Kevin Drum

Russia, Iran Might Be Slightly Out of Sync on Syria

| Mon Nov. 2, 2015 6:02 PM EST

The latest on Syria:

A source close to the Russian delegation at the meeting told Asharq Al-Awsat there had been some disagreements between the Russian and Iranian delegations in Vienna regarding the fate of Assad.

“Russia is dealing with the [question of] the fate of the presidency in Syria from the point of view of the legitimacy of the regime. In that sense it is not insisting on particular people; it is more concerned that any transition in governance must follow international protocols and laws,” the source, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said.

Iran, on the other hand, is very insistent on Assad himself . . . because it fears losing its influence in Syria if [his] regime is removed.”

Is this true? Does it matter? I don't know. I do know that I probably don't want the United States getting into the middle of this.

Also: if I were Assad, this might make me a wee bit nervous about my partner-in-arms, Vladimir Putin. I figure Putin is helping out Syria to (a) test his military in live combat, (b) give the United States a poke in the eye, and (c) keep things quiet along his southern border. None of those things really require Assad at the helm. If someone better comes along, that might be the end of a beautiful friendship.

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Quote of the Day: Who's Afraid of a Few Snobs?

| Mon Nov. 2, 2015 3:02 PM EST

From Freddie deBoer:

The anxiety that someone, somewhere is looking down their nose at your cultural consumption is the most exhausting aspect of being a consumer of art criticism today.

The topic here, oddly enough, is the demise of Grantland. Since I never read it, I have no idea if deBoer's larger point has merit. But you can always click the link and decide for yourself.

Note to the Left: Let's Save Accusations of Racism and Sexism for Stuff That's Really Racist and Sexist

| Mon Nov. 2, 2015 2:44 PM EST

In the previous post, I called Marco Rubio the next human piñata in the Republican primary. On Twitter I got called out for this: "I think we can all agree that describing Hispanics as 'pinatas' is offensive."

Ralph Nader is mad at Janet Yellen for keeping interest rates low, so he wrote her an open letter suggesting that she sit down with her "Nobel Prize winning husband, economist George Akerlof, who is known to be consumer-sensitive."  Jordan Weissmann called out Nader: "Yes, Ralph Nader just told the most powerful woman in the world to take more tips from her husband."

Neither of these is a big deal. Still, it's way past time to knock it off. "Piñata" is a common term for anyone who's getting beat up, Hispanic or otherwise. And Nader wants Yellen to talk to Akerlof because he thinks Akerlof agrees with him, not because Akerlof is Yellen's husband.

I wouldn't care so much about this except that I think it does real harm to the cause of fighting racism and sexism. In bigger doses it makes us all look silly, and provides an endless series of excuses for ordinary folks to get exasperated at us and for conservatives not to take any of it seriously. We really need to stop this. If conservatives want to be offensive, at least make them work for excuses to ignore those of us who care about this stuff. We're making it too easy for them.

Marco Rubio Wins Coveted Role of Republican Piñata

| Mon Nov. 2, 2015 1:37 PM EST

The lazy gits at the major polling houses still haven't produced any national updates since last week's Republican debate, but today Monmouth released a poll for New Hampshire. As usual, I'm more interested in change than absolute levels, and on that score the big winner from last week was Marco Rubio. (Trump and Carson still lead, with Rubio in third.) Anyway, I assume this means that Rubio now has a big fat target painted on his back, and this means we'll soon be treated to a brand new insult from Donald Trump. The obvious route for Trump is to mock Rubio's inability to balance his own checkbook, but I'm hoping for something more original. Immigration is too obvious. Water bottle jokes are stale. Maybe something about disloyalty to Jeb Bush? Or maybe a tweet about Marco's favorite business book being Dress for Success? Maybe he should suggest that Rubio is the Cersei Lannister of Republicans? Is that too esoteric? Or a great pop culture reference?

Anyway, Rubio better watch out. It's his turn to get knifed in the back in the great scrum called the GOP primary.

Republicans Love Giving Away Free Stuff — But Only to People Who Already Have Lots of Stuff

| Mon Nov. 2, 2015 12:10 PM EST

Over at Vox, Christopher Faricy tells us that both Democrats and Republicans like to give away free stuff:

The main difference between the two political parties is not whether to deliver government benefits to supporters but rather who those supporters are. The Republican Party’s core socioeconomic voting groups are wealthier households and businesses, both of which benefit when social welfare is provided through the tax code rather than through explicit spending.

We are talking here of tax expenditures, that lovely oxymoron in which welfare for the rich is disguised as a tax cut. Tax expenditures include just about anything that gives people a tax break: health savings accounts, retirement accounts, the mortgage interest deduction, and so forth. These are usually pitched as ways to help the average Joe, but in fact the average Joe usually doesn't take much advantage of them. And when the average Joe does, his tax rate is low enough that it doesn't help much.

But high earners are a different story. About 70 percent of the benefit of all tax expenditures goes to top earners. For that reason, the chart on the right should come as no surprise: Republicans love tax expenditures, while Democrats are lukewarm about them. On average, tax expenditures have gone up about 12 percent under Republicans, but less than 5 percent under Democrats.

Bottom line: To quote Jeb Bush, the Republican message is "Get in line, and we'll take care of you with free stuff." But only if the free stuff goes to corporations and the wealthy.

Marijuana Legalization Is the New Gay Marriage

| Mon Nov. 2, 2015 11:36 AM EST

Now that gay marriage is legal, what's next? We liberals need a new movement that will once again put conservatives on the wrong side of history. The LA Times reports the answer might be marijuana:

The latest sign was the full-throated call last week by Sen. Bernie Sanders to end federal prohibition. With that one move, the candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination plunged into uncharted territory — and, arguably, so did the presidential race. Never before has a contender with so much to lose so unequivocally suggested that smoking a joint should be viewed the same as drinking a beer, at least in the eyes of the law.

....Hillary Rodham Clinton has told small audiences in the pot havens of Oregon and Colorado that marijuana businesses in states where it is legal need relief from federal restrictions that can make it impossible for them to operate.

Back in 2009—in a piece whose headline I still don't get—I predicted that marijuana would be generally legal by 2019. That's only a bit more than three years away, and so far it's legal in only four states (Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Alaska). However, 24/7 Wall St., which rather charmingly tracks marijuana commodity prices compiled by New Leaf Data Services,1 thinks another 11 states are getting close. And the latest Gallup poll shows that 58 percent of American favor pot legalization. That's not quite up to the magic two-thirds level that's often the tipping point for broad social change, but it's close. We might get there by 2019 yet.

1Here's the latest: "For the week ended Friday, October 30, the spot price index for a pound of cannabis increased by $51 (2.7%) from $1,790 in the prior week to $1,839. The simple (non-volume weighted) average price for a gram increased by 22 cents to $4.58." Futures and forward prices were also up.

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New Study Suggests That ADA Works Pretty Well In the Job Market

| Mon Nov. 2, 2015 10:51 AM EST

If you're a hiring manage and you've been getting a lot of resumes lately, this might not have anything to do with an improving economy. It might instead be due to the blizzard of academic research that's conducted by sending out thousands of resumes with tiny differences in order to figure out how hiring managers respond to race/college/political party/hobbies/etc. The latest experiment is to see how hiring managers respond to disabilities, and the results are more interesting than you might think. Here are the basic results:

No surprise here. If you indicate that you have any kind of disability, there's less interest in hiring you, and these results are consistent across all sizes of companies—though they're more pronounced in small companies—and across both private-sector and public-sector employers. But now take a look at this:

When it comes to getting an actual callback, small companies are far less likely to respond if you have a disability. But larger companies show little discrimination at all. In fact, many of them are more likely to call you back if you have a disability. The most dramatic difference is among government hiring managers: if you don't have a disability, no callback. If you do have a disability, the rate of callbacks is the highest in the study. The authors provide the most obvious explanation:

Given that small employers are not subject to the ADA, this result suggests that small employers are engaging in discrimination while the ADA is constraining discriminatory behavior of medium and large employers. The story is complicated, however, by the lack of clear changes in employer responses at the ADA employment threshold...and by consideration of state DDL’s....This latter result may be due to a lack of knowledge of state laws among small employers, while the federal ADA is much better known. Large employers are more likely to have formal HR departments that will be aware of both the ADA and state requirements, and may be more likely to have prior experience in hiring people with disabilities so they are more comfortable in considering applicants with disabilities.

So the picture is complicated, but the most likely interpretation is that ADA has been fairly successful in the job market. If you pass a law that forbids discrimination, and then enforce it, you get results. It's yet another example of big government working pretty well.

A Billionaire Sued Us. We Won. But We Still Have Big Legal Bills to Pay.

| Sun Nov. 1, 2015 10:30 PM EST

By now, you've probably read about Mother Jones' landmark legal win against Frank VanderSloot, a billionaire political donor. If you haven't, you can read the full backstory here (it's riveting). Or, if you're feeling lazy, here's the TL;DR version:

After the Citizens United decision allowed wealthy political donors to drastically increase their spending, we wrote a piece about one such donor: Frank VanderSloot. He and his company were among the biggest donors to Romney's super-PAC. It was a straightforward bit of investigative reporting: letting readers know who was funding the campaign.

VanderSloot saw it differently. His lawyers sent us letters complaining about the piece. We didn’t retract our story, and in 2013 he sued us for defamation. Earlier this month, shortly before the case was set to go to trial, an Idaho judge dismissed the lawsuit, finding that our reporting was accurate and that the article was protected under the First Amendment.

It was a huge victory. We were up against a powerful billionaire and we won. But it came at a great cost: at least $2.5 million for us and our insurer, and $650,000 in out-of-pocket expenses for Mother Jones, to be precise. Everyone's been asking whether we can recoup our attorney's fees from VanderSloot, but unfortunately the answer is no.

The win means a lot to me, personally, too. As someone who writes about rich and powerful people, it's good to know that the First Amendment is alive and well. And it makes me beyond proud to write for Mother Jones: Not too many other shops would have had the guts to fight back, but we knew you'd expect us to, and that you'd have our back if we took a stand.

If you haven't already, can you pitch in to help us pay our legal bills? If you can, your donation will be doubled by First Look Media's Press Freedom Litigation Fund—they're matching up to $74,999 in donations (the same amount VanderSloot sued us for). You can give by credit card or PayPal.

Republican Candidates Agree on List of Debate Demands

| Sun Nov. 1, 2015 8:47 PM EST

After last week's CNBC fiasco, Republican candidates for president are meeting tonight to discuss their conditions for participating in future debates. A source with one of the campaigns has been texting me from inside the meeting with a list of their demands:

  1. There will be no "gotcha" questions about math.
  2. All graphics that appear beside candidates must be approved by the campaign.
  3. There will be a ten-minute break halfway through the debate.
  4. Each candidate will be allowed to phone a friend for one question.
  5. All 14 candidates will be allowed on the main stage. At the end of each 15-minute period, candidates will vote one participant out of the debate. In the final round, the seven remaining candidates will get to ask the moderators questions.
  6. No non-English speaking networks will be allowed to participate.
  7. Each podium will include the candidate's website address in a minimum of 3-inch type.
  8. Male moderators must wear red ties.
  9. Each campaign will be allowed to veto a maximum of two moderators each.
  10. Fox News will be exempt from all these rules.
  11. Candidates can "steal" a question from another candidate once per debate.
  12. Frank Luntz "dial" responses will be run across the screen in real time.

Three of these are real and have been seriously discussed. Can you guess which ones? Answer here.

Marijuana for Millionaires

| Sun Nov. 1, 2015 2:31 PM EST

Yesterday a friend emailed to ask if I had any thoughts about Ohio's Issue 3, which would fully legalize marijuana cultivation and sale in the state. Ohio? I barely pay attention to California, let alone Ohio.

But Issue 3 turns out to be surprisingly fascinating—or venal and repellent, depending on your tolerance for sleaze. Apparently one of the authors of the initiative came across a Rand report on marijuana written by a bevy of drug-policy worthies, and it offered up a dozen possible options for legalization. One of them is called "structured oligopoly":

It is natural to ask whether there is some way to get for-profit businesses to behave in the public interest. The answer is “Perhaps.”

....States might prefer [] to offer only a limited number of licenses, creating artificial scarcity that makes the licenses valuable—valuable enough that firms will have a strong incentive to cooperate with regulators rather than risk revocation....Limiting the number of licensees also makes monitoring their behavior easier. A rogue company could more easily break the rules if it were one of 1,000 licensees than if it were one of just ten.

....So a structured-oligopoly strategy might involve licensing a limited number of firms, monitoring them closely, and not being shy about rescinding a firm’s license if it behaves in ways contrary to the public interest.

This might not be your cup of tea, but let's stipulate that it has some potential. How would you distribute these licenses? The straightforward approach is to auction them off for set periods. Unfortunately, this has a big drawback: it maximizes the payment for licenses, and thus minimizes the profit of the oligopolists. This is obviously vexing.

So how about this instead? Pick out ten rich friends. Each is required to put up $2 million to help pass a ballot initiative. In return, you promise to write the names of the investors directly into the initiative, giving them a perpetual and exclusive right to grow marijuana in the state of Ohio.1 In addition, you write a special, unalterable flat tax rate into the law, as well as a minuscule annual licensing fee. Now that's an oligopoly you can believe in! Keith Humphreys, who brought this to my attention, has a few comments:

It has taken the alcohol industry decades of lobbying to roll back many of the restrictive, public health-oriented regulations established after the end of Prohibition. Booze industry executives must look with envy upon the emerging marijuana industry, which can use the ballot initiative process to achieve complete regulatory capture from day one.

....No one should be surprised that in a country with an entrepreneurial culture, a commitment to free markets, and a political system highly attuned to corporate donations, legalized marijuana would develop a significant corporate presence. Indeed, many drug policy analysts, including me, expected this to happen eventually. But the rate at which the change is happening is truly startling, and will become even more so if the Ohio initiative passes.

If the marijuana industry ends up being a clone of the tobacco industry, will legalization supporters experience buyers' remorse? It depends who you ask.

Well, you could ask me. I don't care what they're legalizing. This stinks. It's crony capitalism without even a veneer of decency, and if it applied to anything else nobody would have the gall to ever let it see the light of day. If this is the price of pot legalization, count me out.

1Technically, no names are actually in the initiative. Instead, it limits marijuana cultivation to ten specific parcels of land that are owned by the ten investors. Also, individuals are allowed to cultivate small amounts for their own recreational use if they get a license.