Kevin Drum

Arming Ukraine? Sorry, but Europe Simply Isn't On Board

| Mon Feb. 9, 2015 12:54 PM EST

Republican hawks have insisted from the start that President Obama isn't being tough enough in his approach to the Ukraine crisis. And perhaps he isn't. It's a point that's arguable by reasonable people.

But what's not arguable is that regardless of what Obama would do if he had a truly free hand, he pretty clearly doesn't have a free hand. Ukraine is, first and foremost, a European problem, and the leadership of Europe just isn't on board with a more aggressive strategy against Russia:

Through nine months of struggle to halt Russia’s military thrust into Ukraine, Western unity has been a foremost priority for American and European leaders. Now, with the crisis entering a dangerous new phase, that solid front is in danger of collapsing.

....A growing number of U.S. officials, and some in Europe, particularly in countries bordering Russia, believe that the only way to dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from continuing what they see as an invasion of Ukraine is to raise the military cost to Moscow. That means giving the Ukrainians better weapons, they say.

....But the Germans, French and many other European leaders are equally convinced that arming the Kiev government will not halt Putin, but will increase carnage in a war that already has killed about 5,300 people and risk an all-out East-West confrontation.

[German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, speaking at a security conference in Munich, Germany, made clear that not only would Germany not contribute arms, but it also opposed allies doing so. “Military means will lead to more victims,” she said, arguing that the West should apply a patient containment approach toward Russia.

I'm skeptical about providing arms to the Ukrainians, but I remain open to arguments that it's the only way to stop Vladimir Putin's aggression. However, there's just no way that this will work without European cooperation. End of story. The US can't pretend that acting on its own has even the slightest chance of success.

So the hawks need to stop obsessing over Obama's alleged weakness, and instead look overseas. The truth is that Obama has been one of the most aggressive of the Western leaders in the fight against Putin, while it's Merkel and her colleagues who have insisted on a less confrontational approach. If John McCain and his buddies want to arm the Ukrainians, they need to figure out a way to persuade Merkel that it's the right thing to do. That might be less congenial for their tea party buddies, whose interest in Ukraine is pretty much zero aside from its role as a way of painting Obama as a weak-kneed appeaser, but it's the only way they might get what they say they want.

So that's their choice. Continue bashing Obama, which feels good but will get them nowhere. Or start pressing our European allies, which is boring and difficult and pays no political dividends—but which might actually get them closer to what they claim is their goal. Which is it going to be, boys?

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A Baton Rouge ER Is Closing Because Bobby Jindal Won't Accept Medicaid Expansion

| Sun Feb. 8, 2015 9:42 PM EST

Louisiana's capital city is losing one of its emergency rooms:

The Baton Rouge General Medical Center-Mid City will close its emergency room within the next 60 days, a victim of continuing red ink and the Jindal administration withdrawing the financial support that kept it open.

....The General’s Mid City campus suffered a financial hit as a result of the April 2013 closure of the LSU Earl K. Long Medical Center....More and more poor and uninsured patients from the low-income neighborhoods of north Baton Rouge ended up at the Mid City hospital, which was the next-closest facility.

Mid City hospital reported losses of $1 million a month as more and more patients who could not pay arrived. Losses jumped from $6 million to $8 million annually from 2009 to 2012, then up to $12.5 million in 2013, according to Baton Rouge General. Last year, the facility lost $23.8 million.

The nearest ER for residents who are currently served by Mid-City is now 30 minutes further away, and it's a certainty that people are going to die because of this. But what's the real story behind this closure? Shouldn't the expansion of Medicaid be offsetting the increased losses on uninsured patients?

You bet it should. And it would, if Bobby Jindal were willing to accept Obamacare's offer of virtually free Medicaid expansion. But he's not, and that means Baton Rouge is losing one of its central emergency rooms and more people will die who otherwise could have been saved. That's some nice work, Bobby. Michael Hiltzik has more details here.

Jungle Primaries in California: It Looks Like a Big Fat "Meh"

| Sun Feb. 8, 2015 2:41 PM EST

A few years ago California adopted what's mockingly called a "jungle primary." Instead of Democrats and Republicans each running their own primary, there's just one big primary and the top two vote-getters move on. That might be two Democrats, two Republicans, or one of each.

The idea behind the top-two primary was simple: it would produce more moderate candidates. Instead of appealing to the most extreme segments of the electorate, candidates would jostle to get votes from the center. Democrats could benefit from appealing to right-leaning centrists and vice versa for Republicans.

So did it work? So far, the answer appears to be no, though the evidence is a little hazy because of another change California made at around the same time: moving all initiatives to general elections. Because of this, turnout at primaries plummeted. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that Californians were eager to go to the polls to vote for initiatives, but not so eager when there was nothing more interesting at stake than a primary battle for the state legislature. This changed the composition of the primary electorate, so it's hard to make solid comparisons with previous years.

That said, it still doesn't look like much changed. In 2012, for example, researchers polled voters using both a traditional ballot and a top-two ballot. There was no difference in the results. One reason is that most voters knew virtually nothing about any of the candidates. Were they moderate? Liberal? Wild-eyed lefties? Meh. Voters weren't paying enough attention to know. Mark Barabak of the LA Times summarizes a pile of studies published recently in the California Journal of Politics and Policy:

Voters were just as apt to support candidates representing the same partisan poles as they were before the election rules changed — that is, if they even bothered voting...."To summarize, our articles find very limited support for the moderating effects associated with the top-two primary," Washington University's Betsy Sinclair wrote, summarizing half a dozen research papers.

For starters, voters will have to pay far closer attention to their choices. Some candidates may have hugged the middle in a bid to entice more pragmatic-minded voters, but the research suggests relatively few voters noticed. There was little discernment between, say, a flaming liberal and a more accommodating Democrat; in most voters' minds they fell under the same party umbrella.

In addition, voters will have to be less partisan themselves, showing a far greater willingness to support a moderate of the other party over a more extreme member of their own. Research into 2012's state Assembly races found an exceedingly small percentage of so-called cross-over voters: just 5.5% of Democrats and 7.6% of Republicans sided with a candidate from the other party.

Now, it does turn out that moderate Republicans were more willing to cross over than any other group: 16.4 percent of them crossed over to vote for Democrats. However, this is most likely due to the simple fact that California has a lot more Democratic districts than Republican ones. This means there are a lot more districts where voting for a Republican is useless—and always has been.

The full set of studies is here. Bottom line: early evidence doesn't suggest that a top-two primary makes much difference. Perhaps it will in the future as voters get more accustomed to it, but for now they're voting the same way they always have, and for the same kinds of candidates.

Google Can Do Well With Its New Communications Products, But Only If It Acts Like a Genuine Startup

| Sat Feb. 7, 2015 7:18 PM EST

Brian Fung tells us that Google is making a "serious play in the communications space," featuring an aggressive strategy that includes rollouts of new products like ultra-fast internet service, new smartphones, and even wireless service:

Google’s investments in telecom pit the company against some of the largest voice and Internet providers around. But Google has a key advantage: It doesn’t make its money from Internet service subscribers. That’s why it will be able to drive down prices for consumers, to adopt business practices that would be unsustainable for other carriers and to influence Washington policy debates in surprising ways.

“This is a multilayered strategy,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president for the consumer group Public Knowledge. “Even if Google only makes 10 percent profit margin on its fiber and wireless offerings, that’s enough for it to be successful and to achieve the desired result of driving more use of its applications.”

This isn't quite right. Or maybe I should say it's only half right. It's true that these new services will probably help Google increase sales of its core products, thus offsetting low margins in the communications space. But that's not the real reason Google can afford to do this. The real reason is that Google is a new entrant, which means that entering these new businesses doesn't force it to cannibalize any of its current businesses.

This is the key problem that kills old companies when new technology hits the street. Every cheap new widget they sell means one less expensive old widget they sell, and very few companies have the stones to just accept reality and really dive into the new widgets regardless. So they sell the new widgets, but only half-heartedly. They defeature them. They limit their sales channels. They don't spend enough on marketing. Meanwhile, a startup with no such issues eats their lunch because their new widgets are their main business and they just sell the hell out of them.

That's Google's big advantage in this space. The fact that entering the telecom business might—might!—boost sales of other Google products is great, but it's just a bonus, and not one they should be thinking too hard about. In fact, if their new products are tailored too tightly as mere helpers for their old product lines, they could end up in the same position as all those old dinosaur companies that couldn't quite put their hearts into new tech. That road is well trod, and it's usually a pretty grim one.

Today's Intriguing News About New Contraception Options

| Sat Feb. 7, 2015 6:34 PM EST

Megan Thielking tells me something I didn't know today:

With some financial help from the Gates Foundation, Massachusetts drug manufacturer MicroCHIPS Biotech is developing an implantable contraceptive for women. Contraceptive implants currently on the market are thin plastic devices that are put under the skin on the upper arm, where they release hormones for up to three years. If a woman decides she wants to have a baby, the implant needs to be removed.

But the MicroCHIPS implant will last up to 16 years, and women will be able to turn it off via remote control if they're trying to get pregnant. Trials in humans are expected to start next year, but the same microchip technology has been tested successfully in women with osteoporosis. MicroCHIPS Biotech says the implant could reasonably be on the market by 2018.

There are also some new options for male contraception that look promising. Interesting stuff.

Book Bleg Followup

| Sat Feb. 7, 2015 2:30 PM EST

A few days ago I asked for reading recommendations that wouldn't tax my brain too much since my chemotherapy regimen has left me more fatigued than usual. Light, multi-part fiction was my primary request. There were loads of ideas, and I figured some readers might appreciate a quick summary. Here are the five that got the most positive comments:

  • Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series
  • Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series
  • Terry Pratchett's Discworld series
  • James Corey's Expanse series
  • Alan Furst's Night Soldiers series

I probably made this thread harder than it needed to be by not mentioning stuff I've read or genres I don't like that much. Pure genre mystery stories, for example (Christie, Hillerman, Leonard, etc.), have never done much for me. On the flip side, I've read lots of 20th century science fiction (Asimov, Heinlein, Willis, etc. etc.), so there's not a lot new to recommend there. Among specific recommendations that popped up several times:

  • I've read James Clavell's Asia series and loved it. Maybe I should reread it!
  • I've read Red/Green/Blue Mars. Meh.
  • I made it halfway through Wolf Hall and finally gave up. That doesn't happen often.
  • I've read everything by Neal Stephenson. Big fan.
  • I've read lots of John Scalzi, and all of the Old Man's War series.
  • I've read Roger Zelazny's Amber series about, oh, a dozen or two times. It begins with maybe the best first chapter ever written. Obviously I'm a big fan.
  • I've tried a couple of Iain Banks' Culture novels and I've just never been able to get into them.
  • I've read most everything by John LeCarre. But it's not a bad suggestion. I'm sure there are a few I've missed.
  • I've read Charlie Stross's Merchant Princes series but didn't care for it much. Ditto for the one Laundry book I read. It's too bad since I like most of his other stuff.

Anyway, thanks for the suggestions, and I hope everyone enjoyed it. I also got some good nonfiction recommendations, including several by email that didn't end up on the comment thread. Much appreciated.

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What Do America's Most Admired Men and Women Say About America?

| Sat Feb. 7, 2015 1:07 PM EST

This is a month old, but Tyler Cowen happened to highlight it today so I thought I'd pass it along. Here are America's most admired men and women at the end of 2014:

I suppose there are no huge surprises here. Presidents and first ladies always do well. People in the news often do well. And while I was alarmed when I saw Vladimir Putin on the list in Cowen's post, I'm a little less alarmed now. He's at the very bottom of the 1 percenters, which likely means he was named by something like 0.6 percent of Americans and then rounded up. This comes to a grand total of about five people in the survey group, which I suppose is nothing to get too stirred up about.

Not a single dead person continues to make the list, which explains why Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher are off the list. Queen Elizabeth II is a perennial favorite and she's still alive, but after the excitement of her Diamond Jubilee faded, I guess she did too.

What's the biggest surprise on the list? I'd say Condoleezza Rice. She's remarkably high on the list for someone associated with an unpopular war and not much recent news coverage. She's at the very top of the list among Republicans, though, so there must be more going on here than I realize. Rice has been rising in popularity over the last couple of years, and surely that's not just because she was part of college football's playoff selection committee last year, was it? Nor do I feel like I see her on Fox News a lot. So what's going on?

Completely missing from the list are: sports stars, military figures, authors and artists not already famous for something else, and liberal pundits of any kind. Almost missing are politicians aside from ex-presidents and first ladies (Elizabeth Warren is the exception—barely); Republican presidential wannabes (Ben Carson is the exception); and scientists (Stephen Hawking is the exception, almost certainly based solely on the recent biopic). Overall, conservative men do much better than conservative women.

As Cowen asks, "Given who is on the list, what should we infer about America as a nation? About human nature?"

John Boehner's Big Triumph Is Now Just a Big Shit Sandwich

| Fri Feb. 6, 2015 10:14 PM EST

I could use a good laugh, and this afternoon I got one. For starters, as the White House hinted yesterday, Joe Biden won't be attending Benjamin Netanyahu's speech next month before a joint session of Congress. Apparently he'll be out of the country that day:

The vice president’s office on Friday confirmed the plans to skip the March 3 speech. “We are not ready to announce details of his trip yet, and normally our office wouldn’t announce this early, but the planning process has been underway for a while,” a spokesperson for the office said.

So where exactly will Joe be? Well, um, somewhere. The planning process "has been underway for a while," the White House insists with a straight face, but they don't know yet what country they've been planning to send him to. But they'll think of one. Maybe Latvia or something.

This is all part of the mounting fury from Democrats in Congress and the White House over the speech, and it's become increasingly clear that the whole thing is a major blunder for Netanyahu. But who to blame? The invitation came from Speaker of the House John Boehner, so why not blame him? Today Netanyahu did exactly that, throwing him under the proverbial bus with barely a passing glance:

A senior Israeli official suggested on Friday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been misled into thinking an invitation to address the U.S. Congress on Iran next month was fully supported by the Democrats...."It appears that the speaker of Congress made a move, in which we trusted, but which it ultimately became clear was a one sided move and not a move by both sides," Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told 102 FM Tel Aviv Radio on Friday.

Poor John Boehner. You almost feel sorry for the guy sometimes. President Obama has been running rings around him for months now, infuriating the Republican caucus and causing Boehner endless headaches over Cuba, immigration, net neutrality, Homeland Security shutdowns, and dozens of other subjects. No matter how hard he tries, Boehner just hasn't been able to get ahead of any of this. Instead he's been forced over and over to respond to Obama's agenda while desperately trying to keep the peace among the tea partiers who control his future.

Then, finally, it looked like he'd pulled something off. He announced the Netanyahu speech two weeks ago, catching the president off guard and garnering huzzahs from every corner of the the conservative movement. Finally, a victory!

But now it's all turned to ashes. His big spectacle is in tatters, with Democrats in open revolt and pundits of all stripes agreeing that he overreached by going around the White House on a foreign policy matter. It's been nothing but a headache, and even Netanyahu has joined the lynch mob now. What's worse, there's nothing he can do. The speech is still four weeks away, and Boehner has no choice but to let the whole dreary debacle play out. He already knows his show is a flop, but the curtain has to come up anyway and Boehner has to keep a stiff upper lip the whole time.

Poor guy.

Friday Cat Blogging - 6 February 2015

| Fri Feb. 6, 2015 4:22 PM EST

My sister is the guest curator for catblogging this week, and this was her selection. I always call this "being a lizard cat," especially when they strike this pose outside on a nice sunny patio.

This is also the aftermath of being a burrito cat. Hopper likes to burrow into the quilt on the sofa and then stretch out, which makes the whole thing look like a cat burrito. A purring burrito. But then, I've always thought that burritos could be improved by a bit of purring. Right?

We May All Be Sinners, But Please Shut Up About Our Actual Sins

| Fri Feb. 6, 2015 4:16 PM EST

Religious conservatives are mad at President Obama again. I suppose the appropriate reaction is a big yawn, since they're always mad at President Obama. It hardly matters what new horror he's ostensibly perpetrated, does it?

Still, this latest brouhaha is kind of interesting. Obama was speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast and said this:

As we speak, around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another....But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon....So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history....This is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.

Hmmm. Nothing wrong with that. We are all sinners, and sometimes we don't live up to our highest ideals. Still, God calls on us to keep trying. This is the kind of thing we hear from fundamentalist preachers all the time—except for one thing. Obama actually named names. Here's the bit I left out in the second paragraph:

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

It's one thing to agree that we are all sinners. But apparently it's quite another to provide an example or two. America's conservative Christians really, really don't like that. They prefer to be make-believe sinners, not actual sinners who might have some actual sins to account for. Obama decided not to give them such an easy out, and that made them spitting mad.

It's easy enough to laugh at this kind of cowardly refusal to acknowledge real sin. But that aside, Christopher Ingraham argues that Obama omitted a key nuance:

Some slave traders may indeed have sought justification for their actions in the Christian faith, but much of the trade was driven by economic reasons (a demand for cheap labor) and racism. The Crusades were just as much about political power as they were about religion.

....But the evidence also shows that religion has become a much more powerful motivator of terrorism in the past 15 years or so....And most religiously-motivated terrorism today is perpetrated by Islamist terrorists in the name of their misreading of Islam. Fully two-thirds of terror-related deaths in 2013 were caused by just four Islamist groups — Al Qaeda and its affiliates, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Islamic State, and the Taliban.

I'd be mighty careful about this. The fact that Islamic jihadists say they're inspired by religion doesn't mean that's their sole motivation. Like the Crusades and slavery, the real motivations are much more varied. After all, Islam has been Islam for 14 centuries, but al-Qaeda style jihadi terrorism is a fairly recent phenomenon.

So what happened in the 70s and 80s that suddenly turned a relatively peaceful religion into a persistent wellspring of terrorist attacks? Probably not anything about religion itself. That's just the public justification. Underneath, there's a whole stew of anti-colonialism; hatred of occupation by foreign powers; lack of economic opportunity for young men; geopolitical maneuverings; tribal enmities; fear of cultural subjugation; hostility toward Israel; and dozens of other things. Religion is part of it, and religion may often be the hook that sucks angry young men into jihadi groups, but it's far from the whole story. We make a big mistake if we look solely at the surface and go no further.