Kevin Drum

Chart of the Day: The Terrorist Watchlist By the Numbers

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 1:49 PM EDT

Over at the Intercept, Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux break down the federal government's terrorist watchlist for us:

Of the 680,000 people caught up in the government’s Terrorist Screening Database—a watchlist of “known or suspected terrorists” that is shared with local law enforcement agencies, private contractors, and foreign governments—more than 40 percent are described by the government as having “no recognized terrorist group affiliation.”

....[Classified] documents, obtained from a source in the intelligence community, also reveal that the Obama Administration has presided over an unprecedented expansion of the terrorist screening system. Since taking office, Obama has boosted the number of people on the no fly list more than ten-fold, to an all-time high of 47,000—surpassing the number of people barred from flying under George W. Bush.

....Most people placed on the government’s watchlist begin in a larger, classified system known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE)....In the summer of 2013, officials celebrated what one classified document prepared by the National Counterterrorism Center refers to as “a milestone”—boosting the number of people in the TIDE database to a total of one million, up from half a million four years earlier.

There's much more at the link. Click to read the whole thing.

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The Siberian Permafrost Just Sent Us a Warning Message

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 1:34 PM EDT

One of the scary aspects of climate change is the possibility of positive feedback loops. When Arctic ice melts, for example, it exposes seawater, which doesn't reflect as much sunlight as ice. So more sunlight is absorbed, which makes the planet even warmer, which melts more ice, rinse and repeat.

Of all of these feedback loops, the scariest might well be the melting of the Siberian permafrost. As the permafrost melts, it releases large amounts of methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas. That warms the planet, which speeds up the permafrost melt, which releases more methane, ad infinitum.

The good news about the permafrost is that it's probably not going to start seriously melting until the middle of the century or beyond. The bad news is that it might already be starting:

By now, you’ve heard of the crater on the Yamal Peninsula. It’s the one that suddenly appeared, yawning nearly 200 feet in diameter, and made several rounds in the global viral media machine....There’s now a substantiated theory about what created the crater. And the news isn’t so good.

It may be methane gas, released by the thawing of frozen ground. According to a recent Nature article, “air near the bottom of the crater contained unusually high concentrations of methane — up to 9.6% — in tests conducted at the site on 16 July, says Andrei Plekhanov, an archaeologist at the Scientific Centre of Arctic Studies in Salekhard, Russia. Plekhanov, who led an expedition to the crater, says that air normally contains just 0.000179% methane.”

This particular crater is apparently due to abnormally hot summers in 2012 and 2013, and one or two hot summers could happen regardless of changes in global temperatures. As usual, then, we can't say for sure that this is a direct result of climate change. But what we can say is that it's a canary in the coal mine. As the climate warms, we're going to see more and more craters like this. Individually, we'll never know if climate change is to blame. But collectively, there won't be much doubt. And if and when the permafrost goes into an irreversible meltdown, you might want to pack your bags and move to Tierra del Fuego.

Obama Wants Businesses to Put Their Money Where Their Mouths Are

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 12:38 PM EDT

The Economist interviewed President Obama this week, and Clive Crook was discomfited by this snippet:

The Economist: We see a lot of business people and they do complain about regulation.

Mr Obama: They always complain about regulation. That’s their job....The business community does have broader responsibilities to the system as a whole. And although the general view today is that the only responsibility that a corporate CEO has is to his shareholders, I think the American people generally sense—

The Economist: Do you really think that's true? Because when I talk to corporate CEOs, that’s one of their complaints. If you ask for a complaint about the White House, they’ll say it is the attitude. Every CEO nowadays is involved in nine different social responsibility things—it’s ingrained in most public—

Mr Obama: Well, I think—here’s what’s interesting. There’s a huge gap between the professed values and visions of corporate CEOs and how their lobbyists operate in Washington. And I’ve said this to various CEOs. When they come and they have lunch with me—which they do more often than they probably care to admit (laughter)—and they’ll say, you know what, we really care about the environment, and we really care about education, and we really care about getting immigration reform done—then my challenge to them consistently is, is your lobbyist working as hard on those issues as he or she is on preserving that tax break that you’ve got? And if the answer is no, then you don’t care about it as much as you say.

Oddly, Crook is upset because he thinks this demonstrates that Obama is indeed anti-business, just as his critics claim. Here's what he has to say about that:

Interesting to see a politician accuse business people of insincerity. Even on the view that executives are entirely self-serving, by the way, you'd expect them to care a lot about education and immigration reform. Aside from that, how peculiar of Obama, pausing briefly from his busy schedule of political fund-raising, to criticize businesses for the effort they put into lobbying. If lobbying didn't work, businesses wouldn't do it. It works because politicians are receptive. That's their job.

Think about what we have here. The Economist interviewer is apparently taking at face value business complaints that they never get credit for the immense amount of social work they do. That's an odd bit of naiveté for a normally cynical business publication. Then Obama points out the obvious: what corporate CEOs say and what they do are rather different things. If you want to know what their real priorities are, take a look at what their lobbyists focus on.

Sensible enough, you'd think. But Crook doesn't agree. And here's the weirdest part: he thinks that it's somehow unfair of Obama to criticize business lobbying when, after all, it works. On this reading, the tidal wave of pseudo-bribery that lubricates Washington DC is beyond criticism precisely because politicians are so eager to accept all these pseudo-bribes. How can you be pro-business, and at the same time be critical of the endlessly parochial goals of corporate lobbying?

Those seem like perfectly compatible positions to me, so I don't really get this. Perhaps it gets to the difference between being pro-market and pro-business. These are rather different things, but they often get mushed together without much thought.

In any case, I have no doubt that Obama doesn't instinctively venerate the business community the way George Bush (or even Bill Clinton) did. Nevertheless, pointing out that most corporations aren't quite the social visionaries they claim to be is hardly evidence of anything other than a clear view of the world. After all, as Crook says, lobbying works. That being the case, surely Obama is right: if they really cared about the environment and education and so forth, they'd be mounting big lobbying operations and demanding that Republicans support them if they ever want to see another dime. But for the most part, they haven't. Money has spoken.

Rand Paul Is Learning How To Be a Good Stage Actor

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 11:12 AM EDT

Back when he was a reckless and irresponsible youngster, Rand Paul suggested cutting off all foreign aid, specifically including aid to Israel. "I want to be known as a friend of Israel," he said, "but not with money you don’t have."

Oh wait. That was actually 2011. Not so long ago after all. It's certainly well after the internet was invented and politicians' past statements became impossible to hide or fudge. Nevertheless, Paul is now running for president, so he needs to revise his position. That shouldn't be too hard, really, but as usual, he's making it hard:

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul on Monday denied that he once supported ending federal aid to Israel — an idea he proposed as recently as 2011.

“I haven’t really proposed that in the past,” Paul told Yahoo News when asked if he still thought the U.S. should phase out aid to Israel, which has been battling Hamas in Gaza for weeks. “We’ve never had a legislative proposal to do that. You can mistake my position, but then I’ll answer the question. That has not been a position — a legislative position — we have introduced to phase out or get rid of Israel’s aid. That’s the answer to that question. Israel has always been a strong ally of ours and I appreciate that. I voted just this week to give money — more money — to the Iron Dome, so don’t mischaracterize my position on Israel.

This is starting to become one of Paul's distinguishing features. He's also done the same thing regarding the Civil Rights Act. Instead of simply saying that his thinking has evolved in some way or another, he aggressively denies he ever held his previous position and then pretends to be outraged that some liberal shill of a reporter is deliberately misrepresenting his position. How dare he?!? So far the mainstream press isn't really giving him much grief over this, but that could change if he mounts a serious presidential run.

Poor Rand Paul. He's discovering that the actual existing Republican Party isn't really all that libertarian after all. If he wants to be president, he's going to have to jettison a whole bunch of fervently held positions, and he's obviously not very happy about that. I wonder how many times he's going to pull a performance like this? If he perfects it, maybe he deserves a Tony.

Chart of the Day: How Austerity Wrecked the Recovery

| Mon Aug. 4, 2014 3:09 PM EDT

I've previously nominated a version of the illustration below as chart of the year, and last year I wrote an entire piece for the print magazine as basically just an excuse to get it in print. Bill McBride's version focuses on public sector payroll, not total public sector spending, but it tells the same story: after every previous recession of the past 40 years, the subsequent recovery was helped along by increased government outlays. In the 2007-08 recession—and only in this recession—the recovery was deliberately hobbled by insisting on declining government outlays. This is despite the fact that it was the worst recession of the bunch.

The result, of course, was that there was no Obama Miracle in 2011. In fact, there was barely even an Obama Recovery. If you think that's just a coincidence, I have a bridge to sell you.

Hispanic Vote Unlikely to Be Crucial in 2014

| Mon Aug. 4, 2014 12:47 PM EDT

Republicans have repeatedly failed to pass anything of substance regarding immigration, and their latest fiasco over the border crisis makes their haplessness more apparent than ever. But will it matter this November? Nate Cohn says no:

Hispanic voters are all but absent from this year’s most competitive Senate battlegrounds. Hispanic voters make up about 11 percent of eligible voters but represent 5 percent or fewer of the eligible voters in eight of the nine states deemed competitive by Leo, The Upshot’s Senate model.

....Hispanic voters will have even less influence over the composition of the House, which is all but assured to remain in Republican hands....The reason is simple. In districts held by House Republicans, Hispanics represent only 6.7 percent of eligible voters. The Hispanic share of eligible voters is nearly as low in the House battlegrounds, 7.4 percent.

Add to this the fact that Hispanics already vote for Democrats in large numbers, and Republicans just don't have very much to lose. Even if they lost another 10 percent of the Hispanic vote (an improbably huge number), that would represent considerably less than 1 percent of the total vote. That just won't make a difference except in a few of the very tightest races.

The main exception here is Colorado, which has a substantial Hispanic population. But Colorado has never been a likely Republican pickup anyway, so it's unlikely to affect overall Republican chances of taking control of the Senate this year.

Now, as Cohn says, in a tight race anything can make a difference. And the Senate race is tight enough that control could easily come down to one close race in one state. If Georgia ends up being decided by a 51-49 vote, it's just possible that Hispanic turnout could make the difference.

Probably not, though, and this is a good illustration of the current dynamics in American elections: national demographic trends are making it harder and harder for Republicans to win the presidency, but those same trends don't affect congressional votes that much as long as Republicans can hold onto their base. So the GOP can maintain its ability to obstruct, but is losing its ability to lead.

In other words, you should probably get used to gridlock. It's not going away anytime soon.

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House Report: Benghazi Is Just Benghazi

| Mon Aug. 4, 2014 10:54 AM EDT

The Republican-led House Intelligence Committee—officially now just a bunch of RINO traitors, I guess—is about to release a report saying that what happened in Benghazi is pretty much what the entire non-insane world has figured all along:

The House Intelligence Committee, led by Republicans, has concluded that there was no deliberate wrongdoing by the Obama administration in the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, said Rep. Mike Thompson of St. Helena, the second-ranking Democrat on the committee....Among the Intelligence Committee's findings, according to Thompson:

  • Intelligence agencies were "warned about an increased threat environment, but did not have specific tactical warning of an attack before it happened."
  • A mixed group of individuals, including those associated with al Qaeda, (Moammar) Khadafy loyalists and other Libyan militias, participated in the attack."
  • "There was no 'stand-down order' given to American personnel attempting to offer assistance that evening, no illegal activity or illegal arms transfers occurring by U.S. personnel in Benghazi, and no American was left behind."
  • The administration's process for developing "talking points" was "flawed, but the talking points reflected the conflicting intelligence assessments in the days immediately following the crisis."

We'll know shortly whether the full report really says this, or whether Thompson is leaving out the juicy parts. If his summary is accurate, this report represents a rare display of GOP levelheadedness before we get started with the Trey Gowdy conspiracy theory fest later this year.

Lotus Watching in LA

| Sun Aug. 3, 2014 8:55 PM EDT

I spent the afternoon up in LA with my mother, and she wanted to go over and check out the new, rejuvenated Echo Park along with its new, rejuvenated lotus plants. It's a little late in the season to see them in all their glory, but they're still blooming. See here for the rather remarkable backstory about how the lotuses, once thought dead and gone forever, were brought back to life.

Can Obama Order Immigration Amnesty All By Himself?

| Sun Aug. 3, 2014 1:37 PM EDT

Normally, says Ross Douthat, all the recent alarmist liberal chatter about impeachment "would simply be an unseemly, un-presidential attempt to raise money and get out the 2014 vote." But not this time:

Even as his team plays the impeachment card with gusto, the president is contemplating — indeed, all but promising — an extraordinary abuse of office: the granting of temporary legal status, by executive fiat, to up to half the country’s population of illegal immigrants.

Such an action would come equipped with legal justifications, of course....But the precedents would not actually justify the policy, because the scope would be radically different. Beyond a certain point, as the president himself has conceded in the past, selective enforcement of our laws amounts to a de facto repeal of their provisions. And in this case the de facto repeal would aim to effectively settle — not shift, but settle — a major domestic policy controversy on the terms favored by the White House.

....In defense of going much, much further, the White House would doubtless cite the need to address the current migrant surge, the House Republicans’ resistance to comprehensive immigration reform and public opinion’s inclination in its favor.

But all three points are spurious. A further amnesty would, if anything, probably incentivize further migration, just as Obama’s previous grant of legal status may well have done. The public’s views on immigration are vaguely pro-legalization — but they’re also malleable, complicated and, amid the border crisis, trending rightward. And in any case we are a republic of laws, in which a House majority that defies public opinion is supposed to be turned out of office, not simply overruled by the executive.

It's worth pointing out at the start that we don't know what Obama has in mind. It's entirely possible that he's deliberately leaking some fairly extreme ideas merely to get people like Douthat wound up. If and when he does issue executive orders over immigration, they might turn out to be a lot more moderate than anything the Fox News set is bellowing about. It wouldn't surprise me.

But suppose Obama does issue an unusually bold executive order, one that halts immigration enforcement against a very large segment of the undocumented immigrants currently in the country. What then?

Well, it would depend on exactly what the order entails and what the legal justification is, but if it really does have a broad scope then I agree that it might very well represent presidential overreach. And, as Douthat says, congressional inaction wouldn't be any kind of defense. Congress has every right not to act if it doesn't want to. Aside from genuine emergencies, that provides not even the slightest justification for presidential action.

So I'll just repeat what I said on Thursday: an executive order is hardly the end of the game. For starters, Republicans can take their case to the public, using Obama's actions as a campaign weapon in 2016 to spur the election of a president who will reverse them. They can also go to court. In a case like this, I suspect they wouldn't have much trouble finding someone with standing to sue, so it it would be a pretty straightforward case.

As it happens, I think the current Republican obsession with presidential overreach is fairly pointless because their examples are so trivial. Extending the employer mandate might very well go beyond Obama's powers, but who cares? It's a tiny thing. Alternatively, the mini-DREAM executive action is fairly substantial but also very unlikely to represent any kind of overreach. Ditto for recent EPA actions.

Presidents do things all the time that push the envelope of statutory authority. To be worth any serious outrage, they need to be (a) significant and (b) fairly clearly beyond the scope of the president's powers. I don't think Obama has done anything like this yet, but if Republicans want to test that proposition in court, they should go right ahead. That's what courts are for.

Friday Cat Blogging - 1 August 2014

| Fri Aug. 1, 2014 3:00 PM EDT

Domino's new favorite snoozing spot is the closet in our master bedroom. Naturally, knowing that everyone would want to be kept up to date on this development, I took a picture. Unfortunately, it turns out that cameras need a stream of photons to work properly, and the inside of a closet doesn't have many. So all I got were a bunch of black blurs. Soon enough, though, Domino saw the camera and came out. So I followed her over to the water dish, and eventually took a picture there. Even with plenty of help from Mr. Photoshop, however, it wasn't very good either. So I waited. Eventually, Domino went back into the closet and curled up, and this time I took some pictures with the flash.

Which picture to use? I hate flash pictures. I especially hate them when they basically lie—making a dark closet look brightly lit, for example. But the other picture was pretty lousy. Decisions, decisions. In the end, I opt for lousy but honest. Let's call it "Still Life With Two Cats" just to make it seem a little more refined. Like Domino.