Kevin Drum

Europe Agrees to Levy Moderate New Sanctions Against Russia

| Tue Jul. 22, 2014 12:38 PM EDT

Europe has agreed to further sanctions against Russia in response to the shootdown of MH17:

The EU will widen its sanctions against Russia to include more individuals and consider targeting the defence sector, the Dutch foreign minister says. Frans Timmermans said "unanimous" and "forceful" decisions had been taken on enhanced sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine conflict.

....A new sanctions list naming individuals and organisations will be drawn up by EU ambassadors by Thursday, Mr Timmermans told reporters after meeting his EU colleagues in Brussels. He said there was also agreement that the European Commission would look at further measures to be taken against Russia in the fields of defence, concerning "dual-use goods in the field of energy", and in financial services.

The Telegraph reports that not everyone is impressed:

[The sanctions] are not likely to satisfy not the United States and more hawkish members of the EU, including Poland and the Baltic states, who lobbied for tough sanctions against the Russian economy. In their conclusions, the ministers said they would only ask the 28-nation bloc's executive arm to prepare for more forceful economic sanctions — including targeting the arms, energy and financial sectors.

No surprises here. Most European leaders are willing to do more, but not too much more. They simply have too much invested in their economic ties with Russia to take more drastic steps.

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DC Circuit Court Kills Federal Subsidies for Obamacare. Next Stop Is Probably the Supreme Court.

| Tue Jul. 22, 2014 11:35 AM EDT

Well, the DC circuit court has ruled 2-1 that Obamacare subsidies apply only to exchanges set up by states, not to exchanges set up by the federal government. This is because one section of the law says that taxpayers can receive tax credits only if they enroll in a plan "through an Exchange established by the State under section 1311 of the [ACA]." The court ruled that a state is a state, and as far as that goes, it's reasonable enough. Even if this was merely a drafting error, it's pretty clear that the federal government isn't a state.

The problem is that there's more to it than that. The court is also required to ensure that its interpretation of a single clause doesn't make a hash out of the entire statutory construction of a law. The majority opinion makes heavy weather of this for a simple reason: virtually everything in the language of the law assumes that subsidies are available to everyone. Why, for example, would federal exchanges have to report detailed subsidy information if no one even gets subsidies on federal exchanges in the first place? The court blithely waves this off, suggesting that it's merely to allow the IRS to enforce the individual mandate. But that's pretty strained. Enforcing the mandate requires only a single piece of information: whether a taxpayer is insured. It doesn't require detailed information about eligibility for subsidies and the amount of the subsidies each taxpayer gets. The fact that all these details are required certainly suggests that Congress assumed everyone was getting subsidies.

The court, following the arguments of the plaintiffs, also makes a brave effort to figure out why Congress might have done something so transparently ridiculous as limiting subsidies to state exchanges. Their conclusion is that Congress deliberately withheld subsidies from federal exchanges as an incentive for states to set up exchanges of their own. On this point, Judge Harry Edwards was scathing in his dissent:

Perhaps because they appreciate that no legitimate method of statutory interpretation ascribes to Congress the aim of tearing down the very thing it attempted to construct, Appellants in this litigation have invented a narrative to explain why Congress would want health insurance markets to fail in States that did not elect to create their own Exchanges. Congress, they assert, made the subsidies conditional in order to incentivize the States to create their own exchanges. This argument is disingenuous, and it is wrong. Not only is there no evidence that anyone in Congress thought § 36B operated as a condition, there is also no evidence that any State thought of it as such. And no wonder: The statutory provision presumes the existence of subsidies and was drafted to establish a formula for the payment of tax credits, not to impose a significant and substantial condition on the States.

It makes little sense to think that Congress would have imposed so substantial a condition in such an oblique and circuitous manner....The simple truth is that Appellants’ incentive story is a fiction, a post hoc narrative concocted to provide a colorable explanation for the otherwise risible notion that Congress would have wanted insurance markets to collapse in States that elected not to create their own Exchanges.

There's no evidence that Congress ever thought it needed to provide incentives for states to set up their own exchanges. Certainly they could have made that clear if that had been their intention. As Edwards says, this claim is simply made up of whole cloth. In fact, he says acerbically, the entire suit is little more than a "not-so-veiled attempt to gut the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ":

The majority opinion evinces a painstaking effort — covering many pages — attempting to show that there is no ambiguity in the ACA. The result, I think, is to prove just the opposite. Implausible results would follow if “established by the State” is construed to exclude Exchanges established by HHS on behalf of a State. This is why the majority opinion strains fruitlessly to show plain meaning when there is none to be found.

....This court owes deference to the agencies’ interpretations of the ACA. Unfortunately, by imposing the Appellants’ myopic construction on the administering agencies without any regard for the overall statutory scheme, the majority opinion effectively ignores the basic tenets of statutory construction, as well as the principles of Chevron deference. Because the proposed judgment of the majority defies the will of Congress and the permissible interpretations of the agencies to whom Congress has delegated the authority to interpret and enforce the terms of the ACA, I dissent.

Will the Supreme Court agree? Given the obviously political motivations of most Supreme Court justices these days, I think that's hard to predict. A lot will depend on John Roberts. Having already betrayed his fellow conservatives by voting to uphold Obamacare, will he side with the government in order to show that he meant what he said and doesn't want to invite an endless series of desperate attempts to kill the law? Or has he had second thoughts, and will therefore welcome this as a chance to essentially reverse himself? I can't read his mind, so I don't know. We'll find out soon enough.

POSTSCRIPT: This ruling will, I assume, be stayed during appeal, so it has no immediate impact. The next step is for the Obama administration to either ask for an emergency en banc review from the entire DC circuit court, or to appeal directly to the Supreme Court. Either way, it will end up at the Supreme Court sooner or later.

POSTSCRIPT 2: White House press secretary Josh Earnest has confirmed that the administration will ask for an en banc review. Since the full court now has a liberal majority, they presumably hope they'll get a more favorable ruling before heading to the Supreme Court.

For Republicans, It's All Going According to Plan

| Tue Jul. 22, 2014 10:07 AM EDT

Steve Benen draws a contrast today between an activist president who's at least trying to get things done, and a dysfunctional Congress than can't even make the attempt:

Remember the VA crisis? Lawmakers quickly approved a reform bill, which now appears likely to fail because of House Republicans’ reluctance to compromise. Remember the plan to address the border crisis? The plan was for Congress to act before taking August off, but that now appears unlikely, too.

The effort to extend unemployment benefits is dead. So is raising the minimum wage. So is ENDA. No one even talks about gun background checks anymore. The Highway Trust Fund will probably benefit from a stopgap measure, but even this hardly represents real governing.

Unfortunately, I think Republicans would call this a big win. Getting things done doesn't really do them any good at the ballot box. Making the government appear impotent and incompetent does. So that's the path they've chosen.

Obama Planning to Retire to Rancho Mirage?

| Mon Jul. 21, 2014 9:01 PM EDT

Let the speculation begin!

President Obama and his wife, Michelle, could be the owners of a home in Rancho Mirage listed at $4.25 million before the month is out. The First Family is believed to be in escrow on a contemporary home in a gated community where entertainers Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby once maintained estates.

The White House said rumors regarding a home in Rancho Mirage are not true.

....The 8,232-square-foot compound in question sits adjacent to a bighorn sheep preserve on a 3.29-acre hilltop with panoramic views. The custom-built main house, constructed in 1993 and designed for entertaining, includes a gym, four bedrooms and 4.5 bathrooms. A 2,000-square-foot casita has three bedrooms and three bathrooms. Over-the-top exterior features include a pool with a 20-foot waterfall, a rock lagoon, two spas, a misting system and a putting green with a sand trap.

I have to say that the Obamas don't really strike me as Rancho Mirage kind of people, but who knows? Maybe I've misjudged them.

Photo by Clark Dugger Photography

Wage Stagnation Is No Illusion

| Mon Jul. 21, 2014 7:00 PM EDT

Bloomberg has a long article today wondering whether wage stagnation is mainly due to demographic shifts:

25- to 34-year-olds will make up 22.5 percent of the workforce by 2022, compared with 21.6 percent in 2012....Meanwhile, the share of 45- to 54-year-olds in their best earning years will drop by 3.3 percentage points in the decade ending 2022.

....Hollowing out the middle-aged working population could cut median earnings because such employees bring home the biggest paychecks. The median 45- to 54-year-old household earns $66,400 a year, compared with $51,400 for 25- to 34-year-old households.

Well, sure. Compared to 30 years ago, the theory goes, we have more young workers bringing down the average and fewer prime age workers raising the average. As a result, the average is declining. But all that means is that baby boomers are aging out of the workforce, not that wages are necessarily in bad shape.

That makes sense. At least, it would make sense if it were true. The thing is, in an article more than a thousand words long, we never learn that we can look at this directly. The chart on the right shows the median wages of just 25-34 year olds, and as you can see, they've been declining for more than a decade. This has nothing to do with demographics because it's measuring wages for the same age group the entire time.

Now, these figures don't include health insurance, and they only go through 2012. So they aren't of much help if, say, the Fed is trying to gauge the tightness of the labor market in the second quarter of 2014. Nonetheless, they certainly show a long-term trend of wage stagnation that plainly has nothing to do with demographics. This makes it vanishingly unlikely that wage stagnation over the past six months is merely due to demographic shifts.

It's a nice fairy tale to pretend that wage stagnation might just be an artifact of boomers retiring, but easily available data quite clearly shows otherwise. It's real.

Do We Need More Business Folks In Congress?

| Mon Jul. 21, 2014 4:08 PM EDT

Ed Kilgore points to a new Gallup poll that asks what kind of people you'd like to see in Congress:

So is this a vote for more business experience? Or even—shudder—a retroactive yearning for Mitt Romney? Like Kilgore, I'm skeptical. At a guess, people who answered the question about business experience were implicitly contrasting it with lawyers or career politicians, and that's a rigged deck. Of course business leaders will come out ahead compared to those two despised professions.

Which makes it too bad that Gallup screwed up this question. Instead of throwing out a kitchen sink of qualities (occupation, religion, ideology, etc.) they should have asked specifically about a list of occupations. Do you think the country would be better governed if our legislatures had more:

  • Business folks
  • Teachers
  • Lawyers
  • Doctors
  • Retired people
  • Military leaders
  • Scientists
  • Etc.

That would be kind of an interesting poll. Personally, I'd vote for more kindergarten teachers. I suspect that's a pretty appropriate background for serving a few years in Congress.

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If the Left Wants Scapegoats, Just Look in the Mirror

| Mon Jul. 21, 2014 1:31 PM EDT

Thomas Frank is convinced that Barack Obama single-handedly prevented America from becoming the lefty paradise it was on course for after the financial meltdown of 2008:

The Obama team, as the president once announced to a delegation of investment bankers, was “the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” and in retrospect these words seem not only to have been a correct assessment of the situation at the moment but a credo for his entire term in office. For my money, they should be carved in stone over the entrance to his monument: Barack Obama as the one-man rescue squad for an economic order that had aroused the fury of the world. Better: Obama as the awesomely talented doctor who kept the corpse of a dead philosophy lumbering along despite it all.

....In point of fact, there were plenty of things Obama’s Democrats could have done that might have put the right out of business once and for all—for example, by responding more aggressively to the Great Recession or by pounding relentlessly on the theme of middle-class economic distress. Acknowledging this possibility, however, has always been difficult for consensus-minded Democrats, and I suspect that in the official recounting of the Obama era, this troublesome possibility will disappear entirely. Instead, the terrifying Right-Wing Other will be cast in bronze at twice life-size, and made the excuse for the Administration’s every last failure of nerve, imagination and foresight. Demonizing the right will also allow the Obama legacy team to present his two electoral victories as ends in themselves, since they kept the White House out of the monster’s grasp—heroic triumphs that were truly worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. (Which will be dusted off and prominently displayed.)

I see this kind of thing all the time on the right. If only we had a candidate who refused to sell out conservative values! A candidate who could truly make the American public understand! Then we'd win in a landslide!

It's easy to recognize this as delusional. Tea party types are always convinced that America is thirsting for true conservatism, and all that's needed is a latter-day Ronald Reagan to be its salesman. Needless to say, this misses the point that Americans aren't all reactionaries. In fact, as the embarrassing clown shows of the past two GOP primaries have shown, even most Republicans aren't reactionaries. There's been no shortage of honest-to-God right wingers to choose from, but they can't even win the nomination, let alone a general election.

(Of course you never know. Maybe 2016 is the year!)

But if it's so easy to see this conservative delusion for what it is, why isn't it equally easy to recognize the same brand of liberal delusion? Back in 2009, was Obama really the only thing that stood between bankers and the howling mob? Don't be silly. Americans were barely even upset, let alone ready for revolution. Those pathetic demonstrations outside the headquarters of AIG were about a hundredth the size that even a half-ass political organization can muster for a routine anti-abortion rally. After a few days the AIG protestors got bored and went home without so much as throwing a few bottles at cops. Even the Greeks managed that much.

Why were Americans so obviously not enraged? Because—duh—the hated neoliberal system worked. We didn't have a second Great Depression. The Fed intervened, the banking system was saved, and a stimulus bill was passed. Did bankers get treated too well? Oh yes indeed. Was the stimulus too small? You bet. Nevertheless, was America saved from an epic collapse? It sure was. Instead of a massive meltdown, we got a really bad recession and a weak recovery, and even that was cushioned by a safety net that, although inadequate, was more than enough to keep the pitchforks off the streets.

As for Obama, could he have done more? I suppose he probably could have, but it's a close call. Even with his earnest efforts at bipartisanship at the beginning of his presidency, he only barely passed any stimulus at all. If instead he'd issued thundering populist manifestos, even Susan Collins would have turned against him and the stimulus bill would have been not too small, but completely dead. Ditto for virtually everything else Obama managed to pass by one or two votes during his first 18 months. If that had happened, the economy would have done even worse, and if you somehow think this means the public would have become more sympathetic to the party in the White House, then your knowledge of American politics is at about the kindergarten level. Democrats would have lost even more seats in 2010 than they did.

Look: Obama made some mistakes. He should have done more about housing. He shouldn't have pivoted to deficit-mongering so quickly. Maybe he could have kept a public option in Obamacare if he'd fought harder for it. Maybe, maybe, maybe. But probably not. Like it or not, America was not poised for a huge liberal wave in 2008. It just wasn't. It was poised for a fairly routine cycle of throwing out the old bums and electing new bums, who would, as usual, be given a very short and very limited honeymoon. Democrats actually accomplished a fair amount during that honeymoon, but no, they didn't turn American into a lefty paradise. That was never in the cards.

All of us who do what Thomas Frank does—what I do—have failed. Our goal was to persuade the public to move in a liberal direction, and that didn't happen. In the end, we didn't persuade much of anyone. It's natural to want to avoid facing that humiliating truth, and equally natural to look for someone else to blame instead. That's human nature. So fine. Blame Obama if it makes you feel better. That's what we elect presidents for: to take the blame.

But he only deserves his share. The rest of us, who were unable to take advantage of an epic financial collapse to get the public firmly in favor of pitchforks and universal health care, deserve most of it. The mirror doesn't lie.

High School Kids Brave the Anti-Vax Jihadists

| Mon Jul. 21, 2014 11:41 AM EDT

Here's a heartwarming story for you. Prompted by the decline in vaccination rates among children in San Diego, a group of students at Carlsbad High School decided to make a short documentary about "the science of disease and the risks facing a society that is under-vaccinated." You can probably guess what happened next:

Complaints began to arise when a local newspaper reported that the students were tackling "the issue of immunizations." A blogger who saw the article contended that the movie, still a work in progress, was sure to be "propaganda." That led to a flurry of frightening phone calls and Internet comments directed at CHSTV, [advisor Lisa] Posard said.

Posard said she hadn't realized that vaccines were such a controversial subject. She and CHSTV teacher Douglas Green wanted to shut down production, she added. But the students, angered by what they saw as bullying, insisted on completing the film.

The final version of "Invisible Threat," completed in spring 2013 but shown only to select audiences, took a strong pro-vaccine position.

Critics, who said they hadn't been allowed to see the movie, leaped back into action about a year later, when the film was set to be screened on Capitol Hill.

Focus Autism and AutismOne organizations complained about the movie's Rotary Club backing and about the involvement of Dr. Paul Offit, a University of Pennsylvania pediatrician and immunization proponent. They argued that "Invisible Threat" was "scripted with industry talking points" and that the movie seemed to be the work of adults operating under false pretenses, not students.

Thanks to the McCarthyite cretins in the murderous vaccinations-cause-autism movement, to this day the documentary has barely been seen outside the confines of the school. It will finally get posted on the Web on August 1st. Maybe it will save some lives.

More Pointless Bluster on Foreign Policy, Please

| Mon Jul. 21, 2014 10:51 AM EDT

Via Politico, Here's the latest on American attitudes toward foreign policy:

Asked whether the U.S should do more to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine, just 17 percent answered in the affirmative....More than three-quarters of likely voters say they support plans to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016....Forty-four percent of likely voters favor less involvement in Iraq’s civil war....Likely voters prefer less involvement in Syria’s civil war over more involvement, 42 percent to 15 percent.

Based on this, can you figure out which party is more trusted on foreign policy? You guessed it: Republicans, by a margin of 39-32 percent.

Bottom line (for about the thousandth time): Americans prefer the actual foreign policy of Democrats, but they prefer the rhetorical foreign policy of Republicans. They want lots of bluster and chest thumping, but without much in the way of serious action. In other words, pretty much what Reagan did.

Friday Cat Blogging - 18 July 2014

| Fri Jul. 18, 2014 2:55 PM EDT

In an awesome display of athleticism, Domino hopped into the laundry hamper this week. I was shocked. I didn't think she could do it. But I guess when you're motivated by the sweet, sweet prospect of snoozing among the delicate aromas of worn human clothing, you can accomplish anything. As for what she's looking at in this picture, I have no idea. Probably something in the cat dimension.