Kevin Drum

Obama Plans to Close Guantanamo Whether Congress Likes It Or Not

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 7:26 PM EDT

From the Wall Street Journal:

The White House is drafting options that would allow President Barack Obama to close the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by overriding a congressional ban on bringing detainees to the U.S., senior administration officials said.

Such a move would be the latest and potentially most dramatic use of executive power by the president in his second term. It would likely provoke a sharp reaction from lawmakers, who have repeatedly barred the transfer of detainees to the U.S.

Ya think? I'd say that "sharp" might be an all-time understatement. And where would all the prisoners go?

Officials, who declined to say where detainees might be housed if taken to the mainland, said the U.S. has ample space in its prisons for several dozen high-security prisoners. The administration has reviewed several facilities that could house the remaining detainees, with the military brig at Charleston, S.C., considered the most likely.

Take that, Lindsey Graham!

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Chart of the Day: Kansas Successfully Reduces Voting Rate of Blacks, Young People

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 11:55 AM EDT

Hey, guess what? If you pass a photo ID law, you reduce voter turnout. The nonpartisan GAO studied the effect of photo ID laws and, after applying all the usual demographic controls, came up with this chart for Kansas and Tennessee compared to similar states without photo ID laws:

Voter turnout was reduced by 2-3 percentage points in both states. But of course there's more to the story. Some groups were more strongly affected than others. Here are the results for Kansas:

Age. In Kansas, the turnout effect among registrants who were 18 years old in 2008 was 7.1 percentage points larger in size than the turnout effect among registrants between the ages of 44 and 53.

....Race or ethnicity. We estimate that turnout was reduced among African-American registrants by 3.7 percentage points more than among Whites in Kansas.

....Length of registration. In Kansas, the reduction in turnout for people registered to vote within 1 year prior to Election Day 2008 was 5.2 percentage points larger in size than for people registered to vote for 20 years or longer prior to Election Day 2008.

Victory! Turnout plummeted among blacks, young people, and college students. What more could an enterprising Republican legislature want?

Oh, and, um, maybe voter fraud was reduced. The Kansas Secretary of State responded to a draft of the GAO report by explaining that "if lower overall turnout occurs after implementation of a photo ID law, some of the decrease may be attributable to the prevention of fraudulent votes." You betcha.

There Are No Magic Wands in Iraq

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 10:06 AM EDT

The Syrian border town of Kobani is the latest shiny toy for the press to latch onto in the war against ISIS:

As warplanes from the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates pounded Islamic State fighters near the Syrian city of Kobani for a third day, the U.S.-led military campaign began running up against the limits of what air power can accomplish. "Airstrikes alone are not going to save the town of Kobani," Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday.

....Despite an intensifying air campaign in Fallouja and other cities not far from Baghdad, an effort that in recent days has included use of U.S. attack helicopters, the Iraqi army has continued to lose ground to the militants, U.S. officials acknowledged.

We all know what's coming next, don't we? Two weeks ago, everyone — absolutely everyone — was unanimous in agreeing that (a) we needed to act now now now, and (b) we should never put boots on the ground in Iraq. But now that the obvious is happening, I think we can expect an extended round of breast beating and humanitarian keening about the well-known limitations of air campaigns; the horror of watching innocent Kobanis die; and the lamentable lack of planning and leadership from the White House.

Some of this will just be partisan opportunism, but most will be perfectly sincere protests from people with the memory span of a gnat. What they want is a magic wand: some way for Obama to inspire all our allies to want exactly what the United States wants and then to sweep ISIS aside without the loss of a single American life. Anything less is unacceptable.

But guess what? The Iraqi army is still incompetent. America's allies still have their own agendas and don't care about ours. Air campaigns still aren't enough on their own to stop a concerted ground attack. This is the way things are. There are no magic wands. If you want quick results against ISIS, then speak up and tell us you want to send in 100,000 troops. If you're not willing to do that, then you have to accept that lots of innocent people are going to die without the United States being able to offer much help. Make your choice now.

If You Pay Them, They Will Come

| Wed Oct. 8, 2014 7:23 PM EDT

Here's something you don't see every day: a news article about employers who desperately want to hire more people but just can't find workers with the right skills. Oh wait. You do see that every day. What you don't see are articles which make it clear that a willingness to pay higher wages is all it takes to fix this problem:

Manufacturing wages are rising at a rapid clip in some major industrial states as shortages of certain skills and gradually falling unemployment rates force more companies to pay up to attract and retain workers.

....“What we mainly need is welders,” said Terry McIver, chief executive and owner of Loadcraft Industries Ltd., a maker of parts for oil rigs in Brady, Texas....Dewayne Roy, head of the welding program at Mountain View College in Dallas, said he recently had a waiting list of about 250 people seeking to enroll. One student, Logan Porter, 22, started working for a metal-fabrication shop in the Dallas area in February and is putting in 55 to 60 hours a week. He earns $17 an hour, but with time and a half for overtime, his weekly take-home pay typically exceeds $800. “I love the work,” he said.

....Steve Van Loan, president of Sullivan Palatek Inc. in Michigan City, said job hopping is becoming more of a problem. “They get an offer for more money across town, and they’re gone,” he said. Wages on average at his firm, which makes compressors that power drills and other tools, are rising 4% to 5% this year, compared with 2% to 3% in recent years, Mr. Van Loan said.

How about that? If you pay more, you attract workers with the right skills. If you pay more, training programs start to fill up. If you pay more, you can steal folks away from your competitors.

Pay is the great equalizer. There are always going to be shortages of specific skills in specific times and places. But a long-term nationwide shortage? That just means employers aren't willing to pay market wages. They should read their Milton Friedman. If you pay them, they will come.

Jon Stewart Would Have Been a Terrible Host of "Meet the Press"

| Wed Oct. 8, 2014 4:02 PM EDT

Gabriel Sherman says that Chuck Todd wasn't NBC's first choice to replace David Gregory as host of Meet the Press:

Before choosing Todd, NBC News president Deborah Turness held negotiations with Jon Stewart about hosting Meet the Press, according to three senior television sources with knowledge of the talks. One source explained that NBC was prepared to offer Stewart virtually “anything" to bring him over. "They were ready to back the Brinks truck up," the source said. A spokesperson for NBC declined to comment. James Dixon, Stewart's agent, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

....Though not a traditional journalist, Stewart can be a devastatingly effective interrogator, and his Meet the Press might have made a worthy successor to Tim Russert’s no-bullshit interviews.

Help me out here, folks. Who's crazy: me or NBC (and Gabriel Sherman)? This whole thing sounds nuts to me because Jon Stewart is a terrible interviewer. He's congenitally unprepared for any serious policy discussion and frequently creates awkward moments where he literally seems to have run out of anything to say even though he's still got a couple of minutes left before the next ad break. When he's shooting the breeze with other comedians, his interviews can be pretty funny. But when he's talking to serious folks? It's almost painful to watch.

Am I wrong here? Am I missing something? Is Stewart really "devastatingly effective" and I'm just too shallow to see it?

The Great Wage Slowdown of the 21st Century Is About a Lot More Than Just Wages

| Wed Oct. 8, 2014 1:47 PM EDT

David Leonhardt writes about why the economy looks so bad even though unemployment has fallen below 6 percent:

American workers have been receiving meager pay increases for so long now that it’s reasonable to talk in sweeping terms about the trend. It is the great wage slowdown of the 21st century.

Yes indeed. This started around the year 2000 and hasn't changed since. But as I've written before, that's not all that changed around the year 2000. Here's a more comprehensive list:

  1. Median income growth slowed in the mid-70s, but it stalled almost completely around 2000 and hasn't recovered since.
  2. Real-world investment opportunities began stagnating around 2000.
  3. Labor markets slackened permanently starting around 2000.
  4. The employment-population ratio among women plateaued around 2000 and continued its long-term decline among men.
  5. The labor share of income in the nonfinancial sector dropped steeply starting in 2000 and never recovered.
  6. The number of jobs created by new businesses peaked around 2000 and has been falling ever since.
  7. State and local government output suddenly stagnated around 2000.
  8. Globally, the energy intensity of GDP stopped growing around 2000, which means world economic growth became limited by energy growth.
  9. Household debt inflected upward in 2000, and kept growing until the Great Recession put a stop to it.

I call this the Inflection Point of 2000, and it seems like too many things, all happening at about the same time, to be mere coincidence. In my piece last year about our robotic future, I suggested that much of it might be the barely visible early signs of a more automated economy, and I still suspect that may be part of what's going on. But I don't know for sure, and the evidence on this score is distinctly fuzzy.

And yet. It sure feels like something changed right around 2000. But what?

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Immigration, ISIS, and Ebola: A Perfect Right-Wing Storm

| Wed Oct. 8, 2014 11:31 AM EDT

Here is Republican congressman Tom Cotton, currently running for a Senate seat in Arkansas:

Groups like the Islamic State collaborate with drug cartels in Mexico who have clearly shown they’re willing to expand outside the drug trade into human trafficking and potentially even terrorism.

And here is Republican congressman Duncan Hunter, currently running for reelection in California:

At least ten ISIS fighters have been caught coming across the border in Texas.

You will be unsurprised to learn that neither of these things is true. They were just invented out of whole cloth, much like Rep. Phil Gingrey's fear that immigrant children might be bringing Ebola across the border. And I think we can expect more of it. The confluence of immigration, ISIS, and Ebola is like catnip to the Republican base. It appeals to their deepest fears. It demonstrates how feckless President Obama is. And it confirms that we need to be far more hawkish about national security. What's not to like?

You Should Avoid Doctors and Judges in the Late Morning

| Wed Oct. 8, 2014 9:39 AM EDT

We already know that judges become considerably more severe in their sentencing as the morning wears on and they get tired and hungry. Today, Susannah Locke passes along a new tidbit of research showing that doctors prescribe more antibiotics as the morning wears on. Why? Probably because they're making poorer decisions thanks to growing fatigue, or perhaps giving in more easily to patients who are demanding a damn pill even if it won't do any good.

So here's your choice. If you want your doctor to do something you think they probably don't want to do, make an appointment for late morning or late afternoon. There's a better chance they'll just give up and give you what you want. On the other hand, if you actually want a proper diagnosis, your best bet is early morning or, in a pinch, right after lunch.

This has been your latest installment of news you can use. I wonder if this advice also applies to bloggers?

Is Another Housing Bubble Sneaking Up On Us?

| Tue Oct. 7, 2014 10:52 PM EDT

Nick Timiraos points to an interesting IMF chart today. It breaks the world into two sorts of countries. The first, which includes the US, UK, Spain, and others, saw a big housing bubble during the aughts and a big housing bust during the Great Recession. The second, which includes Canada, Germany, and others, had only a modest runup in housing prices during the aughts and a correspondingly small decline during the Great Recession.

So what's happening now? Well, countries that already had a housing bubble continue to struggle. Housing prices today are more than 20 percent below their 2007 peak. And the other countries? Well, they're having their own housing bubble now, with prices nearly 30 percent higher than their previous peak.

Is this a problem? Maybe. With the exception of China, the IMF reckons that housing prices in the rebounding economies are still only modestly overvalued. Still, it sure looks as though there was a big pot of money chasing returns in one set of countries in the aughts, contributing significantly to the housing bubble. Now, with those countries no longer looking very attractive, the pot of money has moved on. More sensible controls on mortgages are supposedly what saved these other countries from the mid-aughts bubble, but I wonder if that's enough now that lots of money is apparently sloshing its way in their direction? Stay tuned.

Does Amazon Have to Pay Workers for Going Through Its Security Lines? The Supreme Court Is About to Decide

| Tue Oct. 7, 2014 2:00 PM EDT

Here's the newest front in the war to pay low-wage workers even less:

The latest battle, which goes before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, was launched by former warehouse workers for, who argue they should have been paid for the time they spent waiting in security lines after their shifts....Those security lines could take more than half an hour, the workers said, and that was time when they should have been getting paid.

....Amazon said it would not comment due to the pending litigation, but a spokesperson said the "data shows that employees walk through post shift security screening with little or no wait."

Well now. If employees truly walk though security screenings with "little or no wait," then it wouldn't cost Amazon anything to pay them for that time. So why are they fighting this? Perhaps it's because Amazon is lying. Sometimes the wait really is substantial, and Amazon doesn't want to (a) pay more security guards to speed up the lines or (b) pay workers for the time spent in slowpoke lines.

So this really does seem like a simple case. If Amazon is telling the truth, they should have no objection to paying employees for time spent in line. If they're lying, then they should be given an incentive to speed up the security process—and the best incentive I can think of is to pay employees for time spent in line. Either way, the answer is the same: pay employees for time spent in security lines.

Needless to say, the Supreme Court will figure out a way to spend a hundred pages making this more complicated so that they can justify a different ruling. After all, it wouldn't do to allow workers to get above their stations, would it?