Kevin Drum

Friday Cat Blogging - 20 November 2015

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 2:50 PM EST

This has sure been a crappy week, and Hilbert and Hopper agree. As you can see, they decided to flee upstairs to the bedroom and adopt disapproving looks. Those are for Donald Trump. They are hoping that us human types can do more than just glower, so let's get to it.

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Charter Schools: Great in Cities, Ho-Hum in Suburbs?

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 2:15 PM EST

Evaluating charter schools is tricky. Maybe highly motivated parents send their kids to charters and others don't. The solution is to identify schools that are oversubscribed and track students who won and lost the lottery to get in. That way you get a random set of parents on both sides. But maybe charters kick out bad students after they've attended for a year or two. The solution is to tag lottery winners as charter kids forever. They count against the charter's performance regardless of where they end up later. Fine, but maybe oversubscribed charters are different in some way. What about less popular charters where you can't do any of this lottery-based research?

Susan Dynarski, an education professor at the University of Michigan, acknowledges all of this, but says we can draw some conclusions anyway:

A consistent pattern has emerged from this research. In urban areas, where students are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor and nonwhite, charter schools tend to do better than other public schools in improving student achievement. By contrast, outside of urban areas, where students tend to be white and middle class, charters do no better and sometimes do worse than other public schools.

This pattern — positive results in low-income city neighborhoods, zero to negative results in relatively affluent suburbs — holds in lottery studies in Massachusetts as well in a national study of charter schools funded by the Education Department.

Interesting. But if this is really the case, why?

Jeb Bush Opposed to Manipulating People's Fears Over Syrian Refugees

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 12:09 PM EST

Jeb Bush comments on Donald Trump's plan to create a Muslim registry in the United States:

Trump's solutions are "just wrong," Jeb Bush said Friday...."It’s not a question of toughness. It’s manipulating people's angst and their fears. That’s not strength. That’s weakness," Bush said in an interview on CNBC's "Squawk Box."

Good for Bush, though it's a low bar to oppose a national registry for everyone of a specific religion. I don't think Bush will be the only one to choke on that notion. Still, he was clear about his opposition, and clear about why it's wrong.

It's too bad he's taken this long. He could have been a voice for sanity from the start and set himself apart from the crowd. At this point, though, it would just make him look tentative and indecisive. He lost a chance to do the right thing and possibly get a big payoff from it.

Obamacare's Growing Pains Are About What You'd Expect in a Newly Competitive Market

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 11:33 AM EST

Yesterday United Healthcare announced that they would be exiting the Obamacare exchanges after 2016. They were losing too much money and figured it was time to call it quits.

What does this mean? Here are a few bullet points:

  • UH is a relatively small part of Obamacare, accounting for about 5 percent of exchange members.
  • However, its presence is bigger in some states than others.
  • Overall, then, this is only moderately bad news for Obamacare as a program. In some places, however, it's very bad news. And obviously, for the people affected who have to switch plans in 2017, it's a huge pain in the ass.

Beyond this, the news depends on why UH is doing so badly:

  • It could be that UH simply isn't competitive. If that's the case, it's nothing more than the expected result of marketplace competition. If other companies are more efficient or offer better products, you're in trouble.
  • However, it's also possible that UH's exit exposes some fundamental problems with Obamacare. UH claims—without offering any real evidence—that people are signing up when they get sick and then dropping out. This is unsustainable in any insurance market, and if people really have found loopholes that allow this on a large scale, it's bad news for Obamacare. It would be especially bad news since Republicans are rooting for Obamacare to fail and will refuse to allow any changes that might make it work better.

Generally speaking, I think that what we've been seeing recently is a fairly predictable consequence of setting up a competitive market: there's going to be a lot of churn at the beginning, as companies figure out what works best. Some, like UH and the ill-fated co-ops, will drop out. Others will discover they were too optimistic and will raise rates. Others will gain market share at their expense because they're better run or made better actuarial projections. In a few years, this will all settle down and we'll finally have a pretty good idea of just how well Obamacare works and how much it costs.

We could have avoided this kind of thing by creating a simpler, more universal program, but that just wasn't politically possible. Creating a competitive marketplace was the only way to get Obamacare passed. Unfortunately, competition has both pluses and minuses. In theory, it should provide lower prices and better value in the long run. But it might take a while to get there.

More detail is available from John Cohn and Megan McArdle.

Republicans Play "Can You Top This?" Over Refugees

| Fri Nov. 20, 2015 10:46 AM EST

I think it's been nearly 24 hours since I last looked in on our Republican candidates and their prudent, thoughtful stands on Syrian refugees. So where do we stand?

  • Ben Carson compared Syrian terrorists to rabid dogs, suggesting this means we'd be wise to avoid all dogs.
  • Marco Rubio made some strained analogy to Nazis because.... Nazis.
  • Donald Trump wants to keep a database of Muslims. All Muslims? Only newly arrived Muslims? Who knows.
  • Ted Cruz wants to ban all Syrian refugees except Christians.
  • Jeb Bush thinks that's a great idea too.
  • John Kasich has proposed that we create a Department of Judeo-Christian PR.
  • Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, and Chris Christie all want to flatly ban Syrian refugees.

We've seen variations of "Can You Top This?" before, perhaps most notably in 2012 regarding illegal immigration. That's probably no coincidence. But that was before Donald Trump joined the field of presidential wannabes and upped the stakes considerably. Now they've gone from merely odious to actively loathsome.

What's the answer? I think maybe Ben Carson has the right idea. These guys are like rabid dogs, which means it might be wise for us to simply avoid all Republicans. You can't be too careful, after all.

More detail here if you can stomach it.

Here Is Today's Case Study in Right-Wing Media Virtue and Rectitude

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 9:53 PM EST

A friend of mine watches Fox News so I don't have to,1 and he says they've been practically wetting their pants over the story of Hillary Clinton's campaign calling the founder of the Laugh Factory and threatening him if he didn't take down a short video compilation of Hillary jokes.

What's that? This already sounds really unlikely? I guess so. It sure doesn't seem very smart for a highly visible presidential candidate, does it? Still, Judicial Watch says it happened, and Fox and Rush and Sean are all over it too. So I guess it must be true. They wouldn't just make stuff up, would they?

Slate's Michelle Goldberg called Jamie Masada, founder of the Laugh Factory, and he says that a few days ago he got a comically threatening phone call from someone named "John." And that's it. John never called back. Masada never told Judicial Watch about the incident. In other words, there's almost literally nothing there.

But apparently some Laugh Factory employee heard about the call, and somehow it went from there to Judicial Watch. Or something like that. Who knows, really? *

Goldberg comments:

What we have here is a small-scale demonstration of how the Hillary smear sausage gets made. It starts with a claim that's ambiguous at best, fabricated at worst, and then interpreted in the most invidious possible light. The claim is reported in one outlet and amplified on Twitter. Other outlets then report on the report, repeating the claim over and over again. Talk radio picks it up. Maybe Fox News follows. Eventually the story achieves a sort of ubiquity in the right-wing media ecosystem, which makes it seem like it's been confirmed. Soon it becomes received truth among conservatives, and sometimes it even crosses into the mainstream media. If you watched the way the Clintons were covered in the 1990s, you know the basics of this process. If you didn't, you're going to spend the next year—and maybe the next nine years—learning all about it.

And there you have it. This is where Mena airport and Vince Foster and Whitewater and the Clinton death list and all the other charming inventions of the Clinton smear squad came from. Seems like only yesterday.

1Not really. Believe it or not, it's part of his job.

*Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly suggested that Judicial Watch never contacted Masada in the reporting of its story. See update below.

UPDATE, 11/20/15: According to Judicial Watch, Masada told them the call had come from a "prominent" person inside Clinton's campaign, who Masada declined to identify. According to Michelle Goldberg, who followed up afterward: "Masada told me that on Nov. 11, he got a call from a man named John—he doesn't remember the last name—who sounded 'distinguished, like an attorney.' John said he represented the Clinton campaign."

So Judicial Watch did indeed call Masada, and I apologize for suggesting otherwise. However, there remains zero evidence that the call actually came from anyone inside the Clinton campaign. It could be, as Goldberg points out, a harmless prank or somebody trying to make trouble for the campaign.

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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.

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.