Kevin Drum

Let's Blame Conservatives For All the Killings They're Responsible For

| Sun Dec. 21, 2014 11:41 AM EST

Via Atrios, here is America's-mayor-for-life Rudy Giuliani commenting on the killing of two New York City police officers yesterday by a deranged gunman:

“We’ve had four months of propaganda starting with the president that everybody should hate the police,” Giuliani said during an appearance on Fox News on Sunday. “The protests are being embraced, the protests are being encouraged. The protests, even the ones that don’t lead to violence, a lot of them lead to violence, all of them lead to a conclusion. The police are bad, the police are racist. That is completely wrong.”

....The former mayor also criticized President Barack Obama, Holder, and Al Sharpton for addressing the underlining racial tensions behind the failure to indict the white police officers who killed [Eric Garner on Staten Island] and Mike Brown in Ferguson. “They have created an atmosphere of severe, strong, anti-police hatred in certain communities. For that, they should be ashamed of themselves,” he said.

Fair enough. But I assume this means we can blame Bill O'Reilly for his 28 episodes of invective against "Tiller the Baby Killer" that eventually ended in the murder of Wichita abortion provider George Tiller by anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder. We can blame conservative talk radio for fueling the anti-government hysteria that led Timothy McVeigh to bomb a federal building in Oklahoma City. We can blame the relentless xenophobia of Fox News for the bombing of an Islamic Center in Joplin or the massacre of Sikh worshippers by a white supremacist in Wisconsin. We can blame the NRA for the mass shootings in Newtown and Aurora. We can blame Republicans for stoking the anti-IRS paranoia that prompted Andrew Joseph Stack to crash a private plane into an IRS building in Austin, killing two people. We can blame the Christian Right for the anti-gay paranoia that led the Westboro Baptist Church to picket the funeral of Matthew Snyder, a US Marine killed in Iraq, with signs that carried their signature "God Hates Fags" slogan. We can blame Sean Hannity for his repeated support of Cliven Bundy's "range war" against the BLM, which eventually motivated Jerad and Amanda Miller to kill five people in Las Vegas after participating in the Bundy standoff and declaring, "If they're going to come bring violence to us, well, if that's the language they want to speak, we'll learn it." And, of course, we can blame Rudy Giuliani and the entire conservative movement for their virtually unanimous indifference to the state-sanctioned police killings of black suspects over minor offenses in Ferguson and Staten Island, which apparently motivated the murder of the New York police officers on Saturday.

Or wait. Maybe we can't do any of those things. Maybe lots of people support lots of things, and we can't twist that generalized support into blame for maniacs who decide to take up arms for their own demented reasons. Maybe that's a better idea after all.

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Here's How the Sony Hack Is Like 9/11

| Sat Dec. 20, 2014 3:44 PM EST

I doubt that I'm the first to say this, but has anyone noticed a striking similarity between 9/11 and the Sony hack? Not in terms of scope or malevolence, of course, but in terms of—what's the best word here? Creativity? Bang for the buck?

Here's what I mean. The 9/11 attack wasn't especially sophisticated. In fact, it was famously crude and butt cheap. All it took was a few guys who learned rudimentary piloting skills and then carried some box cutters on board four airplanes1. The reason it worked is that it was brilliant. Nobody had ever considered that hijackers could take control of a plane without so much as a single cheap handgun, and even if they could, no one had really figured that they could do anything much worse than fly the plane somewhere and maybe engineer a hostage crisis. But al-Qaeda thought different. They understood that (a) box cutters would be good enough to hold pilots and passengers at bay for an hour or two, and (b) this was long enough to fly their airplanes into a pair of iconic skyscrapers, killing thousands in an extraordinarily gruesome way. They took a crude, simplistic weapon and figured out a way to cause damage that was both tangibly enormous and emotionally outsized.

The Sony hack is a far smaller thing, but it shows a lot of the same hallmarks. Despite what press reports say, it wasn't really all that sophisticated. It was, to be sure, a step up from box cutters, but it's not like North Korea tried to hack into a nuclear power plant or the Pentagon. They picked a soft target. In fact, based on press reports, it sounds like even in the vast sea of crappy IT security that we call America, Sony Pictures was unusually lax. Hacking into their network was something that probably dozens of groups around the world could have done if they had thought about it. And like al-Qaeda before them, North Korea thought about it. And they realized that a Sony Pictures hack, done right, could have an outsized emotional impact. Like 9/11, it was a brilliant example of using a relatively crude tool to produce a gigantic payoff.

So what happens next? The 9/11 attack was huge, but even for its size it provoked a mammoth overreaction that continues to this day. Will the Sony hack do the same? After the dozens of credit card hacks of the past couple of years corporations are finally getting the news that they need to secure their networks better, and the Sony hack might prompt even more companies to finally get serious about IT security. That would be good. On the other hand, it could also provoke an overreaction that ends up locking down corporate infrastructure so tightly that workplaces turn into digital gulags. That would be dumb.

So then. Better corporate IT security: good. Massive overreaction: bad. Let's get things right this time.

1It also required recruiting 19 guys willing to die for a cause. This is definitely uncommon. But it doesn't really change the basic nature of how al-Qaeda managed to pull off such a massive attack.

Personal Health Update

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 8:34 PM EST

I haven't had any fresh news on the health front lately, so I haven't brought it up on the blog. But I continue to get lots of queries and good wishes, and today I finally have something to report. I'm 8 weeks through my 16-week regimen of chemotherapy, and last week my doctor ordered up sort of a halftime report on how I'm doing. This is an extended set of lab tests, and today she called to tell me the results.

Apparently they came out great. Unfortunately, I don't actually remember the names of the protein markers and other things we were looking for, so I have to be a little vague here. Immunoglobulins? Lympho-somethings? In any case, the levels were way, way down, and that's what we were hoping for. This means the chemo is working well so far and the myeloma is hopefully on the run.

That's my good news for the day. What's yours?

Friday Cat Blogging - 19 December 2014

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 2:55 PM EST

I have to run, but before I do here's what passes for an action shot of the dynamic duo. It's about the best I can do these days. As you might guess, they're entranced with something we're waving around just outside the frame. Maybe a pencil? I'm not sure. But with cats, the cheapest cat toys are always the best.

(Seriously. Hopper's favorite, by far, is an empty toilet paper tube. She just goes nuts over them.)

More Good News For Obamacare: Employer Health Coverage Hasn't Crashed

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 1:50 PM EST

The share of the population with employer health insurance has been slowly eroding for years. The chart on the right tells the story: total coverage rates have dropped from 70 percent to 62 percent since 2001. The trend is pretty clear: the number of workers covered by employer insurance has been dropping about half a percentage point per year for more than a decade.

So has Obamacare accelerated this trend? There have long been fears that it might: once the exchanges were up and running, employers might decide that it was cheaper to ditch their own insurance and just pay their workers extra to buy coverage on the open market. But a new study released by Health Affairs says that hasn't happened:

We found essentially no change in offer rates throughout the study period. Overall, the rates stayed steady, at around 82 percent. Offer rates in small firms also held steady, at around 61 percent....We found no change in take-up rates overall, or by income or firm size, between June 2013 and September 2014.

....As with offer and take-up rates of employer-sponsored insurance, there were no significant differences in coverage rates for the insurance overall or for any subgroup. The rates stayed roughly constant at about 71 percent across all workers, about 50 percent among workers in small firms, and about 82 percent among workers in large firms. The rates also remained constant among low- and high-income workers in either small or large firms.

Note that the percentages themselves differ between the Kaiser numbers and the study numbers thanks to differences in methodology. And there are, of course, plenty of reasons we might see only small changes in employer coverage. The economy has improved. Inertia might be keeping things in check for a while. Perhaps as Obamacare becomes settled law and its benefits become more widely known, more employers will drop their own coverage.

Those are all possibilities. For now, though, it looks as though fears of employers dumping health coverage were unfounded. It's yet more good news for Obamacare.

Are Republicans Really Ready to Embrace Net Neutrality?

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 12:32 PM EST

Well, this is unexpected. Democrats are generally in favor of net neutrality, the principle that all websites should be treated equally by internet service providers. Companies can't pay extra for faster service and ISPs can't slow down or block sites they don't like. Naturally, since Democrats are in favor of this, Republicans are opposed. But maybe not all that opposed:

Republicans in Congress appear likely to introduce legislation next month aimed at preventing Internet providers from speeding up some Web sites over others....Industry officials said they are discussing details of the proposal with several Republican lawmakers, whom they declined to name. The officials also said the proposal is being backed by several large telecommunications companies, which they also declined to name.

One important piece of the proposed legislation would establish a new way for the FCC to regulate broadband providers by creating a separate provision of the Communications Act known as "Title X," the people said. Title X would enshrine elements of the tough net neutrality principles called for by President Obama last month. For example, it would give FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler the authority to prevent broadband companies from blocking or slowing traffic to Web sites, or charging content companies such as Netflix for faster access to their subscribers — a tactic known as "paid prioritization."

...."Consensus on this issue is really not that far apart," said an industry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were ongoing. "There's common understanding that rules are needed to protect consumers."

Huh. I wonder if this is for real? The reported price for supporting this legislation is relatively small: the FCC would be prohibited from regulating the internet as a common carrier under Title II, something that even net neutrality supporters agree is problematic. The problem is that although Title II would indeed enshrine net neutrality, it comes with a ton of baggage that was designed for telephone networks and doesn't really translate well to the internet. This would require a lot of "regulatory forbearance" from the FCC, which is almost certain to end up being pretty messy. A new net-centric Title X, if it truly implements net neutrality, would be a much better solution. It would also be immune to court challenges.

One possibility for such a law would be a modified version of net neutrality. My sense has always been that the real goal of net neutrality supporters is to make sure that internet providers don't provide fast lanes for companies willing to pay more, and don't slow down or block companies they dislike (perhaps because the companies provide services they compete with). At the same time, everyone acknowledges that video requires a lot of bandwidth, and internet providers legitimately need incentives to build out their networks to handle the growing data demands of video. So why not have content-neutral rules that set tariffs based on the type of service provided? Video providers might have to pay more than, say, Joe's Cafe, but all video providers would pay the same rate based on how much traffic they dump on the net. That rate would be subject to regulatory approval to prevent abuse.

I dunno. Maybe that's too complicated. Maybe it's too hard to figure out traffic levels in a consistent way, and too hard to figure out how much video makes you a video provider. Maybe rules like this are too easy to game. In the end, it could be that the best bet is to simply agree on strong net neutrality, and then let ISPs charge their customers for bandwidth. If you watch a ton of Netflix, you're going to pay more. If you just check email once a day, you'll get a cheap plan.

In any case, it's interesting that President Obama's announcement of support for strong net neutrality has really had an effect. It apparently motivated the FCC to get more serious about Title II regulation, and this in turn has motivated the industry to concede the net neutrality fight as long as they can win congressional approval of a more reasonable set of rules. The devil is in the details, of course, and I have no doubt that industry lobbyists will do their best to craft rules favorable to themselves. Luckily, there's a limit to how far they can go since it will almost certainly require Democratic support to pass a bill.

Anyway, this is all just rumors and reports of rumors at this point. Stay tuned to see if it actually pans out.

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We Should Respond to North Korea. But What If We Can't?

| Fri Dec. 19, 2014 11:01 AM EST

Over at the all-new New Republic, Yishai Schwartz sounds the usual old-school New Republic war drums toward North Korea. "The only way to prevent future attacks," he says, "is for foreign governments to know that attacks against U.S. targets—cyber or kinetic—will bring fierce, yet proportionally appropriate, responses." And time is already running out. We should be doing this now now now.

Right. So what's the deal, Obama? Why all the dithering in the face of this attack? Are you just—oh wait. Maybe there's more to this. Here's the Wall Street Journal:

Responding presents its own set of challenges, with options that people familiar with the discussions say are either implausible or ineffective. North Korea's only connections to the Internet run through China, and some former officials say the U.S. should urge Beijing to get its neighbor to cut it out…But the U.S. already is in a standoff with China over accusations of bilateral hacking, making any aid in this crisis unlikely, the intelligence official said.

Engaging in a counter-hack could also backfire, U.S. cyberpolicy experts said, in part because the U.S. is able to spy on North Korea by maintaining a foothold on some of its computer systems. A retaliatory cyberstrike could wind up damaging Washington's ability to spy on Pyongyang, a former intelligence official said. Another former U.S. official said policy makers remain squeamish about deploying cyberweapons against foreign targets.

…North Korea is already an isolated nation, so there isn't much more economic pressure the U.S. can bring to bear on them either, these people said. Even publicly naming them as the suspected culprit presents diplomatic challenges, potentially causing problems for Japan, where Sony is based.

I'd like to do something to stomp on North Korea too. Hell, 20 million North Koreans would be better off if we just invaded the damn place and put them all under NATO military rule. It's one of the few places on Earth you can say that about. However, I'm sensible enough to realize that things aren't that easy, and there's not much point in demanding "action" just because the situation is so hellish and frustrating.

Ditto in this case. A US response would certainly be appropriate. And honestly, it's not as if there's really anyone taking the other side of that argument. But given the nature of the DPRK, a meaningful response would also be really hard. America just doesn't have a whole lot of leverage against a place like that. What's more, if we do respond, it's at least even odds that it will be done in some way that will never be made public.

So let's cool our jets. Armchair posturing might make us feel better, but this isn't a partisan chew toy, and it's not a matter of the current administration being insufficiently hawkish. It's a matter of figuring out if there's even a way to respond effectively. Like it or not, it might turn out that there isn't.

One Little Survey Question Explains All of Politics

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 10:59 PM EST

Jonathan Bernstein points to a new Kaiser survey that examines opposition to the individual mandate in Obamacare. Here's what they found:

It remains among the least popular aspects of the law — with just a 35 percent approval rating. But when people are told that the mandate doesn’t affect most Americans because they already have coverage through an employer, support jumps to 62 percent.

It only takes a modest bit of reading between the lines to figure out what's really going on here: when people find out that the mandate doesn't apply to them personally, lots of them are suddenly OK with it. In case politics has always mystified you, that's it in a nutshell. Now you know.

Mystery Chart of the Day: What's Up With All the Skinny Economists?

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 5:22 PM EST

The chart on the right is excerpted from the Wall Street Journal. It shows which occupations have the lowest obesity rates, and most of it makes sense. There are folks who do a lot of physical labor (janitors, maids, cooks, etc.). There are health professionals who are probably hyper-aware of the risks of obesity. There are athletes and actors who have to stay in shape as part of their jobs.

And then, at the very bottom, there are economists, scientists, and psychologists. What's up with that? Why would these folks be unusually slender? I can't even come up with a plausible hypothesis, aside from the possibility that these professions attract rabid obsessives who are so devoted to their jobs that they don't care about food. Aside from that, I got nothing. Put your best guess in comments.

Rick Perry Is One Lucky Dude

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 2:00 PM EST

From James Pethokoukis:

The energy sector gives, and the energy sector takes. The stunning drop in oil prices looks like bad news for the “Texas Miracle.” (Texas is responsible for 40% of all US oil production — vs. 25% five years ago — and all of the net US job growth since 2007.) This from JPMorgan economist Michael Feroli: “As we weigh the evidence, we think Texas will, at the least, have a rough 2015 ahead, and is at risk of slipping into a regional recession.”

Man, Rick Perry is one lucky guy, isn't he? It's true that the "Texas Miracle" may not be quite the miracle Perry would like us to believe. As the chart below shows in a nutshell, the Texas unemployment rate has fared only slightly better than the average of all its surrounding states.

Still, Texas has certainly had strong absolute job growth. However, this is mostly due to (a) population growth; (b) the shale oil boom; and (c) surprisingly strict mortgage loan regulations combined with loose land use rules, which allowed Texas to escape the worst of the housing bubble. Perry didn't actually have much to do with any of this, but he gets to brag about it anyway. And now that oil is collapsing and might bring the miracle to a sudden end, Perry is leaving office and can avoid all blame for what happens next.

One lucky guy indeed.