Kevin Drum

Public Evenly Split on Immigration Action

| Tue Nov. 18, 2014 1:30 PM EST

So how does the public feel about President Obama changing immigration rules via executive action? Pretty evenly split, it turns out. According to a USA Today poll, Democrats want action now; Republicans want him to wait; independents are split down the middle; and the overall result is slightly in favor of waiting, by 46-42 percent.

In other words, pretty much what you'd expect. Politically, then, this probably holds little risk for Obama or the Democratic Party. Especially in light of this:

On one more issue, Americans are in agreement: The elections two weeks ago aren't going to make Washington work better. Just 15% predict Obama and the new Congress, now under solid Republican control, will work together more closely to reach bipartisan compromises.

The American public is pretty politically astute, I'd say. They may not be up to speed on all the details of policymaking, but when it comes to the big picture, they know a lot more than the Beltway pundits seem to.

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Isn't It About Time to Ask Republicans to Start Acting Like Adults?

| Tue Nov. 18, 2014 11:53 AM EST

David Brooks is unhappy that President Obama continues to be a liberal even though Democrats lost in this year's midterm election:

The White House has not privately engaged with Congress on the legislative areas where there could be agreement. Instead, the president has been superaggressive on the one topic sure to blow everything up: the executive order to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws.

....I sympathize with what Obama is trying to do substantively, but the process of how it’s being done is ruinous. Republicans would rightly take it as a calculated insult and yet more political ineptitude. Everybody would go into warfare mode. We’ll get two more years of dysfunction that will further arouse public disgust and antigovernment fervor (making a Republican presidency more likely).

This move would also make it much less likely that we’ll have immigration reform anytime soon. White House officials are often misinformed on what Republicans are privately discussing, so they don’t understand that many in the Republican Party are trying to find a way to get immigration reform out of the way. This executive order would destroy their efforts.

I continue to not get this train of thought. In 2006, Republicans lost. President Bush's first action was to order a surge in Iraq, which infuriated Democrats. In 2008, Republicans lost. They responded by adopting a policy of obstructing every possible action by Democrats—including even a modest stimulus package during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. In 2012, Republicans lost. They responded with brinkmanship over the fiscal cliff, a flat refusal to fill open judicial positions on the DC circuit court, and an endless bellowing rage over Benghazi and other manufactured outrages.

By comparison, all Obama is doing is something he's been saying he'll do for nearly a year. It's not even all that big a deal if you step back for a moment and think about it. Several million undocumented immigrants are going to be told they're officially free of the threat of deportation for a temporary period, as opposed to the status quo, in which they're effectively free of the threat of deportation. Don't get me wrong: it's a big deal for the immigrants affected. But in terms of actual impact on immigration policy writ large? It doesn't really do much.

And yet, this single action is apparently enough to—rightly!—put Republicans into warfare mode. If that's true, I can only conclude that literally anything Republicans don't like is enough to justify going into warfare mode. That's certainly been how it's worked in the past, anyway.

Look: Republicans can decide for themselves if they want to go to war. If they want to pass yet another bill repealing Obamacare, that's fine. If they want to sue the president over the EPA or immigration, that's fine. If they want to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, that's fine. I assume Obama will win some of these battles and lose others, but in any case will treat them as the ordinary cut and thrust of politics instead of declaring them calculated insults that have infuriated him so much he can't possibly ever engage with the GOP again. In other words, he'll act like an adult, not a five-year-old.

This is what we expect from presidents. Why don't we expect the same from congressional Republicans? Why are they allowed to stamp and scream whenever something doesn't go their way, and everyone just shrugs? Once and for all, why don't we demand that they act like adults too?

POSTSCRIPT: I didn't bother with Brooks' claim that Republicans are "privately" discussing real, honest-to-goodness immigration reform, but color me skeptical. If they want to engage on this subject, they need to discuss it with Obama, not between themselves. They've had plenty of time for that, and have never been willing to buck the tea party to get something done. Why would it be any different now? For more, I think Ed Kilgore has about the right take on this.

Here's an Interesting Twist on Social Security That Might Be Worth Trying

| Tue Nov. 18, 2014 10:29 AM EST

Via Matt Yglesias, here's a fascinating little study in behavioral economics. It involves Social Security, which currently allows you to retire at age 62, but offers you a higher monthly payment if you retire later. For example, if you retire at 62, your monthly benefit might be $1,500, but if you delay a year, your monthly benefit might go up to $1,600. Given average lifespans, the total payout works out the same in both scenarios.

But what if you offered retirees a different deal? What if, instead of a higher monthly benefit, you offered them a lump sum payout if they delayed retirement? In the example above, if you delay retirement to 63, you'll still get $1,500 per month, but you'd also get a $20,000 lump sum payout. Delay to age 70 and you'd get a lump sum of nearly $200,000. How do people respond to that?

It turns out that they delay retirement—or they say they would on a survey, anyway. Under the current scenario, people say they'd retire at 45 months past age 62, or 65 years and 9 months. Under the lump sum scenario, the average retirement age is about five months later. (A third scenario with a delayed lump sum payout motivates people to retire even later.)

Would people do this in real life if they were offered these options? Maybe. And it would probably be a good thing, as Yglesias explains:

Since the benefits would be actuarially fair, this would not save the government any money. But since people would be working longer, the overall size of the economy and the tax base would be larger. That extends the life of the Social Security Trust Fund, and helps delay the moment at which benefit cuts or tax increases are necessary. The overall scale of the change is not enormous, but it's distinctly positive and it's hard to see what the downside would be.

This is hardly the highest priority on anybody's wish list, but it's an intriguing study. And it would certainly be easy to implement. Maybe it's worth a try.

Congressional Democrats Back Obama on Immigration Reform

| Mon Nov. 17, 2014 6:00 PM EST

With the election safely over, congressional Democrats have regained their courage on immigration and are now urging President Obama to go ahead with an executive action on immigration reform. Here's an excerpt from a letter that several Democratic leaders in the Senate sent today:

The principle behind most of what Obama plans to do falls under the category of "prosecutorial discretion," which means he can decide where best to use the government's limited law enforcement resources. Just like previous presidents, he can decide that resources should be directed in a certain way, which effectively means that certain immigrants will be free to stay in the country simply because no one will be targeting them for deportation.

We can argue about just how far presidents should be allowed to go down this road, but basically it's something with a fair amount of precedent. This is clearly the focus of the letter from Senate Democrats, and although I'm not a lawyer, I'm pretty confident that the Justice Department will produce an adequate legal defense of Obama's constitutional authority in this area.

But what's probably most important goes unsaid—or perhaps merely implied—in the Senate letter: if you qualify for "deferred action," you can also get a work permit and a Social Security number. I don't quite understand the legal authority for this, but it's part of the mini-DREAM executive action Obama signed in 2012, so apparently it's on firm legal ground.

In any case, it now looks like Obama is not just firmly committed to this, but has the public support of key congressional Democrats as well. It's coming whether Republicans like it or not.

Kids Today Are No Dumber Than Their Elders

| Mon Nov. 17, 2014 3:01 PM EST

One of my little pet peeves—occasionally given expression on this blog—is the notion that kids today are dumber than they used to be. I'd say that both the anecdotal and statistical evidence suggest just the opposite, but it's hard to get good comparisons since children are tested constantly while adults almost never are. Every year we hear horror stories about how few teenagers can locate France on a map, but who's to say whether adults are any better? After all, we never get the chance to herd them into classrooms and force them to tell us.

Today, however, Andrew Sullivan points me to a lovely little tidbit that I can't resist passing along. As true evidence, it's pretty much worthless. But who cares? This is a blog! If I can't draw sweeping conclusions from minuscule data here, where can I? So here it is: a YouGov survey of a thousand adults asking them six grammatical questions. The results are on the right. As you can see, every age group did about equally well. In fact, if you average all six questions, the results ranged from 75 percent correct for the youngsters to 73 percent correct for the senior citizens. That's no difference at all.

So there you have it. The kids today are all right. Or alright. Or something. In any case, their grammar appears to be every bit as good as that of their elders.

America Is the Developed World's Second Most Ignorant Country

| Mon Nov. 17, 2014 12:20 PM EST

A couple of days ago Vox ran a story about a new Ipsos-MORI poll showing that Americans think the unemployment rate right now is an astonishing 32 percent—higher than during the Great Depression. The correct answer, of course, is about 6 percent. And this is not just a harmless bit of ignorance, like not being able to name the vice president. "It matters," we're told, "because the degree to which people perceive problems guides how they make political decisions."

My first thought when I saw this is the same one I have a lot: how has this changed over time? After all, if Americans always think the unemployment rate is way higher than it is, then it doesn't mean much. But I couldn't find any previous polling data on this. I made a few desultory attempts in between football games this weekend, but came up empty.

Luckily, John Sides is a stronger man than me, and also more familiar with the past literature on this stuff. It turns out there's not very much to look at, actually, but what there is suggests that this Ipsos-MORI poll is a weird outlier. Generally, speaking, most people do know roughly what the unemployment rate is:

In this 1986 article....two-thirds, stated that the unemployment rate was 10 percent, 11 percent, or 12 percent — a substantial degree of accuracy.

In this 2014 article....approximately 40-50 percent of respondents could estimate this rate within 1 percentage point.

In this 2014 article....most respondents gave fairly accurate estimates — which is reflected in the median.

So the whole thing is a little odd. In past polls, people weren't too far off. In this one, they're off by more than 25 points. Something doesn't add up, but it's not clear what. In any case, it's worth taking this whole thing with a grain of salt.

But all is not lost. If you decide to take this poll seriously anyway, you might be interested to know that the unemployment results are merely one part of a broader report titled "Perils of Perception." Basically, it's an international survey showing just how wrong people in different countries are about things like murder rates, number of Muslims, teen birth rates, voting, and so forth. This is then compiled into a handy "Index of Ignorance."

So who's #1? Not us. We came in second to Italy. But that's not too bad! We're pretty damn ignorant, and with a little less effort we might take the top spot next year. Still, even though Germans and Swedes may feel smug about their knowledge of demographic facts, can they launch pointless wars in the Middle East whenever they feel like it? No they can't. So there.

POSTSCRIPT: On a slightly more serious note, Sides tells us that not only is the Ipsos-MORI poll an odd outlier, but that his research suggests that ignorance of the unemployment rate has very little impact on people's attitudes anyway. I'd say the Ipsos-MORI poll accidentally confirms this. The German public, for example, has a much more accurate view of the unemployment rate than the American public. So has that helped their policymaking? It has not. Over the past few years, Germany has probably had the worst economic policy of any developed country, while the US has had among the best. A well-informed public may be less important than we think.

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Sunni Awakening 2.0? Don't Hold Your Breath.

| Mon Nov. 17, 2014 10:57 AM EST

Back in 2007, the military success of the famous "surge" in Iraq was due largely to the fact that many Sunni tribal leaders finally turned against al-Qaeda and began cooperating with the American army. This so-called Sunni Awakening was a key part of the tenuous peace achieved a year later.

It was a fragile peace, however, and eventually it broke down thanks to the lack of a serious political effort to include Sunnis in the central government. By last year, the Sunni areas of Iraq had once again begun to rebel, and ISIS took advantage of this to storm into Iraq and take control of a huge swath of territory. If we want to regain this ground from ISIS, the first step is to once again persuade Sunni tribal leaders to cooperate with us, but it looks an awful lot like that particular playbook isn't going to work a second time:

Officials admit little success in wooing new Sunni allies, beyond their fitful efforts to arm and supply the tribes who were already fighting the Islamic State — and mostly losing. So far, distrust of the Baghdad government’s intentions and its ability to protect the tribes has won out.

....Much of the Islamic State’s success at holding Sunni areas comes from its deft manipulation of tribal dynamics. Portraying itself as a defender of Sunnis who for years have been abused by Iraq’s Shiite-majority government, the Islamic State has offered cash and arms to tribal leaders and fighters, often allowing them local autonomy as long as they remain loyal.

At the same time, as it has expanded into new towns, the Islamic State has immediately identified potential government supporters for death. Residents of areas overrun by the Islamic State say its fighters often carry names of soldiers and police officers. If those people have already fled, the jihadists blow up their homes to make sure they do not return. At checkpoints, its men sometimes run names through computerized databases, dragging off those who have worked for the government.

“They come in with a list of names and are more organized than state intelligence,” said Sheikh Naim al-Gaood, a leader of the Albu Nimr tribe. The most brutal treatment is often of tribes who cooperated with the United States against Al Qaeda in Iraq in past years, mostly through the so-called Sunni Awakening movement supported by the Americans.

Obviously ISIS may overplay its hand here, or simply overextend itself. They aren't supermen. At the same time, it's obvious that ISIS is well aware of how the original Sunni Awakening played out, and they're doing an effective job of making sure it doesn't play out that way again. Sunni leaders are already distrustful of Americans, having been promised a greater role in governance in 2007 and then seeing that promise evaporate, and ISIS leaders are adding a brutal element of revenge to make sure that no one thinks about believing similar promises this time around.

All this is not to say that things are hopeless. But a replay of the Sunni Awakening isn't going to be easy. Sunni leaders have already been burned once and were unlikely from the start to be easily persuaded to give reconciliation another chance. ISIS is reinforcing this with both deft politics and brutal retaliation against collaborators. It's not going to be an easy dynamic to break.

Why Won't Orrin Hatch Blame Republicans For the Failure of Immigration Reform?

| Sun Nov. 16, 2014 10:28 AM EST

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch cracks me up:

[Hatch] expressed concern that President Barack Obama may soon take executive action on immigration and protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. "It would be catastrophic for him to do that," said Hatch. "Part of it is our fault. We haven't really seized this problem. Of course, we haven't been in a position to do it either, with Democrats controlling the Senate. I'm not blaming Republicans. But we really haven't seized that problem and found solutions for it."

...."Frankly, I'd like to see immigration done the right way," Hatch added. "This president is prone to doing through executive order that which he cannot do by working with the Congress, because he won't work with us. If he worked with us, I think we could get an immigration bill through ... He has a Republican Congress that's willing to work with him. That's the thing that's pretty interesting to me."

You know, it was only 17 months ago that the Senate passed a vigorously negotiated and tough-minded bipartisan immigration bill that was actively supported by President Obama. You know who voted for it? Orrin Hatch. The only reason it's not the law of the land today is....Republicans in the House. That's it.

So what's the problem here? Why shouldn't we blame Republicans?

Two Important Notes For Anyone Renewing Obamacare Coverage

| Sat Nov. 15, 2014 12:17 PM EST

Today is the first day of the 2015 signup period for Obamacare. If you currently have coverage, you need to decide whether to keep the plan you have or shop around for a different one. Here are a couple of key things to keep in mind—whether you're buying coverage for yourself or know friends who are:

  • As the New York Times points out today, it's possible that the net price of your current coverage could go up substantially this year. Here's why: the size of the federal subsidy depends on the price of your plan relative to other plans. If your plan was the cheapest on offer last year, it qualified for a maximum subsidy. But if other, cheaper plans are offered this year, and your plan is now, say, only the fourth cheapest, you'll get a smaller subsidy. So even if your actual plan premium stays the same, your net cost could go up a lot.

    This is, naturally, becoming a partisan attack point, but don't ignore it just because the usual suspects are making hay with it. It's a real issue that anyone buying insurance on a state or federal exchange should be aware of.

    Bottom line: shop around. Don't just hit the renew button without checking things out.
  • Andrew Sprung has been writing tirelessly about something called Cost Sharing Reduction. It's not well known, but it could be important to you. Today, Sprung tells us that the new version of healthcare.gov has a pretty nice shoparound feature that allows you to enter some basic information and then provides a comparison of all plans in your area. I tried it myself, and sure enough, the "window shopping" feature works nicely and is easily accessible from the home page.

    However, it doesn't do a good job of steering you toward silver-level plans, which are the only ones eligible for Cost Sharing Reduction. For example, I shopped for a plan for a low-income family of three in Missouri, and the cost of the cheapest bronze plan was $0. The cost of the cheapest silver plan was $90 per month. That's an extra $1,000 per year, and a lot of low-income families will naturally gravitate toward the cheaper plan, especially since it's the first one they see.

    But the bronze plan has both a deductible and an out-of-pocket cap of $12,600. The silver plan with CSR has a deductible of $2,000 and an out-of-pocket cap of $3,700. Unless you're literally rolling the dice that you're never going to see a doctor this year, you're almost certain to be better off with the silver plan, even though the up-front monthly premium is a little higher.

    Bottom line: shop around. The plan that looks cheapest often isn't, and for low-income buyers a silver plan is often your best bet. For more, here's the CSR page at healthcare.gov. And for even more, Sprung has details about shopping at the new site here and here.

I guess the bottom line is obvious by now: shop around. Even if you can navigate the website yourself, be careful. Not everything is obvious at first glance. And if you're not comfortable doing it by yourself, don't. Get help from an expert in your state. You have three months to sign up, so there's no rush.

Friday Cat Blogging - 14 November 2014

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 2:58 PM EST

As you may recall, last week I regaled you with the news that cats (allegedly) love circles. Put a circular object on the floor, and they'll flock to it. But is this true? On Saturday, my sister visited and we performed our experiment: she laid down a scarf on the floor in a circular shape and we waited. I insisted that we do nothing to influence the cats, since that would ruin all the lovely Science™, but we didn't have to wait long. Hilbert came over first, and then Hopper followed. For the next 15 minutes they went nuts for the circle. By the time I took the picture on the right, the scarf was no longer all that circular, but it didn't matter. They loved it.

So there you have it. Cats do love circles. The reason, however, remains a mystery, so let's move on to this week's official catblogging. I've already mentioned that I have a hard time keeping up with our little furballs unless they're snoozing, so this week you get a picture of them snoozing (Hopper on the left, Hilbert on the right). I sent this to the shelter where we got them, and they thought it was hilarious. Our guys are not the kind of cats who curl up when they sleep. They stretch out as far as they can to air out their tummies, even if that means they're often hanging over the edge of a chair. But the couch is better. Even they can only fill up half a couch.