Kevin Drum

Photo of the Day: A Tiny Little Piece of Pluto -- In Hi-Res!

| Wed Jul. 15, 2015 3:28 PM EDT

Here it is: the first high-res frame of Pluto from yesterday's flyby. Apparently all the frames will be available on Friday, at which point we'll have high-res imagery of the entire planet.

Yes, planet. Anyone want to take a look at this and still claim that Pluto is just a second-rate little dwarf? Come on. Grumpy is a dwarf. Pluto is a planet.

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The Technical Experts Weigh In, And They're Pretty Impressed With the Iran Deal

| Wed Jul. 15, 2015 1:09 PM EDT

Arms control guru Jeffrey Lewis has long been skeptical that we could conclude a nuclear deal with Iran. Now that we have, he's pored through the entire document and he says he's impressed:

Max Fisher: Why is this a good deal?

Jeffrey Lewis: It's a good deal because it slows down their nuclear program — which they say is for civilian purposes but could be used to make a bomb, and which we think was originally intended to make a bomb. And it puts monitoring and verification measures in place that mean if they try to build a bomb, we're very likely to find out, and to do so with a enough time that we have options to do something about it.

There's a verifiable gap between their bomb option and an actual bomb. That's why it's a good deal.

....Max Fisher: A lot of what you wrote throughout 2014 was skeptical. Not of the idea of the Iran deal, but rather skeptical that they could make it work, that they would get there in time, that they would have all the right conditions.

Jeffrey Lewis: That's right. I had no faith whatsoever that they could pull this off.

Max Fisher: Now that we're here, what grade would you give it?

Jeffrey Lewis: I would give it an A.

....Max Fisher: We did a post just rounding up tweets from arms control analysts on what they're saying about the Iran deal, and it was really hard to find arms control analysts who seem to be critical of the deal on the non-proliferation merits. Maybe there are some we just missed, but it seems like the consensus was overwhelmingly positive, which was so interesting to me because it's very different from the conversation among Middle East policy analysts, which is much more divided. Why do you think that is?

Jeffrey Lewis: ....As a deal, this is what deals look like. Actually, they usually don't look this good....I see it as a really straightforward measure to slow down an enrichment program that was going gangbusters.

So you ask, "Does it slow it down?" Yes. "Does it slow it down in a way that is verifiable?" Yes. "Does it slow it down more than bombing it would?" Yes. "Okay, good deal."

This is the kind of feedback I've been waiting for. Do technical experts who actually understand the nuances of the deal language think this is a good agreement? And apparently most of them do.

Conversely, the critics have mostly been focused on the fact that the deal eventually lifts the economic sanctions on Iran that have been in place for the past few years. This will improve the Iranian economy and give them more money to support terrorist groups like Hezbollah and the Houthis.

This is true, of course, but it was the whole point of the negotiations from the start. To oppose it on those grounds is basically to say that we should simply keep the sanctions in place forever. But that's not even remotely feasible. Sanctions never last forever, especially when they have to be upheld by the entire international community. If the US flatly refused to negotiate, eventually the Chinese and Russians would drop out of the sanctions regime, followed by the Europeans, and then we'd be the only ones left. And sanctions from the US alone just wouldn't have much impact on Iran.

In other words, the arguments in favor of the treaty are looking a whole lot more thoughtful and realistic than the arguments against it. But it's primary season for Republicans, so I suppose that doesn't matter all that much. Iran is bad, therefore a deal with Iran is bad. It's good enough for the campaign trail.

Do Republicans Really Want to Scuttle the Iran Deal?

| Wed Jul. 15, 2015 11:43 AM EDT

Greg Sargent reports that Republicans are gearing up to torpedo the Iran nuclear deal:

Republicans are very, very confident that they have the political advantage in the coming battle in Congress over the historic Iran deal announced yesterday. Multiple news reports today tell us that Republicans are gearing up their “attack plan,” and those reports are overflowing with GOP bravado.

Well, of course they are. That's just smart politics. If you want to build a bandwagon, you have to act like a winner.

In fact, though, Republicans have very little chance of blocking the deal. To do so they have to vote to disapprove the agreement, which President Obama will veto. Then they have to round up a two-thirds vote to override the veto. That's very, very unlikely.

(And why this odd procedure where the deal takes effect unless Congress disapproves it? They can thank one of their own, Sen. Bob Corker, for proposing this unusual procedure. And anyway, his legislation passed 98-1, so it was pretty unanimously the will of the Senate. The theory behind it was that Obama could simply enact any deal as an executive order without involving Congress at all, and this was at least better than that.)

But then Sargent brings up another one of those 11-dimensional chess conundrums:

But here’s the question: Once all the procedural smoke clears, do Republicans really want an endgame in which they succeeded in blocking the deal? Do they actually want to scuttle it?

Perhaps many of them genuinely do want that. But here’s a prediction: as this battle develops, some Republicans may privately conclude that it would be better for them politically if they fail to stop it. The Iran debate may come to resemble the one over the anti-Obamacare lawsuit that also recently fell short.

The idea here is that if Congress kills the deal, several things will happen. First, the rest of the signatories (UK, France, Germany, EU, China, Russia) will still lift their sanctions if Iran meets its end of the bargain. So that means the sanctions regime will effectively disintegrate. Second, our allies will blame us for tanking the deal. Third, Iran will have an excuse for pushing the boundaries of the agreement and remaining closer to nuclear breakout than they would be if the deal were intact.

And Republicans would take the bulk of the blame for all this. Do they really want that? This is an international agreement, after all. Conservatives like Angela Merkel, David Cameron, and Vladimir Putin have approved it. If we don't, will they conclude that the US is no longer a partner worth negotiating with? These are things worth pondering, especially if Republicans expect one of their own to be president 18 months from now.

Planned Parenthood "Sting" Video Is Yet Another Right-Wing Nothingburger

| Wed Jul. 15, 2015 10:45 AM EDT

Yesterday I watched the (now infamous) hidden video from the Center for Medical Progress, which allegedly shows a couple of undercover "buyers" for a fetal tissue procurement company having lunch with Deborah Nucatola, director of medical services for Planned Parenthood. And it was obviously pretty fishy. Nucatola was talking very openly about how they dispose of fetal tissue from abortions, and doing it in a way that exhibited no stress and no sense at all of being involved in a shady operation. The price per specimen was $30-100,which obviously covered no more than shipping and normal handling. It plainly wasn't enough for this to be an illegal for-profit business.

So I shrugged and went on with my day. Then the video landed on the front page of the Washington Post and it went mainstream. I assume Fox has been running it on a 24/7 loop as well. But as near as I can tell, it's completely bogus. The video tries to imply that Planned Parenthood is performing illegal abortions and that it's selling fetal tissue for profit, also a felony. But there's not the slightest evidence of either. In fact, as Media Matters points out, if you watch the unedited video it's crystal clear that the charges for the fetal tissue they sell are designed only to cover the actual costs of the process. Nucatola says repeatedly that affiliates want to "break even," not make a profit.

So there's basically nothing here. Bioethicists have been debating for years whether it's a good idea to sell fetal tissue, and as you can imagine, they've been disagreeing for years and show no signs of ever coming to a consensus. Some think it's wrong and some think it's OK. That's not surprising since some people think abortion is wrong and some think it's OK. And if you think abortion is wrong, you're certainly not going to be happy about the sale of tissue from aborted fetuses.

Nonetheless, it's a common practice, and one that's critical for a lot of medical research. What's more, it's only done if the mother wants the tissue donated.

So: scandal? Not hardly. Is it wrong? If you think abortion is murder, then of course you think it's wrong. If you think abortion is morally benign, as I do, then you're glad to see donated tissue being used in important medical research. And that's pretty much that. In the end, this is just another sad attempt at a sting video that goes nowhere once you get beyond the deceptive editing. It's time for conservatives to find a different toy to manufacture fundraising opportunities for their base.

The IMF Throws a Monkey Wrench Into the Greek Soap Opera

| Wed Jul. 15, 2015 12:26 AM EDT

The Greek drama continues. Just as it appears that Greece has capitulated to every demand short of selling off the Parthenon, one-third of the Troika1 is having second thoughts:

The International Monetary Fund threatened to withdraw support for Greece’s bailout on Tuesday unless European leaders agree to substantial debt relief, an immediate challenge to the region’s plan to rescue the country.

The aggressive stance sets up a standoff with Germany and other eurozone creditors, which have been reluctant to provide additional debt relief.

Reluctant? Yeah, I guess you could put it that way. But it would be a mite more accurate to say that it will be a cold day in hell before Angela Merkel agrees to any debt relief for Greece.

In any case, there's a weird kabuki-like character to this whole thing. Everybody agrees that Greece will never pay back all the debt it owes. Just not gonna happen. So why don't Greece's creditors bite the bullet and face reality? It's not because the Germans and others are stupid and don't realize they're never getting all their money back. It's because....

Well, it's not entirely clear why. Officially, Germany says that under EU treaties it's illegal to forgive debt. I'm not sure anyone really believes that, though. Unofficially, no one wants to write down the debt because it's the thing that keeps Greece under the EU lash. The only reason Europe can demand draconian austerity measures from Greece is because they can threaten to withhold the loans Greece needs to keep servicing its massive debt. This would throw Greece into default and economic chaos—which is precisely the threat that forced Greece to accept the European terms for a new bailout a few days ago.

Still, why not write down a big chunk of the debt? There would still be enough left to keep Greece under control. This is where things get even fuzzier. One answer is that it sets an uncomfortable precedent. If Greece gets a big debt writedown, why shouldn't Portugal and Spain and Italy? Another answer is that the size of the Greek debt really does matter, if only cosmetically. Europe wants Greece to cut its spending and run a balanced budget. The bigger Greece's debt service, the more it has to cut spending to achieve balance.

Does any of this make sense? Sure, from a certain point of view—namely that of a European public that's fed up with Greece and doesn't want its leaders using their tax dollars to pull Greece's fat out of the fire. But the IMF doesn't have to worry about European public opinion. It wants to face reality and just admit what everyone already knows. And here's the reality. First, even with a big writedown, Greece will still be safely under the Troika's thumb. Second, from an economist's perspective all that matters about Greece's finances is that it achieves primary budget balance—that is, balance not counting debt payments. So the IMF doesn't care about squeezing the Greek budget beyond all reason based on an artificial debt number.

In any case, the IMF has supported debt relief for some time, but has only now decided to go public as a way of exerting pressure on Europe. Will it work? No telling. As always, stay tuned. The soap opera never ends.

1For those of you who haven't been following this stuff religiously, the Troika consists of the EU, the European Central Bank, and the IMF. These are the three entities that Greece owes money to.

Maybe We Should All Read the Iran Deal Before We Take a Stand On It

| Tue Jul. 14, 2015 2:27 PM EDT

Paul Waldman has already rounded up a few Republican reactions to the Iran deal, so I'll just steal this paragraph from him:

Scott Walker said it “will be remembered as one of America’s worst diplomatic failures.” Jeb Bush called it “dangerous, deeply flawed, and short-sighted.” Marco Rubio said it “undermines our national security.” And as usual, Lindsey Graham wins the award for the most unhinged conclusions: the deal is “akin to declaring war on Sunni Arabs and Israel,” he told Bloomberg News. He also said: “You’ve created a possible death sentence for Israel.”

And here's some more:

"This ‘deal’ will only embolden Iran," said House Speaker John Boehner. It "appears to further the flawed elements of April’s interim agreement," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And even Bob Corker was critical: "I begin from a place of deep skepticism that the deal actually meets the goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."

So here's the thing: Not a single one of these comments suggests why the deal is such a bad one. It just is. We're left with two possibilities:

  1. All of these guys have read the agreement, and they have specific criticisms but just don't feel like sharing those with us.
  2. They haven't read the agreement and have no real idea what's in it, but oppose it anyway.

I'm going with Door #2. Anyone want to take the other side of that bet?

And by the way, in the interest of fairness you could say pretty much the same thing about a lot of liberals, who seem to be jubilant about the deal but haven't really explained exactly what's so great about it. Maybe all of us could stand to take a deep breath and spend some time letting experts examine the deal language before taking maximal positions on it.

In the meantime, it looks like a decent agreement to me after a first look at the deal outline—certainly better than doing nothing and letting Iran build a bomb whenever it wants, anyway. But I'll wait to see what nuclear experts have to say before I go any further. A few days won't kill me.

UPDATE: Obviously not everyone agrees with me. A spokesman for Hillary Clinton said the Iran deal was "a really good first step," etc., but "at the same time, she also is going to read it." National Review's Patrick Brennan is having none of it:

Yes, it’s a long agreement, only released to the public early this morning, but that has stopped almost no one on earth from forming an opinion of whether they think it is a good or bad deal by this afternoon. The questions at hand are complicated, but not that complicated. As with the trade debate (until the very last minute), Hillary Clinton isn’t deliberating, she’s obfuscating.

So there you have it. Everyone else formed an opinion instantly without bothering to read the actual agreement, so what the hell is up with Hillary? She should be ashamed of herself for showing an interest in anything other than affinity outrage (or glee). Reading is for appeasers.

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Highways Are Now Being Held Hostage to Lower Corporate Taxes

| Tue Jul. 14, 2015 1:16 PM EDT

I somehow missed that this was a real thing, but apparently there are finally serious moves afoot to replenish the Highway Trust Fund. Will this happen by sensibly returning the gasoline tax to its old rate? Don't be silly. Instead we're going to do it in the least sensible way possible:

A bipartisan proposal, to be introduced soon in Congress, would tax the estimated $2 trillion in foreign profits held by U.S. corporations in overseas accounts....The tax would generate tens of billions of dollars for the federal Highway Trust Fund, which will run out of money at the end of the month. Lawmakers have been in a desperate scramble to replenish the fund, which helps pay for new roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure.

....Supporters said the plan would reduce incentives for companies to reincorporate overseas, a controversial tax-reducing tactic known as inversion that has drawn the ire of Democrats...."These proposals would right the ship, provide a potential funding source for transportation reauthorization and allow the United States to compete on a level playing field," [Sen. Chuck Schumer] said.

Hold on. We're going to take all those overseas profits that are currently untaxed, and levy a one-time tax on them in order to fund roads and bridges? Why would Republicans and the business community support this? Here's why:

"In a perfect world, you wouldn't tie tax reform to the Highway Trust Fund," said Curtis S. Dubay, a tax expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. But lawmakers see the need to find highway funding "as a forcing mechanism to get something done" on international taxes.

A "forcing mechanism"? Please go on:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Assn. of Manufacturers have said they opposed a forced repatriation of foreign earnings simply to replenish the Highway Trust Fund.

But including it as part of a shift from the current international tax system — a move that would reduce corporate tax bills over the long term — changes the equation, said Dorothy Coleman, who handles tax policy for the manufacturers group.

....Business groups want changes to the international tax system to be made as part of a broader overhaul that includes lowering the corporate tax rate for domestic earnings as well. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has indicated that he prefers a comprehensive tax overhaul.

Roger that. The business community is willing to support a small, one-time gimmick that will cost around $200 billion or so—and free them to repatriate all their foreign earnings and bring that money back to the US—but only if it's tied to a large, permanent corporate tax change that will save them far more in the long run. Suddenly it all makes sense.

The devil is in the details, of course, and those won't be available for months. If the final bill is revenue neutral on corporate taxes, maybe this is a decent short-term dodge. If it cuts corporate taxes significantly, then not so much. Stay tuned.

Quote of the Day: The Minimum Wage is Lame, Dude

| Tue Jul. 14, 2015 12:10 PM EDT

From boring Midwestern governor Scott Walker:

The left claims that they’re for American workers and they’ve just got just really lame ideas — things like the minimum wage.

Well, there are some economists who would agree with him, but essentially no ordinary Americans. The minimum wage is almost as beloved as Social Security. In fact, ordinary Americans not only like the minimum wage, but about 70 percent of them think it should be raised. So Walker is definitely taking a bold stand here.

Oddly enough, as Steve Benen points out, this has become sort of a thing among Republicans lately. They've always opposed increases to the minimum wage, of course, but now a lot of them oppose the minimum wage itself. Where has this suddenly come from? Perhaps someone who follows the right-wing idea network can give us a rundown. I mean, sure, Milton Friedman opposed the minimum wage, but conservatives apparently abandoned anything remotely Friedmanesque during the Great Recession. So it can't be that.

So what is it? Why has this suddenly jumped from mumblings in Heritage Foundation white papers to campaign platforms for presidential candidates?

Here's How the Iran Nuclear Deal Is Supposed to Work

| Tue Jul. 14, 2015 11:04 AM EDT

Apparently this is Let's Make a Deal week. First the Greeks, now the Iranians. The deal with Iran restricts their supply of uranium, cuts down the number of centrifuges they can run, forces them to account for past activity, and puts in place strict verification measures. So when does it take effect: Here's the Washington Post:

The agreement will not take effect until Iran is certified to have met its terms — something Iran says will happen in a matter of weeks but that Western diplomats have said could take at least until the end of the year.

Hmmm. That's not necessarily a good start. So when will sanctions be lifted?

From the Post: A senior Obama administration official said that, until Iranian compliance is verified, an 18-month old interim agreement restricting Iran’s activities, and sanctions, will remain in place.

From the New York Times: Diplomats also came up with unusual procedure to “snap back” the sanctions against Iran if an eight-member panel determines that Tehran is violating the nuclear provisions.

The members of the panel are Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United States, the European Union and Iran itself. A majority vote is required, meaning that Russia, China and Iran could not collectively block action. The investigation and referral process calls for a time schedule of 65 days, tight compared to the years the atomic energy agency has taken to pursue suspicious activity.

And here's the Guardian with a bullet list of the main points of the agreement:

  • Iran will reduce its enrichment capacity by two-thirds. It will stop using its underground facility at Fordow for enriching uranium.
  • Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium will be reduced to 300kg, a 96% reduction. It will achieve this reduction either by diluting it or shipping it out of the country.
  • The core of the heavy water reactor in Arak will be removed, and it will be redesigned in such a way that it will not produce significant amounts of plutonium.
  • Iran will allow UN inspectors to enter sites, including military sites, when the inspectors have grounds to believe undeclared nuclear activity is being carried out there. It can object but a multinational commission can override any objections by majority vote. After that Iran will have three days to comply. Inspectors will only come from countries with diplomatic relations with Iran, so no Americans.
  • Once the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified that Iran has taken steps to shrink its programme, UN, US and EU sanctions will be lifted.
  • Restrictions on trade in conventional weapons will last another five years, and eight years in the case of ballistic missile technology.
  • If there are allegations that Iran has not met its obligations, a joint commission will seek to resolve the dispute for 30 days. If that effort fails it would be referred to the UN security council, which would have to vote to continue sanctions relief. A veto by a permanent member would mean that sanctions are reimposed. The whole process would take 65 days.

Overall, the deal seems to address most of the issues brought up by skeptics. Sanctions won't be lifted right away. There's an expedited process to reimpose them if Iran cheats. Military sites will be open to inspectors. Conventional weapons bans will continue for five years.

Benjamin Netanyahu is nevertheless apoplectic, of course, but who cares? He would be no matter what the deal looked like. At first glance, though, it looks reasonable. And since President Obama can—and will—veto any congressional attempt to disapprove the agreement, it will take a two-thirds vote to torpedo it. Presumably Obama can manage to scrape up at least a third of Congress to support it, so it should be pretty safe. That vote will take place in about two months.

Chart of the Day: The Recession Still Isn't Over For Most Of Us

| Mon Jul. 13, 2015 11:00 PM EDT

Jared Bernstein points us today to this chart from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It shows how much worker compensation has changed since 2007.

The red line is the one to look at: it displays total compensation, including benefits like health insurance, paid leave, and so forth. As you can see, 80 percent of all workers—that is, everyone with an income less than about $65,000—saw their compensation fall. Only the top 20 percent saw their compensation go up, and only the top 10 percent saw it go up by more than a pittance.

The recession might be over for those with high incomes, but not for anybody else. For everyone with modest or low incomes, they're still making less than they made in 2007.