Kevin Drum

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in May

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 10:34 AM EDT

The American economy added 217,000 new jobs in March, but about 90,000 of those jobs were needed just to keep up with population growth, so net job growth clocked in at 127,000. The headline unemployment rate stayed steady at 6.3 percent.

As near as I can tell, there are no serious gotchas in this month's report. The labor participation rate was stable, and the unemployment rate didn't stay where it is because lots of people exited the labor force. This is a straightforward, decent-but-not-great jobs report, and it's sure starting to look like this is where we're going to be stuck for a while.

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Bowe Bergdahl, Then and Now

| Thu Jun. 5, 2014 2:30 PM EDT

Speaking of Bowe Bergdahl, Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt have a fascinating piece in the New York Times that just went up. They got hold of a detailed report that was written two months after Bergdahl walked off, and what makes it interesting is that it's based on extensive contemporaneous interviews. This allows us to compare what people are saying now with what they were saying back then. For example, there's this:

A classified military report detailing the Army’s investigation into the disappearance of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in June 2009 says that he had wandered away from assigned areas before — both at a training range in California and at his remote outpost in Afghanistan — and then returned, according to people briefed on it.

....Whether Sergeant Bergdahl was a deserter who never intended to come back, or simply slipped away for a short adventure amid an environment of lax security and discipline and then was captured is one of many unanswered questions about his disappearance. The issue is murky, the report said, in light of Sergeant Bergdahl’s previous episodes of walking off.

And this:

The report is said to contain no mention of Sergeant Bergdahl having left behind a letter in his tent that explicitly said he was deserting and explaining his disillusionment, as a retired senior military official briefed on the investigation at the time told The New York Times this week. Asked about what appeared to be a disconnect, the retired officer insisted that he remembered reading a field report discussing the existence of such a letter in the early days of the search and was unable to explain why it is not mentioned in the final investigative report.

And this:

Its portrayal of him as a soldier is said to be positive, with quotes from both commanders and squadmates — apparently including some of the men now criticizing him — describing him as punctual, always in the correct uniform and asking good questions. It quotes colleagues as saying that he expressed some boredom and frustration that they were not “kicking down doors” more to go after insurgents who were destroying schools.

And this:

The report is also said to contain no mention of any alleged intercepts of radio or cellphone traffic indicating that Sergeant Bergdahl was asking villagers if anyone spoke English and trying to get in touch with the Taliban, as two former squadmates told CNN this week in separate interviews that they remembered hearing about from a translator who received the report.

The moral of this story is simple: memories can change, and once you've taken sides you're likely to embellish things considerably. The stuff that Bergdahl's critics are saying today may be accurate, or it may be a product of anger growing out of control over the passage of time. We really need to wait before rushing to judgment.

Five Quick Things to Know About Bowe Bergdahl

| Thu Jun. 5, 2014 1:06 PM EDT

It's an open question whether the White House handled the recovery of Bowe Bergdahl well. Probably not, and it's a legitimate topic for speculation. But on the substantive question of the prisoner exchange itself, here are five things you should keep firmly in mind:

  1. We don't know if Bergdahl is a deserter. We'll only know that after the military legal process has run its course and rendered a verdict. Obviously nothing is going to shut up the hotheads and Fox News blowhards, but the rest of us on both left and right would be wise to reserve judgment until that happens.
  2. Either way, we still should have gotten Bergdahl back. We don't leave prisoners behind to face justice from the enemy. We dish it out ourselves.
  3. The evidence suggests that, in fact, probably nobody died searching for Bergdahl after he left the base.
  4. When wars end, you exchange prisoners. This is always distasteful and contentious: the issue of POWs was so fraught at the end of the Korean War that it actually extended the fighting for more than a year. But eventually you agree to an exchange, and the Afghanistan war is no different. Foreign policy hawks might not like it, but America's longest war is finally coming to an end, which means our Taliban prisoners would have been exchanged fairly soon no matter what. We didn't actually give up much in this deal.
  5. As Michael Hastings reported two years ago, Bergdahl didn't think much of his unit, and his unit didn't think much of him. Given the rancor between them, it's not surprising that his teammates have plenty of lurid things to say about him now. They never liked him much in the first place. For the time being, you should take everything they say with a big grain of salt.

Practically everything you're hearing right now about Bowe Bergdahl is being driven by extreme partisans with a huge ax to grind. You should view the entire feeding frenzy with intense skepticism until we learn more about what actually happened.

America Sucks at Eating Vegetables

| Thu Jun. 5, 2014 11:34 AM EDT

Hold on a second. Kelsey McKinney draws my attention this morning to the latest USDA report on the kinds of foods we eat, and the chart on the right shows what it has to say about vegetables.

Is this for real? Since when are potatoes vegetables? I mean, I'm delighted by this news since it means my mother has been wrong all these years when she badgers me about not eating enough vegetables. Hell, it turns out that the bag of potato chips in my pantry apparently counts too. I'll be sure to have some with my lunch today.

Still, I suspect that mom is right, which makes this a pretty depressing chart. Regardless of how the USDA classifies them, I'll continue to put potatoes (and corn) into the starch food group. Aside from that, it appears that we eat plenty of salad (head lettuce, Romaine lettuce, tomatoes) but not much of anything else. All the things we traditionally think of as vegetables (broccoli, peas, beans, etc.) are consumed in such tiny quantities they don't even show up.

That's terrible. Eat your vegetables, America!

Latest Gallup Numbers Confirm 10-12 Million Newly Insured Under Obamacare

| Thu Jun. 5, 2014 11:07 AM EDT

Gallup's latest poll number for the uninsured is out, and it's stabilized now that the open enrollment period for Obamacare has ended. It was 13.4 percent in April and it's 13.4 percent in May:

The fact that the rate stabilized provides some confidence in Gallup's polling, since that's what should have happened once open enrollment ended. This is a drop of about 4 percentage points from the 2011-12 baseline, and represents about 10 million newly insured—a figure that's been confirmed elsewhere and now seems like a pretty good estimate. Add to this the number of children and sub-26ers who are newly insured, and you're probably up to 12-13 million who are newly insured under Obamacare. Some of this comes from people buying insurance through the exchanges; some comes from Medicaid signups; and some comes from people signing up for insurance at work thanks to the individual mandate.

It's possible that other estimates will upend this number over the next few months, but I doubt it. This is probably about what we got from Obamacare. It's up to you to decide if you think it's worth the price.

It Turns Out That Lots of People Don't Like What Google Says About Them

| Thu Jun. 5, 2014 12:36 AM EDT

Today we learn the consequences of the recent European court ruling that people can petition Google to remove search results they don't happen to like:

Google Inc. said Tuesday that it had received 41,000 requests from people hoping to delete individual results that turn up for their name in the first four days after it posted a Web page to take the requests late last week....The figure suggests that while a wave of people looking to exercise their new right has crested since Friday, the flood is continuing. The number of requests works out to more than 10,000 a day through the end of day Monday, or roughly 7 a minute, compared with 20 requests a minute in the initial hours after Google posted the web form.

I wonder if this will prompt the morons at the European Court of Justice to reconsider their ruling? Probably not, I suppose.

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Chip-and-PIN Credit Cards Coming in 2015?

| Wed Jun. 4, 2014 2:46 PM EDT

Sam's Club has announced that it will soon be issuing a chip-based credit card. Hooray! However, it's a chip-and-signature card, not one of the more secure, more logical, and more universal chip-and-PIN cards. But wait:

The other major security technology widely used on credit cards elsewhere [i.e., every country on the planet except ours] is PIN codes, which are more difficult to fake than a scribbled signature. The Sam’s Club cards will be PIN enabled but will primarily verify users by signature. The next generation of the cards, however, will primarily require PIN verification when they are issued next year.

Hold on. When did this happen? A few months ago, America's credit card issuers were insisting that chip-and-signature was the way to go. The transition plans were all in place and it was what everyone had agreed to. Retailers didn't have the technology for chip-and-PIN and consumers didn't want it, because we were all too stupid to get used to using a PIN code with our credit cards.

Now, suddenly, chip-and-PIN is right around the corner? What's going on?

UPDATE: I guess I haven't been paying attention. In December Wells Fargo announced that it would offer chip-based cards on request. "Technically speaking, they are chip-and-signature," says a Wells Fargo spox, "though the chip does have a PIN and can accommodate a PIN-based transaction if the situation required it (e.g. an unattended or offline kiosk.)" And JPMorgan Chase says it will be offering chip-and-PIN cards later this year. I guess the chip-and-PIN bandwagon is starting to gain momentum.

"All of the Above" Is a Perfectly Fine Republican Midterm Strategy

| Wed Jun. 4, 2014 12:50 PM EDT

Just a quick note to my fellow liberals. I occasionally see a bit of crowing over the fact that Republicans can't agree on a coherent midterm story. Is it going to be Benghazi? The economy? Obamacare? Bowe Bergdahl? The EPA? Vladimir Putin? Or what? Republicans are in disarray!

I wouldn't count on that. Not all of these things will have the legs to carry them all the way to November, but that doesn't matter. They all reflect badly on Obama, and as this stuff piles up, low-information centrists and leaners all start to think that there must really be something wrong with Obama and his fellow Democrats, even if they don't quite know what. Where there's smoke, there's fire, right?

An "all of the above" strategy will probably work just fine for Republicans. I doubt that the outrage over Bowe Bergdahl will last long, for example, but the weak White House response to it just adds to the perception that Obama is a weak manager and maybe Republicans are right about him. In November, even if nobody remembers Bergdahl, plenty of people will retain a vague memory that something wasn't quite right about that whole Afghanistan thing. And because of that, they'll pull the lever for their local Republican.

Obama's EPA Regs Reward Republican Obstructionism

| Wed Jun. 4, 2014 11:40 AM EDT

Jamelle Bouie thinks Republicans are shooting themselves in the feet with their mindless obstructionism:

If Republicans are outraged by the announcement, they only have themselves to blame....In 2009, President Obama threw his support behind climate legislation in the House, and the following year, a group of Senate Democrats—including Kerry—began work with Republicans to craft a bipartisan climate bill. The process fell apart, a victim of bad management from the White House, election year politics, an embattled and fearful Sen. Lindsay Graham—the South Carolina senator at the center of the negotiations—and the growing tide of Republican anti-Obama sentiment, which would culminate that fall with a huge GOP victory in the House of Representatives.

....With a little cooperation, Republicans could have won a better outcome for their priorities. They could have exempted coal from more stringent spectrum of regulations, enriched their constituencies with new subsidies and benefits, and diluted a key Democratic priority. Instead, they’ll now pay a steep substantive price for their obstruction, in the form of rules that are tougher—and more liberal—than anything that could have passed Congress.

I think this misreads Republican priorities. Sure, they care about the details of the regulations. And sure, they knew perfectly well that Obama had threatened to act via the EPA if Congress failed to pass a bill. But neither of those were things they cared all that much about.

Note the bolded sentence above. What Republicans really care about is winning elections.1 They were pretty sure that cooperating on a cap-and-trade bill would hurt them in the 2010 midterms, and they were probably right about that. It wasn't a popular bill, and they would have been forced to take partial credit for it if it had passed. Instead, they were able to run a clean, rage-filled campaign against Obummercare, cap-and-tax, and the pork-ocrat "stimulus" bill. As I recall, that worked out pretty well for them.

And what price did they pay? Well, now the EPA is proposing regs that are....maybe slightly worse than the original cap-and-trade bill, but not all that much, really. Policy-wise, then, they've lost at most a smidgen but no more.2 And guess what? There's another midterm coming up! This is all perfectly timed from the Republican point of view. They get to run hard against yet another lawless-Obama-job-killing-socialist-war-on-coal-executive-tyranny program. What's not to like?

1Democrats too, in case you're keeping score at home. Libertarians not so much.

2It's worth noting that they have Obama's relentless technocratic pragmatism to thank for this. If Obama had really wanted to punish Republican constituencies for opposing the cap-and-trade bill, he could have proposed a bunch of command-and-control mandates that would have hit red states and the coal industry in the gut. If Obama were truly the business-hating socialist tyrant of their fever dreams, that's what he would have done. Instead, he proposed regulations that were as flexible and efficient as possible within the restrictions of the Clean Air Act. That's why, in the end, Republican obstructionism didn't really hurt them that much.

Rich Doctors Like Republicans; Sorta Rich Doctors Like Democrats

| Wed Jun. 4, 2014 10:22 AM EDT

We jabber a lot these days about how the real action in income inequality lies in the 1 percent. That is, the big increases haven't really been between the earnings of, say, teachers and computer programmers, but between computer programmers and Wall Street traders. And rising inequality is even more apparent within the 1 percent: The super rich in the top 0.1 percent are pulling away from the merely rich in the top 1 percent at an astonishing rate.

Today, Sarah Kliff points us to a kinda sorta related chart that's pretty eye-opening. As high earners, you'd think that doctors would be more likely to contribute money to Republicans than Democrats. But it turns out that isn't true. A new analysis in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that merely well-off doctors—your allergists, your pediatricians, your pulmonologists—favor Democrats. It's only when you get into the territory of medical royalty—your surgeons, your urologists, your radiologists—that political contributions start to heavily favor Republicans. Even within one of the best paid professions in the country, there's a class divide, with the haves favoring Republicans and the have-nots favoring Democrats. That's fairly remarkable.