying she's not qualified to be president, nyah nyah nyah? I doubt it. Even low-information voters know that this is the kind of thing that happens in the heat of campaigns, and it doesn't really mean anything.

Does anyone know the answer to this? In 2012, for example, did the Obama campaign run attack ads featuring Newt Gingrich saying that Romney kept money in the Cayman Islands? Did the McCain campaign in 2008 use footage of Hillary attacking Obama? Just how common—or not—is this?

Yep, Wisconsin's Voter ID Law Is All About Suppressing the Vote

| Thu Apr. 7, 2016 1:31 PM EDT

Let's be clear here: it's not exactly breaking news that photo ID laws are designed not to fight voter fraud—which is all but nonexistent—but primarily to make it harder for Democratic constituencies to vote. Still, it's nice to hear it from the horse's mouth sometimes. The location, once again, is Wisconsin:

You wanna know why I left the Republican Party as it exists today? Here it is; this was the last straw: I was in the closed Senate Republican Caucus when the final round of multiple Voter ID bills were being discussed. A handful of the GOP Senators were giddy about the ramifications and literally singled out the prospects of suppressing minority and college voters.

Think about that for a minute....A vigorous debate on the ideas wasn't good enough. Inspiring the electorate and relying on their agenda being better to get people to vote for them wasn't good enough. No, they had to take the coward's way out and come up with a plan to suppress the vote under the guise of 'voter fraud.' The truth? There was almost none.

That's from Todd Allbaugh, former chief of staff for Wisconsin state Sen. Dale Schultz (R). TPM's Tierney Sneed gave him a call:

Once he left politics, Allbaugh opened a Madison, Wisconsin, coffee shop, where TPM reached him over the phone and he elaborated on those claims.

“It just really incensed me that they started talking about this particular bill, and one of the senators got up and said, ‘We really need to think about the ramifications on certain neighborhoods in Milwaukee and on our college campuses and what this could do for us,’” Allbaugh said.

....According to Allbaugh, at this point in the point of meeting, Schultz brought up his own concerns with the voter ID legislation. “He was immediately shot down by another senator who said, ‘What I am interested in is getting results here and using the power while we have it, because if the Democrats were in control they would do they same thing to us, so I want to use it while we have it.'

I wonder how many cases we need of legislators and aides either admitting this outright (like Allbaugh) or accidentally telling the truth about it (like Pennsylvania's Mike Turzai) before the Supreme Court is willing to take a fresh look at its naive 2008 ruling upholding voter ID laws. At the time, the court wrote that concerns about voter fraud "should not be disregarded simply because partisan interests may have provided one motivation for the votes of individual legislators." Since then, evidence has continued to pile up that voter fraud is an entirely fake concern and partisan interests are the only motivation for voter ID laws. It's time to overturn Crawford.

Environmentalists Get Bit By California's Premier Environmental Law

| Thu Apr. 7, 2016 12:24 PM EDT

I'm a pretty committed environmentalist, but it's still hard not to feel a bit of schadenfreude over the problems that California's premier environmental law has had on the construction of bike lanes:

The California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA, has stymied bike lanes up and down the state for more than a decade....“The environmental law is hugely frustrating,” said Dave Campbell, advocacy director for Bike East Bay, which has pushed for the Fulton Street bike lane. “It’s a law that allows you to say no. It’s not a law that lets you say yes.”

....The issue has festered for a long time. A decade ago, a lawsuit against San Francisco's citywide bike plan stalled the city's plans to add more than 30 miles of bike lanes for several years....Even without the threat of litigation, the environmental law can stop bike lanes in their tracks. When city of Oakland officials wanted to narrow a wide road near a major transit station and add two bike lanes, they realized it would be difficult to comply with the environmental law’s rules and didn’t proceed, said Jason Patton, Oakland’s bike program manager. About a decade later, the road remains a six-lane highway.

“CEQA is an incredible burden to doing work in urban areas,” Patton said. “And I say that as a committed environmentalist.”

The environmental law requires proponents of new projects — including bike lanes — to measure the effect the project would have on car congestion. When a traffic lane is taken out in favor of a bike lane, more congestion could result along that road. That result can put proposed bike lanes in peril. And traffic studies to show whether installing a bike lane would lead to greater congestion can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Oftentimes, cities won’t bother with the effort.

Needless to say, this is the same complaint that developers have long had with CEQA: It allows NIMBYs to hold up construction of new projects endlessly with faux environmental objections. Go ahead and just try to build a dense development in LA. Plenty of folks would love to do it. But you'd better be prepared for years or more of grinding lawsuits from every nearby resident who doesn't want more traffic.

I'm no expert on CEQA, so I won't try to offer any detailed criticism here. Generally speaking, though, I'd like to see the law reformed so that genuine environmental concerns get the hearings they deserve, but no more. There needs to be some kind of stopping point or reasonableness test in there. A $100,000 bike lane shouldn't require $200,000 in environmental impact reports and another $200,000 defending lawsuits from bike lane haters. Likewise, a proposed apartment building should be required to acknowledge genuine environmental impacts—on traffic, on sewage, on air quality—but there needs to be a limit to how detailed this needs to be. Bike lanes are great, but so are apartment buildings.

Bernie Voters Not Very Interested in Non-Bernie Democrats

| Thu Apr. 7, 2016 11:38 AM EDT

Dave Weigel notes that Wisconsin's Supreme Court race was yet another setback for Democrats:

They saw a decent chance to defeat Rebecca Bradley, a conservative justice appointed to the state Supreme Court by Walker. Her opponent, JoAnne Kloppenburg, nearly won a seat on the court in 2011.

…Bradley won the election, a surprise to Democrats. This morning, some progressives picked a culprit: voters who cast ballots for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and left the rest of their ballots blank. According to exit polling conducted by the independent group DecisionDesk and BenchMark Politics, perhaps 15 percent of Sanders voters skipped the Bradley-Kloppenburg race; just 4 percent of Hillary Clinton voters did the same.

Bernie endorsed JoAnne Kloppenburg, so this isn't a matter of him refusing to play ball with anyone running on the Democratic ticket. Nonetheless, it's a serious issue, no matter what you think of Bernie versus Hillary on the issues. Bernie is basing a lot of his campaign not just on anti-Hillary sentiment, but on anti-Democratic-Party-establishment sentiment. That's fair enough, but like it or not, the Democratic Party is all we have to compete with Republicans.

Bernie has been asked before if, for example, he'd raise money for Democrats if he won the nomination, and he responded, "We'll see." That's really not going to cut it anymore. Bernie doesn't have to mindlessly support every Democrat on the ballot, but voters deserve to know what he'd do if he won the Democratic nomination. Would it be all Bernie all the time? Or does he become a fighter for all the down-ballot races Democrats need to win in order to pass all that revolutionary legislation we hear so much about?