Kevin Drum

Friday Cat Blogging - 30 May 2014

| Fri May 30, 2014 3:00 PM EDT

Today is snoozing day. Much like every other day, in fact. I recommend that if you're having trouble falling asleep, take this picture to bed with you and stare at it until you fall serenely into a zenlike feline state. Let Domino be your sleep guru.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Obama Doctrine Is to Not Have a Doctrine

| Fri May 30, 2014 2:42 PM EDT

Fareed Zakaria takes on the cult of foreign policy toughness—far too common even among centrists and some liberals—that instinctively equates military force with decisiveness and everything else with hesitancy and weakness:

Obama is battling a knee-jerk sentiment in Washington in which the only kind of international leadership that means anything is the use of military force. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail,” he said in his speech Wednesday at West Point. A similar sentiment was expressed in the farewell address of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a strong leader who refused to intervene in the Suez crisis, the French collapse in Vietnam, two Taiwan Strait confrontations and the Hungarian uprising of 1956. At the time, many critics blasted the president for his passivity and wished that he would be more interventionist. A Democratic Advisory Council committee headed by Acheson called Eisenhower’s foreign policy “weak, vacillating, and tardy.” But Eisenhower kept his powder dry, confident that force was not the only way to show strength. “I’ll tell you what leadership is,” he told his speechwriter. “It’s persuasion — and conciliation — and education — and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work. That’s the only kind of leadership I know — or believe in — or will practice.”

Maybe that’s the Obama Doctrine.

Please spare me from more doctrines. But Zakaria is basically saying that the Obama Doctrine is not to let yourself get seduced by the straitjacket of doctrines. I guess that's a doctrine I can live with.

You know, the one time I felt a little sorry for Sarah Palin was when she got so much grief for not knowing the Bush Doctrine. Hell, I didn't know it either. You're either with us or against us? Bring 'em on? We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud? The truth is that I still couldn't tell you. Nor could I really tell you about the Carter Doctrine or the Reagan Doctrine or any other doctrine more recent than the Monroe Doctrine. They never really meant all that much, did they? Every president has an underlying worldview, and that's about all we can expect. I think Obama has articulated his as well as anyone has.

America Is Becoming a Bit More Liberal. That's Pretty Unusual Six Years Into a Democratic Presidency.

| Fri May 30, 2014 12:21 PM EDT

Why are there more moderate Democrats than moderate Republicans? This has never been because Democrats are spineless wimps who won't stand up for liberal values. The main reason is simple: there aren't very many self-identified liberals in America. There never have been. Self-IDed conservatives have outnumbered self-IDed liberals by 10-15 percentage points for decades. This means that Democrats are forced to appeal more to the center than Republicans are.

But Gallup reports that this is changing. On social issues, the ID gap has narrowed to nearly zero. On economic issues conservatives still have a healthy 21 percentage point lead, but that's way down from 2010. Here's the chart:

In one sense, you should take this with a grain of salt. Sure, there are now more self-IDed liberals, but that's compared to 2010, a high-water mark for conservative identification.

In another sense, this is pretty unusual. Normally, the country gets steadily more liberal during Republican presidencies and steadily more conservative during Democratic presidencies. This is, presumably, because voters get increasingly tired of whoever's in power and more open to the idea that the other guys might have better answers. But this time that hasn't happened. There's too much noise in the Gallup chart to draw any definitive conclusions, but if you compare the numbers now to the average from the last few years of the Bush presidency, the country has actually gotten a bit more liberal. That's something that rarely happens six years into a Democratic presidency.

The trend is more noticeable on social issues, which shouldn't surprise anyone. On gay rights in particular, the country has plainly moved in the direction of more tolerance, and conservatives are just flatly out of step. As this trend continues—and it's inexorable at this point—the conservative position strikes more and more people as not merely misguided, but just plain ugly. And you don't self-ID with an ideology that you think is ugly.

It's a funny thing. People say they don't like President Obama's foreign policy, but it turns out they approve of the specific things he's doing. They say they don't like Obamacare, but they like the things Obamacare does. They say they don't like Obama's economic policy, but they largely approve of his actual positions. You see this over and over. It doesn't look like Obama is doing much to move the country in a more liberal direction, but in his slow, methodical, pragmatic way, he's doing just that. A lot of people might not know it, but they're attracted by his no-drama approach to incremental social change. It frustrates those of us who want to see things change faster, but in the end, it might turn out to be pretty effective.

Hillary Clinton Takes on the Benghazi Crackpots

| Fri May 30, 2014 11:22 AM EDT

Politico has "obtained" the Benghazi chapter from Hillary Clinton's upcoming memoir, and their writeup includes this:

Clinton addresses lingering questions about how military assets were deployed to try to rescue personnel at the besieged compound, writing that Obama “gave the order to do whatever was necessary to support our people in Libya. It was imperative that all possible resources be mobilized immediately....When Americans are under fire, that is not an order the Commander in Chief has to give twice. Our military does everything humanly possible to save American lives — and would do more if they could. That anyone has ever suggested otherwise is something I will never understand.”

Me, me! Call on me! I understand. Allow me to blogsplain it to you....

Seriously, though, this is pretty much the right attitude for Clinton to take. Of all the nonsense that's been spewed about Benghazi, the never-ending series of "stand down" conspiracy theories has undoubtedly been the stupidest. Every time one got swatted down, another one popped up to take its place. It was a fast-response team from Italy. No wait. It was a team Gen. Carter Ham was going to send in until Obama ordered him not to. It was a garrison in Tripoli. It was a C-110 team in Croatia. It was a different team from Tripoli. By the time all these theories had been aired, it was apparent that half the United States military was thought to be within striking distance of Libya on the night of the Benghazi attacks.

And as little sense as most of the Benghazi conspiracy theories make, this one made even less. There's simply no reason that any president of the United States would get in the way of a rescue mission in a situation like Benghazi. But none of that ever mattered. To this day, there are millions of Fox News watchers who are convinced that the deaths in Benghazi could have been prevented but President Obama refused to allow it. Why? Well, if he's secretly bent on undermining the strength and influence of the United States, it all starts to make sense, doesn't it? And I wonder where anyone could have gotten that idea?

Here are 4 Good Reasons to Keep Eric Shinseki, and 1 Very Good Reason to Fire Him

| Fri May 30, 2014 10:29 AM EDT

Should Eric Shinseki resign? Or be fired? There are several reasons to say no:

  • Knee-jerk calls for resignation from the guy at the top every time something goes wrong in a big bureaucracy are wearying.
  • Shinseki inherited a lot of problems, and there's good evidence that he's worked hard to improve things at the VA. The fact that some problems still remain is hardly damning.
  • The specific scandal involving secret waiting lists isn't really a sign of bad management.
  • The tradition of top managers resigning as a symbolic show of responsibility is dumb. Let's leave that to the British and the Japanese.

You may find all of these more or less persuasive depending on your general temperament. Personally, I find them all moderately persuasive. That said, there's one really good reason for the guy at the top to resign when something like this happens: It's a lot easier for a newcomer to make sweeping changes if that's what's necessary. No matter how committed Shinseki is to fixing this problem, he's hemmed in by five years of decisions he's already made. He's emotionally committed to a certain way of doing things; to a certain set of subordinates; and to policies that he's implemented. A new VA chief wouldn't be. Nor would a new VA chief be under a cloud. He'd have the active support of Congress and the president to take a fresh look at things.

Unfortunately for Shinseki, this one reason is probably sufficient. In a sense, it's unfair. Nonetheless, human nature being what it is, a new VA secretary would most likely have more freedom to make the changes necessary to fix the VA's problems and more support to get them done. For that reason, yes, Shinseki should probably go.

UPDATE, Friday, May 30, 11:15am ET: President Obama is delivering a statement live from the White House.

UPDATE 2: Shinseki has resigned.

Who's Watching the National Spelling Bee Tonight?

| Thu May 29, 2014 6:25 PM EDT

I'm just curious: Am I the only one who thinks the National Spelling Bee jumped the shark years ago? The escalating ridiculousness of the words, the World Series-esque television coverage, and the inexplicable geek chic surrounding the event have made the whole thing kind of nuts.

Besides, we all have spell check these days, right?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Two Brief Notes About the VA Scandal

| Thu May 29, 2014 3:03 PM EDT

I have a couple of things related to the VA scandal that I wish everyone would get straight on:

  • There is a difference between (a) the backlog in initial applications for VA benefits and (b) wait times for appointments at VA hospitals. They are completely different things with completely different roots. Don't slide confusingly between the two in a single story.
  • You should always try to compare the performance of the VA to private sector care. Saying that the average wait time for non-urgent appointments is 23 days tells us nothing. Is that longer or shorter than it is elsewhere? Ditto for treatment mistakes, breadth of service, availability of pharmaceuticals, etc. All large organizations have large numbers of problems. That's inevitable. The only way to judge them properly is to compare them to other large organizations doing the same thing.

That's all for now. I might have more later.

Please Help Me Interpret Michael Kinsley

| Thu May 29, 2014 1:05 PM EDT

Yesterday I was pondering whether to write something about the great Kinsley-Greenwald-Sullivan-Etc. contretemps related to Michael Kinsley's unflattering review of Glenn Greenwald's latest book. Long story short, I think the entire thing is idiotic, and maybe I'll blather about that at greater length someday. Then again, maybe not.

But there is one thing I'd like to get a crowdsourced opinion about. Here's a paragraph Kinsley wrote about whether people like Greenwald have the right to expose secrets that the government thinks are dangerous to reveal:

The question is who decides. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government. No doubt the government will usually be overprotective of its secrets, and so the process of decision-making — whatever it turns out to be — should openly tilt in favor of publication with minimal delay. But ultimately you can’t square this circle. Someone gets to decide, and that someone cannot be Glenn Greenwald.

So here's my question: what do you think Kinsley is trying to say in the bolded passage? Here are a few possibilities:

  1. The government should adopt policies that reduce the number of secrets it keeps.
  2. When the press gets its hands on a secret, it should "tilt" in favor of publication—but the government should still get the final say.
  3. When the press gets its hands on a secret, it should "tilt" in favor of publication—but it should also listen seriously to the government's arguments in favor of continued secrecy.
  4. Something else.

For what it's worth, my interpretation of this was #2. Is this wrong? Help me out in comments. What's your reading of this?

Here's Why Trade Schools Continue to Suck So Badly

| Thu May 29, 2014 11:48 AM EDT

For-profit colleges—aka trade schools—have a terrible track record. On average, their students rack up tons of debt and very few of them ever graduate. So why is it so hard to do something about them? Henry Farrell asks Suzanne Mettler about the politics of these schools:

Democrats worried about poverty used to defend for-profit colleges against fiscally conservative Republicans. Now Republicans (together with a few Democrats) are defending for-profit colleges against Democrats and reformers. Why did the partisan politics of for-profit education change so dramatically over a couple of decades?

During the Reagan Administration, Secretary of Education William Bennett criticized the for-profits as “diploma mills designed to trick the poor into taking on federally-backed debt,” and in 1990, Sens. Bob Dole and Phil Gramm introduced legislation to regulate them. Since the mid-1990s, however, GOP critics vanished after some party leaders began to champion the for-profits as a private-sector alternative to the higher education establishment. Given the dynamics of rising partisan polarization, the rank-and-file quickly fell in line. Some Democrats now seek to represent constituents who have been taken advantage of by such schools and incurred unpayable debts, but others continue to defend them.

Lovely, isn't it? Democrats were finally ready to concede a point to Republicans, but apparently the horror of bipartisan agreement was too much for them. Still, I suppose there was never any real prospect of agreement anyway. I imagine that Republicans merely wanted to axe federal funding and let it go at that, while Democrats probably wanted to make for-profit schools perform better. The fundamental chasm between wanting to help poor people and not caring about poor people was undoubtedly never in any danger of being bridged.

Count Me Skeptical About the Latest "Hot Hands" Research

| Thu May 29, 2014 10:44 AM EDT

Via Andrew Sullivan, Jay Caspian Kang relays the results of a new study on gambling:

Juemin Xu and Nigel Harvey, the study’s authors, took a sampling of 569,915 bets taken on an online sports-gambling site and tracked how previous wins and losses affected the probability of wins in the future. Over all, the winning percentage of the bets was somewhere around forty eight per cent. Xu and Harvey isolated the winners and tracked how they fared in their subsequent bets. In bet two, winners won at a rate of forty-nine per cent. From there, the numbers go haywire. A player who had won two bets in a row won his third bet at a rate of fifty-seven per cent. His fourth bet won sixty-seven percent of the time, his fifth bet seventy-two.

....Winning and losing streaks had no correlation with the skill or risk aversion of the gambler.... What the research did find was that gamblers on streaks—good or bad—acted under the influence of the gambler’s fallacy. Winning bettors began placing more prudent bets because they assumed their luck would soon run out. Losers began placing bets with longer odds because they wanted to win big when their luck finally, inevitably changed.

Can I point out that this makes no sense? If it's true, it implies that there are "prudent" bets that regularly pay off 72 percent of the time—bets that streaky players identify instinctively. If you could carefully restrict yourself to just those bets, you'd clean up.

Now, sure, maybe those are short-odds bets that don't pay much. But it turns out they aren't all that short:

Among all GBP gamblers [i.e., those gambling in British pounds], the mean level of selected odds was 7.72. After a winning bet, lower odds were chosen for the next bet. The mean odds dropped to 6.19. Following two consecutive winning bets, the mean odds decreased to 3.60. People who had won on more consecutive occasions selected less risky odds. This trend continued.

Fine. But odds of 3.60 still don't pay off more than half the time. The fact that people on a streak place bets with odds like this does not, not, not explain why they're winning so often. After all, if prudent bets were all it took to win regularly, pros could identify them routinely and place huge sums on these sure winners. A modest payoff would still produce big paydays. This is not the way casinos work.