Kevin Drum

It's Time for Yet Another SAFE Act!

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 6:09 PM EST

I'm currently at my local infusion center getting my bones strengthened, but the miracle of modern technology means that I can blog even with an IV drip in my arm. Besides, it's only my left arm, and who needs that?

Anyway, today's subject is the SAFE Act. Congress has already passed two SAFE Acts and considered two more over the past couple of decades, so apparently it's a pretty popular acronym. This time around it stands for the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act, and it's a strange beast. It's designed to show that Congress is responding to the alleged threat from Syrian refugees, but it actually does nothing much at all. Vetting doesn't change, procedures don't change, and no limits are placed on the number of refugees we can accept. All it does is require the administration to formally certify the procedures already in place—and force three top officials to personally sign off on every Syrian or Iraqi refugee.

In other words, it's basically a fraud. It will create a short pause in the refugee program while some poor schmoe who draws the short straw goes through the makework of drafting the "certification" procedure and getting it approved, and that's about it.

President Obama has threatened to veto the bill, and Democratic leaders in Congress are opposed to it. Nonetheless, nearly 50 Dems voted for it in the House today. Depending on your tolerance for such things, they're either cowards or pragmatists. The Senate won't even take up the bill until December, and there's a good chance that refugee hysteria will have died down by then. So it may never even make it to the president's desk.

So what to think about this? I'd say you could reasonably look at it two ways:

  • It's a cowardly bill that panders to unwarranted fears instead of trying to calm them.
  • It's basically a craven but noble lie. It pretends to do something in order to mollify the masses and prevent something worse from passing, but it really does very little and is moving slowly enough that it might just die of its own accord.

Really it's both. It's cowardly for sure. On the other hand, refugees are the latest excuse for shutting down the government in a few weeks, and a bit of cheap symbolism might be a small price to pay for removing it. I wouldn't vote for this bill, and I certainly wouldn't speak in favor of a "pause" if I were part of the Democratic leadership team (lookin' at you, Chuck). But I also might decide it's not a hill to die for. Sometimes that's just how politics works.

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Illegal Immigration From Mexico Continues to Decline

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 2:41 PM EST

The latest Pew report on illegal immigration from Mexico shows that the flow of people across the southern border continues to slow. There are fewer immigrants coming to the US and there are fewer going back to Mexico. In total, the flow of people across the border has declined by a third over the past five years, and there are now more people leaving than coming. Pew estimates that the total population of unauthorized Mexican immigrants in the US has declined by 1.3 million since 2007.

Why? The slowing American economy, especially in border communities, is one reason. A desire to reunite with family members is another. Fewer connections in the US is yet another. And in terms of total immigration, Mexico is now only barely ahead of other countries, according to a question used in the American Community Survey:

Under this measure, 246,000 Mexicans, 195,000 Chinese and 199,000 Indians arrived in the U.S. in 2013 and 2012....Regardless of the exact number of new immigrants from each country arriving in the U.S. each year, the trends are clear: Over the past decade, immigration from China and India to the U.S. has increased steadily, while immigration from Mexico has declined sharply.

Keep this in mind the next time you hear Donald Trump or another Republican demagoging about walls and rapists and all the rest. Illegal immigration from Mexico is down substantially, and it's becoming a smaller problem every year, not a bigger one.

Here Is Hillary Clinton's Plan to Defeat ISIS

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 1:25 PM EST

Here's the Reader's Digest version of Hillary Clinton's plan for defeating ISIS:

It’s time to begin a new phase and intensify and broaden our efforts to smash the would-be caliphate and deny ISIS control of territory in Iraq and Syria. That starts with a more effective coalition air campaign....We need an immediate intelligence surge in the region, including technical assets, Arabic speakers with deep expertise in the Middle East and even closer partnership with regional intelligence services....We can and should support local and regional ground forces in carrying out this mission....We may have to give our own troops advising and training the Iraqis greater freedom of movement and flexibility.

....Ultimately, however, a ground campaign in Iraq will only succeed if more Iraqi Sunnis join the fight. But that won’t happen so long as they do not feel they have a stake in their country or confidence in their own security and capacity to confront ISIS....We need to lay the foundation for a second Sunni awakening. We need to put sustained pressure on the government in Baghdad to get its political house in order, move forward with national reconciliation.

....We should retool and ramp up our efforts to support and equip viable Syrian opposition units....Increased support from our Arab and European zones....create safe areas where Syrians could remain in the country, rather than fleeing toward Europe.

....Arab and Turkish partners....military intelligence and financial contributions....We need to get Turkey to stop bombing Kurdish fighters in Syria who are battling ISIS, and become a full partner in our coalition efforts against ISIS. The United States should also work with our Arab partners to get them more invested in the fight against ISIS.

For anybody who's been following this stuff, none of this should come as a surprise. At this point, I'd call it the conventional wisdom on ISIS: a stronger air campaign; local ground troops; political reconciliation in Baghdad; and better alliances with Turkey and our Arab allies. The truth is, this speech could have been given by any thoughtful Republican too. They would have spiced it up with a few more references to unspeakable evil and wars against civilization, and they would have pretended that all this stuff would be easy if we didn't have an appeaser in the White House, but the practical advice wouldn't differ much. As near as I can tell, that's because there just aren't many alternatives.

Now, the obvious problem is that all of this is easier said than done. A bigger air campaign is easy. But turning the Iraqi army into a competent fighting force is harder. Pressuring Baghdad to get its house in order is even harder. And a diplomatic solution in Syria that frees up local rebels to fight ISIS is so hard that I doubt we can do it.

So in a sense, this all boils down to competence. Roughly speaking, everyone agrees on the basic outline of what needs to be done. The question is which candidate is most likely to be able to do it. It's easy to figure out that, say, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz are at the bottom of that list. But who's at the top? Who do you trust the most to make progress on all this stuff? That's where the hammer and the nail finally meet.

The Press Needs to Stop Encouraging Republican Lunacy Toward Muslims

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 12:09 PM EST

Donald Trump is still Donald Trump, trying to gain attention by saying obviously outrageous things. But his latest outrage looks a little contrived. Here's the full context of his recent interview with Yahoo's Hunter Walker:

Yahoo News asked Trump whether his push for increased surveillance of American Muslims could include warrantless searches. He suggested he would consider a series of drastic measures.

“We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule,” Trump said. “And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”

Yahoo News asked Trump whether this level of tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion. He wouldn’t rule it out.

“We’re going to have to — we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely,” Trump said when presented with the idea. “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”

It would be one thing if Trump floated the idea himself of warrantless searches and special IDs. It's quite another if a reporter brings them up and Trump tap dances a little bit. Needless to say, in a better world Trump would have explicitly denounced all these ideas. Obviously we don't live in that world. Still, the only thing Trump actually said here is that we're going to have to look at a lot of things very closely. The rest was just a reporter fishing for a headline.

To state the obvious: no, we don't need to do anything that was "unthinkable" a year ago. As my colleague Miles Johnson notes, "of the 745,000 refugees resettled in the US since the September 11 terrorist attacks, only two have been arrested on terrorism-related charges." The American Muslim community has been instrumental in preventing jihadist violence in the US since 9/11, and to deliberately alienate them, as Trump and many other Republicans are proposing, is just about the most dangerous thing we could do.

We know how to fight dangerous people. We know how to fight terrorism. And we don't have to shred the Constitution to do it. Instead of fishing for headlines and stoking the latest round of fatuous fearmongering from Republicans, maybe we'd be better served if reporters started asking them hard questions instead.

Brennan Center: No "Crime Wave" in 2015

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 11:24 AM EST

Has there been an explosion of crime in 2015? It will take some time before official figures are available, so the Brennan Center decided to compile some unofficial figures through October. They surveyed the 30 largest cities and asked for both the murder rate and the overall "index" crime rate (murder and non-negligent manslaughter, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft). Their conclusion: the murder rate is up 11 percent while the overall crime rate is down 1.5 percent.

It's true that some cities have seen very large increases in their murder rates. But that's not uncommon. The base of murders is pretty small, so it doesn't take much to create a big spike in a single year. The overall crime rate, which has a much larger base, is usually more stable.

Any time the murder rate goes up, it's a good idea to be concerned. But murder rates have ticked up by 10 percent or so on several occasions in the past. There's just a lot of noise in the data. Overall, though, there's little evidence of any kind of explosion in either the murder rate or the crime rate. A few cities (Baltimore, DC, Denver, most of Texas) seem to have a serious problem, but that's about it.

When Will Republicans at Last Get Serious About National Security?

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 1:23 AM EST

Today the Wall Street Journal editorial page sings the praises of French President François Hollande:

French security forces Wednesday conducted hundreds of antiterror raids and placed more than 100 suspects under house arrest....Security forces found a weapons cache in the city of Lyon that included Kalashnikov rifles and a rocket launcher....France has some 11,500 names on government watch lists. Many are likely to be detained under the three-month state of emergency that Mr. Hollande declared after Friday’s attacks.

....Mr. Hollande has been right to declare war on Islamic State and order French bombing raids on its capital in eastern Syria. France is still a militarily capable nation, as it proved when it turned back an al Qaeda offensive in Mali in 2013. It can do significant damage to ISIS if it increases the tempo of its current bombing or deploys its Foreign Legion to liberate the city of Raqqa.

....Until America gets a new Commander in Chief, Mr. Hollande is the best antiterror leader the West has.

Hmmm. It's certainly true that Hollande has been among the most hawkish of European leaders. It's also true that France was one of the first to join the US air campaign against ISIS—though their military efforts so far have been little more than pinpricks. But let's roll the tape back to June 2014, when President Obama was first trying to put together a coalition. He and Hollande issued a joint communique with all the right promises, but as France 24 reported, "Behind that facade of unity, there are significant disagreements between the two countries about how best to respond to the recent bloody territorial surge by ISIS."

Why France is reluctant to act against ISIS in Iraq

On June 18, a meeting was held in the Elysee with the French Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs....For the moment, however, no military measures are planned....Moreover, "No one has asked for it”, added the same source. Requests for military assistance from Baghdad have so far been addressed to the international community or Washington, but "not specifically to France", as a foreign affairs spokesman pointed out on June 17.

....The lack of French enthusiasm for an armed intervention in Iraq, whether it be air strikes or sending military advisers to Baghdad, is due partly to fear that any intervention would be ineffective if it were not accompanied by a real commitment by the Iraqi government to act on sectarian tensions.

That's the best anti-terror leader the West has, according to the Journal. Nobody had "specifically" asked France, so Hollande decided to hang tight and see which way the wind was blowing.

This is the kind of thing that makes it so hard to talk about ISIS and terrorism. It's not as if this has been Obama's finest hour, after all, and it would be silly to suggest otherwise. But the opposition has generally been much worse. Obama waffled over Syria's use of chemical weapons, but then Congress bungled things further by refusing to approve Obama's call for retaliatory strikes—with both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio joining in. Obama may have been late to recognize the threat from ISIS, but he's still the guy who put together the coalition. France has been a good partner in the fight against ISIS, but that happened only after Obama spent some time cajoling them into action.

And Republicans simply can't be bothered to take any of this seriously. They blather about Obama being weak, but when you ask them for their plans you just get nonsense. They demand "leadership"; they bask in cheap applause lines about a bigger military; they all chime in like puppets to agree on a no-fly zone; they suggest we stop worrying about civilian casualties; they propose more arms for the Kurds; they want to team up with Sunni tribal leaders without saying how they'd accomplish it; and they vaguely imply that we should bomb ISIS differently....or more....or with greater determination....or something.

None of this is remotely serious. A bigger military wouldn't affect ISIS. A no-fly zone wouldn't affect ISIS. Killing civilians would actively help ISIS. The Kurds aren't going to fight ISIS in Sunni territory. Sunni leaders aren't going to be reliable allies until they trust Baghdad to treat them equitably. And sure, we could bomb more, but there's not much point until we have the ground troops to back it up. But Republicans have been unanimously opposed to American troops all along, and Iraqi ground troops flatly aren't yet willing or able to do the job.

I hardly want to be in the position of pretending that Obama's ISIS strategy has been golden. But Republicans make him look like Alexander the Great. They treat the whole subject like a plaything, a useful cudgel during a presidential campaign. Refugees! Kurds! Radical Islam! We need to be tougher!

That isn't leadership. It barely even counts as coherent thought. It's just playground jeering. But right now, that's all we're getting from them.

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Jeb Bush Has Missed a Chance to Revitalize His Campaign

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 10:13 PM EST

I'm just noodling around here, but I wonder if Jeb Bush has blown a chance over the past few days. See, I figure his only hope of winning is to let everyone else fight it out for a share of the tea party vote while he gets the lion's share of the other half of the Republican Party. If he's the one guy who appeals to moderate Republicans, he can win.

Now, generally speaking, Jeb has been more moderate than the rest of the field in response to the Paris attacks. But should he have gone further? It wouldn't have been hard. Make a real case for taking in refugees. Propose a serious, conservative plan for dealing with ISIS instead of resorting to jingoism and shibboleths. Criticize the other candidates for fearmongering. Maybe even say that he agrees with President Obama that it's long past time for Congress to act on an authorization for military force against ISIS.

A serious, measured approach like this from a Republican candidate would have been so different, so unexpected, that it could have gotten him some real attention. The press would have swooned. Moderate conservatives would have noticed. Bush would have stood out from the field for the first time. And it would have played to his strengths instead of forcing him into a Trumpesque mold that he's obviously uncomfortable with.

And as an added bonus, it would have been the right thing to do. What's not to like?

Shopping Around Is the Key to Low Prices in Obamacare

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 7:56 PM EST

Abby Goodnough writes today about switching health care coverage each year during Obamacare's year-end open enrollment period:

The Obama administration is encouraging switching as a way to avoid steep increases in premiums — and to promote competition among insurers, as the law intends. Next year will be no different: The price of plans will rise in most states, and the administration says that 86 percent of people who currently have coverage through the federal exchange can find a better deal by switching.

“This may be just one of those environments where there’s a new normal,” said Sabrina Corlette, a professor at the Health Policy Institute of Georgetown University.

For many consumers, the volatility in the markets has been a source of anxiety and disruption. To have any choice at all is a welcome development, many say. But switching plans is also becoming an unwelcome ritual, akin to filing taxes, that is time-consuming and can entail searching for new doctors and hospitals each year.

This is unquestionably a downside to encouraging competition in the health insurance marketplace. As carriers jostle for position, the lowest-price coverage is going to change from year to year—and if you're a price-sensitive shopper, that means your coverage is going to change from year to year too.

I suspect this problem will settle down after a couple more years, as insurance companies get more experience with the Obamacare pool and get better at pricing their policies. In the meantime, though, it really does pay to shop around. A new Kaiser study of 2016 rate increases provides some concrete numbers. If you bought the cheapest silver plan in 2015 and then you stick with it in 2016, your premium may go up quite a bit. But if you shop around for the plan that has the lowest price in 2016, your premium will barely change at all. The chart on the right tells the story. For low-income buyers, shopping around means virtually no premium increase at all. For middle-income buyers, it means a larger but still pretty modest increase.

Moral of the story: If price is a major issue for you, shop around! It's a pain in the ass, but it pays off.

Even in the Hands of an Expert, Mockery Is Tough to Control

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 3:55 PM EST

I sort of promised myself that I wasn't going to comment again on the whole mockery thing, but President Obama's remarks yesterday are a pretty interesting case study of both the strength and weakness of mockery as a political tool. First, here's what he said about refugees at a press conference in the Philippines. I have a reason for including a very long excerpt, but feel free to skim it since the details aren't that important:

Because you have this vibrant, modern, open, diverse, tolerant Western city that reminds us of home, that reminds us of our own cafes and our own parks and our own stadiums, I understand why the American people have been particularly affected by the gruesome images that have happened there.

And it is important for us to be reminded that we have to be vigilant, that rooting out these terrorist networks and protecting the homeland is hard work, and we can't be complacent or lulled into thinking somehow that we are immune from these kinds of attacks. That's why we built an entire infrastructure over the last decade-plus to make it much harder for terrorists to attack us; to go after terrorists where they live and plan these attacks; to coordinate with our partners and our allies; to improve our intelligence. All the work that we've been doing in our intelligence communities and our military over the last decade is in recognition of the fact that this is something we should be concerned about and we've got to work hard to prevent it.

But we are not well-served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic. We don't make good decisions if it's based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks. I think the refugee debate is an example of us not being well-served by some of the commentary that’s been taking place by officials back home and in the media.

Understand, under current law, it takes anywhere from, on average, 18 to 24 months to clear a refugee to come into the United States. They are subjected to the most rigorous process conceivable. The intelligence community vets fully who they are. Biometrics are applied to determine whether they are, in fact, somebody who might threaten the United States. There is an entire apparatus of all of our law enforcement agencies and the center that we use for countering terrorism to check and ensure that a refugee is not admitted that might cause us harm.

And, if anything, over the last several years that the refugee crisis has emerged in Europe, we’ve been criticized that it is so cumbersome that it’s very difficult for us to show the kind of compassion that we need to for these folks who are suffering under the bombings of Assad and the attacks of ISIL. They’re victims of this terrorism.

And so if there are concrete, actual suggestions to enhance this extraordinary screening process that’s already in place, we’re welcome — we’re open to hearing actual ideas. But that’s not really what’s been going on in this debate. When candidates say, we wouldn't admit three-year-old orphans  that’s political posturing. When individuals say that we should have a religious test and that only Christians — proven Christians  should be admitted  that’s offensive and contrary to American values.
I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here during the course of this debate. ISIL seeks to exploit the idea that there is a war between Islam and the West. And when you start seeing individuals in positions of responsibility, suggesting that Christians are more worthy of protection than Muslims are in a war-torn land, that feeds the ISIL narrative. It’s counterproductive, and it needs to stop.

OK. Got that? That was the first two minutes of Obama's remarks. He acknowledged the problem. He also acknowledged that a renewed fear of terrorism in the wake of the Paris attacks was understandable. He explained that our screening process for Syrian refugees is extremely stringent. He said he didn't want to play into the hands of ISIS by stoking fear of Islam, and he criticized politicians who did so. No mockery. Just plenty of education and some tough words for partisan fearmongers.

Then he said this:

And I would add, by the way, these are the same folks oftentimes who suggest that they’re so tough that just talking to Putin or staring down ISIL, or using some additional rhetoric somehow is going to solve the problems out there. But apparently, they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America as part of our tradition of compassion. First, they were worried about the press being too tough on them during debates. Now they’re worried about three-year-old orphans. That doesn’t sound very tough to me.

That's mockery. And here's the problem. Obama started off by speaking for a full two minutes calmly and rationally—exactly what I think he should have done. Then he briefly offered up a bit of mockery. I actually think that's OK too because it was prefaced with a deep and sustained acknowledgement of the problem at hand.

But can you guess how much of that first two minutes has been quoted? Can you guess how much of the mockery has been quoted? That's right: barely any of the former and mountains of the latter.

This is hardly surprising. The explanatory stuff is boring. How many of you read it all the way through? The mockery, on the other hand, is short and it makes great copy. Of course that's what everyone is going to focus on.

On the bright side, this means Obama got some press and the liberal base got stoked. On the downside, it means that your average reader got the impression that Obama tossed out a few jibes at Chris Christie and Ted Cruz and that was it. You don't even have to quote him out of context to make it look like he doesn't really care much about fears of refugees.

That's the risk of using mockery. Used on its own, it makes ordinary people feel like you're clueless and condescending. But even if you do it right, as Obama did, the way it's reported can end up having the same effect. And that effect is exactly the opposite of what liberals would like to accomplish. So if you care about the real world, and you care about public opinion, keep the mockery to a minimum. That doesn't mean you can't fight back, and it doesn't mean you have to go easy on the fearmongers. You can do both. Just do it in a way that doesn't immediately turn off the very people you'd like to persuade.

The SALt Lamp Explained

| Wed Nov. 18, 2015 2:36 PM EST

You might have seen this in the New York Times today:

The president hosted a discussion of climate change at the chief executives’ forum along with Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, and Aisa Mijeno, a Filipino entrepreneur who invented a lamp that runs on saltwater.

In response to a question about her lamp from Mr. Obama, Ms. Mijeno said that it provided about eight hours of light, as well as power to a USB port for charging a phone. “And all you need to do is you just have to replenish the saltwater solution,” she said, “and then you have another eight hours of lighting.”

Just saltwater? Doesn't that seem like it violates some kind of energy conservation law?

Yes and no. The SALt lamp uses a fairly ordinary galvanic battery that consists of two electrodes and an electrolyte solution of salty water. Replenishing the saltwater will indeed get the lamp going again, but you also need to replace the anode every six months or so. There's no magic here, but there is a substantial engineering challenge. "It is made of tediously experimented and improved chemical compounds, catalysts, and metal alloys that when submerged in electrolytes will generate electricity," Mijeno explained earlier this year.

The other challenge is being able to manufacture the lamp so that it's reliable, cheap, and easy to maintain. If Mijeno's lamp works as advertised, it will produce about 90 lumens of light at a cost of $20, plus $3 every six months for a replacement anode. It's designed for areas with no electricity grid, and should be safer than kerosene lamps. She hopes to have it on the market in 2016.