Kevin Drum

Are Conservatives Really Going All-In on Ben Carson?

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 5:36 PM EST

Wow. I gather that conservatives are making a big U-turn on Ben Carson. This morning most of them were wringing their hands over Carson's deception about being accepted at West Point. Now they're defending him and blaming the whole thing on Politico and its typical liberal media hatred of conservatives. Their basic defense seems to be that Carson never said he "applied" to West Point, or even that he was "accepted" at West Point. All he said is that he was offered a scholarship to go there.

Well, here's what he said in August:

I was the highest student ROTC member in Detroit and was thrilled to get an offer from West Point. But I knew medicine is what I wanted to do.

Come on, folks. "An offer from West Point" is the same as "being accepted at West Point." It's obvious what he was saying here, and it's equally obvious it isn't true. Here is Carson's defense:

In an interview with The New York Times on Friday, Mr. Carson said: “I don’t remember all the specific details. Because I had done so extraordinarily well you know I was told that someone like me — they could get a scholarship to West Point. But I made it clear I was going to pursue a career in medicine.”

“It was, you know, an informal ‘with a record like yours we could easily get you a scholarship to West Point.'”

That might have happened—though no one would have used the word "scholarship" since West Point is free to begin with. But for the past two decades it's not what Carson has said. It's not even close. There's a world of difference between (a) someone telling you that you could probably get into West Point and (b) actually getting into West Point.

Carson is a nutcase, a policy buffoon, and at the very least, a serial personal embellisher. With a guy like that, you just know more stuff is going to come out. Conservatives should quit while they're behind and dump the guy. If they stick with him, eventually he's going to make them all look like dopes.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 6 November 2015

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 2:55 PM EST

When I came home from the hospital last year, we (i.e., Marian) scurried around for a few days moving furniture. In the end, one of our sofas ended up getting shoehorned into my study, where it was out of our sight and all too vulnerable to feline claws. So a few months ago we bought a cheap slip cover, basically designed to give the cats something to claw at other than expensive upholstery. It's mostly worked, but there were unforeseen consequences.

You see, the slip cover has an elastic band around the bottom to keep it in place. When the cats discovered this, they decided it made a great cat hammock. Over on the right, you can see what it looks like from the outside. Basically, it's just a bulge. I think you can guess what happened next after I took this picture. (Insert Battle of the Bulge jokes here.)

Luckily, I also took some pictures before Hopper showed up, something I've been doing for weeks. But as you can imagine, it's really hard to get a decent photo from underneath the sofa. However, thanks to my persistence, along with my camera's articulating LCD screen, I eventually got one. Below, you can finally see Hilbert in the the cat hammock close up. It's pretty obvious what the attraction is. In fact, you'd practically think it had been designed as a cat domicile: dim, cozy, and shaped like a cat. Who knows? Maybe it was, and we just got tricked into buying it.

Keystone Pipeline Finally Put Out of Its Misery

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 2:17 PM EST

President Obama has finally killed off the Keystone XL pipeline for good—or until a Republican occupies the White House, anyway. His reasoning was so typically Obamian I almost laughed:

For years, the Keystone pipeline has occupied what I frankly consider an overinflated role in our political discourse. It became a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter.

That's Obama for you. He just can't stand the tiresome political preoccupation with shiny toys rather than stuff that actually matters. And he's not afraid to scold us about this every once in a while.

Want to know more? Tim McDonnell has the whole story here.

Congratulations on a Great Century, Gravity

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 1:41 PM EST

Science News has a big package in the current issue about Gravity's Century. I'd just like to add a personal note of congratulations to this. I think gravity has had a great century. It has kept me from floating into space for 57 years. It's kept our atmosphere intact so we can all breathe. It's remained weak enough that Earth hasn't spiraled into the sun. It's helped produce thousands of adorable kitten videos. And black holes! Those are just awesome.

All in all, terrific job, gravity. You deserve all the kudos you're getting. What's more, I hope this makes up for our inexcusable neglect of your first big century in 1787. We're really sorry about that. You deserved better. I guess we were busy with the whole Constitution thing and it slipped our minds. It won't happen again, I promise.

On the constructive criticism side, though, what's with all the fancy math? It makes you seem a little elitist. A little KISS could go a long way. Just a thought.

Russia Is Very Unlikely to Launch a War Against ISIS

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 1:24 PM EST

Charles Krauthammer on what's going to happen if it turns out ISIS was responsible for bombing Metrojet Flight 9268:

“As for the Russians, the Russians have had a decades long struggle with the radical Islam in the Caucasus and Chechnya,” he said. “But they have a reputation of being utterly ruthless – you don’t want to mess with Boris.”

“If this turns out to be an attack on a Russian airline, they’re going to have — either their deterrent is going to be diminished, or they’re going to have to have a furious response,” Krauthammer argued. “Which would incidentally help us, because it would be against ISIS.”

Actually, I'm a little curious about something. Further investigation will probably tell us whether it was a bomb that brought down the plane, but what could possibly tell us that it was an ISIS bomb? Unless ISIS takes public responsibility—and so far they haven't—it would take some pretty lucky breaks in the investigation to pin the blame specifically on them.

In any case, I think Krauthammer is wrong. Russia does indeed have a reputation for being ruthless against radical Islam on its own soil, and this goes way beyond just Vladimir Putin. But they have no reputation for caring even a tiny bit about radical Islam anywhere else. A "furious response" against ISIS would require a projection of power that they likely don't have, and a less-than-furious response would make them look weak. So they'll probably do nothing. Either way, though, I doubt it will change anyone's beliefs about what they're willing to do within their own borders.

ISIS can be destroyed. But roughly speaking, this can happen in only a few different ways: (a) a massive ground campaign, (b) essentially a long siege that eventually ravages them—though probably at the cost of lots of civilian life, (c) internal strife that ultimately consumes them, or (d) an impressive, and rather unlikely, improvement in the Iraqi military. It's hard to see Russia playing much of a role in any of these.

Carson in Hot Water Over West Point Claim

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 12:04 PM EST

Oh hell. While I was busy nattering on about Ben Carson's pyramid theory, it turns out that Carson was busily destroying his campaign. Or Politico was, anyway:

Ben Carson’s campaign on Friday admitted, in a response to an inquiry from POLITICO, that a central point in his inspirational personal story was fabricated: his application and acceptance into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The academy has occupied a central place in Carson’s tale for years. According to a story told in Carson’s book, “Gifted Hands,” the then-17 year old was introduced in 1969 to Gen. William Westmoreland, who had just ended his command of U.S. forces in Vietnam, and the two dined together. That meeting, according to Carson’s telling, was followed by a “full scholarship” to the military academy.

West Point, however, has no record of Carson applying, much less being extended admission....When presented with this evidence, Carson’s campaign conceded the story was false.

Evangelicals love stories of youthful rebellion followed by redemption and a full Christian life. They do not like serious lies told many years after finding God. They especially don't like lies about military service.

If Carson's fans blow this off, then he's truly invulnerable. There's just no excuse. He told this lie in 1992, when he was 39 years old and already director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He wasn't running for president at the time, so he figured no one would ever check up on it. He deliberately invented a story just because it made him look good.

Ben Carson is either a serial liar or else he lives a very rich fantasy life. At this point, I'm honestly not sure which.

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Ben Carson's Pyramid Nonsense Is Not a Religious Belief

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 11:46 AM EST

Tyler Cowen thinks we're all being too hard on Ben Carson for his belief that the pyramids were built by Joseph to store grain:

We mock Ben Carson for this, but we do not make fun of those who believe openly in the Trinity, Virgin Birth, ex cathedra, and many other beliefs which are to my mind slightly less plausible claims. It’s not so different from the old prejudice that Mormon beliefs are somehow “weirder” than those of traditional Christians, except now it is secularists picking and choosing their religious targets on the supposed basis of sophistication. The Seventh Day Adventists, Carson’s church, are of course weirder yet.

....What I find strangest of all is not Ben Carson’s pyramids beliefs, but rather the notion that we should selectively pick on some religious claims rather than others. The notion that it is fine to believe something about a deity or deities, or a divine book, as long as you do not take that said belief very seriously and treat it only as a social affiliation or an ornamental badge of honor.

Generally speaking, I agree. As a nonbeliever, I find pretty much all religious beliefs pretty odd. Some I find odder than others, but this is just a literary reaction. I also find Lovecraft odder than Baum, but is he really?

But here's what Cowen misses about the pyramid thing: it's not even a religious belief. Muslims don't say the pyramids were for grain storage. Neither do Mormons or Jews or Christian Scientists or Southern Baptists or Catholics or Seventh Day Adventists. There's nothing in the Bible about this. It's not a religious belief. It's just Carson's weird, personal theory.

What's more, this isn't something like evolution or the Big Bang, where the evidence is arcane enough that lots of people feel comfortable dismissing it. Our knowledge of the pyramids is plain and unambiguous. I mean, thousands of Christian tourists have been inside. They aren't hollow. They have lots of passages and rooms. We've found burial chambers and sarcophagi. We can read the hieroglyphics on the walls. Anyone with a TV set knows this.

What's more, Carson's defense is ridiculous. He figures Joseph needed something big to store all that grain in the Bible, and something that big would still be around. But why? He could have stored it in lots of little things. He could have stored it in medium-sized things. Ten thousand silos a few yards on a side would have provided the same amount of storage space and been a helluva lot easier to construct. Only an idiot would store grain in a few humongous pyramids. Was Joseph an idiot?

Cowen says, "Bully for Ben Carson for reminding us that a religion actually consists of beliefs about the world." But that's not what Carson did. His pyramid theory isn't a religious belief. It has nothing to do with dogma, nothing to do with scripture, and nothing to do with any kind of divine intervention. It's just a dumb personal invention. Plain old secular dumb.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in October

| Fri Nov. 6, 2015 10:58 AM EST

The American economy added 271,000 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 a brisk 181,000 jobs—nearly all of it in the private sector. Not bad! The headline unemployment rate ticked down to 5.0 percent, and virtually of this gain was because more people were employed, not because folks were dropping out of the labor force. This is pretty good news if it translates into wage growth too.

Which it did. Hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees were up 5.3 percent on an annualized basis, and weekly earnings were up an impressive 9.1 percent, which suggests workers are getting more hours and more overtime.

There's really nothing much to dislike about this jobs report. As usual, it carries the risk that it will prompt the Fed to raise interest rates, but I think that's inevitable at this point barring some kind of economic catastrophe. And a small increase won't have much effect anyway. Now let's see if we can keep this up through the holiday season.

The Uninsured Rate Just Keeps Going Down, Down, Down

| Thu Nov. 5, 2015 8:20 PM EST

I'm back. I've now done my civic duty yet again, so I'm safe until the next time the Orange County justice system wants me to sit around all day and curse at unreliable Wi-Fi coverage. Oddly, their Wi-Fi is worse than it was the last time I was there, three or four years ago. I think they've outsourced it since then. On the bright side, this time around I could provide my own internet connection, so I don't care that much. Plus, since I never get actually called for a jury these days, I've once again preserved my record of being foreman on 100 percent of the juries I've ever sat on.

As your reward for waiting around all day for me, here's the latest CDC data on the uninsured rate. Being the big government agency they are, they're just getting around to crunching the numbers for the second quarter, and they report that Obamacare has driven the uninsured rate down yet again, to 10.3 percent.1 Not bad for a program that, I'm told, is in a death spiral and will implode any second now.

1Gallup says the uninsured rate in the second quarter was 11.4 percent. The difference comes from who they count. Gallup counts everyone over 18. CDC counts everyone under age 65.

Who Is Ben Carson's Mystery Physicist?

| Thu Nov. 5, 2015 1:19 PM EST

By now, we all know that Ben Carson thinks the pyramids were built by Joseph as grain silos. I'm sort of curious about where this idea came from, and maybe eventually we'll find out. In the meantime, I'd like to highlight a different part of Carson's pyramid speech:

“I recently had a discussion with a well-known physicist. He was talking about the Big Bang Theory and how all this obviously culminated into this wonderful, extraordinarily organized solar system that we now have, which you can set your watch by, where scientists can predict 70 years away when a comet is coming. That’s an incredible amount of organization to have originated from just a large explosion.”

Carson then tells the story of how he supposedly stumped the physicist by asking him how he could reconcile such an “organized” universe with the laws of thermodynamics, specifically entropy, which says that systems tend to move towards disorder.

“Well of course he has no answer for that. They never have an answer for any of these things.”

Huh. Not just a physicist, a "well-known" physicist. And Carson says this guy was floored by his question. Apparently he had never given any thought to whether the Big Bang theory was compatible with the second law of thermodynamics.

Conclusion: either this was the stupidest physicist ever, or else Carson was lying. I think you can guess which side I'm on, but Carson can clear this up in a trice by telling us who this hapless physicist was. I sure hope it's not someone who's conveniently dead.

POSTSCRIPT: It's probably worth noting that conservative Christians are just generally a little gaga over the second law of thermodynamics, which they're convinced disproves the theory of evolution. You can yell "In a closed system!" until you're blue in the face, and it makes no difference. They've stumped you! There are dozens of more sophisticated versions of this argument, too. Carson is just extending this chestnut a little further back in time.