Kevin Drum

I'm Against Easy Voting for All. Some People Just Aren't Competent to Vote Rationally.

| Mon Jun. 8, 2015 11:37 AM EDT

Ezra Klein notes today that the argument against making it easier to vote is often very simple: it's not a good idea to make it easy to vote:

If that sounds a bit odd to you, then read Daniel Foster's argument against Clinton's idea, which lays the objection bare: "the people who can’t be bothered to register (as opposed to those who refuse to vote as a means of protest) are, except in unusual cases, civic idiots." And who wants civic idiots choosing our next president?

For a rejoinder, read Slate's Jamelle Bouie, who writes, "You get better at voting the more often you do it. Relatively uninformed voters in one election might become highly informed voters a few cycles later. More participation could make us a more engaged country."

I have a quarrel with both sides in this argument. In a modern democracy, we don't try to decide which voters are highly informed and thus "worthy" of voting. You can vote if you have an IQ of 200 and you can vote if you're a nitwit. The reason is simple: the decisions of the state affect both voters equally. Everybody gets to vote because everybody has a stake in the outcome.

This is not the way it's always been, of course. In early America only white male landowners could vote, because others were thought incapable of properly exercising the franchise. (That was the official excuse, anyway.) But even then, there was also an argument based on engagement with the state. White male landowners were thought to have a real stake in the decisions of the government, and therefore would vote their interests more intelligently.

Both those things have changed over time. Everybody is now acknowledged to be capable of voting in their interests, and everybody is now acknowledged to have a stake in what the government does. That's the argument for making it easy for everyone to vote. It doesn't matter if this means we'll get more voters who don't read National Review or can't name the Speaker of the House. What matters is that all these voters have just as big a stake in what the government does as you or I do. And if they have a stake, we should make it easy for them to vote.

Of course, no one really cares about this. The real argument for making voting easy is that it will increase the number of Democratic-leaning voters. And the real reason for making voting hard is that it will lower the number of Democratic-leaning voters. Everyone knows this. Sadly, all the other high-minded arguments for and against are just kabuki.

As it happens, my own guess is that highly engaged voters probably vote more stupidly than people who live normal lives and don't even know what GDP is, let alone whether it's gone up or down under the current occupant of the White House. (Scientific backup here.) If I had my way, anyone who shows an actual interest in politics—all of us who read and write this blog, for example—would be deemed obviously neurotic and forbidden from voting for dog catcher, let alone president. People like us would get to rant and rave and publish op-eds, but only people who are bored by us would actually get to vote. Any objections?

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Friday Cat Blogging - 5 June 2015

| Fri Jun. 5, 2015 2:26 PM EDT

I suppose I could write a post about the Rubio family's many traffic tickets, but I dunno. Seems to me that 23 mph in a school zone is pretty safe driving. Florida sure does have some strict rules about that, I guess.

In any case, it's far more pleasant to round out the week with some catblogging. Here is Hopper blissfully stretched out while her brother grooms her chin. So sweet. At least, it was until Hilbert got tired of licking and decided to clamp his jaws around Hopper's neck. I pushed him away, but this is sadly typical behavior from our own Dr. Hilbert and Mr. Hyde.

At the moment, Hilbert is resting right next to me. He exhausted himself running from window to window to watch our local squirrel hopping along the fence. At one point his tail was flapping so vigorously he was knocking stuff off my desk. But now the squirrel is gone and it's snoozing time.

Here's Why Libertarians Are Mostly Men

| Fri Jun. 5, 2015 12:34 PM EDT

Jeet Heer investigates a burning question today: why are most libertarians men? He offers several plausible explanations, but I think he misses the real one, perhaps because it's pretty unflattering to libertarians.

So here's the quick answer: Hardcore libertarianism is a fantasy. It's a fantasy where the strongest and most self-reliant folks end up at the top of the heap, and a fair number of men share the fantasy that they are these folks. They believe they've been held back by rules and regulations designed to help the weak, and in a libertarian culture their talents would be obvious and they'd naturally rise to positions of power and influence.

Most of them are wrong, of course. In a truly libertarian culture, nearly all of them would be squashed like ants—mostly by the same people who are squashing them now. But the fantasy lives on regardless.

Few women share this fantasy. I don't know why, and I don't really want to play amateur sociologist and guess. Perhaps it's something as simple as the plain observation that in the more libertarian past, women were subjugated to men almost completely. Why would that seem like an appealing fantasy?

Anyway, this is obviously simplistic and unflattering, and libertarians are going to be offended by it. Sorry. But feel free to take some guesses in comments about why women don't take to libertarianism as strongly as men.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in May

| Fri Jun. 5, 2015 11:51 AM EDT

The American economy added 280,000 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 190,000 jobs, which is quite a bit better than the past two months. The unemployment rate ticked up a few hundredths of a point and now rounds off to 5.5 percent, slightly higher than last month. But it was mostly because more people are entering the labor force, which is a good thing.

Roughly speaking, this report is fairly good news. Not great news, especially after the lousy jobs reports in March and April, but OK. Our economy continues to putter along in second gear.

Yet Again, Congress Is Too Scared to Assert Its Warmaking Powers

| Thu Jun. 4, 2015 12:41 PM EDT

Our Congress is really a piece of work when it comes to national security. In 2011, President Obama announced that he could go to war against Libya without congressional approval. Congress hemmed and hawed, but in the end was unable to agree to do anything about it. Two years later members of Congress were vocal about Obama's lack of action against Syria when it was revealed that the Assad regime had been using chemical weapons. Obama eventually responded and asked Congress for approval to take military action. Congress did nothing. Now we have yet another war, this time against ISIS, and Obama asked for congressional approval months ago. Result: nothing. Members of Congress would rather be free to lambaste Obama on the campaign trail than to actually commit themselves to a strategy.

So now what? HuffPo's Jennifer Bendery reports that Rep. Barbara Lee (D–Calif.) added a clause to the 2016 defense spending bill stating that “Congress has a constitutional duty to debate and determine whether or not to authorize the use of military force” against ISIS. It passed, but only barely. Steve Benen is acerbic:

Right. So, the Obama administration launched airstrikes in August 2014. The president called on Congress to authorize the mission in December 2014. Obama devoted part of his State of the Union address to this in January 2015. The White House even sent draft legislative language to Capitol Hill in February 2015.

And in June 2015, a committee was willing to endorse a non-binding measure that said Congress really should, someday, do something to meet its constitutional obligations.

That’s it. That’s as far as lawmakers have been willing to go.

Indeed, much the committee didn’t even want to even go this far. When Barbara Lee urged members to support her proposal, the committee chairman held a voice vote and deemed it defeated. When Lee insisted on a roll call, it passed 29 to 22, overcoming Republican opposition. (All 22 “no” votes came from GOP members.)

In other words, nearly half the committee wasn’t even willing to go this far.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Congress. Makes you proud to be an American, doesn't it?

Health Update

| Thu Jun. 4, 2015 12:08 PM EDT

I've been sharing my health status with you guys all along, so I suppose I ought to continue even when the news isn't as positive as I'd like. Here goes.

As you recall, a few days ago I got the 3-week results of my M protein level, a marker for cancerous plasma cells. It had gone down to 0.38, which was an OK result, but not great. It really needs to be zero or close to it. Yesterday I got the 5-week results, and my M protein level has increased to 0.56.

This is obviously bad news. It means I didn't respond very well to the second round chemotherapy and the stem cell transplant. But there's no point in wigging out about it yet. I won't really know what it means until I get a biopsy and talk to my doctor later this month. At the very least, however, it means I'll definitely begin maintenance therapy, and probably sooner rather than later.

For now, that's all I know. In early July I should know more.

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Edward Snowden Didn't Expose the NSA's Bulk Phone Collection Program. Leslie Cauley Did.

| Thu Jun. 4, 2015 11:29 AM EDT

The LA Times complains today that President Obama left someone out when he praised Congress for reforming the Patriot Act to end the NSA's bulk collection of telephone records:

Unacknowledged by the president was the man who can fairly be called the ultimate author of this legislation: former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who has been charged with violating the Espionage Act and is now living in exile in Russia. Without Snowden's unauthorized disclosures two years ago, neither the public nor many members of Congress would have known that the government, acting under a strained interpretation of the Patriot Act, was vacuuming up and storing millions of Americans' telephone records. That program will end after a six-month transition period under the bill signed by Obama.

I don't want to minimize Snowden's contribution here. He exposed a vast amount of official secrecy and lying, and did it in a way that produced a lot of public attention. Whether you love him or hate him, he deserves a ton of credit for doing what he did.

But it's been a long-running pet peeve of mine that hardly anyone ever credits the person who was really the first to expose the NSA's bulk data collection program: Leslie Cauley of USA Today. Here she is in May 2006, seven years before Snowden's disclosures:

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY. The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime....The agency's goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders.

....For the customers of these companies, it means that the government has detailed records of calls they made — across town or across the country — to family members, co-workers, business contacts and others....With access to records of billions of domestic calls, the NSA has gained a secret window into the communications habits of millions of Americans.

.....Among the big telecommunications companies, only Qwest has refused to help the NSA, the sources said. According to multiple sources, Qwest declined to participate because it was uneasy about the legal implications of handing over customer information to the government without warrants.

The big difference between Cauley and Snowden isn't so much in what they revealed about the bulk collection program, but simply that the world yawned at Cauley and did nothing. It wasn't until Snowden revealed far more about the NSA's activities that the bulk collection program finally got the attention it deserved.

Snowden deserves credit for that—and, obviously, for providing lots of concrete evidence about the nature of the program. But when it comes to exposing the bulk collection program itself? Cauley told us all about it nearly a decade ago. She's the one who deserves credit for making it public in the first place.

Why Do So Many Obvious Losers Think They Can Be President?

| Wed Jun. 3, 2015 12:39 PM EDT

My body is continuing its revolt against all things good and true, so my mental acuity is scattered at best. But here's something I've wanted to get out of my brain and onto pixels for a while. It's based on nothing at all except my personal opinion. It's not based on polls, nor anything the candidates have said, nor any detailed analysis of which blocs of voters each one will appeal to. It's just my gut feeling. So here it is: my ranking of the 2016 Republican presidential field:

Vanity candidates: 0 percent chance of winning

  • Rand Paul
  • Ben Carson
  • Carly Fiorina
  • Mike Huckabee
  • Rick Santorum
  • George Pataki
  • Lindsey Graham
  • John Kasich

Not quite 0 percent, could maybe catch on if something really lucky happens

  • Bobby Jindal
  • Ted Cruz
  • Marco Rubio
  • Chris Christie
  • Rick Perry

Legitimate candidates with a real shot at the nomination

  • Jeb Bush
  • Scott Walker

Right off the bat, I know there are at least two people on my list who will generate some dissent: Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. But Rand Paul has no chance. Sorry. He has nearly Sarah Palin's instincts at working the press and getting his base excited, but his views are just flatly too far out of the tea party mainstream to win the Republican nomination. As for Rubio, I just don't see it. I know most people would put him down with Bush and Walker as having a legitimate shot, but.....really? The guy kinda reminds me of Pete Campbell on Mad Men. He's got some talent, but no one really likes him that much. And he's kind of an idiot, really. Still, he's young, good looking, and appeals to older tea party types. To me, that means he's an ideal running mate, but has no chance at the brass ring.

The thing that strikes me whenever I actually type up this list is how few legitimate contenders I find. But maybe I shouldn't be surprised. In 2012, I thought from the very start that Romney was the only legitimate contender, and there are twice as many in 2016. Maybe that's fairly normal, actually.

So here's my question. You might disagree with my ranking, but probably not by a whole lot. There just aren't very many candidates who have a serious chance at winning the nomination. So why are so many running? When guys like Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul ran, I understood why. They just wanted a chance to present their views to a national audience. But that can't be what's motivating everyone on this list. So what is it? What is it that's somehow convinced so many obvious losers that they actually have a shot at becoming the next president of the United States?

Don't Pay Attention to Obamacare Rate Increase Horror Stories

| Tue Jun. 2, 2015 2:24 PM EDT

I wrote about this once before, but it's worth repeating: don't pay too much attention to scare stories about gigantic increases in Obamacare premiums next year. Insurers that request increases of more than 10 percent are required to get clearance from state and federal regulators, which means that the only increase requests that are public right now are the ones over 10 percent. Jordan Weissmann explains what this means:

“Trying to gauge the average premium hike from just the biggest increases is like measuring the average height of the public by looking at N.B.A. players,” Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Foundation told the Times. Moreover, some states may ultimately end up rejecting the gaudiest requests if they're deemed unjustified.

How skewed is the federal database? Here's one telling illustration from ACAsignups.net founder Charles Gaba. In Washington State, 17 insurers submitted health plans for next year, requesting an average rate increase of 5.4 percent. Only three of those companies asked for a big enough hike to show up on the federal rate review site. Together, they requested bumps averaging 18 percent, more than three times larger than the actual statewide mean. That gap should make everyone think twice before drawing conclusions from yesterday's data dump.

This will be the first year in which insurance companies have a full year of experience with Obamacare to draw on. Does that mean it's possible that rates will go up a lot, now that they know what they're in for? Sure, it's possible. But so far there's really no evidence that the demographics of the Obamacare population are very different from what the companies expected. Nor are companies dropping out of Obamacare. In fact, in most states competition is increasing. All that suggests that Obamacare premiums will rise at a fairly normal rate next year. For the time being, then, don't pay too much attention to the Fox News horror stories. We've heard them all before.

Is Campaign Finance Reform Really the Key to Winning the White Working Class?

| Tue Jun. 2, 2015 11:10 AM EDT

Stan Greenberg says that white working-class voters aren't lost to the Democratic Party. In fact, most of them strongly support a progressive agenda in the mold of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. The problem is that they don't trust the system, and they want to see reform first, before they're willing to vote for Democratic candidates with expansive social welfare programs:

Three-quarters of voters in the twelve most competitive Senate battleground states in 2014—states flooded with campaign money—support a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling. Three in five of those voters support “a plan to overhaul campaign spending by getting rid of big donations and allowing only small donations to candidates, matched by taxpayer funds.”

....Yet most important for our purposes are the results for white unmarried women and working-class women. These groups both put a “streamline government” initiative ahead of everything except protecting Social Security and Medicare. They want to “streamline government and reduce waste and bureaucracy to make sure every dollar spent is a dollar spent serving people, not serving government.” They gave even greater importance than white working-class men to streamlining government. For these women, being on the edge means feeling more strongly that government should pinch pennies and start working for them.

....What really strengthens and empowers the progressive economic narrative, however, is a commitment to reform politics and government. That may seem ironic or contradictory, since the narrative calls for a period of government activism. But, of course, it does make sense: Why would you expect government to act on behalf of the ordinary citizen when it is clearly dominated by special interests? Why would you expect people who are financially on the edge, earning flat or falling wages and paying a fair amount of taxes and fees, not to be upset about tax money being wasted or channeled to individuals and corporations vastly more wealthy and powerful than themselves?

I'll admit to some skepticism here. Are working-class voters, white or otherwise, really pining away for campaign finance reform? The evidence of the past 40 years sure doesn't seem to suggest this is a big winner. Still, times have changed, and the influence of big money has become far more obvious and far more insidious than in the past. Maybe this really is a winner.

As for streamlining government, my only question is: where's the beef? That is, what kind of concrete plan are we talking about here? "Streamlining" seems a little too fuzzy to capture many votes.

In any case, read the whole thing if this is the sort of thing you enjoy arguing about. It's food for thought at the very least. As for me, I'm off to see my doctor. I'll be back sooner or later depending on how streamlined his office is.