Kevin Drum

The Rest of the World Is Pretty Happy With President Obama's Handling of World Affairs

| Wed Jun. 24, 2015 12:36 PM EDT

President Obama has had his ups and downs on the world stage. Libya didn't turn out so well. There's been no progress between Israel and the Palestinians. Vladimir Putin continues to be annoying. Still, all things considered, he hasn't done badly. He's started some new wars, but none as horrifically bad for US interests as George Bush's. He appears to have managed passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He negotiated the NEW START treaty with Russia. He's mostly stayed out of Syria, despite endless braying from Republicans. The pivot to Asia has been moderately successful. And he might yet sign a treaty that will halt Iran's nuclear bomb program, though it still looks like no more than a 50-50 proposition to me.

But enough about me. What does the rest of the world think of Obama? According to a new Pew poll, they think surprisingly well of him. Obama's foreign policy is astonishingly well regarded in France, Italy, and Germany—and surprisingly, although his numbers are down from last year, he still does reasonably well in Israel too. And here I thought Obama was universally hated in Israel because he had betrayed them to their enemies thanks to his preoccupation with sucking up to Muslims. I guess that'll teach me to listen to Republicans.

Obama bombs in a few countries too, notably Russia, Jordan, and Pakistan. Russia and Pakistan are easy to understand, but what's the deal with Jordan? I don't quite remember what we've done to piss them off.

China is surprisingly positive: 44-41 percent approval. The rest of Asia is strongly positive, probably because they trust Obama to stand up to China.

Anyway, Obama's median approval throughout the world is a surprisingly healthy 65-27 percent. He could only wish for such strong approval at home.

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Home Weatherization Not As Good a Deal As We Thought

| Wed Jun. 24, 2015 11:48 AM EDT

Brad Plumer passes along some bad news on the effectiveness of residential energy efficiency upgrades. A massive controlled test in Michigan showed that it doesn't pay for itself:

The researchers found that the upfront cost of efficiency upgrades came to about $5,000 per house, on average. But their central estimate of the benefits only amounted to about $2,400 per household, on average, over the lifetime of the upgrades. Yes, the households were using 10 to 20 percent less energy for electricity and heating than before — but that was only half the savings that had been expected ahead of time. And households weren't saving nearly enough on their utility bills to justify the upfront investment.

The culprit appears to be the real world. Engineering studies suggest that residential upgrades should pay for themselves in lower energy costs within a few years, but in real life the quality of the upgrades is never as good as the engineering studies assume:

These engineering studies may not always capture the messiness of the real world. It's easy to generate ideal conditions in a lab. But outside the lab, homes are irregularly shaped, insulation isn't always installed by highly skilled workers, and there are all sorts of human behaviors that might reduce the efficacy of efficiency investments.

....In this particular study, the economists found that the federal home weatherization program was not a particularly cheap way to reduce CO2 emissions. Although energy use (and hence carbon pollution) from the homes studied did go down, it came at a cost of about $329 per ton of carbon. That's much higher than the $38-per-ton value of the social cost of carbon that the US federal government uses to evaluate cost-effective climate policies.

Back to the drawing board.

Even Wisconsin's Republicans Are Getting Tired of Scott Walker

| Tue Jun. 23, 2015 5:04 PM EDT

Our story so far in America's laboratories of democracy: Over the past few years, Republican governors have been eagerly implementing big tax cuts, insisting that they will supercharge their states' economies and increase revenue instead of reducing it. Kansas was the poster child for this experiment, and it failed miserably. Louisiana has been a disaster too. Now comes Wisconsin, where fellow Republicans are getting a little tired of Governor Scott Walker's denial of reality:

Leaders of Mr. Walker’s party, which controls the Legislature, are balking at his demands for the state’s budget. Critics say the governor’s spending blueprint is aimed more at appealing to conservatives in early-voting states like Iowa than doing what is best for Wisconsin.

Lawmakers are stymied over how to pay for road and bridge repairs without raising taxes or fees, which Mr. Walker has ruled out. The governor’s fellow Republicans rejected his proposal to borrow $1.3 billion for the roadwork, arguing that adding to the state’s debt is irresponsible.

Oh man. Been there, done that. This was also Arnold Schwarzenegger's solution to a budget hole created by his own tax cuts, and it didn't work out so well. It turns out that spending is spending, whether you pay for it now or later.

As in so many other states, even Republican legislators are starting to glom onto the fact that if you cut taxes, you're pretty likely to create a big budget hole. Unfortunately for them, they're learning that there's only so far you can go in crapping on the poor to close the hole.1 At some point, you have to start cutting back on stuff you approve of too, like roads and bridges. But Walker doesn't care. He's got a presidential run coming up, and he wants to be able to say he didn't raise taxes. If that means playing "let's pretend" and borrowing the money instead, he's OK with that.

On the bright side, at least it's better than the childishness that Bobby Jindal came up with. And borrowing costs are low right now. So I guess things could be worse.

1Though in Wisconsin's case, Walker's signature move for crapping on the poor has been to refuse Obamacare's Medicaid expansion. This will cost Wisconsin $345 million over the next two years, making their budget hole even worse. That's how much Walker wants to crap on the poor.

Waiters Now Have Yet Another Gripe to Contend With

| Tue Jun. 23, 2015 2:03 PM EDT

Roberto Ferdman writes today about the "most annoying restaurant trend happening today." But when I got around to reading it, I was a little surprised by how it ended:

Without my permission, restaurants have abandoned, or simply overlooked, a classic tenet of service etiquette....Rather than clear plates once everyone at the table has finished the meal, which has long been the custom, servers instead hover over diners, fingers twitching, until the very instant someone puts down a fork. Like vultures, they then promptly snatch up the silverware — along with everything else in front of the customer. If you're lucky, they might ask permission before stealing your plate.

....It's possible that there's an economic impetus behind it. "The price of land is going up, which pushes up the value of each table," said [Tyler] Cowen. "That makes moving people along more important."

....But maybe waiters are clearing individual plates because they believe that's what customers want. I have heard as much from servers and restaurateurs.

No excuse, however, should suffice. Publicly, restaurants might argue that they are trying to avoid clutter; privately, they might encourage waiters to speed tables along; but what it amounts to is an uncomfortable dining experience.

Wait. What? "No excuse should suffice"? If Ferdman dislikes this trend, that's fine. But if, in fact, most diners prefer having their places cleared when they've finished eating, that sure seems like a more than sufficient reason for this classic tenet of service etiquette to hit the bricks. It's not as if it came down on a tablet from Mount Sinai, after all. Surely the most basic tenet of service etiquette is to make customers as comfortable and satisfied as possible. If, in the 21st century, it turns out that this requires waiters to remove place settings quickly, then that's what they should do, even if a small minority dislikes it.

Now personally, I think the most annoying restaurant trend happening today is that all the restaurants I like have gone out of business. It's eerie as hell. Almost literally, every restaurant that Marian and I used to eat at regularly has closed, to be replaced by some horrible trendy chain outlet. Our favorite Chinese place is gone. And our favorite Mexican place. Our favorite pizza place. Our favorite Italian place. Our second-favorite pizza place. And probably a few others I've forgotten about. There are basically only two of our favorites left, and they don't seem like they're about to go out of business, but who knows?

It's my own fault, of course, for living in Irvine, where the Irvine Company owns all the land and basically prices out of business anything except profitable chain stores. It's surely no coincidence that of the two restaurants still standing, one is outside Irvine and the other is about a hundred yards from the city limit. I made my bed, now I have to lie in it.

POSTSCRIPT: Back on the original topic, Ferdman's piece has gotten me curious about something. I don't go to a lot of high-end restaurants, but I do go to a few now and again. And unless my memory is playing tricks on me (always a possibility), it's always been the custom to remove plates when diners are finished, not all at once when everyone is finished. Is this a Southern California thing? Is it a matter of how high-end the restaurant is? I eat at expensive places on occasion, but virtually never at the kind of truly pricey places where you have to wait a month for a reservation. Help me out here. Why is it that removing place settings individually strikes me as normal, not a crime against proper etiquette?

Fast Track Passes. TPP Now Nearly Certain to Pass Too.

| Tue Jun. 23, 2015 12:27 PM EDT

Well, it looks like the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty is in business. The standalone fast-track bill just passed the Senate by a hair, 60-37. Several Republicans defected and voted no even though they had voted yes the first time around, but only one Democrat defected. So now it goes to President Obama's desk, where he'll sign it.

Next up is a standalone Trade Adjustment bill, which Democrats killed the first time around because it was linked to fast track, which meant that voting no killed fast track. This time around, however, Democrats will presumably go ahead and vote for it since voting no will no longer stop fast track. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have both promised to bring it up for a vote and to do their best to whip enough Republican votes for it to pass. If it doesn't, Democrats will be furious at having been conned, and might take this out by voting no on TPP itself when it comes to the floor. This gives Boehner and McConnell plenty of motivation to get it passed, and I think they will.

This still doesn't guarantee that TPP itself will have smooth sailing. However, it takes only a simple majority to pass, so there would have to be quite a few defections to kill it. Still, there's time. Once the full text finally becomes public, I expect a full-court press from anti-TPP forces in both parties. I'd give it a 90 percent chance of passage at this point, but there's still a glimmer of hope for opponents.

Three Things I Don't Care About

| Tue Jun. 23, 2015 12:09 PM EDT

There are lots of topics I don't write about (or write very little about), and normally nobody notices. Or, if they do, they don't know why I haven't written about any particular one of them. Maybe it's just uninteresting to me. Maybe I've gotten temporarily bored by it. Maybe I don't know enough about it. Maybe I can't think of anything interesting to say that hasn't already been said. Could be lots of reasons.

That said, here are three things I haven't written about, and probably won't:

Should we call Dylann Roof a terrorist? In the dim past, back when we used to blog earnestly about such things, I always argued that this was a silly distraction. You can call members of Al-Qaeda terrorists or extremists or militants or whatever. For Republicans, this eventually became some kind of weird litmus test designed to show that Democrats were appeasers, and it was ridiculous. Ditto today, coming from the Democratic side. Call Roof a terrorist if you want, or call him a madman or a racist psychopath. I don't care.

The pope on climate change. I'm not Catholic. I'm not even Christian. Pope Francis seems like a relatively good guy as popes go, but I don't care what he thinks about much of anything. I'm certainly not going to opportunistically start now just because he happens to be saying something I agree with.

Donald Trump. Oh please.

That's it. We'll soon be back to our regularly scheduled program of stuff I do write about.

IMPORTANT NOTE! I almost forget to add a caveat that's critical in the blogosphere: this is just me. Everyone else should feel free to write about all these things. This post should not be taken as a personal condemnation of anyone who chooses to do so. First Amendment. De gustibus. Etc.

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Scott Walker: Too Sincere For Wall Street?

| Tue Jun. 23, 2015 11:23 AM EDT

I've mentioned before that Republicans often get a pass from reporters when they endorse militantly conservative positions in stemwinding speeches. It's because no one truly takes them seriously. It seems more like a sign of tribal affiliation than a genuine commitment to doing anything.

Today, however, Matt Yglesias points me to a Washington Post story about Scott Walker's fundraising, which shows that he might have the opposite problem among some rich donors:

The same-sex marriage issue has caused Walker problems among some donor groups, however, particularly Republicans in New York. “Sometimes you can say something and people think you don’t mean it, and sometimes you can say something and people think you mean it,” said one Republican who has seen this tension play out. “When Barack Obama said he’s against gay marriage in 2008, people didn’t think he meant it. But when Scott says it, people think he means it. This is a very big stumbling block for him on Wall Street.”

I didn't realize that same-sex marriage was such a hot button among the Wall Street set, but live and learn. Nor did I realize the Wall Street set was credulous enough to think that even if Walker is a true believer, he has the slightest chance of getting a constitutional amendment passed. The latter, however, would go a long way toward explaining a few things. I've always heard that bankers were really naive about politics, and maybe it's actually true. I guess they're too busy figuring out socially damaging ways to make money to be bothered learning.

TPP Looks Set to Pass Congress After All

| Mon Jun. 22, 2015 10:53 PM EDT

The LA Times reports the latest on the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty:

President Obama's fast-track trade bill is poised to clear a procedural hurdle Tuesday in the Senate, all but ensuring it will win final passage this week and be sent to the White House for his signature.

Despite deep reservations from many in the president's party, enough Democratic senators appear ready to join most Republicans to finish the legislation, which has sputtered in Congress but is a top White House priority.

How about that? It's apparently not dead after all.

When it failed on its first go-around, it was universally described as a rebuke to President Obama. If it passes this time, it will have to be a rebuke to someone else. But who? Nancy Pelosi? All the anti-TPP Democrats? Big labor? Gotta be someone, right?

Republicans Oppose Evidence-Based Medical Research Because....Obamacare

| Mon Jun. 22, 2015 3:53 PM EDT

Over at the Monkey Cage, Eric Patashnik ponders an oddity: Republicans generally support healthcare research funding, but they've turned against the idea of funding evidence-based research. This is despite the fact that Republicans, who normally support ways to spend tax dollars more efficiently, have been firm supporters for more than two decades? What's going on?

One possible reason is that Republicans oppose taxpayer funding of all scientific research as a matter of principle. Yet the same House Appropriations Committee draft bill that targets health services research also provides a $1.1 billion increase in the budget of the National Institutes of Health.

A second possible reason is that Republicans are uninterested in evidence-based policymaking. But both Democrats and Republicans argue that better information is needed to make government more effective. For example, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (R-Wash.) recently introduced the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act of 2015 to evaluate the effectiveness of federal programs.

Hah hah. He's just kidding. Patashnik actually knows perfectly well why Republicans have decided they hate evidence-based research. Remember death panels? Remember how the federal government was going to decide which treatments were worth giving to grandma and which ones weren't? Remember how Republicans decided that "comparative effectiveness" research was just a tricky Democratic facade for their effort to take treatment decisions out of the hands of your beloved local doctor and instead put them into the hands of green-eyeshade bureaucrats?

Oh yeah. You remember. Here's Patashnik on what happened to evidence-based research:

Federal investment in this research (although it predated the 2008 election) became closely tied to the Obama administration’s health-care reform agenda....An increased federal role in comparative effectiveness research, together with payments to physicians for voluntary counseling to Medicare patients about end-of-life options and the creation of the Independent Payment Advisory Board (another agency the GOP wishes to kill) contributed to the “death panels” myth, which Republicans have used to frame health-care reform as “rationing.”

....Although evidence-based medicine might seem likely to have bipartisan support, it has become a partisan issue among voters. In 2010, Alan Gerber, David Doherty, Conor Dowling and I conducted a national survey to gauge public support for government funding of research on the effectiveness of treatments. Among those who reported not voting in 2008, there was not a large difference in support across Democrats and Republicans, but there were significant partisan differences among voters. Republican voters were much less supportive than Democrats. During the debates over the stimulus bill and health-care reform, the two parties took opposing stands on the federal government’s role in this effort, which led to the significant partisan split among politically engaged citizens.

So there you have it. Sarah Palin's revenge. Common sense commitments to promoting evidence-based medicine became tied up in the Republican jihad against anything associated with Obamacare. So now it's on the chopping block too. Welcome to the modern GOP.

Money in Politics Is....Top Concern of Democrats. Republicans Continue Not to Care.

| Mon Jun. 22, 2015 1:14 PM EDT

I went out for my morning walk today—two-thirds of a mile, woo hoo!—and needed to take a ten-minute break when I got home. So I'm listening to Andrea Mitchell tell me the stunning news that in the latest NBC/WSJ poll, a full 33% of Americans say that money in politics is their top concern about the upcoming presidential election. Specifically, 33% chose as their top concern, "Wealthy individuals and corporations will have too much influence over who wins."

Is that higher than usual? I suppose, though it hardly seems like the makings of a revolution. That's especially true when you see the partisan breakdown:

Democrats were most likely to cite the influence of corporations and wealthy individuals as the top concern, with roughly half of self-described liberals and Democratic primary voters ranking it as their primary anxiety as the 2016 White House race gears up. Only 21% of core Republican voters said it was their top concern.

So....Democrats are upset about money in politics as usual. Republicans don't really care much, as usual. I hope nobody minds too much if I find this a bit of a yawn.