Kevin Drum

Housing Weakness Yet Another Indicator of a Sluggish Recovery

| Thu Jul. 17, 2014 3:01 PM EDT

Housing is the biggest single sector of the consumer economy, and pent-up demand for housing is usually the primary engine that pulls a country out of recession. But as Neil Irwin reports, we're just not seeing much of a rebound in housing:

Another disappointing reading on the housing market was released Thursday morning. The number of housing units that builders started work on fell 9.3 percent in June, to an 893,000 annual rate. The number of housing permits issued by local governments, a forward-looking measure that government statisticians consider less prone to measurement error, fell 4.2 percent. Forecasters had expected both numbers to rise.

....What makes the June results curious — and particularly disappointing — is that some of the excuses heard for weak housing numbers don’t hold water any more. The unusually bad winter weather that slowed construction in January and February is now long past....And mortgage rates spiked in the second half of 2013, perhaps leading builders to exercise a greater note of caution as they weighed new projects. But rates have fallen more or less steadily through the first half of 2014.

Now, as you can see from the chart, there's a lot of volatility in housing starts. So don't take the June decline too seriously. Nonetheless, after starting to rise in 2011, starts have been nearly flat for two years now. If housing is going to save the economy, it's sure taking its sweet time. More than likely, though, it's just not going to happen. It sure looks like we have many years of a weak, sluggish recovery ahead of us.

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Commercial Jet Goes Down Over Ukraine

| Thu Jul. 17, 2014 11:48 AM EDT

From CNN:

A Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur has crashed in eastern Ukraine, Russian news agency Interfax reported Thursday. The jet is a Boeing 777, according to Interfax.

The plane reportedly went down near the border between Russia and Ukraine.

Oh crap. Ukrainian officials are apparently claiming that the plane was shot down by a Russian missile.

The Republican Foreign Policy Split Is Mostly a Myth

| Thu Jul. 17, 2014 11:15 AM EDT

Honest question here. I've been wondering about this for a while, but it crystallized last night after reading this Ross Douthat post about conservative foreign policy. My question is: Is there really a big foreign policy split in the Republican Party?

I hear about this a lot. Liberals love to write about it, for obvious reasons, but it's not just liberals. Conservatives talk about it too. But where's the evidence for the split? The answer is: Rand Paul. It almost always revolves around Rand Paul vs. Someone. Rick Perry. John McCain. Bill Kristol. Whatever. And since Rand Paul is a rising star with a Sarah Palinesque intuition for political theater, he's gotten a lot of attention for his contention that Republicans should adopt a less interventionist foreign policy.

The problem is that there's little reason to believe that Paul has had any more influence on mainstream Republican thought than his father did. The conservative coalition has always included both paleocons and libertarians who are skeptical of activist foreign policy, but their numbers have always been too small to carry any weight—and I don't see much evidence that this has changed. It's true that recent poll numbers suggest a declining appetite for foreign wars, but among conservatives those numbers are very, very soft. They change at even the slightest hint of aggression from Al Qaeda or Hamas or Vladimir Putin.

More to the point, I've seen no evidence of change within the mainstream of the party. Aside from Paul, who are the non-interventionists? Where exactly is the fight? I don't mean to suggest that everyone in the Republican Party is a full-blown unreconstructed neocon. There's a continuum of opinion, just as there's always been. But as near as I can tell they're nearly all about as generally hawkish as they've ever been—and just as eager as ever to tar Democrats as a gang of feckless appeasers and UN lovers.

So: Is this intra-party fight real? Once you remove the Rand Paul PR machine from the equation, is there anything left? Or is it mostly an invention of bored Beltway reporters trying to drum up some conflict?

More Kids Die in Hot Cars Than I Would Have Guessed

| Thu Jul. 17, 2014 10:42 AM EDT

Over at Vox, today's headline reads:

How many kids die in hot cars? Not as many as you think.

It's accompanied by the chart on the right, which shows exactly how many children die after being locked in hot cars. And it's....actually higher than I would have guessed.

Why? I think it's a function of media cynicism. In the same way that the press overhypes child abductions, leading to insane suburban fears and the passage of _____'s Law all over the country, I figure that the press is so eager to highlight grisly stuff like this that it ends up being national news every single time it happens. If that's true, it would suggest that maybe three or four kids die in overheated cars each year. But no! My cynicism is (slightly) misplaced. In fact, only a small percentage of these deaths make the front page.

Now, granted, this is still less than one death per year in each state, which means it's not exactly a spiraling epidemic. Still, if you'd asked me, I think I would have guessed the number was around five or ten. I also would have guessed that all the media attention would have led to a decrease in these deaths, but the chart doesn't suggest that either. Apparently, scaring the hell out of people doesn't really cause them to be any more careful.

Student Loan Relief in Sight, Maybe

| Thu Jul. 17, 2014 9:52 AM EDT

Hooray! A new bipartisan bill has been introduced in the Senate to address the student loan crisis. It wouldn't actually reduce the amount that grads have to pay (you didn't expect that, did you), but it does make repayment easier by taking a program that already exists as an option and making it the default repayment plan. Jordan Weissmann reviews the details:

It looks pretty solid overall. All federal loan borrowers would be enrolled in an income-based program where they paid 10 percent of their earnings each month, with a $10,000 annual exemption. Meanwhile, the government would collect the money directly from workers’ paychecks, just like tax withholding. One potentially controversial part: It would forgive up to $57,500 worth of loans after 20 years, but anything above that amount wouldn’t be forgiven for 30 years. (The current Pay as You Earn repayment program forgives all debts after two decades.) But borrowers who don’t like the income-based option could opt out and set their own payment timetable.

And now for the bad news. The bill is sponsored by Democrat Mark Warner and Republican Marco Rubio. And as Weissmann puts it in a family-friendly rewrite of Jon Chait, "Rubio doesn’t have a sterling track record of selling his own party on bipartisan policy proposals." No, he doesn't, does he? But who knows. Maybe after ripping his political guts out over immigration reform, Republicans will throw him a bone by supporting this bill. It's not like it really costs any money to speak of, after all.

Then again, passing the bill would represent getting something done, and Republicans these days seem to be convinced that getting anything done makes government look efficient and responsive and therefore redounds to the credit of Democrats. And we can't have that, can we?

Obama Levies New Sanctions Against Russia. Europe Ponders Whether to Follow Suit.

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 6:48 PM EDT

We now have a response to Russia's latest military provocations in eastern Ukraine:

President Obama is ratcheting up pressure on Russia with new sanctions aimed at large banks and defense firms in what administration officials say is the most significant crackdown on Russian individuals and businesses since the crisis in Ukraine began.

....The new penalties come in coordination with European leaders now meeting in Brussels to contemplate their own sanctions against Russia. Those efforts are expected to center on obstructing loans to Russian interests from European development banks.

I'll be curious to see what the Europeans decide to do. For all the opportunistic griping from Republicans about Obama being too soft on Putin and inviting a new Cold War blah blah blah, it's always been European leaders who have been the obstacle to harsher sanctions against Russia. And since Russia does very little business with the US but does lots of business with Europe, American sanctions just don't matter that much unless the Europeans join in. Obama's hands are tied.

Of course, the very fact that Europe does lots of business with Russia means that sanctions hurt them a lot more than they hurt us. It's easy for Americans to be blustery and hawkish, safe in the knowledge that Russian retaliation can't really hurt us much. It's a lot less easy for Europeans.

That said, the fact is that Obama has been trying to take the lead on this for months. European leaders now need to decide if they're willing to join in. The ball's in their court.

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The Goal of "6 Californias" Remains a Mystery

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 2:42 PM EDT

Now that billionaire eccentric Tim Draper has gotten enough signatures to qualify his "Six Californias" initiative for the ballot in 2016, I can no longer imperiously demand that the media stop paying attention to him. If this is going to be a ballot measure then it's obviously a legitimate news story.

So a friend emailed this morning to ask what Draper's deal is. Beats me. Officially, his motivation is a belief that California is simply too big to govern. As plausible as this is, it's hardly a sufficient explanation. So what is it that's really eating him? Well, Draper is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, so a few months ago Time asked him about that particular sixth of California:

How would you like to see things done differently in Silicon Valley, if it had its own government?

The issues of Silicon Valley are things like when Napster came out. No one knew how the law should be handled. It was a new technology. And no one quite knew whether it had some violation of copyright or not ... And the people who were making those decisions were very distant, and not familiar with what Napster was. Now we have Bitcoin. We have very uncertain laws around Bitcoin. I believe if there were a government closer to Silicon Valley, it would be more in touch with those technologies and the need for making appropriate laws around them. Silicon Valley is seeing great frustration. They see how creative and efficient and exciting life can be in a place where innovation thrives, and then they see a government that is a little lost.

This makes no sense, since both copyright law and monetary policy are set in Washington DC, not Sacramento. But let's accept that Draper was just burbling a bit here, and not hold him to specifics. What's his beef? Basically, he appears to be retailing a strain of techno-libertarian utopianism or something. Information wants to be free! Technology will save us all! Just get government out of the way!

Or something. I don't know, really. The whole thing is crazy, and it's yet another example of how easy it is for billionaires to get publicity. Paying a signature-gathering firm to get something on the ballot in California is pretty trivial if you have a lot of money, and it automatically gets you a ton of exposure. So now Draper has that. But what's the end game? Even if his initiative passes, he knows perfectly well it's going nowhere since Congress will never approve it. So either (a) he's just a crackpot or (b) he has some clever reason for doing this that's going to make him even richer. It's a mystery.

Government Failures On the Rise? Take It With a Grain of Salt.

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 12:40 PM EDT

Paul Light has gotten a lot of attention for his recent study showing that "government failures" are on the rise. I've seen several criticisms of his study, but it seems to me that basic methodology is really the main problem with it. First off, his dataset is a list of "41 important past government failures (between 2001 – 2014) from a search of news stories listed in the Pew Research Center’s News Interest Index." Is that really a good way of determining the frequency of government failures? A list of headlines might be a good way of determining public interest, but it hardly seems like even a remotely good proxy for cataloging government failure in general.

For example, 2007 appears to be an epically bad year for government failure. But among the failures are "wounded soldiers," "food safety recalls," and "consumer product recalls." Those all seem a bit amorphous to count as distinct failures.

This methodology also mushes up timeframes. Fast & Furious is counted as a government failure in 2011, but that's just the year it made headlines. The operation itself ran from 2006-11. Likewise, the "postal service financing crisis" is hardly unique to 2011. It's been ongoing for years.

Some of the items don't even appear to be proper government failures. Was the Gulf oil spill in 2010 a government failure? Or the Southwest airline groundings? In both cases, you can argue—as Light does—that they exposed lax government oversight. But this basically puts you in the position of arguing that any failure in a regulated industry is a government failure. I'm not sure I buy that.

Finally, on the flip side, there are the things that don't show up. The government shutdown in 2013? The fiscal cliff? The debt ceiling standoffs? The collapse of the Copenhagen conference? Allowing Osama bin Laden to escape from Tora Bora? The scandalous demotion of Pluto to non-planet status?

Maybe I'm just picking nits here. But given the weakness of the core methodology; the small number of incidents; the problems of categorization; and the overall vagueness of what "failure" means, I'm just not sure this study tells us much. I'd take it with a big shaker of salt for the moment. It seems more like clickbait than a serious analysis of how well or poorly government has done over the past decade.

Why Can't We Teach Shakespeare Better?

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 11:11 AM EDT

After writing about a common misconception regarding a particular scene in Julius Caesar, Mark Kleiman offers a footnote:

Like many Boomers, I had to read Julius Caesar in the 10th grade; not really one of the Bard’s better efforts, but full of quotable passages and reasonably easy to follow. (As You Like It, by contrast, if read rather than watched, makes absolutely no sense to a sixteen-year-old; I was fortunate enough to see a performance a year or so later, but I suspect that some of my classmates never discovered that Shakespeare wrote great musicals.)

Brutus’s speech would have been a perfect scene to use as an example of dramatic irony. But I doubt my teacher had any idea what the passage was about, and the lit-crit we read as “secondary sources” disdained anything as straightforward as explaining what the play was supposed to mean or how the poet used dramatic techniques to express that meaning.

This was my experience too, but in college. I remember enrolling in a Shakespeare class and looking forward to it. In my case, I actually had a fairly good high school English teacher, but still, Shakespeare is tough for high schoolers. This would be my chance to really learn and appreciate what Shakespeare was doing.

Alas, no. I got an A in the class, but learned barely anything. It was a huge disappointment. To this day, I don't understand why Shakespeare seems to be so difficult to teach. Was I just unlucky?

Darrell Issa Is Unclear on the Concept of "Consultation"

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 1:06 AM EDT

Dana Milbank writes today about the unprecedented1 use of "unilateral" subpoenas issued by Darrell Issa as part of his endless series of Benghazi/IRS/Fast&Furious/Solyndra/etc. investigations. After reviewing the facts and figures that demonstrate just how reckless and partisan Issa is, he got this priceless response:

Issa’s deputy staff director, Frederick Hill, said Democrats as well as Republicans have used unilateral subpoenas. Hill also said that Issa, unlike his immediate predecessor Towns, consults with the minority before each subpoena.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to reenact for you Issa's "consultation" with the minority:

ISSA: Hey Elijah, I want to issue a subpoena to Lois Lerner's dentist as part of the IRS investigation. I think she might have gotten a reduced-price root canal in return for making sure he didn't get audited. You OK with that?

ELIJAH CUMMINGS: What? That's crazy. Of course I'm not OK with that.

ISSA: OK, great. I'm glad we had this chat. I'll issue the subpoena tomorrow.

Next up: Issa's office demands to know why an American Water Dog isn't good enough for the Obama family.

1Well, unprecedented except for the literally insane number of subpoenas issued by demented conspiracy theorist Dan Burton during the Clinton witch hunts of the 90s.