Kevin Drum

Economic Growth Starting to Show Real Signs of Life

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 10:48 AM EST

The latest numbers from the Commerce Department show that GDP increased faster than we thought in the third quarter of 2014. Growth clocked in at 3.9 percent, an increase from the original estimate of 3.5 percent. "The economy expanded at its fastest pace in more than a decade," says the Wall Street Journal. "The combined growth rate in the second and third quarters was 4.25%, the best six-month reading since 2003."

This is true, but a bit misleading since both quarters were making up for a dismal first quarter in which GDP fell by 2.1 percent. Still, even if you look at things in a more defensible way, economic growth is unquestionably picking up. The chart on the right uses a 5-quarter moving average to smooth out individual quarters that might be unusually high or low, and the trajectory of the economy is clearly on the rise. You still can't really say that things are booming, and it continues to be true that the labor market is loose and wages are pretty stagnant. Nonetheless, since 2011 growth has increased from about 1.8 percent annually to about 2.8 percent annually. Things are picking up.

If Europe can ever manage to get its act together, we might finally start really digging ourselves out of the Great Recession. I'm not sure I see any signs of that happening soon, though.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

More Patents Does Not Equal More Innovation

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 11:18 PM EST

Via James Pethokoukis, here's a chart from a new CBO report on federal policies and innovation. Needless to say, you can't read too much into it. It shows the growth since 1963 of total factor productivity (roughly speaking, the share of productivity growth due to technology improvements), and there are lots of possible reasons that TFP hasn't changed much over the past five decades. At a minimum, though, the fact that patent activity has skyrocketed since 1983 with no associated growth in TFP suggests, as the CBO report says dryly, "that the large increase in patenting activity since 1983 may have made little contribution to innovation."

The CBO report identifies several possible innovation-killing aspects of the US patent system, among them a "proliferation of low-quality patents"; increased patent litigation; and the growth of patent trolls who impose a substantial burden on startup firms. The report also challenges the value of software patents:

The contribution of patents to innovation in software or business methods is often questioned because the costs of developing such new products and processes may be modest. One possible change to patent law that could reduce the cost and frequency of litigation would be to limit patent protections for inventions that were relatively inexpensive to develop. For example, patents on software and business methods could expire sooner than is the case today (which, with renewals, is after 20 years), reducing the incentive to obtain those patents. Another change that could address patent quality, the processing burden on the USPTO, and the cost and frequency of litigation would be to limit the ability to obtain a patent on certain inventions.

Personally, I'd be in favor of limiting software and business method patents to a term of zero years. But if that's not feasible, even a reduction to, say, five years or so, would be helpful. In the software industry, that's an eternity.

Are Term Limits a Good Idea?

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 1:44 PM EST

Jim Newton, a longtime local politics reporter in Los Angeles, wrote his final column for the LA Times today. In it, he offered up "a handful of changes that might make a big difference," and the one that resonates with me is his suggestion that both LA and California do away with term limits:

Elected officials who were popular with their constituents once held their seats for decades, building up experience and knowledge; now, with term limits in place, they're barely seated before they start searching for the next office. That's brought new faces but at great cost. Power has shifted from those we elect to those we don't, to the permanent bureaucracy and to lobbyists. Problems get kicked down the road in favor of attention-grabbing short-term initiatives that may have long-term consequences.

Case in point: Why do so many public employees enjoy budget-breaking pensions? Because term-limited officials realize it is easier to promise a future benefit than to give raises now. The reckoning comes later; by then they're gone.

Term limits locally were the work of Richard Riordan, who bankrolled the initiative and later became mayor. I asked him recently about them, and he startled me with his response: It was, he said, “the worst mistake of my life.”

Term limits always sound good. The problem with the idea is that being a council member or a legislator is like any other job: you get better with experience. If your legislature is populated solely by people with, at most, a term or two of experience, it's inevitable that (a) they'll have an almost pathologically short-term focus, and (b) more and more power will flow to lobbyists and bureaucrats who stay around forever and understand the levers of power better.

For what it's worth, I'd recommend a middle ground. I understand the problem people have with politicians who win office and essentially occupy sinecures for the rest of their lives. It's often a recipe for becoming insulated and out of touch with the real-world needs of constituents. But short term limits don't solve the problem of unaccountable power, they simply shift the power to other places. The answer, I think, is moderate term limits. Something between, say, ten and twenty years. That's long enough to build up genuine expertise and a genuine power base, while still preventing an office from becoming a lifetime of guaranteed employment.

Obama's Immigration Order: Lots of Sound and Fury, But Not Much Precedent

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 12:28 PM EST

In the New Republic this weekend, Eric Posner warns that President Obama's recent executive action on immigration may come back to haunt liberals. Obama's order was perfectly legal, he says, but "it may modify political norms that control what the president can do." And since most of the regulatory apparatus of the government is fundamentally liberal in nature, a political norm that allows presidents to suspend enforcement of rules they don't like benefits conservatives a lot more than it does liberals.

This is not something to be taken lightly, and Posner makes his point pretty reasonably—unlike a lot of conservatives who have been busily writing gleeful, half-witted columns about suspending the estate tax or dismantling the EPA. Political norms matter, as Republicans know very well, since they've smashed so many of them in recent years. Still, there are a couple of reasons that there's probably less here than meets the eye, and Posner acknowledges them himself.

First, although the core of Obama's authority to modify immigration law lies in his inherent power to practice prosecutorial discretion—which is rooted in the Constitution—the specific actions he took are justified by statutory language and congressional budgeting priorities that are unique to immigration law. As conservative lawyer Margaret Stock reminds us, "The Immigration and Nationality Act and other laws are chock-full of huge grants of statutory authority to the president." And Posner himself agrees. "The president’s authority over this arena is even greater than his authority over other areas of the law." He reiterates this in his TNR piece, explaining that immigration law "falls uniquely under executive authority, as a matter of history and tradition."

So Obama's actions may be unusually broad, but that's largely because immigration law is written to give the president considerable latitude. That's much less the case for things like the tax code or the Clean Air Act. So even though it's true, as Posner says, that most regulatory statutes "contain pockets of vagueness," there's less precedent here than it seems, and less breaking of political norms than Posner imagines.

But there's a second reason that Obama isn't seriously breaking any political norms: they were already broken years ago. Posner himself tells the story:

In 1981, Ronald Reagan entered the presidency vowing to deregulate the economy. But because the House was controlled by Democrats, Reagan could not persuade Congress to repeal as many regulatory statutes as he wanted to.

So Reagan sought to undermine the regulatory system itself. He forced agencies to show proposed regulations to the Office of Management and Budget, a White House agency, and empowered the OMB to block or delay regulations that did not satisfy a cost-benefit test. Although OMB was told to obey the law, liberals howled that the effect of the cost-benefit test was to undercut regulation since no such test existed in the statutes under which agencies issued regulations. And when the Reagan administration could not change or repeal the rules, it cut back on enforcement. The Justice Department famously reduced enforcement of the antitrust and civil rights laws. More howls ensued.

But the Reagan administration exhausted itself fighting against political distrust of an imperial executive and overreached by trying to deregulate in areas—like the environment—that people cared about. Republican successors—the two Bushes—did not pursue deregulation through non-enforcement with such zeal. Obama’s deferral actions, by further normalizing non-enforcement, may reinvigorate the Reagan-era push for deregulation through the executive branch.

It's become traditional that when a new president takes office he immediately suspends any of his predecessor's executive actions that have been recently implemented. At the same time, his own team begins beavering away on regulatory changes that are part of his campaign agenda. At a different level, orders are written that make it either easier or harder for agencies to implement new rules and enforce old ones. And while Reagan may not have gotten all the deregulation he wanted, the OMB has become a permanent part of the regulatory landscape, which is yet another avenue for presidents to affect the enforcement of rules. It may not get a lot of attention, but when you fiddle with the cost-benefit parameters that OMB uses, the ripple effect can be surprisingly extensive.

In other words, agency regulations and executive orders are already major battlegrounds of public policy that are aggressively managed by the White House, regardless of which party is in power. Has Obama expanded this battleground? Perhaps. But I don't think the change is nearly as great as some people are making it out to be. Immigration law is fairly unique in its grant of power to the executive, so we don't really have to worry about President Rand Paul rewriting the tax code from the Oval Office. We do need to worry about all the other executive actions he might take, but for the most part, I don't think that's changed much. The kinds of things he can do are about the same now as they were a week ago.

Finland Starting to Think Hard About Joining NATO

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 11:05 AM EST

Behold the results of Vladimir Putin's brilliant strategy of scaring the hell out of every single country within bomber range of Russia:

As Russian-backed separatists have eviscerated another non-NATO neighbor this year — Ukraine — Finnish leaders have watched with growing alarm. They are increasingly questioning whether the nonaligned path they navigated through the Cold War can keep them safe as Europe heads toward another period of dangerous standoffs between West and East.

....The palpable anxiety in this country that many in the West consider a model of progressive and stable democratic governance reflects how unsettled Europe has become since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March. Many in Helsinki are convinced that Russia will not remain deterred for long and say Finland needs to fundamentally rethink elements of its security policy that have been bedrock principles for decades.

....“It’s going in a terrifying direction,” said Elisabeth Rehn, a former Finnish defense minister who favors NATO membership. “It’s only been 100 years since we gained our independence from Russia. Crimea was a part of Russia, too. Will they try to take back what belonged to them 100 years ago?”

Rehn said she doubts Russia would go that far but said the fear of Russian military aggression is real.

Will Finland join NATO? Probably not anytime soon. But just think about what Putin has accomplished here. Finland stayed out of NATO for the entire four decades of the Cold War, but is now so unnerved by Russia's actions that it's seriously thinking about joining up. If Putin is truly afraid of Russia being fully surrounded by the West, his worst fears are about to come true thanks to his own actions. No one wants to be the next eastern Ukraine, and right now NATO membership is probably looking mighty appealing to a lot of people who were OK with the status quo a few years ago.

Putin's bellicose nationalism may play well at home, but it sure isn't doing him any favors anywhere else.

One Man Should Not Dictate Immigration Policy

| Sun Nov. 23, 2014 3:31 PM EST

You know, the more I mull over the Republican complaint about how immigration reform is being implemented, the more I sympathize with them. Public policy, especially on big, hot button issues like immigration, shouldn't be made by one person. One person doesn't represent the will of the people, no matter what position he holds. Congress does, and the will of Congress should be paramount in policymaking.

Now don't get me wrong. I haven't changed my mind about the legality of all this. The Constitution is clear that each house of Congress makes its own rules. The rules of the House of Representatives are clear and well-established. And past speakers of the House have all used their legislative authority to prevent votes on bills they don't wish to consider. Both the law and past precedent are clear: John Boehner is well within his legal rights to refuse to allow the House to vote on the immigration bill passed by the Senate in 2013.

Still, his expansion of that authority makes me uneasy. After all, this is a case where poll after poll shows that large majorities of the country favor comprehensive immigration reform. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill over a year ago by a wide margin. And there's little question that the Senate bill has majority support in the House too. So not only is the will of Congress clear, but the president has also made it clear that he'd sign the bill if Congress passed it. The only thing stopping it is one man.

That should make us all a bit troubled. John Boehner may be acting legally. But is he acting properly?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Chart of the Day: Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States

| Sun Nov. 23, 2014 12:19 PM EST

Matt Yglesias linked today to a map from the Pew Hispanic Center showing which states had the highest populations of unauthorized immigrants. It was interesting but unsurprising: the biggest states (California, Texas, Florida, New York) also have the most unauthorized immigrants. This got me curious about which states had the highest percentages of unauthorized immigrants—which the Pew map also provides. The answer is in the chart below.

For what it's worth, I thought the most striking thing was the fact that for all the sound and fury illegal immigration provokes, it turns out that there are only seven states in which unauthorized immigrants make up more than 4 percent of the population. In the vast majority of the country, they're a vanishingly small group.

Benghazi Is Over, But the Mainstream Media Just Yawns

| Sat Nov. 22, 2014 11:42 PM EST

After two years of seemingly endless Benghazi coverage, how did the nation's major media cover the report of a Republican-led House committee that debunked every single Benghazi conspiracy theory and absolved the White House of wrongdoing? Long story short, don't bother looking on the front page anywhere. Here's a rundown:

  • The Washington Post briefly moved its story into the top spot on its homepage this afternoon. In the print edition, it ran inside on page A12.
  • The New York Times ran only a brief AP dispatch yesterday. Late today they finally put up a staff-written story, scheduled to run in the print edition tomorrow on page A23.
  • The Wall Street Journal ran a decent piece, but it got no play on the website and ran in the print edition on page A5.
  • USA Today ran an AP dispatch, but only if you can manage to find it. I don't know if it also ran anywhere in the print edition.
  • As near as I can tell, the LA Times ignored the story completely.
  • Ditto for the US edition of the Guardian.
  • Fox News ran a hilarious story that ignored nearly every finding of the report and managed to all but say that it was actually a stinging rebuke to the Obama administration. You really have to read it to believe it.

I get that the report of a House committee isn't the most exciting news in the world. It's dry, it has no visuals, it rehashes old ground, and it doesn't feature Kim Kardashian's butt.

Still, this is a report endorsed by top Republicans that basically rebuts practically every Republican bit of hysteria over Benghazi spanning the past two years. Is it really good news judgment for editors to treat this the same way they would a dull study on the aging of America from the Brookings Institution?

UPDATE: Late tonight, the LA Times finally roused itself to run a non-bylined piece somewhere in the Africa section. MORNING UPDATE: Actually, it turned out to be just a condensed version of the AP dispatch. It ran on page A7.

I should add that the stories which did run were mostly fairly decent (Fox News excepted, of course). In particular, Ken Dilanian's AP report was detailed and accurate, and ran early in the morning. The problem is less with the details of the coverage, than with the fact that the coverage was either buried or nonexistent practically everywhere.

Republicans Finally Admit There Is No Benghazi Scandal

| Sat Nov. 22, 2014 1:02 AM EST

For two years, ever since Mitt Romney screwed up his response to the Benghazi attacks in order to score campaign points, Republicans have been on an endless search for a grand conspiracy theory that explains how it all happened. Intelligence was ignored because it would have been inconvenient to the White House to acknowledge it. Hillary Clinton's State Department bungled the response to the initial protests in Cairo. Both State and CIA bungled the military response to the attacks themselves. Even so, rescue was still possible, but it was derailed by a stand down order—possibly from President Obama himself. The talking points after the attack were deliberately twisted for political reasons. Dissenters who tried to tell us what really happened were harshly punished.

Is any of this true? The House Select Intelligence Committee—controlled by Republicans—has been investigating the Benghazi attacks in minute detail for two years. Today, with the midterm elections safely past, they issued their findings. Their exoneration of the White House was sweeping and nearly absolute. So sweeping that I want to quote directly from the report's summary, rather than paraphrasing it. Here it is:

  • The Committee first concludes that the CIA ensured sufficient security for CIA facilities in Benghazi....Appropriate U.S. personnel made reasonable tactical decisions that night, and the Committee found no evidence that there was either a stand down order or a denial of available air support....
     
  • Second, the Committee finds that there was no intelligence failure prior to the attacks. In the months prior, the IC provided intelligence about previous attacks and the increased threat environment in Benghazi, but the IC did not have specific, tactical warning of the September 11 attacks.
     
  • Third, the Committee finds that a mixed group of individuals, including those affiliated with Al Qa'ida, participated in the attacks....
     
  • Fourth, the Committee concludes that after the attacks, the early intelligence assessments and the Administration's initial public narrative on the causes and motivations for the attacks were not fully accurate....There was no protest. The CIA only changed its initial assessment about a protest on September 24, 2012, when closed caption television footage became available on September 18, 2012 (two days after Ambassador Susan Rice spoke)....
     
  • Fifth, the Committee finds that the process used to generate the talking points HPSCI asked for—and which were used for Ambassador Rice's public appearances—was flawed....
     
  • Finally, the Committee found no evidence that any officer was intimidated, wrongly forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement or otherwise kept from speaking to Congress, or polygraphed because of their presence in Benghazi. The Committee also found no evidence that the CIA conducted unauthorized activities in Benghazi and no evidence that the IC shipped arms to Syria.

It's hard to exaggerate just how remarkable this document is. It's not that the committee found nothing to criticize. They did. The State Department facility in Benghazi had inadequate security. Some of the early intelligence after the attacks was inaccurate. The CIA should have given more weight to eyewitnesses on the ground.

But those are routine after-action critiques, ones that were fully acknowledged by the very first investigations. Beyond that, every single conspiracy theory—without exception—was conclusively debunked. There was no stand down order. The tactical response was both reasonable and effective under the circumstances. The CIA was not shipping arms from Libya to Syria. Both CIA and State received all military support that was available. The talking points after the attack were fashioned by the intelligence community, not the White House. Susan Rice followed these talking points in her Sunday show appearances, and where she was wrong, it was only because the intelligence community had made incorrect assessments. Nobody was punitively reassigned or polygraphed or otherwise intimidated to prevent them from testifying to Congress.

Read that list again. Late on a Friday afternoon, when it would get the least attention, a Republican-led committee finally admitted that every single Benghazi conspiracy theory was false. There are ways that the response to the attacks could have been improved, but that's it. Nobody at the White House interfered. Nobody lied. Nobody prevented the truth from being told.

It was all just manufactured outrage from the beginning. But now the air is gone. There is no scandal, and there never was.

Friday Cat Blogging - 21 November 2014

| Fri Nov. 21, 2014 2:55 PM EST

Here in Drumland we have a new version of the Second Commandment. Here's the rewrite:

Thou shalt not bow down thyself to any other cats: for I, the Lord thy Hilbert, am a jealous cat.

Here's the backstory. Last week I got slightly concerned that Hopper was getting a bit less sociable. It was nothing big. She was still perfectly friendly, but she never jumped into our laps anymore. She's always had too much energy to be much of a lap cat, but when we first got her she'd occasionally get tuckered out and curl up with us.

Long story short, my concern was completely misplaced. It turns out the reason she was avoiding our laps was because of Hilbert. Even if he was three rooms away, his spidey sense would tingle whenever she curled up with us, and he'd rush over to demand attention. Eventually he'd push her off completely, and apparently Hopper got tired of this. So she just stopped jumping into our laps.

But as soon as we began restraining Hilbert, it turned out that Hopper was delighted to spend a spare hour or so with her human heating pads. This was easier said than done, since Hilbert really, really gets jealous when he sees Hopper on a lap. There's always another lap available for him, of course, but that's not the lap he wants. He wants whatever lap Hopper is sitting in. Keeping him away is an endless struggle.

But struggle we do, and we figure that eventually Hilbert will learn there are laps aplenty and Hopper will realize that sitting in a lap isn't an invitation to be abused by her brother. Peace and love will then break out. Someday.

In the meantime, here's this week's catblogging. On the left, Hopper is curled up in a sink that just fits her. Like so many cats, she's convinced that we humans might not know how to use the bathroom properly, so she always likes to come in and supervise. On the right, Hilbert is upstairs surveying his domain. Probably checking to ensure that no one else is sitting in a lap.