Kevin Drum

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.

Campus Christian Groups Should Be Allowed to Remain Christian

| Tue Jun. 10, 2014 10:56 AM EDT

I think I'm over the stomach bug that laid me up this weekend, so let's get back to this blogging thing. Today, the New York Times informs me that university Christian groups are losing official recognition because they won't agree to allow anyone, regardless of religious beliefs, to become a group leader:

At Cal State, the nation’s largest university system with nearly 450,000 students on 23 campuses, the chancellor is preparing this summer to withdraw official recognition from evangelical groups that are refusing to pledge not to discriminate on the basis of religion in the selection of their leaders. And at Vanderbilt, more than a dozen groups, most of them evangelical but one of them Catholic, have already lost their official standing over the same issue; one Christian group balked after a university official asked the students to cut the words “personal commitment to Jesus Christ” from their list of qualifications for leadership.

At most universities that have begun requiring religious groups to sign nondiscrimination policies, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and mainline Protestant groups have agreed, saying they do not discriminate and do not anticipate that the new policies will cause problems. Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization, says some chapters have even elected non-Jews to student boards.

Apparently this was sparked by a court decision that ruled it was OK for public universities to deny recognition to student groups that exclude gays—including Christian groups. I'm fine with that. But requiring Christian groups to allow non-believers to lead Bible studies and prayer services and so forth? That seems pretty extreme. I have to admit that if I were a member of a campus Christian group, I'd have a hard time believing there were no ulterior motives at work here.

As for the Jewish/Muslim/Catholic/etc. groups that "do not anticipate" problems, I hope they're right. But this is the kind of thing that's ripe for mischief-making. I can easily imagine a bunch of campus halfwits who think it would be the funniest joke in the world to join a religious group en masse and then elect an atheist president. These are 19-year-olds we're dealing with, after all.

But maybe not. Perhaps that requires too much sustained effort. Nonetheless, if it were up to me, I'd allow Jewish groups to remain Jewish and Christian groups to remain Christian if that's what they want to do. It's hard to see the harm.

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Housekeeping Note

| Mon Jun. 9, 2014 11:02 AM EDT

I'm ailing in multiple ways this morning. I'll try to be back later in the day.

Friday Cat Blogging - 6 June 2014

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 2:41 PM EDT

Today we have a stripey Domino. This picture required a bit of art direction: I had to pick up Domino and move her a few inches to the left to get her fully into the stripey shadows. Surprisingly, she allowed me to do this without complaint. This was never a problem with Inkblot. I could plonk him down anywhere I wanted and he'd obligingly lie there like a sack of potatoes. Domino is not normally so cooperative.

Anyway, I'm mentioning this because I don't want a big scandal after I win my Pulitzer Prize for catblogging and somebody rats me out to the jury. They're pretty strict about this kind of thing.

How Many Countries Have Direct Access to All Phone Calls?

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 2:33 PM EDT

Vodafone is one of the largest telecom companies in the world, with a strong presence in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Here's what they told us today:

Vodafone said that it had received thousands of requests from 29 countries in the 12 months through March 31. But the report also said that governments in certain countries had direct access to its networks without having to use legal warrants.

In a “small number” of countries, Vodafone said in the report, the company “will not receive any form of demand for communications data access as the relevant agencies and authorities already have permanent access to customer communications via their own direct link.

Vodafone wouldn't say which countries have this kind of unrestricted access, but the Guardian takes a guess here.

Like it or Not, Guantanamo Is Here to Stay

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 1:34 PM EDT

Praise the Lord. Max Fisher has taken on the thankless task of explaining to both left and right why the Taliban prisoner exchange isn't either of the following:

  • The first step in a secret plan from the lawless despot Obama to close Guantanamo.
  • Proof that Obama could have closed Guantanamo all along and that he now has no excuse not to.

Obama is not going to close Guantanamo. The legal loophole he used in the Bergdahl prisoner exchange—no matter what you think of it—flatly wouldn't apply to shutting down the entire prison. Plus there's the fact that Congress would go ballistic if he tried—including plenty of Democrats. Impeachment would go from a fever dream of the tea-party right to a very realistic bipartisan possibility. Finally, there's frankly never been much evidence that Obama cares all that much. He'd obviously like to shut down Guantanamo, but he just doesn't feel that strongly about it.

So give it up. Guantanamo will be here through the end of Obama's presidency, and quite possibly until its last prisoner dies. It's fanciful to think anything else.