Kevin Drum

Sentences I Did Not Expect to Read Anytime Soon

| Sun Jun. 15, 2014 11:01 PM EDT

Here's the latest on the ISIS insurgency in Iraq:

The Obama administration said it is preparing to open direct talks with Iran on how the two longtime foes can counter the insurgents.

The U.S.-Iran dialogue, which is expected to begin this week, will mark the latest in a rapid move toward rapprochement between Washington and Tehran over the past year....Iranian President Hasan Rouhani said on Saturday that his government was open to cooperating with the U.S. in Iraq and that he exchanged letters with President Obama.

Um, what?

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Friday the 13th Black Cat Blogging - 13 June 2014

| Fri Jun. 13, 2014 2:55 PM EDT

Last night I found myself idly wondering what the deal was with that iPhone ad featuring a song about chicken fat. In our glorious modern era, of course, even the idlest curiosity can be satisfied in a few seconds, so after the Miami Heat had slunk back to their locker room I came out and googled it. It turns out that I'm just barely too young to remember its origins. It was written by Meredith Willson (of Music Man fame) as part of John F. Kennedy's physical fitness program in the early 60s and performed by Robert Preston. The idea was to send recordings to schools across the country, where it could be played for our nation's youth in an effort to get them to shape up.

So that's that. But in my googling I came across a few other comments about the revival of this song. I wanted to share this one from Danger Guerrero:

Okay, so there are two things going on here. The first thing is that Apple is promoting the fitness-assisting capabilities of its fancy new product by using a quirky, notable fitness-related song from over 50 years ago.

....The second and much more important thing is that apparently John F. Kennedy commissioned the creator of The Music Man to write a song that would inspire pudgy children to do push-ups, and that guy went back to Kennedy at some point after that with a song riddled with lyrics like “Nuts to the flabby guys! Go, you chicken fat, go away!,” to which Kennedy replied, presumably, “Perfect. Ship it to every school in America.” This is incredible. And can you even imagine the left-right poo-flinging that would take place on cable news if this happened today? It would be chaos. Hannity’s head might literally explode on-camera. I vote we try it.

So now you're probably wondering what this has to do with Friday Catblogging. Nothing, really. I suppose I could make up some connection, but there isn't one. I just felt like mentioning it. But now your patience is rewarded. Today you get to see what greets me every time I get out of the shower in the morning. A cat. Just sitting there waiting for me in the most inconvenient possible spot, so I have nowhere to step out. In other words, typical feline behavior. She seems very pleased with herself, and I think she was especially pleased today when she forced me to step over a black cat on Friday the 13th. Apparently no one has told her that if I get hit by a meteor, the cat food gravy train dries up.

Chart of the Day: There's Still No Wage Pressure in the US Economy

| Fri Jun. 13, 2014 2:33 PM EDT

This is just a reminder from Jared Bernstein, who analyzed five different measures of wage growth to produce the chart below. Ever since the end of the Great Recession, wage growth has been under 2 percent. It's still under 2 percent, and shows no signs of increasing. This is yet another indication that the recovery is weak, the labor market has a lot of slack, and there's no inflation in sight.

Quote of the Day: "We Had It Won....We Had It Won....We Had It Won."

| Fri Jun. 13, 2014 2:19 PM EDT

From John McCain this morning, speaking about the resurgent civil war in Iraq:

We had it won. Thanks to the surge and thanks to Gen. David Petraeus, we had it won....The fact is we had the conflict won, and we had a stable government, and a residual force such as we have left behind ... but the president wanted out and now we are paying a very heavy price.

John McCain is now the Donald Sterling of foreign affairs: old, angry, retrograde, and only barely in touch with the real world. This is the same guy who declared Iraq safe after taking a carefully staged stroll through a fruit market in Baghdad seven years ago, and he hasn't been willing to engage with reality any more seriously ever since. He's just sure that we had it won, that American troops had victory in their grasp, and now it's all turned to ashes. And since the actual politics of the region seem to be beyond him, all he can do is rage at President Obama for somehow ruining his lovely pretend victory.

It's a little sad in a way, and perhaps sadder still that the media continues to give him the means to keep embarrassing himself on national TV. It's time to move on, guys.

Adding a Private Option to VA Health Care Is Going to Cost a Bundle. We Should Study Whether It Works.

| Fri Jun. 13, 2014 1:00 PM EDT

As part of the deal to fund new VA facilities in underserved areas, Democrats agreed to a Republican proposal that would allow veterans to seek private health care if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or if they have been waiting more than 30 days for an appointment. Here's what the CBO has to say about that:

Maybe this is a good thing. Better access to health care means more people will sign up for health care, and they'll do it via private providers. That's the basic idea behind Obamacare, after all. Of course, it's also possible that this might be a bad thing. As Phil Longman points out, outsourced care lacks the very thing that makes VA care so effective: "an integrated, evidence-based, health care delivery system platform that is aligned with the interests of its patients."

Because the VA truly is a system, it can coordinate among all the different specialists and other health care providers who are necessarily involved in patient care these days. And because it operates as a system, the VA can also make sure that all these medical professionals are working from a common electronic medical record and adhering to established, evidence-based protocols of care—not inadvertently ordering up dangerous combinations of drugs, or performing unnecessary surgeries and tests just to make a buck.

So which is it? Beats me. That's why I sure hope someone is authorizing some money to study this from the start. It's a great opportunity to compare public and private health care on metrics of both quality and cost. It's not a perfect RCT, but it's fairly close, since the people who qualify for private care are a fairly random subsegment of the entire VA population. If we study their outcomes over the next few years, we could learn a lot.

And that's important, because this isn't cheap. As CRFB points out, if this policy is extended beyond its initial pilot period it will cost more than we saved from the entire defense sequester and more than Medicare Part D. This is an opportunity that shouldn't be passed up.

The Latest From California: Obamacare is Working

| Fri Jun. 13, 2014 11:17 AM EDT

California's biggest health insurer says there won't be any Obamacare rate shock next year:

In the strongest indication yet where Obamacare rates are headed, industry giant Anthem Blue Cross said its California premiums for individual coverage will increase less than 10% on average next year....[Anthem Blue Cross President Mark Morgan] said the age and projected medical costs of new enrollees are in line with the company's expectations thus far.

California is a big state that had a successful Obamacare rollout, and there's no telling if we'll see the same kinds of rate hikes in other states. But it's telling that Morgan said the demographic profile of its new Obamacare enrollees was about what they were expecting. Presumably, they're also seeing new enrollees pay their first premiums at about the rate they expected.

Note that these are no longer just vague predictions. Anthem and other insurers filed their rate increase applications with the state last week, and final rates will be set a few weeks from now.

Obamacare got off to a rough start. But despite endless hysterics from an endless stream of conservative talking heads—enrollment numbers are low, there aren't enough young people, nobody is paying their premiums, blah blah blah—Obamacare is working. It's not perfect, and it could be better if Republicans were willing to allow improvements. But it's working.

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Eric Cantor's Surprise Defeat Means Virtually Nothing

| Fri Jun. 13, 2014 10:50 AM EDT

Brian Beutler emerged from his cave to get some lunch after 48 hours of covering Cantormania and discovered that....the rest of the world doesn't care:

When I arrived, the people in line were as bored and diet-conscious as they always are. Most of them were looking down into their smartphones. A few chatted with colleagues or fellow tourists about trivia like the weather (it was hot). Nobody seemed to realize that something extraordinary had just happened.

The profound contrast to the humming worlds of political Twitter, the U.S. Capitol, K Street, and Web Traffic™ now strikes me as incredibly apt symbolism. Three days later, Cantor's defeat still the biggest story in American electoral politics. But its legacy is shaping up to be a lot more humdrum than the buzz and and excitement surrounding it imply.

I'd go even further. Cantor's loss was a shock because no one predicted it. And of course, Cantor was a big wheel. But all the talk about the rise of right-wing populism or a civil war with the GOP or the victory of the tea party is just nonsense. It's just flatly not there.

Look. Cantor fucked up and something weird happened in Virginia's 7th district. But guess what? There have been lots of other primaries too this year. In some of them a tea-party conservative has won. In most of them, the incumbent won. When you look at the broad picture, you can't pretend that Cantor's loss overwhelms everything else. It doesn't. It's one primary, and it counts as one primary. And that means the broad picture is about the same as everyone thought a week ago: the Republican Party is becoming more conservative; the tea party largely controls the party's agenda in Congress; and occasionally there are going to be some primary upsets. As near as I can tell, there haven't been any more this year than in 2010 or 2012.

So don't let the shock of Cantor's defeat get to you. It's shocking mainly because all the pollsters got it wrong. But the fact that some pollsters screwed up means that....some pollsters screwed up. It doesn't mean there's an upheaval in the GOP that's changed the face of American politics. That upheaval is four years old, and we already know all about it.

We Hate Each Other, We Really Hate Each Other

| Fri Jun. 13, 2014 12:37 AM EDT

Pew has released a gigantic survey report on political polarization in America, and everyone will find fascinating nuggets throughout. The most consistent takeaways are these:

  • Polarization has increased considerably over the past few decades.
  • Both sides have moved away from the center, but conservatives have moved further.
  • Both sides tend to be more cocooned than in the past, but more conservatives live in a bubble than liberals.
  • Conservatives vote a helluva lot more than liberals. But you already knew that.

Here are three of my favorite charts from the report, picked semi-randomly. First up is one that I choose to interpret as supporting my view of Fox News as the primary source of the most toxic Gingrichian tendencies in the Republican Party. Take a look at the right side of this chart. Among consistent liberals, their dislike of the Republican Party goes down in the late 90s, then up in the aughts, then down again after 2010. This seems reasonably explainable by a growing antipathy whenever a Republican is president.

Now look at the left side. There's no such trend. Among consistent conservatives, dislike of the Democratic Party just goes up and up and up. These are the most rabid Fox watchers, and I'd submit that this is the most likely explanation for their skyrocketing hatred of Democrats.

Second, here's what people do and don't like. As every liberal has insisted forever, and as every conservative has vociferously denied just as long, conservatives are much more likely to be open racists. The more conservative you are, the more likely you are to be unhappy if a family member marries someone of another race. This is in the year 2014.

In the spirit of equal time, you see exactly the same dismay among liberals at the prospect of a family member marrying a gun owner. In fairness, however, gun ownership is an active personal choice that informs a person's character, so this is more defensible.

Third, here's yet more confirmation that atheists are still the most distrusted people in the country. An astounding 73 percent of consistent conservatives would be unhappy if a family member married an atheist. Hell, even 24 percent of consistent liberals would be unhappy at the prospect. Jeebus.

Missing the Point With Statistics

| Thu Jun. 12, 2014 5:52 PM EDT

I just caught a few minutes of the Brazil-Croatia World Cup opener ("patient possession football" said the announcer, which apparently means kinda slow and humdrum), and before I knew it, it was halftime. So I switched over to CNN to see if anything was going on, and caught a pretty good example of how to miss the point with statistics. The chart at issue is on the right. According to James Alan Fox of Northeastern University, mass shootings aren't on the rise, even though it might seem that they are. But there's something missing from this analysis, and regular readers who know my hobbyhorses should be able to guess what it is.

Is it the fact that the yellow line does, in fact, seem to be rising steadily? No. An eyeball analysis suggests that it is, but it's not a big rise, and anyway, it's probably accounted for by population growth.

Nope, it's this: Since 1993, the rate of violent crime in America has plummeted by half. That's the background to measure this against. In general, America has become a much safer, much less lethal place, and yet mass shootings have remained steady. Compared to the background rate of violent crime, mass shootings have doubled. Why?

And here's an equally interesting question: between 1976 and 1993, violent crime increased by a significant amount, but mass shootings remained steady. Again, why?

Raw numbers are a starting point, but they don't tell the whole story. If Americans, on average, are considerably less violent than they were 20 years ago, shouldn't mass shootings be down? The answer presumably, is that mass shootings are actually up when you measure them correctly, or else that mass shootings have nothing to do with violent tendencies in general. My guess is the latter, and it would be genuinely interesting to hear from experts about why this is.

Iraq's Problems Are Not Ones That America Can Solve

| Thu Jun. 12, 2014 2:56 PM EDT

One of the things that liberals chattered about endlessly in the latter stages of the Iraq War—and which seemed to annoy conservatives just as endlessly—was the simple claim that Iraq's problems were fundamentally political, not military. There would be no lasting peace in Iraq unless and until there was a political accommodation between the Kurds, the Shia, and the Sunni—especially the latter two. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seemed completely uninterested in reaching any sort of genuine power-sharing agreement with the Sunni minority that had ruled Iraq in Saddam's day, and no amount of cajoling from Americans swayed him even a little. Without that, any kind of durable peace in Iraq was out of reach, so it made sense for us to leave in 2011. Why remain when there was little we could do that would truly make a difference?

This is why our withdrawal from Iraq is no more than a tiny peripheral factor in the growing jihadist Sunni rebellion that's overwhelming Iraq right now. Ditto for our reluctance to arm "moderates" in the Syrian civil war. Laying the blame there is mostly just a tired but convenient talking point for the Fox News set and the dwindling but noisy band of unrepentant neocons. Marc Lynch takes up the story from there:

The more interesting questions are about Iraq itself. Why are these cities falling virtually without a fight? Why are so many Iraqi Sunnis seemingly pleased to welcome the takeover from the Iraqi government by a truly extremist group with which they have a long, violent history?

....The most important answers lie inside Iraqi politics. Maliki lost Sunni Iraq through his sectarian and authoritarian policies. His repeated refusal over long years to strike an urgently needed political accord with the Sunni minority, his construction of corrupt, ineffective and sectarian state institutions, and his heavy-handed military repression in those areas are the key factors in the long-developing disintegration of Iraq. In late 2012, protests had swelled across Sunni areas of Iraq, driven by genuine popular anger but backed by many of the political forces now reportedly cooperating with ISIS’s advance (essential background here). The vicious assault on the Huwija protest camp by Iraqi security forces, in the midst of political negotiations, galvanized hostility to the Iraqi state and paved the way for growing popular support for a returning insurgency. Maliki’s heavy-handed security response to the escalating insurgency across Anbar, including the bombardment of Fallujah, has predictably driven more and more Sunnis into their ranks. Maliki’s purges of the Sunni leadership discredited or removed Sunni leaders willing to play the inside game, and pushed some of them toward supporting insurgency. His exclusionary policies, attempts to monopolize power and rough security practices radicalized a Sunni community that might have been brought into the system following the civil war. Iraq’s political class as a whole has done little better.

Lynch offers a few additional thoughts on whether Maliki is likely to change course in the face of the threat from ISIS insurgents. So far, it doesn't seem likely. And as long as that's true, there's little reason that America should get involved in Iraq's ongoing sectarian war yet again.