Kevin Drum

Video or It Didn’t Happen: What Jihadi John Knows and Ray Rice Found Out

| Tue Sep. 9, 2014 9:44 PM EDT

One of the most famous anecdotes from the Reagan years comes from Lesley Stahl, then a reporter for the CBS Evening News. After airing a long, critical piece during the 1984 campaign, she got a cheerful call from Dick Darman at the White House. "We really loved it," he said. "Five minutes of free media." Dan Schill tells the rest of the story:

Stahl asked, "Why are you so happy? Didn't you hear what I said?" Giving the punch line of the parable, Darman said to Stahl, "You guys in Televisionland haven't figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. I mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you."

Stahl said she examined her piece again, this time with the sound off, and found that the Reagan official was right—her story had accepted the Reagan frame and was practically an unpaid political commercial—a brilliant montage of Reagan surrounded with flags, children, balloons, and cheering supporters.

Asked if this experience changed the way she produces her stories, Stahl said, "Not really. I'm still trapped, because my pieces are written to the pictures we have."

I was reminded of this story once again yesterday when TMZ released elevator video of Ray Rice slugging his then fiancée and knocking her unconscious. It was a brutal attack and reaction was swift and uncompromising. Rice was released by the Baltimore Ravens, the NFL suspended him indefinitely, and his sponsors began abandoning him almost immediately.

And yet, that video told us nothing. We already knew what had happened. Based on previous video, we knew that Rice had punched Janay Palmer hard enough to knock her out. We just didn't have it on tape.

And it's not only the NFL that reacted differently after the new video was released. Even the folks who criticized the league's anemic response back in February are now far more outraged. The video affected everyone's reaction.

Why? Is it the visceral effect of images? Does it have something to do with an instinct to avoid drawing the most damning conclusions until an image makes it impossible to evade the truth any longer? Or is it all a charade, and lots of people are just pretending to be more outraged because they know it's now expected of them?

I don't know. But the internet is now the domain of LOLcats, BuzzFeed listicles, and charts of the day—the latter for those of us who like images but also like to believe we're too smart to be manipulated by them. The fastest growing social media sites are Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, and others like it. Blogs are often so stuffed with YouTube videos that you can refill your coffee cup while you wait for them to load. Millions of formerly peaceable people—people who already knew perfectly well that ISIS was a barbarous bunch of thugs—suddenly want to go to war because we now have pictures of that barbarism. Images rule everywhere. It's not just Lesley Stahl who's trapped in Lesley Stahl's world anymore. We all are.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Climate Change News Just Keeps Getting Worse and Worse

| Tue Sep. 9, 2014 3:08 PM EDT

The World Meteorological Organization announced today that global levels of carbon dioxide reached their highest point ever in 2013. No surprise there. They also announced that the growth rate of CO2 reached its highest point ever. Brad Plumer provides the details:

There are two possible reasons why the amount of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere is growing so rapidly. One is obvious: Humans  continue to emit more and more carbon-dioxide from power plants, cars, and factories each year.

But the other reason is a bit more surprising: According to the WMO, early data suggests that the world's oceans and forests are now absorbing less of our extra carbon-dioxide than they used to — which means that more of it ends up in the atmosphere, where it traps heat and warms up the planet.

The amount of CO2 absorbed by the oceans is cyclical in the medium term, which probably helps explain why global temperatures periodically stabilize for a decade or so before resuming their usual upward march. But there's also a long-term trend. Oceans can't absorb CO2 indefinitely, and eventually they'll reach their limit. As that happens, more and more CO2 will be trapped in the atmosphere, where it contributes to global warming. And unless we do something to rein in CO2 emissions, this will happen at the same time that humans are pumping ever more CO2 into the sky. More here.

Quote of the Day: Why Republicans Don't Want to Vote on Airstrikes in Iraq

| Tue Sep. 9, 2014 12:48 PM EDT

From Republican congressman Jack Kingston, explaining why no one wants to hold a vote to approve military action in Iraq:

A lot of people would like to stay on the sideline and say, ‘Just bomb the place and tell us about it later.’ It’s an election year. A lot of Democrats don’t know how it would play in their party, and Republicans don’t want to change anything. We like the path we’re on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long.

I guess that's refreshingly honest. Or something.

Should Liberals Support OTC Access to Oral Contraceptives?

| Tue Sep. 9, 2014 12:35 PM EDT

There's been a mini-boomlet lately in Republican candidates supporting over-the-counter access to birth control pills. This is great! There's very little medical reason to require a prescription for oral contraceptives, and OTC pills are far more likely to be used regularly than prescription pills. It's nice to see Republicans on the side of good science. But Rebecca Leber warns that not all is as it seems:

There’s a catch. Doctors aren’t the only hurdle between women and contraceptive access. For low-income women, cost can be what’s most prohibitive. Under the Affordable Care Act, the pill and other forms of contraception count as preventative care, which means insurance covers them completely—without any out-of-pocket expenses. This is not a position the Republicans have endorsed. On the contrary, none of the candidates have changed their position on the law more broadly, including their opposition to the mandate covering preventative care like birth control, writes Paul Waldman at the Washington Post. They still want to transfer the costs for other forms of contraceptives, like IUDs and the morning-after-pill, to women directly.

This is all true. But Republican opposition to Obamacare isn't going to change no matter what, so that hardly matters. What matters is whether Obamacare covers the cost of contraceptives, and that's what's causing liberal angst over a cause that we've all supported in the past. We're afraid that if oral contraceptives become available OTC, Obamacare will no longer pay for them.

But is it necessarily true that Obamacare wouldn't cover the cost of OTC contraceptives? After all, this isn't an issue that will be resolved by Congress, so there's no chance of some terrible bill passing that trades OTC contraceptive availability for an end to the Obamacare mandate. The FDA makes the call about whether contraceptives can be sold OTC, and HHS regulations specify which contraceptives are covered by Obamacare. Those regs currently cover "FDA-approved" contraceptive methods, and if the FDA approves OTC contraceptives then HHS will have to modify its regs to make it clear whether those are covered too. There's no reason they couldn't choose to mandate coverage of OTC pills that are FDA-approved. Alternatively, they could simply require insurers to continue paying for prescriptions for OTC oral contraceptives, as they do currently for OTC products like spermicides and sponges that are prescribed by a doctor. This would be a good deal for insurance companies since OTC contraceptives would almost certainly be cheaper than prescription versions of the same pills.

So let's join the Republican cause on OTC oral contraceptives. It's good science and good policy. And let's continue to oppose any efforts in Congress to weaken the contraceptive mandate. That's also good policy.

Or am I missing something here?

Is It Time For Yet Another War?

| Tue Sep. 9, 2014 10:33 AM EDT

Dave Weigel sums up the recent American reaction to ISIS:

On August 18, the airstrikes helped Iraqi forces take back the Mosul dam from ISIS. The next day, ISIS released a video of captured journalist James Foley being beheaded by one of their men.

The video, surely meant to sow fear and breed over-reaction, succeeded magnificently. The panic showing up in polls, in which the number of Americans favoring airstrikes in Iraq and Syria has surged, has been matched by a return of panic-first politics....The long Democratic dream, from Kerry to Obama, of reducing terrorism from an existential threat to a managable nuisance, is just not an election-winner.

This is, sadly, not surprising at all. For years, the conventional wisdom has been that Americans are weary of war, and the conventional wisdom is largely correct. At the same time, it's always been obvious that Americans remain easily susceptible to the same kind of bloody-shirt waving that got us into the Iraq war in the first place. The only thing that's saved us is the fact that President Obama isn't a bloody-shirt waver. Even when he's initiated military action, his public persona has been quiet and reluctant.

But now we're seeing just how easy it is to whip Americans into a war frenzy yet again. Even with Obama striking his usual no-drama pose, the public is becoming increasingly belligerent. All it took was a carefully stagecrafted beheading video and the usual gang of conservative jingoists to exploit it. For now, the lack of presidential blood lust is holding back the tide—barely—but that's a thin reed. If Obama wanted to go to war, it would be the work of a moment to whip up a war frenzy in a solid majority of the country.

And just think about how tempting it must be. A full-blown military assault on a loathsome enemy like ISIS would almost certainly be a big campaign winner for Democrats this fall.

War weary? Sure, as long as the president keeps a low profile. But if he decides to change his mind, the American public will back him up. After all, Americans have historically gotten a little restless if they don't have a new war every four or five years, and it's been about that long since we pulled out of Iraq. Maybe we're due.

Every Single Thing You Need to Know About Gerrymandering and Republicans

| Mon Sep. 8, 2014 4:01 PM EDT

For some reason—boredom? coincidence? hot weather peevishness?—a bunch of bloggers today have been arguing about whether Republican control of the House is due to gerrymandering. I don't get this. Gerrymandering is what it is. The best studies I've seen suggest that it accounts for 6-8 additional Republican seats. The rest of the Republican advantage is due to the incumbency effect; self-sorting; natural Democratic clumping in urban areas; and a few other minor things.

So: Is gerrymandering responsible for Republican control of the House? No. Is it partially responsible? Yes. What's so hard about this?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

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.

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.