Kevin Drum

A Brief Note on Texas Hospitality

| Mon Sep. 8, 2014 1:44 PM EDT

Jay Nordlinger had an unusual experience with a taxi wrangler at the Dallas airport yesterday:

The man put my suitcase in a taxi’s trunk. I handed him a tip. He said, “No, no, we’re not allowed to take that.”

I have been a fair number of places over the years — and I bet I could count refusals of a tip on one hand....There is something I tell people who think they don’t like Texas: Just go there. That’ll cure you. Texas is distinctively hospitable, and the food, girls, etc., cannot be surpassed (though they can be matched).

For what it's worth, "hospitable" is not the same thing as "airport authorities don't allow employees to accept tips." The former is a trait of people who are just being nice. The latter is something that CEOs force on their low-paid employees. There's a difference.

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If Scotland Secedes, They Better Secede From the Pound Too

| Mon Sep. 8, 2014 12:41 PM EDT

Scotland will be voting next week on whether to secede from Great Britain, and Paul Krugman is aghast:

Everything that has happened in Europe since 2009 or so has demonstrated that sharing a currency without sharing a government is very dangerous. In economics jargon, fiscal and banking integration are essential elements of an optimum currency area. And an independent Scotland using Britain’s pound would be in even worse shape than euro countries, which at least have some say in how the European Central Bank is run.

I find it mind-boggling that Scotland would consider going down this path after all that has happened in the last few years. If Scottish voters really believe that it’s safe to become a country without a currency, they have been badly misled.

I don't get this either. I understand why the pro-independence forces favor continued use of the pound: it's one less scary thing for the pro-union forces to use in their campaign. People are used to the pound, and it's obviously a stable, well-accepted currency. Conversely, a new Scottish currency would be a big unknown, and give people one more reason to vote against independence.

It's quite likely, of course, that the whole thing is a charade. The pro-independence forces probably feel like they need to support continued use of the pound for now, just to take it off the table as a campaign issue. But if independence succeeds, there's a good chance that Scotland will adopt its own currency within a few years for all the reasons Krugman brings up. Being stuck in a currency union is so obviously dangerous that it will probably be abandoned once things shake down in an independent Scotland and the new government has time to focus on it.

As for Scottish independence itself, I don't have much of an opinion. I do have a generic opinion that secession usually sounds better than it actually is in practice. Every province or state or city or neighborhood always thinks they have deep and justified grievances against whatever polity they belong to, and often they're right. That's the nature of large agglomerations of human beings. But often those grievances are, in truth, fairly skin deep—usually some version of "cultural identity," the last refuge of the person with no actual arguments to make—and secession merely resolves some of them while creating whole new ones. I think it rarely accomplishes much.

My super-rough rule of thumb is this: I support secession of (a) territories that speak a different language, (b) territories that are physically distant, and (c) territories that have genuinely suffered at the hands of a brutal regime. Jokes aside on items (a) and (c), none of these really apply to Scotland, so I'd put myself down as moderately opposed to independence. But if it does happen, I sure hope currency union really does turn out to be a charade. If you're going to have your own country, then you should have your own money and your own monetary policy. If we've learned nothing else over the past half decade, surely we've at least learned that.

Multivitamins: Almost Worthless, But Maybe Not Quite

| Mon Sep. 8, 2014 11:53 AM EDT

From Emily Oster:

Many medical studies show positive health effects from higher vitamin levels. The only problem? These studies often can’t tease out the effect of the vitamins from the effect of other factors, such as generally healthy living. Studies that attempt to do this typically show no impact from vitamin use — or only a very tiny one on a small subset of people. The truth is that for most people, vitamin supplementation is simply a waste of time.

Every once in a while I vaguely decide that maybe I'd feel better if I took vitamins. So I buy a bottle of multivitamins and take them for a while. What usually happens next is that I come across yet another in the long parade of news pieces and blog posts reminding me that vitamin supplements are useless. And then I stop again.

I am, needless to say, not talking about specific vitamin supplements recommended by my doctor for a specific condition. I'm talking about the routine use of vitamin supplements. And Oster is right: study after study shows that they're all but worthless.

And yet! There's also this from a study released a couple of years ago:

Men who took a daily multivitamin had a statistically significant lower rate of cancer than those who took the placebo (17.0 versus 18.3 events per 1000 person-years). Although mortality was lower as well, it wasn’t statistically significant (4.9 versus 5.6 events per 1000 person-year).

This was an extremely large study, well done, with amazing follow-up. You can’t dismiss it easily.

That's Aaron Carroll, not generally someone who succumbs to faddish nonsense. The study in question isn't perfect, but as he says, it's pretty good. And it suggests that, in fact, multivitamins help reduce the incidence of cancer in men, especially those with a baseline history of cancer. And they're cheap. So if you happen to be male, maybe multivitamins are worth it after all.

Obama Announces Policy Change, Hill Dems Complain. Film At 11.

| Mon Sep. 8, 2014 11:03 AM EDT

Here's a Twitter conversation between me and Ezra Klein on Saturday:

Klein: What I’m hearing from Hill Dems is that they’re happy the immigration order is delayed, but angry at how poorly the issue has been handled

Drum: Of course they are. That's the eternal complaint when they can't think of anything substantive to gripe about.

Klein: I think that's too pat a response: sometimes issues are poorly handled.

Drum: Sure. But lately, Ds complain about *every* issue being badly handled. (Or having "bad optics.")

Klein provides more detail here, and Andrew Sullivan rounds up the liberal reaction here. But is there really any serious political malpractice going on? There is to this extent: the White House apparently didn't read the tea leaves properly earlier this summer when it announced that Obama would take executive action on immigration after it became clear that Republicans in the House were unwilling to act. Following that, though, Obama's only choice was either to stick to his guns or announce a delay. The former would have irked congressional Democrats, so he chose to announce a delay.

It's hard for me to see anything poorly handled here. The truth is that anytime a president changes course, a bit of awkwardness is baked into the cake. It's inevitable, and if you can't accept that you shouldn't urge a change of course. What's more, I don't see anything in Obama's actions that made this any better or worse than usual. It was pretty routine, and will be forgotten by all but political junkies within days. Democrats are probably doing themselves more damage with another round of their all-too-routine whinging than Obama did by announcing the delay in the first place.

That does leave one question, though: Did Obama consult sufficiently with congressional Dems before he initially announced that he planned to take executive action on immigration? Frankly, the political implications of that announcement were so obvious that it beggars the imagination to suppose that he didn't. Everyone in the world immediately knew that (a) it would help drive Latino turnout and (b) it might pose problems for Democrats running close races in red states. Obama's political team might not be Olympic caliber, but there's no way they failed to talk to "Hill Dems" about immigration back in June, is there? I'd be very interested in reading a neutrally-reported deep dive about this.

Friday Cat Blogging - 5 September 2014

| Fri Sep. 5, 2014 2:25 PM EDT

I have sad news today. Domino's thyroid finally got the better of her, and she's been a pretty sick kitty for the past month or two. About six weeks ago she gave up on dry food, so we switched to wet food. That helped, but she gradually ate less and less of it. A couple of weeks ago she stopped eating entirely no matter what we tried. She'd lap up microscopic amounts of gravy or tuna juice a couple of times a day, but that was it. She just wouldn't eat anymore.

By last week she was very thin, and her energy level was pretty low. She slept most of the time in her favorite hidey-hole, and came out only a few times a day for five or ten minutes at a time. By the start of this week she'd gotten a bit unsteady on her feet, and it was obvious the end was near. I talked to our vet earlier this week, and yesterday we took Domino in and had her put to sleep. I hated doing it, but I'm certain it was the right thing to do. She didn't show it, but she must have been in a fair amount of pain, which was only going to get worse over time.

To the very end, she was sweet and sociable, which made it even harder. She lost her meow several weeks ago, but she never lost her purr or her love of tummy rubs. She was a good cat. She'll be missed.

Obamacare Now Benefiting From an Amazing Life Spiral

| Fri Sep. 5, 2014 1:37 PM EDT

Courtesy of the Kaiser Family Foundation, here's a cheerier chart for this morning. It shows the projected premium increases under Obamacare, and it's really pretty amazing. After years of double-digit increases, next year will bring an average decrease in premiums of 0.8 percent.

That's genuinely stunning. It's possible, of course, that the precise number might change as more states report on next year's premiums, but the trend in the chart is pretty clear: a few small states show sizeable rate increases, but large states (or, more accurately, large cities) all show fairly small changes. It's not surprising that small states are the ones that tend to show higher variation, but they're also the ones that don't affect the overall averages very much. So it seems likely that once all the states have reported in, the overall change in premium levels will be very close to zero.

Paul Krugman calls this part of Obamacare's "life spiral." In other words, it's exactly the opposite of the dreaded death spiral that every conservative in the country has been banging the drum about for years. Basically, as good news accumulates, it breeds more good news. As Krugman puts it, success feeds success. And that's true. The news about Obamacare has been almost uniformly positive for months. There are still plenty of small problems here and there—most of which could be solved if Republicans would allow it—and the refusal of so many red states to adopt Obamacare's Medicaid expansion is truly a scandal. Nonetheless, it's clear that Obamacare is basically a success. There's nothing much that's likely to change that now.

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Euro Area Economy Is Even Worse Than Ours

| Fri Sep. 5, 2014 12:17 PM EDT

Would you like some more dreary economic news? No? Too bad. The latest GDP report for the euro area is in, and GDP was flat compared to Q1 and up only 0.7 percent compared to last year. This comes on top of news from a few days ago that euro-area inflation is down to 0.3 percent, which is dangerously close to deflation territory. The basic GDP chart is below.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in August

| Fri Sep. 5, 2014 10:29 AM EDT

The American economy added 142,000 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 an anemic 52,000. The headline unemployment rate ticked down to 6.1 percent, but that's mostly because of rounding. The real decline was about one-twentieth of a point, from 6.19 percent to 6.14 percent.

What's worse, even that tiny drop was illusory: the number of employed people in August was virtually the same as in July. The drop in the unemployment rate was due entirely to the fact that 268,000 people dropped out of the labor force. The labor force participation rate dropped from 62.9 percent to 62.8 percent, and that's what caused the "drop" in unemployment.

It's not wise to get too depressed over a single month's bad numbers, just as it's not wise to get too excited over a single month's good numbers. Still, it's discouraging to see even the modest gains of the past half year grind to a complete, jarring halt. For all practical purposes, the economy failed to improve even a smidgen last month. For the time being, we're back to treading water.

Chart of the Day: The Rich Are Getting Richer, The Poor Are....

| Thu Sep. 4, 2014 4:51 PM EDT

The Federal Reserve's 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances is out, and guess what? Over the past 25 years, the rich have seen their wealth skyrocket, from 44.8 percent of the total to 54.4 percent of the total. The middle class and the poor, by contrast, have seen their share of national wealth plummet from 33.2 percent to 24.7 percent.

In other words, the rich are getting richer and the poor are....well, you know. Is it any wonder that the rich don't really want to see a lot of changes to our current economic regime? Why would they?

ISIS Is a Test of Leadership. Real Leadership.

| Thu Sep. 4, 2014 12:39 PM EDT

From Ron Fournier, writing about President Obama and the threat of ISIS:

A columnist should never admit uncertainty, but here's mine: I'm not ready to side with the hawks or the doves.

It's conventional wisdom that columnists should always be self-assured. But can someone explain why? I know that sounds naive, but seriously. Why? Why should opinion mongers be expected to have firm, considered, immediate views on every possible subject? I get that nobody wants to read someone who dithers about everything, but shouldn't we be equally suspicious of those who somehow manage to cobble together unflinching insta-opinions about everything under the sun?

In any case, Fournier is making the—obvious?—point that there's nothing wrong with Obama taking time to figure out what to do about ISIS. That's doubly true since he's working in the shadow of the lies and incompetence that brought us the Iraq war:

President Obama is a living reflection of this psychological context. Uncertain and contradictory, Obama is grasping for the right mix of hawk and dove to rally Americans, unite the world, and confront ISIS without locking the United States into another unholy mess.

God bless him. It's a hellish task. Obama's lack of clarity so far has drawn criticism from the across the political spectrum, including from me (here and here). Two loyal readers remind me by email, and for different reasons, that Obama needs time to get this right.

Yes indeed. Sometimes you have to make a fast decision, even if you have limited knowledge. That's life. But other times you don't, and you'd be foolish to lock yourself into a decision when you have time to collect more intelligence. This is the true lesson of leadership: Make decisions as fast as possible, but no faster. That's what Obama is doing.