Kevin Drum

Should Pundits Apologize More Often?

| Fri Aug. 1, 2014 11:55 AM EDT

From Dan Drezner:

One norm I’d really like to see emerge is pundits admitting error and apologizing when they get things wrong, and Frum did that.  But I’m curious what other norms, if any, should be strengthened among the pontificating class.

I'd dissent slightly from this. Should pundits do a better job of admitting when they get things wrong? Sure. Who can argue with that? But should they apologize? I'm not so sure. Being wrong isn't a sin, after all, especially for someone in the business of offering up opinions. I'd be happy to see a bit more self-reflection about what caused the error, but there's no need for an apology.

Now, Drezner wrote this in the context of David Frum's allegation that a New York Times photo had been faked, which turned out to be untrue. This is obviously a case that calls for an apology since Frum accused someone of wrongdoing. But that's a bit different from simply being wrong in an analytic or predictive way. That kind of error, as long as it's honest, deserves some reflection, but not an apology.

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Opposition to Obamacare Suddenly Spiked in July

| Fri Aug. 1, 2014 11:16 AM EDT

Here's the latest news on Obamacare from the Kaiser Family Foundation: it suddenly became a lot more unpopular in July:

So what happened? I can't think of any substantive news that was anything but good, so I figure it must have been the Hobby Lobby decision. Did that turn people against Obamacare because they disapproved of the decision? Or because it reminded them that Obamacare pays for contraceptives? Or what? It's a mystery, all the more so because every single demographic group showed the same spike. Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all spiked negative. The rich and the poor spiked negative. The young and the old spiked negative. Ditto for men, women, whites, blacks, and Hispanics. It's a little hard to figure out why the Hobby Lobby decision would have affected everyone the same way, but I can't think of anything else that happened over the past month that could have caused this. It certainly wasn't John Boehner's lawsuit, and I very much doubt it was the Halbig decision.

So it's a bit of a puzzler—though perhaps another chart explains it. It turns out that in conversations with family and friends, people have heard bad things about Obamacare more than good things by a margin of 27-6 percent. Likewise, they've seen more negative ads than positive by a margin of 19-7 percent. Roughly speaking, the forces opposed to Obamacare continue to be louder and more passionate than the forces that support it. I don't think that's actually changed much recently, so it probably doesn't explain the sudden spike in July's polling. But it might explain part of it.

Or, it might just be a statistical blip. Who knows?

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in July

| Fri Aug. 1, 2014 10:22 AM EDT

The American economy added 209,000 new jobs in March, but about 90,000 of those jobs were needed just to keep up with population growth, so net job growth clocked in at 119,000. The headline unemployment rate ticked up slightly to 6.2 percent.

The jobs number is a little lower than expected, and continues to show that the recovery is weak. On the bright side, the unemployment number increased not because more people were out of work, but because more people were entering the labor force. It's basically not a negative sign. As Jared Bernstein says:

There is some evidence that the all-important labor force participation rate may be stabilizing. It rose a tenth last month to 62.9%, but has wiggled between 62.8% and 62.2% since last August. If the firming job market has in fact arrested the decline in this key metric of labor supply, it will be an important and favorable sign.

Overall, the economy still appears to be dog paddling along. GDP growth is OK but not great; jobs growth is OK but not great; and wage growth is positive but not by very much. More and more, this is starting to look like the new normal.

California Projects Very Modest Obamacare Rate Hikes in 2015

| Fri Aug. 1, 2014 1:30 AM EDT

Good news from the Golden State!

Defying an industry trend of double-digit rate hikes, California officials said the more than 1.2 million consumers in the state-run Obamacare insurance exchange can expect modest price increases of 4.2% on average next year.

...."We have changed the trend in healthcare costs," said Peter Lee, Covered California's executive director. "This is good news for Californians."....State officials and insurers credited the strong turnout during the first six-month enrollment window that ended in April for helping to keep 2015 rates in check.

It's still early days for Obamacare, and it's not yet clear if it deserves credit for keeping California's rate hikes low. It may instead be due to the recent slow growth of medical costs nationally. Nonetheless, this is a very positive sign. California is a big market, and it's one that's traditionally seen steep rate hikes in the individual insurance market. At the very least, we can certainly say that conservative predictions of catastrophically high rate increases thanks to Obamacare have turned out to be groundless. Again.

John Boehner's Lawsuit Against Obama Is Perfectly Reasonable

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 7:24 PM EDT

I've made this point before, but I'd like to make it again: Exactly why is John Boehner's lawsuit against President Obama so frivolous? I don't mean this in a strictly legal sense. It may be that the suit fails immediately for lack of standing.1 Or that the merits of this particular case don't hold water. We can let the lawyers battle that out.

Politically, though, what's wrong with asking a court to decide if a federal agency has overstepped the will of Congress in its execution of the law? The answer, of course, is: nothing. People do it all the time, hundreds of times a year. The only difference here is that a house of Congress is doing it. But why does that suddenly make it frivolous?

It could be that you think courts should stick to their traditional practice of staying neutral in "political" disputes between branches of the government. That's fine. But it's not an argument that's gotten much air time. You might also think it sets a bad precedent. But again, I'm not hearing that. Instead, the argument seems to be that this suit is simply absurd on its face, an idiotic piece of grandstanding by the Republican Party.

There's no question that it's a piece of grandstanding. Nor that House Republicans could be making better use of their time. And yes, it's obviously deeply politically motivated. But that doesn't mean it's frivolous. So once again: why is it that suing a federal agency over its interpretation of a law suddenly becomes ridiculous just because Congress does it?

I'm open to good arguments on this score. Go ahead and convince me.

1I hope not, though. I understand why standing is important,2 but I'm unhappy that there seem to be a fair number of colorably important cases in which it's all but impossible to find someone with standing to sue. That's just not right.

2Honest, I really do.

Microsoft Loses Another Round in E-Mail Privacy Case

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 6:08 PM EDT

The latest in the privacy wars:

A federal court in New York ruled Thursday that Microsoft must comply with a U.S. search warrant to turn over a customer’s e-mails held in a server overseas.

....A number of tech firms and privacy advocates have joined [Microsoft] in arguing that if the government prevails and can reach across borders, it will cause foreign individuals and businesses to flee to their non-U.S. competitors. Microsoft also argued that the United States would not be in a position to complain when foreign governments do the same and insist on access to e-mail content stored in the country.

Hmmm. How would we feel if, say, an Egyptian court demanded that Microsoft turn over emails stored on a server in California? Hmmm.

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Yes, the CIA Spied on the Senate

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 1:43 PM EDT

Earlier this year, CIA Director John Brennan accused staffers from the Senate Intelligence Committee of removing classified material from the CIA office where they were researching a report on the agency's use of torture during the Bush administration. This turned out to be very poor tradecraft on Brennan's part, since it implicitly revealed the fact that the CIA was spying on Senate staffers even though it wasn't supposed to. Brennan tried to mount a suitably aggressive counterattack to Senate outrage over this, but today it all came crashing down:

CIA employees improperly accessed computers used by the Senate Intelligence Committee to compile a report on the agency’s now defunct detention and interrogation program, an internal CIA investigation has determined.

....The statement represented an admission to charges by the panel’s chairwoman, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that the CIA intruded into the computers her staff used to compile the soon-to-be released report on the agency’s use of harsh interrogation methods on suspected terrorists in secret overseas prisons during the Bush administration.

CIA Director John Brennan briefed Feinstein and the committee’s vice chairman, Saxby Chambliss, R-GA, on the CIA inspector general’s findings and apologized to them during a meeting on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Boyd said.

I find that my reaction remains one of schadenfreude. Dianne Feinstein and the rest of the Intelligence Committee seem to be mostly unconcerned with the omnipresent surveillance apparatus constructed by the US intelligence community, so it's hard to feel very sorry for them when they learn that this apparatus is also sometimes directed at Senate staffers. If this affair had persuaded a few senators that maybe our intelligence chiefs are less than totally honest about what they do, it might have done some good. But it doesn't seem to have done that. With only a few exceptions, they're outraged when the CIA spies on them, but that's about it.

Why American Politics Is Broken In One Sentence

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 12:06 PM EDT

Dave Weigel explains modern politics in a single sentence:

Voters are aware of a border crisis, they are aware that Barack Obama is president—they blame him for nothing getting done.

Yep. Republicans can basically do anything they want and never get blamed for it. Most voters don't even know who's in control of Congress anyway. When something goes wrong, all they know is (a) something went wrong, and (b) Barack Obama is the president and he should have done something about it.

That being the case, what incentive do Republicans have for making things go right? Pretty much none. This is, roughly speaking, a fairly new insight, and it explains most of what you need to know about American politics in the Obama era.

This Is the Lamest Defense of GMO Foods Ever

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 11:47 AM EDT

Over on our environment blog, Chris Mooney posts an excerpt from an interview in which Neil deGrasse Tyson defends GMO foods:

"Practically every food you buy in a store for consumption by humans is genetically modified food," asserts Tyson. "There are no wild, seedless watermelons. There's no wild cows...You list all the fruit, and all the vegetables, and ask yourself, is there a wild counterpart to this? If there is, it's not as large, it's not as sweet, it's not as juicy, and it has way more seeds in it. We have systematically genetically modified all the foods, the vegetables and animals that we have eaten ever since we cultivated them. It's called artificial selection."

This is a very common defense of GMO foods, but I've always found it to be the weakest, least compelling argument possible. It's so weak, in fact, that I always wonder if people who make it are even operating in good faith.

It's true that we've been breeding new and better strains of plants and animals forever. But this isn't a defense of GMO. On the contrary, it's precisely the point that GMO critics make. We have about 10,000 years of evidence that traditional breeding methods are basically safe. That's why anyone can do it and it remains virtually unregulated. We have no such guarantee with artificial methods of recombinant DNA. Both the technique itself and its possible risks are completely different, and Tyson surely knows this. If he truly believed what he said, he'd be in favor of removing all regulation of GMO foods and allowing anyone to experiment with it. Why not, after all, if it's really as safe as Gregor Mendel cross-breeding pea plants?

As it happens, I mostly agree with Tyson's main point. Although I have issues surrounding the way GMO seeds are distributed and legally protected, the question of whether GMO foods are safe for human consumption seems reasonably well settled. The technology is new enough, and our testing is still short-term enough, that I would continue to err on the side of caution when it comes to approving GMO foods. Still, GMO breeds created under our current regulatory regime are basically safe to eat, and I think that lefty critics of GMO foods should stop cherry picking the evidence to scare people into thinking otherwise.

(Please send all hate mail to Tom Philpott. He can select just the juiciest ones to send along to me.)

But even with that said, we shouldn't pretend that millennia of creating enhanced and hybrid breeds tells us anything very useful about the safety of cutting-edge laboratory DNA splicing techniques. It really doesn't.

Quote of the Day: Vulture Fund Suing Argentina Is Just a Lonely Defender of the Free Market

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 10:24 AM EDT

Here is fellow hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb defending Paul Singer, the billionaire owner of the vulture fund that successfully forced Argentina into default because it was insisting on full payment for old Argentine bonds:

He doesn’t get into fights for the sake of fighting. He believes deeply in the rule of law and that free markets and free societies depend on enforcing it.

You betcha. Anytime a Wall Street tycoon is supposedly fighting for deep principles, hold onto your wallet. They don't become billionaires because of their deep commitment to fair play and the unfettered operation of capital markets. However, there's also this:

The big question, however, is whether Argentina will ever pay Elliott what it wants. If the firm fails to collect, that would underscore the limits of its legal strategy. There is no international bankruptcy court for sovereign debt that can help resolve the matter. Argentina may use the next few months to try to devise ways to evade the New York court. Debt market experts, however, do not see how any such schemes could avoid using global firms that would not want to fall afoul of Judge Griesa’s ruling.

This is an interesting point. Normally, Argentina would just continue to pay the holders of its "exchange" bonds and refuse to pay the vulture funds that refused to go along with the terms of its bankruptcy and restructuring a decade ago. Elliott and the other vultures would be out of luck. The problem is that Argentina's payments are funneled through a US bank, and the judge in the case has forced US banks to halt payments.

But in all the articles I've read about this, I've never really seen an adequate explanation of why it's so impossible to avoid funneling payments through the US. I get that Argentina can no longer use an American US bank. Also, I assume, they can't use a big global bank that does business in the US. But surely there are mid-size banks that do no business in the US that could act as payment agents? If dollars were the issue, they could pay off in euros instead. I don't know what it would take legally for Argentina to switch either payment agents or the denominations of its bonds, but it doesn't sound impossible. And yet apparently it is. Why?