Kevin Drum

Waiting For Number 34

| Mon Aug. 31, 2015 11:34 AM EDT

President Obama has the support of 31 Democratic senators for his Iran nuclear deal. So naturally we're now beginning to ponder the truly important stuff:

It looks increasingly likely that the nuclear agreement will survive its congressional trial — even opponents are starting to accept that seeming inevitability.

Which leaves just one question: Who will be the deal-clinching senator No. 34?

Quite so. Who will be the history maker? Or, if you prefer, the final nail in the coffin of treachery? This is what truly matters.

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Robert Kagan Thinks America's Problem Is Too Little War

| Mon Aug. 31, 2015 11:00 AM EDT

Over the weekend1 Robert Kagan wrote an essay in the Wall Street Journal titled "America's Dangerous Aversion to Conflict." That seemed....wrong, somehow, so I read it. Mostly it turned out to be a tedious history lesson about the run-up to World War II, basically a long version of the "Munich!" argument that conservatives make every time we fail to go to war with somebody. But there was also this:

President George H.W. Bush and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, sent half a million American troops to fight thousands of miles away for no other reason than to thwart aggression and restore a desert kingdom that had been invaded by its tyrant neighbor.

....A little more than a decade later, however, the U.S. is a changed country. Because of the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, to suggest sending even a few thousand troops to fight anywhere for any reason is almost unthinkable. The most hawkish members of Congress don't think it safe to argue for a ground attack on the Islamic State or for a NATO troop presence in Ukraine. There is no serious discussion of reversing the cuts in the defense budget, even though the strategic requirements of defending U.S. allies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East have rarely been more manifest while America's ability to do so has rarely been more in doubt.

This is one of the tropes that conservative hawks haul out with tiresome predictability, but it's flat wrong. Even now, when Americans have every reason to be skeptical of military action in the Mideast, poll after poll shows a surprising acceptance of it. Whether the subject is Iran, Syria, or ISIS, it's plain that many Americans are already primed for military action, and many more can be talked into it pretty easily. The United States has fought half a dozen major wars in the past quarter century, and the surprising thing isn't that we've gotten war weary. Quite the contrary: the surprising thing is that we're plainly ready to keep it up given the right incentive.

Kagan's argument is also dishonest in a couple of common ways. First, he argues that sending "even a few thousand troops" anywhere is now unthinkable. This is nonsense. Over the past few months we've already sent a few thousand troops to fight ISIS, and this has barely raised a peep even from liberals. There is an aversion to sending a hundred thousand ground troops to fight ISIS and starting up another full-scale war and occupation of Iraq. If Kagan objects to that, fine. But that's what we're talking about, and Kagan should own up to it.

Second, after spending several paragraphs singing the praises of our military response during the Cold War, Kagan bemoans our unwillingness to send troops to Ukraine. But again, that's nonsense. During the Cold War, we fought plenty of proxy wars but never, never, never sent troops to fight the Soviets directly. Not in Hungary. Not in Czechoslovakia. Not in Afghanistan. If Kagan wants us to be more belligerent toward Russia than we ever were toward the old Soviet Union, that's fine too. But he needs to say so, rather than subtly rewriting history.

Kagan, like so many other hawks, is intent on pretending that the threats we face today are as dangerous as any in the past century. But that's simply not true. World War I, World War II, and the Cold War were almost unimaginably greater threats to the world than a few minor territorial grabs by Vladimir Putin, a civil war in Syria, and the takeover of a chunk of Iraq by a ragtag group of delusional jihadists. Pretending otherwise does Kagan's reputation no favors.

1Actually, Kagan wrote this over a weekend in 2014. I'm not really sure why it popped up during my perusal of the Journal last night. But I suppose it doesn't matter: Kagan would likely say the same thing today that he did a year ago.

Apple Hates Me. I Hate Them Right Back.

| Sun Aug. 30, 2015 10:08 PM EDT

Apple has never allowed ad-blocking software on the iPhone or iPad. This is one among many reasons that I ditched both. Not because I hate ads all that passionately, but because it's an example of the obsessive corporate control Apple maintains over its environment. But it's my iPad, dammit. If I want a different virtual keyboard, why can't I get one? If I want access to a file, why does Apple forbid it? If I want ad-blocking software, why should Apple be allowed to stop me?

Apple is still a serial offender on this front, but apparently they've decided to relent on ad-blocking software. As usual, though, there appears to be a deeper story here:

The next version of Apple’s mobile-operating system, due out as early as next month, will let users install apps that prevent ads from appearing in its Safari browser.

....Apple says it won’t allow ad blocking within apps, because ads inside apps don’t compromise performance as they do on the browser. That distinction serves Apple’s interests. It takes a 30% cut on money generated from apps, and has a business serving ads inside apps. What’s more, iOS 9 will include an Apple News app, which will host articles from major news publishers. Apple may receive a share of the revenue from ads that accompany those articles.

The basic lay of the land here—assuming the Wall Street Journal has this right—is that Apple's move is aimed at Google, which makes most of its revenue from browser ads. Conversely, it doesn't hurt companies like Facebook much, since they have dedicated apps. In the big picture, this motivates more and more companies to build Apple-specific apps, since those will become more lucrative over time. And it helps Apple's bottom line since it gets a cut of the revenue. Plus it annoys Google.

So here's the lesson: Apple is happy to allow users more control over their devices as long as it also happens to benefit Apple. If it doesn't, then tough.

This is why I generally loathe Apple. Obviously all companies are run in their own self-interest, but Apple carries this to absurd lengths. Say what you will about Microsoft, but they've never pulled this kind of crap on their customers. If I buy a Windows machine, I can do pretty much anything I want to it.

Needless to say, lots and lots of people couldn't care less about this, and Apple has made a ton of money catering to them. But I care. Whether it's because Steve Jobs insisted on the one perfect way of using a computer, or because Apple's accountants want to limit customers' choices in order to maximize corporate revenue, Apple has never cared much about allowing me to choose how I prefer to use a computer. That's not thinking different. It's how IBM operated half a century ago. And it sucks.

Hair Update: Short Wins By a Landslide

| Sun Aug. 30, 2015 11:25 AM EDT

So what does the commentariat think on the hair front? Here's a smattering of comments from folks who like my new, shorter hair:

DM: Makes you look quietly studly and stoic.

JS: The short look, with the T-shirt, is hot. You'll just have to get used to the idea that you're going to turn female heads when you walk into a restaurant.

EVC: Even without the tattoos, you look so much more hip and bad-ass. It's a good look.

CLD: It's like Johnny Depp in Black Mass, it's the new look.

SG: Clean, cool, contemporary. And it makes you look ten years younger.

RS: As a personal finance professor, I like that you can have your wife cut it with at home electric hair clipper package; it's easy at that length!

LD: It's more interesting, less like an insurance salesman from the '50's.

And here's a smattering of comment from the one person who likes my old, longer hair:

JD: Your old hair is so cute. And you might as well enjoy it while you can, because, face it, the day will come when it will all go away anyway. Dad did not have much hair at your age.

Well....but Dad didn't have much hair by the time he was 30, either. I plan to take after my maternal grandfather, who kept his hair into his 90s. In any case, the new hair wins by about 487 to 1. But let's face it: the vote was rigged from the start. Nobody was going to vote for that old hair. Besides, if I were sporting a polka-dot mohawk you guys would all vote for it. Don't lie. You know you would.

So that's that. Short hair wins. However, it turns out that none of your votes counted anyway. Marian voted for the new hair, and she outvoted all of you. Funny how that works.

The Internet Is Making Us Sicker

| Sun Aug. 30, 2015 10:37 AM EDT

The placebo effect, as we all know, is the mechanism by which we sometimes feel better even when we're given meds that later turn out to be sugar pills. The mere expectation that we will get better somehow helps us actually get better. The most eye-popping example of the placebo effect is probably this one here.

But there's also a dark side to this. I don't know if it has an official name, so let's call it the anti-placebo effect.1 Basically, it means that your mind can invent miserable side effects from taking medication merely because you know that certain side effects are possible. Take cholesterol-lowering statins, for example:

At the Mayo Clinic here, Dr. Stephen L. Kopecky, who directs a program for statin-intolerant patients, says he is well aware that middle-age and older adults who typically need statins may blame the drugs for aches, pains and memory losses that have other causes. He also knows his patients peruse the Internet, which is replete with horror stories about the dangers of statins.

Yet he, like other doctors, also thinks some statin intolerance is real despite what clinical trials have shown. The problem: In the vast majority of cases, there is no objective test to tell real from imagined statin intolerance.

So there you have it: the internet is making us sicker. Does it make up for this by also making us healthier? I have my doubts. It is a spawn of evil.

And no, you still can't take mine away. However, this is one of the reasons why I've avoided reading about multiple myeloma on the internet. I figure it's unlikely to help, and might very well hurt.

1Turns out it's called the nocebo effect. How about that?

Soon We Will All Be Little More Than Organic FedEx Packages

| Sun Aug. 30, 2015 9:00 AM EDT

On Saturday the New York Times ran this headline: "Christie Proposes Tracking Immigrants Like FedEx Packages." We are, of course, supposed to be scandalized by this. After all, if "anchor babies" is dehumanizing to immigrants, surely treating them like FedEx packages is nothing short of brutalizing. The article goes on to explain:

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said on Saturday that if he were elected president he would combat illegal immigration by creating a system to track foreign visitors the way FedEx tracks packages. Mr. Christie, who is far back in the pack of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, said at a campaign event in New Hampshire that he would ask the chief executive of FedEx, Frederick W. Smith, to devise the tracking system.

Uh huh. This is, of course, part of the Trump-inspired "can you top this" game of being tough on illegal immigration. That's a bit of a yawn, though, since we went through the same thing during the 2012 primaries. What's more interesting is that Christie's schtick is Trump-inspired in an entirely different way: pretending that business people can be slotted effortlessly into government positions where they'll kick some free-market ass and get our government moving again. Trump started this by claiming that he'd send Carl Icahn over to China because he's a "killer" and would quickly put the Chinese in their place. Now Christie is following suit.

So what's next?

  • Hillary Clinton says she'll hire Bill Gates to run Obamacare.
  • Ted Cruz says he'll get the Koch Brothers to whip the EPA into shape.
  • Ben Carson says he'll ask Warren Buffett to run the IRS.
  • Scott Walker says that Jeff Bezos is the man to fix the GSA.
  • Bernie Sanders says he'll pick Oprah Winfrey as his education czar.
  • Jeb Bush says he'll bring in Sergei Brin to run the CIA.
  • John Kasich says he'll nominate Mitt Romney to get the VA on track.

Who else would be able to fix up an inept government agency in a few months? Or maybe it should be the other way around: Are there any government agencies that couldn't be reformed in short order by the right kind of steely-eyed business leader?

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Health Update

| Sat Aug. 29, 2015 8:52 PM EDT

Ha ha. Just kidding. It will be several months before we know how effective the new chemo meds are. However, I can tell you that (a) so far I'm suffering no side effects, (b) my routine lab tests are all fine, and (c) I feel pretty good. I'm sleeping OK, my energy level is nearly back to normal, my stomach has finally recovered, and my hair is growing back.

And speaking of hair, that's the real purpose of this post. My hair has now grown back to the point that I have a decision to make: keep it as is, or let it grow to its old length? It's not like my old hair was any great shakes, but still, after 55 years you get accustomed to things. On the other hand, the new do does have advantages. Easy upkeep. No worries about wind or hat hair. Cheaper haircuts.

Comparison photos are below. Anyway, feel free to vote in comments. Old hair or new?

Inflation Is Low? Let's Tighten Monetary Policy Anyway.

| Sat Aug. 29, 2015 7:42 PM EDT

Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer comments on inflation and monetary policy:

The Federal Reserve’s No. 2 official said there is “good reason” to think sluggish U.S. inflation will firm and move back toward the U.S. central bank’s 2% annual target, touching on a significant assessment facing the Fed ahead of its September policy meeting.

....When the time comes to raise rates, Mr. Fischer said, “we will most likely need to proceed cautiously” and with inflation low, “we can probably remove accommodation at a gradual pace. Yet, because monetary policy influences real activity with a substantial lag, we should not wait until inflation is back to 2% to begin tightening.

A lot of people think the big problem with Fischer's statement is the first bolded sentence. There's been "good reason" to think inflation will increase for a long time. And yet it hasn't. Why are we supposed to believe that this year's good reason is any better than previous ones?

That's fair enough. But I think the real problem is in the second bolded sentence: Fischer is intent on tightening monetary policy well before inflation shows any sign of hitting 2 percent. This illustrates a serious asymmetry in the Fed's decisionmaking. If inflation goes below the 2 percent target, they're willing to wait things out. But if it shows even the slightest sign of maybe, someday going a few basis points above the 2 percent target, then it's time to tighten. The net result of this is that inflation won't average 2 percent. It will swing between 1 and 2 percent, maybe averaging 1.5 percent or so.

That's a bad thing, and it's especially bad if, like me, you think our inflation target should be more like 3-4 percent anyway. But that's the way it is.

Question of the Day: With Friends Like This....

| Sat Aug. 29, 2015 4:12 PM EDT

Last month, Donald Trump said he didn't consider John McCain a war hero because "I like people who weren't captured." Who said this afterward?

Mr. Trump's remarks were insulting to me as a veteran and as a person whose family sacrificed for 25 years as I missed anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, Christmases and Easters....I was offended by a man who sought and gained four student deferments to avoid the draft and who has never served this nation a day — not a day — in any fashion or way.

....Why should I not be suspicious of an individual who was pro-choice until he decided to run for president? Why should I not be suspicious of a person who advocates for universal healthcare? Why should I not be suspicious of someone who says he hates lobbyists and yet has spread millions of dollars around to Republicans and Democrats to enrich himself? Why should I not be suspicious of someone who cannot come to say that he believes in God, that he has never asked for forgiveness and that communion is simply wine and a cracker.

....[Trump] left me with questions about his moral center and his foundational beliefs....His comments reveal no foundation in Christ, which is a big deal.

If you answered Sam Clovis, the conservative Iowan who is now Trump's national campaign co-chair, give yourself a gold star! The Des Moines Register says dryly that this raises questions about whether Clovis was motivated to join Trump's campaign "less by ideology and more by the promise of a big paycheck from a business mogul who has said he is willing to spend as much as a billion dollars to get elected."

I guess it does. You really think that might have been in the back of Clovis's mind?

GOP Hauling Out Tired Old Weapons to Sink Iran Deal

| Sat Aug. 29, 2015 3:00 PM EDT

The Wall Street Journal reports that as the Iran deal looks increasingly impossible for Republicans to defeat, they're thinking of new ways to undermine it after it goes into effect:

As their chances dim, they are preparing to push a rash of new legislation for the fall to increase sanctions on Tehran for its role in supporting terrorist organizations and militant groups active across the Mideast, which could cause Iran to back out of the deal. These politicians also are devising new ways to target the finances of Tehran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

....The fresh sanctions push has the potential to put the White House and leading Democrats, such as the party’s presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, in a quandary. Those supporters of the deal could later face a tough decision over whether to back increased sanctions against Iran.

It's possible that Republicans can scrounge up enough Democratic support to overcome a filibuster and force an Obama veto on some of these measures. But I assume they don't really care about that. Obama's coming up on his last year in office and probably doesn't care much if he has to veto a few bills. Rather, as the Journal suggests, this is just normal election-year game-playing. Republicans want to introduce bills that will force Hillary Clinton to take a stand that will hurt her no matter how she responds. Oppose the sanctions and she's a Hezbollah lover. Support the sanctions and she's an AIPAC stooge.

There's nothing very original about this. Both parties do it whenever they can, and if Hillary Clinton is even a half-decent politician she'll be able to maneuver her way through without any big problems. As long as Republicans don't threaten to shut down the government over this, it probably won't be a very big deal.