Kevin Drum

Hey, Denver: Give Chick-fil-A a Break

| Fri Aug. 21, 2015 11:48 AM EDT

I can't recall ever agreeing with John Fund about anything, but he thinks this is ridiculous and I guess I do too:

Chick-fil-A's reputation as an opponent of same-sex marriage has imperiled the fast-food chain's potential return to Denver International Airport, with several City Council members this week passionately questioning a proposed concession agreement.

Councilman Paul Lopez called opposition to the chain at DIA "really, truly a moral issue on the city."...Robin Kniech, the council's first openly gay member, said she was most worried about a local franchise generating "corporate profits used to fund and fuel discrimination." She was first to raise Chick-fil-A leaders' politics during a Tuesday committee hearing.

....Several council members — including four on the six-member committee — raised questions related to Chick-fil-A's religion-influenced operation, which includes keeping all franchises closed on Sundays.

Most focused on political firestorms sparked by remarks made by Chick-fil-A's now-CEO Dan Cathy, reaching a peak in 2012 after court decisions favorable to same-sex marriage. The company also came under fire for donations made by charitable arms to groups opposing LGBT causes.

This stuff happened four years ago, and the company halted contributions to anti-gay groups a year later. Cathy presumably still doesn't support gay marriage, but I really don't think that should be a precondition for winning a bid with a government agency.

And when several council members go beyond that, raising questions about "Chick-fil-A's religion-influenced operation," all it does is confirm the worst hysteria from the right wing that merely being Christian is enough to arouse the hatred of the left. That's just wildly inappropriate.

If the Denver City Council were giving a popular fast-food outlet a hard time because its CEO contributed to Planned Parenthood four years ago, we'd be outraged—and rightly so. I don't blame conservatives for being equally outraged about this.

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Falling Stock Markets? Blame China.

| Fri Aug. 21, 2015 11:18 AM EDT

Over at Wonkblog, Ylan Mui writes about the plummeting stock market:

Is this the beginning of “Rate Rage”?

You could be forgiven for thinking so, judging by all the blame that’s been heaped on the Federal Reserve for the selloff in stock markets over the past three days. The blue-chip Dow Jones Industrial Average has plunged 500 points, and the broader Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index erased its gains for the year. Markets Friday morning were already beginning to edge down.

We must read wildly different stuff. I haven't noticed anyone blaming the Fed for falling stock markets. The headlines have all been like this one in the Wall Street Journal: markets are dropping because investors are afraid that China is about to go belly up. As Mui points out, the Fed's actions have been widely anticipated, and the timing of the market drop doesn't really match up with anything new from the Fed anyway. It does match up with investors finally getting nervous after weeks of increasingly bad news from China.

In any case, this is yet another reason the Fed might want to rethink a rate rise later this year. The global economy is not looking especially robust at the moment, with Europe barely growing and China possibly entering a serious slowdown. We don't really need to add to these problems.

Hobby Drones: Not As Cute As You Think

Why a sky clogged with unregulated remote-control aircraft might not be such a great idea.

| Fri Aug. 21, 2015 10:40 AM EDT

Somebody at the FAA leaked several hundred rogue-drone reports to the Washington Post's Craig Whitlock:

Before last year, close encounters with rogue drones were unheard of. But as a result of a sales boom, small, largely unregulated remote-control aircraft are clogging U.S. airspace, snarling air traffic and giving the FAA fits.

Pilots have reported a surge in close calls with drones: nearly 700 incidents so far this year, according to FAA statistics, about triple the number recorded for all of 2014. The agency has acknowledged growing concern about the problem and its inability to do much to tame it.

And we saw something similar a few weeks ago, when private drones interfered with firefighting in California.

This is the reason I'm more skeptical about a laissez faire attitude toward drones than many people. Once they're out there, they're out there, and all the new regulations in the world won't put the genie back in the bottle. Conversely, if you regulate them more tightly and ease up slowly as the consequences become clearer, we can avoid things like drones bringing down a 747 about to land at LaGuardia.

Nobody likes the idea of the government getting in the way of cool new technology. I get that. But governments regulate driverless cars for an obvious reason: they're dangerous. Drones probably ought to be more tightly regulated for the same reason. When one person in 10,000 owned one, they seemed harmless. When one person in a hundred owns one, it suddenly becomes clear that a sky full of hobby drones might not be such a great idea. When the day comes that everyone has one, it will be too late.

This is true of a lot of things. When they're rare, they seem harmless. And they are! But you need to think about what happens when they get cheap and ubiquitous. In the case of drones, we might not like what we get.

Word of the Day: Trumpery

| Fri Aug. 21, 2015 8:30 AM EDT

This may be the greatest, classiest entry in any dictionary ever. Yes, it's real.

Carly Fiorina Plans to Run America Via Smartphone

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 10:50 PM EDT

Soon we will all be Trumpists. Trumpets? Trumpettes? Trumpies?

Ahem. Anyway, at a town hall today a veteran told Carly Fiorina that he was having trouble getting a doctor’s appointment through Veterans Affairs:

“Listen to that story,” Fiorina said. “How long has [VA] been a problem? Decades. How long have politicians been talking about it? Decades.”

Fiorina said she would gather 10 or 12 veterans in a room, including the gentleman from the third row, and ask what they want. Fiorina would then vet this plan via telephone poll, asking Americans to “press one for yes on your smartphone, two for no.”

“You know how to solve these problems,” she said, “so I’m going to ask you.”

Until now, I had been willing cut Fiorina a little bit of slack over running HP into the ground. I figured other people shared some of the blame too.

Now I'm not so sure. Is this the razor-sharp leadership savvy she's been bragging about? Just ask a bunch of vets what they want? Press one for yes and two for no? That's how she's going to whip the VA into shape? Somebody just shoot me now.

POSTSCRIPT: Do you think that Fiorina (a) thought this up on the spur of the moment, or (b) gamed this out with her consultants and was just waiting for the right time to use it? And which is scarier?

Have We Reached Peak Internet Annoyance Yet?

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 9:14 PM EDT

I have some horrible news about the search for ALS cures:

The breakthrough research unravels the mystery about a protein called TDP-43....In a study of the protein in mice cells....Johns Hopkins scientists detail how TDP-43 — which is supposed to decode DNA — breaks down and become "sticky."...When the researchers inserted a special protein designed to mimic TDP-43 into the neurons, the cells came back to life and returned to normal. That's sparked fervent interest that the treatment could possibly be used to slow down or even halt the disease.

It's a big step for the 15,000 Americans living with ALS, which currently has no cure, usually ends up killing people two to five years after they are diagnosed.

Oh wait. That's great news. Here's the horrible news:

One year ago....the Ice Bucket Challenge had become the viral campaign everyone was talking about — an online effort to raise awareness and funds for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease....More than $220 million in donations later, scientists at Johns Hopkins are claiming a major breakthrough in ALS research and are partly crediting the success to the massive influx of public interest.

"Without it, we wouldn't have been able to come out with the studies as quickly as we did," said Philip Wong, a professor at Johns Hopkins who led the research team...."The money came at a critical time when we needed it," Wong said.

Crap. I guess this means we can no longer mock annoying internet memes that claim to be for a good cause. Or worse: annoying internet memes will become a staple of charitable fundraising.

But maybe it's not really so bad. After all, there has to be some kind of limit to annoying internet memes. There are just so many people in the world and so many hours in the day. And if we have indeed reached peak annoyance, the ALS meme added nothing to the total. It merely sucked it away from some other potential annoyance that never took off. It's sort of like an energy conservation law, except for annoying internet memes.

But....what if we haven't reached peak annoyance yet? And how would we know? As a wise man once told me, no matter how bad things get, they can always get worse.

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Donald Trump's Top 10 Liberal Heresies

For starters, he thinks affirmative action is okay

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 3:04 PM EDT

Right now, Donald Trump appeals primarily to voters who are just plain angry and want a president who's willing to call a spade a spade. Still, these voters are also conservatives. They like Trump's stand on immigration and political correctness and taking away all the oil from ISIS. But what are they going to do when they find out that Trump has an awful lot of liberal views? I'm not talking about stuff he said years ago and has since changed his mind about. I'm talking about views he's advocated in the past couple of months. Off the top of my head, here are Trump's top 10 liberal heresies:

  1. He thinks affirmative action is okay.
  2. He would fund Planned Parenthood except for abortion. (This is current federal policy, though Trump doesn't seem to know it.)
  3. He supports a progressive income tax. He does not favor a flat tax.
  4. He doesn't believe you should be able to fire someone just for being gay.
  5. He doesn't want to cut Social Security or Medicare.
  6. He's in favor of a ban on assault weapons.
  7. He invited Bill and Hillary Clinton to his wedding.
  8. He doesn't "fully" believe in supply-side economics.
  9. He wants to "lead from behind" on Ukraine. Trump believes that Germany should take the lead on Ukraine.
  10. He hates the Iran deal, but he wouldn't abrogate it after taking office.

Even one or two of these would sink any other Republican candidate. But 10? Even if Trump's appeal is mostly based on bluster and affinity politics, how long can he last before his fans begin to wonder just how conservative he really is?

Sorry, Donald, You Can't Count Retirees As "Unemployed"

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 1:44 PM EDT

In his interview with Sean Hannity last week, Donald Trump said the unemployment rate wasn't 5.3 percent, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics says. "That's phony math," he told Hannity. "If you add it up, it's probably 40 percent, if you really think about it."

Was this just a one-off comment because he was trying to bond with Hannity? Or was it another budding Trump meme? Today, in an interview with Time, Trump doubled down:

Don’t forget in the meantime we have a real unemployment rate that’s probably 21%. It’s not 6. It’s not 5.2 and 5.5. Our real unemployment rate—in fact, I saw a chart the other day, our real unemployment—because you have ninety million people that aren’t working. Ninety-three million to be exact.

If you start adding it up, our real unemployment rate is 42%.

Trump saw a chart! Here it is, if you're interested. I like charts too, so I guess that's OK. And Trump is right about one thing: roughly 93 million people (42 percent of the adult population) aren't employed. But why aren't they employed? Let's check out another chart for the answer. I don't think I've ever created a pie chart before, but that seems appropriate for a Donald Trump post, don't you think? In fact, let's make it a 3-D pie chart.

As you can see, there are indeed about 93 million people who aren't working. The vast majority of them, however, are retirees, the disabled, full-time students, and folks who have no interest in working (stay-at-home parents, etc.). There are about 8 million unemployed, and about 8 million more who are underemployed or would like to work but have given up trying to find a job. If you add up those two categories you get the U6 unemployment rate, currently at 10.7 percent.

You can make a case for using U6 as your preferred metric of unemployment. But counting retirees? Or students? Or the disabled? Or parents taking care of children? Sorry, but no.

POSTSCRIPT: I threw together the numbers in the chart pretty quickly. They're all in the ballpark of being accurate, but could be off by a little bit. Frankly, a more detailed dive just didn't seem worth it.

Obamacare Is Facing Yet Another Legal Challenge

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 10:47 AM EDT

Do you remember John Boehner's House lawsuit against President Obama over some details of Obamacare? When it was finally unveiled, it turned out it had two parts. The first challenged a delay in implementing the employer mandate. That was a big meh. Even if the suit prevailed, it would be meaningless by the time it finished its trip through the court system.

But the second part was a surprise. It challenged the outlay of $175 billion as part of the Cost Sharing Reduction program, which pays out money to insurance companies and lowers premiums, primarily for the poor. Obama claims that CSR is like Medicare or Social Security: a mandatory payment that doesn't require yearly authorizations. Congress claims it does, and went to court to fight its case. So how is that going? David Savage of the LA Times gives us an update:

In May, U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer voiced exasperation when a Justice Department lawyer tried to explain why the Obama administration was entitled to spend the money without the approval of Congress. Why is that "not an insult to the Constitution?" Collyer asked.

But the more formidable barrier now facing the lawsuit is a procedural rule. Judges have repeatedly said lawmakers do not have standing to re-fight political battles in court....But in late June, the high court gave the House lawsuit an apparent boost when it ruled the Arizona Legislature had standing to sue in federal court to defend its power to draw election districts....Ginsburg in a footnote said the court was not deciding "the question of whether Congress has standing to bring a suit against the president." But administration supporters acknowledge the high court's opinion in the Arizona case increases the odds the suit will survive.

....Washington attorney Walter Dellinger, a former Clinton administration lawyer, believes the courts will not finally rule on the House lawsuit. "There has never been a lawsuit by a president against Congress or by Congress against the president over how to interpret a statute," he said.

If the courts open the door to such claims, lawmakers in the future will opt to sue whenever they lose a political battle, Dellinger said. "You'd see immediate litigation every time a law was passed," he said.

In other words, this is starting to look an awful lot like King v. Burwell: a case that initially seemed like an absurd Hail Mary by conservatives, but that eventually started to look more formidable. In the end, King still lost, but not before plenty of liberals lost a lot of sleep over it.

I think that's still the most likely outcome here. Allowing Congress to sue the president would be a huge reversal for the Supreme Court, and it's not clear that even the conservatives on the court want to open up that can of worms.

But there's more to this. If the Supreme Court rules that Congress has no standing to sue, but it looks like they might treat the case sympathetically on the merits, conservatives merely have to find someone who does have standing to sue. That probably won't be too hard. It may take years, but one way or another, this might end up being yet another legal thorn in the side of Obamacare.

Trumpmentum Has Been Losing Steam Ever Since the Debate

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 10:04 AM EDT

I hopped over to RealClear Politics this morning to take a look at their latest poll averages, and it shows something interesting: Donald Trump may have hit his ceiling. On August 5, he hit a peak at 24.3 percent. He then plateaued for a few days and has been falling ever since. He now stands at 22.0 percent.

Not all poll averages show the same thing. I also took a look at Pollster, and they show Trump's climb starting to slow down, but not quite peaking yet. Even there, though, it looks like Trump is going to hit a ceiling soon.

At the risk of making a hard prediction that will soon look foolish, it looks to me like Trump has peaked at about 25 percent. Even among the Republican base, his blustery showmanship only gets him so far.