Kevin Drum

The American Public Is Becoming Ever More Rabid for War Against ISIS

| Thu Feb. 19, 2015 11:22 AM EST

It sure isn't hard to gin Americans into a war fever. President Obama isn't even trying, but support for sending U.S. ground troops back into Iraq to fight ISIS continues to grow. According to a new CBS News poll, it now stands at 57 percent.

It's not just conservatives, either. Democrats favor sending in ground troops by a margin of 50-43 percent. We're only a few public beheadings away from two-thirds approval margins among all groups, which is something of a magic number. If we reach that point, President Obama and congressional Democrats might decide—reluctantly or otherwise—that they have to change course and send in a substantial ground force.

This would probably be a disaster. The most optimistic scenario is that Graeme Wood is right, and the ISIS folks are such nutters that they'd welcome a final, conventional showdown against the forces of the West:

The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo....It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam.

....Now that it has taken Dabiq, the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse....If the United States were to invade, the Islamic State’s obsession with battle at Dabiq suggests that it might send vast resources there, as if in a conventional battle. If the state musters at Dabiq in full force, only to be routed, it might never recover.

That's a battle we could pretty easily win. But if it turns out the leadership of ISIS isn't quite as daft and millenarian as Wood says, then the only way to defeat ISIS would be in grisly house-to-house fighting in Sunni strongholds like Mosul. We already know that U.S. troops can't do that effectively, and neither can the predominantly Shia troops controlled by Iraq. It would be a long, grinding, disaster of a war.

But apparently the American public hasn't quite internalized that yet. They're becoming more and more enraged about ISIS, and they want to do something. That's a bad combination.

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Obamacare Will Cover About 19 Million People This Year

| Wed Feb. 18, 2015 4:52 PM EST

With the signup deadline now past, we have a pretty good idea of how many people will be getting health care coverage via Obamacare in 2015. Here's a rough estimate:

The Medicaid number will rise throughout the year, and is higher if you use a looser way of counting. Needless to say, it would also be higher if all the holdout states joined in. For now, though, using a strict count just through February, the Obamacare total stands at about 18.6 million people—and will likely rise a bit more thanks to state extensions of the deadline. So call it 19 million or so.

That's a lot of people. If you got into politics to help actual people with actual problems, you should be damn proud of voting for the Affordable Care Act in 2010. No other legislation of at least the past two decades even comes close to its real-world impact.

Here's a Surprisingly Simple Reason that New Regulation Might Spur the Creation of More Startups

| Wed Feb. 18, 2015 2:30 PM EST

Earlier this morning I wrote about a new study suggesting that new federal regulation doesn't inhibit the creation of new startup companies in an industry. In fact, it might actually stimulate the creation of startups. This seems counterintuitive, but a reader with some experience in the education and health care sectors—which were influenced by NCLB and Obamacare, respectively—proposes an explanation for this:

Healthcare startups have absolutely exploded post-ACA....This was pretty well anticipated by venture capital; a bunch of Sand Hill firms started putting together ad-hoc health IT teams shortly after the ACA was passed, on the basic logic that anything that changed an industry as much as the ACA did would necessarily create a lot of startup opportunities.

I worked in education research shortly after the passage of NCLB, and while I can't speak to this nearly as confidently as I can speak to the current healthcare startup landscape, it at least seemed to me that a lot of startups sprung up to help schools/districts/states etc. adapt to the new law.

The general principle I've taken from this is that federal regulation, or at least major federal regulation, changes the landscape of its target industries enough to increase startup opportunities, because incumbents are slow to adapt for all the same reasons incumbents are usually slow to adapt to change. Entrepreneurs and startup investors have a pretty good sense of that dynamic.

This seems pretty plausible. Any major change, whether it's a technological change or a regulatory change, creates a new landscape. And big incumbents are usually slow to react, regardless of where the change came from. This gives startups an opportunity to dive in and take advantage of the change faster than existing firms.

This doesn't mean that regulatory change is necessarily either beneficial or harmful. It might be generally beneficial on the theory that nearly anything which shakes up an industry ends up being useful. Or it might be generally harmful because startups addressing regulatory change don't really add any long-term value. That's a question for another day. Either way, though, it's change, and that might be reason enough to expect an increase in startup activity whenever new federal regulations are introduced.

Testing for Marijuana-Impaired Driving Is About to Get a Whole Lot Easier

| Wed Feb. 18, 2015 1:06 PM EST

This is just a tidbit, but it's an interesting one. Here's the background: Legalized marijuana, which is pretty obviously gaining ground steadily, leads to higher marijuana use (duh) and thus to higher rates of driving while stoned. Or does it? The problem is that THC remains in your system for a week or more after you've smoked a joint, so even if you test positive at a roadside stop it doesn't necessarily mean that you're stoned now—or even that you've smoked within the past day, let alone the past few hours. As a result, drivers who are perfectly safe run the risk of being unfairly convicted of impaired driving, while drivers who are stoned can often escape conviction if they have a good lawyer.

Today, Keith Humphreys passes along the news that this might be about to change. It's from a study in the Journal of Analytic Toxicology:

The JAT paper evaluated a different approach which may resolve these problems: Oral fluid sampling. The driver suspected of impairment is mouth swabbed at roadside and the saliva is placed in a machine, which rapidly prints out a result. This technology is fairer than urinalysis because it is only sensitive to recent marijuana use rather than use that happened a day ago or a week ago.

Of the devices the researchers tested in the study, the Dräger Drug Test 5000 had the best results. Assuming it doesn’t cost a mint, this technology could be a breakthrough for law enforcement as well as an important civil rights protection for people suspected of drug-impaired driving.

Like I said, just a tidbit. But an interesting one, especially given the obvious trajectory of marijuana legalization in America. If this technology pans out, it makes studies of marijuana-impaired driving more feasible and it removes one more argument from the arsenal of anti-legalizers.

The Military Drone Mart Is Now Open For Business

| Wed Feb. 18, 2015 11:50 AM EST

The aerospace industry has finally won its long, twilight struggle to sell drones overseas:

The Obama administration unveiled a new policy Tuesday allowing foreign allies to buy military drones, a move that could have potentially far-reaching implications for global security partnerships and the U.S. aerospace industry.

....U.S. officials suggested the drone sales could become a new tool for expanding American influence overseas. “We are interested in building strong and capable international partners,” said a senior State Department official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the policy. “Now we have established a process that will help build those partnerships through the acquisition of this technology.”

What could go wrong? Nothing, of course, because we'll be keeping a sharp eye out for abuses:

Each country eager to buy U.S.-made drone technology would also be required to agree to “end-use monitoring and potential additional security conditions.” Those restrictions would be designed to limit potential misuse of drones, such as attacks against a country's own civilian population.

In fairness, America has always sold loads of lethal technology to its allies, and this was probably inevitable. Once a technology becomes available, it's going to spread one way or another. As a result, governments everywhere will be soon able to conduct warfare against weaker states without any of the restraints that possible loss of lives provides today. Progress!

Here's an Odd Result: Strict Regulation Apparently Doesn't Hamper Startup Growth

| Wed Feb. 18, 2015 11:17 AM EST

Does government regulation of an industry impede the creation rate of new startups, and thus reduce innovation and dynamism? Alex Tabarrok passes along a fascinating little nugget of research on the subject:

Could regulation be increasing barriers to entry, raising the costs of reallocation, and slowing the diffusion of productivity innovations? To test the hypothesis that regulation is reducing dynamism Nathan Goldschlag and I combined data on dynamism with an industry level measure of regulation.

Our measure of regulation is produced by an innovative technique that combs the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) for restrictive terms or phrases such as “shall,” “must,” “may not,” “prohibited,” and “required”. The count of restrictive words in each section is then associated to industries via a machine learning algorithm that recognizes similarities between the language in that CFR section and industry language (e.g. a section of the text with words such as “pipeline” would be associated with the oil and gas industry). In this way, we can associate each industry with an index of regulation derived from the entire CFR.

Now, I have some doubts about this. For starters, it's limited to federal regulation. State regulation is the big player in some industries. It also doesn't really test the nature of the various regulations. A routine requirement to submit quarterly tax information gets the same weight as a heavily intrusive requirement to raise capital levels or monitor pollutant levels. Finally, that machine learning algorithm better be pretty good. Is it?

Still, despite these caveats, it's an interesting approach. And what Tabarrok and Goldschlag found was the opposite of what they expected. As the chart above shows, industries with more regulation also had more startups. Stringent regulation doesn't seem to impede dynamism at all. In fact, it encourages it. Further tests confirm this.

But why? I'll toss out a few possibilities:

  1. The research methodology just isn't up to the task. Regulation really does reduce the incentive to create startups, but this particular test is too underpowered to show it.
  2. Lots of regulations explicitly exclude small firms (usually those with under 50 employees). This doesn't matter much in, say, the hospital business, where every firm will be above that threshold. But it does matter in other industries, and it might give startups an advantage over established firms. In other words, regulating the big guys might actually make small startups more attractive than they otherwise would be.
  3. Tabarrok suggests that regulation might be associated in some way with how dynamic an industry is in the first place. That is, especially profitable and growing industries might automatically attract the attention of regulators simply because they're more noticeable. If that's the case, the level of regulation might not be telling us anything aside from the fact that dynamic industries attract more regulation.
  4. Perhaps increased regulation mostly just drives the growth of a consultant class that helps startups create new businesses. Because of this, starting a new business isn't any harder, it's just a bit more expensive. But every other business is paying the same expenses to comply with regulations, so it's not really much of a barrier to entry.
  5. Maybe only certain kinds of regulations affect dynamism and America is pretty good at avoiding those. The ones that are on the books are generally as minimal and targeted as possible and don't much affect startup creation.

Any other ideas? It really is a bit of an odd result, regardless of whether you're temperamentally in favor of regulation or not.

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Quote of the Day: What ISIS Really Wants

| Wed Feb. 18, 2015 9:30 AM EST

From Graeme Wood's 10,000-word exegesis in the Atlantic on the origins and true beliefs of ISIS:

Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

A friend recommended I read this, so I plowed through it yesterday afternoon. Here's the main takeaway:

Much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse....They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.

Wood says that we benefit in two ways from ISIS holding such sincerely medieval and millenarian views. The first is obvious: it severely limits their potential audience for converts. The second benefit is more recondite: one of those medieval views is that the Koran demands the establishment of a new caliphate. And this is not some wimpy, aspirational caliphate that exists only in the indefinite future. That's for milksops like Al-Qaeda. This is a right-here-and-now caliphate. But it turns out that a caliphate requires control over actual physical territory:

Al‑Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding.

This means, for starters, that ISIS is not a big threat to the United States. Unlike Al-Qaeda, it has no particular interest in attacking the West. Its goal—in fact, its religious duty—is to establish control over territory in the Middle East. And that also represents a major weakness:

Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare, appears the best of bad military options. Neither the Kurds nor the Shia will ever subdue and control the whole Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq—they are hated there, and have no appetite for such an adventure anyway. But they can keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand. And with every month that it fails to expand, it resembles less the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammad than yet another Middle Eastern government failing to bring prosperity to its people.

The whole piece is worth a read.

Most Americans Think the Netanyahu Speech Is a Bad Idea

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 9:53 PM EST

According to a new CNN poll, 63 percent of Americans think it was a bad idea for Republicans to invite Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress without first consulting the White House. Even Republicans are only barely on board. That's no surprise, really: it was just a dumb idea on everyone's part. The only thing that took me a little aback was adding up the numbers and learning that fully 96 percent of Americans have an opinion on this matter in the first place. That seems unlikely. But another question in the CNN poll did surprise me:

Americans overall believe the U.S. should stay out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with 66% in the new poll advocating the U.S. remain neutral. Of those who do support picking a side, the majority, 29%, back Israel, while only 2% support Palestine.

Even Republicans, typically seen as the party offering the strongest defense of Israel, are split on whether the U.S. should officially support Israel in the conflict. Forty-nine percent support backing the nation, while 47% say the U.S. should stay out of it.

Have I just not been paying attention? I certainly understand why someone might have given up entirely on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and decided it's best for us to just stay out of it, but I'm startled that this has become such a widely held view. Have previous polls showed the same thing? Or is this something that's just developed over the past few years?

Two Paragraphs That Explain Greece vs. Germany

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 5:09 PM EST

Neil Irwin has a very short and sweet explanation of Europe's continuing fiscal woes:

Europe really does have a big and plausibly unsolvable macroeconomic problem. Germany and a couple of other countries are operating in a radically different economic gear than Southern Europe, and the ways you might normally expect those imbalances to work themselves out are not available. In pre-euro Europe, currency swings would have handled the job. In the United States, continuing fiscal transfers from rich states to poor states do the work. Neither is a palatable option in a Europe that has a single currency and deep aversion among Germans, Finns and Dutch to sending their hard-earned euros to Greece and Spain and Italy.

Either Northern European governments will accept bigger fiscal transfers and higher inflation than their citizens want, or the Mediterranean nations with economic challenges will have to accept falling wages and high unemployment as they try to restore competitiveness, which their citizens very much do not want.

Germany is the most inflation-averse of the big Northern European countries, and Greece is suffering the worst unemployment among the Southern European countries. This is why Greece vs. Germany has become the main front in the ongoing economic trench warfare of North vs. South.

As for myself, I can't bring myself to believe that the euro will break up. But I also find it hard to imagine that Greece can avoid open rebellion much longer if Germany continues to maintain policies that make economic balance nearly impossible. So I don't know. What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?

Since 9/11, We've Had 4 Wars in the Middle East. They've All Been Disasters.

| Tue Feb. 17, 2015 3:40 PM EST

So here's my scorecard for American military interventions since 2000:

  • Afghanistan: A disaster. It's arguable that Afghanistan is no worse off than it was in 2001, but after losing thousands of American lives and spending a trillion American dollars, it's no better off either.
  • Iraq: An even bigger disaster. Saddam Hussein was a uniquely vicious dictator, but even at that there's not much question that Iraq is worse off than it was in 2003. We got rid of Saddam, but got a dysfunctional sectarian government and ISIS in return.
  • Libya: Another disaster. We got rid of Muammar Qaddafi, but got a Somalia-level failed state in return.
  • Yemen: Yet another disaster. After years of drone warfare, Houthi rebels have taken over the government. This appears to be simultaneously a win for Iran, which backs the rebels, and al-Qaeda, which may benefit from the resulting chaos. That's quite a twofer.

Blame all this on whoever you want. George Bush for starting two wars with no real plan to prosecute either one properly. Or Barack Obama for withdrawing from Iraq too soon and failing to have any kind of postwar plan for Libya. Whatever. The question for hawks at this point is: what makes you think American military force has even the slightest chance of improving things in the Middle East? It's been nothing but disasters since 9/11, and there's no reason at all to think we've learned how to do things better in the intervening years. Bush started big wars, and Obama has started small ones, but the result has been the same.

I know, I know. If you're a liberal, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. If you're a conservative, I'm being dangerously simplistic. But tell me: From the viewpoint of military action in the Middle East, what have we gotten better at over the past 14 years? What reason is there to believe that ever more military action will work out any better than it has before? In the past 50 years, has there been any case of the U.S. successfully training local troops to prosecute a war against insurgents?

Feel free to explain in comments.