Kevin Drum

We May All Be Sinners, But Please Shut Up About Our Actual Sins

| Fri Feb. 6, 2015 3:16 PM EST

Religious conservatives are mad at President Obama again. I suppose the appropriate reaction is a big yawn, since they're always mad at President Obama. It hardly matters what new horror he's ostensibly perpetrated, does it?

Still, this latest brouhaha is kind of interesting. Obama was speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast and said this:

As we speak, around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another....But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon....So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history....This is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.

Hmmm. Nothing wrong with that. We are all sinners, and sometimes we don't live up to our highest ideals. Still, God calls on us to keep trying. This is the kind of thing we hear from fundamentalist preachers all the time—except for one thing. Obama actually named names. Here's the bit I left out in the second paragraph:

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

It's one thing to agree that we are all sinners. But apparently it's quite another to provide an example or two. America's conservative Christians really, really don't like that. They prefer to be make-believe sinners, not actual sinners who might have some actual sins to account for. Obama decided not to give them such an easy out, and that made them spitting mad.

It's easy enough to laugh at this kind of cowardly refusal to acknowledge real sin. But that aside, Christopher Ingraham argues that Obama omitted a key nuance:

Some slave traders may indeed have sought justification for their actions in the Christian faith, but much of the trade was driven by economic reasons (a demand for cheap labor) and racism. The Crusades were just as much about political power as they were about religion.

....But the evidence also shows that religion has become a much more powerful motivator of terrorism in the past 15 years or so....And most religiously-motivated terrorism today is perpetrated by Islamist terrorists in the name of their misreading of Islam. Fully two-thirds of terror-related deaths in 2013 were caused by just four Islamist groups — Al Qaeda and its affiliates, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Islamic State, and the Taliban.

I'd be mighty careful about this. The fact that Islamic jihadists say they're inspired by religion doesn't mean that's their sole motivation. Like the Crusades and slavery, the real motivations are much more varied. After all, Islam has been Islam for 14 centuries, but al-Qaeda style jihadi terrorism is a fairly recent phenomenon.

So what happened in the 70s and 80s that suddenly turned a relatively peaceful religion into a persistent wellspring of terrorist attacks? Probably not anything about religion itself. That's just the public justification. Underneath, there's a whole stew of anti-colonialism; hatred of occupation by foreign powers; lack of economic opportunity for young men; geopolitical maneuverings; tribal enmities; fear of cultural subjugation; hostility toward Israel; and dozens of other things. Religion is part of it, and religion may often be the hook that sucks angry young men into jihadi groups, but it's far from the whole story. We make a big mistake if we look solely at the surface and go no further.

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Greek Charm Offensive Is Charming No One So Far

| Fri Feb. 6, 2015 2:10 PM EST

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis is apparently on a "charm offensive" to persuade his European counterparts—i.e., the Germans—to allow Greece to end its brutal austerity program and spend more money. The Germans, so far, are not charmed:

After a meeting in Berlin on Thursday with his German counterpart, Wolfgang Schaeuble, the two sides could not even agree on whether they had "agreed to disagree." Schaeuble said they did. Varoufakis said they didn't get that far. "We did not reach an agreement; it was never on the cards," he said. "We didn't even agree to disagree from where I'm standing."

That's not very promising, is it? Overall, though, my takeaway from this story is that the new Greek government, after winning office based on a very hardnosed platform of vilifying its European creditors, has decided in practice to adopt a fairly conciliatory negotiating strategy. The Times says that Varoufakis has "backed away from the party's pledges to negotiate a debt write-down" and is instead merely seeking "a compromise that would benefit Greece and its creditors."

So it's sort of a good-cop-bad-cop routine: prime minister Alexis Tsipras stays in Athens and continues to insist that Greece won't buckle under to European threats, while Varoufakis makes the rounds of finance ministries and tries to make nice.

Still, keep in mind something I mentioned a few days ago: "backing down" from demands to reduce Greece's enormous debt doesn't mean much, because the issue of the debt write-down has always been a bit of a charade. It's an easy thing to demagogue, but everyone understands privately that Greece will never pay it all back. At this point, then, Greek debt is less a measure of what Greece actually owes other people than it is a crude means of political control: whenever Greece needs to roll over its debt, it's an opportunity for Germany to hold out until they approve of Greece's spending plans. This effectively gives them control of Greece's budget, and they've insisted on huge spending cuts and a future path toward big budget surpluses.

And that's what Varoufakis really cares about. Not the debt, which is basically just a symbol at this point, but control over Greece's budget. He wants to reverse the austerity and increase spending, which he thinks will boost Greece's economy and allow it to get back into growth mode. What's more, he's arguing—none too subtly, as it happens—that this is something important to all of Europe, not just Greece. After all, Greek unemployment is currently at 26 percent, and youth unemployment is nearly 50 percent. This is dangerous territory for any country. Here's Varoufakis:

"Germany must and can be proud that Nazism has been eradicated here, but it's one of history's most cruel ironies that Nazism is rearing its ugly head in Greece, a country which put up such a fine struggle against it," Varoufakis said. He was referring to Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party, which came third in January's elections and has 17 seats in the Parliament sworn in Thursday.

Translation: the Greek public won't put up with this stuff forever. You may think Syriza is a radical far-left party, but there are worse things than far left parties. If we don't get relief soon, the far right will be up to bat next. And that's something nobody wants to risk.

Quote of the Day: No Dessert For You!

| Fri Feb. 6, 2015 12:38 PM EST

From Tyler Cowen:

I would be happy enough if all desserts were simply dark chocolate ice cream or gelato, consumed rapidly and perhaps at a different venue altogether.

Well, that would certainly put a crimp in the dessert business, wouldn't it? It would actually work out OK for me, but I have a feeling the rest of the world might get bored pretty quickly by an endless series of meals that finish off with dark chocolate gelato.

Anyway, it turns out that restaurant owners are on Cowen's side. Desserts don't bring in much money, but they do cause diners to linger around their tables. "You have to turn the tables," says one restaurant owner, and desserts just get in the way of that. Very sad.

Why Is Wall Street So Excited By Tough New Net Neutrality Regulations on Cable Companies?

| Fri Feb. 6, 2015 12:19 PM EST

I already have a chart of the day, so I suppose this one can't also be a chart of the day. But it's certainly the head scratcher of the day.

It comes via Brian Fung, and it shows the reaction of the stock market to yesterday's news that FCC chair Tom Wheeler plans to impose strict net neutrality rules on broadband internet suppliers. This mostly applies to cable companies, and the prospect of strong regulation should have sent their stocks downward. Instead, they spiked upward:

WTF? Why is Wall Street so excited at the prospect of tough new regulations on cable companies? Fung doesn't know either:

When I confessed to MoffettNathanson's Craig Moffett that I couldn't make heads or tails of what we were seeing, Moffett shrugged. "Nor do I," he said. "I think it just shows you that the market doesn't really understand these issues."

That's a little hard to believe. Wall Street analysts are actually pretty bright folks, and they generally understand the industries they follow pretty well. And while this may be a "tech" issue—which seems to automatically reduce IQs by 30 points among journalists—the truth is that it only gets complicated when you dive fairly deep into the weeds. Basically, under Wheeler's proposal, cable companies would no longer be able to sign special deals to provide certain companies with faster service in return for higher payments. That's pretty unambiguously a bummer for cable companies.

So let's take another shot at this:

Whether or not they understand net neutrality, investors are apparently relieved that Wheeler's draft rules aren't more restrictive, according to BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield. What shareholders feared the most was the FCC swooping in to tell Internet providers what prices they could and couldn't charge to consumers — and the proposal currently doesn't call for that.

In short, the markets are responding favorably because price regulation is off the table, at least for now. "I think it is, in the near term, a knee-jerk reaction that it wasn't worse," said Greenfield.

This is....slightly more plausible, I guess. But as Fung points out, price regulation was never on the table. Even President Obama is against it. So this really doesn't hold water either.

In other words, it's a mystery. I'd say there are two basic possibilities:

  • Wall Street analysts are idiots.
  • Journalists like me are idiots. Buried deep down, Wheeler's proposal actually benefits cable companies in some obscure, nefarious, loophole-y way. Maybe it has something to do with how interconnect charges between cable companies and long-haul broadband suppliers can now be gamed? Or something. In any case, the theory here is that Wall Street analysts have figured something out that the rest of us haven't.

The only other possibility that comes to mind is simply that Wall Street likes certainty. Wheeler's net neutrality proposal might not be what they wanted, but at least it's a firm rule, which means that everyone now knows what to expect going forward. Investors like that, so they bid up cable stocks a bit.

That explanation doesn't do much for me either, though. I eagerly await a plausible explanation for this from some genuine expert who knows the arcane details of what this all means and why Wall Street might be more excited about net neutrality rules than common sense would suggest.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in January

| Fri Feb. 6, 2015 11:24 AM EST

The American economy added 257,000 new jobs last month, 90,000 of which were needed to keep up with population growth. This means that net job growth clocked in at 167,000 jobs. This is lower than last month, but only because December's results were revised sharply upwards. The combined revisions for November and December clocked in at 147,000 jobs, which suggests that for the past quarter job growth has been clipping along at a faster pace than we thought. What's more, January's report followed a familiar pattern: All of the growth was in the private sector. Government employment actually fell by 10,000 jobs. The headline unemployment rate ticked up slightly to 5.7 percent.

I take this all as good news, even the increase in the unemployment rate. The January jobs number is solid; the revisions suggest stronger growth in 2014 than we thought; and the higher unemployment rate reduces the political pressure on the Fed to raise interest rates this year. What's more, the increase in the unemployment rate wasn't due to more people out of work. It was due to more people re-entering the labor force, causing the labor force participation rate to rise slightly to 62.9 percent. This is a good thing, even if it has the perverse effect of artificially increasing the unemployment rate.

Perhaps the best news, however, came in the wage data. Hourly wages of production and nonsupervisory employees—my preferred indicator of wage growth—went up 0.4 percent. However, inflation was negative in December, so this represents a pretty sizeable gain in real terms. (Though note that it might be ephemeral since December's negative inflation rate was due mostly to plummeting oil prices, which is a short-term effect.) Over the past year, hourly wages have increased 2 percent, which is up a bit even when you adjust for inflation. It's still nothing to shout about, but it's at least a glimmer of real wage growth.

Overall: not bad. This is still not a roaring recovery, but the data is very steadily showing genuine sustained growth. Austerity policies have delayed this turnaround by upwards of a year or two, but at least it's finally here. After years of sluggishness, the economy is finally doing pretty well.

NOTE: January is the month when the BLS does its big annual readjustment of jobs data for the entire year. However, the overall change turned out to be quite small, so it doesn't really affect any of the numbers above.

McDonald's Creates Worst Marketing Campaign in History of Marketing

| Thu Feb. 5, 2015 9:25 PM EST

This morning, Kate Bachelder went into McDonald's to get an Egg McMuffin. When she tried to pay the cashier, however, things turned weird:

I wouldn't need money today, she explained, as I had been randomly chosen for the store's "Pay with Lovin'" campaign, the company's latest public-relations blitz, announced Sunday…Between Feb. 2 and Valentine's Day, the company says, participating McDonald's locations will give away 100 meals to unsuspecting patrons in an effort to spread "the lovin'."

If the "Pay with Lovin'" scenario looks touching on television, it is less so in real life. A crew member produced a heart-shaped pencil box stuffed with slips of paper, and instructed me to pick one. My fellow customers seemed to look on with pity as I drew my fate: "Ask someone to dance." I stood there for a mortified second or two, and then the cashier mercifully suggested that we all dance together. Not wanting to be a spoilsport, I forced a smile and "raised the roof" a couple of times, as employees tried to lure cringing customers into forming some kind of conga line, asking them when they'd last been asked to dance.

The public embarrassment ended soon enough, and I slunk away with my free breakfast, thinking: Now there's an idea that never should have left the conference room.

Speaking personally, I can say that the Pay With Lovin' scenario did not look touching on television. It looked horrifying. And I suspect very strongly that in real life it's even more horrifying than my feeble little imagination can imagine.

And for what it's worth, when I saw the ads, it actually wasn't Mickey D's guinea pig customers who I initially felt sorry for. It was the cashiers. Those are the poor folks who have to execute this marketing monstrosity. Every morning they have to paste on a smile and pretend to be thrilled at the opportunity to force some sleepy customer to write a poem or declare who she loves or perform a jig or whatever. Isn't it exciting!?! You get to pay with lovin' today!

Somebody needs to be fired at McDonald's. Maybe a whole bunch of people. I don't know who, but someone has to pay. Right now.

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It Took a While, But Democrats Are Finally Revolting Against Benjamin Netanyahu's Speech

| Thu Feb. 5, 2015 6:26 PM EST

Benjamin Netanyahu is coming to town next month to speak before a joint session of Congress, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest says that Joe Biden's calendar is, um, filling up or something:

Biden has to date missed only one speech by a foreign leader at a joint session of Congress, Earnest said. The vice president really likes his ceremonial duties, he added, but might be busy on March 3, when Netanyahu is scheduled to deliver his warning to Congress about U.S. negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. The Obama administration considers the talks an important diplomatic opening that could lead to the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Netanyahu believes Iran has no intention of holding to any deal and U.S. diplomats are being naive.

This is all part of a growing Democratic "revolt" against Netanyahu's speech:

Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein rushed to meetings on Capitol Hill on Wednesday trying to calm a furor created by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress next month and quell a Democratic revolt that has dozens threatening a boycott.

It didn’t work.

If anything, Democrats finished the day more frustrated....If Dermer really wants to fix the problems created by the speech, goes the consensus among Democrats in Washington, he’ll need to do more than apologize: he and Netanyahu have to cancel or reschedule the speech.

....Seven Jewish Democratic members of Congress who met Wednesday in Rep. Steve Israel’s (D-N.Y.) office...lit into Dermer. The invitation, they said, was making them choose between Netanyahu and Obama, making support for Israel into a partisan issue that they never wanted it to be, and forcing them to consider a boycott of the speech. One member, according to someone in the room, went so far as to tell Dermer it was hard to believe him when he said he didn’t realize the partisan mess he was making by going around Obama to get Boehner to make the invitation.

This has been a surprisingly slow-burning fuse. Obviously this mess puts a lot of Democrats in a tough position, but I still would have figured that they'd make their displeasure known sooner rather than later. And yet, for the week or so after Netanyahu announced his speech, we barely heard a peep of protest—even privately. But apparently Democratic anger was growing the whole time, and now Netanyahu has a full-grown public insurgency on his hands.

It's been obvious for years—obvious to me, anyway—that Netanyahu has decided to tie his future to the Republican Party. Of course Dermer knew the speech would create a partisan mess. That was more a feature than a bug. But now it looks like Netanyahu has finally gone a step too far. After years of putting up with Netanyahu's partisan antics, Democrats are finally getting tired of them. This episode is unlikely to end well for Israel.

LA Is Adopting Bodycams For Its Police Force. But Who Gets to See the Footage?

| Thu Feb. 5, 2015 12:36 PM EST

Los Angeles is gearing up to equip its entire police force with body cameras, but Chief Charlie Beck says he doesn't plan to routinely release bodycam footage to the public. "I don't think that transparency means we post every interaction on YouTube," he said yesterday. Plus this:

The chief said he felt there was a "moral prohibition" as well.

"People invite us into their homes on their worst possible day, and I don't think they invite us with the intention of having that interaction made public," he said. "Families call us when they're in crisis. Victims call us when they've had horrific things done to them by evil people. And to make those things public revictimizes them, doesn't serve justice. And I don't think it's the right thing to do."

This may be self-serving on Beck's part, but the truth is that he has a point. And the ACLU agrees:

The Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has indicated support for the cameras but is demanding strong policies to protect civilian privacy. The organization wrote to the Police Commission, recommending it make public video of high-profile incidents, such as police shootings, "if not while an investigation is pending, then as soon as it is concluded."

I'm still struggling with the right answer to this, and I think it's going to be a while before we figure out the right balance. In the meantime, as I continue to noodle over what rules should govern release of bodycam footage, I'll toss out a few thoughts:

  • The police department itself should not be allowed to decide what footage to make public.
  • In fact, the police department probably shouldn't even be involved in these decisions.
  • However, civilians caught in police videos should have some say. If they don't want footage of their encounter made public, that should be given some weight.
  • But how much weight? In the case of, say, a routine domestic dispute, I'd give it a lot of weight. But in a matter of serious public interest—especially those involving allegations of police misconduct—civilian desires for privacy will have to take a back seat.
  • There should be different guidelines for footage taken in public places vs. footage from people's homes.
  • We also need rules that govern generic research requests. It's in the public interest, for example, to know whether traffic stops of white drivers seem more motivated by probable cause than stops of black drivers. A review of bodycam footage could provide valuable evidence on that score. But what are the regulations governing this?

The fundamental question underlying all of this, of course, is: Who decides? Not the police themselves. Maybe judges? An independent agency? But if it's an agency, how do you prevent it from becoming captured by the police department? These are really knotty issues, and I wouldn't be surprised if several of them end up in front of the Supreme Court over the next few years.

At yesterday's meeting, Police Commission President Steve Soboroff said "This is not for YouTube. This is not for TMZ. This is for maintaining the city's safety." Maybe so. But what it's for doesn't matter. Once this stuff is public, it will end up on TMZ and YouTube whether anyone likes it or not.

Obama Suckered Republicans Into an Immigration Trap—And They Charged Right In

| Thu Feb. 5, 2015 11:33 AM EST

Ed Kilgore notes that Latino approval of the Republican Party—already low in 2013—plummeted even further in 2014 when they spent all year pandering to their base and blocking any chance at some kind of comprehensive immigration reform. And it's gotten even worse since then:

The marginally improved performance of the GOP among Latinos in the 2014 midterms probably tempted some to think disgruntlement with Obama would trump estrangement from the elephant party. But since then, of course, the president's executive action on immigration provided fresh impetus to "deport 'em all" messaging, and the jockeying for position during the Invisible Primary for 2016 is not going to help.

I don't have any big point to make here. I just wanted to highlight the passage above. In the same way that, say, Osama bin Laden wanted two things on 9/11—to attack the US and to provoke an insane counterreaction—President Obama wanted to accomplish two things with his immigration actions. Obviously he thought it was the right thing to do. Beyond that, though, he wanted to gain Latino support for Democrats and provoke an insane counterreaction from Republicans. He succeeded brilliantly on both counts. Republicans fell swiftly into his trap, and they show all signs of falling even further as primary season heats up. By the time 2016 rolls around, even a moderate guy like Jeb Bush is going to be so tainted by Republican craziness on immigration that he'll get virtually no support from the Latino community.

It didn't have to be this way. Republicans could have responded in a more measured way that would have blunted Obama's actions. Instead they let themselves get suckered. Obama must be laughing his ass off right about now.

California Moves to Ban All Vaccination Exemptions

| Thu Feb. 5, 2015 11:13 AM EST

Here's the latest vaccination news from the Golden State:

Gov. Jerry Brown, who preserved religious exemptions to state vaccination requirements in 2012, on Wednesday appeared open to legislation that would eliminate all but medical waivers.

The governor's new flexibility highlighted a growing momentum toward limiting vaccination exemptions partly blamed for the state's worst outbreak of measles since 2000 and flare-ups of whooping cough and other preventable illnesses.

....Earlier, five lawmakers had said they would introduce legislation that would abolish all religious and other personal-beliefs exemptions for parents who do not want their children vaccinated before starting school.

I grew up in a Christian Science family, and that makes me slightly conflicted on this subject. Partly this is because it left me with some residual sympathy for genuine religious objections, and partly it's because the number of exemptions for genuine religious reasons is actually pretty small—less than 3,000 per year in California, according to the Times story.

But in the end, there's just too big a can of worms when you try to distinguish "genuine" religious objections from personal objections that might be based on some kind of spiritual belief. If this were purely a personal choice, I'd go ahead and let parents decide. But it's not. It's a public health issue, and our top priority should be protecting public health. This requires vaccination rates above 95 percent both statewide and in every local area. As the map on the right shows, we're not getting that these days.

There's no state in the nation that's more sympathetic to religious freedom than Mississippi. If it can ban exemptions for religious reasons, so can all the rest of us. The anti-vaxxers used to be an oddball nuisance, but in recent years they've turned deadly—and that means it's past time to start taking them seriously. No more exemptions for deadly communicable diseases.