Kevin Drum

Yet More Magical Unicorn Thinking From Right Wing on Iran Nuclear Deal

| Thu Jul. 23, 2015 10:59 AM EDT

I've been waiting for a while now for a plausible conservative alternative to President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran, and Max Fisher informs me today that Michael Oren has stepped up and done just that in the pages of Politico. Except for one thing: the increasingly unhinged former ambassador to the US may have a plan, but it's about a million miles from plausible.

You should read Fisher's whole post, but I'm going to skip the long preamble and get straight to Oren's proposal. Here it is:

Israel would have embraced an agreement that significantly rolled back the number of centrifuges and nuclear facilities in Iran and that linked any sanctions relief to demonstrable changes in its behavior. No more state support of terror, no more threatening America’s Middle Eastern allies, no more pledges to destroy the world’s only Jewish state and no more mass chants of "Death to America." Israel would have welcomed any arrangement that monitored Iran’s ICBMs and other offensive weaponry. Such a deal, Israeli leaders across the political spectrum agree, was and remains attainable.

That would be great, of course. But not exactly plausible. Here's Fisher:

All of these are politically impossible and, in some cases, physically impossible....Try to imagine a US negotiator actually asking for this. "The inspections procedures of uranium mines look good here, and we are satisfied with the limits on centrifuge research and development. But we require a binding commitment that no one in your political system will speak certain combinations of words about Israel anymore." We might as well demand that Iran give us a unicorn that we can ride all the way to Candy Mountain.

....Is it really worth blowing up a historic nuclear deal — one that will substantially and verifiably limit Iran's nuclear program, with global cooperation — over the possibility that one of the Iranian ayatollahs might not be legally forbidden from saying the wrong words?

These are poison-pill demands, and very lazy ones at that. They are not designed to be implemented, but rather to raise the political bar for any nuclear deal beyond what can be achieved.

And what about sanctions? Surely the other countries that are parties to the deal would quit in disgust if the US demands were as ridiculous as Oren suggests they should be. Indeed they would, but Oren says that if they drop out we should threaten to sanction them. Fisher: "This is indeed a specific proposal. But it is also insane. Oren is arguing that Obama should threaten to blow up the world economy, including America's own economy, just to secure some vague improvements to the Iran deal."

Fisher is right: this is nuts. It's basically just an excuse not to ever conclude a deal with Iran, and instead to (a) keep sanctions in place forever and (b) bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. Some plan. The first part is impossible, and the second part would do little except to convince Iran to redouble its efforts to build a bomb.

But I guess this is what passes for sounding tough in conservative land. God help us.

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No, Smartphones Aren't Responsible for the Drop in Teen Sex

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 11:55 PM EDT

Over at Wonkblog, we learn that American teenagers are having less sex than they used to. But why?

Crotchety adults may joke: Maybe they’re too busy messing with their iPhones.

That’s actually a decent theory, said Dr. Brooke Bokor, an Adolescent Medicine Specialist at the Children's National Health System. More teenagers than ever have smartphones....Many are more comfortable searching in private for credible information about sexual health....They could be better educated about the risks.”

....Another possible driver of the sexual slowdown is the growing popularity of the HPV vaccine, which is now widely offered to boys and girls as young as 11. The shots, of course, come with an educational conversation. Kids learn earlier about the prevalence of STIs and how they're spread.

Alert readers will understand immediately not only why these aren't decent theories, but why they're ridiculous ones. In case you need a hint, it's in the chart on the right.

As you can see, the percentage of teens who report ever having intercourse has been dropping since the late 80s, and dropped especially sharply during the 90s. There were no smartphones in the 90s. There was no HPV vaccine in the 90s. No matter how appealing these theories might be at first glance, neither is even remotely credible as an explanation for the decline in teen sexual activity.

So what's the answer? How about video games? Or hip hop? Or energy drinks? I have no evidence for any of these, and clean-living adults might be scandalized at the idea that any of them could have tangible benefits, but they're all better theories than smartphones or the HPV vaccine. At least the timing fits decently.

These provocations aside, I suppose you're now expecting me to get serious and suggest that the decline in childhood lead exposure is responsible for the drop in teen sex. Maybe! There is, after all, some evidence that reduced lead exposure is associated with the drop in teen pregnancy over the past few decades, and it's reasonable to suspect that less teen pregnancy might be the result of less teen sex. But there are at least two problems with this. First, pregnancy rates can go down even if sex doesn't, simply due to more widespread use of birth control. Second, the data on teen sex comes from the CDC, and their cohort breakdown doesn't seem to fit the lead theory. In particular, the percentage of ninth graders reporting sexual experience didn't start dropping until 2001, and if lead is responsible you'd expect the youngest cohort to drop earlier than older cohorts. At first glance, then, I'm not sure lead explains what's going on. But it might. I'd just need to see more and better data to be sure.

In other words: we don't really know for sure why teen sex is down. What we do know is that on a whole range of measures—crime rates, pregnancy, drug and alcohol use, cigarette smoking, math and reading proficiency, high school completion—teenagers have become better behaved over the past couple of decades. They just aren't as scary as they used to be. That's a little hard to take if you're a social conservative who's convinced that liberal values are destroying America, but it's true nonetheless. And good news too.

Medicare Cost Projections Are Down Stunningly in 2015 Report

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 5:16 PM EDT

As long as we're on the subject of annual trustees reports, the 2015 Medicare report was released today too. And if the Social Security report was slightly good news, the Medicare report is, once again, spectacularly good news. Here's the 75-year spending projection from ten years ago vs. today:

Ten years ago, Medicare was a runaway freight train. Spending was projected to increase indefinitely, rising to 13 percent of GDP by 2080. This year, spending is projected to slow down around 2040, and reaches only 6 percent of GDP by 2090.

Six percent! That's half what we thought a mere decade ago. If that isn't spectacular, I don't know what is.

The 2005 projection was based on past performance, which showed costs rising ceaselessly every year. That turned out to be wrong. This year's projection is also based on past performance, which shows that costs have flattened substantially since 2008. Will it turn out to be wrong too? Come back in 2025 and I'll tell you.

In any case, this illustrates the big difference between cost projections for Social Security and Medicare. Social Security is basically just arithmetic. We know how many people are going to retire, we know how long they're going to live, and we know how much we're going to pay them. Do the math and you know how much the program will cost us. It can change a bit over time, as projections of things like GDP growth or immigration rates change, but that happens at the speed of molasses. There are very few surprises with Social Security.

Medicare has all that, but it also has one more thing: the actual cost of medical care. And that's little more than an educated guess when you start projecting more than a decade ahead. Will costs skyrocket as expensive new therapies multiply? Or will costs plummet after someone invents self-sustaining nanobots that get injected at birth and keep us healthy forever at virtually no cost? I don't know. No one knows.

Beyond that, it's always foolish to assume that costs will rise forever just because they have in the past. Medicare is a political program, and at some point the public will decide that it's not willing to fund it at higher levels. It's not as if it's on autopilot, after all. We live in a democracy, and after lots of yelling and fighting, we'll eventually do something about rising medical costs if we simply don't think the additional spending is worth it.

Still, the news for now is pretty good. I happen to think the slowdown in medical costs is real, and will continue for some time (though not at the extremely low rates of the past few years). For more on this, see here, here, and here. Others think it's a temporary blip due to the recession, and big increases will return in a few years. We'll see.

Disability Insurance Is Going to Be a Big Deal In Next Year's Presidential Campaign

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 2:35 PM EDT

Another year, another report from the Social Security Trustees. Here's the basic chart, which shows the combined Social Security Trust fund becoming insolvent in 2034, one year later than last year's projection. At that point, if nothing is done, benefit checks will be reduced about 25 percent.

There's not much change since 2014, as you'd expect since this stuff doesn't change a lot from year to year. The bigger news is that if you pull apart OASI (old age benefits) from DI (disability), it turns out that DI is going to be insolvent next year. Everyone has known this for a while, so it's no big shock. But next year is an election year, which means Congress either needs to come up with a fix this year, while everyone is mesmerized by Donald Trump, or else put it off until next year, when they'll have to do it under the blazing white klieg lights of a presidential campaign.

It'll probably be next year, since Social Security traditionally doesn't get fixed until it's literally a few days away from not sending out checks to people. That should make this a great campaign issue between Republicans, who think DI is going broke because too many lazy bums are gaming the system, and Democrats, who mostly think it's going broke because boomers are retiring and the economy is still weak.

So who wins this argument? Republicans have a story that will appeal to their base audience, but when you finally get to the point where checks to disabled people are being reduced—or not being sent out at all—that tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully. Public opinion will likely end up on the side of the disabled, especially since the usual fix (moving a bit of money from OASI to DI) is cheap and painless.

But we'll see. In any case, this is a fight that can't be avoided. You can count on it becoming a focal point of next year's campaign.

CFPB Wins $700 Million Deceptive Practices Case Against Citibank, So Ted Cruz Wants to Shut Them Down

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 12:25 PM EDT

Steve Benen points out today that Ted Cruz wants to eliminate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because it "does little to protect consumers." Ironically, this comes on the same day that the CFPB won a case against Citibank for deceptive practices that resulted in a $700 million fine. But irony is not a Republican strong suit, and most of them not only want to eliminate the CFPB, they want to eliminate all of Dodd-Frank while they're at it.

This is not a big surprise since (a) Republicans have hated Dodd-Frank all along and virtually all of them voted against it, (b) it's an Obama thing, nuff said, and (c) it forces big banks to treat consumers fairly, and Republicans don't like laws that force big banks—or any other big business—to treat consumers fairly. Benen comments:

If the Dodd/Frank were actually imposing unreasonable burdens on well intentioned financial institutions, the complaints might be worth considering, but the fact remains that Wall Street reform is an under-appreciated success story. The repeal crusade is misguided on political and policy grounds.

This actually brings up a point worth repeating: one of the prices we pay for extreme political polarization is the inability to tweak big laws after they're passed. No Democrat would claim that Obamacare is perfect, for example. With a few years of experience under our belts, there are some things we now recognize could have been done better. But it's impossible to tweak the law because Republicans flatly refuse to cooperate. It's repeal or nothing. To their base, tweaking the law would be a tacit admission that Obamacare can be improved, and that's effectively treason to the cause. It's a socialist nightmare and it has to be torn out root and branch, period.

The same dynamic is true of Dodd-Frank. You can make a good case, for example, that the Dodd-Frank rules pose an unnecessary burden on small community banks that are obviously no threat to the financial system. But even if Democrats would now be willing to loosen the compliance requirements for banks under a certain size, there's no way to make it happen. It's a tweak to the law, and supporting that tweak merely helps Dodd-Frank stay on the books. Better to keep the law as crappy as possible so that opposition to it stays as strong as possible.

We see this play out over and over. Modern legislation is inherently complex and needs to be periodically tweaked to keep it working properly. When you can't do that, it steadily gums up the works and keeps everyone in a seething fury about how incompetent the federal government is.

Which is the whole point, of course. Welcome to the modern Republican Party. The more they can make a hash out of government operations, the better off they are.

The Republican Party Has Only Itself to Blame for Donald Trump

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 11:07 AM EDT

Seth Masket argues persuasively that we should judge parties by who they nominate, not by who runs. After all, anyone can run, even a carnival barker cretin like Donald Trump. I basically agree, but I also think Jonathan Bernstein makes a good point:

Seth Masket at Mischiefs of Faction is correct: Parties define themselves through their nominations, including the part where they reject some candidates. But it’s also true that Republicans have been teaching their voters for at least 40 years to respond to what Donald Trump is selling.

Yep. The party elders may not like Trump, but he's the price they pay for the devil's bargain they made years ago to aggressively go after the angry white guy vote. Eventually the perfect AWG candidate was going to come along, and it was never likely to be pretty when it happened. And it isn't.

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Chart of the Day: We're a Car Crazy Nation Yet Again

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 10:30 AM EDT

Bill McBride passes along the news that after a five-year slump, vehicle miles traveled in the US started to rise again in 2012, and in May of this year finally surpassed the previous record. However, this is a 12-month rolling average, so it's a little slow to pick up trends. You can see things more clearly in the chart on the right, which shows seasonally-adjusted monthly miles traveled. In the past 18 months, it's increased from 250 billion miles per month to 260 billion miles per month. That significantly outpaces population growth, which means that over the past year or so we're not only driving more, we're driving more per person.

Brad Plumer has much more here, but the basics seem simple: the economy has finally started growing and gasoline prices have been low. That's enough to get us all back in our cars.

So was it ever the case that American young 'uns fell out of love with the automobile, which partly explained why miles traveled dipped so dramatically during the recession? That's a favored explanation among urban pundits, where Zipcars and Uber are popular and lots of people don't bother owning cars. But I've always doubted it. It really does seem to be true that teenagers simply don't care about learning to drive as much as teenagers of my generation, but for the most part that just means they learn to drive a little later. And if they live in the burbs, they need to drive, same as always. They couldn't afford it while they were living in mom's basement during the recession, but they can now, and that's why car sales are up and miles driven are up.

We still love our cars, and now we can afford to use them. That will probably continue to be true until gas goes up to five bucks a gallon again. Here in California we're surprisingly close to that ($4.49/gallon for my last fill-up!), but the rest of you are still enjoying relatively cheap prices. What's more, with fracking moving along smartly, and Iran probably close to dumping another few million barrels of oil on the global market daily once sanctions ease up, prices seem likely to stay fairly low for the foreseeable future. That's unfortunate news for the planet, but good news for consumers.

When Is a Tax Not a Tax? When It's a Fee to Keep the Highway Trust Fund From Going Broke Next Month.

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 9:48 PM EDT

Good news! The Senate has come up with a compromise 6-year highway funding bill. It's 1,030 pages long, so no one really knows what's in it, and it only specifies funding sources for three years. But let's not be picky. It's a bill. So where's the money coming from?

Under the Senate agreement, Congress would raise $47.1 billion to cover three years’ worth of spending through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. Lawmakers came up with $9 billion of the total by agreeing to sell 101 million barrels of oil from the nation’s emergency stockpile over a seven-year period through fiscal 2025. Another $16 billion would come from lowering to 1.5% from 6% the dividend paid to all but the smallest banks that are members of the Federal Reserve system.

Seriously? Tax increases? Mitch McConnell agreed to this? Maybe it's in the $22 billion that's mysteriously absent from the Wall Street Journal's report. Let's see if The Hill has more:

"The bill is fully offset with spending reductions or changes to federal programs," [three Senate sponsors] said. "It does not increase the deficit or raise taxes."

....The proposal calls for generating $16.3 billion from interest rate changes, $9 billion from sales of reserved oil, $4 billion from customs fees, $3.5 billion from the TSA fees and $1.9 billion from extending guarantees on mortgage-backed securities that had been scheduled to start declining in 2021. Other funding sources in the measure include approximately $7.7 billion in tax compliance measures.

Hmmm. I guess "fees" don't count as taxes? And apparently neither do "tax compliance measures"—though I've certainly heard Republicans claim in the past that efforts to get rich people to actually pay their taxes were little more than a stealth tax increase.

Tomayto, tomahto. Best not to be too fastidious about these things. For example, "tax compliance measures" seems to include a provision that blocks Social Security payments to individuals with felony warrants. That's a tax compliance measure? Sure, I guess. Whatever.

Amusingly, the money from customs fees comes from indexing them for inflation. And that's OK with Mitch McConnell. But indexing the gasoline tax to inflation? That's a tax increase. Absolutely out of the question.

Anyway, the House has its own highway bill, which only runs for six months but would supposedly give them time to come up with a real, honest-to-goodness, fully-funded 6-year bill. That's very optimistic, considering that Congress has been haggling over this for seven years now and has never been able to do more than pass a quick fix that kicks the can down the road for a few more months. And that might happen again. McConnell and the other sponsors of the Senate legislation want their bill voted on quickly and then approved by the House before the August recess, since that's when the Highway Trust Fund literally goes broke. But plenty of senators aren't on board yet, and House leaders are skeptical too. If we end up with yet another 90-day fix, don't be too surprised.

AFFH: What You Need to Know to Keep Up With the Latest Right-Wing Outrage

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 2:39 PM EDT

Conservatives have a whole laundry list of stuff they're outraged about: Benghazi, Fast & Furious, Agenda 21, Obamaphones, etc. etc. So what's the latest from the right wing? Stanley Kurtz tells us:

Conservative opinion has been alive with outrage over AFFH for a month now.

Huh. Never heard of it. But a few minutes of Googling will get me up to speed. Hold on a bit.

OK. So it turns out that the Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlaws most of the obvious forms of housing discrimination, and has done a relatively good job of enforcing discrimination rules since then. However, it also requires the Department of Housing and Urban Development to run its programs in a way that affirmatively furthers fair housing. That is, if a local community is heavily segregated, it has to affirmatively try to reduce that segregation in order to qualify for HUD funds.

It turns out that HUD hasn't done much of anything about this particular aspect of the law, and President Obama would like them to start. So a couple of years ago HUD started developing guidelines called, uncreatively, "Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing." Last year they released a tool for assessing segregation and fair housing choice that can be used by community planners, and a few days ago they released the final 377-page rule.

That's the basics. It's surprisingly hard to get more because Google returns almost exclusively either (a) evaluations of AFFH by civil rights and fair housing groups, or (b) outraged rants from conservative outlets. Ordinary newspapers seem to have little interest (or, as Kurtz puts it, "The mainstream press has been straining to avoid AFFH").

Obviously I'm not going to pretend to be an instant expert now that I've read half a dozen pieces about AFFH, but basically the concrete goals seem to be (1) providing communities with data regarding the racial, ethnic and income distribution of housing in their towns; (2) encouraging and funding affordable housing in prosperous areas; and (3) pressing communities to change zoning rules that promote segregation.

Will it work? Hard to say. HUD's only tool for enforcing its guidelines is to withhold money for HUD programs if communities don't comply. However, prosperous communities don't get much HUD funding in the first place, which means HUD has little leverage in high-income suburbs. They'll probably be able to almost entirely avoid the long arm of HUD tyranny.

Anyway, that's that. Mostly I just wanted to let everyone know that this thing called AFFH is the latest outrage among the conservative base. It fits in perfectly with their hysteria over Agenda 21 and their general belief that Obama wants to round up every well-off white person in the country and pack them like sardines into high-rise buildings in big cities. Now you know.

Raw Data: How Many Unarmed Victims Do Police Shoot Each Year?

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 1:09 PM EDT

Via Bob Somerby, here's some raw data from the Washington Post's ongoing analysis of police shootings in America:

According to the Post, about 16 percent of the victims weren't carrying a deadly weapon at the time they were killed. That breaks down like this:

  • 26 blacks out of 132, or about 20 percent.
  • 35 whites out of 253, or about 14 percent.
  • 17 Hispanics out of 83, or about 20 percent.

These percentages are roughly similar across races, but don't account for total population. When you account for that, unarmed blacks are killed at about 4x the rate of whites and 2x the rate of Hispanics.