Kevin Drum

If the Left Wants Scapegoats, Just Look in the Mirror

| Mon Jul. 21, 2014 1:31 PM EDT

Thomas Frank is convinced that Barack Obama single-handedly prevented America from becoming the lefty paradise it was on course for after the financial meltdown of 2008:

The Obama team, as the president once announced to a delegation of investment bankers, was “the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” and in retrospect these words seem not only to have been a correct assessment of the situation at the moment but a credo for his entire term in office. For my money, they should be carved in stone over the entrance to his monument: Barack Obama as the one-man rescue squad for an economic order that had aroused the fury of the world. Better: Obama as the awesomely talented doctor who kept the corpse of a dead philosophy lumbering along despite it all.

....In point of fact, there were plenty of things Obama’s Democrats could have done that might have put the right out of business once and for all—for example, by responding more aggressively to the Great Recession or by pounding relentlessly on the theme of middle-class economic distress. Acknowledging this possibility, however, has always been difficult for consensus-minded Democrats, and I suspect that in the official recounting of the Obama era, this troublesome possibility will disappear entirely. Instead, the terrifying Right-Wing Other will be cast in bronze at twice life-size, and made the excuse for the Administration’s every last failure of nerve, imagination and foresight. Demonizing the right will also allow the Obama legacy team to present his two electoral victories as ends in themselves, since they kept the White House out of the monster’s grasp—heroic triumphs that were truly worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. (Which will be dusted off and prominently displayed.)

I see this kind of thing all the time on the right. If only we had a candidate who refused to sell out conservative values! A candidate who could truly make the American public understand! Then we'd win in a landslide!

It's easy to recognize this as delusional. Tea party types are always convinced that America is thirsting for true conservatism, and all that's needed is a latter-day Ronald Reagan to be its salesman. Needless to say, this misses the point that Americans aren't all reactionaries. In fact, as the embarrassing clown shows of the past two GOP primaries have shown, even most Republicans aren't reactionaries. There's been no shortage of honest-to-God right wingers to choose from, but they can't even win the nomination, let alone a general election.

(Of course you never know. Maybe 2016 is the year!)

But if it's so easy to see this conservative delusion for what it is, why isn't it equally easy to recognize the same brand of liberal delusion? Back in 2009, was Obama really the only thing that stood between bankers and the howling mob? Don't be silly. Americans were barely even upset, let alone ready for revolution. Those pathetic demonstrations outside the headquarters of AIG were about a hundredth the size that even a half-ass political organization can muster for a routine anti-abortion rally. After a few days the AIG protestors got bored and went home without so much as throwing a few bottles at cops. Even the Greeks managed that much.

Why were Americans so obviously not enraged? Because—duh—the hated neoliberal system worked. We didn't have a second Great Depression. The Fed intervened, the banking system was saved, and a stimulus bill was passed. Did bankers get treated too well? Oh yes indeed. Was the stimulus too small? You bet. Nevertheless, was America saved from an epic collapse? It sure was. Instead of a massive meltdown, we got a really bad recession and a weak recovery, and even that was cushioned by a safety net that, although inadequate, was more than enough to keep the pitchforks off the streets.

As for Obama, could he have done more? I suppose he probably could have, but it's a close call. Even with his earnest efforts at bipartisanship at the beginning of his presidency, he only barely passed any stimulus at all. If instead he'd issued thundering populist manifestos, even Susan Collins would have turned against him and the stimulus bill would have been not too small, but completely dead. Ditto for virtually everything else Obama managed to pass by one or two votes during his first 18 months. If that had happened, the economy would have done even worse, and if you somehow think this means the public would have become more sympathetic to the party in the White House, then your knowledge of American politics is at about the kindergarten level. Democrats would have lost even more seats in 2010 than they did.

Look: Obama made some mistakes. He should have done more about housing. He shouldn't have pivoted to deficit-mongering so quickly. Maybe he could have kept a public option in Obamacare if he'd fought harder for it. Maybe, maybe, maybe. But probably not. Like it or not, America was not poised for a huge liberal wave in 2008. It just wasn't. It was poised for a fairly routine cycle of throwing out the old bums and electing new bums, who would, as usual, be given a very short and very limited honeymoon. Democrats actually accomplished a fair amount during that honeymoon, but no, they didn't turn American into a lefty paradise. That was never in the cards.

All of us who do what Thomas Frank does—what I do—have failed. Our goal was to persuade the public to move in a liberal direction, and that didn't happen. In the end, we didn't persuade much of anyone. It's natural to want to avoid facing that humiliating truth, and equally natural to look for someone else to blame instead. That's human nature. So fine. Blame Obama if it makes you feel better. That's what we elect presidents for: to take the blame.

But he only deserves his share. The rest of us, who were unable to take advantage of an epic financial collapse to get the public firmly in favor of pitchforks and universal health care, deserve most of it. The mirror doesn't lie.

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High School Kids Brave the Anti-Vax Jihadists

| Mon Jul. 21, 2014 11:41 AM EDT

Here's a heartwarming story for you. Prompted by the decline in vaccination rates among children in San Diego, a group of students at Carlsbad High School decided to make a short documentary about "the science of disease and the risks facing a society that is under-vaccinated." You can probably guess what happened next:

Complaints began to arise when a local newspaper reported that the students were tackling "the issue of immunizations." A blogger who saw the article contended that the movie, still a work in progress, was sure to be "propaganda." That led to a flurry of frightening phone calls and Internet comments directed at CHSTV, [advisor Lisa] Posard said.

Posard said she hadn't realized that vaccines were such a controversial subject. She and CHSTV teacher Douglas Green wanted to shut down production, she added. But the students, angered by what they saw as bullying, insisted on completing the film.

The final version of "Invisible Threat," completed in spring 2013 but shown only to select audiences, took a strong pro-vaccine position.

Critics, who said they hadn't been allowed to see the movie, leaped back into action about a year later, when the film was set to be screened on Capitol Hill.

Focus Autism and AutismOne organizations complained about the movie's Rotary Club backing and about the involvement of Dr. Paul Offit, a University of Pennsylvania pediatrician and immunization proponent. They argued that "Invisible Threat" was "scripted with industry talking points" and that the movie seemed to be the work of adults operating under false pretenses, not students.

Thanks to the McCarthyite cretins in the murderous vaccinations-cause-autism movement, to this day the documentary has barely been seen outside the confines of the school. It will finally get posted on the Web on August 1st. Maybe it will save some lives.

More Pointless Bluster on Foreign Policy, Please

| Mon Jul. 21, 2014 10:51 AM EDT

Via Politico, Here's the latest on American attitudes toward foreign policy:

Asked whether the U.S should do more to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine, just 17 percent answered in the affirmative....More than three-quarters of likely voters say they support plans to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016....Forty-four percent of likely voters favor less involvement in Iraq’s civil war....Likely voters prefer less involvement in Syria’s civil war over more involvement, 42 percent to 15 percent.

Based on this, can you figure out which party is more trusted on foreign policy? You guessed it: Republicans, by a margin of 39-32 percent.

Bottom line (for about the thousandth time): Americans prefer the actual foreign policy of Democrats, but they prefer the rhetorical foreign policy of Republicans. They want lots of bluster and chest thumping, but without much in the way of serious action. In other words, pretty much what Reagan did.

Friday Cat Blogging - 18 July 2014

| Fri Jul. 18, 2014 2:55 PM EDT

In an awesome display of athleticism, Domino hopped into the laundry hamper this week. I was shocked. I didn't think she could do it. But I guess when you're motivated by the sweet, sweet prospect of snoozing among the delicate aromas of worn human clothing, you can accomplish anything. As for what she's looking at in this picture, I have no idea. Probably something in the cat dimension.

Iran's Oil Exports Have Fallen By Half Since Sanctions Were Imposed

| Fri Jul. 18, 2014 2:09 PM EDT

If you're curious about the impact of economic sanctions on Iran, OPEC's newly-released 2014 statistical bulletin provides a pretty concrete look. As the tables below show, in just the past two years Iran's oil exports have fallen by nearly half and the rial has lost a third of its value. If you want to know why Iran is negotiating over its nuclear program, that's the story in a nutshell.

The whole report is here. Plenty of interesting little tidbits there for inquiring minds.

Blueberries, Gold, Inflation, and Professor Krugman

| Fri Jul. 18, 2014 12:18 PM EDT

So Paul Krugman writes a column about all the folks who have been hysterically predicting runaway inflation for the past few years, and what does he get? This:

I know it's just a coincidence. The other 500 comments are quite likely perfectly sane. Nonetheless, this is what we're up against.

POSTSCRIPT: In case you're curious, food prices have actually risen 11 percent over the past five years. In other words, about 2.2 percent per year.

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No More Saturday Shipments for Netflix

| Fri Jul. 18, 2014 11:45 AM EDT

From the LA Times:

Netflix Inc. has quietly stopped shipping DVDs from its distribution centers on Saturdays, a cost-cutting move that signals the company is easing out of the DVD subscription service and keeping its focus on online streaming. The change comes as Netflix is shedding hundreds of thousands of its DVD customers every quarter, yet gaining as many for its online streaming business continues to grow.

And so it begins. A few years from now, I assume Netflix will be out of the physical disc business entirely, which means it will be impossible to watch anything more than a few years old. We'll still have Redbox for recent releases as well as streaming services that offer whatever they happen to offer. But if you wake up one morning and decide you want to watch The Naked City? Well, you're probably out of luck.

I suppose that eventually every studio's back catalogs will be universally available via one streaming service or another. Unfortunately, "eventually" seems to be a helluva long time in Hollywood. What will we do in the meantime?

Ted Cruz Is Playing a Long Game on Immigration

| Fri Jul. 18, 2014 11:06 AM EDT

Ted Cruz threw a bomb into the immigration crisis yesterday by demanding that any emergency bill to address the tide of minors surging across the border had to include a provision repealing President Obama's so-called mini-DREAM executive action. Formally known as DACA, it directs prosecutors not to spend any time trying to deport individuals who arrived in the US as children.

This is inconvenient for Republicans because DACA is pretty popular and they'd probably prefer to ignore it. So why did Cruz do this? Greg Sargent thinks there's a long game at stake:

I strongly suspect much GOP rhetoric over the crisis is designed to achieve maximum constraint on Obama’s sense of what’s politically possible on unilaterally easing deportations. Case in point: Ted Cruz’s declaration that any GOP response to the crisis must defund Obama’s deferred-deportation program. Cruz has a history of revealing underlying political calculations with unvarnished clarity. He justified the government shutdown to stop Obamacare by arguing that once the law kicked in, people would like it and it would never be repealed.

Something similar may be happening on deportations. As Frank Sharry argues, Obama action on deportations could “permanently cement the reputation of the Democrats as for immigrants and for the changing American electorate and Republicans as against it.” It’s unclear how ambitious Obama will be. But given Cruz’s fevered view of #ObummerTyranny, he probably expects Obama to go big, and he may agree so doing would lock in Latinos for Dems. Hence the move to preclude it.

....However, there’s a risk for Republicans. If they punt on their current response, it could persuade Obama he can position himself as the only problem solver in the room on immigration, giving him more space to act unilaterally. Of course, to reap these benefits, Obama will have to be seen as managing the current crisis effectively. And he has not accomplished this — politically or substantively.

I'll confess that I usually don't give politicians credit for thinking much beyond the ends of their noses. Even gaming things out one move ahead is beyond most of them. But Cruz is a smart guy, and going after DACA is probably a twofer for him: it's politically useful in the short term, marking him as the most aggressive conservative in the Senate; and it might constrain Obama in the future.

But as Sargent says, this cuts both ways. If Obama decides that Republicans, once again, are simply unwilling to deal in any way, then he's left with very little reason to moderate his actions. Compromise only makes enemies among Hispanic voters, after all, and it's worth it only if Republicans will give him something in return. If they won't, he might as well take the boldest action he can to help his party, and then dare Republicans to do something about it. That may well be how this plays out.

Vladimir Putin's Games Finally Blew Up In His Face Today

| Fri Jul. 18, 2014 12:11 AM EDT

Josh Marshall practically reads my mind with this post:

Were it not for the hundreds killed, it would also be comical the ridiculous series of events Vladimir Putin's reckless behavior led up to this morning. For months Putin has been playing with fire, making trouble and having it work mainly to his advantage....But the whole thing blew up in his face today in a way, and with repercussions I don't think — even with all wall to wall coverage — we can quite grasp.

Find extremists and hot-heads of the lowest common denominator variety, seed them with weaponry only a few militaries in the world possess — and, well, just see what happens. What could go wrong?

Read the whole thing. It's almost precisely what I've been thinking all day long. I'd only add one thing: It was sickening listening to Putin's bleating prevarications and denials after the plane was shot down. Really, truly revolting. If anything could expose him, once and for all, as the petty schoolyard bully that he is, this was it.

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.