Kevin Drum

Everyone Is Now Officially Banned From Whining About Presidential Vacations. Forever.

| Thu Aug. 14, 2014 10:59 AM EDT

Yes, yes, yes: sign me up as a charter member of the movement to STFU about presidential vacations. Both sides do it. Bush got hit with criticism from Democrats. Obama gets it from Republicans. Clinton got it. Reagan got it. Fine. We're all guilty. Now let's just stop.

No more golf mockery. No more charts showing how many days Bush took off compared to Obama. No more whining about how this week—yes, this very week!—is the worst week ever in history for a vacation because the world is in crisis. You know why? Because there's always a crisis somewhere in the world.

So that's it. Don't argue about it. Just stop. Right now. It is officially the stupidest thing in the world.

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Take Two: What's Behind the Religious Conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 3:49 PM EDT

Earlier today I recommended a Fareed Zakaria video about the roots of the current civil wars in Syria and Iraq. Sam Barkin, a professor at UMass Boston, emails to say that Zakaria's history is faulty:

While reading your post of about an hour ago on arming the Syrian rebels, I clicked on the embedded video of Fareed Zakaria's five-minute historical primer. He makes what seems to be a compelling case about the historical complexities of Syria. There's just one problem. His history is wrong. Really quite wrong, in a way that makes me worry about his analysis.

He claims that three contemporary countries in the Levant—Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon—were intentionally set up by the European colonial countries with minority-rule governments, explicitly for divide-and-rule purposes. In Iraq, it's true, the monarchy was Sunni (it also wasn't Iraqi, but that's a different story). The British did deal with the local elites, as they tended to do in their protectorates, and the local elites were by and large Sunni, but that was a pre-existing condition.

However, in the two French-protectorate countries, Syria and Lebanon, the French at no point tried to empower minorities at the expense of ethnic/religious majorities. In Syria, which is roughly three-quarters Sunni, almost all of the heads of state and government until 1970 (it may in fact be all of them, I didn't have the patience to check) were Sunni. The central role of the Shiite Alawites in the security service did not begin until after Assad senior consolidated power after the 1970 coup. And I can assure you that the French were not fans either of Assad or of the Ba'ath party more generally. Lebanon, meanwhile, was designed by the French specifically to be Christian majority (in fact, the French redrew the map of Lebanon in 1920 to ensure such a majority). The Christians probably remained a majority in Lebanon into the 1960s.

So telling the story of Syria (either current Syria or Greater Syria) as one of a history of sectarianism and minority rule is simply historically factually wrong. And it leaves me wondering if Zakaria really doesn't know the history, or if he's taking some serious historical liberties in order to make his point.

In a nutshell, Barkin is saying that only in Iraq can you argue that a minority-rule government was originally installed by a colonial power. In Lebanon it was a case of demographic changes turning a Christian majority into a minority, and in Syria the minority Alawites took power long after the French had withdrawn. Zakaria is right that in all three cases, conflicts between religious minorities and majorities are still central to what's going on today, but the historical backdrop is more complicated than he allows.

I thought this was worth passing along. Anyone else care to weigh in?

The Paperless Office Has Beaten Out the Paperless Bathroom After All

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 3:12 PM EDT

Back when I was in the document imaging business, we joked that the paperless office would become a reality about the same time as the paperless bathroom. In other words, even those of us in the biz didn't really believe in the hype of the paperless office.

I haven't paid much attention to any of this for well over a decade, but today John Quiggin comes forward to tell me that, in fact, the paperless office is finally starting to come true:

Paper consumption peaked in the late 1990s and has fallen sharply since 2005....The annual rate of decline (-0.9 per cent) is unimpressive in itself, but striking when compared to the growth rate of 5.7 per cent observed from 1985 to 1999, at a time when talk of the paperless office was particularly prevalent. Compared to the ‘Business as Usual’ extrapolation of the previous growth rate, office paper consumption has declined by around 40 per cent.

....Of course, the “paperless office” myth wasn’t just a prediction that digital communications would replace paper one day. It was a sales pitch for a top-down redesign of work processes, which, for the reasons given by Sellen and Harper, was never going to work.

That's interesting, though not too surprising. It takes a long time for habits to change, and sometimes you just have to wait for old generations to retire and allow new ones to take their place. I imagine that 20- and 30-somethings are way more comfortable with a purely digital information flow than folks in their 40s and 50s, and that's probably responsible for much of the decline in office paper use since 2005.

As an aside, I should add that top-down redesign of work processes sometimes gets a bad rap that it doesn't deserve. For casual work processes it doesn't work that well, and the hype of the 90s really was overdone. But there are also lots of clerical production processes that are highly rule-bound and can be redesigned just fine. Insurance claims agents these days almost never see a piece of paper, for example. It's all scanned and indexed so that everything—both paper and digital documents—can be viewed on screen instantly.

And I wouldn't be surprised if even casual work processes become far more digital in the fairly near future, especially as software gets better, cloud storage becomes commonplace, and high-speed connectivity becomes all but universal. If you can look up movie times on your phone, you can keep track of schedules and due dates on your phone too. That sounds like something of a pain to me, but I'm 55. I'll bet if I were 25 it would sound a whole lot more attractive than being forced to work with messy bundles of paper that can't be searched and have to be carried around everywhere to be useful.

Quote of the Day: Honda Is Keeping Car Thievery Alive

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 1:23 PM EDT

From Josh Barro:

One of the factors that keeps car theft going in the United States is the reliability of old Hondas.

Think about the advertising possibilities! Hondas are built so tough that thieves want them no matter how old they are. If you're wondering what this is all about, Barro is explaining why car thefts in New York City have declined by 96 percent over the past couple of decades. In a nutshell, the answer lies in high-tech ignitions:

The most important factor is a technological advance: engine immobilizer systems, adopted by manufacturers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These make it essentially impossible to start a car without the ignition key, which contains a microchip uniquely programmed by the dealer to match the car.

Criminals generally have not been able to circumvent the technology or make counterfeit keys....Instead, criminals have stuck to stealing older cars. You can see this in the pattern of thefts of America’s most stolen car, the Honda Accord. About 54,000 Accords were stolen in 2013, 84 percent of them from model years 1997 or earlier, according to data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

This has created a virtuous circle. Only old cars are vulnerable, and they aren't worth much. That makes it less lucrative to run illegal chop shops, which makes it harder for thieves to sell their cars. This in turn allows police forces to concentrate more resources on the small number of thefts (and chop shops) remaining.

In any case, it turns out that Hondas remain the most stolen cars in America because they're still worth something even if they were built before 1997. Looked at a certain way, that's a badge of pride. In another decade, though, even Hondas from the Seinfeld era won't be worth stealing. And that will put car thieves almost entirely out of business.

Arming the Syrian Rebels Wouldn't Have Stopped ISIS

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 12:42 PM EDT

Did the United States make a huge mistake by not aggressively supporting and arming the Free Syrian Army back in 2011-12? Did this decision produce a power vacuum that prompted the rise of ISIS in Iraq? Marc Lynch says no to the first question:

The academic literature is not encouraging. In general, external support for rebels almost always make wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve....Worse, as the University of Maryland’s David Cunningham has shown, Syria had most of the characteristics of the type of civil war in which external support for rebels is least effective.

....Syria’s combination of a weak, fragmented collage of rebel organizations with a divided, competitive array of external sponsors was therefore the worst profile possible for effective external support....An effective strategy of arming the Syrian rebels would never have been easy, but to have any chance at all it would have required a unified approach by the rebels’ external backers, and a unified rebel organization to receive the aid. That would have meant staunching financial flows from its Gulf partners, or at least directing them in a coordinated fashion. Otherwise, U.S. aid to the FSA would be just another bucket of water in an ocean of cash and guns pouring into the conflict.

And he says almost certainly no to the second question as well:

The idea that more U.S. support for the FSA would have prevented the emergence of the Islamic State isn’t even remotely plausible. The open battlefield and nature of the struggle ensured that jihadists would find Syria’s war appealing. The Islamic State recovered steam inside of Iraq as part of a broad Sunni insurgency driven by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bloody, ham-fisted crackdowns in Hawija and Fallujah, and more broadly because of the disaffection of key Sunni actors over Maliki’s sectarian authoritarianism. It is difficult to see how this would have been affected in the slightest by a U.S.-backed FSA (or, for that matter, by a residual U.S. military presence in Iraq, but that’s another debate for another day). There is certainly no reason to believe that the Islamic State and other extremist groups would have stayed away from such an ideal zone for jihad simply because Western-backed groups had additional guns and money.

Had the plan to arm Syria’s rebels been adopted back in 2012, the most likely scenario is that the war would still be raging and look much as it does today, except that the United States would be far more intimately and deeply involved.

Supporters of more aggressive military action have an easy job: all they have to do is point out what a mess the Middle East is today. And they're right: it's a mess. The obvious—and all too human—conclusion to draw is that things would be better if only we'd done something different three years ago. And the obvious different thing is more military support for the Syrian rebels.

But this is a cognitive error. Most likely, if we had done something different three years ago, the entire region would still be a mess—possibly a much worse mess—and we'd be right in the middle of it, kicking ourselves for getting involved in yet another quagmire and wondering if things would have gone better if only we'd done something different three years ago. Except this time the "something different" would be going back in time and staying out of things.

It's human nature to believe that intervention is always better than doing nothing. Liberals tend to believe this in domestic affairs and conservatives tend to believe it in foreign affairs. But it's not always so. The Middle East suffers from fundamental, longstanding fractures that the United States simply can't affect other than at the margins. Think about it this way: What are the odds that shipping arms and supplies to a poorly defined, poorly coordinated, and poorly understood rebel alliance in Syria would make a significant difference in the long-term outcome there when two decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq barely changed anything? Slim and none.

Read Lynch's entire piece for more detail on why intervention would almost certainly have been doomed in Syria. And, once again, I recommend the five-minute primer above from Fareed Zakaria about what's at the core of the Syrian civil war and why it's highly unlikely that we should be involved. It's well worth your time.

A Republican Lawsuit Against Obama Will Mostly Just Piss Off Democrats

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 11:22 AM EDT

Here's an interesting tidbit via Greg Sargent. The latest McClatchy poll asked voters what they think of (a) impeaching Obama and (b) suing Obama. A full 45 percent of Republicans favor impeachment and 57 percent favor suing him. But if John Boehner's lawsuit goes forward, how will that impact voting in November? The answer is not very comforting for Republican strategists:

The lawsuit, it turns out, acts to motivate Democrats considerably more than Republicans. If Boehner & Co. were hoping to use this as a way of motivating their base to turn out in November, it looks an awful lot like it backfired.

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How Is Robin Williams Like Hillary Clinton?

| Wed Aug. 13, 2014 12:39 AM EDT

Tonight's Maureen Dowd column begins with an anecdote about an interview she once did with Robin Williams:

As our interview ended, I was telling him about my friend Michael Kelly’s idea for a 1-900 number, not one to call Asian beauties or Swedish babes, but where you’d have an amorous chat with a repressed Irish woman. Williams delightedly riffed on the caricature, playing the role of an older Irish woman answering the sex line in a brusque brogue, ordering a horny caller to go to the devil with his impure thoughts and disgusting desire.

I couldn’t wait to play the tape for Kelly, who doubled over in laughter.

So when I think of Williams, I think of Kelly. And when I think of Kelly, I think of Hillary, because Michael was the first American reporter to die in the Iraq invasion, and Hillary Clinton was one of the 29 Democratic senators who voted to authorize that baloney war.

That's, um, quite a segue. I wonder if there's anything left in the world that doesn't remind Dowd of Hillary Clinton?

Is It Time for Obama to Change Course on Iraqi Kurdistan?

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 5:59 PM EDT

Jonathan Dworkin, who has spent quite a bit of time in Iraqi Kurdistan, thinks the Obama administration is pursuing a failed strategy in Iraq:

In Kurdistan examples are everywhere of the failure of American diplomacy. Refugees have been a problem for months, but only in the last few days has our government gotten serious about providing large scale material support to the Kurds....On the economic front the State Department has gone out of its way to be unhelpful. The Kurdish government is in a desperate economic situation due to the refugee crisis, the security crisis, and the central government’s refusal to share oil revenue.

....The Obama team has adopted Maliki’s line, in essence arguing that Kurdish oil undermines Iraqi unity. That’s an idea that has become increasingly ridiculous with each setback in Baghdad....But the idea of Kurds breaking away from Iraq was anathema to the Obama team....The result is ongoing economic strangulation at precisely the moment the Kurds are being attacked by ISIS. Government salaries haven’t been paid in months. One physician friend in Sulaimania wrote to me that the doctors are working for free. There have also been acute fuel shortages.

Security is the most obvious area where American soft power has failed. For months now the Kurds have been lobbying for a more coordinated approach against ISIS, and they have gotten the cold shoulder over and over. The Obama team was content to arm a disloyal and unreliable Iraqi Army, and they were perplexed when those heavy weapons ended up under ISIS control. But they refused to coordinate significant weapons procurement for the Peshmerga, despite increasingly desperate appeals, until the ISIS rampage forced them to change tack this past week.

I think the highlighted sentence is key. From a diplomatic point of view, the United States either supports a unified Iraq controlled by a central government in Baghdad, or it supports a federal Iraq in which Kurdistan is largely independent. For better or worse, the US made the decision long ago to support a unified Iraq, and that's not a decision that can be reversed lightly. Everything else flows from this.

Is this incompetent? I don't think that's fair. Countries simply can't change tack on major issues like this when their allies are in trouble. And like it or not, Baghdad is our chosen ally. It may be that there's more we could do to quietly help the Kurds behind the scenes, but it's hard to imagine anything serious changing as long as we officially support the authority of the central government in Baghdad over all of Iraq.

In other words, all of the things Jonathan mentions are part of an entirely coherent strategy. Wrong, maybe, but coherent. Rather than commenting on them separately, then, we should be focusing on the bigger picture: Is it finally time for the US to end its opposition to an independent—or semi-independent—Kurdistan? Jonathan made the case for that a couple of months ago here, and I can't say that I forcefully disagree with him. Certainly we ought to be giving this a more public airing. "When we're dropping bombs on a place," Jonathan told me via email, "it should force some conversation about the broader strategy." It's hard to argue with that.

The Strange History of Tacos and the New York Times

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 1:08 PM EDT

Neil Irwin does a bit of interesting gastronomic sleuthing today using a New York Times tool that counts the number of mentions of a word in the archives of the Times. The question is, how fast do new food trends go mainstream? Take, for example, fried calamari:

Now, of course, every strip-mall pizza place and suburban Applebee’s serves fried calamari. But not all that long ago it was an exotic food. The term “fried calamari” did not appear in the pages of The New York Times until 1975, according to our nifty Times Chronicle tool, and didn’t show up frequently until the 1980s. Lest you think it is only a change in vocabulary, the term “fried squid” made only a couple of scattered appearances before that time.

Fried calamari made a voyage that dozens of foods have made over the years: They start out being served in forward-thinking, innovative restaurants in New York and other capitals of gastronomy. Over time, they become more and more mainstream....In the last decade alone, the list includes tuna tartare, braised short ribs, beet salad and pretty much any dish involving pork belly, brussels sprouts or kale. In an earlier era, the list might include sun-dried tomatoes, pesto and hummus.

Fascinating! But readers with long memories will recall that I was surprised at how recently tacos became mainstream. In 1952 they were apparently uncommon enough that the Times had to explain to its readers what a taco was. So how about if we use this nifty new search tool to get some hard data on taco references? Here it is:

Sure enough, there are virtually no mentions of tacos in the 40s and 50s. There's a blip here and there, but they don't really get commonly mentioned until the 70s.

But that's not what's interesting. Back in 1877, a full 3 percent of all Times articles mentioned tacos! In fact, tacomania was a feature of the Times during all of the 1870s and 1880s, before suddenly falling off a cliff in 1890. What's up with that? Why did tacos suddenly become verboten in 1890? Did a new editor take over who hated tacos? And what's the deal with the blip from about 1917 to 1922? Did World War I produce a sudden explosion of interest in tacos?

This is very weird. Does anyone have a clue what's going on here?

UPDATE: On Twitter, Christopher Ingraham suggests that this is an artifact of bad text recognition of ancient microfilm. I don't have access to the full version of Times Chronicle, but a look at some of the summaries of articles that allegedly mention tacos makes this seem like a pretty good guess. It's quite possible that there are no genuine mentions of tacos until the 40s or 50s.

This is a sadly boring explanation, but it seems pretty likely to be right. However, I'm still curious about the sudden dropoff in 1890 (did archive copies suddenly improve? did the Times start using a different font?) and the blip after World War I.

Childhood Lead Exposure Causes a Lot More Than Just a Rise in Violent Crime

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 12:16 PM EDT

Jessica Wolpaw Reyes has a new paper out that investigates the link between childhood lead exposure—mostly via tailpipe emissions of leaded gasoline—and violent crime. Unsurprisingly, since her previous research has shown a strong link, she finds a strong link again. But she also finds something else: a strong link between lead and teen pregnancy.

This is not a brand new finding. Rick Nevin's very first paper about lead and crime was actually about both crime and teen pregnancy, and he found strong correlations for both at the national level. Reyes, however, goes a step further. It turns out that different states adopted unleaded gasoline at different rates, which allows Reyes to conduct a natural experiment. If lead exposure really does cause higher rates of teen pregnancy, then you'd expect states with the lowest levels of leaded gasoline to also have the lowest levels of teen pregnancy 15 years later. And guess what? They do. The chart on the right shows the correlation between gasoline lead exposure and later rates of teen pregnancy, and it's very strong. Stronger even than the correlation with violent crime.

None of this should come as a surprise. The neurological basis for the lead-crime theory suggests that childhood lead exposure affects parts of the brain that have to do with judgment, impulse control, and executive functions. This means that lead exposure is likely to be associated not just with violent crime, but with juvenile misbehavior, drug use, teen pregnancy, and other risky behaviors. And that turns out to be the case. Reyes finds correlations with behavioral problems starting at a young age; teen pregnancy; and violent crime rates among older children.

It's a funny thing. For years conservatives bemoaned the problem of risky and violent behavior among children and teens of the post-60s era, mostly blaming it on the breakdown of the family and a general decline in discipline. Liberals tended to take this less seriously, and in any case mostly blamed it on societal problems. In the end, though, it turned out that conservatives were right. It wasn't just a bunch of oldsters complaining about the kids these days. Crime was up, drug use was up, and teen pregnancy was up. It was a genuine phenomenon and a genuine problem.

But liberals were right that it wasn't related to the disintegration of the family or lower rates of churchgoing or any of that. After all, families didn't suddenly start getting back together in the 90s and churchgoing didn't suddenly rise. But teenage crime, drug use, and pregnancy rates all went down. And down. And down.

Most likely, there was a real problem, but it was a problem no one had a clue about. We were poisoning our children with a well-known neurotoxin, and this toxin lowered their IQs, made them into fidgety kids, wrecked their educations, and then turned them into juvenile delinquents, teen mothers, and violent criminals. When we got rid of the toxin, all of these problems magically started to decline.

This doesn't mean that lead was 100 percent of the problem. There probably were other things going on too, and we can continue to argue about them. But the volume of the argument really ought to be lowered a lot. Maybe poverty makes a difference, maybe single parenting makes a difference, and maybe evolving societal attitudes toward child-rearing make a difference. But they probably don't make nearly as much difference as we all thought. In the end, we've learned a valuable lesson: don't poison your kids. That makes more difference than all the other stuff put together.