Kevin Drum

Hostage Taking Is Back!

| Fri Mar. 14, 2014 9:06 AM PDT

Last month I passed along the news that, in a break with recent tradition, Congress might actually do something useful and pass a permanent fix to Medicare's Sustainable Growth Rate, a well-meaning policy that turned out not to be sustainable at all when its formula started calling for actual cuts in payments to doctors. Every year Congress addresses this by passing a one-year "doc fix," but recently a bipartisan effort finally came together to pass a permanent modification. Hooray!

But now it turns out that congressional Republicans enjoy the tradition of dysfunctional government too much to give it up. Sahil Kapur reports that hostage-taking is back:

House Republicans expect to vote this Friday on legislation that would risk steep, destabilizing Medicare cuts at the end of the month unless Democrats agree to a five-year delay of Obamacare's individual mandate.

It mirrors some of the brinkmanship in the government shutdown fight last fall in that the GOP is using a must-pass bill as a vehicle to chop the Affordable Care Act. Democratic leaders have repeatedly rejected proposals to tinker with the mandate to buy insurance and have warned Republicans not to tie a physician payment fix to their partisan quest to unravel Obamacare.

Insurance companies oppose this. Doctors oppose this. The CBO says it would be a disaster. It obviously has no chance of passing. But it looks like Republicans are going right up to the brink once again. I guess that once you've tasted the thrill of threatening to shoot a hostage, nothing else quite compares.

Besides, there's a midterm election coming up. Have I mentioned that before?

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Chart of the Day: China's Debt Bubble Continues to Swell

| Fri Mar. 14, 2014 8:26 AM PDT

Via Paul Krugman, Atif Mian and Amir Sufi give us the chart below today to chew over. It shows China's declining trade surplus over the past decade, which authorities have effectively offset by a dramatic increase in private credit in order to boost domestic demand. The authors explain how this happened:

China got a break starting 2003....The rest of the world — and in particular the United States — was willing to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars every year to purchase Chinese goods (among other things)....The result was reduced pressure on domestic debt creation, and domestic debt went down from 125% of GDP in 2003 to almost 100% of GDP in 2008.

....The continued borrowing by western countries was not sustainable and by 2008 global demand for Chinese goods collapsed....How could China create new demand for its productive capacity? The answer once again came in the form of a rapid rise in domestic private debt. The Chinese state-owned banks with explicit prodding from the government opened their spigots. The country has seen an explosive growth in domestic private debt since 2008.

Is this sustainable? Probably not. It's yet another reason to be concerned about the continued fragility of the global economy. We're probably not strong enough to withstand a major shock from China.

If Reagan Were President, He Would…Do Nothing Much About Ukraine

| Thu Mar. 13, 2014 3:52 PM PDT

On the Senate floor today, John McCain blistered his fellow Republicans over their holdup of an aid bill to Ukraine. "Don't call yourself Reagan Republicans," he said. "Reagan would never tolerate this." Dan Drezner provides the history lesson via Twitter:

Sleeping In Ignites Teenager's Passion

| Thu Mar. 13, 2014 3:22 PM PDT

The New York Times tells the story of Jilly Dos Santos, a Missouri student who took an AP world history class that "explores the role of leadership":

Students were urged to find a contemporary topic that ignited their passion. One morning, the teachers mentioned that a school board committee had recommended an earlier start time to solve logistical problems in scheduling bus routes. The issue would be discussed at a school board hearing in five days. If you do not like it, the teachers said, do something.

Jilly did the ugly math: A first bell at 7:20 a.m. meant she would have to wake up at 6 a.m.

She had found her passion.

Jilly is my hero. The kids these days are all right in my book.

Tesla Pits Texas vs. the Free Market

| Thu Mar. 13, 2014 12:04 PM PDT

Tesla is having a lot of well-publicized problems selling its cars direct to the public. Most states mandate that cars can only be sold through independent dealers, and that's shut Tesla out of the market in plenty of places, including ultra-free market bastions like Texas. Paul Waldman comments:

You'd think that if conservatives really believed all their rhetoric about the value of unfettered free markets, they would be all over this issue, advocating for Tesla's side of the controversy and campaigning to break up the anti-free-enterprise car dealer oligopolies. But of course, we're talking about Tesla, and liberals like electric cars, and therefore conservatives feel obligated to hate electric cars, so that probably won't happen.

OK, sure, but here's the thing: Teslas are also really expensive. That means they can only be purchased by rich people, and conservatives really like rich people. So this is a dilemma, no?

Now, I suppose that in Texas they don't think much of any car that doesn't run on refined hydrocarbon products, so maybe the cognitive dissonance there is less than I think. But North Carolina doesn't have any oil. So what's the deal there?

In any case, I want to know who's buying these cars, anyway. Last Halloween, Marian and I decided to escape the house and eat out. In order to kill time, we walked around the shopping center we had gone to and I spied a Tesla store there. So I popped in and sat down in a Roadster. I didn't even come close to fitting, and I'm only an inch or so taller than six feet. Am I just pickier than most tall people? Do tall people who buy Teslas slouch a lot? Or has Tesla simply abandoned the quarter of the market over six feet?

It's Time to Release the Torture Report, Mr. President

| Thu Mar. 13, 2014 10:14 AM PDT

From President Obama, commenting on the Senate's investigation of Bush-era torture tactics:

I am absolutely committed to declassifying that report as soon as the report is completed. In fact, I would urge them to go ahead and complete the report, send it to us. We will declassify those findings so that the American people can understand what happened in the past, and that can help guide us as we move forward.

Say what? Last I heard, the report was completed in 2012. The CIA responded last June. Dianne Feinstein has been pushing for declassification of at least the report's executive summary ever since. So if Feinstein wants to release the report, and Obama wants to release the report, what's the holdup?

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NSA: Foreign Leaders Often in the Dark About Spying Activities

| Thu Mar. 13, 2014 9:21 AM PDT

Glenn Greenwald publishes a fascinating little extract from an NSA document today. The unnamed author is explaining why cooperation with foreign countries doesn't change much depending on which party wins national elections:

Are our foreign intelligence relationships usually insulated from short-term political ups and downs, or not?

(S//SI//REL) For a variety of reasons, our intelligence relationships are rarely disrupted by foreign political perturbations, international or domestic. First, we are helping our partners address critical intelligence shortfalls, just as they are assisting us. Second, in many of our foreign partners’ capitals, few senior officials outside of their defense-intelligence apparatuses are witting to any SIGINT connection to the U.S./NSA.

In other words, you might be the prime minister, but that doesn't mean you have any idea what your intelligence apparatus is up to.

Now, this is worth taking with a grain of salt, since we don't know who wrote this, or whether he really knew what he was talking about. I've been skeptical all along of the "shocked, shocked" reaction of many foreign leaders to the Snowden leaks, and I remain skeptical that they didn't know at least the broad outlines of what the NSA and their own intelligence services were up to. Nonetheless, this provides a useful window into the NSA's thinking: the less their political masters know, the better off they are.

Can the Koch Brothers Force Voters to Take Republicans Seriously?

| Thu Mar. 13, 2014 8:14 AM PDT

Greg Sargent takes a look at the Democratic strategy of linking Republican senatorial candidates to the Koch brothers:

As I noted the other day, this is all about creating a framework within which voters can be made to understand the actual policy agenda Republicans are campaigning on. This is what the Bain attacks on Mitt Romney were all about: Dem focus groups showed voters simply didn’t believe Romney would cut entitlements (per the Paul Ryan plan) while cutting taxes on the rich. The Bain narrative made Romney’s actual priorities more comprehensible.

The Koch attacks are designed to do something similar. They aren’t really about the Kochs. They are a proxy for the one percent, a means through which to tap into a general sense that the economy remains rigged in favor of the very wealthy. Placed into this frame, GOP policies — opposition to raising the minimum wage; the Paul Ryan fiscal blueprint, which would redistribute wealth upwards; opposition to the Medicaid expansion, which AFP is fighting in multiple states —  become more comprehensible as part of a broader storyline. In that narrative, Republican candidates are trying to maintain or even exacerbate an economic status quo that’s stacked against ordinary Americans, while Dems are offering solutions to boost economic mobility and reduce inequality, which are increasingly pressing public concerns.

Plus it's always good to have a bogeyman, isn't it?

But I agree with Sargent, and this is something that relates back to my posts earlier this week about the fact that middle-class voters don't perceive a big difference between the economic policies of Democrats and Republicans. I argued that one reason for this is that Democrats haven't offered the middle class very much over the past few decades. But several critics pounced on this: even if it's true, they said, the policy agendas of the two parties are like night and day. Republicans want to privatize Social Security. They want to shred the safety net. They want to let the minimum wage erode to nothing. They want to eliminate capital gains taxes. They want to gut the EPA. Etc.

But one of the mysteries of modern politics is that a lot of voters don't take this seriously. Partly it's because Republicans have never had the unified power to pass this agenda. Partly it's because they chickened out on a lot of it even when they came close to having that power during the Bush era. As a result, when Republicans engage in one of their periodic anti-government jeremiads it strikes a lot of people as just a sort of meaningless chant, words that Republican candidates have to mouth in order to prove they're part of the team, but not something they're really serious about.

This frustrates Democrats no end, and they'd love to find a way to truly pin this stuff on the backs of Republican candidates. If Sargent is right, the Koch brothers are a way to do this.

Marco Rubio Wants to Save the Internet From Foreigners

| Wed Mar. 12, 2014 6:42 PM PDT

Sen. Marco Rubio, still engaged in his campaign to reconnect with his tea party roots after blowing it on immigration reform, announced today that he plans to introduce a bill that would "prevent a 'takeover' of the Internet by the United Nations or another government regime." Steve Benen is puzzled:

To be sure, there are foreign governments that censor their citizens’ access to online content, but it’s not at all clear why Rubio sees this as a domestic threat here in the U.S. As best as I can tell, there is no effort to empower the United Nations or anyone else to regulate the Internet on a global scale. Such a policy would certainly be scary, and would require opposition, but at present, it’s also non-existent.

For the most part, Rubio is probably just glomming onto a random bit of jingoism that he thinks will rile up his base. Still, there's actually a kernel of substance to this. Right now, the US Department of Commerce exercises ultimate control over the DNS root zone, and ICANN, a nonprofit that administers the DNS naming system, does so under contract to the Commerce Department. And while ICANN has a global governance structure, it's based in Los Angeles and has historically had a heavy American management presence.

But that could change. Last year, in response to some of Edward Snowden's spying revelations, ICANN's board of directors issued a statement that called for "accelerating the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions, towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing." Last month the European Commission joined in, releasing a statement that lamented a "continued loss of confidence in the Internet and its current governance" and proposing new governance that would "identify how to globalise the IANA functions" and "establish a clear timeline for the globalisation of ICANN." A week later, rumors surfaced that ICANN might try to move its headquarters to Geneva.

Now, this kind of squabbling has gone on forever, and the politics behind these statements is usually pretty murky. There's no telling if it will ever amount to anything, and in any case it certainly has nothing to do with UN control over the internet. Nonetheless, other countries have long chafed under effective American control of the internet's plumbing, and the Snowden leaks have given new momentum to calls for that control to end. It's possible that this is what Rubio is thinking of.

Sorry, the Dog Ate My Homework

| Wed Mar. 12, 2014 5:15 PM PDT

Apologies for the radio silence. I had an adventure-filled afternoon. My first adventure prompted me to call for help, and I discovered that my iPhone's contact list had mysteriously disappeared. No calling for help for me! Eventually everything got sorted out, and when I finally got home I restored my contacts via iCloud. So no permanent harm done. Still, when my car strands me, I always figure my phone will bail me out. That's what a phone is for. Right? But what do you do when your phone mysteriously decides to strand you at the same time?

And what did I do to deserve all this, anyway?