Kevin Drum

The Goal of "6 Californias" Remains a Mystery

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 2:42 PM EDT

Now that billionaire eccentric Tim Draper has gotten enough signatures to qualify his "Six Californias" initiative for the ballot in 2016, I can no longer imperiously demand that the media stop paying attention to him. If this is going to be a ballot measure then it's obviously a legitimate news story.

So a friend emailed this morning to ask what Draper's deal is. Beats me. Officially, his motivation is a belief that California is simply too big to govern. As plausible as this is, it's hardly a sufficient explanation. So what is it that's really eating him? Well, Draper is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, so a few months ago Time asked him about that particular sixth of California:

How would you like to see things done differently in Silicon Valley, if it had its own government?

The issues of Silicon Valley are things like when Napster came out. No one knew how the law should be handled. It was a new technology. And no one quite knew whether it had some violation of copyright or not ... And the people who were making those decisions were very distant, and not familiar with what Napster was. Now we have Bitcoin. We have very uncertain laws around Bitcoin. I believe if there were a government closer to Silicon Valley, it would be more in touch with those technologies and the need for making appropriate laws around them. Silicon Valley is seeing great frustration. They see how creative and efficient and exciting life can be in a place where innovation thrives, and then they see a government that is a little lost.

This makes no sense, since both copyright law and monetary policy are set in Washington DC, not Sacramento. But let's accept that Draper was just burbling a bit here, and not hold him to specifics. What's his beef? Basically, he appears to be retailing a strain of techno-libertarian utopianism or something. Information wants to be free! Technology will save us all! Just get government out of the way!

Or something. I don't know, really. The whole thing is crazy, and it's yet another example of how easy it is for billionaires to get publicity. Paying a signature-gathering firm to get something on the ballot in California is pretty trivial if you have a lot of money, and it automatically gets you a ton of exposure. So now Draper has that. But what's the end game? Even if his initiative passes, he knows perfectly well it's going nowhere since Congress will never approve it. So either (a) he's just a crackpot or (b) he has some clever reason for doing this that's going to make him even richer. It's a mystery.

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Government Failures On the Rise? Take It With a Grain of Salt.

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 12:40 PM EDT

Paul Light has gotten a lot of attention for his recent study showing that "government failures" are on the rise. I've seen several criticisms of his study, but it seems to me that basic methodology is really the main problem with it. First off, his dataset is a list of "41 important past government failures (between 2001 – 2014) from a search of news stories listed in the Pew Research Center’s News Interest Index." Is that really a good way of determining the frequency of government failures? A list of headlines might be a good way of determining public interest, but it hardly seems like even a remotely good proxy for cataloging government failure in general.

For example, 2007 appears to be an epically bad year for government failure. But among the failures are "wounded soldiers," "food safety recalls," and "consumer product recalls." Those all seem a bit amorphous to count as distinct failures.

This methodology also mushes up timeframes. Fast & Furious is counted as a government failure in 2011, but that's just the year it made headlines. The operation itself ran from 2006-11. Likewise, the "postal service financing crisis" is hardly unique to 2011. It's been ongoing for years.

Some of the items don't even appear to be proper government failures. Was the Gulf oil spill in 2010 a government failure? Or the Southwest airline groundings? In both cases, you can argue—as Light does—that they exposed lax government oversight. But this basically puts you in the position of arguing that any failure in a regulated industry is a government failure. I'm not sure I buy that.

Finally, on the flip side, there are the things that don't show up. The government shutdown in 2013? The fiscal cliff? The debt ceiling standoffs? The collapse of the Copenhagen conference? Allowing Osama bin Laden to escape from Tora Bora? The scandalous demotion of Pluto to non-planet status?

Maybe I'm just picking nits here. But given the weakness of the core methodology; the small number of incidents; the problems of categorization; and the overall vagueness of what "failure" means, I'm just not sure this study tells us much. I'd take it with a big shaker of salt for the moment. It seems more like clickbait than a serious analysis of how well or poorly government has done over the past decade.

Why Can't We Teach Shakespeare Better?

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 11:11 AM EDT

After writing about a common misconception regarding a particular scene in Julius Caesar, Mark Kleiman offers a footnote:

Like many Boomers, I had to read Julius Caesar in the 10th grade; not really one of the Bard’s better efforts, but full of quotable passages and reasonably easy to follow. (As You Like It, by contrast, if read rather than watched, makes absolutely no sense to a sixteen-year-old; I was fortunate enough to see a performance a year or so later, but I suspect that some of my classmates never discovered that Shakespeare wrote great musicals.)

Brutus’s speech would have been a perfect scene to use as an example of dramatic irony. But I doubt my teacher had any idea what the passage was about, and the lit-crit we read as “secondary sources” disdained anything as straightforward as explaining what the play was supposed to mean or how the poet used dramatic techniques to express that meaning.

This was my experience too, but in college. I remember enrolling in a Shakespeare class and looking forward to it. In my case, I actually had a fairly good high school English teacher, but still, Shakespeare is tough for high schoolers. This would be my chance to really learn and appreciate what Shakespeare was doing.

Alas, no. I got an A in the class, but learned barely anything. It was a huge disappointment. To this day, I don't understand why Shakespeare seems to be so difficult to teach. Was I just unlucky?

Darrell Issa Is Unclear on the Concept of "Consultation"

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 1:06 AM EDT

Dana Milbank writes today about the unprecedented1 use of "unilateral" subpoenas issued by Darrell Issa as part of his endless series of Benghazi/IRS/Fast&Furious/Solyndra/etc. investigations. After reviewing the facts and figures that demonstrate just how reckless and partisan Issa is, he got this priceless response:

Issa’s deputy staff director, Frederick Hill, said Democrats as well as Republicans have used unilateral subpoenas. Hill also said that Issa, unlike his immediate predecessor Towns, consults with the minority before each subpoena.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to reenact for you Issa's "consultation" with the minority:

ISSA: Hey Elijah, I want to issue a subpoena to Lois Lerner's dentist as part of the IRS investigation. I think she might have gotten a reduced-price root canal in return for making sure he didn't get audited. You OK with that?

ELIJAH CUMMINGS: What? That's crazy. Of course I'm not OK with that.

ISSA: OK, great. I'm glad we had this chat. I'll issue the subpoena tomorrow.

Next up: Issa's office demands to know why an American Water Dog isn't good enough for the Obama family.

1Well, unprecedented except for the literally insane number of subpoenas issued by demented conspiracy theorist Dan Burton during the Clinton witch hunts of the 90s.

Quote of the Day: Stone Tablets Will Defeat the NSA

| Tue Jul. 15, 2014 2:28 PM EDT

From Patrick Sensburg, head of the Bundestag's parliamentary inquiry into NSA activity in Germany, on whether they are "considering typewriters" for the committee's work:

As a matter of fact, we have — and not electronic models either.

Well. I grew up with a house full of Adler typewriters, all of them fine products of German engineering. I think later on they became fine products of not-so-German engineering, but I'm sure it's still possible to find some of the old-school models. They should work a treat for creating documents that are safe from prying eyes, since we all know that spies were never able to steal documents prior to the digital era.

The IRS Scandal Finally Reaches Its End Game

| Tue Jul. 15, 2014 12:41 PM EDT

Every few years the Republican Party goes on a jihad against the IRS. The most famous was probably Sen. William Roth's theatrical witch hunt in the 90s that regaled an eager public with stories about jackbooted thugs and "Gestapo-like" tactics. The most recent is the seemingly endless investigation into charges that the IRS targeted grassroots conservative nonprofits at the behest of its partisan masters. These charges have turned out to be almost entirely groundless—just like Roth's—but don't make the mistake of thinking this makes them pointless. You just have to wait for the other shoe to drop, as it did yesterday:

The House late Monday night adopted proposals by voice vote to cut funding for the Internal Revenue Service. Rep. Paul Gosar's (R-Ariz.) amendment to the fiscal 2015 Financial Services appropriations bill would cut funding for the IRS by $353 million. Specifically, Gosar's amendment would cut that funding from the IRS enforcement account and use it toward deficit reduction.

Gosar argued that funding for the IRS would be better used toward reducing the deficit than toward the agency caught in GOP crosshairs...."More directly than financial or condition of the country is the fact that this agency has shown contempt for the American taxpayer."

The Roth Hearings ended up with reduced funding for IRS enforcement, something that took over a decade to recover from. Now Gosar wants to cut IRS enforcement funding too. Coincidence? Not so much. If you want to reduce taxes on the wealthy, after all, there are two ways to do it. You can either reduce their tax rates or you can make it easier for them to evade the tax rates that already exist. Either way, it's a boon to anyone with lots of money and good tax planners. But I repeat myself.

In any case, this was always inevitable. The goal of anti-IRS jihads is always to reduce funding for enforcement. And despite what Gosar might want you to believe, very little enforcement has ever been aimed at middle-class taxpayers or small nonprofits. It's mostly aimed at the rich, for obvious Willie Suttonish reasons. Weakening enforcement actions against the Republican Party's core constituency has always been the end game for the IRS scandal, and now we're finally there.

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Researchers Who Study Political Temperament Need to Watch the Condescension

| Tue Jul. 15, 2014 11:42 AM EDT

Chris Mooney writes today about one of his favorite subjects: the hypothesis that underlying personality traits tend to make people either politically liberal or politically conservative. The latest news is that, apparently, virtually everyone who studies this kind of thing now agrees that it's true:

The occasion of this revelation is a paper by John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska and his colleagues, arguing that political conservatives have a "negativity bias," meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments....The authors go on to speculate that this ultimately reflects an evolutionary imperative. "One possibility," they write, "is that a strong negativity bias was extremely useful in the Pleistocene," when it would have been super helpful in preventing you from getting killed.

Well, yes, the Pleistocene. I suppose it would have been useful then. But I wish the researchers who study this stuff could learn to talk about it less condescendingly. After all, this sensitivity to threats might also be useful during, say, World War II. Or on a dark street corner. Or at a city council meeting discussing a zoning variance. If you pretend that it's primarily just a laughable atavism that a few poor primitives among us still hold onto, is it any wonder that conservatives don't think much of your research?

Plus, as Mooney points out in a tweet: "People, take note: To explain conservatives psychologically is basically to explain liberals as well." Yep. The flip side of the threat hypothesis is that liberalism flourishes among people with a naive sense of security.

But this is nothing new. As the old saying goes, a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged. Liberals and conservatives argue endlessly about just how much security is necessary against outsiders: against the Soviets during the Cold War, against terrorists after 9/11, to protect ourselves against street thugs, etc. The idea that different sensitivities to threat are fundamental to liberalism and conservatism strikes me as something I barely even need research to believe in.

Nobody Is Very Excited About Obama's Border Plan

| Tue Jul. 15, 2014 10:48 AM EDT

The latest ABC/Washington Post poll shows vividly just how hard a time President Obama is going to have getting his emergency plan to address the border crisis passed. The good news is that Americans approve of his plan by 53-43 percent. The bad news is that this is a pretty thin margin, and suggests there's virtually no real passion in favor of it.

But the even worse news comes in a breakdown of the numbers. Among Republicans, disapproval reigns, 35-59 percent. So Boehner & Co. have very little motivation to act. What's more, Hispanics, who ought to be the core constituency among Democrats for any immigration-related legislation, are only tenuously in favor, 54-43 percent. The reflects sharp divisions within the Democratic Party about the core idea of deporting any of the refugees in any way.

So Democrats are split and Republicans are opposed. This is not fertile ground for any kind of compromise. The only thing Obama has going for him is that what's happening on the border really is a crisis, and at some point everyone might genuinely feel like they have to do something. But what? Even Obama's fairly anodyne proposal has already drawn significant opposition from both sides, and any proposal that moves further to the left or the right will draw even more opposition. This could take a while unless, by some miracle, both parties decided they're better off just getting this off the table before the midterm elections. But what are the odds of that?

For more of Mother Jones' reporting on unaccompanied child migrants, see all of our latest coverage here.

Supreme Court Approval: It's All Partisan, Baby

| Mon Jul. 14, 2014 3:11 PM EDT

Andrew Prokop draws my attention this morning to a Gallup chart of Supreme Court approval ratings that I've never seen before. It shows approval by political affiliation, and it's kind of interesting. Here it is with my annotations:

There are five big spikes over the past 15 years, and three of them have obvious causes. In 2001 Republican approval spiked after the Bush v. Gore decision; in 2012 Democratic approval spiked after the court upheld Obamacare; and in 2014 Republican approval spiked after the Hobby Lobby decision. But what happened in 2005 and 2009?

In 2005-06, Republican approval spiked but Democratic approval was stable. Was this because of Bush's re-election or because Roberts and Alito were named to the court? Or both? But if that were the case, shouldn't Democratic approval have gone down?

And in 2009, Democratic approval spiked. Was this because of Obama's election or because Sotomayor was named to the court? Or both?

I'm not sure. If these two spikes were due to presidents being elected, what happened in 2013? Why no spike? And if it's due to justices being nominated, why no Democratic love for Elena Kagan in 2010? Or is there something else going on? I can't think of any big Supreme Court decisions that could account for the 2005 and 2009 spikes. What other possibilities are there?

If Congress Wants to Know Who's Responsible for the Immigration Crisis, It Should Look in a Mirror

| Mon Jul. 14, 2014 1:11 PM EDT

Why do we have an enormous backlog of immigration cases along our southern border? Well, as far back as 2006 the immigration backlog had already reached 169,000 cases, so the Bush administration asked for more funding for immigration judges. Congress ignored the request. Then, in 2008, we passed a law guaranteeing judicial proceedings for children who arrive from countries other than Canada or Mexico. That increased the backlog further, and when Barack Obama took office he tried to at least fill all the existing judicial vacancies. But as Stephanie Mencimer reports, that wasn't nearly enough:

Immigration judges can expect to handle 1,500 cases at any given time. By comparison, Article I federal district judges handle about 440 cases, and they get several law clerks to help manage the load. Immigration judges have to share a single clerk with two or three other judges. The lack of staffing creates an irony that seems to be lost on the current Congress: Too few judges means that people with strong cases languish for years waiting for them to get resolved, while people with weak cases who should probably be sent home quickly get to stay in the United States a few years waiting for a decision.

....Today, there are 243 judges—just 13 more than in 2006 and 21 fewer than at the end of 2012—and more than 30 vacancies the government is trying to fill. All this despite the fact that the immigration court backlog has increased nearly 120 percent since 2006. And that was before the kids started coming.

Obama has tried to get funding for more judges as part of the annual budgeting process. No luck. He's tried to pass comprehensive immigration reform that included funding for more judges. No luck. Now he's trying to get emergency funding for the border crisis that would include money for more judges. So far, no luck.

There are, obviously, multiple causes of the current border crisis. As usual, though, Congress is one of them—and, in particular, obstructive congressional Republicans who aren't really much interested in doing something that would fix an ongoing border crisis that provides them with useful political attack ads. If Congress needs someone to point the finger of blame at, all they have to do is look in a mirror.