Kevin Drum

Hillary Clinton's Favorability Ratings Are Right In Their Normal Groove

| Wed Sep. 2, 2015 2:55 PM EDT

Greg Sargent says that Hillary Clinton's tanking favorability ratings should take no one by surprise. It's what happens every time an election starts up and she's once again viewed as a partisan political figure. "Her drop was probably inevitable once she made the transition from Secretary of State — a job that carries the trappings of above-politics statesmanship, or if you prefer, states-womanship — to candidate for president."

There's much more at the link, but the annotated chart below pretty much tells the story. When she's removed from the fray, her unfavorability ratings bounce around between 20 and 40 percent. When she's involved in an election, they go up to 45-55 percent or even a little higher. The same thing is happening this time around.

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Iran Will Always Be Three Months Away From Having Nukes

| Wed Sep. 2, 2015 1:43 PM EDT

Paul Waldman writes about the asymmetric political risks that Democrats and Republicans face over the Iran nuclear deal:

If the agreement proves to be a failure — let’s say that Iran manages to conduct a nuclear weapons program in secret, then announces to the world that they have a nuclear weapon — it will indeed be front-page news, and the Democrats who supported the deal might suffer grave political consequences. So in order to vote yes, they had to look seriously at the deal and its alternatives, and accept some long term political peril.

By contrast, there probably is less long term risk for Republicans in opposing the deal.

It’s true that if the deal does achieve its goals, it will be added to a list of things on which Republicans were spectacularly wrong, but which led them to change their opinions not a whit....Iraq War....Bill Clinton’s tax-increasing 1993 budget....George Bush’s tax cuts....But if the deal works as intended, what will be the outcome be? Iran without nuclear weapons, of course, but that is a state of being rather than an event. There will be no blaring headlines saying, “Iran Still Has No Nukes — Dems Proven Right!” Five or ten years from now, Republicans will continue to argue that the deal was dreadful, even if Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been contained.

In a way, it's actually worse than this. Even if Iran doesn't get nukes there will be endless opportunities to raise alarms that it's going to happen any day now. Israeli leaders have been warning that Iran is three months away from a nuclear bomb for over two decades. There will always be new studies, new developments, and new conflicts that provide excuses for hysterical Fox News segments telling us we're all about to die at the hands of the ayatollahs. To see this in action, just take a look at Obamacare. All the top line evidence suggests it's working surprisingly well. Maybe better than even its own supporters thought it would. But that hasn't stopped a torrent of alarming reports that provide countless pretexts for predicting Obamacare's imminent doom. Premiums are going up 40 percent! Workers' hours are being slashed! You won't be able to see your family doctor anymore! Death panels!

So have no worries. Iran could be nuclear free in 2050 and Bill Kristol's grandkids will still be warning everyone else's grandkids that the ayatollahs are this close to getting a bomb. It's kind of soothing, in a way, like a squeaky door that you'd miss if you ever oiled it.

Here's the Price Tag for CAP's New Child Care Program: About $100 Billion

| Wed Sep. 2, 2015 12:21 PM EDT

The Center for American Progress—aka "Hillary's Think Tank"—has released "A New Vision for Child Care in the United States." But it's not really very new. It's just a tax credit that varies with income. If you're at the poverty level, you'd get a tax credit of about $13,000 paid directly to the child care facility of your choice. If you make more, the tax credit would be less. The maximum out-of-pocket expense for families would range from 2 percent at the low end to 12 percent at the high end.

Does this sound familiar? It should: it bears a strong family resemblance to Obamacare.

But it might be a good idea regardless of how new it really is. I'm certainly a fan of both preschool and subsidized child care. The big question is going to be how much it costs, and that's something the authors don't address. There's probably a reason for that. My very rough horseback calculation suggests it could run up a tab of $100 billion per year. Maybe more.1 [See update below.]

That's a lot of money. How's it going to be paid for? Danielle Paquet asked CAP about this, and was told vaguely that "restructuring the tax system" and "closing wasteful loopholes" might do the trick. I dunno. That's a lot of wasteful loopholes.

Needless to say, this is one of the downsides of taking public policy seriously. If you're Donald Trump, you just tell everyone not to worry. "I'm going to be great for the kids," and he'll take care of it from there. But if you're a Democrat, you normally feel obliged to present an actual plan that can actually work in the real world—and that means people can attach a price to it. And that, in turn, means you can be badgered about how you're going to pay for it.

Politically speaking, this is something that Democrats will need to be careful about. There's a temptation among liberals to be the anti-Trump, tossing out dozens of detailed white papers to solve all the world's problems. But this gives conservatives an opening to add up the cost of all those white papers and start bellowing about how their very own proposals prove that Democrats want to bankrupt the country and tax millionaires into insolvency. It's best to tread carefully here.

On the other hand, maybe Hillary could benefit from a small dose of Trumpism. Maybe she should adopt CAP's proposal and just declare that she's going to soak the rich to pay for it. Why pussyfoot around it? After all, polls show that taxing the rich at higher rates is a pretty popular idea. Maybe it's time to go bullroar populist and just beat the tar out of the malefactors of great wealth.

Then again, maybe not. That doesn't really sound much like Hillary, does it?

1The program is for kids aged 0-4. My estimate is based on about 20 million kids qualifying, with an average tax credit in the neighborhood of $8,000 each. That's $160 billion. If two-thirds of all families take advantage of this tax credit, that comes to about $100 billion. Needless to say, more detailed cost estimates are welcome.

UPDATE: I am mistaken. CAP estimates a cost of $40 billion for their proposal, which they believe would not just help working families, but also stimulate the economy:

The economy as a whole benefits from policies that help working families. As an example, the Canadian province of Quebec developed a nearly universal child care assistance program, and economists at the University of Quebec and the University of Sherbrooke estimate that the program boosted women’s labor force participation by nearly 4 percentage points, which in turn boosted GDP by 1.7 percentage points.

I'm habitually skeptical of claims that social programs will recoup all or part of their costs by boosting the economy, but it's probably true in this case. The effect of increased employment on GDP is pretty straightforward. The policy question, of course, is how much this will offset the program costs. But then, that's always the policy question, isn't it?

In any case, I'm not sure how CAP gets to $40 billion, and it strikes me as a little low. But it might be right. It would be interesting to see an estimate from a reliable third-party source.

September Is All Set to Be Ben Carson Month

| Wed Sep. 2, 2015 11:31 AM EDT

Donald Trump's moment in the spotlight is up. He won't go gently into that good night, but go he will. The big question at this point is who will replace him as the tea party's temporary favorite? The answer appears to be Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who made a name for himself among conservatives with a speech at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast. Here's a short excerpt:

The PC police are out in force at all times....We’ve got to get over this sensitivity....what we need to do in this PC world is forget about unanimity of speech and unanimity of thought....PC is dangerous....one last thing about political correctness, which I think is a horrible thing, by the way....I’m not politically correct....

Do you notice a trend? Carson also talked about HSAs (a replacement for Obamacare) and tithing (a 10 percent flat tax) and the deficit (bad) and education (good) and moral decay (ruined the Roman empire) and, yes, even mentioned God a few times. But political correctness is his real schtick, and he hates it even more than Trump.

But why? Since Carson seems set to become the Next Big Thing, Ed Kilgore decided to explain him to us. In the first GOP debate, Carson made mention of the "Alinsky Model," which enjoyed a brief vogue among conservatives a few years ago and then sort of disappeared from sight. Kilgore takes off from there:

The “Alinsky Model” is a dog whistle to a certain breed of conspiracy minded hard-core conservative, as is the identification of [Hillary] Clinton with the “secular progressive movement.” Both are references some might recognize from Glenn Beck’s many discourses, and both are meant to describe people who are actively and consciously working through deceit to enslave if not destroy (Carson’s word) America. The Alinsky Model’s main weapon, according to most aficionados of this sort of thinking, is “political correctness,” which happens to be Dr. Ben Carson’s favorite phrase for everything he is fighting against.

....The more you listen to Carson talking about “political correctness,” the more it becomes obvious he’s not attacking college speech codes or disputes over racial or ethnic or gender terms, but liberal elite mockery of right-wing conspiracy theories....In this context, it becomes clear that Carson’s occasional “gaffes” aren’t really accidents, but what he believes: Obamacare is the worst thing since slavery; Obama might be planning to cancel elections; Democrats are opening the borders to bring in immigrants who will increase the welfare population and thus keep Democrats in power. Even though these are not unusual beliefs in the fever swamps of the far right, they are exotic for a major-party presidential candidate.

....And there’s something extra special about an African-American preemptively labeling suspected incidents of racism and sexism as mere political incorrectness, which he then defends as essential free speech! Let it rip!

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your next man of the moment. Like Trump, he specializes in mood affiliation politics: nice, easy, common-sense solutions to all our problems, without bothering to explain how any of this stuff can actually work. Unlike Trump, he has a very calm demeanor. So if you like your third-grade comfort food politics with a side of bombast, Trump is your guy. But if you like it smooth and affable, Carson is. Take your pick.

Iran Deal Now Assured of Passage

| Wed Sep. 2, 2015 10:20 AM EDT

The Iran nuclear agreement picked up its 34th supporter in the Senate this morning, assuring that even if Congress rejects the deal (which it probably will), it won't be able to override President Barack Obama's veto of the rejection.

In the end, this probably didn't matter much, since Nancy Pelosi says the House already had enough votes to sustain a veto, but it never hurts to be sure. Next up: If Obama can round up 41 votes, the Senate won't even be able to reject the deal in the first place and no veto will be necessary. I think that's a long shot, since now, with passage secured, it leaves wavering senators free to vote against it in the knowledge that their vote won't matter. We'll see.

UPDATE: And the 34th and deciding senator is…drum roll, please…Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring next year.

I Have No Headline Worthy of Donald Trump's Latest

| Tue Sep. 1, 2015 9:53 PM EDT

I hesitate to drop the P-bomb, but this bit of word salad from Donald Trump is eerily Palinesque. How is it possible that Spy magazine is no longer around to explain this to the world?

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In the Contest for Worst Automobile-Driving Species, the Winner is Homo Sapiens

| Tue Sep. 1, 2015 5:32 PM EDT

A reader tells me this story seems right up my alley:

Google, a leader in efforts to create driverless cars, has run into an odd safety conundrum: humans.

Last month, as one of Google’s self-driving cars approached a crosswalk, it did what it was supposed to do when it slowed to allow a pedestrian to cross, prompting its “safety driver” to apply the brakes. The pedestrian was fine, but not so much Google’s car, which was hit from behind by a human-driven sedan.

....Dmitri Dolgov, head of software for Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, said that one thing he had learned from the project was that human drivers needed to be “less idiotic.”

That's the spirit! And when Skynet takes over, humans will finally cease to be such a nuisance. Driverless car nirvana will be at hand.

Ahem. In reality, of course, this whole story is sort of silly. Of course the biggest problem with driverless cars is humans. What else would it be? Plop a few thousand driverless cars into an empty city and they'd get along swimmingly. No one is unaware of this, least of all Google.

But I suppose from Google's perspective, stories like this are useful as ways to calm fears about driverless cars. And there is a good point to be made about that: driverless cars don't have to be perfect to be useful. They just have to be at least as good as humans. So while the fact that humans are generally idiotic drivers might be a short-term annoyance, in the long run it's a huge bonus for Google. They don't have to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, just the local high school JV team.

This, by the way, is why I'm so generally bullish on artificial intelligence. It's not because I have such a high opinion of computers, but because I have such a low opinion of humans. We really are just overclocked chimpanzees who have convinced ourselves that our weird jumble of largely Pavlovian behaviors—punctuated by regrettably rare dollops of intelligence—is deeply ineffable and therefore resistant to true understanding. Why do we believe this? Primarily for the amusingly oxymoronic reason that we aren't smart enough to understand our own brains. The silicon crowd should be able to do better before long.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, I'm a lovely driver. It's all you other folks who are causing so many problems.

Sorry, I Don't Know Why Murder Rates Are Up In a Bunch of Big Cities

| Tue Sep. 1, 2015 3:09 PM EDT

I've gotten enough requests to comment on this piece from the New York Times that I guess I'd better do so:

Cities across the nation are seeing a startling rise in murders after years of declines, and few places have witnessed a shift as precipitous as this city. With the summer not yet over, 104 people have been killed this year — after 86 homicides in all of 2014.

More than 30 other cities have also reported increases in violence from a year ago. In New Orleans, 120 people had been killed by late August, compared with 98 during the same period a year earlier. In Baltimore, homicides had hit 215, up from 138 at the same point in 2014. In Washington, the toll was 105, compared with 73 people a year ago. And in St. Louis, 136 people had been killed this year, a 60 percent rise from the 85 murders the city had by the same time last year.

Law enforcement experts say disparate factors are at play in different cities, though no one is claiming to know for sure why murder rates are climbing. Some officials say intense national scrutiny of the use of force by the police has made officers less aggressive and emboldened criminals, though many experts dispute that theory.

The reason I haven't said anything about this until now is that I had nothing to say. I have no more idea what's driving this increase than anyone else.

But what about lead? Here's the problem: gasoline lead explains one thing and one thing only. And that thing is the huge violent crime wave of 1960-1990 followed by the equally huge drop of 1990-2010. But that's over. What we're left with now is the baseline level of violent crime, which obviously wouldn't be zero even if there were no lead in the environment at all. And the causes of this baseline level of violent crime are all the usual suspects: poverty, race, drugs, policing, guns, demographics, and so forth. A more detailed explanation is here. At this point, lead is a very small contributor to the crime level.

It's also worth pointing out that crime figures, and murder figures in particular, are extremely noisy. Lead explains long-term shifts. It doesn't explain short-term spikes or (in most cases) differences from one city to another. The current increase in murder rates could be due to lots of things, or it could just be the usual noise in the numbers. Maybe they'll go right back down next year.

But I don't know. The only thing I do know is that lead is playing no particular role in this, either good or bad.

Let Us Now Praise Passionate Politics

| Tue Sep. 1, 2015 2:22 PM EDT

German Lopez notes the reaction in some quarters to the recent shooting of a Texas deputy sheriff:

Despite any solid leads and facts about the motives in the shooting of 10-year deputy veteran Darren Goforth, some conservative media outlets and local law enforcement officials have already settled on the real culprit: Black Lives Matter.

....Fox News's Elisabeth Hasselbeck later wondered aloud on air why Black Lives Matter isn't considered a "hate group." Bill O'Reilly was more blunt, concluding the movement was indeed a "hate group."

....It's not just Fox News — other reports painted narratives that put Black Lives Matter and police as inherently in conflict. A CNN report, for instance, described Black Lives Matter's advocacy as "anti-police rhetoric." What does it say about American society that advocating for black lives and ending racial disparities in the criminal justice system would qualify not as pro-equality but as anti-police?

It's hardly a surprise to hear stuff like this. Nor is it limited to conservatives. Liberals frequently fault anti-abortion rhetoric when someone kills an abortion clinic worker or anti-government rhetoric when someone shoots up an IRS office.

That won't stop, but it should. People and groups have to be free to condemn abortion or police misconduct or anything else—sometimes soberly, sometimes not. And it's inevitable that this will occasionally inspire a maniac somewhere to resort to violence. There's really no way around this. It's obviously something for any decent person to keep in mind, but it doesn't make passionate politics culpable for the ills of the world. We can't allow the limits of our political spirit to be routinely dictated by the worst imaginable consequences.

This is no apology for obviously incendiary speech. If you get on your soapbox and tell your followers to kill the pigs or murder the child murderers, then you bear a share of blame for what happens next. That's both common sense and legal reality.

But we also need common sense toward speech that's less immediately incendiary but still fiery or angry—or both. After all, this is where change, liberal and conservative alike, comes from. It's sadly inevitable that in a country of 300 million, even the minuscule fraction who turn that fear into a killing rampage amounts to a lot of people. But it's neither a good reason to rein in our political vigor nor a good reason to blame passionate engagement in politics for every related tragedy. That way lies atrophy and rot.

Science Marches On: We Now Have a Yard Sale That Runs Backward In Time

| Tue Sep. 1, 2015 12:50 PM EDT

A sentence to ponder:

The world's longest yard sale runs for nearly 700 miles along a mostly vertical line connecting Alabama and Michigan, from the first Thursday in August through the first Sunday.

But what if the first Sunday comes before the first Thursday? Do they cancel the sale that year? Does it run backward through time? I demand answers.

(Via Tyler Cowen.)