Kevin Drum

No, Staying in Iraq Wouldn't Have Changed Anything

| Wed Jun. 11, 2014 3:59 PM EDT

Iraq is close to being overthrown by a small Sunni insurgent force:

Sunni militants who overran the northern Iraqi city of Mosul as government forces crumbled in disarray extended their reach in a lightning advance on Wednesday, pressing south toward Baghdad....By late Wednesday there were unconfirmed reports that the Sunni militants, many aligned with the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, were battling loyalist forces at the northern entrance to the city of Samarra, about 70 miles north of Baghdad.

So how did this happen?

Iraqi officials told the Guardian that two divisions of Iraqi soldiers — roughly 30,000 men — simply turned and ran in the face of the assault by an insurgent force of just 800 fighters. Isis extremists roamed freely on Wednesday through the streets of Mosul, openly surprised at the ease with which they took Iraq's second largest city after three days of sporadic fighting.

Senior government officials in Baghdad were equally shocked, accusing the army of betrayal and claiming the sacking of the city was a strategic disaster that would imperil Iraq's borders.

The developments seriously undermine US claims to have established a unified and competent military after more than a decade of training. The US invasion and occupation cost Washington close to a trillion dollars and the lives of more than 4,500 of its soldiers. It is also thought to have killed at least 100,000 Iraqis.

This is one of those Rorschach developments, where all of us are going to claim vindication for our previously-held points of view. The hawks will claim this is all the fault of President Obama, who was unable to negotiate a continuing presence of US troops after our withdrawal three years ago. Critics of the war will claim that this shows Iraq was never stable enough to defend regardless of the size of the residual American presence.

And sure enough, I'm going to play to type. I find it fantastical that anyone could read about what's happening and continue to believe that a small US presence in Iraq could ever have been more than a Band-Aid. I mean, just read the report. Two divisions of Iraqi soldiers turned tail in the face of 800 insurgents. That's what we got after a decade of American training. How can you possibly believe that another few years would have made more than a paper-thin difference? Like it or not, the plain fact is that Iraq is too fundamentally unstable to be rebuilt by American military force. We could put fingers in the dikes, but not much more.

Max Boot, of course, believes just the opposite, and I might as well just quote myself from a few weeks ago on that score:

I'm endlessly flummoxed by the attitude of guys like Boot. After ten years—ten years!—of postwar "peacekeeping" in Iraq, does he still seriously think that keeping a few thousand American advisors in Baghdad for yet another few years would have made a serious difference there? In Kosovo there was a peace to keep. It was fragile, sure, but it was there. In Iraq it wasn't. The ethnic fault lines hadn't changed a whit, and American influence over Nouri al-Maliki had shrunk to virtually nothing. We had spent a decade trying to change the fundamentals of Iraqi politics and we couldn't do it. An endless succession of counterterrorism initiatives didn't do it; hundreds of billions of dollars in civil aid didn't do it; and despite some mythologizing to the contrary, the surge didn't do it either. The truth is that we couldn't even make a dent. What sort of grand delusion would persuade anyone that yet another decade might do the trick?

If we committed US troops to every major trouble spot in the Mideast, we'd have troops in Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Lots of troops. The hawks won't admit this outright, but that's what their rhetoric implies. They simply refuse to believe the obvious: that America doesn't have that much leverage over what's happening in the region. Small commitments of trainers and arms won't make more than a speck of difference. Big commitments are unsustainable. And the US military still doesn't know how to successfully fight a counterinsurgency. (That's no knock on the Pentagon, really. No one else knows how to fight a counterinsurgency either.)

This is painfully hard for Americans to accept, but sometimes you can't just send in the Marines. Iraq may not have been Vietnam 2.0, but there was certainly one similarity: military success against an insurgent force has a chance of succeeding only if we're partnered with a stable, competent, popular, legitimate national government. We didn't have that in Vietnam, and that made victory impossible. We don't have it anywhere in the Mideast either. For better or worse, the opposing sides there are going to have to fight things out on their own. This isn't cynicism or fatalism. It's just reality.

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Medicare Costs Well Under Control So Far in 2014

| Wed Jun. 11, 2014 12:23 PM EDT

Health care costs have increased sharply over the past few quarters, causing a lot of hand-wringing despite the fact that it's probably due to an entirely predictable cause: higher utilization of the health care system thanks to Obamacare. Still, we don't know that for sure. Maybe there's also an underlying rebound in medical inflation that spells trouble down the road.

We probably won't know for sure for years, but today the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget released a data point that suggests underlying costs remain well controlled. The Medicare system has 3.8 percent more beneficiaries than last year, but underlying costs have increased only 2.5 percent:

Adjusted for timing shifts, Medicare growth is even lower through eight months at just 0.3 percent. And even after removing the effects of temporary policies, year-to-date Medicare growth remains extremely low at 2.5 percent, even lower than through April. This is more than a full percentage point below economic and beneficiary growth, meaning that even excluding one-time effects, Medicare spending is on pace to both fall as a percent of GDP and on a per-capita basis.

It's just a single data point. But it's definitely pointing in the right direction.

UPDATE: Peter Orszag tweets a follow-up:

All true, except even reported Q1 acceleration for total (red) may be revised now that we have real #s (blue).

Orszag's chart is below, with PCE medical inflation in red and the actual change in total health care spending in blue. Normally the two trend lines track each other fairly well, but they diverged dramatically in late 2013. This suggests that the medical inflation number may be revised downward once actual health care spending is taken into account.

Maybe Eric Cantor Didn't Lose Because of Immigration Reform After All

| Wed Jun. 11, 2014 11:28 AM EDT

The conventional wisdom says that Eric Cantor lost his primary race last night because he was soft on immigration. But a PPP poll suggests that's not really the case:

About 72 percent of registered voters in Cantor’s district polled on Tuesday said they either “strongly” or “somewhat” support immigration reform that would secure the borders, block employers from hiring those here illegally, and allow undocumented residents without criminal backgrounds to gain legal status....Looking just at Republicans in Cantor’s district, the poll found that 70 percent of GOP registered voters would support such a plan, while 27 percent would oppose.

Now, "registered voters" is not the same thing as "people who actually bothered to vote in a primary." And things like question wording can have an outsized impact on questions like this.

Still, even after months of anti-immigration blathering from talking heads, it still probably wasn't a big deal to more than about half the primary voters in Cantor's district. And despite the demagoguery from these talking heads, it's not as if Cantor was really all that soft on immigration. The worst you could honestly say about him on the subject is that he occasionally made a few noises suggesting that maybe a deal could be had if only Democrats would be reasonable. This is boilerplate stuff for Republican leaders, and we all know what it means: no deal is possible and it's all the fault of the Democrats.

In any case, there are a zillion theories about why Cantor really lost, and I'm not taking sides. But at the very least, immigration appears to be less of a factor than it seems on the surface.

Not that it matters. Immigration reform has been dead for months, and now it's still dead. Nothing has changed.

The Grim Case for Scottish Independence

| Wed Jun. 11, 2014 11:00 AM EDT

Charlie Stross has a very, very grim assessment of England's future:

The worst case outcome, circa 2017, is that Scotland remains manacled to an England that has voted in a government of the Home Counties, who despise the Scots, and who have successfully campaigned for a referendum in which the English protest vote determines that Scotland will be dragged out of the EU in a vain attempt to wind the clock back to an imaginary vision of a 1950s conservative utopia that never was. Or Scotland might remain part of a UK, but one where when push came to shove the racist right took a kicking in the 2015 election and the softer right wing government of New Labour is back in charge and the loons are exiled to the fringes again, and the country is at least open for business.

Which brings me to the punch-line: I'll be voting "yes" for an independence Scotland in September. Not with great enthusiasm....but because everything I see around me suggests that there is some very bad craziness in the near future of England, and I don't want the little country I live in to be dragged down the rabbit hole by the same dark forces of reaction that are cropping up across Europe, from Hungary to Greece. The failure modes of democracy, it seems to me, are less damaging the smaller the democracy.

From thousands of miles away, things don't seem nearly so bad to me. UKIP seems unlikely to thrive in the long term, and separation from the EU strikes me as fantastically unlikely, regardless of the usual up-and-down cycles in opinion polls. And yet, what do I know? I've spent a grand total of about a week there in the last decade. Is Charlie's ultra-bleak view of England's political future more widespread than I think? Comments?

Eric Cantor Loses Primary to Tea Party Challenger

| Tue Jun. 10, 2014 9:28 PM EDT

Holy cow. Eric Cantor has lost his primary race to tea party challenger David Brat.

So: does this mean that the tea party is alive and well? Or does it mean that the tea party has simply taken over the Republican Party and is no longer really a separate force? Regular readers know I vote for the latter. As I said a few weeks ago, "There may still be establishment types and Ted Cruz types in the GOP, but the Republican Party as a whole has adopted the tea party line lock, stock, and extremely smoking barrel. It's been as total a victory as you're ever likely to see in the real world."

I think tonight is further evidence of this. Brat wasn't an insurgent challenger so much as he was simply a mainstream Republican positioned a little bit to Cantor's right. That's where the mainstream of American conservatism is these days.

Chart of the Day: Democrats Have a Big Headwind to Overcome In Midterm Elections

| Tue Jun. 10, 2014 5:57 PM EDT

This is nothing new to regular readers of the blog, but the chart below from the Washington Post very nicely illustrates the Democratic Party's midterm woes in a nutshell. In every demographic group that tends to support Republicans, more than 60 percent are highly likely to vote. Conversely, in every demographic group that tends to support Democrats, fewer than 50 percent are highly likely to vote. That's a very tough headwind to overcome. Just imagine what liberals could accomplish if they actually bothered to go to the polls.

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There's More to American Society Than Just the Marriage Rate

| Tue Jun. 10, 2014 3:21 PM EDT

David Brooks criticizes "reform" conservatism today, suggesting that it's not sufficiently in touch with the realities of the modern economy. I appreciate that, but I wish we could get a lot less of this:

Today, millions of Americans are behaving in ways that make no economic sense: dropping out of school, having children out of wedlock. They do so because the social guardrails that used to guide behavior have dissolved.

You need to be careful with this stuff. The teen dropout rate has actually declined over the past few decades, as has the teen pregnancy rate—which is what most people think of when you mention children born out of wedlock. The phenomenon Brooks is talking about is the increase in 20-something women having children outside of marriage—sometimes on their own, sometimes with partners they live with. That certainly represents a cultural change in the value of marriage, but it's really not enough to suggest that our social guardrails have dissolved. In fact, if you look at most measures of social breakdown, things have gotten better over the past few decades, not worse.

This is a mistake that Brooks has made before: insisting that society is breaking down without really reviewing the evidence of actual behavior. But there's a lot more to society than just the marriage rate.

That said, it's nice to hear him say this to his fellow conservatives:

We are moving from a world dominated by big cross-class organizations, like public bureaucracies, corporations and unions, toward a world dominated by clusters of networked power. These clusters — Wall Street, Washington, big agriculture, big energy, big universities — are dominated by interlocking elites who create self-serving arrangements for themselves. Society is split between those bred into these networks and those who are not. Moreover, the U.S. economy is increasingly competing against autocratic economies, which play by their own self-serving rules.

Sometimes government is going to have to be active to disrupt local oligarchies and global autocracies by fomenting creative destruction — by insisting on dynamic immigration policies, by pumping money into research, by creating urban environments that nurture innovation, by spending money to give those outside the clusters new paths to rise.

Yep. The rich and powerful are getting ever more rich and powerful, and a bit of free-market nudging isn't likely to change that. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and do something about it.

How Good Is World Cup Soccer, Really?

| Tue Jun. 10, 2014 1:30 PM EDT

The internet is awash in soccer explainers for Americans, and naturally Vox has one of its own. What sets it apart is Joseph Stromberg's acknowledgment of something sort of odd: "The World Cup is the pinnacle of soccer."

That's obviously true. But can anyone explain why? Soccer players spend the vast bulk of their time playing for clubs—Manchester United, Real Madrid, etc., all of which have fanatic followings. They spend only a tiny amount of time playing for their national team. That might not matter in an individual sport, but it surely matters in a team sport, where playing time together makes a big difference. So logic tells me that World Cup soccer, made up of teams that play together only occasionally and sporadically, ought be played at a lower level than club soccer. It's basically second rate.

So here's my question for serious soccer fans. Is World Cup play second rate? If not, why? If it's actually just as good as top-level club play, how can that be possible given the limited playing time the players have together? Is it just a result of the relatively small number of World Cup teams, which means that only the top players play? Or what?

UPDATE: The consensus in comments is that, technically, World Cup play is indeed inferior to top-level club play. But of course, World Cup has a uniquely intense atmosphere and lots of nationalistic fervor, which makes it a great event even if the level of play isn't quite at the top rank. Sounds reasonable to me.

College Is Too Expensive, But Is Student Loan Relief the Answer?

| Tue Jun. 10, 2014 12:19 PM EDT

Megan McArdle, despite her own experience with crushing student debt, doesn't support efforts to allow students to refinance their loans at lower rates:

It’s good to remember, as we discuss these plans, that people with college degrees are the best-off people in the U.S. They are a cognitive elite with substantially more earning power than almost anyone else....It’s hard to see why we would take money from other people and give it to this group.

At this point, someone in the audience is mentally complaining that I don’t understand the impact student loans have on family formation . . . buying a house . . . saving for retirement. But au contraire: I understand all too well....However. Some perspective is useful.

This graphic comes from a 2012 Federal Reserve report. While you may have heard the horrifying statistics about how the average borrower has almost $30,000 in student loan debt, the median borrower has more like $12,000. That number gets dragged upward by a small number of students with huge loans — many of them professional school graduates like me. The overwhelming majority of borrowers have less than $25,000 in debt, which is to say something more like a car loan than a mortgage. Yet we do not argue that we need to reduce the cost of car loans lest the Toyota Camry should keep yet another generation of Americans from the precious boon of homeownership.

Surprisingly, I partly agree. College grads are indeed the best paid workers in America, and spending ever more tax money on student loans seems a bit too much like taking from the poor and giving to the rich for comfort. What's more, I'm not convinced that ever more generous student loan programs do any good. I suspect that, in practice, they merely allow universities to raise their tuition fees even more than they otherwise would.

And yet....unlike McArdle, I'm persuaded by the aggregate numbers that we have a genuine problem here. We don't have a problem with college grads buying ever more expensive cars, which is why no one wants to provide auto loan relief. We do have a problem with the cost of college skyrocketing. The resultingly high aggregate student loan debt is having a noticeable adverse macroeconomic impact (family formation, buying a house, etc.) at a time when we can ill afford it, which makes the case for a temporary refinancing program fairly compelling. More generally, it's also the case that no society is well served by making income a barrier to higher education. More and more, however, that's what we're doing.

But what's the answer? Personally, I'd prefer to see this problem addressed at the source: the spiraling cost of a university education, especially public university education. Unlike Harvard grads, most public university grads aren't going to land lucrative jobs after graduation. They'll be teachers and accountants and civil engineers. We want everyone who's capable of doing one of these jobs to get a university education, and to get it without having to worry about whether they can afford it.

But that ship has sailed. Unlike the era in which I graduated, public universities are expensive these days, and that's not likely to change. One answer might be to target public assistance more sharply on public schools. Basically, I'd like to see anyone who qualifies be able to attend a public university for only a nominal fee. Does that mean less money for assistance to Harvard students? Yes, but I'm not sure that would really be such a tragedy. Some students would get assistance elsewhere, while others would simply have to settle for UCLA or Ohio State. In the real world, however, I'll bet that only a minuscule fraction of students would truly lose much by having to go to UCLA instead of Harvard—or by having to accept that Harvard will put them into debt. The cost wouldn't be zero, perhaps, but probably pretty small.

In any case, the rising cost of college is a real problem. One way or another, I think we'd all benefit as a country by doing something about it. Whether that's a reduction in loan costs, or a reduction in public university fees, is something we can argue about. But we ought to do something.

Housekeeping Note -- Font Edition

| Tue Jun. 10, 2014 11:08 AM EDT

By the way: to all the people who wrote asking why the body font on the blog has changed, I don't know. I was as surprised as you when I saw it after our weekly site update Thursday night. However, web designers, like God, move in mysterious ways, and I'm sure there were some deeply-considered aesthetic reasons for making the change. Unfortunately, I don't know what those reasons are, since for excellent and obvious reasons,1 I'm not consulted about this stuff. Perhaps some member of our design team will see this and let us know in comments.

1Principally that I have about the artistic taste of a seven-year-old.