Kevin Drum

Iran Deal: As Good as We Could Have Gotten Unless We Were Willing to Threaten Immediate War

| Thu Aug. 13, 2015 1:10 PM EDT

One of the big criticisms of President Obama's nuclear deal is that he could have done better. In this case, Donald Trump really does speak for the entire GOP when he says that Obama's team were all terrible negotiators who were too desperate for a deal and got suckered by shrewd Iranian horsetraders.

Is this true? Could we have gotten a substantially better deal if we had tightened the screws more? Gary Samore is the former president of United Against Nuclear Iran—"former" because he stepped down after he examined the deal and decided it was pretty good after all. Samore has decades of experience with Iran's nuclear program and is well respected in the arms control community. So does he think we could have gotten a better deal?

Max Fisher: Could we have gotten a better deal?

Gary Samore: It's very hard for me to answer that question. Unless you're actually sitting in the room, doing the back-and-forth, it's very, very difficult to say with any confidence that we could get a substantially better deal. When I say substantially better, I'm talking about much more dismantlement of Iran's enrichment program, unlimited duration or a longer duration, and more robust challenge inspections [of undeclared facilities].

I'm not talking about — I mean, the difference between 6,000 centrifuges and 5,000 centrifuges is trivial. Yes, you could probably get slightly different terms. We could have allowed them to keep a larger amount of low-enriched uranium, in exchange for having fewer centrifuges. There are all of these trade-offs embedded in the deal. But I don't consider these kinds of details significantly better.

Max Fisher: It sounds like what you're talking about, in terms of any different deal we could've gotten, is more about pushing around the numbers than getting a deal that looks fundamentally different.

Gary Samore: With the leverage that we have — which is economic sanctions and political pressure — I don't think we can achieve a dismantlement of their program, unlimited duration, "anytime, anywhere" inspections. I just don't think those are possible under current circumstances. Their economic situation would have to be much more dire, or we would have to be willing to use a military ultimatum to get those kinds of concessions from Iran.

Bottom line: Samore started out skeptical, but when he saw the actual text of the deal he was surprised at how good it was. Most importantly, he doubts that a substantially better deal would have been possible unless we had issued a military ultimatum.

So there's something here for everyone. For people like me, it's nice to hear that an expert came around when he took the time to look seriously at the deal's terms. But Samore also concedes that we might have done better if we had credibly threatened to bomb Iran—which is precisely what a lot of conservatives think we should have done.

This is, perhaps, the fundamental dividing line. If you think we should have set a date certain for the missiles to fly unless we got what we wanted, then the deal was a lousy one. We could have done better. If you think—as I do—that this is insane, then the deal looks pretty good. Opinions about the final agreement have less to do with the precise terms of the deal than it does with your willingness to threaten immediate war to get what you want.

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Can Republicans Get Millennials to Hate Hillary Clinton?

| Thu Aug. 13, 2015 11:45 AM EDT

The LA Times reports today on what millennials know about Hillary Clinton. Answer: they know her as a senator and secretary of state, but have no recollection of the Clinton scandals of the 90s:

The youngest eligible voters of 2016 were toddlers when America’s most prominent political power couple left the White House, and what Americans know about Clinton is increasingly defined by what stage of her career she was in when they first tuned in.

....For some who lived through the battles of Clinton’s first years on the national stage, the culture wars and personal controversies of the 1990s are integral to understanding who she is....Young people, though, are more likely to know of then-White House intern Lewinsky as a vague childhood memory and pop-culture fixture — refracted through Beyonce lyrics, "Saturday Night Live" skits and Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair cover last year — rather than a trust-shattering national scandal that originated in the Oval Office.

This strikes me as both a challenge and an opportunity for Republicans. The challenge, obviously, is that young voters have a pretty positive view of Hillary, unburdened by blue dresses and impeachment proceedings. But there's also an opportunity.

For people my age, all the stuff from the 90s was litigated long ago and our minds made up. Either we think it was all calculated hogwash and continue to support Hillary, or we think it was all God's own truth and consider her a lying, scheming hustler. Nothing is likely to change our minds at this point. But younger voters? It's entirely possible that if you run ads about Whitewater or Travelgate or whatnot, it would come as something of a surprise. And it might change some minds.

We'll probably find out before too much longer. With hundreds of millions of dollars of super PAC money sloshing around out there, someone is bound to give it a try and see if it has any effect. I'm sure we're all looking forward to this, aren't we?

Trump Talks Policy!

| Thu Aug. 13, 2015 10:56 AM EDT

A "friend" of mine forced me to read the transcript of Sean Hannity's interview with Donald Trump earlier this week, and it was fascinating in a train wreck kind of way. After a few minutes, Hannity said it was time to get serious and talk policy. Trump says great, let's do it. So Hannity then tries manfully to get Trump to explain how Mexico is going to pay for a wall on the border. No dice:

HANNITY: You talked about Mexico. How quickly could you build the wall? How do you make them pay for the wall, as you said?

TRUMP: So easy. Will a politician be able to do it? Absolutely not....

HANNITY: Is it a tariff?

TRUMP: In China — listen to this. In China, the great China wall — I mean, you want to talk about a wall, that's a serious wall, OK....

HANNITY: Sure.

TRUMP: So let's say you're talking about 1,000 miles versus 13,000. And then they say you can't do it. It's peanuts. It's peanuts....

HANNITY: So through a tariff?

TRUMP: We're not paying for it. Of course.

HANNITY: You want to do business, you're going to help us with this.

TRUMP: Do you know how easy that is? They'll probably just give us the money....And I'm saying, that's like 100 percent. That's not like 98 percent. Sean, it's 100 percent they're going to pay. And if they don't pay, we'll charge them a little tariff. It'll be paid.

Trump gets five chances to explain his plan, and all we get is endless bluster. It's easy! Hell, the Great Wall of China cost more! We're not paying for it! The closest Trump comes to an answer—after prompting from Hannity—is some kind of tariff on Mexican goods, which of course is illegal under NAFTA. Trump would have to abrogate the treaty and get Congress to agree. In other words, maybe just a wee bit harder than he thinks.

(Oh, and Mexico's president says the entire idea is a fantasy. "Of course it's false," a spokesman told Bloomberg News. "It reflects an enormous ignorance for what Mexico represents, and also the irresponsibility of the candidate who's saying it.")

The whole interview with Hannity is like this. The fascinating part is Trump's ADHD. He just flatly can't stay on topic, and I don't think it's fake. He constantly veers off into side topics: how far ahead he is in the polls; how everyone says he won the debate; how good a student he was at Wharton; how he'd send Carl Icahn to China; etc.

And then there's the Hannity/Trump math. In Texas, there have been 642,000 crimes by illegal immigrants since 2008. Obamacare premiums are up more than 40 percent this year. Unemployment is at 40 percent. The whole 5.4 percent thing is just a government lie.

I don't even really have a comment on this stuff. On a lot of subjects—his replacement for Obamacare, for example—it's obvious he's just making up his policy on the spot. Um, health accounts! And, um, no more state lines! And catastrophic insurance, sure! And preexisting conditions! You bet. And then....an ADHD segue into Obama playing golf, and Hannity finally gives up and switches topics.

I understand that the second part of the interview is even better. If I'm bored enough, I'll take a look at it when the transcript goes up. Like I said, kind of fascinating if you're the sort of person who likes to gawk at car wrecks on the side of the road.

Voters Are Angry, Voters Are Fed Up, Voters Are Blah Blah Blah

| Wed Aug. 12, 2015 11:29 PM EDT

Oh please:

The surging candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are fueled by people’s anger with the status quo and desire for authenticity in political leaders.

We hear this every four years. Voters are always angry. They always prize straight talk. They are endlessly entranced by outsiders. And it's always a surprising new phenomenon.

Can we just stop it? This isn't new. It's an evergreen. But political reporters always believe it, and every four years at least a few of them take a tour of "real" America and find exactly what they set out to find. People are fed up! And yet, every four years a fairly ordinary mainstream politician is eventually sent to the White House anyway. Go figure.

POSTSCRIPT: Someone with access to Nexis should do a stroll through the archives. I'll bet you can easily find at least one example of this in a major newspaper during the early stages of every election cycle for at least the past 40 years.

Achtung! Don't Help Your Kids With Their Math Homework.

| Wed Aug. 12, 2015 10:54 PM EDT

Pacific Standard reports today on a recent study about learning math, but I think they bury the lede. "New research finds that when parents with math anxieties try to help their kids, their efforts could backfire," says the headline. But here's the text:

Remarkably, the more that math-anxious parents helped their kids with their homework, the worse the kids did on end-of-year math tests, an effect that in the worst cases cut students' progress in math nearly in half. Meanwhile, among low-anxiety parents, the team found that parents helping their children with math homework had little to no effect on the kids' test scores. That effect remained even after controlling for parents' education levels, teachers' math anxiety and ability, and other factors, such as a school's socioeconomic status—a good indication that parents were passing their arithmetic-specific anxieties on to their kids.

In other words, forget about whether you have math anxieties or not. Don't help your kids with their math homework, full stop. At worst, you'll screw them up. At best, you'll do nothing. Use the time for something more constructive, like cutting your fingernails or watching Judge Judy.

Anyway, while we're on the subject, here's a math story from my childhood that backs up the results of this study. I guess this would have been around first or second grade. I must have asked my father some question or another, and the upshot was that he told me about negative numbers and how one arrived at them. Some time later, I was filling out an arithmetic workbook at school, and one of the problems was something like "What is 2 - 3?" I wrote in -1, probably feeling kind of smug, and got marked down. I protested to no effect. I was supposed to say that there was no answer because you can't subtract a bigger number from a smaller one. Thanks a lot, dad!

Is this story true? I don't know. I swear I remember it, but it sounds kind of unlikely, doesn't it? Maybe it's just a trick of memory? Could be, but it's an odd thing to invent out of whole cloth. In any case, my father is no longer around to protest his innocence, so we'll never know for sure.

Three Studies Confirm: Obamacare Isn't a Job Killer

| Wed Aug. 12, 2015 5:13 PM EDT

Among the many (many, many) catastrophes predicted by opponents of Obamacare was that a lot of workers would find their hours reduced against their wishes. Why? Because Obamacare requires firms to provide health insurance only to employees who work 30 hours or more. So lots of companies would do their best to reduce worker hours to 29 or less in order to avoid having to pay for health coverage.

Unlike a lot of the gloomy scenarios tossed out by Obamacare opponents, this one wasn't entirely ridiculous. Any employer mandate is going to have a cutoff somewhere, and there really is an incentive for companies to drop as many workers as possible below that cutoff. So it's something that can only be settled by actual research. The question is: was there an increase between 2013 and 2014 of workers just under the 30-hour threshold? Max Ehrenfreund surveys a few recent studies and says the answer is no:

Analysts at ADP studied the payrolls of the firms' clients, about 75,000 U.S. firms and organizations. They expected that as businesses prepared for the mandate to take effect, they would adjust their employees' schedules, limiting them to no more than 30 hours a week. Yet ADP found no overall change in employees' weekly schedules between 2013 and last year.

According to ADP's analysis, shifts in scheduling were trivial in every sector of the economy, even in industries that rely heavily on part-time work, such as leisure and hospitality.

....ADP's findings were confirmed in another study by Aparna Mathur and Sita Nataraj Slavov of George Mason University and Michael Strain of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Their paper, published this month in the journal Applied Economics Letters, uses data from the federal Current Population Survey and finds no statistically significant change in the proportion of part-time workers in the sectors most likely to be affected by Obamacare, such as janitorial and restaurant work.

A third study confirmed these findings, and also found that eligibility for Medicaid didn't discourage people from holding down a job (since they no longer needed a job in order to get health insurance). The study found no difference between states that expanded Medicaid and those that didn't.

Why does it turn out that employers didn't cut their workers' hours? One possibility is that a year isn't long enough for a study like this. Maybe over the next few years, as the cost of the mandate becomes clearer, companies will start getting more aggressive about cutting worker hours.

But I'd offer another possibility: the mandate didn't have a big effect because most companies already do something like this on their own. They offer health insurance as a standard benefit only to full-time workers, and the cutoff for full-time status is usually somewhere between 25 and 35 hours. So when the mandate came along, it just didn't change anything for most employers.

This is why two of the studies looked specifically at things like hospitality and restaurant work. These are sectors where employers (a) already maintain highly variable schedules and (b) mostly didn't offer health insurance at all prior to Obamacare. When the mandate came along, these folks were faced with a sudden additional cost, but one that they could reduce pretty easily reduce by limiting schedules to less than 30 hours. And yet, even there the researchers found no change—or at least, no change large enough to measure.

This is not the final word, but it's the best we have right now. Three research teams, including one not especially sympathetic to Obamacare, have all found the same thing: Obamacare isn't a job killer. Nor is it even a schedule killer. Life goes on normally, except for the fact that millions of people now have health insurance who didn't before.

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The Hillary Clinton Email Saga: Still No There There

| Wed Aug. 12, 2015 2:16 PM EDT

Is Hillary Clinton starting to get into serious trouble over the personal email account she maintained as Secretary of State? Hard to say. So far there's no evidence that she did anything wrong, just a beef between State and CIA over whether some of the emails she sent and received were classified properly at the time. That may change, but for now that's all we've got.

So why is this getting so much attention? As Steve Benen points out, Clinton isn't the first Secretary of State to use a personal email account:

Politico published this report in March: "Like Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State Colin Powell also used a personal email account during his tenure at the State Department, an aide confirmed in a statement."....MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald added at the time: "....Powell, who served from 2001-2005, apparently did not keep a record of personal emails, unlike Clinton."

As best as I can tell, no one ever cared about the Republican secretary of state using a personal email account. It was, to borrow a phrase, a non-story.

Jeb Bush also used a personal account when he was governor of Florida. And he held onto those emails for seven years before he finally made them public. What's more, it's clear that, like Clinton, he decided which emails to release and which to hold back. "Gov. Bush does not have a plan to release his personal e-mails not related to state business," an aide said in March. That sounds awfully similar to what Clinton has said about her email archive.

I'm not trying to be faux naive here. Nobody cares about Powell because he's not running for president. Nobody cares about Jeb Bush because....actually, I'm not sure why nobody cares about Bush. The governor of Florida doesn't handle classified intel, but if that were the big difference then Powell would be under scrutiny too.

It may turn out at some point that Clinton did something wrong. So far, her only real sin is looking guilty—and I'll confess I don't understand why she's acting that way. All it does is give Republicans ammunition and give the press corps an excuse to treat her the way they used to in the 90s. But as near as I can tell, there's just nothing here, which is why I haven't bothered writing about it. Aside from the obvious political motivations (for Republicans) and personal animus (among the press), is there any reason this is getting such big play? What am I missing?

Scott Walker Finally Finds a Big-Government Subsidy He Loves

| Wed Aug. 12, 2015 12:43 PM EDT

The owner of the Milwaukee Bucks wants a new stadium. But he doesn't want to pay for it himself. So he's threatened to move the Bucks to a new city if Wisconsin doesn't pony up $250 million to help finance the shiny new sports palace he wants.

Unfortunately for him, Wisconsin's governor is Scott Walker, a small-government Republican who's famous for being a fighter. He won't give into extortion like this. If the Bucks need a new stadium, they can jolly well —

Oh wait. It turns out that Walker caved in pretty easily and the Bucks got their bucks. Paul Waldman is properly dismayed:

One might have expected more from a politician who is basing his presidential campaign on his eagerness to “fight.” This combativeness is central to Walker’s appeal — but it turns out that he’s only interested in fighting people like union members. Extortionist plutocrats, not so much.

....Even more fundamentally, one has to ask why “small government” conservatives — as Walker and every other Republican candidate considers himself — think that government should be in the business of building stadiums. Don’t they believe in the power and wisdom of the market? If the shrewd businessmen who own the Bucks would increase their profits by building themselves a new stadium, then they’ll do it. If it wouldn’t increase their profits, then they won’t, and the market will have spoken.

For some reason, professional sports franchises float serenely above the free market for both Democrats and Republicans. Neither party has been especially impressive on this score. Still, it's Republicans who are the market purists. They're the ones who insist, for example, that providing health care for 15 million people is a travesty if the government is involved in subsidizing it. But basketball? Go Bucks! That seems like a screwed up set of values to me, but I guess I just don't understand economics as well as Scott Walker.

China's Newfound Dedication to the Market Falters When the Market Does Something They Don't Like

| Wed Aug. 12, 2015 12:03 PM EDT

Noah Smith on Twitter last night:

I see some people asserting that China is devaluing the RMB to boost the RMB's status as a global currency. I heavily doubt this.

China has two reasons to let the yuan depreciate. The first is self-serving: it makes Chinese exports cheaper and thereby helps the Chinese economy, which is in trouble. The second is their official reason: they have decided to stop setting the value of their currency by fiat. Instead they will let it follow the market, and right now the market thinks the yuan is overvalued.

Smith is telling us not to pay too much attention to the official reason. Yes, a freer exchange rate is necessary if China wants the yuan to become a major global reserve currency. But that's just plausible window dressing to mask the real reason China is letting the yuan fall: to prop up their weakening economy.

Today, the Wall Street Journal reports that Smith is most likely right. After letting the yuan fall for two days, the Bank of China decided that maybe enough was enough—and intervened at the last second on Wednesday to increase the value of the yuan:

In a statement released by the central bank, the PBOC described greater volatility in the yuan’s trading as a “normal phenomenon” and pledged to keep the exchange rate “basically stable.”

But that message largely failed to calm the market, as traders rushed to sell the yuan and businesses flocked to convert their yuan holdings into dollars. The PBOC then instructed state-owned Chinese banks to sell dollars on its behalf in the last 15 minutes of Wednesday’s trading, according to people close to the state banks.

The result: The yuan jumped about 1% in value against the dollar in the last few minutes of trading, bringing it to 6.3870 yuan against the dollar.

It's still possible that once things stabilize a bit, China will let the yuan find its natural value. But Wednesday's intervention suggests something else: when push comes to shove, China will intervene to do whatever it takes to help their economy. If that means letting the market have its way, well and good. If not, then they'll pay no attention to the market.

Obama Is Playing Hardball, and Guess Who Doesn't Like It?

| Wed Aug. 12, 2015 11:15 AM EDT

The Washington Post is unhappy with the "certitude" with which President Obama is defending the Iran nuclear deal. Normally, the Post would prefer more certitude in Obama's foreign policy, but whatever. Then there's this:

After six-plus years of a presidency in which Mr. Obama has himself been the target of relentless, often unfair, often purely partisan attacks, we can understand why he’s gotten a bit jaded about seeking bipartisan support and feels justified to respond in kind.

....Still, by not sticking to the merits of the deal, Mr. Obama implies a lack of confidence in them. The contrast is striking between the president’s tone today and his 2008 speech accepting the Democratic nomination: Looking ahead to debating his GOP opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), he pledged that “what I will not do is suggest that the senator takes his positions for political purposes, because one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other’s character and each other’s patriotism.” There’s a sad progression from that aspiration to an approach that is all about winning, even if it has to be winning ugly.

Let's recap. Obama's opposition doesn't even bother offering any plausible alternative to the deal. Every single Senate Republican opposes it. Every single one—including the supposed moderates. The vast majority opposed it before they even had a chance to read it. Jeb Bush called it "appeasement." Ted Cruz said it was a "fundamental betrayal of the security of the United States." Marco Rubio declared that Obama had offered "concession after concession to a regime that has American blood on its hands." And Rubio was just one of many who said everyone should understand that this was Obama's deal, not a real American treaty, and he would rescind it immediately upon taking office. So much for America's word on the world stage.

It's unclear to me what you can draw from this other than the fact that Republican opposition is (a) noxious and (b) largely politically motivated. Sweet reason is not going to change their minds, so Obama's best hope is to appeal at least partly to partisanship in order to keep enough Democrats in line to get the deal approved.

This is the kind of thing the Post often wishes Obama would do. Be more like LBJ! Figure out a way to get things done. Don't expect that just giving a lovely speech will turn people around.

Well, now he's doing it. Contrary to what the Post says, Obama has, in fact, defended the deal on its merits over and over. But he's also learned that this will get him nowhere with Republicans, especially while a presidential campaign is underway. So he's taking the only option open to him, whether he likes it or not. That means hitting his opponents hard. It means revving up the Democratic base to stand by him. It means using the bully pulpit to counter millions of dollars in advertising from opponents of the deal.

This is politics. This is how presidents get things done. Occasionally it gets a little nasty, and fainthearted folks will tsk tsk. But the Post knows well that there are sometimes no alternatives when the opposition party is as determined to destroy you as the modern Republican Party is. We can all wish things were different, but they aren't. Obama is playing the cards he's been dealt.