Kevin Drum

Obama Takes a Good Half Step Toward an Unequivocal Ban on Torture

| Wed Nov. 12, 2014 4:42 PM EST

It's worth mentioning that the Obama administration has finally decided to take a more expansive view of where torture and "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" are banned:

The Obama administration, after an internal debate that has drawn global scrutiny, is taking the view that the cruelty ban applies wherever the United States exercises governmental authority, according to officials familiar with the deliberations. That definition, they said, includes the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and American-flagged ships and aircraft in international waters and airspace.

But the administration’s definition still appears to exclude places like the former “black site” prisons where the C.I.A. tortured terrorism suspects during the Bush years, as well as American military detention camps in Afghanistan and Iraq during the wars there. Those prisons were on the sovereign territory of other governments; the government of Cuba exercises no control over Guantánamo.

Why exclude black sites? Administration officials apparently say this is just a "technical matter of interpretation, underlined by concerns that changing the jurisdictional scope could have unintended consequences, like increasing the risk of lawsuits by overseas detainees or making it harder to say that unrelated treaties with similar jurisdictional language did not apply in the same places."

I can....almost buy that. Lawyers and diplomats get pretty hung up on stuff like this. Nonetheless, I'd be a lot happier if Obama could be a little more Bush-like here, and simply overrule the legal eagles and insist on a clear and unequivocal policy. It's hard to believe there isn't a way to do that which wouldn't somehow wreck a bunch of other treaties at the same time.

So two cheers for doing the right thing. But not three.

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The Case Against Postal Banking

| Wed Nov. 12, 2014 3:23 PM EST

Dean Baker thinks the Washington Post is wrong to imply that the postal service hasn't been aggressive about improving its productivity. Agreed. Then this:

The other point is that the Postal Service could improve its finances by expanding rather than contracting. Specifically, it can return to providing basic banking services, as it did in the past and many other postal systems still do. This course has been suggested by the Postal Service's Inspector General.

This route takes advantage of the fact that the Postal Service has buildings in nearly every neighborhood in the country. These offices can be used to provide basic services to a large unbanked population that often can't afford fees associated with low balance accounts. As a result they often end up paying exorbitant fees to check cashing services, pay day lenders and other non-bank providers of financial services.

Color me skeptical. I know this sounds like a terrific, populist idea, but I can think of several reasons to be very cautious about expansive claims that the USPS is uniquely situated to provide basic banking services. Here are a few:

  • What's the core competency that would allow USPS to excel at banking? The Inspector General says that "the first and possibly most important factor is the sheer ubiquity of the Postal Service." In other words, they have lots of locations: 35,000 to be exact. But who cares? Physical real estate is the least compelling reason imaginable to think an organization would be great at basic banking. After all, you know who else has lots of branches? Banks. Even after years of downsizing, there are nearly 100,000 branch banks in the United States.
  • What else? The Inspector General suggests "trust and familiarity with the postal 'brand.'" Meh. Americans trust McDonald's too. That doesn't mean they'd flock to do their banking there. This kind of thing reminds me of hundreds of really bad marketing presentations I've attended in my lifetime.
  • When you say "postal banking," most people think about small mom-and-pop savings accounts. But that's not really what the postal service has in mind. The IG report focuses more on (1) payment mechanisms (i.e., electronic money orders), (2) products to encourage savings, and (3) reloadable prepaid cards. The first is fine, but not really "postal banking." The second is problematic since even the IG concedes that the reason poor people tend not to save is "largely due to a lack of disposable income among the underserved." That's quite an understatement, and it's not clear what unique incentives the postal service can offer to encourage savings among people who have no money to save. That leaves prepaid cards—and maybe a good, basic prepaid card sponsored by the federal government is a worthwhile idea. But that's really all we have here.
  • Finally, there's the prospect of providing very small loans. But as much as we all loathe payday lenders, there's a reason they charge such high rates: they also have high rates of default. The postal service can charge less only by (a) losing money or (b) providing loans only to relatively good customers. If you read the IG report, they basically recommend the latter. It's not clear to me that this is truly an underserved niche.
  • Yes, other countries have postal banking services. But these were mostly established long ago, before commercial banking became ubiquitous. It may have been a good idea half a century ago, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea now.

If the government wants to provide basic banking services for the poor, it's not clear to me why USPS should do it. They have literally no special competence at this, and the motivation behind it is to provide a revenue stream that offsets losses from mail services. That's just dumb. Why on earth should public banking services subsidize public mail services? They have nothing to do with each other.

If we really want some kind of government-sponsored basic banking service, we should simply create one and partner with commercial banks to offer it. If this is truly profitable, banks will bid to host these accounts. If it's not, the subsidies will show up directly in the annual budget accounts. That's the way it should be.

I'm not yet convinced that this is a good idea to begin with, but I could be persuaded. However, if it is a good idea, there's honestly no reason to get the postal service involved in this. We already have a Treasury Department, and we already have a commercial banking industry. They truly do have core competencies in offering financial services. Why not use them instead?

UPDATE: Republicans May Oppose China Climate Deal, But Change Is Coming Anyway

| Wed Nov. 12, 2014 10:45 AM EST

Speaking of climate change, Politico reminds us today that although Republicans may blindly oppose any and all plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there's a whole lot already baked into the cake that they can't do much about:

The coming rollout includes a Dec. 1 proposal by EPA to tighten limits on smog-causing ozone, which business groups say could be the costliest federal regulation of all time; a final rule Dec. 19 for clamping down on disposal of power plants’ toxic coal ash; the Jan. 1 start date for a long-debated rule prohibiting states from polluting the air of their downwind neighbors; and a Jan. 8 deadline for issuing a final rule restricting greenhouse gas emissions from future power plants. That last rule is a centerpiece of Obama’s most ambitious environmental effort, the big plan for combating climate change that he announced at Georgetown University in June 2013.

....The administration was committed to its upcoming deadlines many months ago, in some cases under court order, after postponing a number of the actions until after the 2012 or 2014 elections. Now that Obama is almost out of time, they’re coming all at once.

On deck are even more climate actions that will stretch well into 2015. In June, EPA is due to put out a final version of its rule for cutting greenhouse gases from the nation’s existing power plants — the linchpin of Obama’s entire climate effort.

Now, this is probably not enough to meet even the modest goals that Obama agreed to with China, but it's unquestionably the most ambitious effort of any president ever. And there's not much that Republicans can do to stop it. They can delay some of this stuff a bit, but that's just window dressing. Once the final rules are in place, there's nothing they can do to roll them back without Democratic support. And that's not likely to come.

Unlike Obama's threatened immigration rules, these are all things that have been in the pipeline for years. Obama doesn't have to take any active steps to make them happen, and Republicans can't pretend that any of them are a "poke in the eye," or whatever the latest bit of post-election kvetching is. This stuff is as good as done, and second only to Obamacare, it's right up there as one of the biggest legacies of Obama's presidency.

BREAKING: Climate Deal May Face Republican Opposition

| Wed Nov. 12, 2014 10:23 AM EST

As the capstone of an "unexpectedly productive two days of meetings" between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, a deal was announced yesterday that called on both the US and China to begin reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Mark Landler of the New York Times tosses in this deadpan paragraph about halfway through his dispatch:

Administration officials acknowledged that Mr. Obama could face opposition to his plans from a Republican-controlled Congress. While the agreement with China needs no congressional ratification, lawmakers could try to roll back Mr. Obama’s initiatives, undermining the United States’ ability to meet the new reduction targets.

Um, yeah. I guess that's a possibility.

I don't quite remember, but maybe someone can remind me. Are there any Republicans left in Congress who will publicly admit that climate change is both real and manmade? There must be one or two, right? I just can't remember who they might be.

The Great Wage Slowdown Finally Takes Center Stage

| Tue Nov. 11, 2014 2:01 PM EST

I'm feeling better today, but still not really in good blogging condition. So just a quick note: it appears that the great wage slowdown is finally getting lots of mainstream attention. Why? Because apparently the midterm results have persuaded a lot of people that this isn't just an economic problem, but a political problem as well. In fact, here's the headline on David Leonhardt's piece today:

The Great Wage Slowdown, Looming Over Politics

Josh Marshall makes much the same point with this headline:

Forget the Chatter, This is the Democrats' Real Problem

Both are saying similar things. First, growing income inequality per se isn't our big problem. Stagnant wages for the middle class are. Obviously these things are tightly related in an economic sense, but in a political sense they aren't. Voters care far less about rich people buying gold-plated fixtures for their yachts than they do about not getting a raise for the past five years. The latter is the problem they want solved.

Needless to say, I agree, but here are the two key takeaways from Marshall and Leonhardt and pretty much everyone else who tackles this subject: (1) nobody has any real answers, and (2) this hurts Democrats more than Republicans since Democrats are supposed to be the party of the middle class.

I'd say #1 is obviously true, and it's a huge problem. But #2 is a little shakier. Sure, Republicans are the party of business interests and the rich, but voters blame their problems on whoever's in power. Right now, Democrats have gotten the lion's share of the blame for the slow economy, but Republicans rather plainly have no serious ideas about how to grow middle-class wages either. They won't escape voter wrath on this front forever.

I'm not going to try to say more about this right now. I just wanted to point out that this is finally starting to get some real attention. And that's good: it's one of the great economic trends of our time, and therefore one of the great political trends as well. For a short rundown of the other great trends of our time, I recommend this piece. I wrote it a couple of years ago, and I continue to think these are the basic battlegrounds our politics are going to be fought on over the next decade or two.

Housekeeping Note

| Mon Nov. 10, 2014 3:10 PM EST

Sorry folks. Not a good day today. Hopefully I'll be back tomorrow.

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Republican Agenda Starts to Take Shape

| Mon Nov. 10, 2014 12:48 AM EST

Reading between the lines, I gather that Republicans are starting to coalesce around a legislative agenda to celebrate their recent midterm victory:

  • Ban abortions after 20 weeks.
  • Wipe out all of Obama's new and pending EPA regulations.
  • Repeal Obamacare bit by bit.
  • Figure out a way to obstruct Loretta Lynch's nomination as Attorney General.

Oh, there's still some desultory happy talk about tax reform and fast-track trade authority and other "areas of agreement," but that seems to be fading out. Poking a stick in President Obama's eye is very quickly becoming the order of the day.

And no reason not to, I suppose. Republicans won, after all. But they shouldn't be surprised if Obama continues to plan to poke back.

Friday Cat Blogging - 7 November 2014

| Fri Nov. 7, 2014 2:52 PM EST

Remember I told you that 56-year-old human reflexes were no match for 11-month-old kitten reflexes? Well, if you throw in a bad back, it's game over. Unless these guys are snoozing, I'd guess that only about one picture in ten is even close to catblogging material these days.

Still, one in ten is one in ten, so here are today's pictures. On the left, Hopper is sitting on the window sill, waiting for a bird to fly by and entertain her. On the right, Hilbert has taken up shop on Marian's chair in our newly rearranged living room (rearranged to make room for a more back-friendly chair for Kevin). He actually spent most of the night on Wednesday sleeping in our bed with us. Progress!

In other news, my sister recommends that all of you with cats try this. She's coming over to visit tomorrow morning, so we'll try it then. Let us know in comments how it goes.

Supreme Court Takes Up Yet Another Challenge to Obamacare

| Fri Nov. 7, 2014 1:27 PM EST

It looks like the Halbig challenge to Obamacare is a go:

The justices on Friday say they will decide whether the law authorizes subsidies that help millions of low- and middle-income people afford their health insurance premiums. A federal appeals court upheld Internal Revenue Service regulations that allow health-insurance tax credits under the Affordable Care Act for consumers in all 50 states. Opponents argue that most of the subsidies are illegal.

In case it's slipped your mind, this is the case that hinges on whether a typo in one sentence of the Affordable Care Act should wipe out health care subsidies in every state that uses the federal exchange. If the challengers win, subsidies will be available only in states that run their own exchanges.

Given the facts of the case, I'd normally say the whole thing is laughable. The intent of the law is, and always has been, crystal clear. But the current Supreme Court really doesn't seem to care much about laughable. If they want to cripple Obamacare, they'll do it. The shoddiness of the argument doesn't much matter to them.

So this is going to be a nail-biter. If it goes the wrong way, 6 million people or more will lose access to affordable health care—and half the country will cheer giddily about it. Because there's just nothing more satisfying than denying decent health care to millions of your fellow citizens.

UPDATE: Although this challenge is the same as the one in Halbig, the actual case the Supreme Court agreed to hear is King v. Burwell. Sorry for the mistake.

Negotiating With Republicans ≠ Negotiating With Tea Partiers

| Fri Nov. 7, 2014 12:56 PM EST

Megan McArdle was pretty unimpressed with President Obama's press conference following the Democrats' midterm defeat. "No one reasonable expected the president to grovel," she says, but surely he could have adopted a more conciliatory tone?

Most notably, of course, he said he would take executive action on immigration by year's end unless Republicans passed a bill. It's certainly a bold negotiating tactic: You can do what I want, or I'll go ahead and do what I want anyway. This is how you “negotiate” with a seven-year old, not a Senate Majority Leader.

I'm not sure that isn't what Obama thinks he's doing…But Mitch McConnell is not a seven year old…McConnell is not the proverbial Tea Party extremist who won't negotiate; he's an establishment guy, known as a strategist and a tactician, not an ideologue (which is why the Tea Party isn't that fond of him). In short, he's someone who can make deals. Responding to McConnell's rather gracious remarks about finding common goals by announcing that you know what the American public wants, and you're going to give it to them no matter what their elected representatives say, seems curiously brash. It might chill the atmosphere today when he sits down with congressional leaders.

 I wonder if Obama even knows how to negotiate with Republicans…

I'm not here to defend Obama's negotiating record. I'd rate it higher than McArdle, probably, but it's obviously not one of Obama's strong suits. Still, she's rather pointedly ignoring the elephant in the room here.

As near as I can tell, Obama has regularly demonstrated the ability to negotiate with Mitch McConnell. Not perfectly, and not without plenty of hiccups, but they can do business when the incentives are strong enough. In fact, they did do business on immigration reform. A year ago the Senate passed a comprehensive bill 68-32. Here's what Obama said about McConnell on Wednesday:

My interactions with Mitch McConnell, he has always been very straightforward with me. To his credit, he has never made a promise that he couldn't deliver. And he knows the legislative process well. He obviously knows his caucus well—he has always given me, I think, realistic assessments of what he can get through his caucus and what he can't. And so I think we can have a productive relationship.

The unnamed elephant in the room, obviously, is John Boehner and the tea party caucus in the House. Boehner has repeatedly shown that he can't control his own caucus and can't deliver a deal of any sort. That's not because either Obama or Boehner are incompetent negotiators, it's because the tea partiers are flatly unwilling to compromise in any remotely constructive way. So when Obama adopts a combative tone on immigration, it's aimed at Boehner, who really does have the miserable job of trying to ride herd on a bunch of erratic and willful seven-year-olds—as he himself has admitted from time to time.

Does Obama know how to negotiate with Republicans? Sure. Does he know how to negotiate with tea party extremists? Hard to say. But then again, even John Boehner hasn't figured out how to do that. Perhaps Obama's playground style hit-them-over-the-head approach is about as good as it gets.