Kevin Drum

There's No Ebola Vaccine Yet Because We Cut the NIH Budget Ten Years Ago

| Mon Oct. 13, 2014 10:48 AM EDT

As we all know, the federal budget is bloated and wasteful. It needs to be cut across the board. Right?

Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, said that a decade of stagnant spending has "slowed down" research on all items, including vaccinations for infectious diseases. As a result, he said, the international community has been left playing catch-up on a potentially avoidable humanitarian catastrophe.

"NIH has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001. It's not like we suddenly woke up and thought, 'Oh my gosh, we should have something ready here,'" Collins told The Huffington Post on Friday. "Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would've gone through clinical trials and would have been ready."

Collins obviously has some skin in this game, but he's probably right. What's more, even without a vaccine we'd probably be better prepared to react to the Ebola outbreak if we hadn't spent the past decade steadily slashing funding for public health emergencies. The chart on the right, from Scientific American, tells the story.

There are consequences for budget cuts. Right now we're living through one of them.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 10 October 2014

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 2:05 PM EDT

Catblogging has become harder recently. There's no shortage of cuteness, obviously, but getting good pictures of the cuteness is tricky. The problem is simple: 55-year-old human reflexes combined with cheap-camera shutter lag are simply no match for 10-month-old kitten reflexes. This produces lots of pictures like the one on the right. You'll just have to take my word for it, but that's Hopper carrying around one of her stuffed mice. I've muted all the chirping sounds from my camera, which reliably caused them to turn their heads just as the autofocus finally whirred to its proper setting, but even so I have hundreds of photos like this one.

Still, they slow down once in a while, so catblogging isn't completely lost. On the left, Hopper is behind the drapes trying to chase down an errant bug. On the right, Hilbert is majestically surveying his space.

Americans Hold Wide Range of Opinions on Various Subjects

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 12:57 PM EDT

Ashley Parker apparently drew the short straw at the New York Times and got assigned to write that hoariest of old chestnuts: a trip through the heartland of America to check the pulse of the public.

So how's the public feeling these days? Here's Heather Lopez, a church worker in Terre Haute, Indiana:

“Instead of being a country that’s leading from behind, I would like to see us spearhead an all-out assault on ISIS,” she said, referring to the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that controls large portions of Iraq and Syria and has claimed responsibility for the beheadings of two American journalists. “I would like to see every one of them dead within 30 days. And after we’ve killed every member of ISIS, kill their pet goat.”

Roger that. You will be unsurprised to learn later that Ms. Lopez "said she got much of her information from Fox News." Where else would she? We're in the heartland, folks! And not by coincidence. Parker's trip was deliberately designed to take her nowhere else. Because, as we all know, real people can be found only in small towns and cities in middle America.

Not that it matters. Also unsurprisingly, Parker ran into people with a wide range of opinions. It turns out that America contains lots of people and they think lots of different stuff. It's remarkable.

Was Obama Naive?

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 11:39 AM EDT

Paul Krugman has finally come around to a fair assessment of Barack Obama's term in office: not perfect, by any means, and he probably could have accomplished more with better tactics and a better understanding of his opponents. Still and all, he accomplished a lot. By any reasonable standard, he's been a pretty successful liberal president.

Ezra Klein says this is because he abandoned one of the key goals of his presidency:

From 2009 to 2010, Obama, while seeking the post-partisan presidency he wanted, established the brutally partisan presidency he got. Virtually every achievement Krugman recounts — the health-care law, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, the financial rescue, the stimulus bill — passed in these first two years when Democrats held huge majorities in congress. And every item on the list passed over screaming Republican opposition.

....Obama spent his first two years keeping many of his policy promises by sacrificing his central political promise. That wasn't how it felt to the administration at the time. They thought that success would build momentum; that change would beget change. Obama talked of the "muscle memory" congress would rediscover as it passed big bills; he hoped that achievements would replenish his political capital rather than drain it.

In this, the Obama administration was wrong, and perhaps naive.

This is, to me, one of the most interesting questions about the Obama presidency: was he ever serious about building a bipartisan consensus? Did he really think he could pass liberal legislation with some level of Republican cooperation? Or was this little more than routine campaign trail bushwa?

To some extent, I think it was just the usual chicken-in-every-pot hyperbole of American presidential campaigns. American elites venerate bipartisanship, and it's become pretty routine to assure everyone that once you're in office you'll change the toxic culture of Washington DC. Bush Jr. promised it. Clinton promised it. Bush Sr. promised it. Carter promised it. Even Nixon promised it.

(Reagan is the exception. Perhaps that's why he's still so revered by conservatives despite the fact that his actual conduct in office was considerably more pragmatic than his rhetoric.)

So when candidates say this, do they really believe it? Or does it belong in the same category as promises that you'll restore American greatness and supercharge the economy for the middle class? In Obama's case, it sure sounded like more than pro forma campaign blather. So maybe he really did believe it. Hell, maybe all the rest of them believed it too. The big difference this time around was the opposition. Every other president has gotten at least some level of cooperation from the opposition party. Maybe not much, but some. Obama got none. This was pretty unprecedented in recent history, and it's hard to say that he should have been able to predict this back in 2008. He probably figured that he'd get at least a little bit of a honeymoon, especially given the disastrous state of the economy, but he didn't. From Day 1 he got nothing except an adamantine wall of obstruction.

Clearly, then, Obama was wrong about the prospects for bipartisanship. But was he naive? I'd say he's guilty of a bit of that, but the truth is that he really did end up facing a hornet's nest of unprecedented proportions. This might have taken any new president by surprise.

Germany Continues to Demand a European "Austerity Suicide Pact"

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 10:25 AM EDT

Matt O'Brien is gobsmacked that Germany continues to promote the virtues of austerity even as Europe edges ever closer to a triple-dip recession:

Germany should stop obsessing about its short-term deficit, and start spending more on roads and bridges and schools instead. Markets are all but begging it to....But out of some misplaced sense of fiscal self-righteousness, Germany would rather let its critical infrastructure fall into disrepair than take this free money.

....But Germany is stubbornly sticking with spending cuts instead, and it's making the rest of Europe do the same.

It's an austerity suicide pact, and Germany doesn't even want the ECB to cushion the blow. It turns out, though, that forcing your customers into a worse depression than the 1930s isn't good for you, either. It's left Germany, which despite its image as an economic powerhouse has only grown 1.1 percent a year the past decade, teetering on the edge of its own slump — with Russian sanctions maybe enough to push it over.

It really is stunning to watch this play out. Germany is playing the same role that Republicans played in the US in the aftermath of the Great Recession, except that Europe's economy is in worse shape than ours was and Germany's enforced austerity is worse than anything even the tea party was able to achieve. The evidence is overwhelming that this conduct is hurting Germany itself as well as the rest of Europe, but there's simply no budging them. What are they thinking?

We Have a Saudi Arabia Problem, Not an Islam Problem

| Fri Oct. 10, 2014 9:55 AM EDT

Fareed Zakaria steps into the brawl touched off by Bill Maher and Sam Harris last week about whether Islam is inherently violent and reactionary:

Places such as Indonesia and India have hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t fit these caricatures. That’s why Maher and Harris are guilty of gross generalizations. But let’s be honest. Islam has a problem today. The places that have trouble accommodating themselves to the modern world are disproportionately Muslim.

In 2013, of the top 10 groups that perpetrated terrorist attacks, seven were Muslim. Of the top 10 countries where terrorist attacks took place, seven were Muslim-majority. The Pew Research Center rates countries on the level of restrictions that governments impose on the free exercise of religion. Of the 24 most restrictive countries, 19 are Muslim-majority. Of the 21 countries that have laws against apostasy, all have Muslim majorities.

There is a cancer of extremism within Islam today. A small minority of Muslims celebrates violence and intolerance and harbors deeply reactionary attitudes toward women and minorities. While some confront these extremists, not enough do so, and the protests are not loud enough. How many mass rallies have been held against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in the Arab world today?

I'd put this differently. I don't think the world has a Muslim problem. It has a Saudi Arabia problem. The closer a country is to the warped influence of Saudi Arabia, the more violent and illiberal it is. Go west to Tunisia and Morocco and Islam becomes more moderate. Go north to Turkey and it becomes more moderate. Go east to India and Indonesia and it becomes more moderate.

Obviously this is hardly a perfect correlation. If you want to find exceptions, you can. But generally speaking, Saudi Arabia is the epicenter of Islam's problems, a country that stands for virtually everything that the liberal West condemns. It is almost feudally anti-democratic. It is corrupt. It is theocratic. It treats women and gays horribly. Its legal system is barbarous. It is intolerant of any religion other than its own fundamentalist strain of Wahabi Islam. It is no coincidence that 15 of the 19 terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia and the rest came from nearby countries. Saudi Arabia is a country that, by rights, should be shunned by every government on the planet.

But they're not. For historical reasons, we've instead forged a longtime alliance with the princes of Riyadh. The world is paying a high price for this.

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Here's Why Kobani Probably Isn't Going to Be Saved

| Thu Oct. 9, 2014 11:48 PM EDT

Writing about Kobani and ISIS this morning, I casually mentioned that "If you want quick results against ISIS, then speak up and tell us you want to send in 100,000 troops." I got a bit of pushback on this from people suggesting that it wouldn't take anywhere near that number of troops to take out ISIS and save a small town.

Actually, I was lowballing. For starters, here's a map showing Kobani's predicament:

Kobani is the tiny yellow patch of Kurdish territory at the top of the map. It's deep inside Syria, surrounded almost entirely by territory controlled by ISIS. The only country with the capability of getting in ground troops is Turkey, and they're refusing to do anything. Why? Because Kobani is home to Kurdish separatists, and Turkey has no intention of saving their bacon.

In a nutshell, this is America's problem: we have no trustworthy allies in the region who truly care about ISIS. The Turks care about keeping Kurdish separatists under control and securing their border with Syria. The Arabian Gulf countries care about Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian patrons. The Iraqis care about maintaining Shiite dominance over their Sunni minority. They're all willing to play along in the US war against ISIS, but it's not really a high priority for any of them. As Fred Kaplan puts it, "ISIS gains much of its strength from the fact that the countries arrayed against it—which, together, could win in short order—can't get their act together; they have too many conflicting interests tearing them apart." What's more, those conflicting interests are deep and longstanding. These countries will humor us to varying extents since they'd just as soon stay on our good side, but the bottom line is that helping America fight its latest shiny-toy war just isn't something they really care about. They have their own fish to fry.

Given all that, you should ask yourself this: What would it take to rescue a small city that's hundreds of miles behind enemy lines with no allies to help you out? Answer: A hundred thousand troops would be a good start, but there's no guarantee that even that would be enough.

So was it "tone deaf" for John Kerry and others to talk about how Kobani wasn't strategically important to us? Maybe so. The problem is that the real-life adult answer would have acknowledged that (a) we don't have the capability to save Kobani, and (b) our NATO ally Turkey has chosen not to save Kobani. Neither of these is something that the American public is really prepared to digest.

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!

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.