Kevin Drum

Friday Cat Blogging - 4 July 2014

| Fri Jul. 4, 2014 12:13 PM EDT

I think it's time to stop pretending there's going to be anything to blog about this morning, and just get straight to catblogging. I was hoping for something patriotically themed, but that was a no-go. Domino is just not a dress-up kind of cat. So then I thought I'd get her to lounge in front of all the various goodies for tonight's picnic. She wasn't having any of that either. The best I could do was this tableau, which lasted about a second or two before Domino scampered away as if the Peeps were going to leap up and attack her. It's just hard to get her in the proper spirit.

For the rest of you, though, have a lovely 238th birthday party.

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The Surly Bonds of Earth

| Fri Jul. 4, 2014 9:44 AM EDT

This is hardly the biggest problem American Apparel has right now, but:

American Apparel issued a public apology Thursday after the company posted a stylized picture to its Tumblr page of the space shuttle Challenger disaster thinking it was fireworks.

The company was immediately hammered with negative feedback.

In its apology, the company said it was an honest mistake by the social media manager, who was born after the 1986 explosion that killed all seven crew members, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

In related news, I would like to apologize on behalf of my entire generation for using that picture of a dirigible on fire earlier this week. I thought it was a still from the latest Transformers movie.

Supreme Court Now Playing Cute PR Games With Hobby Lobby Decision

| Thu Jul. 3, 2014 7:23 PM EDT

In Monday's Hobby Lobby ruling, Justice Samuel Alito struck down a government requirement that employer-provided health insurance cover access to contraceptives. Among other things, Alito wrote that any requirement must be the "least restrictive" means for the government to achieve its goals, and the health insurance mandate clearly wasn't:

HHS itself has demonstrated that it has at its disposal an approach that is less restrictive than requiring employers to fund contraceptive methods that violate their religious beliefs. As we explained above, HHS has already established an accommodation for nonprofit organizations with religious objections. Under that accommodation, the organization can self-certify that it opposes providing coverage for particular contraceptive services. If the organization makes such a certification, the organization’s insurance issuer or third-party administrator must “[e]xpressly exclude contraceptive coverage from the group health insurance coverage provided in connection with the group health plan” and “[p]rovide separate payments for any contraceptive services required to be covered” without imposing “any cost-sharing requirements . . . on the eligible organization, the group health plan, or plan participants or beneficiaries.”

The obvious implication here is that the court approves of this compromise rule. That is, requiring self-certification is a reasonable means of accomplishing the government's goal without requiring organizations to directly fund access to contraceptives. Today, however, the court pulled the rug out from under anyone who actually took them at their word:

In Thursday’s order, the court granted Wheaton College, an evangelical Protestant liberal arts school west of Chicago, a temporary injunction allowing it to continue to not comply with the compromise rule....College officials refused even to sign a government form noting their religious objection, saying that to do so would allow the school’s insurance carrier to provide the coverage on its own.

....The unsigned order prompted a sharply worded dissent from the court’s three female members, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.

“I disagree strongly with what the court has done,” Sotomayor wrote in a 16-page dissent. Noting that the court had praised the administration’s position on Monday but was allowing Wheaton to flout it on Thursday, she wrote, “those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word. Not so today.”

For the last few days, there's been a broad argument about whether the Hobby Lobby ruling was a narrow one—as Alito himself insisted it was—or was merely an opening volley that opened the door to much broader rulings in the future. After Tuesday's follow-up order—which expanded the original ruling to cover all contraceptives, not just those the plaintiffs considered abortifacients—and today's order—which rejected a compromise that the original ruling praised—it sure seems like this argument has been settled. This is just the opening volley. We can expect much more aggressive follow-ups from this court in the future.

POSTSCRIPT: It's worth noting that quite aside from whether you agree with the Hobby Lobby decision, this is shameful behavior from the conservatives on the court. As near as I can tell, they're now playing PR games worthy of a seasoned politico, deliberately releasing a seemingly narrow opinion in order to generate a certain kind of coverage, and then following it up later in the sure knowledge that its "revisions" won't get nearly as much attention.

Europe's Memory Hole Gets Ever Wider and Deeper

| Thu Jul. 3, 2014 2:06 PM EDT

Yesterday I passed along the news that a BBC article about Stan O'Neal, the former head of Merrill Lynch, had been removed from Google searches in Europe. Today the Guardian reports on several of its recent pieces that have been scrubbed from Google searches:

Three of the articles, dating from 2010, relate to a now-retired Scottish Premier League referee, Dougie McDonald, who was found to have lied about his reasons for granting a penalty in a Celtic v Dundee United match, the backlash to which prompted his resignation.

....The other disappeared articles — the Guardian isn't given any reason for the deletions — are a 2011 piece on French office workers making post-it art, a 2002 piece about a solicitor facing a fraud trial standing for a seat on the Law Society's ruling body and an index of an entire week of pieces by Guardian media commentator Roy Greenslade.

The Guardian has no form of appeal against parts of its journalism being made all but impossible for most of Europe's 368 million to find.

It's a little hard to see how articles that are a mere three or four years old can be deemed "irrelevant," but in Europe, I guess that if you declare something about yourself to be irrelevant, then it is. Congratulations, EU Court of Justice!

UPDATE 1: Interestingly, it turns out that yesterday's removal of the BBC story wasn't initiated by Stan O'Neal. Apparently it was initiated by someone who left a comment on the original story. I'm actually not sure if this is better or worse.

UPDATE 2: Over at the Monkey Cage, Henry Farrell argues that it's not really the ECJ that's censoring content, it's Google. But even with the caveats he includes, I think Farrell is being far too kind to the ECJ, which issued an unforgivably fuzzy decision that basically puts Google in the impossible position of being forced to act as a privacy regulator with neither the tools nor the guidance it needs to do the job properly. However, he agrees with a suggestion I made yesterday that Google might be reading the ECJ's directive over-broadly in a deliberate attempt to get everyone in a tizzy over it:

Google may have incentives to accede to [the takedown] request without complaint — and to publicize that it is so doing — because it knows that this is likely to send journalists into a frenzy. Even if the ECJ can press Google into service as an unpaid regulator, it can’t force Google to regulate in the exact ways that it would like Google to. And Google, like the Good Soldier Svejk in Jan Hasek’s novel, can perhaps interpret the court’s mandate in ways that formally stick to the rules, but in practice actually undermine it. There are, of course, other possible explanations for Google’s actions — it may be that there are excellent private reasons why Google is acceding to this request. But for sure, the controversy surrounding the request helps Google to push back (as it wants to push back) against strong interpretations of European privacy standards.

Maybe so.

Liberal Comedy, Conservative Outrage. But Why?

| Thu Jul. 3, 2014 11:17 AM EDT

Conservative publisher Adam Bellow thinks conservatives need to produce more popular art: beach fiction, TV shows, comedy routines, etc. Paul Waldman thinks he's got an uphill battle:

As I've noted before, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report work as well as they do because they're not shows written and performed by professional liberals who happen to be comedians, attempting to use humor to score political points; rather, they're shows written and performed by professional comedians who happen to be liberals, using politics to produce comedy. It's a really important distinction.

The same distinction applies to other mediums. If you set out to write an explicitly conservative novel, it's likely to suck. If you set out to write a novel, and it has a conservative worldview because you happen to be a conservative, it will probably do a lot better. Unfortunately for conservatives, if you take this approach you're likely to end up writing little more than an establishment-friendly novel, not an overtly pointed takedown of liberalism.

That said, conservatives could produce perfectly good books and TV shows if they took Waldman's advice. But comedy is a special problem. Conservative comedy just doesn't seem to work very well, and I'd guess there are two big reasons why:

The material: Liberals are, generally speaking, opposed to the establishment. Poking fun at the establishment is easy to do, so liberals have lots of ready-made material. Conversely, poking fun at the little guys just seems mean. It's not impossible to get good comedy out of, say, the more ridiculous aspects of the Occupy Wall Street folks at Zuccotti Park, but it's a lot harder and the material is a lot thinner.

The audience: I've never quite understood this, but liberals just seem to like political comedy more than conservatives. Conservatives simply don't consider this stuff a laughing matter. Especially recently, they're convinced, deep in their marrow, that liberals are literally out to destroy America, and how do you find the yuks in that? By contrast, mocking conservatives is a popular liberal pastime. Is this because liberals accept conservatives as an inevitable part of the scenery, to be fought but not really hated? That doesn't seem quite right. Still, it's true that the establishment, by definition, is always with us, and always working in its usual way to preserve itself. You might think it's a malign force, but you don't think of it as something new that's suddenly emerged to wreck the country.

I dunno. I'm just guessing here. Age probably has something to do with this too. In any case, conservatives are great at outrage, while liberals who try to emulate them almost always fail. Liberals are great at comedy, and conservatives who try to emulate that fail as well. In the middle ground of books and movies, I imagine both sides could do well, but since most artists are liberals, there's just more to choose from along the liberal spectrum.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in June

| Thu Jul. 3, 2014 10:15 AM EDT

The American economy added 288,000 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 198,000. The headline unemployment rate dropped to 6.1 percent.

As with last month, there are no serious gotchas in this month's report. The labor participation rate was stable once again, and the unemployment rate fell for the right reason: because more people were getting jobs, not because people were dropping out of the labor force. We've now have five consecutive months of good—but not great—jobs reports, and June's report is an encouraging sign that the Q1 dip in GDP really was an anomaly, not a sign of things to come.

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There's a Pitched Battle Being Fought Over the Phrase "Added Sugars"

| Wed Jul. 2, 2014 7:09 PM EDT

What do the following organizations have in common?

  • American Bakers Association
  • American Beverage Association
  • American Frozen Foods Institute
  • Corn Refiners Association
  • National Confectioners Association
  • American Frozen Food Institute
  • Sugar Association
  • International Dairy Foods Association

Answer: they are all furiously opposed to an FDA proposal that would add a line to the standard nutrition facts label for "Added Sugars." Big surprise, eh? Roberto Ferdman explains here why it's probably a good idea anyway.

The EU's "Right to be Forgotten" Starts to Take Concrete Shape

| Wed Jul. 2, 2014 3:06 PM EDT

A few days ago, Google announced that it was beavering away on the 41,000 requests it had gotten from people demanding that it remove links to unflattering articles about themselves. So just what kind of people are making these requests? Brad DeLong directs me to the BBC's Robert Peston, who gives us a clue:

This morning the BBC received the following notification from Google:

Notice of removal from Google Search: we regret to inform you that we are no longer able to show the following pages from your website in response to certain searches on European versions of Google:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/legacy/thereporters/robertpeston/2007/10/merrills_mess.html

What it means is that a blog I wrote in 2007 will no longer be findable when searching on Google in Europe....Now in my blog, only one individual is named. He is Stan O'Neal, the former boss of the investment bank Merrill Lynch.

My column describes how O'Neal was forced out of Merrill after the investment bank suffered colossal losses on reckless investments it had made.

Is the data in it "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant"?

Hmmm.

I wonder if there's a way to make this backfire? How hard would it be to create an automated process that figures out which articles Google is being forced to stuff down the memory hole? Probably not too hard, I imagine. And how hard would it then be to repost those articles in enough different places that they all zoomed back toward the top of Google's search algorithm? Again, probably not too hard for a group of people motivated to do some mischief.

Maybe someone is already working on this. It wouldn't surprise me. And I wonder if Google's surprisingly quick response to the EU decision isn't designed to spur exactly this kind of backlash. That wouldn't really surprise me either.

Does America Finally Have World Cup Fever?

| Wed Jul. 2, 2014 2:22 PM EDT

I've been reading a lot of articles about how this year's World Cup is a lot more popular in America than any previous World Cup. I've also read several backlash pieces debunking the idea that we're all about to go soccer mad. I'm not sure which to believe.

But there really does seem to be something different this year. I've personally watched all or most of the World Cup games so far, and I'm pretty sure that in past years I've hardly watched any. Why? Beats me. I'm not really any more interested in soccer than I've ever been.

Or am I? As kind of a joke, I started rooting for Manchester United back in 2008 because they were sponsored by AIG. After the US government basically took over AIG, I figured that meant Man U was America's team. But joke though it may have been, over the last few years I have indeed found myself checking the Premier League standings periodically and even watching the odd match when it appears on American TV. Perhaps that's primed me to look forward to the World Cup.

Or maybe it's just time zones. This is the first World Cup since 1994 that Americans could watch live at a reasonable hour. And we all know that being able to watch live is critical to sports viewership.1 So maybe that's all it is.

How about you? Have you been watching more World Cup than usual this year? Why? Is it because you care more about soccer than you used to? Or something else?

1Except for the Olympics, for some reason.

Obama Wasn't a Silver Bullet, and Neither Is Hillary Clinton

| Wed Jul. 2, 2014 12:13 PM EDT

Noam Scheiber has a piece in the current issue of the New Republic about Hillary Clinton's imminent takeover of the Democratic Party, and today Ezra Klein interviewed him about it. Klein was especially interested in the argument that Obama's 2008 supporters were so disillusioned by Obama's failure to change Washington that they're now eager to support an old-school politico like Hillary. Here's Scheiber:

Back in 2008, Hillary Clinton made this kind of snide, but in retrospect apt, critique of Obama where she said that Obama thinks he'll get to Washington and the heavens will part and the Republicans will cooperate, but that just won't happen. So I asked some of these Obama supporters if she was right. And a lot of these people remembered those comments and being annoyed by them. But they all said she was actually a bit right. We were a bit naive then, they said. People used the word naive a lot in these conversations.

I'm not sure I've ever fully fessed up to this, so this is as good a time as any. For years, I really didn't believe the conservative snark about how Obama supporters all thought he would descend on Washington like a god-king and miraculously turn us into a post-racial, post-partisan, post-political country. Kumbaya! The reason I didn't believe it was that it never struck me as even remotely plausible. Did Obama give soaring speeches? Sure, he's a politician. Did he promise to change the way Washington works? Sure, he's a politician. Did he promise to pass historic legislation in dozens of different areas? Sure, he's a politician.

It just never occurred to me that anyone took this stuff seriously. It's a presidential campaign! Of course he's promising a chicken in every pot. That's what presidential candidates do. I believed then, and still believe now, that Obama is basically a mainstream Democrat who's cautious, pragmatic, technocratic, and incremental. In fact, that seemed so obvious to me that I never really credited the idea that anyone could seriously see him any differently.

Well, I guess that was naive on my part. By now, the evidence is clear that millions of Obama voters really believed all that boilerplate rhetoric. Naturally, then, they're bitterly disappointed at the real-world Obama. Well, I'm disappointed in some ways too—mostly in the areas of foreign policy and national security—but I continue to think he's a pretty good president because my expectations were tempered to begin with.

Nor do I think Hillary would have done any better. Probably worse, I'd say. After all, once he was in office, it's not as if Obama acted like he believed his campaign-trail rhetoric. He hired a bunch of pretty ordinary staffers and got to work passing pretty ordinary legislation. Is the theory here that Hillary would have figured out some magical points of leverage that Obama didn't? That she would have done better because Republicans like her more than Obama? Please.

I have pretty mixed feelings about a Hillary Clinton candidacy. On the one hand, I've long admired her obviously sincere dedication to public service in the face of abuse that would destroy a weaker person. On the other hand, another Clinton? This is no fault of hers, but I'm not sure I'm any more excited about that than I am about the prospect of another Bush. Maybe it's time to move on.

Either way, though, I sure hope all those folks who are disappointed by Obama don't think that Hillary is some sort of silver bullet either. If she runs and wins, she'll be dealing with exactly the same kind of Republican obstructionism as Obama—and she'll have just as much trouble getting anything done.

If disappointed Dems really want to change things, they have only one option: figure out a way to take back Congress in 2016. That's it. Until and unless that happens, George Washington himself wouldn't be any more effective than Obama has been.