Kevin Drum

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in September

| Fri Oct. 2, 2015 10:51 AM EDT

The American economy added 142,000 new jobs last month, 90,000 of which were needed to keep up with population growth. This means that net job growth clocked in at a lackluster 52,000 jobs. The July and August numbers were revised downward by 59,000 jobs. The headline unemployment rate stayed steady at 5.1 percent, partly because the number of unemployed workers was down, but partly because half a million people dropped out of the labor force. Hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees were flat, though weekly earnings were down at an annualized rate of 3.6 percent.

This is a pretty weak report. It's not a disaster, but it suggests just how fragile the economy remains. A stronger dollar and weakness in China are likely taking a toll. We keep waiting for liftoff, but it never seems to come. We continue to dog paddle along.

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Here's Why I Doubt That Hillary Clinton Used a Private Email Server to Evade FOIA Requests

| Thu Oct. 1, 2015 9:49 PM EDT

Thanks to the endless release of her emails, we've learned something about Hillary Clinton that hasn't gotten much attention: As near as I can tell, she's sort of a technology idiot. She asked her aides for information that she could have Googled in less time than it took to ask. She needed help figuring out how to use an iPad. She didn't know her own office phone number. She used a BlackBerry. She had trouble operating a fax machine. She was unclear about needing a WiFi connection to access the internet.

In other words, when Fox News reporter Ed Henry asked whether Clinton's email server had been wiped, and she answered, "What, like with a cloth or something?"—well, that might not have been the sarcastic response we all thought it was. She might truly have had no idea what he meant.

As for setting up a private server with just a single account in order to evade FOIA requests, it looks as though she's genuinely not tech savvy enough to have cooked up something like that. She probably really did just think it sounded convenient, and nobody stepped in to disabuse her of this notion.

So what was the deal with FOIA? I don't know, and I suspect we'll never know. But I'll say this: there were obviously people at State who knew that Hillary used a private server for email. The folks who respond to FOIA requests are responsible for figuring out where documents might be, and in this case it was just a matter of asking. Apparently they didn't, which is hardly Hillary's fault. The alternative is that they did ask, and Hillary's staff flat-out lied to them and said that she never used email. You can decide for yourself which sounds more plausible.

POSTSCRIPT: After writing this, I decided to do some Googling myself to check a few things. And it turns out that I'm not, in fact, the first to notice Hillary's technology foibles. Just a few weeks ago, Seth Meyers did a whole late-night bit about this.

The World Economic Forum Delivers a Report Card on the US Economy

| Thu Oct. 1, 2015 3:35 PM EDT

So how's the ol' US of A doing under the free-market-hating presidency of the socialist Barack Obama? Probably badly, I'll bet. Let's see what the World Economic Forum has to say. Their latest set of competitiveness rankings came out today, and among countries with populations over 10 million, the US was....

First. How about that? But it was probably even better before Obama took over, wasn't it? Let's see. In 2009 we ranked #1 among big countries with a score of 5.59. This year we're #1 with a score of 5.61. That's hard to fathom. But there you have it. Our competitiveness in the global free market seems to have improved a bit during Obama's tenure. I wonder if Fox News will bother reporting this?

Let Us Now Praise Authentically Stiff Politicians

| Thu Oct. 1, 2015 1:49 PM EDT

Brendan Nyhan thinks we spend too much time yakking about which candidates are "authentic" and which ones aren't. For example:

George W. Bush and Al Gore were both born into powerful political families, but were perceived very differently. Mr. Bush successfully reinvented himself as a down-home Texas ranch owner despite being the son of a president with elite New England roots, while Mr. Gore was widely mocked as a phony who grew up amid wealth and power in Washington, especially when he invoked his childhood work on his family’s Tennessee farm. Again, one simple explanation for the disparate treatment they received is that Mr. Bush was a better political performer.

I would remind everyone that Brad Pitt gets paid millions of dollars for doing a very good job of pretending to be authentically charming. The ability to feign authenticity is called "acting," and it's a lucrative profession if you're good at it.

Was Al Gore authentic? Hillary Clinton? Mitt Romney? Sure. Gore is genuinely sort of wonkish and stiff. Hillary is earnest and cautious around people. Romney is careful and detail-oriented. That's authentically who they are. If they studied up and adopted a hail-fellow-well-met persona, everyone would think they were authentic, but they'd just be pretending.

If you prefer politicians who are bluff and emotional in public, just say so. If you can't stand being around people who natter on about policy and guard their private lives, say so. But cut out the "authentic" nonsense. That's not what this is about.

Should Democrats All Quit the Benghazi Committee?

| Thu Oct. 1, 2015 12:16 PM EDT

Following Rep. Kevin McCarthy's candid boasting about how the House Benghazi committee has been a great tool to take down Hillary Clinton—an admission being furiously rowed back as we speak—Rep. Adam Smith suggested that maybe it was time to call a spade a spade:

The committee is a joke and I think Democrats ought to call it what it is and say we're not going to participate in this anymore. And that's my initial reaction. I'll listen to my leadership on this and perhaps they will again have greater wisdom, but it just has been an embarrassment.

This is a possibility that's long intrigued me, but I can't make up my mind if it would be a good decision. On the plus side, letting Republicans meet all by themselves would pretty dramatically make the point that this is little more than a partisan boondoggle. On the minus side, losing access to the committee's materials would prevent Democrats from fighting back whenever Trey Gowdy or his staffers decide to leak a partial transcript to the New York Times.

Decisions, decisions. Maybe everyone should resign except for Elijah Cummings, who wouldn't actually attend most hearings but would still retain the minority's access to committee materials.

It would be interesting to see what happens if Democrats did this. But I suspect it's the kind of thing that sounds better to a blogger with nothing on the line than it does to the actual Democratic leadership in the House.

Let's All Take a Nice Deep Breath Over Russia's Airstrikes in Syria

| Thu Oct. 1, 2015 11:28 AM EDT

One of Josh Marshall's readers says something this morning that I've been meaning to say but haven't gotten around to. It's about the Russian airstrikes in Syria:

First, the actual deployment is very small. In terms of the airwing, it is roughly the equivalent of what the non-U.S. coalition members have flying over Iraq and Syria, keeping in mind that the U.S. is still flying the majority of sorties now. The Russians are armed with non-precision munitions, meaning the likelihood of civilian casualties is high.

....Moreover, anyone who has been following Russia's military modernization program closely over the past five years or so knows that the Russian military is unlikely to be able to sustain this kind of deployment in the long run....This means that over time, the mission is unlikely to accomplish much more than propping up Assad and preventing his collapse, which appeared imminent and explains the rapidity of the deployment.

....When it comes to formulating a U.S. response to this new development, time is the biggest advantage we have. The shine will soon wear off of Putin's move. It looks bold and confident now, but it is actually a bluff and in part a diversionary one at that....The U.S. bargaining position will be much stronger when Putin's gambit is revealed to be the empty bluff it is.

I'd make a broader point. Like clockwork, every time another country hauls out its military—the Egyptian airstrikes in Libya, Jordan's airstrikes against ISIS—American conservatives go wild. Why can't Obama commit to that kind of serious action? But also like clockwork, this routinely ignores the fact that (a) the military action they're admiring is pretty small, and (b) Obama is already doing the same thing on a much bigger scale.

Yes, yes, I know: we should arm the Syrian opposition. Spare me. That empty shibboleth aside, we're already bombing Syria. We're already bombing ISIS in Iraq. We already have thousands of boots on the ground. We've already put together an international coalition. We're doing ten times what Putin is doing and we've been doing it for over a year. If you have serious criticisms of the tactics we're using, fine. But Vladimir Putin is the Donald Trump of world leaders: he gets swooning admiration from conservatives because he knows how to play the media. I sort of admire the bang for the buck he gets on the world stage from his flamboyant gestures, but that's about it. He's entered the Syrian conflict in a small way, four years after it began, and only because he was in danger of losing his last tenuous toehold in the Middle East. And for that he gets 24/7 coverage on Fox and CNN.

Do you know how many military bases the US has in the Middle East? Nearly two dozen. Plus the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean and the Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf. Plus a whole bunch of close allies. And we're supposed to be quaking in our boots because Putin hastily upgraded a single aging base in Latakia under pressure from his sole remaining ally? You're kidding, right?

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For Sale: The Ritual Experience of Handling and Interacting With Something Physical

| Thu Oct. 1, 2015 10:42 AM EDT

Hipsters rule the world:

Underneath the staggering 32.5% decline in revenues for CD sales according to RIAA’s 2015 mid-year stats, there is one stunning figure: vinyl’s revenues have grown 52.1% over the last year.

Kept alive by hip audiophiles, vinyl’s resurgence—partially thanks to Urban Outfitters—has been nothing but impressive of late, raking in $226 million in the first half of 2015. That’s more than ad-supported streaming services like Spotify, which took in $162.7 million in the first half of 2015. Paid streaming services like Spotify Premium still monetize better than both, taking in $477.9 million in revenue.

I guess it's time to haul in my old turntable from the garage. I think I paid about $150 for it 1978, which in today's dollars is, oh, about $73,000 or so. Right? I mean, it's a real record player from the days when we played records because that's what music came on, and an antique like that gives your vinyl an authentic sound. Let's see. How does Ethan Wolff-Mann put it? Oh yes: "Vinyl offers consumers a ritual experience they value, handling and interacting with something physical." And that, my friends, is why my garage is worth a fortune. I shall start accepting bids shortly.

Bestselling Historian Explains US Foreign Policy: "Obama Is Prone to Submitting to Males Who Act Dominantly in His Presence"

| Thu Oct. 1, 2015 12:53 AM EDT

Here is Arthur Herman writing in National Review about geopolitical realities in the age of Obama:

If Vladimir Putin is the dominant alpha male in the new international pecking order, Barack Obama has emerged as his highly submissive partner.

There are various reasons why we are being subjected to the humiliating spectacle of an American president, so-called leader of the free world, rolling over on the mat at Putin’s feet.

Of course, there have been signs for years that Obama is prone to submitting to males who act dominantly in his presence. Who can forget his frozen performance with Mitt Romney in the first presidential debate in 2012....We’ve seen it in his interactions with China’s president Xi Jinping; his strange bowing and scraping with the Saudi king; and his various meetings with Putin, including the last at the United Nations on Monday where a tight-lipped Obama could barely bring himself to look at the Russian president while Putin looked cool and confident—as well as he should.

For every aggressive move Putin has made on the international stage, first in Crimea and Ukraine in Europe, and now in Syria, our president’s response has been largely verbal protestations followed by resolute inaction. Why should Putin not assume that when he orders the U.S. to stop its own air strikes against ISIS in Syria, and to leave the skies to the Russians, he won’t be obeyed?

But there’s more to Obama’s passivity than just pack behavior....

Seriously, what kind of adult talks like this? Or thinks like this? How can a historian, of all people, explain a moment in history as a serial dominance display between chimpanzees? I'm not even sure what the right word for this is. It's not just childish or puerile, though it's those things too. Disturbed? Compulsive? Unbalanced? I'm not sure. This is a job for William F. Buckley.

The Shiny New "Sharing Economy" Is Sure Starting to Seem Awfully Old-Fashioned

| Wed Sep. 30, 2015 7:35 PM EDT

Brian Fung writes today about Amazon's new package delivery scheme:

Flex, Amazon's new on-demand delivery service, promises to get your packages to you even sooner by hiring independent drivers to bring them to your house. As a lot of reports have pointed out, Flex is basically Uber for Amazon packages.

But, speaking of Uber, how will Amazon's leap into on-demand logistics affect the rest of the sharing economy?

....Amazon Flex says it will pay its delivery drivers $18 to $25 per hour. They can elect to drive for two-, four-, or eight-hour shifts. In exchange, they need to supply your own car, a driver's license and an Android phone so that they can install Amazon's driver app....Compare that to ridesharing services whose drivers get to maximize their flexibility but whose income is more variable. For some, this trade-off may be worth it.

....Amazon Flex is betting that as the economy improves, there will still be people who are willing to work in the sharing economy rather than returning to full-time jobs....Research from PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts the sharing economy will become a $335 billion business by 2025 — up from $15 billion a year today.

Let's slow down here. What exactly is the "sharing economy"? Originally it was sort of like renting. Time rhapsodized about it in 2011: "The true innovative spirit of collaborative consumption can be found in start-ups like Brooklyn-based SnapGoods, which helps people rent goods via the Internet. Or Airbnb, which allows people to rent their homes to travelers."

Then it morphed into "Uber for ____" companies. Uber, of course, doesn't really allow you to share your car with other people. It's your car and you're the only one who drives it. Rather, Uber provides infrastructure and scale that allows you to become an on-demand taxicab whenever your schedule allows it.

Now it's apparently morphed even further. In some sense, Uber allows you to "share" your car with your passengers. That's a stretch, but Flex doesn't even provide that. The only thing you're doing is "sharing" your car with the packages you're delivering. By that standard, all of us are part of the sharing economy, since we "share" our bodies and brains with employers in order to accomplish tasks that our employer gives us.

In this case, Amazon is doing nothing more than hiring drivers as independent contractors so that it doesn't have to pay benefits and doesn't have to pay them if there aren't any packages to deliver. (You can pick your own shift, but only if a shift is available.) The only real innovation here is that Flex might1 allow you to work odd hours here and there, which is convenient if you have other commitments that prevent you from working a normal schedule. Mostly, though, it's just Amazon taking the 21st century mania for scheduling workers on a day-to-day basis and instead scheduling them hour-to-hour.

In any case, it now seems as though the "sharing economy" is any job that's somehow related to a scheduling app and provides workers only with odd bits and pieces of work at the employer's whim. In other words, sort of like manual laborers in the Victorian era, but with smartphones and better pay. No wonder PricewaterhouseCoopers thinks it will grow to $335 billion over the next decade. By that standard, I'd be surprised if it didn't break $1 trillion.

1I say "might" because it all depends. Maybe jobs really are first-come-first-serve. Or maybe Amazon will start to favor workers who regularly take as long a shift as Amazon wants them to take. Or perhaps Amazon will start to push offers out to workers, and downrate those who don't accept them frequently enough. Who knows?

Putin Is Wasting Blood and Treasure in Syria. Let Him.

| Wed Sep. 30, 2015 3:51 PM EDT

Tom Friedman gets it right on Syria:

Today’s reigning cliché is that the wily fox, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, has once again outmaneuvered the flat-footed Americans, by deploying some troops, planes and tanks to Syria to buttress the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and to fight the Islamic State forces threatening him. If only we had a president who was so daring, so tough, so smart.

Yep. Charles Krauthammer, for example, is nonplussed. "What’s also unprecedented is the utter passivity of the United States," he said yesterday. "The real story this week is what happened at the U.N., where Putin essentially stepped in and took over Syria. He’s now the leader." And here's another Republican on the same theme:

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) says Russian President Vladimir Putin is escalating his support for the Assad regime in Syria because he thinks the Obama administration won't stop him. "He sees no pushback, no price to pay," said Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at the Washington Ideas Forum on Wednesday. "What he's doing is raising popularity in his country."

....The Foreign Relations chairman also criticized the Obama administration for missing opportunities in Syria, citing the decision to pull back from its redline after the regime used chemical weapons.

"We have missed opportunities," he said...."That could have really changed the momentum at a time when we really did have a moderate opposition. "By us not taking that action, it took the wind out of their sails," he said. "That was the biggest moment of opportunity ... and that was mishandled."

This has become almost pathological. Every time Putin does something, Republicans start wailing about how he's taking charge, showing what a real leader does while Obama meekly sits back and does nothing. They assume that military action always shows strength, while avoiding military action always shows weakness. That's just crazy. Let's take a quick survey of the real situation here:

Syria is the last ally Russia has left in the Middle East. Putin didn't suddenly increase his military support of Assad as a show of brilliant grand strategy. He did it because he was in danger of losing his very last client state in the Middle East. This is a desperate gamble to hold on to at least a few shreds of influence there.

Fred Kaplan: "In the past decade, Russia has lost erstwhile footholds in Libya and Iraq, failed in its attempt to regain Egypt as an ally....and would have lost Syria as well except for its supply of arms and advisers to Assad....Syria is just one of two countries outside the former Soviet Union where Russia has a military base....His annexation of Crimea has proved a financial drain. His incursion into eastern Ukraine (where many ethnic Russians would welcome re-absorption into the Motherland) has stalled after a thin slice was taken at the cost of 3,000 soldiers. His plan for a Eurasian Economic Union, to counter the influence of the west’s European Union, has failed to materialize. His energy deal with China, designed to counter the west’s sanctions against Russian companies, has collapsed.

Intervention is unpopular with Russians. Corker is dead wrong about Putin doing this to curry favor with the public. On the contrary, they don't care about Syria and are reluctant to lose any lives helping Assad. Putin is assisting Assad despite the domestic difficulties it will create for him, not because he expects the Russian masses to rally to the flag.

Amanda Taub: "A recent poll by Moscow's Levada Center shows that only a small minority of Russians support giving Bashar al-Assad direct military support. Only 39 percent of respondents said they supported Russia's policy toward the Assad regime. When asked what Russia should do for Assad, 69 percent opposed direct military intervention. A tiny 14 percent of respondents said that Russia should send troops or other direct military support to Syria."

Putin is targeting anti-Assad rebels, not ISIS. For public consumption, Putin claims that he's helping the US in its counterterrorism operations against ISIS. This is obvious baloney, since Russian jets aren't operating in areas where ISIS is strong. They're operating in areas where anti-Assad rebels are strong.

Andrew Rettman: "Philip Breedlove, Nato's top military commander, believes the Latakia build-up has nothing to do with counter-terrorism....'As we see the very capable air defence [systems] beginning to show up in Syria, we're a little worried about another A2/AD bubble being created in the eastern Mediterranean,' he said.

'These very sophisticated air defence capabilities are not about [IS], they're about something else ... high on Mr. Putin's list in Syria is preserving the regime against those that are putting pressure on the regime.'"

The benefits of getting further entangled in Syria are....what? Russia may be concerned about Syria becoming a breeding ground for terrorists who then make their way up to Russia. But that's about it. Putin isn't going to win Syria's civil war, and Assad will become a bottomless pit of demands for more military support. Aside from winning the admiration of American conservatives, it's hard to see Putin getting anything of real worth out of this.

The same is true of the United States. There has never been a cohesive "moderate opposition" that would have ousted Assad if only we had supported them earlier. Republicans keep repeating this myth, but when they had a chance to support strikes on Syria in 2013, they didn't do it. That shows about how much they really believe this. Nor has there ever been a chance that the United States could topple Assad short of committing tens of thousands of ground troops, something that nobody support. "Arming the opposition" is the last refuge of hawkish dead-enders: something that sounds tough but rarely has much effect. You mostly hear it from people who don't have the courage to recommend ground troops but are desperate to sound like they're backing serious action.

The United States doesn't have the power to fix the Middle East. We can nudge here and there, but that's about all. As Friedman says, Obama may have caused some of his own problems by talking a bigger game than he's willing to play, but he's still right not to play. If Vladimir Putin is so afraid of losing his last foothold in the Middle East that he's willing to make a reckless and expensive gamble in the Syrian quagmire, let him. It's an act of peevishness and fear, not of brilliant geopolitical gamesmanship. For ourselves, the better part of wisdom is to stay out. Modest action would be useless, and our national interest simply isn't strong enough to justify a major intervention. Like it or not, war is not always the answer.